GOLEMS!! Jan 13, 2017 11:47:55 GMT -5
Post by shira on Jan 13, 2017 11:47:55 GMT -5
The Golem of Fifth Avenue
Parallels between a 16th-century Jewish folk tale and today’s political culture.
By Daniel Lee • Updated Jan. 12, 2017 8:14 p.m. ET
Donald Trump’s inauguration next Friday will be tough for the elites in Washington and Hollywood who have mocked him for years. Yet it should please the millions of working-class and flyover-state Americans who, fed up with the same condescension, gave Mr. Trump his unexpected victory. This brings to mind the golem of Jewish folklore, a powerful but simple giant made of mud and clay, brought to life in dangerous times to protect European Jews.
This is certainly a dangerous era—Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis, economic retrenchment, crime, the culture wars—and the public mood shows it. Perhaps reflecting this spirit of crisis, the golem image is also gaining renewed attention, not least in a major exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin. It features golem-inspired artworks by Anselm Kiefer,Hugo Steiner-Prag and David Aronson, along with borrowed works from museums throughout the world.
The most famous Jewish golem might be the creature purportedly brought to life in 16th-century Prague by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. When his community was threatened by blood libel and pogroms during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Rabbi Loew followed divine instructions to form a giant defender from river clay. The legend holds that he brought the golem to life by magical rites, including inserting the secret name of God into the creature’s mouth—a diminished echo of God breathing life into Adam.
The golem, which in Hebrew means “unformed,” existed merely to serve and protect. The one rule was that it had to be silenced every Sabbath by removing the name of God from its mouth. But on one Sabbath Rabbi Loew forgot, and the golem, according to one account, was “seized as if by madness; his eyes rolled and burned like flaming wheels, his breath was visible and sparkled with wonderful colors, and he began a terrible destruction.”
Rabbi Loew tried, without success, to bring the creature to heel. But the monster seized him and nearly crushed him in its earthen grip. The rabbi barely managed to snatch from the golem’s mouth the animating paper bearing God’s secret name.
The silenced golem was then placed in the attic of the oldest synagogue in Prague, largely unvisited since. As the centuries passed, a few brave souls investigated. One rabbi refused to speak of what he saw in the attic. Others reported it empty, at least of once-living figures of clay. A group of Nazi soldiers poking around were supposedly torn limb from limb.
But that was hardly the end of the golem’s influence in popular culture. Examples run from Frankenstein’s monster to the Incredible Hulk. Both, like the Jewish creature, lack articulate speech.
In Disney’s “Fantasia,” the multiplying brooms that bedevil Mickey Mouse are an echo of a helpful golem run innocently, or at least brainlessly, amok. In the sex-mad 1970s, there was Dr. Frank N. Furter’s less innocent but equally brainless creation in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
During the Reagan and Thatcherite 1980s, Heavy Metal magazine chronicled RanXerox, a punk golem created from spare copy-machine parts. In one of “The Simpsons” Halloween specials, Bart stole Krusty the Clown’s golem, which the clown used to suppress hecklers. After Bart abused his chief antagonist Principal Skinner with it, the boy made a Play-Doh girlfriend to keep the golem company.
There’s even a baseball novel, “The Cubs and the Kabbalist,” by Byron Sherwin, in which a rabbi creates a golem named Sandy Greenberg (after two Jewish standouts, Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg) to help the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.
The comic “Billy Hazelnuts” today features a golem made by rats from bits of garbage. Last summer brought a new comic-book series about Brik, a golem who helps a New York City kid fight the Russian mafia. In a perhaps unintentional lunge at existentialism, the kid spray-paints “tags” the golem with his own name instead of God’s.
“Every generation makes its own golem, to mirror its own needs, anxieties, and hopes for redemption,” says the Jewish Museum Berlin’s website. The museum director, Peter Schäfer, adds in a statement that “the ancient human dream of creating artificial beings connects with today’s world: genetic technology and artificial intelligence, computers and robots.”
But will that technology, like the golem, go out of control—raging, crushing and destroying everything it is supposed to protect? Will driverless cars and Amazon delivery drones fulfill our dreams, or will they go haywire?
Then there’s Donald Trump. Can he bring his halting rhetorical powers to bear on the hopes and anxieties of the millions of Americans who put him into office? It depends on which golem he ends up becoming.
Mr. Lee is a writer in Indianapolis.
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