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.
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.
The informant is an Israeli American who grew up practicing traditions from both her Israeli and Persian culture. She describes a custom surrounding the sending off and return of teenagers who are drafted as soldiers. The informant recalls one of these parties that she attended when she was young.
- Shabbat Khayal is an Israeli tradition having to do with young soldiers. There is a kind of sending off that people do, when they first are um drafted. And so people have you know: goodbye parties, they’ll have um celebrations and then everybody holds their breath until soldiers get through their training which is like an intensive three months that they don’t really see family and its you know really crazy and they don’t really see their families and then there is a homecoming and thats a really big deal. The moms will buy all their favorite food and snacks and cook all their favorite meals and get their rooms ready and its like a whole you know and theres an excitement and build up when the family comes over and everybody wants to hear stories and see how that teenager has changed… so um theres that kind of anticipation and you know people know who’s son is coming home and this home’s daughter is coming home and there is a lot of support in the community around it. And once they’re placed within the army, and they kind of know what they are going to be doing for the next two or three years, then they get weekends off here and there, and those weekends are a really big deal. You know, same thing happens- you know family gets together, everybody comes for shabbat, the soldiers are like center of attention. Again everything with the food, they do their laundry, they make sure that they’re resting, that they’re seeing their friends, its like a whole big thing when a soldier is home. And i think thats in the fabric of pretty much every Israeli family.
- Sometimes people will take them to see a rabbi or someone for a blessing before they send them back out- depending on their background and culture you know if they’re Persian, Ashkenazi Jews, but some people will take them to someone and ask them to kind of say you know thank God, you made it through this far and then before we turn around and send him back you know give a blessing to make sure that he/she is safe and that God watches over them and that they come back to the family. So a lot of people will set something up like that or take them to Jerusalem or something kind of sentimental like that.
- I was apart of one of these rituals when I was a little younger for my cousin- it was such a build up, I mean you don’t really hear from them or have contact with them. I mean I can’t even think about what to compare it to here in America, I mean there is not really much- you’re sending a teenager away, and its a high schooler and they’ve just graduated and all of a sudden they are thrown into this entirely different setting, so I just remember my aunt getting everything ready and going to every different market and getting all his favorites and getting them all together and making sure it was all there. And then him coming home and looking so grown up and different and everybody wanting to hear all his stories and how is was, and what does he think he wants to do in the army, and how did he test, and he becomes that kind of center of attention and it will last all weekend, and people will spend the night, and want to be with them and yeah its very special.
I think that a traditions such at Shabbat Khayal are really important for families who have loved ones at war or in training. I think the whole celebration an already special occasion that much more intimate and important for both the family and the teenager. Most importantly, I believe that people continue to have these celebrations not only because it is tradition, but because it gives the family and the teenager something to think about and look forward too, instead of the family anxiously waiting around for the teenager to return they have the opportunity to run around preparing and gathering friends and family, focusing on what is most important in life.
The informant is an Israeli American who grew up practicing traditions from both her Israeli and Persian culture. She describes an Israeli bridal shower and all of her favorite parts of it.
- Around a wedding time, a few weeks before there kind of all that build up around the bride and groom and the wedding takes a lot of planning and all that, but a couple weeks before many of, um, many different uh… how to do you say it… people from all different backgrounds in Israel, you know the Syrians do it one way, Iraqis do it a different way, but pretty much all of the do a henna, its kind of like a bridal shower, but nothing like insane, you know a lot more colorful, they are usually at night and not during the day, and they usually mix men and women. The bride is you know prepped, she has to get everything done, the harry the makeup, and then older ladies come and giver her different words of advice you know things to do, not to do, how to keep a marriage going. You know, of course there’s a big feast, there’s a big candy table thats set up with all different sweets that you take home. But not like a modern day, more like homemade sweets, you know things that grandma would know how to make. And different people bring different things. And then there is a henna mix that they make, and they put it on their hands, right. They will put like a scoop of it on your palm, and then on your beloved’s palm, and then they squeeze them together to make an imprint, so that you have the dye, the same dye. Your hand is in his, and they will do the same thing with the feet, and it’s kind of to symbolize that from here on they are one and you know that they have to find a way to make it work, and to say that may all their days be as sweet as this candy that they are serving. I would say this tradition is more Sephardic Jews, Persians definitely do it, but I know family friends that are Moroccan, Iraqi, definitely do a big thing with that as well. I don’t know about Ashkenazi Jews so much, but definitely Sephardic.
