Hank Hoffman was 18 when he took a job as overnight shomer in the morgue at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, which involved reciting psalms over the body of a deceased person before their funeral.
Sitting with a dead person might not appeal to most young men, but it was a gig that didn’t intimidate the son of an Orthodox rabbi, Baruch Hoffman, who was the ritual director—and a secondary cantor for a time—at Toronto’s Adath Israel Congregation. Funerals were a big part of his father’s career.
It was an experience that Hank embraced to the point of selecting psalms that he hoped would please the souls of the departed.
“I felt emotionally moved by the spirits that were in the room. I felt an incredible sense of life and only life,” Hoffman told The CJN Daily in an interview from Beverly Hills, Calif.
“And that all sounds like maybe a little hippy-dippy or a little naive, but when you develop sensitivities, you can feel things. And that’s what happened for me.”
Hoffman’s formative experiences with Judaism, death and the afterlife helped inform his screenplay for The Devil’s Offering, which was released in Canada by VVS Films on Jan. 17, to multiple digital platforms to rent or buy. A theatrical run is planned for Israel in March.
Like if Shtisel was a horror movie
The story involves an ancient female evil spirit known as Abyzou who steals children and causes miscarriages. (Abyzou was also the film’s working title.) After a misguided widower from a Hasidic community in New York conjures the monster, it begins terrorizing and killing people. And the only remedy is to do a reverse exorcism and lock the demon into a new host.
Hoffman isn’t a big horror fan, and he was initially reluctant to take on the project even though the offer came from his best friend Jonathan Yunger, the co-president of Millennium Media, a Hollywood studio that also recently produced Sylvester Stallone’s sequels to Rambo and The Expendables.
But gradually, the Canadian screenwriter warmed up to the idea of being able to use his script to portray a side of Jewish life he felt deserved more positive storytelling, beyond what the television series Shtisel has been able to convey.
“The general perception of Hasidim is that they’re just a bunch of chauvinistic, backwards scoundrels,” explains Hoffman. “I wanted to do a film that could showcase my love for these people without whitewashing them.
“I wanted to depict them honestly, I wanted to show their wit and their charm and their chutzpah and their sensitivities.”
Modern Orthodox upbringing
As for the 36-year-old Hoffman’s own Jewish upbringing in Toronto—where his family moved from Israel when he was two years old—he was raised modern Orthodox, and attended Netivot HaTorah for elementary school, followed by middle school at Bnei Akiva.
After that, his hope was to attend a local yeshiva—but says he wasn’t accepted “because I apparently was too rebellious.”
Instead, he spent Grade 9 boarding at a yeshiva in Memphis, Tenn., where the headmaster permitted him to indulge in his budding passion for watching movies.
While he was born in Mevo Modi’im, the moshav founded by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Hoffman felt little connection to the religious side of Judaism at the time. So he came home to Toronto to finish his education at TanenbaumCHAT.
That perspective shifted after graduating high school, when he flew to Israel for an extended stay, and became fascinated with Jewish mysticism.
He began an intense study of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s theories about the Kabbalah and dabbled in the Breslov Jewish spiritual tradition along with Chabad rituals. While admitting it might sound irrational, he felt the presence of God while wandering around Jerusalem.
“Because part of my journey into the mystical side of Judaism involved wanting to do certain mitzvahs that were very unique,” he said. “I wanted to know what that felt like. I wanted to see if there was a Godliness that I could contact.”
That’s where taking the job as a teenage shomer came in.
But a passion for movies eclipsed the idea of a career in funeral homes. Hoffman earned a master’s degree from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. And even though he wasn’t big on horror, his first production credit came on a 2018 film called The Clinic, about a woman who awakes from a coma in a sinister hospital that won’t let her go.
The Devil’s Offering, his first full foray into screenwriting along with production, is about a family at the mercy of an ancient demon trying to destroy them from the inside. The scary scenes include a Hasidic girl who levitates.
Hidden Jewish themes
More importantly for Hoffman, though, it gave him the opportunity to incorporate Jewish themes that he personally finds important.
“This is a film that pretends to be a commercial film, but it’s not. There’s like 30 midrashim all carefully woven in,” he says in reference to the inclusion of scriptural commentary.
A singing of Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valour), as traditionally heard at Shabbat tables, further provides an opportunity to explain its origins to an audience unfamiliar with the ritual. It comes from a chapter in the Book of Proverbs, and is sung by men in honour of their wives.
The ritual incantation to summon the evil spirit was as real as it gets, with a couple of words changed for safety’s sake. It’s the screenwriter’s way of saying “Don’t try this at home.”
Hoffman hopes the film will add to the recent plethora of TV shows portraying Jews and Jewish culture on film around the world—such as My Unorthodox Life and Unorthodox. And hopefully help combat rising Jew-hatred.
“It’s a big responsibility because this film is out in over 40 countries around the world, and any Jew who grew up even traditionally, you have a sensitivity to antisemitism. So it’s a tricky one.”
Some Jewish errors
Jewish audiences may have noticed one or two rituals in the film that are not exactly accurate: a mourner wears tefillin during the first day of a shiva, and an Orthodox Jewish father-in-law accepts to shake the hand of his Gentile daughter-in-law.
On the other hand, Hoffman explains that he wasn’t making a statement against intermarriage when the pregnant non-Jewish wife of the prodigal son becomes the monster’s ultimate target. Rather, she serves as a character who could see things from an outsider’s perspective.
Hoffman’s mother and father returned to Israel upon retirement, but he hasn’t sent them a finished digital copy of The Devil’s Offering—because he’s still hoping they can see it for the first time in a crowded movie theatre.
“Hopefully I can scare my parents. And hopefully they can be entertained.”