The Golem

Rabbi Loew and golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899.

On October 28th at 7 PM, join us for a screening of the classic 1920 Paul Wegener film The Golem with live musical accompaniment by Gary Lucas, Emmy-nominated guitarist. Wondering about the origins of this Jewish zombie myth? Don’t worry, I’ve done a bit of poking around for you.

According to Wikipedia,

The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance. …Similarly, golems are often used today as a metaphor for brainless lunks or entities who serve man under controlled conditions, but are hostile to him in others. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow.

The notion of animating a pile of earth can be traced back to a kabbalistic work called the Sefer Yetzirah, or the Book of Creation. Wikiepdia to the rescue again, here is the  golem narrative that inspired Wegener’s film:

The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century chief rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who reportedly created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks, and pogroms. Depending on the version of the legend, the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. To protect the Jewish community, the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations. As this golem grew, it became increasingly violent, killing gentiles and spreading fear. A different story tells of a golem that fell in love, and when rejected, became the violent monster seen in most accounts. Some versions have the golem eventually turning on its creator or attacking other Jews.

The Emperor begged Rabbi Loew to destroy the Golem, promising to stop the persecution of the Jews. To deactivate the Golem, the rabbi rubbed out the first letter of the word “emet” (truth or reality) from the creature’s forehead leaving the Hebrew word “met”, meaning dead.The Golem’s body was stored in the attic genizah of the Old New Synagogue, where it would be restored to life again if needed. According to legend, the body of Rabbi Loew’s Golem still lies in the synagogue’s attic.

Some more modern interpretations: a band called Golem Rocks!, “Not your father’s klezmer… unless your father was Sid Vicious”, a Golem Pokemon and even a recipe to create your very own golem from the comfort of home (ingredient list included.)

Categories: Jewish History

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