- Yeah so this is just he Henna Celebration. You know, and she’s given a lot of jewelry, and the family will present her with jewelry, its kind of, its fun. It’s excessive in a way, in that she’s wearing everything, one on top of the other. The people eat, they drink, they dance. Its very different. You know I remember going to a bridal shower here and thinking: oh this is very, this is very tame. Where are the guys? And you know, I had one here in Los Angeles. Yeah, some people will put a gold coin, into the palm of the bride and grooms hand when they squeeze it to say that, may they have good fortune and be successful, and be able to help others not just provide for themselves. There’s a lot around it. Its very colorful. You can kind of imagine how Indian bridal celebrations are, they have a lot of action, a lot of food, lot of color, lot of flowers, candles. And then all the old people in the family coming forward with all kinds of goodies and words of encouragement and advice. Its different, very different.
I found it most interesting that the informant mentioned feeling like American bridal showers were tame. I also was pleasantly surprised to find out that she had one of these celebrations of her own here in Los Angeles. I think it is so important that people celebrate and bring their rituals and customs with them wherever they go.
The informant is Rabbi, working at a temple based in Los Angeles. She explains her religious journey and how meeting her husband and learning his own practices made an impact both on her life and religious beliefs and traditions.
- So my husband is Sephardic, and so we have this whole ritual around the New Year that has all of these symbolic foods, and is something that without the ceremony is kind of, our Jewish New Year wouldn’t really have the same feeling to it.
- So, I grew up in a pretty reform family in Cincinnati Ohio, and we were observant but not really I wouldn’t say very ritually bound; we didn’t keep kosher, we didn’t observe a lot o the Jewish commandments, but one thing that was really important to my family was Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. So I was always really into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Purim and all of that stuff. And when I was a young adult living in Israel, and I started seeing the man who has become my husband, he comes from a Sephardic background. So something that was so interesting was that I had been celebrating holidays in a certain pretty much my, my whole life and never really considered that there were different way of embracing Judaism because in Cincinnati we were just really not so exposed to other types of Judaism. So when I met my husband, actually the first time that I spent time with his family was on the Jewish New Year, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah and before we had our big New Years meal, there was a ceremony and symbolic foods that were set up all around the table and um I had never heard of it before, I had never experienced it before, so I was full of a lot of questions. Basically what I learned about the whole Sephardic tradition of having a Sedar for Rosh Hashanah is that they are very into the symbolic nature of food. So you have the saying ‘you are what you eat’ um and in the Jewish sense, the symbolic foods, you ingest the types of blessings and the types of direction you want your New Year to take. So some of the items that would be eaten traditionally would be carrots… like a, a carrot and the blessing over it would be that God should ordain for us a good judgment in the year to come, and you eat the carrot and the word is Gevurah or geburah (גבורה) which is the same word as judgment, so its like you’re ingesting a good judgment. There is the apples dipped in honey and thats so that you have a sweet and a happy New Year. You eat pomegranates and the blessing for that is that you should be as multitudinous in your acts of kindness and mitzvoth as many as there are seeds in the pomegranate. One of the weirdest blessings that kind of… that took me a while to wrap my head around literally is that there is a… a hope that we should be at the head of the year and not at the tail, so there is a goats head *laughs* that is a part of the Sedar, and in my husbands family they took that really really literally and at the time, I was a vegetarian *laughs again* so on the table was this like… you know this like overcooked goats head and they served the tongue and my hebrew was not very good at the time and my husband, well he wasn’t my husband at the time, said well you know its just a little muscle and you have to eat it so that the blessing is that we will be at the head of the year and not at the tail… and that was kind of my first experience with the Sephardic Sedar and I think that as I continued to grow in my own Jewish practice and really kind of learn more about the non Ashkenazic but Sephardic traditions I find them to be umm… much more ritualistic and much more superstitious and much more concerned with having your house in a certain order and having certain foods that show that your intentions for this Jewish rituals are really of a very evolved kind of commitment. And the Sedar around Rosh Hashanah, every time that we have it now, we have different blessings that we’ve folded in and my boys, they certainly know all the traditional ones, but every once in awhile we’ll come up with some new blessings like uhh… last year my kids added celery with raisins so that everyone who ate it would have a ‘raise-in’ their salary and that was something that they thought was really cute, and it actually went over pretty well. But when put around the table with apples and honey, and pomegranates, and we don’t do a lambs head because that’s where I draw the line, we do a fish head, and I’m, I’m, okay with that, it’s a little bit of a you know a shift in the tradition, but knowing that his parents still have the goats head on the table, I’m good just knowing that someone out there has a goats head on their table and they are perhaps thinking about us. Its pretty umm, for me, especially as I grow older and as my kids grow older, its a really nice tradition, so I think that for them, knowing that we’re doing it, that their grandparents did it and are doing it, that their aunts and uncles are doing it, that so many other people in the world are putting this good energy into the world for a New Year thats full of blessings and full of all good things, makes them feel really connected and really proud of their Jewish practice.
