Anyone who pays attention to contemporary fiction—especially, but not exclusively, fiction by Jewish writers—knows that the golem is a hot property. Since Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers in 1998, golems have found their way into novels of every type—comic and tragic, allegorical and magic-realist. It’s possible that this is nothing more than a fad, the literary equivalent of Hollywood’s enthusiasm for Kabbalah. But the golem population explosion also suggests that the ancient legend has become a way to explore some very modern problems.
For the uninitiated, the golem is a figure out of Jewish folklore and mysticism—roughly speaking, the Jewish equivalent of the Frankenstein monster. (The most popular sources for golemology are the scholarly essay by Gershom Scholem, “The Idea of the Golem,” and the retelling of the legend by Elie Wiesel, The Golem.) The word “golem” itself comes from Psalm 139, verse 16, in a passage praising God the creator: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” From this humble origin, Jewish tradition constructed a whole theory of golem-making as man’s daring and ambiguous imitation of God’s creation of humanity. In the Sefer Yetsirah, the third-century book of creation, a Jewish mystic tried to figure out the formulas God used to create Adam, using the alphanumeric codes to which Hebrew lends itself.
But it is in 16th-century Prague that we find the classic golem story. In 1580 or thereabouts, Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, was said to have created a golem from the mud of the River Vltava. The golem’s mission was to protect the Jews of Prague from blood-libel pogroms, to meet the force of anti-Semitism with a counter-force. As Wiesel puts it, the golem was “without pity for the wicked, fierce toward our enemies.” Legend assigns the golem various exploits, thwarting plots and punishing evildoers, but finally Rabbi Loew turned him back into dust. He is said to remain in the attic of the Altneuschul synagogue in Prague, possibly to return, like King Arthur, in time of need.
As even this brief account shows, the golem legend is rich fictional material because there’s something in it for everyone. In fact, as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, “The golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed 100 years ago.” A look at some of the recent golem fiction shows why. First, there is the scientific element: With the newspapers full of cloning, the idea of humankind creating life is no longer just a myth. The Kabbalistic alphabet code finds a neat analogue in the alphabet of DNA. This facet of the story is best explored in The Procedure, by the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch, published in English last year. When Mulisch gives us a long list of permutations of God’s name—”aBaJ, eBaJ, iBaJ, oBaJ, uBaJ,” and so on—we hear echoes of the ACGT from which all genes are created. Indeed, Mulisch moves from the story of Judah Loew to the tale of a contemporary biologist, Victor Werker, who has created artificial life in the laboratory.
Even more significant is the legend’s obvious, but troubling, connection with the Holocaust. If ever the Jews of Central Europe needed a protector, it was in 1939. And in the first wave of post-Holocaust golem fiction—like Elie Wiesel’s retelling—this anguished fantasy of rescue took center stage. But the rescue did not come; and recent novelists are more interested in the limits of the golem’s protective power. Instead of a figure of strength, the golem becomes a symbol of pathos, as helpless as the Jews of Prague who invented him.
For Thane Rosenbaum in The Golems of Gotham, the golem story embodies the hopeless longing of contemporary Jews to resurrect a past annihilated by the Holocaust. In this magic-realist version, a young girl—the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors—improvises a golem out of mud from the Hudson River. But she botches the formulas and succeeds instead in bringing back the spirits of a group of writers, all Holocaust survivors who later committed suicide—Paul Celan and Jerzy Kosinski among them. Rosenbaum has fun putting these ghosts through their paces and inflicting them, poltergeist-fashion, on contemporary New York City. But at bottom his version of the golem story is a tragic one, emphasizing that the barrier between death and life is uncrossable.
Similarly, for Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the golem is itself in need of rescue. In an audacious but successful chapter, Chabon has his hero, the Czech Jew Josef Kavalier, smuggle himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague inside a coffin containing the original golem, who is being sent to Lithuania for safekeeping. When Josef comes to America and becomes a comic-book artist, his greatest creation is the Escapist, a hero who can get out of any trap. It is clearly an exercise in wish fulfillment, invented by a man helpless to rescue his actual family from the Holocaust. And Chabon suggests that the golem was the Escapist of medieval Prague; the magic powers that produced the golem have been shrunken, in the 20th century, to the comic-book artist’s powers of metaphor and imagination. Indeed, Chabon has written a fine essay titled “The Recipe for Life” about how the creation of a golem, with all its attendant dangers, served as a model for his own risky attempt to create life on the page.
Other writers use the golem in equally skeptical ways. In Nomi Eve’s The Family Orchard, the legend is part of the coming of age of her young hero Eliezer: His frustrated failure to make a golem is a lesson in disillusionment. Certainly the most ambiguous and provocative treatment of the theme is Cynthia Ozick’s. Her golem, named Xanthippe after Socrates’ shrewish wife, is created by an idealistic civil servant named Ruth Puttermesser, and it helps get her creator elected Mayor of New York. But the golem’s uncontrollable lust—like her gender, a new element of the myth—begins to undo all the good Mayor Puttermesser has done. It is a parable of idealism brought low by earthly nature, the two elements that fuse in human beings but remain at odds in the golem.
Still, we haven’t seen the last of fictional golems: This season brings Frances Sherwood’s The Book of Splendor, a detailed historical novel about the Prague of Rabbi Judah Loew. But now that there are enough books to fill a golem section at Barnes and Noble, the very popularity of the golem is creating its own set of problems. If the most important thing about the golem, today, is that we no longer believe in it—that it failed when it was needed most—then it can only seem like a literary conceit, not a genuine myth. By making the golem so familiar as a fictional device, novelists might be draining the story of the power that drew them to it in the first place. Even worse is the danger that the golem, like the Hanukkah holiday, is a minor part of Jewish history that is being overinflated simply because it fits in so neatly with modern, American appetites. The golem appeals to us because it reminds us of what we already know—Frankenstein, or genetic engineering, or comic-book heroes. To truly encounter the past means to acknowledge its difference and strangeness, not just its surface familiarity. Maybe the best golem story is still buried in the mud somewhere, waiting for the right novelist to give it life. But it will take some pretty powerful magic to make those clay feet move again.