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His Saving Grace

October 5, 2006 By:
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I've always thought of the golem -- the hulking, servant-like creature that's forever saving the Jews in the course of various myths, short stories and plays -- as the Jewish version of Frankenstein, even though those who know better tell me I'm mistaken. But it seems obvious to me. A bit of clay is brought to life and obeys its master for a time, but then is misunderstood by the world at large, and must be subdued and eventually destroyed when it becomes too eager, too adamant about completing its tasks.

Perhaps the problem is that I'm depending solely on the Hollywood-Boris Karloff vehicle for my sense of Mary Shelley's creature brought to life by a mad scientist, and so I'm mistaken about any similarity between the two figures as depicted in literature. But now, at least, that new translations of numerous stories and a famous play based on the Jewish myth have been collected in a volume called simply The Golem (W.W. Norton), interested readers can learn more about this folk figure that's exerted as much influence on the Jewish imagination as another pervasive figment of folklore -- the dybbuk, the shadowy substance that invades bodies and changes personalities.

The works in this new compact anthology of golem tales have all been translated by the acclaimed Joachim Neugroschel, who has rendered many Yiddish works into English over the years. It also includes short stories by such little-known Yiddish writers as Yudl Rosenberg, S. Bastomski and Dovid Frishman, along with a new translation of the famous full-length play by H. Leivick.

'Helpful or Monstrous'

Neugroschel provides a smattering of background material about the legend of the golem in his brief introduction to the book.

"Golems, robots, androids, humanoids, automatons -- these partly overlapping terms identify human creations, which, especially golems, can be helpful or monstrous," the translator begins. "These man-made human-looking creatures, which recur throughout Jewish culture and ultimately in the modern era, present a split personality."

The word "golem" first appears in Jewish literature, Neugroschel tells us, in Psalm 139:15: "Your eyes saw my unformed substance," where the word root for "substance" is GLM in Hebrew. After that, the translator writes, the idea of the golem appears in the Babylonian Talmud, rabbinic commentaries compiled in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., and also crops up later in the works of mystical writers. And yet, as Neugroschel makes clear, it took a considerable amount of time before the golem figure, a product of dust and clay, took on a magical spark.

"In the 16th century," notes the translator, "two rabbinical masters were linked more closely to the creation of a golem: Eliahu Ba'al Shem of Chelm (d. 1583) and Reb Judah Leyb ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague (d. 1609). (MaHaRaL is a Hebrew acronym meaning 'Our Teacher Rabbi Leyb.') Legends about golems now flourished, as did debates about the status of the golem, his functions within the Jewish community, his overall lack of intelligence, and his inability to speak."

According to Neugroschel, the Christian notions of the golem's power and destructiveness filled the works of the German Romantic writers of the 19th century: Achim von Anim, Jacob Grimm and Heinrich Heine, a Jew who converted to Christianity.

But it was the figure of Rabbi Leyb who, by the mid-19th century, became the sole creator of the golem and one of the central figures in all the folktales. According to these stories, the rabbi created the golem to fight the many enemies of the Jews. However, Neugroschel notes, this manufactured figure's work was twofold: "The golem was both a domestic servant and a resistance fighter. And the domestic side could be humorous. Once, for instance, the rabbi, hurrying to the synagogue, forgot to switch off the golem, who then kept hauling bucket after bucket of water, causing a flood. Using this motif, Goethe wrote a narrative poem, 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' which was set to music by Paul Dukas." Disney did his version, of course, as part of "Fantasia," starring Mickey Mouse as the water carrier.

As for the writers that Neugroschel has chosen to translate, Rosenberg, who lived from 1860 to 1935, brought out the folk book The Golem or The Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Leyb in 1904 and, according to his most recent translator, tried to pass it off as a rendering from the Hebrew. He, of course, wrote it himself in Yiddish, "following the tradition of Hasidic hagiography, i.e., stories extolling the wondrous souls and feats of the great rabbis."

As far as Neugroschel's is concerned, Rosenberg produced "a journalistic chronicle of adventures, primitive, schematic and tendentious. His work was a striking example of Jewish pulp writing for the masses, yet it inspired Leivick's renowned drama ... and was adopted into an episodic German novel by Chaim Bloch (who never gave Rosenberg credit for supplying him with the contents of his book)."

Neugroschel describes Bastomski (1891-1941) as a renowned educator and folklorist who issued a number of Yiddish booklets about the legends of old Prague featuring Rabbi Leyb. Of these two booklets published in 1923 and 1927, "one mentions the golem only in passing, and the other ignores him totally, whereas both collections offer several tales about the adventures of Rabbi Leyb. This preponderance most likely indicates that the rabbi was believed to be more important and more significant than his most famous creation." Bastomski's is also the briefest of Neugroschel's selections in The Golem.

Dovid Frishman lived from 1859-1922, and is described as "a multitalented, multilingual author," who wrote in Yiddish, Hebrew and German. "A major author in Hebrew," notes Neugroschel, "he focused on biblical rather than modern diction. Born in Poland, he resettled several times, including five years spent in Germany (1878-1883). He visited Palestine twice, in 1911 and 1912, but despite his excellent impression, he remained in Europe. In 1922, needing medical attention, he traveled to Berlin, where he died and was buried. A main theme of his fiction is the conflict between traditional Judaism and modernism, between religious faith and secular attitudes." According to Neugroschel, the clash appears in Frishman's golem stories in the "sensuality" of Rabbi Leyb's daughter and her relationship with the golem.

H. Leivick, author of the famous play about the golem, was born Leivick Halper, but he changed his name, Neugroschel writes, "to avoid being confused with the poet M.L. Halpern. Born to a poor family near the Byelorussian town of Minsk, Leivick attended various yeshivas. He was expelled from one school for reading a modern Hebrew novel, Abraham Mapu's Love of Zion. His radical political views and actions caused him to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia. He described this period in his memoir, In the Czar's Prison (1959). Meanwhile, he had started writing first poems, then plays in Yiddish. After his release from prison, he eventually reached New York in 1913. Working as a paperhanger by day, he kept writing poems and plays, many of which were staged in America, in Europe, and even in Palestine and then Israel. Leivick became one of the most important Yiddish poets and playwrights, but little of his work is now available aside from The Golem."

The most interesting thing about reading these four different takes on the golem myth is to see how each of the writers deals with the creation of the figure and his eventual demise. And still somewhat shocking to the modern reader is to understand that the golem figure arose because of the persistence of the blood-libel accusation against Jews, the belief leveled by Christians that Jews need the blood of a non-Jew to make matzah at Passover.

The charge is everywhere in these stories. In addition, it's clear from reading them that the more ferocious and persistent the accusation, the more helpless the Jews obviously felt, and the more masterful the golem had to become so that he could save them from slaughter.

 

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