- Yeah and I started keeping kosher when I was in graduate school, actually when I was living in India umm and so for me it was kind of more my own personal and Jewish evolution. I think that when I knew that I was going to become a Rabbi, I kind of wanted to have more experience with Judaism but it was so meaningful for me that a lot of it stuck. So fortunately my family has been lovely and embracing and enthusiastic about the way we live our lives and they’re pretty committed Jews themselves so yeah it works out pretty nicely.
Occasionally when people are married, they adopt their loved one’s religion, traditions, beliefs or customs. I found this piece particularly interesting because upon becoming closer to her significant other, the informant was able to learn and expand on her knowledge of her own religion. I also found it intriguing that they were able to take his customs and transform them within their family to create their own new traditions.
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.
18) This too shall pass
Once upon a time there was a really wealthy King. His son was used to the lavish lifestyle and the King thought that he need to go through some hardship to appreciate all possessions more. Thus, the King told his son that he wants him to find an item that can make the poor happy and the rich sad.
The prince then set on his journey and eventually he returned with a ring.
On this ring, it has a writing carved on it. The writing was: This too, shall pass.
Upon looking at this ring, the King started crying nonstop.
The idea behind this story is that when a rich man sees the ring he/she will think of his own future in that everything he owns right now are meaningless because in the long run they are all going to disappear. As he dies, these riches will grow useless.
When a poor man looks at this however, he/she will be reminded of no matter how hard it might be right now, anything will pass, and that there is always a new tomorrow.
Max, very familiar of jewish culture as a jewish kid, told me this proverbial story. He performed this to me with great enthusiasm after I asked him to tell me some jewish tradition stories. I really like this story actually because it is so right and truthful, and like everything about is very accurate and wise.
The informant is a 67-year-old Mexican-American woman who is a reverend. She is known for tailoring wedding receptions to couples from different cultural backgrounds, and in her words “taking old traditions and giving them new meaning.” Many consider her to be the “guru of new wedding traditions.”
While out to breakfast while the informant was visiting me in Los Angeles, I asked her to describe any wedding ritual or tradition that has stood out to her throughout her time as a reverend. Her response was as follows,
“Well, there are many traditions drawn from each culture, and the couple always gets to choose which they would most like to incorporate. One in particular that is almost always a part of weddings where the bride or groom is Jewish is the breaking of the glass. I’d say 99% of the time if either of the two is Jewish, they’ll do this. Basically, I bless a wine glass, wrap it up in a linen cloth, and place it at the groom’s feet. He then stomps on it. This represents how fragile life is and dates back to the suffering of the Jews. In some weddings, the breaking of the glass is done under a huppah, a cloth that is held up to create a canopy over the bride and groom. The four ends of the cloth represent the four directions, and the couple standing underneath it means that they will build a life and home together.”
On the surface, the breaking of the glass is a lighthearted wedding ritual that is fun for both the groom and all who watch him perform it. Under normal circumstances it is taboo to purposefully shatter a glass, and the ridiculousness of the groom doing so on purpose serves as a source of laughter for the wedding attendees. The significance of the ritual is actually very heavy, representing the ease at which our lives can be taken and the history of persecution that the Jewish people have endured. It is most likely important for the fragility of life to be highlighted at such an important transition in one’s life as a wedding to serve as a reminder to the bride and groom, along with the audience, not to take one another for granted and to make each day special. I asked the informant the significance of the huppah representing the four cardinal directions, and she responded that she was not entirely sure. Since the couple standing underneath the canopy during the ceremony is symbolic of their future life together, it is possible that the four directions provide a physical representation of the permanent connection forged between the newlyweds—no matter where in the world they may be, they are connected to one another beneath their commitment to marriage.
