Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Golem Week! Golem Week!

It's Golem Week! Why? Because Joachim Neugroschel put together a collection of Yiddish golem stories (The Golem, 2006) and I read it. And one book led to another, as always seems to happen.

The 16th century Rabbi Leyb (or Loew) wants to save the Jews of Prague from the blood libel, or some other peril, or he has wood that needs chopping, so he creates a man out of clay and animates him by writing God's name on the golem's forehead, or on a piece of paper which he puts in his mouth, or perhaps he whispers the name in the golem's ear. At some point, the golem goes out of control and has to be destroyed. Or it doesn't. There are a lot of variations.

I've never been to Prague. My understanding is that it is now crammed with golems. See left, see right, see everywhere. Actually, the image on the right is from the 1920 movie The Golem. I've been scrounging golem photos from the internet. Some of the little Prague golem souvenirs are pretty cute.

How strange to finally read a golem story, then, and find that the golem looks perfectly human. His name is Joseph. He has a beard. He eats and sleeps. If you prick him, does he not bleed? He does. That's in Yudl Rosenberg's The Golem or the Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Leyb (1909), at least.

The Rosenberg book is sort of like a dime novel. It's clumsy, pulpy. A bunch of folktales about Rabbi Leyb are strung together in a more or less logical order, the language is standardized, and Joseph the golem is shoehorned into every adventure whether he is needed or not. In one familiar story, the Rabbi's wife plays Mickey Mouse and the golem plays the water-carrying broom. I see why the book is important - it's a lot of golem stuff in one place - and I enjoyed it, even if it's not exactly good.

What's coming up this week? H. Leivick's golem-in-crisis; Dovid Frishman's golem-in-love; I. L. Peretz and Jorge Luis Borges; and one of the craziest novels I've ever read (or will read, inshallah, since it's in process). And more golem pictures, pilfered from the internet.


  1. I rented a room in Prague. From a golem. I got a really good rate, since it was apparently a sublet. It was a little dusty, but nice and quiet.

  2. That picture of me is from hunger! Where did you get that? I look so fat! I sure have lost a lot of weight since then. And where did I get that haircut? Boy oh boy, the 1570s were not a good time for fashion.
    I'm so embarrassed.

  3. yay for golems! There is something both frightening and charming about them. I think I might have to go to Prague someday just to get a golem souvenir.

  4. Ze golems!! Zey are effreywhere!!! *runs screaming from the room*

  5. Hi there,

    The best Golem story is Gustav Meyrink's, praguois extraordinaire though austrian, strange combination of Poe's fantastic feel and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's funky victorian esoterism.

    Sorry to lenghten your to read pile!

  6. Ok, I have just noticed that Meyrink is already there on your to-read pile. Good choice!

    Sorry for making typos, too. I have a good excuse.

  7. Prairie QuilterMay 6, 2009 at 3:45 PM

    If your reading golem stories, don't forget the children's edition that won the Caldecot medal. It's called The Golem, but I don't remember the author. The illustrations are done with cut paper and are fantastic.

  8. So, tcheni, I played a dirty trick there - the Meyrink book is the crazy novel I mentioned. But I appreciate the recommendation. For example, what Villiers d'Isle-Adam is worth reading?

    Oh yeah, the children's book - that's by the cut-paper genius David Wisniewski. Wonder if I can get hold of that before the week's over.

    One of the most wonderful things about the internet is that I can correspond with golems and homunculi without leaving my computer. Mr. Homunculus, please give my regards to Paracelsus.

    I am going to put up more charming golem pictures - I hope the Golem finds some of them more flattering. Sir, you are not fat; rather, you are a giant clay monster. Wait, that doesn't sound much better.

  9. The Wisniewski book, which I obtained for my children, is beautiful—but the tale is just a retelling of the Yudl Rosenberg version. Did you know that Rosenberg was the inventor of the interpretation, now commonplace, that Rabbi Judah Löw fashioned the Golem to do battle against the enemeies of the Jews? Michael Chabon adopts this conceit in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, making the Golem into a superhero.

  10. Hi Amateur!

    I see... my memory of Meyrink's Golem is maybe dim, but I would certainly enjoy your review about it and what you have found that crazy.

    [Related note: I always wanted to read another book by Meyrink, entitled (in french) L'ange à la fenêtre de l'occident, a story about John Dee (with, I'm sure you'll agree, one of the most expressive title I've seen in the funky esoterism category) but it had not been published anymore during a long time (désédité... unpublished?). But I just searched for it on the net because of our "conversation" (notre clavardage, a quebecois would have said) and find out that it has been re-published by Flammarion in 2005! You owe me 13,30 euros.]

    About Villiers de l'Isle-Adam: I will give you a double-edged advice here. The popular knowledge would be to direct you to Contes Cruels, which is a masterpiece of evocative and poetic narration ; however, I would rather say "go read the indigestible Eve Future", only so you'll know what I mean by "victorian esoterism", plus, it's more in line with your current readings (don't miss the Contes, though!). It's about Thomas Edison who creates a feminine homunculus/Golem/cyborg for a friend. The mix of, hum, "creative" science à la Jules Vernes and the usual symbolic apparatus of Villiers de l'I-A is rather stunning.

  11. Oh, and one more things: both Villiers de l'I-A's books are available on wikisource. So don't pretend you owe me now less than 13,30 euros.

  12. Regarding Villiers d'Isle-Adam: Sold, completely sold! And the Meyrink book about John Dee is available at the library. Although my reading is perhaps veering a little too strongly in the direction of the eccentric. I'll need to slip someone sober and sensible into the mix.

    Prof. Myers, Neugroschel says the same thing about Rosenberg, but what puzzles me then is the I. L. Peretz story I wrote about today, dated 1893, over a decade before Yudl Rosenberg, in which Rabbi Loew creates the golem to save the Prague ghetto from a pogrom.

    I haven't read Chabon. His use of the golem sounds ingenious. It's such a rich, flexible story.