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From the Archives: Excerpts from past issues of the

Starship Express

Volume 3, Numbers 5 & 6, 1989

The Golem: An Introduction

By Mark Leeper



(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Club Notice of the Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society, Volume 7, Number 26. It is reprinted with permission. "The Golem: An Introduction" Copyright © 1985 Mark R Leeper.

It was reprinted with permission in The Starship Express Copyright © 1989 Philip J De Parto (Volume 3, Numbers 5 & 6).



Back when I was ten or eleven years old I used to get monster movie bubble gum cards. They usually had familiar stills from monster movies. One, however, puzzled me a bit. It looked like a human-shaped furnace with glowing eyes and a disproportionately big fist. It was labeled simply "The Golem." There was no explanation as to what the Golem was. Since I usually recognized what was on these cards, I filed in the back of my mind that there is something called a "Golem" that I wanted to know more about. It didn't occur to me to look in a dictionary any more than it would to look up "Godzilla." Dictionaries never have the really interesting words!

A month or so later my parents were going to a Yiddish play put on at the Jewish Community Center. It was called The Golem, and was written by H Leivik. Now I knew darn well that my mother did not go to plays about monstrers that looked like human-shaped furnaces with glowing eyes and disproportionately big fists. She saw Bride of Frankenstein when she was growing up and decided on the spot that any story with a monster was stupid. It had to just be a coincidence of name?" right? Well, my parents came back from the play and told me I would have liked the story . . . "it was weird." It was about a rabbi who made a man out of clay. At this point I realized that the bubble gum card and the play were somehow related, and even more surprisingly, the monster was somehow a Jewish monster.

I did some research into Golems and discovered that they are indeed creatures of Jewish folklore that have been the subject of monster movies. (Incidentally, there turned out to be one other traditional Jewish monster, a dybbuk. It is a possessing spirit, not too unlike the one in The Exorcist.)

There are apparently several Golem stories in Jewish folklore, but I have found nothing but fleeting references to any Golem legend other that The Golem of Prague.

The story is set in Prague in the 16th Century. The Jewish community is threatened by blood-libels--claims that they were murdering Christian children and using their blood to make matzoh. (Actually, Jewish law strictly forbids the consumption of any blood at all.) A Christian who murdered a child and planted it in a Jew's house could report the Jew. The Jew would be executed and his property would be split between the Christian who reported him and the government. Clearly, the ghetto needed a very good watchman.

Rabbi Judah Loew used information from the Kabalah--the central book of Jewish mysticism--to learn the formula by which God first made man out of clay, and with the help of two other pious men built a man out of clay and brought hm to life. The final step of this process was to place God's secret name on a parchment and place it in the forehead of the Golem.

Loew's Golem was between 7-1/2 and 9 feet tall and had tremendous strength, but had a very placid and passive diposition when not under orders to act otherwise. He also lacked the one faculty that only God can give, the power of speech. Because this giant was passive and mute, people in the ghetto assumed he was half-witted and the word "golem" has come to mean "idiot."

One story about the early days of this Golem was probably the inspiration for The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The Golem was told to fetch water, but not told how much. The result was a minor flood. This tendency to do what he was told to do, not what he was expected to do, has endeared the Golem story to computer scientists like Norbert Wiener. It may also be part of the basis of Asimov's robot stories.

At night the Golem guarded the ghetto, catching all would-be libelists red-handed. He single-handedly ended the possibility of successfull blood-libelling the Jewish community. Loew then got the Emperor to end the practice of letting blood-libelers profit from their actions. When the Golem was no longer needed, Loew removed the parchment, returning the Golem to being a statue, and the statue was laid to rest in the attic of the synagogue.

A popular variation on the story has the Golem revel and become an uncontrolled monster before being stopped and returned to clay. It has been speculated that Mary Shelley paterened Frankenstein on this story.

The Golem has appeared several times on the screen, though only once in an English-language film. The first cinematic appearance was in Der Golem (1914) with Paul Wegener in the title role. This story deals with the modern story and re-animation of the Golem. This was apparently a lost film until it was found again in 1958. It still is almost never seen.

Wegener returned to the role in a second German film, also called Der Golem (1920). This film is loosely based on The Golem of Prague. The Jews are portrayed as being weird magicians who live in a strange expressionistic ghetto. In fact, the early parts of the film seems to presage the anti-Semitism that was soon to engulf Germany. One of the most interesting touches of the film is the subplot of Prince Florian. The beautiful Prince Florian wants to save the rabbi's daughter from the destruction that is to come to the Jews. However, Florian is so unctuous and disgusting that when he is killed by the Golem, the viewer is more relieved thatn shocked, and perhaps that is just what was intended. In any case, the Golem is able to avert the destruction of the Jewish community. Then the Golem's own love for the rabbi's daughter is denied and he becomes a dangerous monster only to be destroyed by a child's hand. The rabbi then praises God for twice saving the Jews of the ghetto.

Wegener may also have made a lesser known German film, The Golem and the Dancer, in 1917. The actual existence of this film has never been established. A French-Czech film called The Golem was made in 1935. Harry Baur starred in the story which was done much in the style of a Universal horror film. Thge story deals with another tyrannical attempt to destroy Jews. Through much of the flim, the rediscovered Golem remains chained in a tyrant's dungeon. Just when things are at their blackest, the Golem comes to life and destroys everything, once again saving the Jews.

A number of Czech comedies have been about the Golem, including The Golem and the Emperor's Baker (1951). In this, the Golem ends up as an oven for the baker.

The only English-language Golem film I know of is a British cheapie called It! (1967) with Roddy McDowell. A psychotic museum curator who lives with the corpse of his mother acquires the Golem of Prague and uses it for his own purposes. In the end, the Golem survives a nuclear blast that kills his master and he quietly walks into the sea.



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