Author Archives: Christine Preimesberger

Folktale: The Golem


The Golem

She heard this story from friends at the Jewish school. She went to school in Los Angeles. She explains that her family is Spanish and the story of the Golem is an Eastern European story so she didn’t grow up with it like her classmates did. She states that she heard from her friends who were Ashkenazi. The basic story goes like this:

The story takes in a town in Prague. A rabbi created a Frankenstein-like monster called a Golem to protect the Jewish village. The Golem was a giant creature with the word Emet, which is Hebrew for truth, written on its head. This word brings the creature to life. He was created to ward of attackers but it eventually runs amuck and starts attacking people. It couldn’t be stopped until the rabbi who created it erases the first letter of Emet from its head. Emet without the first letter, spells met which means death. This doesn’t kill the golem it just shuts it off like a robot. To revive the Golem all one has to do is fill in the first letter.

The informant mentions that she heard slightly different versions of the story. In some versions the person who brings the golem to life is a rabbi, sometimes it’s a mad scientist, other times it is just some guy. The nature of the golem itself varies in some versions it is aggressive in others its docile like a baby.

The informant doesn’t think the story itself is very important but the ideas related to it are important. She says that the story is related the history of antisemitism and it stems from the idea of having a magical protector.

I’ve heard of the story of the Golem of Prague before but in the version I read the Golem only goes berserk because the Golem had the ability to turn invisible and there were more explicit mentions of magic. In the version I heard the Golem was made from the clay of the banks of the river and the ceremony that brought it life mentioned the use of Kabbalah mysticism. In the version the informant told me she makes numerous references to Frankenstein and mad scientists. It seems like the scientific bent of contemporary society got fused with this older primarily magical society. The story is the same but the motifs are slightly different.

Game: Afikomen Game

The Afikomen Game

The informant couldn’t remember what Afikomen means or whether the word is in Yiddish or Hebrew.

This is a children’s game that’s played during Passover. The informant explains that during Passover there is a service called a Seder. The ceremony comes with a book that spells out all the rituals and what order their supposed to go. The informant says that the service generally lasts about two hours. However there are people who try to finish it in one hour. The informant has lead Seder’s before and they tend to three hours long. At some point during the Seder the person leading the prayer breaks off a piece of matzo (explain) and usually hides it somewhere in the house. All the children get up and race through the house to find the Afikomen. However finds it first gets a prize usually money. It’s usually money because children are not allowed to eat sweets during Passover.

The informant in Passover most of the events and rituals are directly related to the history of the holiday or the Commandments. The Afikomen game is not related to holiday at all. According to the informant the game was created to help the children get through the Seder without disrupting it. She explained that the Seder lasts for hours and Passover has certain dietary restrictions, bread and candy are off limits. Basically the holiday isn’t very kid friendly. The informant says that some Rabbis try to justify its existence by saying that it symbolizes the search for freedom but it only exists to keep the children from getting bored

My informant says the game is not that important in itself but it is important it is related to Passover.

The informant mentioned that Passover is a ritualized holiday; every aspect has some historical or religious significance. I think it is interesting that a holiday as old and sacred as Passover has this completely unrelated game attached to it. Even though it was not originally part of the traditions it is still important enough that people try to justify its existence. Maybe being a useful way to keep children quiet during the ceremony outweighs the fact that has no symbolic significance.




Folk Belief: Spiders

Killing spiders is bad luck.

My informant says that when he finds spiders in the house he takes them and relocates them outside instead of killing them. He learned this folk belief from a nun in grade school. The nun didn’t them why it was bad luck but he rationalized it as if you relocate the spiders you’ll get fewer spiders. He figured that if you smash them they’ll multiply and come after you. He also states them relocating them isn’t necessary; you just have to avoid killing them. The reason he relocates them is because the people he lives with are afraid of spiders. He doesn’t still believe that spiders will come after him but he still relocates them anyway.

I’ve heard this folk belief before but I never associated it with Catholic nuns. The version I’ve heard focused on the fact that spiders kill pests so it is not a good idea to kill them. Maybe this belief is related to a “you should value life in general” dimension to this belief.  The “killing insects” is bad luck folk belief is something I’ve heard before but generally the one I was taught was that its bad luck to kill ladybugs. I understand why killing either would be bad luck, ladybugs and spiders kill pests so their good to have around. In my house whenever someone sees a spider they want it dead. Maybe its because ladybugs are rarer or maybe its because spiders aren’t cute. For some reason spiders aren’t generally given the same amount of reverence other bugs get.

Food: Bacalhoada

My informant told me her grandparents come from the Azores a group of islands off the coast of Portugal. Ever year around Easter, on Good Friday, her grandfather cooks a dish called Bacalhoada. It is basically a dish formulated from potatoes, fish, hard-boiled eggs, olives, onions, and whatever else is available in the kitchen. This tradition comes from the Portuguese sailors. Since they sent a lot of time at sea they didn’t have access to fresh foods. They would catch a whole bunch of fish because they were never sure when get would get more food. So they dried and they would rehydrate them with milk later. For this dish they would have the fish and they would then throw-in any vegetables or food that they happened to find on the ship.  Even during war-time they would take the time to make this dish every Good Friday. According to my informant the recipe varies from year to year. Part of the concept of the dish is to put in whatever you have available. My informant says that she enjoys the tradition because she doesn’t fell she has that many. She enjoys the tradition but not always the food that goes with it.

It is interesting that the informant places more emphasis on the history of the tradition than the food itself. It was probably because she didn’t know the recipe off the top of her head but the history of this dish still seems more important. Especially since the recipe seems to change yearly because that’s how the dish was originally made. That might be why the informant follows the tradition even though she’s not all that keen on the actual food. The history behind this dish gives it importance so not practicing it might seem disingenuous.

Proverb: Hebrew proverb

Note: The informant is from Jerusalem

Hebrew Proverb


Note: Hebrew is written from right to left

Transliteration: Hatzava Tzoed Al Keyvato

Translation: The army marches on its stomach

My informant doesn’t remember where exactly he heard the proverb but he does mention that the military is a prominent part of daily life in Israel so military sayings are common. According to my informant the proverb basically means that ideas can’t sustain themselves until they become real. According him ideas need “food”, they need to link themselves to material before they become important. An example he uses to explain this is Leonardo da Vinci and his models of machines; perpetual motion machine, manufacturing machines, etc. According my informant these machines were revolutionary in hindsight but not important at the time because they served no practical purpose at the time. Those concepts became useful later when fossil fuel and independent workers became commonplace. As opposed to the Renaissance which had other energy sources and serfs.  According to him the proverb isn’t very important to him, he just knows it.

I looked up this proverb and apparently its a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte. Makes sense considering how military-centric Israel is. Although the informant stated that this proverb isn’t very important to him he still it connected to his profession. The da Vinci analogy is not directly connected to the proverb it is just something he used to explain it better. He says that the proverb is a military proverb but he applies it to the nature of scientific progress, which he is teaching a class on. It’s the same proverb but the informant took it out of its “original” context and gave it a different meaning.