Issue 3 - Summer 2006 - The Magic Issue
MY FATHER, THE GOLEM
The metamorphosis came late in life
BY NATHANIEL DEUTSCH
At the age of 75 my father became a golem. Or at least that’s what he told me a few months ago when I visited him in the hospital, where he was suffering from kidney failure, only the latest in a series of medical complications related to diabetes. When I asked him what he meant, my father groaned, “I have become a golem. An out-of-control body.” Unlike Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who woke up one morning to discover that he had become a giant bug, my father’s transformation did not come as a surprise, at least not to me. In fact, I had been expecting it for a long time.
My father grew up in a very orthodox Hungarian Jewish family in pre-Holocaust Europe and — after coming to America as a war refugee — Boro Park, Brooklyn. In the yeshivas that my father attended, students were encouraged to cultivate their minds and souls but not their bodies. Indeed, they were taught that bodies were things to be ignored, subdued or enlisted to perform mizvot (commandments) but not indulged or exercised.
Every family has a black sheep. In my father’s case, it was an eccentric uncle named Carol, a self-taught artist who deserted from the military during World War I, married Leon Trotsky’s niece, became a confidant of the famous painter James Ensor, and later died in Auschwitz. Growing up, my father identified strongly with Carol, and, despite his parents’ disapproval, he too aspired to be an artist. After his father failed to persuade him to become a diamond broker — the family business at the time — he left Brooklyn for good in his early twenties and moved to the Upper West Side. To my grandparents, it might as well have been Mars.
My father radically reinvented himself several times over the years. He tried his hand at painting; then, realizing that his true love was theater, he became a playwright. It was a craft he would pursue for the next five decades. Along the way, he moved to Israel, where he married my mother, started a family, and temporarily abandoned the Orthodox Judaism of his youth. Eventually, we returned to America, where my father became religious again.
Throughout all of these changes, my father never felt at home in his body. Over the years he didn’t take up golf or tennis or running. Instead, he pretty much did what he had always done: read and write. When he turned fifty, my father’s body began to break down and he was diagnosed with diabetes. At sixty-five, he experienced the first of several heart attacks. When he came home from the hospital after his third heart attack, I asked my father how it felt to be in his body. “How should I know?” he replied without a hint of irony.
Years of sedentary existence undoubtedly contributed to my father’s many health problems. Yet I also suspect that his profound alienation from his own body granted him a seemingly magical ability to overcome ailments that would have felled an Olympic athlete. During his numerous stays in the hospital, my father always had roommates who looked to be in better physical shape than he was. Some of them never recovered. My father, meanwhile, slowly but surely returned to some semblance of health. Invariably, he astounded physicians with his incredible resilience. They naively attributed his dramatic recoveries to an amazing if unaccountable reserve of physical strength. But I knew better. My father didn’t mend because of his body but, rather, despite it, or, even more accurately, to spite it.
When he recently learned that he would have to go on dialysis, therefore, my father felt imprisoned in a body that he had spent an entire lifetime trying to ignore. Seeing him in the hospital bed, connected to various machines, I recalled a scene from a meditation on golems by the great Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schultz in “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis,” a short story in which the narrator’s father reveals that his “own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing.” My father had become, in the words of Schultz, “violated matter.” It was his worst nightmare.
Not surprisingly, my father discouraged me from playing sports when I was growing up. He considered them a waste of time and a distraction from important pursuits like studying. Other fathers spoke about star athletes with reverence. My father thought the Green Bay Packers were a famous baseball team. Instead of teaching me how to read a box score or toss a football, my father taught me about Judaism and told me a lot of stories.
By the time I was ten, I had heard tales about wonder-working rabbis who could become invisible (called roeh ve-ayno nireh in Hebrew), decipher a person’s character from their face alone (hakarat panim), travel great distances instantaneously (kefitsat ha-derekh), and exorcise a malevolent spirit or dybbuk — a soul without a body — that had taken possession of a living person. Amazing as they were, these skills were mere card tricks compared with the greatest magical achievement of all: creating a golem.
In Yiddish, the word golem (pronounced goylem) means dummy or oafish person, as in “Don’t just stand there like a golem. Do something.” When I was a kid, I first heard the word used in this sense. Then, around the same time that I began to suspect that my sleep-talking younger brother was possessed by a dybbuk — it turns out I was wrong about him, despite what seemed like incontrovertible evidence — I learned that the word had another, more intriguing meaning. Rather than just a dumb or clumsy person, the word golem also signifies what one scholar has termed an “artificial anthropoid,” or, in plain English, a creature that physically resembles a human being but is created by magic rather than sex.
