I’m still frantically revising the book I’m ghosting, but it was time to go back to my regular gig at Tablet. It’s gonna be a busy few weeks. Fortunately, I had a lot of fun writing this column, about golems in children’s lit.
Here’s a tidbit that didn’t make it into the story: Though the story of the Golem of Prague seems like one of those ancient legends, Israeli pulp fiction expert Eli Eshed says it’s actually pretty new. It dates from 1837, when the German-Jewish poet Berthold Auerbach told it in his philosophical novel Spinoza. Like the tale about the boy who killed his parents and then asked for mercy because he was an orphan, it’s a modern narrative that feels classic and old; it fits seamlessly into the Jewish storytelling tradition. Just as we love jokey stories about chutzpahdik behavior, we adore tales about power imbalances, the act of creation, humans playing God, and the strong defending the weak (hey, witness all those superhero comics created by Jews).
In Auerbach’s novel, the character of Spinoza tells the tale of an earth-packed Shabbes goy. When the holy secret name of God, written on a piece of parchment, is placed in its empty head every Friday night, it comes to life and does chores. The rabbi removes the holy name every Sunday morning; the golem becomes clay again. But one Friday night, as everybody is in shul singing Lecha Dodi, the Golem begins destroying the Jewish Quarter. The rabbi leaps and grabs the parchment and saves the day. (This was the version of the tale used on the Simpsons episode in which Bart discovers the Golem of Prague in Krusty’s storeroom. Bart predictably makes the golem his slave, and Lisa predictably sees this as a civil rights issue, and then Bart and Lisa build the golem a wife out of Play-Doh. And she’s played by Fran Drescher. But I digress.) Auerbach’s (and Matt Groening’s) version doesn’t contain the bit I loved as a child, included in many Golem of Prague narratives: The golem has the Hebrew word “emet,” truth, carved into his forehead. To de-animate the creature, its creator erases the first letter of “emet,” leaving “met” — the Hebrew word for dead. That bit gave me chills as a kid. The Golem becomes inanimate clay again, but it remains in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, to be reborn if the Jewish community ever needs it. Deliciously creepy. A friend recently told me you can visit the Old New Synagogue today, but you’re not allowed in the attic. Ooh.