Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the teen author of Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus, may have been introduced to Jewish folklore’s mighty golem by her cosmopolitan fiance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or their globe-trotting pal, Lord Byron. “I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva,” she recalled in the original text’s preface. “The season was cold and rainy and in the evenings we crowded a blazing fire and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts.”
On that dark and stormy night, Byron challenged everyone to write a horror story, and the precocious Shelley accepted the rock star’s dare. That same evening she experienced a life-altering night-mare: “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life.” Franken-stein, published two years later, went on to become one of the most iconic horror novels of all time, standing tall beside Dracula and The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll&Mr. Hyde.
Although the golem is anything but a German ghost, Shelley had to be acquainted with The Talmud’s original and unrivaled man of clay. Indeed, The Golem of Prague narra-tive was collected by the Brothers Grimm and made public to gentile readers in 1810, six years before Frankenstein’s publication. But since the Grimms introduced an ancient, segregated culture’s Super Mensche to the Christian world, The Golem of Prague never did become a timeless, family classic, like Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps the surreal socio-political narrative frightened away editors, authors, and audiences, but its’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice motif was appealing enough to keep our golem alive through centuries of Diaspora.
The Grimms also collected another folktale, The Jew Among Thorns, but it is hardly worth mentioning such an arcane story unless you are studying antisemitism in European Folklore. Interestingly enough, the golem’s earliest mention is in Psalm 39:16 written around the fifth century BCE. The text says: “Your eyes saw my unformed limbs,” translated from golmi ra’u enecha. This particular phrase may have been uttered by Adam, the first human, and the Hebrew word “golem” (Heb.) literally means “unfinished substance.” The psalmist, be it Moses, David or Solomon, wasn’t speaking about the Hammer of G-d we all know and love, but it was his linguistic formulation. The Babylonian Talmud, written 200-500 CE, also accounts for G-d’s creation of Adam as a golem.
You probably know the story. or one of its’ many variants. After experiencing a G-d given dream warning of a pogrom, the Maharal, or 15th-century Prague Rabbi R. Yehuda Loevy ben Bezalel, creates a supernatural creature through Kabbalah to protect his ghetto congregation from an infamous “blood accusation.” Centuries before Victor Frankenstein loses control of his creature, not a few rebbes had already commit-ted such hubris.
Sure, it’s a great story full of mysticism, darkness, and action, but is it still “too Jewish” to become a universal classic? That didn’t stop Mary Shelley from “borrowing” the idea and creating an innocent (originally), nine-foot-tall, French-speaking, vegetarian, trans-human with the strength of twenty men.
Modern writers, such as Helen Weckler and Cynthia Ozick (The Puttermesser Papers), have invented female golems, and endowed them with gifts of speech and sexual pleasure. Sulamith Ish-Kishor’s The Master of Miracle, set in medieval Spain, is an excellent golem variant, as is Barri Wood’s The Tribe, 1981, a modern retelling set mostly in NYC among death camp survivors.
Perhaps the public would have been more accepting of the sublime clay man had Isaac Bashevis Singer been around before the Bros. Grimm. His classic variant, The Golem, 1979, is the most lyrical of the many golem versions available from Beverly Brodsky McDermott’s masterful picture book, The Golem of Prague, 1976, to David Wisniew-ski’s 1997 Caldecott Award-winning Golem, to the imaginative pairing of Helen Weck-ler’s uncanny 2013 novel, The Golem and The Jinni.
The finest Golem overview available today has to be Gershon Winkler’s The Golem of Prague, 1980, Judaica Press. It’s indispensable if you are making a study of Judaica’s mighty golem. The golem has been available to us in cinema and tv, for some time, but that’s yet another story. So where’s Disney with an animated, musical golem, since they’ve become so inclusive?