Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

How the Golem Came to Prague

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

How the Golem Came to Prague

Article excerpt

THE LEGEND OF THE GOLEM, the mute clay servant brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague and who ran amok one Sabbath, is one of the most enduring and imaginative tales in modern Jewish folklore. Although its roots ultimately lie in late antique rabbinic literature, the story dilates somewhat dramatically in the nineteenth century.1 While most studies of the Golem tradition acknowledge that the association of the legend with R. Loew and Prague is an early nineteenth-century phenomenon, there has been little exploration of the first stages of that process of association, before the mid- 1840s. There was, however, a surprising amount of literary activity surrounding the Prague version of the legend in the decade immediately preceding. In this essay, we would like to focus on the period between 1834 and 1847, and particularly on two sources near either end of that chronological range that have hitherto never been discussed in any printed scholarship on the Golem. Together they shed valuable light on the transformation of a shadowy oral legend into perhaps the most famous of all modern Jewish literary fantasies.

The popularity and plasticity of the Golem gain momentum from a short entry by Jakob Grimm in 1808 in the literary and folklore journal Zeitung für Einsiedler (Journal for Hermits), the principal organ of the Heidelberg Romantics edited by Grimm's mentors Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano:2

The Polish Jews, after speaking certain prayers and observing fast days, made the figure of a man out of clay or loam, and when they speak the miracle-working Scbemhamp horas over it, the figure comes alive. It is true that he cannot speak, but he understands reasonably well what anyone says to him and commands him to do. They call him Go/em and use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework, but he may never leave the house alone. On his forehead is written Aemaeth (Truth; God). However, he increases in size daily and easily becomes larger and stronger than all his housemates, regardless of how small he was at first. Therefore, fearing him, they rub out the first letter, so that nothing remains but Maeth (he is dead), whereupon he collapses and is dissolved again into clay.

But once, out of carelessness, someone allowed his Golem to become so tall that he could no longer reach his forehead. Then, out of fear, the master ordered the servant to take off his boots, thinking that he would bend down and that then the master could reach his forehead. This is what happened, and the first letter was successfully erased, but the whole load of clay fell on the Jew and crushed him.3

Grimm's version is quite minimal compared to some of the fully developed narratives of the later nineteenth century, but it was enough to spark the imagination of several leading Romantics such as Arnim and ?. T. A. Hoffmann. One of the earliest, and certainly most exaggerated, examples of the ludic nature of the legend's reception is Arnim 's novel L· abeila von Aegypten (1812), which features the Golem as an estranged bride filled with "Hochmut, Wollust, und Geiz" (pride, lewdness, and parsimony).4 In fact, many critics have read Arnim's sexually charged Golem Bella as a critique of Romantic desire, a testimony to the legend's departure from rabbinic quarters.5 Heinrich Heine's analysis of Arnim's novel in his influential OL· romantische SchuL· (The Romantic School) undoubtedly also contributed to the Golem's increasing popularity.6 By the middle of the century, the Golem had become folded into a larger set of Romantic motifs that included the doppelgänger, galvanization, Faustian sorcery, and various automata including, most famously, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's monster.7 Succumbing to the Romantic appetite for all things legendary, the ancient rabbinic story of man's mystical simulation of the divine creation becomes a trope of mutability. Like the piece of clay from which he is created, the literary Golem can be shaped and molded to resemble any form, from the spectral figures in Annette von Droste-Hiilshoff's poetry to Leopold Kompert's nostalgic project and finally to Yudl Rosenberg's great protector of the Jewish people at the turn of the twentieth century. …

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