Tag Archives: Golem

The Golem – Jewish Folk Tale

Main Piece:

Subject: Have I ever told you about the golem before?

Interviewer: Um… I feel like I remember hearing about it at some point when I was a kid but like… I don’t recall any of the details.

Subject: Okay well the golem is Jewish folklore as I’m sure you know. It’s a clay monster… like a muddy mass if you can picture that. And um… it’s like a Frankenstein-esque figure. It was created to do the deeds of its master but in all the stories I’ve heard about it, it always turns against the master and disobeys them. So the myth goes that there was this Rabbi- don’t ask me who or where- who took these blocks of clay and mud and formed them into this creature… and then brought it to life using Jewish magic… like Hebrew spells. And the rabbi made him with the intention that he would defend the Jewish people against anti-semitism and attacks. You know, there’s a lot of that going on with the Jews all the time. Everybody wants to kill us! *laughter* Um… I’m pretty sure the way it goes is the rabbi gets the golem to stop doing his deeds and rein him in by writing this magic word on the golem’s forehead in Hebrew. And at the end of the day, the rabbi would remove one letter of the word, that would change the word to mean “death.” And that would subsequently like, switch the golem off for the day. And the rabbi would do this every day like clockwork. Until one day, he forgets to change the letter of the word, and the golem goes nuts and starts killing a bunch of people… he’s just out of control! So the rabbi finds him eventually after he’s already murdered a bunch of people. But he finds him and takes out the letter and the golem dies. But then the twist on that is that the golem is still sitting around somewhere just waiting to be resurrected again. 

Interviewer: I really like that. Something about hearing about Jewish monsters… it feels like, rare. Um… Who told you that?

Subject: Yeah, yeah. There’s lots of them though. But definitely my mother. Or I learned about it in Sunday School when I was little. Yeah I was always a fan of the story and I’ll tell you what else… We could use a golem these days. *laughter* I shouldn’t say that.

Interviewer: *laughter* Yeah you may be right about that.

Context: The subject- my mother- is a 51-year-old white woman of Ashkenazi Jewish and Russian descent. She is from Lexington, Massachusetts and currently lives in Charleston, South Carolina. We are currently quarantined together in Charleston. One day, late morning, I specifically asked her if she had any Jewish folklore she could share with me. She proceeded to share this folk tale.

Interpretation: The nuance of this folklore was interesting to me. The golem seems to be both a figure of protection and a figure of defense. I remember hearing the folk tale about the golem when I was younger, and his only being described to me as an evil figure. But the subject seemed to pose him as a fighter for the Jewish people. I really love learning about Jewish folk monsters and “fairy tales”, because at least with the experience of my Jewish education, they felt rare to hear about. Generally, I also love hearing about Jewish mysticism and spells. The tale reminds me quite a bit of the story of Frankenstein. A monster is created with good intention, and ends up being the cause of unpredictable destruction. Both the Golem and Frankenstein’s downfall seem to be caused by societal forces, rather than any inherent evil within them. They are both reflections of humanity.

Golem

So this is a piece of Jewish Folklore that I learned while living in Prague.  Rabbi Loew is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, which I have visited many times, and I have a statue of the Golem which I purchased at a stall outside of the cemetery.  The Old-New Synagogue, built in the 13th century, still has services for the jewish community remaining in Prague.  The Golem story has appeared often in literature and film, including Michael Chabon’s novel written in 2000 called “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”

A “Golem” is a being formed on inanimate matter, magically animated into a living being.  Many examples of Golems exist in Jewish folklore, including the Golem of Chelm, but the most famous is the Golem of Prague.  In the 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bazalei  created a Golem to protect the Jews of Prague from antisemitism.  He fashioned the creature from clay taken from the banks of the Vltava river, and animated him using rituals and incantations, and by placing a “shem,” or name written on a piece of paper into the Golem’s mouth.  As long as Rabbi Loew removed the “shem” on Shabbat, putting it back at the end, the Golem would protect the Jews of Prague.  Finally, the Golem became violent, and went on a rampage – there are a lot of stories as to why this happened, one being that the Golem fell in love and was rejected.  However, the accepted version is that Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the “shem” on Shabbat.  He was eventually able to remove the “shem,” and the Golem turned to clay.  The legend goes that the Golem was placed into the attic of the Old New Synagogue, which was then locked, and there he remains.  The attic is still locked, and no one is allowed up there, where the Golem rests until he is needed again.
ANALYSIS:
Coming form Jewish faith myself, I had never heard this piece of folklore before and have actually come to really appreciate it. It kind of reminds me of a piece of Indian God folklore that I once heard while traveling in India. I really enjoy folklore that has to do with magic, I think it is almost childish,  but still thrilling.

Golem

19) Golem

The Golem is a creature created by a rabbi to serve the Jewish community when the community needed to be protected. The creature is made of soil or clay and brought to life by the use of alchemical-like formulas described in holy texts. The creature is not possessed by a spirit or ghost, but driven by the ritual to follow the rabbi’s commands and serve the community until he is not needed. The Golem is then called-off and put away. The stories of ‘Golems-run-amok’ are tales of Golems that did not stop once they were told to, but rather continued on wreaking havoc wherever they went.

Another version of the Golem story is that one would mould the Golem out of soil, then walk or dance around it while speaking combination of letters from the alphabet and the secret name of God. To “kill” or “stop” this golem, the creator would need to walk/dance in the opposite direction saying the words backward.

Once again, Max told me this story upon my request. I have definitely heard of similar storie in other culture, but more along the lines of writing magical words into a paper and putting the paper either on a doll or on someone to commend “magical” powers. I had no idea that these stories had a jewish origin though; or is the jewish version an original work or just one of the editions.