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A jinx in a box?

Maybe mischievous spirits do haunt this Jewish scroll cabinet, or maybe it's just another Web-spawned legend run wild.

July 25, 2004|Leslie Gornstein | Special to The Times

A small wooden cabinet went up for auction on EBay. Inside were two locks of hair, one granite slab, one dried rosebud, one goblet, two wheat pennies, one candlestick and, allegedly, one "dibbuk," a kind of spirit popular in Yiddish folklore.

The seller, a Missouri college student named Iosif Nietzke, described the container as a "haunted Jewish wine cabinet box" that had plagued several owners with rotten luck and a spate of bizarre paranormal stunts.

"We have definitely seen a tidal wave of 'bad luck,' " the seller wrote on EBay in the first week of February. "Most disturbingly, last Tuesday, my hair began to fall out. I'm in my early 20s and I just got a clean blood test back from the doctor's...."

Within days, the box's opening bid of $1 jumped to $50; that value soon quadrupled. On Feb. 9, the box sold for $280 to a university museum curator named Jason Haxton.

In the months after, the hype surrounding the wooden box has mushroomed. The Forward, a 107-year-old Jewish newspaper on the East Coast, ran a story about the box's sale and supposed otherworldly powers. Since then, the EBay auction page has logged more than 140,000 hits.

At least five authors, one screenwriter and a documentary crew have sought up-close access, says Haxton, a 46-year-old father of two who also lives in Missouri. Rabbis, Orthodox Jews and Hebrew intellectuals have contacted Haxton, offering to crack the box's mysteries.

Haxton says he's had to unlist his home number, change his e-mail address and erect a website, www.dibbukbox.com, just to field inquiries. He agreed to be interviewed only if he could add this request: Please, please, box fans, leave him alone.

The strange case of the bogey in a box is threatening to become an urban legend as big as any ghostly hitchhiker, fried rat or stolen body part. In Chicago, Bull basketball fans have paused their online arguments over salary caps to post theories on what's in the box. Ditto with newsgroups usually dedicated to Subaru ownership or NASCAR tickets. In Long Island, a group of particularly dedicated ghost hunters has founded a Yahoo chat group dedicated solely to the box.

All the while, dozens of Web surfers have e-mailed Haxton through his website, complaining of strange headaches, nightmares and other plagues.

"One person pleaded with me to get all images of the box off the Internet because they would provide an electronic portal for the spirit into every computer that visited the site," he says.

Most often, discussions of dybbuks (as it is more commonly spelled) are accompanied by plenty of snorting skepticism -- "I think I'm going to put my haunted Game Cube on EBay," one Texan recently posted -- but the number of those fascinated with the little wooden box continues to climb.

The reason, experts say, is tied to a witch's brew of trends and developments unique to the new millennium: A booming blog culture; a growing interest in Jewish mysticism, particularly cabala; and high-speed Internet connections that allow photos to be downloaded onto countless home computers.

Dybbuks have haunted Yiddish folk tales since the dawn of Judaism's mystical movement in the latter half of the 16th century. "Dybbuk" literally means "an attachment, a cleaving to something"; a dybbuk is thought to be the spirit of a person who, instead of drifting into the next realm, sticks around and enters the bodies of living people.

"It's essentially a kook subject," muses Rabbi Eli Schochet, a professor of rabbinic thought at L.A.'s Academy for Jewish Religion, which trains rabbis and cantors. "But I could never say that it's impossible because, obviously, there's precedent for these things that are recorded in different religious traditions, including my own."

The EBay auction page (still viewable on Haxton's website) claims to document experiences from two previous owners, told in the first person and pasted back to back in the item's description space.

The tale, according to the site, began in fall 2001, when Oregon antiques collector and small-business owner Kevin Mannis discovered the box -- smaller than a case of beer, decorated with two metal plates in the shape of grape clusters -- at a neighborhood estate sale. (Mannis later told The Times he bought the box in 2000, but so much bad fortune befell him in that first year that he didn't want to tell potential buyers about it.)

Mannis said the estate sale's host told him that the box had belonged to her 103-year-old grandmother, who had dubbed the cabinet a "dybbuk box" and warned her kids ... never to open it.

Heedless of this spooky back story, Mannis bought the box and put it in the basement of his antiques business. A half-hour after the box arrived, the creepiness, as he describes it, began: While Mannis ran a few errands, a mysterious force apparently went berserk in his shop, cursing and smashing light bulbs and scaring a store clerk.

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