Like many aspects of Jewish magic, the golem has ancient roots. The word itself is a hapax legoumenon, which sounds like a magical formula, but is really just a fancy way of saying that it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible, in this case in Psalm 139, where it refers to an unformed body. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the first rabbi to make a golem was Rava, who created a gavra or “man” out of dust, just as God had formed Adam in the second chapter of Genesis. A midrash on this text even states that Adam himself was a golem before God blew a soul into his nostrils. To the rabbinic elite who composed these texts, therefore, creating a golem was an empowering, even narcissistic act, one that signified their unique ability to imitate God. Indeed, contemporary pioneers in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence have seen the golem as an early model for modern technologies created in the “image and likeness” of human beings.
Golem-making really took off in the Middle Ages among a group of Jewish mystics known as the Hasidé Ashkenaz, or German Pietists. In a thirteenth-century text, a leading member of this circle, named Eleazar of Worms, instructed readers who wanted to create a golem to first purify themselves, then dress in white clothes and study the Sefer Yezirah, a mystical text that portrays God as creating the world with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Next, he wrote, they should take some qarqa betulah (“virgin soil”) from a mountain that has never been plowed and knead it with mayim hayyim (“living water”) while chanting different Hebrew letter combinations. Other authorities recommended walking or dancing in a circle around the wet lump of clay until it rose from the earth in the shape of a man.
If all went well, at the end of this ritual you would find yourself face to face with a golem. The sources don’t spend a lot of time describing what the golem would look like, except that it should have the Hebrew word emet, or “truth,” engraved on its forehead or otherwise attached to its body. In order to destroy the golem, you just erased the letter aleph from the beginning of emet, thereby producing the Hebrew word met, meaning “dead.” Most authors assumed that the golem would be male or without sex, although one rather enigmatic seventeenth-century text states that a rabbi created a woman who “waited on him” until the authorities forced him to destroy her.
In general, the sources agree that the golem would lack four things possessed by human beings: a soul, intellect, speech, and the ability to procreate. Being rabbis, they also explore the Halachic or legal implications of the golem. At stake in these discussions is whether or not the golem has the legal status of a human being — or even an adult Jewish male. For instance, the Hakham Zevi (1660–1718), whose ancestor Elijah of Chelm is said to have created a golem, argued that a golem could not be counted in a minyan (quorum for prayer).
But golem production could also prove to be dangerous. In his autobiography, Jacob Emden, the son of the Hakham Zevi and one of the most fascinating Jewish figures of the early modern period, discussed his ancestor’s golem. For the first time in the history of the legend, Emden fleshed out the potential risks posed by the golem. According to him, the golem created by Elijah of Chelm was initially a loyal servant who did odd jobs around his master’s house. Over time, however, the golem grew in strength, and Elijah feared that his creation would become violent, perhaps even destroying the world. To avert such a disaster, Elijah took action. He knew that the golem’s power derived from the divine name he had inscribed on a piece of paper and attached to the creature’s forehead. During a brief struggle, he managed to snatch the paper, returning the creature to dust, but not before the golem maimed him.
Some have speculated that this darker side of the golem legend inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, her gothic novel about a stitched-together, soulless body run amok. Certainly, the golem should be viewed as an important ancestor of the robots, cyborgs, and computers who turn the tables on their human creators in dystopic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, RoboCop, and The Terminator. In his seminal 1966 book, God & Golem, Inc., Norbert Wiener, an artificial-intelligence pioneer and the father of cybernetics, explicitly described “the machine … [as] the modern counterpart of the golem,” and warned against “gadget worshippers.” In the modern age, Wiener says, golem-like gadgets can bring consequences much worse than a light maiming.
When I was ten, my father didn’t talk about any of this. Instead, he told me the most famous golem tale of all, the one about Rabbi Judah Loew, better known as the Maharal of Prague (1525–1609). The golem of Prague is one of the most important and enduring modern Jewish legends. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it inspired a veritable cottage industry, including a 1909 Hebrew account by Yudel Rosenberg, a 1915 German novel by Gustav Meyrink, a 1921 Yiddish drama by H. Leivick, and a series of classic silent films by Paul Wegener.
