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.