Collector (me): So like, what’s the version [of Golem] you first grew up with and are most familiar with?
Informant: So the first one I heard is not gonna be the most common, but the first one I heard, but it’s like trying to teach little Jewish kids “Don’t be a kvetcher,” which is like someone who complains a lot. And so it was this story of this girl like had this golem who was like her pet golem, but not really her pet golem, but that was the idea of it. And, like, he was a very bad golem— he would just complain all the time when he was alive, so he wasn’t your “saving the day golem,” but he was a kvetcher, and he would just complain and complain and complain and complain. And you know at first the girl wanted to be like the golem, so she would also complain all the time, and then her parents were like “No,” and so they killed the golem, and then the girl was all sad. And then you know, they were like, “This is what happens.” Not dying, but people won’t like you and will get rid of you if you complain all the time.”
Collector: So is it like a cautionary tale or moral lesson for kids?
Informant: Yeah, so that one’s like, you know, your typical children’s story. Like if you do this bad thing, this bad thing will happen, so don’t do this bad thing.
My informant here is a 20-year-old student from USC, and was raised Jewish. To those unfamiliar, my informant explained a golem as a figure made of clay that comes to life when someone puts “a piece of paper with Hebrew writing on it, and you put it in its mouth,” and depending on the version, they can either be good or bad guys. My informant learned about this version of golem during storytime at the Jewish preschool they attended when they were little. While it’s not one of the more known versions of the tale, it’s the one the teachers at the school told to my informant and their peers.
This came up when I was telling my friend about a golem figure that one of my classmates brought for the “Show and Tell” activity we had in one of our folklore lectures the other day. I knew that my friend was familiar with golem because of a conversation we’d had about him in the past, and I asked if they could tell me more about him and what version they were familiar with.
While I’m not as familiar with Jewish folk tales or golem, I thought it was interesting to see that this version my informant presented me with was depicted through his actions as a moral lesson for children to abide by. In this version of the tale, we can observe the main lesson: in order to be well liked and taken seriously by others around you, one shouldn’t blindly follow the example of someone else, especially if they know their behavior would be frowned upon in society. This tale interweaves the expectations and values of the culture in a manner that makes it easy for children to understand. The fate of the golem isn’t a literal reminder of what could happen to those who don’t heed the lesson, but by portraying it in such a drastic measure, it helps kids piece together the way that they should conduct themselves in their group. Of course, this is only one version of the golem—
(For a more well known version, see Abedon, May 15, 2020 “The Golem – Jewish Folk Tale”, USC Folklore Archives).