Main Piece: “So in the Jewish tradition… it’s really a Yiddish term… so I think more of the older generation identifies with it and it’s been passed down my family from my grandparents and, so, the term is ‘kneina hura’. It’s basically what we would consider a jinx and so it’s when you say something in advance and then if something is going well but then you’re like don’t say it… that’s kneina hura. I’m trying to think of an example. So it might be if you have an event coming up over the weekend and you look at the forecast and you say oh what great weather– my mom would say don’t say that, that’s kneina hura because then it may rain.”
Background: The informant heard this term from her mother and grandmother, who still uses Yiddish. The informant has very little knowledge of Yiddish, while her mother knows only what she’s heard from her own mother. Growing up, the informant intepreted this saying as a way to ward off a jinx. Her mother occassionally uses Yiddish informally, but her grandmother uses Yiddish terminology quite often. The informant notes that jinxes are important to her family because they believe that despite the inevitability of things going wrong, there is some higher authority with control over these events.
Performance Context: The informant sat in a chair while I sat at my desk.
My Thoughts: The informant’s piece of folklore has been passed down orally directly through the grandmother, who is the family’s holder of Yiddish terminology. Yiddish is considered a dying, or even dead, language with little contemporary usage. The informant herself rarely uses Yiddish and can only remember a few phrases from her grandmother, so it seems unlikely that this saying will be passed down generationally. The superstition and value placed on the power of the jinx is interesting, as the evil eye (a source of protection against harm) is quite dominant in navigating chance and fortune in Jewish tradition.
The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.
Informant: “Back when I was a kid, with your Opa [the word for “Grandpa” in Dutch] every Passover, we would leave a glass of wine—in our most ornate wine glass—for Elijah, like we do now, but we would also all go around the table after the meal and have to tell a little anecdote about Elijah.
Interviewer: “Can you explain who Elijah is?”
Informant: “Elijah is a Jewish prophet. It’s tradition to leave a spot for him at the table at Passover so that if he passes through he will stop at your house and give you good luck and health. So we would go around and all have to tell a short made-up story about him. And it was silly that we did this—I don’t know anyone else who did this, but I know that my dad always said that he had done it with his family at their seders growing up.”
I’ve participated in the Elijah ritual myself, so I can speak from a first-person perspective as well as commenting on my informant’s information. In my opinion, leaving a glass for Elijah symbolizes hope, for the future and for the Jewish people—a people historically oppressed and systematically pushed down. Leaving a glass and/or opening a door for the prophet, Elijah, to come is a way of leaving the door open to positive things to come. As it is a prophet that the glass of wine is left for, this custom can also be seen as a seeking of knowledge or insight.
The informant is a 20-year old Jewish student attending USC. She was born in Venezuela but has lived in Miami since she was eight years old. She is majoring in Engineering. The information she shared with me is about Jewish funeral custom.
Informant: “Everyone goes to the funeral home or the synagogue, or wherever the funeral is taking place. There is a service; the Rabbi says some prayers in Hebrew and in English and some kind words about the deceased. Then usually some family members will speak about the person who has passed.”
Interviewer: “What kind of stuff do they say?”
Informant: “Well it varies. Sometimes they will talk about the person’s accomplishments, sometimes they will tell funny stories about the person, or their fondest memories with them. I was at a funeral about a month ago where one of the deceased’s grandchildren read a portion of a school project she had written about her grandma when she was a kid. She had interviewed her grandma for the project. It was really cool.”
Interviewer: “That sounds really cool. What happens next?”
Informant: “Well, everyone goes outside where the burial takes place. I don’t know if it is Jewish tradition everywhere, but at least at the weddings I’ve been to, there are shovels around the burial site, and everyone who wants to can shovel some earth onto the grave. It’s really beautiful. Then there is a shiva.
Interviewer: “What’s the shiva?”
Informant: “The shiva is when everyone—the family and friends of the deceased’s family—goes to someone close to the person who has passed’s house. There is lots of food and drink (usually non-alcoholic though) and people eat and talk. It’s a big gathering as a sort of celebration of the person’s life and as a way to comfort the family.”
Often rituals surrounding death double as celebrations of life and a reason for social gathering. Death is a rite of passage and like other rite of passage rituals, it is a rite of transition, mainly for the family and friends of the deceased. The shivas I’ve been to aren’t typically sad events. The funeral itself is generally a somber, teary-eyed event, but shivas I’ve attended often involve a lot of conversing and even a good-deal of joke-telling.