When I first heard the legend, it didn’t inspire me to write a story, or make a film, or represent the creature in any other way. Why create an artistic substitute, I figured, when I could make the real thing? In a gesture of humility, I decided it would be better to start out small. So instead of making an “artificial anthropoid” — or, as I thought of it at the time, a big clay man — I set out to create a golem chicken. I gathered my raw material — which didn’t include virgin soil from a mountain that had never been plowed — and recited what I imagined were divine names. Nothing happened. After a few more futile attempts, I eventually chalked up my failure to another tradition I had recently learned about: the prohibition on engaging in the Kabbalah before the age of forty.
Unlike earlier incarnations, the golem of Prague was not created to empower the rabbinic elite. Instead, the Maharal made his golem — some versions of the legend call him “Yosl” — in order to defend the Jewish community against an attack by non-Jews following a blood-libel accusation. The plan worked but not without a hitch. Although the golem proved to be a formidable defender, he eventually went berserk, and began to threaten the very community he was created to protect. In response, the Maharal was forced to deactivate the golem and hide the creature’s now inert body in the attic of the famous Alt-Neu Shul in Prague, where it is said to remain to this day — much to the glee of the city’s tourism industry, which makes a killing from selling golem kitsch.
When the legend of the golem of Prague first arose, it reflected an emerging desire among European Jews to embrace a more physical masculine ideal, one in stark opposition to the traditional Jewish emphasis on learning and spirituality. Significantly, the popularity of the legend also coincided with the rise of nationalism in Europe. For Jews, who lacked a nation-state and, therefore, a military of their own, the golem of Prague functioned as a formidable army of one. Seen within this context, the modern version of the golem legend was a proto-nationalist fantasy whose first appearance in the middle of the nineteenth century anticipated the rise of Zionism by several decades.
This desire inspired the early Zionist thinker Max Nordau to create what he called the “Muscle Jew,” a direct descendant of the golem, on the one hand, and a model for the sunburned farmers and soldiers who would later become idealized figures in the state of Israel, on the other. While the golem legend anticipated these broader modern Jewish developments, it also critiqued them by highlighting the potentially self-destructive consequences of embracing physical violence. Ironically, the golem, a body without a soul, was only rivaled in popularity and artistic influence during the modern period by the dybbuk. Although opposite phenomena, both the golem and the dybbuk served as powerful metaphors for the modern Jewish condition of fragmentation and alienation.
Unsurprisingly, contemporary critics have employed the golem as a metaphor for the state of Israel, its nuclear arsenal, or the Occupied Territories. The state of Israel, according to these interpretations, represents a kind of political golem, one that was created to protect the Jews from hostile forces but has now become a threat to Jews and non-Jews alike. Perhaps in response to this critical appropriation, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot launched its own take on the golem legend in 2005: a cartoon superhero who defends Israel from its enemies with the help of a female partner named Lilith — a legendary figure in her own right, with an even longer and, originally, much more negative history in the Jewish magical tradition than the golem. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, a who’s who of Jewish writers, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Cynthia Ozick, and, most recently, Michael Chabon, in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, have woven the golem into their fiction; a klezmer-rock band has adopted the name; and theater companies in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere have put on golem-related productions.
My father longed to join that latter crowd. Ever since he had first abandoned the yeshiva world for the Upper West Side, he had aspired to be the kind of playwright whose plays were produced in New York or San Francisco. Although he never became the next Arthur Miller — a man to whom he bore a striking physical resemblance — my father nevertheless founded his own theater company, had many of his plays performed, and even won some local awards. Before a stroke made it impossible for him to write stories (though he could still tell them), my father composed enough plays to fill a filing cabinet, including his last, The Golem of Boro Park, about a mentally disabled Orthodox Jew whom everyone calls “golem” but who sacrifices his own life in order to save a synagogue from burning down.
At the lowest point of his illness, my father told me that he felt like an empty body, as if his neshome, or soul, had abandoned him. And yet, slowly, even imperceptibly at first, my father started working his old magic. I knew he was returning to some version of his former self when he stopped complaining about his body and instead asked me what I was working on.
“A piece on golems,” I told him.
“I’m proud of you,” he replied, smiling for the first time since the dialysis began.
Looking at him, in a tangle of tubes but with a black yarmulke still perched on his head, I thought of something that Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Jewish ethics movement, said over a century ago: “The Maharal of Prague created a golem and this was a great wonder. But how much more miraculous it is to transform a man of flesh and blood into a mensch.” &