When I was growing up I had this weird gap in my reading life. I was probably about 10 and I was obviously too old for children’s books, but wasn’t ready for something like Sweet Valley High and had become bored with The Babysitter’s Clubs antics. YA hadn’t really bloomed into the booming literary scene what it is today with a plethora of great options for people in this weird gap. As I wandered around the library trying to find something that would suit my needs I’d often wander back to the children’s section and run my fingers through the bins of colorfully colored books. I distinctively remember pulling David Wisniewski’s “Golem” from a bin because that .cover. For real. The illustrations are layers of paper, stacked on top of each other to create this great dimension. I honestly still haven’t seen a book of any kind with illustrations that are anywhere near as beautiful as this book. So I put aside the “I’m probably too old to be reading this book” feelings, found an empty, red, scratchy chair in my library and sat down.
The story is about the Jews of Prague who are forced into a walled ghetto by other townspeople due to suspicion of the Jews and their religious practices. (Oh and this is in the 1500s, so this isn’t even WWII era Jewish pograms. The Jews have been facing persecution). The chief rabbi is named Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and he feels the need to protect his people from the injustice and the violence that they are facing so he crafts a golem. A golem can only be made by a righteous man, and is responsible to just that one person. He is a huge man shaped creature made of clay and dirt, which has the Hebrew word for truth etched into his forehead “emet”. He listens to his creator and protects the Jews of the city, killing several people who threaten to storm the ghetto. The rabbi realizes that he might not be able to control the golem, and that since the Jews of Prague are safe for now, he decides to return the golem back to dust. The golem has begun to learn what it is to have life and be “human” and pleads for his life, but the rabbi refuses. He smudges away the “e” in “emet” and is left with “met” the word for dead or death. The golem crumbles to bits and the rabbi leaves his pieces in the attic of the synagogue. We get the feeling that the golem might be called upon to help the Jews again…
The synagogue in which the rabbi kept his creature is the Old New Synagogue in Prague (picture below). I made a point to see it when I was in Europe this summer (though my sister was a little bit confused by my excitement). The attic is not open to the general public, so no chance for investigating! However the story of the golem is alive and well in Prague and there were many references to it throughout the Jewish Quarter.
Like any creature of myth and legend, there are so many different stories associated with the Golem’s story and his creation. Since I read David Wisniewski’s book first, in my mind that version is the “right” one. Though there are versions from Germany and other parts of Europe that have variations on the same general story, though in one the golem falls in love!
The Golem is a somewhat popular fixture in pop culture. He shows up in books: the super popular “Golem and Jinni”, a graphic novel about a Jewish baseball team “The Golem’s Might Swing”, and a Discworld book of Terry Pratchett’s. He also makes appearances in television and movies. My two favorite examples being a Treehouse of Horror episode a la The Simpsons and a Supernatural episode called “Everyone Hates Hitler”. (#Truth.) There’s even a Pokémon named Golem and he’s made out of rocks…..
What I think is interesting about Golem is that he (according to most legends) is designed to protect a group of people, which seems unique. Other creatures and beasties seem to mostly act in their own self-interest but he has the wonderful higher purpose, even though it involves being violent! So while he might not have the gold hoard of a dragon, or the sexy appeal of a vampire, he is noble and devoted to his people.