The Many Lives of Jewish Lore’s Favorite Monster

From Electric Lit:

In the late 16th century, rumors of an impending pogrom swirl around the Jewish ghetto. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague and an expert in the Kabbalah capable of bringing life to inanimate forms, decides to protect his community with a golem, a figure made from earth and animated through religious ritual. Golems do not speak and do not think for themselves. They have super strength, a dogmatic allegiance to their creator, and little else. In other words: they are perfect bodyguards. Under the cover of night, the Maharal gathers clay from the Vltava river to build a humanoid figure. When Rabbit Loew carves “emet,” the Hebrew word for “truth” on the golem’s forehead, his work is done; the golem is alive. The golem curbs the violent threats against the Jewish ghetto and serves as a valuable handyman for its neighbors, completing chores and fetching water. However, the creature loses discipline. It runs amok, threatening the community it was created to defend. Rabbi Loew must destroy his monster. To do so, he erases the first letter of “emet,” leaving “met,” meaning “dead.”

The Golem of Prague is perhaps the most famous story of the golem, but Jewish people have crafted golems—in stories, at least—since long before the 16th century. Our clay creatures wind their way through religious texts, stories of rabbis, and Jewish folklore.

These tales aren’t always by Jewish writers and artists. German-Christian writers throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s examined Jewish communities and their golems. Famously, The Brothers Grimm include an iteration of the golem tale in their collected stories. In this version, the rabbi who creates the golem is killed, suffocated by the falling clay of his monster.

Once you know the monster you are looking for, golems are everywhere. 

But why? All things considered, golems are rather unassuming monsters. They are (canonically speaking) not very flashy; the word “golem” is used in modern Hebrew to mean dumb or helpless. And as far as Jewish representation goes, the golem’s unintelligent and potentially destructive nature directly contrasts with Judaism’s focus on learning, wisdom, and religious law. Yet even today, golems lurch through pages of novels, movie screens, and video games. In Prague, the legend of the golem thrives: Golem Biscuits cafe bakes golem cookies, nearly every gift store sells posters of Rabbi Loew and his golem strolling through cobblestone streets. And the appearance of golems in recent literature and media allows us to explore both experiences of Jewishness and popular perceptions of Jewish culture.

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In Jewish diasporic writing, the golem appears during moments of crisis: the pogroms of the 16th century, the heavy flow of Jewish immigration to the U.S. during the 1800s, and the Holocaust. The golem, it seems, is needed at points of crisis to alleviate Jewish pain.

Golems present a powerful model for Jewish resistance against antisemitic violence, especially in historical novels. In Alice Hoffman’s 2019 novel The World That We Knew, Jewish parents seek the help of a rabbi to create a golem to defend their daughter, Lea, against Nazi terror. Hoffman introduces golems as nearly omnipotent: communing with fish and birds, seeing the future, and speaking with the dead. It is necessary to kill the golem once it has fulfilled its purpose. The rabbi’s daughter accepts the task and builds a golem from river mud and menstrual blood. Hoffman’s golem is named Ava, “reminiscent of Chava, the Hebrew word for life,” signifying both Ava’s new life and the continued existence that Ava’s protection grants Lea.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit