WHEN it comes to raw, organic material, the legend of the golem of Prague looms large in the minds of mad scientists, sane novelists and Hollywood development types. Indeed, the making of a monster dominates the cultural imagination like, well ... a colossus. This makes sense, given the golem’s girth and reputation for stealing a scene and chewing up the scenery. Golems make a powerful entrance and even a more memorable exit.
There have been countless resurrections of the golem -- Frankenstein’s monster, the Terminator, the sorcerer’s apprentice, any cyborg or humanoid built for a domestic task that then malfunctions and goes haywire. The golem got its big break, however, in 16th century Prague. With the Jews accused of ancient blood libels and enduring one anti-Semitic attack after another, noted scholar and mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known widely as the Maharal, decided to delve into Jewish mysticism, the cabala (yes, the very same cabala that Madonna immodestly practices), in search of a savior, a protector -- not unlike a fighting goon in a hockey game -- that could both rescue and redeem the persecuted.
Using mud from the Vltava River, legend has it, Loew sculpted a gargantuan man and breathed life into it by invoking a combination of mystical chants and numerical formulas and, depending on which version you follow, fed the name of God into the creature’s mouth or stamped the Hebrew word for truth, emet, onto its forehead.
The monster is gradually accepted into the community as a curious-looking domestic servant of the rabbi -- the synagogue’s own Clark Kent. When the gentiles make the mistake of attacking the Jews again, the rabbi unleashes his creation, and the golem responds with a fury that gives new meaning to the word “payback.” Loew’s experiment in Jewish voodoo is the ultimate act of hubris since Adam and Eve worked to fulfill their recommended daily fruit allowance; the difference is that the golem is a manufactured man, all muscle and no soul, a mute monster that doesn’t negotiate but only wreaks vengeance.
Given the golem’s range as a source of aesthetic inspiration, there is reason to applaud Joachim Neugroschel’s “The Golem: A New Translation of the Classic Play and Selected Short Stories.” Focusing on Yiddish adaptations from the early 20th century -- the short stories of Yudl Rosenberg, S. Bastomski and Dovid Frishman as well as H. Leivick’s play “The Golem” -- Neugroschel captures the golden age of the golem as literary legend, although since the book limits itself to Yiddish writings, it does not include some of the most compelling of the golem’s various guises -- for instance, Bavarian writer Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel, “Der Golem.” Nevertheless, it is still interesting to see how this mythic monster made from clay was molded and shaped by Yiddish artists in such disparate ways, not as a sculpture but as a literary device -- a metaphor for creation run amok.
The stories in this collection represent some of the early sources of the golem’s literary existence. Yet, from Rosenberg’s pulp fiction, written more than a century ago, to Leivick’s stiffer exercise in blank verse, written in 1920, it is curious how much these adaptations both deviate from the original legend and inspire so many future incarnations. Most crucial, these stories don’t labor too much on the mayhem of the folk tale -- the riotous scenes in which the golem, aware of its power and rebelling against its maker, becomes an unstoppable force of misdirected rage. Indeed, nearly every golem narrative offers an iconic scene of a monster that no longer takes orders and will not be denied in its destructiveness.
Here, however, in these Yiddish stories, the retaliatory dimensions of the tale are less prominent than the wisdom of the rabbi and the romancing of the golem, which is often portrayed as quite virile.
In Frishman’s oddly erotic story, Loew’s daughter, Eve, has the hots for the golem’s abs and arms. And in Leivick’s play, the golem is a loutish ladies’ man, putting the moves on the rabbi’s granddaughter. The golem spends far more time vainly trying to suppress its sexual appetite than it does defending the Jewish ghetto, the purpose for which it was created. It is curious that Neugroschel does not mention this anomaly in his introductory essay. Why is it that Yiddish writers found the rabbi more interesting than the golem itself, and why did they undervalue the more conventional plot conceit -- and bigger dramatic payoff -- of a golem gone crazy?
Given its malleability, it is easy to see why the tale has given rise to so much experimental imitation. Novelists such as Cynthia Ozick, Michael Chabon, Pete Hamill, Ben Schrank, Marge Piercy and Dutch writer Harry Mulisch have all taken their cue from the rabbi and deployed their talents in the service of creation. Are not pens and blank pages, keyboards and screens, essentially the same raw material as lifeless clay? Every artist has a golem in him. Indeed, while the artistic impulse thrives on the power of creation, it fears it, too. It knows there are risks, but the artistic rush is all about taking them. What better reason is there to create something out of nothing than to rescue humanity and redeem the world?
Yet the golem legend goes deeper than that. In the original, the golem strays too far, paralyzing all of Prague, including the Jews it was created to protect. The rabbi realizes it’s time to take the life out of his monster, even though he fears the recurrence of anti-Semitic acts. And so the golem is deflated and discharged, rendered lifeless, locked away in the attic of the city’s Old New Synagogue, the Altneuschul, as an insurance policy -- a reminder to the gentiles of what can happen if they persist in the persecution of Jews. It is a cautionary tale: Behave, or the cabala manual comes off the shelf.
Restraint is as important to the legend of the golem as are rescue and revenge. After all, Loew didn’t have to pull the plug. Disabling the golem is not a Hollywood ending; filmmakers like car wrecks and scorched-earth battlefields. But it is that very restraint that, perhaps, is most tantalizing to artists. Mastery over the reciprocal yet contradictory relationship between having power and knowing when it should be exercised -- and when it should be withdrawn -- is the crux of the golem myth. At some point, reconciliation must be introduced to repair the damage. Creation may be the ultimate act of power, but the restraint of that power -- especially when it is lethal and overwhelming -- is the ultimate act of humanity.