Jewish Word | GolemA Mutable Monster
Last September, during the final dramatic months of the U.S. presidential election, an exhibit on the golem opened at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Improbably, among the works of art and historic artifacts, the show included a baseball cap from the Trump presidential campaign stamped with the words, “Make America Great Again.” The caption quoted a 2015 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news article referring to the then-candidate as a golem “that grew uncontrollable and threatened the entire universe.”
Martina Lüdicke, one of the exhibit curators, explains that the Trump hat was included to show that “each generation recreates the golem as a reflection of what’s happening at that time.” In Jewish folklore, a golem is a powerful but erratic humanoid formed from earth and brought to life through Kabbalistic magic; while the golem is often created with good intentions, or even to save the Jews, ultimately it runs amok and must be destroyed.
Indeed, much like the amorphous clay from which it is usually formed, the golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both. Over the centuries it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope and despair.
Despite the meanings the golem has acquired over the years, its origins are fairly simple. The Hebrew word galmi, meaning an “unformed mass,” first appears in Psalm 139:16. In a later midrash about human creation, Adam is said to have been a golem, a body without a soul, until the fourth hour of his existence when God breathed life into him. Although the concept of a golem as a creature artificially brought to life goes back to the Talmud, the term doesn’t come into common usage until much later. A 13th-century manuscript by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms, an early German Kabbalist, gives detailed instructions for how to create a golem; by the end of that century, summoning golems was a common part of Kabbalistic practice.
Golems were mostly male, though the occasional appearance of she-golems casts an intriguing light on gender roles of the time. The Andalusian poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol supposedly created a golem maidservant to cook his meals and keep house for him. The 16th-century mystical text Shnei Luhot Ha-Brit by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz tells of the creation of a “beautifully silent” female golem—a golem quasi-concubine—for sexual relations. When accused of lewdness, Rabbi Horowitz defended himself by saying that since golems are “not born from men’s semen or grown in a woman’s womb, sex with a golem is not a sin.”
Golems are not solely about good times; there is a darker side to the tradition. With the rise of anti-Semitism in the late Renaissance period and greater dissension within Jewish communities, a dramatic new element emerges—danger. For the first time, the golem is no longer simply a passive servant laboring for its master but a threatening and ominous figure. The most famous golem tale of this type is about Rabbi Judah Loew, the great 16th-century Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar of Prague, who creates a golem to defend the Jewish community against Christian attacks. The golem saves the day, but the story’s end reflects Jewish insecurities about power: Loew loses control of the monster and must destroy it. In one version, the golem turns back to mud and falls on the rabbi, killing him.
Monsters “mirror the anxieties and fears of society, emerging more vigorously…when cultural stresses are keenest,” argues University of Glasgow Jewish Studies professor Mia Spiro. You can see this vividly with the golem. In the years between the two world wars, as Europeans grappled with massive political and social upheaval, golems turned up in both Jewish and non-Jewish fiction. One of the latter, German filmmaker Paul Wegener’s enormously popular 1920 horror film, The Golem: How He Came into the World, reinterpreted the Rabbi Loew story in ways that mirrored the distress that afflicted postwar Germany. The film’s Jewish golem is a threatening figure reflecting Wegener’s apprehension about Jews.
In sharp contrast, Jewish poet H. Leivick’s 1921 Yiddish play Der Goylem articulates Jewish anxieties about persecution. Where Wegener’s golem is heartless and mechanical, Leivick’s golem is needy, fearful of being alone and powerless to save the Jewish people. The golem—who is given the name Yossi by his creator—ultimately loses his mind, suggesting that madness is an appropriate response to the insanity of the times. In a line that took on new poignancy after the Holocaust, the play ends with the golem plaintively crying out, “Who will save us?”
With the founding of the State of Israel, Jews recast the golem as any enemy of the Jews. In June of 1948, at the ceremony swearing in the first group of IDF soldiers, Moshe Sharett, foreign minister for the provisional government, referred to the Arab League as a golem created by the British. The Hebrew language press appropriated the term to describe both Arabs and Germans: Israeli journalist Hillel Danzil, in the daily newspaper Davar, wrote that “the Arab golem” was a “reincarnation of the prior Nazi monster.” Soon after, Der Goylem returned to the stage, this time reinterpreted as an urgent call for the use of Jewish physical force. Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch argues, “The golem story addresses our post-Holocaust fear of insecurity, our Zionist admiration of and guilt about strength, and our 21st-century obsession with technology and the ways it can go awry.”
The golem remains with us, still shape-shifting in form and meaning. In recent decades, it has popped up in a range of popular media, from Superman comic books to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglourious Basterds. James Sturm, creator of the popular graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing, believes that the golem continues to resonate with artists and writers because the story mimics the artistic process: “You create a work of art and then it takes on a life of its own.” And the golem’s allegiance is still mutable. These days, golems are portrayed both as allies of Jews and as their enemies, entities to be embraced or overcome. Even Israel itself has been called a golem. A 2002 New York revival of Der Goylem staged the play in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip against the backdrop of the second intifada. In her New York Times review of the production, theater critic Alisa Solomon wrote, “Has the militarily mighty Jewish state become a golem for the 21st century, promising protection but leading to peril?”
Although such comparisons remain rare, for Jews and non-Jews the golem serves as a concept uniquely suited to expressing the fears and insecurities of the modern era. As Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in 1984, “The golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed one hundred years ago. After all, what are the computers and robots of our times if not golems?”