The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?

The golem — the massive, hulking servant figure who manages to repeatedly save the Jewish people from doom and destruction in any number of tales written in the 19th and early-20th centuries — has popped up in book form once again in The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague, the work of Yudl Rosenberg as edited and translated by the distinguished novelist Curt Leviant. Just about a year ago, W.W. Norton publishers released a compilation of golem tales, titled simply The Golem, that brought together various works in several genres, written by a quartet of writers, Rosenberg among them, all translated by Joachim Neugroschel. The other authors represented were S. Bastomski, Dovid Frishman and H. Leivick, who penned the classic play about the massive creature fashioned from a piece of clay by a wonder-working rabbi.

There is a great deal of overlap between these recent books. Both translators fill in the history behind the term "golem" and identify the nature of the character that bears the name, and the general outline is similar. They part ways, however, in their assessments of Rosenberg.

According to Neugroschel, Rosenberg, who lived from 1860 to 1935, brought out the folk tales, which Neugroschel translates as The Golem or The Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Leyb, in 1904, attempting to pass it off as a rendering from the Hebrew. But in the translator's opinion, Rosenberg wrote the work 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 is concerned, Rosenberg produced in this book of tales "a striking example of Jewish pulp writing for the masses, yet it inspired Levick'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)."

Leviant, in his version of the Rosenberg stories, is after something else again. Right on the contents page, he makes it clear that he's translated these works from the Hebrew, which runs counter to Neugroschel's contention that Rosenberg passed them off as Hebrew creations but wrote them in Yiddish.

This new collection, which has been published by Yale University Press, contains a far higher opinion of Rosenberg and his creations. According to Leviant, in 1909 (not five years earlier) in Warsaw, "a singular event occurred that changed the direction of the [golem] legend for the rest of the 20th century and prompted the efflorescence of this story in so many branches of art" — the appearance of Rosenberg's Niflo'es Maharal (the full title of which was The Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague With the Golem).

Because he was an Orthodox rabbi in Warsaw who led a community that viewed fiction as "frivolous" and "utterly outside" the tradition of intense Torah study, Rosenberg, notes Leviant, had to disguise his authorship of the book.

"He resorted to the classic ruse of the 'discovered' manuscript, à la Defoe in Robinson Crusoe and Swift in Gulliver's Travels, who also pretended their books were written by someone else, as did Alexander Dumas, who in his preface to Three Musketeers (1844) claims he discovered his text in the Royal Library. To an unsuspecting public, Rosenberg was able to pass off his own book as if it had been written hundreds of years earlier by the Maharal's son-in-law, Rabbi Isaac Katz. (To this day, some people still believe this.) Rosenberg's claim that the Maharal's son-in-law wrote the book naturally enhanced its value. Readers were more eager to buy a book about the Maharal and the golem written by a relative than one by an unknown Warsaw rabbi. Here is pseudepigraphic literature at its best, reflecting the same attitude of classical works like the author of the anonymous second-century BCE Testament of the Twelve Sons who claimed that each of Jacob's sons wrote his particular testament."

Rosenberg was clearly an unusual character. He was born in Russian Poland in 1859, the same year as the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. He received a traditional yeshiva education and was recognized as a brilliant scholar. He served as a rabbi in various Polish towns before ending the European phase of his rabbinic career in Warsaw. To enhance his earnings, which were far from voluminous, he wrote books on Jewish law and midrash, translated portions of the classic text of mysticism known as The Zohar from Aramaic to Hebrew, and also dabbled in fiction (each time disguising his authorship). One of these projects was an anthology of tales about Elijah the Prophet that included some of Rosenberg's own creations.

In 1913, the rabbi immigrated to Canada — he was in his mid-50s at the time — and held posts in Toronto and Montreal, where he died in 1935, "honored and esteemed," as Leviant puts it, "throughout North America and Europe — but unrecognized for his vast literary output. … Although Rosenberg is briefly mentioned in an Encyclopedia Judaica article on 'golem,' he has no entry under his own name."

Rosenberg, unlike his Orthodox peers, was intrigued by secular literature and read widely. "Despite his being labeled a folk writer," notes Leviant, "Rosenberg was not a naïf. He was familiar with the sorcerer's apprentice motif, which he incorporated into one of the stories where the golem, told to fill the water barrel, keeps on pouring until the room is flooded."

According to the translator, Rosenberg's Golem stories took the European Jewish community by storm. And because it was so popular, the author created a Yiddish version. "We have translated this book into Yiddish," Rosenberg wrote on the book's title page, "to enable people of all classes to enjoy this illuminating work."

Continues Leviant: "Rosenberg's prose style is a rabbinic Hebrew into which lines from the Bible, the Talmud, the liturgy, and occasionally, phrases from the Kabbala, blend seamlessly. Rather than sounding recondite, these more than 150 quotations from all layers of Hebrew would be well known to any reader who had a traditional Jewish education and who observed Jewish customs. For instance, to depict the salvation of the Jews from annihilation, as seen in the Book of Esther, the writer skillfully draws on these familiar and oft-quoted phrases and verses."

This collection contains 20 stories, many intertwined, almost like a novel, says Leviant, since it follows a group of characters: the Maharal; his assistant, "the old shamesh, Reb Avrohom Chaim"; the Maharal's enemy, the anti-Semitic priest Thaddeus; the saintly cardinal, Jan Salvester; the "beneficent" King Rudolf; and, of course, the faithful golem, who was given a name for the first time — Yossele, a diminutive of Yosef.

Naming the golem was only one of several far-ranging innovations to the golem legend. Rosenberg also humanized the character, according to Leviant, making him a beneficent creature who can read and write, feel pain, recover from it, and even asks permission from his master to seek revenge against his attackers. Yossele is also assigned tasks other than domestic chores — some fairly complicated — and he at times even initiates actions.

Perhaps most important of all, the golem fights to protect the Jews of Prague against the oft-repeated blood libel and, in the end, is permitted to "expire peacefully and not as a consequence of his unrestrained fury."

The translator argues that Rosenberg's book has been widely influential, and not just in how the golem story was rendered in subsequent retellings. Some see in the creation of robots, computers and artificial intelligence, the hand of the golem. This may be so, says Leviant, since it was in Prague, a city imbued with golem stories, that the playwright Karel Capek wrote R.U.R., which introduced the word "robot" to the world.


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