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Friday, November 27, 2015

What is the golem?

“Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman have a new book out called The Golem of Paris. What exactly is the golem?”

The golem is a humanoid creature from Jewish folklore. It’s built, often from clay, by a righteous person with great knowledge of Kabbalah. The creature is given life when its maker inscribes a sacred word (often the name of God) on the golem itself or on a piece of parchment which is then placed on the golem or in its mouth.

Legends of the golem date back to medieval times and take different forms. They typically portray the creature as a hardworking, if overly literal, servant, with superhuman strength that made it useful for physical labor. In many stories, though, the rabbi then loses control of his creation and must destroy it in order to end its rampage. The golem can be destroyed by removing or erasing the sacred word that brought it to life. In some legends, the golem is inscribed with the Hebrew word for truth, emet. Erasing the first letter changes it to the Hebrew word for death, met, and thus the golem is returned to dust.

One of the most well-known golem legends is that of the golem of Prague. In it, the Maharel (which is an acronym that refers to Rabbi Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el, whose name is also transliterated as Judah Loew ben Bezalel and Yehuda Loew) creates a golem to protect his people from anti-Semitic attacks. There are different endings to the story. In some, the Maharel simply disables the golem when it’s no longer needed. In others, he must destroy it when it becomes too large and violent. David Wisniewski’s Caldecott-winning interpretation blends the two. In his book, Golem, the Maharel destroys the rampaging golem, but only after the emperor guarantees the safety of the Jews. 

“Golem” was originally a Hebrew word that could be translated as “shapeless mass” or “unformed substance.” In Yiddish, the word is also used disparagingly for a clumsy or unintelligent person.

The Kellermans’ The Golem of Paris is actually a sequel to The Golem of Hollywood. Both books center around a Los Angeles detective whose family has a connection to the legendary golem of Prague. We own both books at the Newton Falls Public Library, along with David Wisniewski’s retelling, Golem, and Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, a historical fantasy about a golem and jinni meeting in early-1900s New York City.

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