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The Golem of Prague and the Jewish Aversion to Fantasy

Its devotees are entitled to their opinion that fantasy is not a genre of Christianity. They are not, however, entitled to distort the facts. The Golem of Prague, I am informed again and again, is proof positive that fantasy is not alien to Judaism. But the Golem is not the supernatural fantasy that those who know the legend only through its modern retellings think it is. As Michael Weingrad said in dismissing a similar objection to his pathbreaking essay “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,”

Those who have offered golems, dybbuks, and magic dreidels as the answer to my question are skimming the surface or unfamiliar with the heft and richness of Judaism.

Exactly so. Michael Chabon relied heavily upon the Golem of Prague in writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), his novel about the Jewish creators of comic-book superheroes. The novel’s revisionist claim is that the artist-and-writer duos of the “Golden Age of Comics” — Jewish duos like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee — reinvented a significant subgenre of Jewish literature that had originated in the legends of the Golem, the man of clay enchanted into life by the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Löw of Prague.

The Golem’s status as an oral legend is central to the case that Jewish fantasy has, in contradistinction to those who hold otherwise, a long and honorable tradition. A short passage from the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin is usually cited as the source of the legend:

Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators, for it is written, “But your iniquities have been a barrier between” etc. (Isa 59.2) Rabbah created a man, and sent him to R. Zera. R. Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: “Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.”

In the medieval sources, though, “the creation of the golem had not a real, but only a symbolic meaning,” Gershom Scholem says. By the 17th century, legends of a Frankensteinian golem who is the servant of his creator had become popular among German Jews, although Scholem believes that the legends were, at least in part, a Jewish adaptation of ideas found in non-Jewish alchemy.

The version that everybody knows comes much later. And the most striking thing about it is that the most famous Golem is not an oral legend at all, but a literary reenactment. The historian Hillel J. Kieval found that the legend of the Golem of Prague was written down and published by two different folklorists — a non-Jew and a Jew — within six years of each other in 1841 and 1847.

The non-Jewish version, which called the legendary creature a Golam [sic], appeared in German in a popular Prague monthly. The legend was presented to the magazine’s readers as “partly newly told, party retold” by its author. The Jewish version, also written in German, was published in a widely read collection of Jewish legend and folklore from biblical, rabbinic, and popular sources. Its author affixed a short prologue in which he swears that the story to come is a faithful transcript of what he had heard “from the mouth of the old.” The prologue is intended to establish his reliability as a narrator, but like the prologue to The Turn of the Screw, its effect is exactly the opposite.

As Kieval says, the way in which the legend was presented to the German reading public is “testimony to the fact that the self-conscious recovery of oral traditions is a decidedly modern act.” Given the modernity of its retelling, the legend is inevitably transformed into something more closely resembling the authors’ literary influences. In the case of the Golem, the immediate and obvious predecessors are the Brothers Grimm, whose Fairy Tales had gone through four German editions by 1840.

In the last stages of its oral form, the legend had become attached to the figure of Rabbi Judah Löw, the Maharal of Prague. The story of the Golem, as Kieval puts it, was a way of “mythologizing” the Maharal, a popular testament to his greatness. It was not really “about” the Golem at all. And in its earliest stages, the oral tale testified to the power of God’s name, which was placed in the Golem’s mouth to bring him to life. Again, the story was not really “about” the Golem at all.

In the version retailed by Chabon and other recent adapters, the Golem is a champion of the Jews, heroically fighting anti-Semites in Rabbi Judah’s Prague. This version, the most popular of all, is a literary forgery created out of whole cloth early in the 20th century and reprinted three years ago by Yale University Press. The truth is that the Jewish Golem (as opposed to the Golem of popular imagination) does not belong to fantasy, does not concern a supernatural hero (who is secondary to the legend’s religious purposes), and does not loom large in Jewish thinking.

Other than that it’s a great example of Jewish fantasy.

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