Since at least the 19th Century, golems have lived in the streets and minds of New York City. They appeared in great pastiches of the Jewish traditions of detective stories about Daniel exposing the fraudulent idols, rabbis as demon hunters, and golem protecting the chosen people.
Jewish legend records that mystical rabbis were able to create large robot-like creatures called golem to help with chores and rescue missions for the Jewish people. The story has inspired millions through the ages.
Katz’s Deli claims that a peace officer spotted a golem stuffing himself in their eatery in 1897. One writer imagines golems as writers living on the Upper West Side. Another, Cynthia Ozick even charts out how a golem named Xanthippe could manage a winning campaign for mayor. Last year, Joe Golem started hunting down witches in a graphic novel. In the East Village some artists make fetishes (“bewitchers”) which they call “golem.”
The foundation stone for golem-makers is Psalm 139:15-16 which states: “My bone was not hidden from Thee, when I was made in secret, and formed in the lowest part of the earth. Thy eyes did see my golem; for in Thy book all things are written: the days also in which they are to be fashioned and for it too there was one of them.” (The Hebrew Scriptures, transl. by Harold Fisch, Jerusalem, 1969) Golem in this singular Biblical usage means something like the unformed substance that was shaped into Adam and Eve.
The golem-makers believed that they could use this material to make artificial manlike creatures enlivened through Jewish mystical-magical techniques, particularly through the recitation of special combinations of the Jewish alphabet or of the letters of God's name. Commonly, emet (truth) was written on the forehead on a slip of paper which was then placed into the mouth of the golem. The golem could then be destroyed by erasing "e" leaving met, a word close to mot, meaning death. Sometimes, a Star of David was put on the chest. At least part of the golem tradition also fell within the idol-making practices of the ancient Near East.
One characteristic of idolatry is the blurring of the distinctions of existence. Preeminently, God is mixed with not-God. Jewish writers have discussed whether golem-making confuses not-God with God in two ways: the golem takes on divine or messianic characteristics; and the creator of golems identifies himself or herself with God.
Moshe Idel (in Golem: the artificial man in Jewish mysticism, 1989) and Jacob Neusner (in The wonder-working lawyers of Talmudic Babylonia, 1987) point out that this tradition originated in the interaction with the ancient Near Eastern practices of enlivening statues into idols. Consequently, golem-making was a suspect religious activity. Was it a legitimate technology or a demonically related type of magic?
Long before Hollywood became a factory for seductive images, religious people were debating whether they could or should make images with divine powers. Does grasping for divine powers mean Wizard of Oz fakery or opening doorways to demons?
Golem-making also flowed along with a magical tradition started by Hermes Trismegistus (perhaps of Egypt and who was called a god, prophet, wise man or a school of wise men). Hermes was most noted for his book on how to incantate idols. However, many believed that the writings associated with him were more like guides for craftsmanship in making things than some sort of evil witchcraft with dark forces. By the early Christian period Hermetic philosophers taught alchemy, astrology and magic.
At about the same time in the 4th to the 6th Century AD/CE Jewish writers of the Talmud and the mystical Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah) developed the idea that humans like God could create a human-like being, a living golem, though it did not have a speaking ability or a soul.
The chief stream of golem-making were the teachers of the Kabbalah. In Kabbalah mysticism special knowledge with its magical power and mystical experiences were allegedly available to initiates.
Kabbalists believed that the golem were a creative result of cracking of the secret divine name code found in Creation. According to Kabbalistic tradition, the mystery of creation is contained in the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the various names of God. If one can discover the exact pattern of letters God used in making Creation, then one can recreate like God. Kabbalists believed that golem were allegedly the product of one such code-breaking. In c1200 Germany a technique for creating a golem involved the spreading of dust in which the three letters spelling adam (man) were written followed by the recitation of the letters.
The creators of golem recognized that the golem were soulless non-humans. However, in some respects the line between human, golem and God was not clear. Like Adam and Eve’s creation by God, the golem-maker created the golem out of the earth, and the golem looked, acted and felt similar to humans. One great Jewish scholar, Rabbi Zvi Askenzai, asked whether the quorum requirement of ten men for worship could include a golem. Although his answer to the question was “No,” the line between man and golem was at least questionable.
The debate about whether golem-making was illegitimate idol- or magic-making paralleled debates about the Hermetic tradition. Some like the Christian monk and philosopher Roger Bacon (1214-1294) distinguished between white (alchemy) and black magic. Along with other medieval Europeans, Bacon was fascinated with newly received Egyptian texts about animating objects. The technologies intertwined with an interest with mechanical devices.
Europeans were fascinated with fresh knowledge about how to make Greek and Arabic mechanically-driven "automata" of real beings like birds drinking from a wine fountain or singing. Three-dimensional objects that moved also attracted imaginative speculation that built upon the stories of enlivened statues associated with Vulcan, Pygmalion and the Golem. Automata became a common feature in medieval romances creating a veritable medieval science fiction genre with its fascination with reanimated humans and robots. However, when he allegedly made his talking head, Bacon thought he was doing science, not black magic or idol-making. (This apocryphal story became part of the golem tradition of animating material substance into human forms.)
Gershom Scholem suggests that the same influx of Arabic ideas about enlivening statutes influenced the development of ideas about golem. The debates among Jews were similar to those that took place in the monasteries. A little-known physician and Kabbalist Abraham Yagel, who lived in northern Italy during the late sixteenth century, asked, “Did golem-making constitute a form of witchcraft or of magic?” According to Jewish Museum curator Emily Bilski, Yagel concluded that it was “’natural,’ i.e., a form of technology, and did not involve demonic powers.”
In the catalogue for the Jewish Museum 1988 exhibit, “Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art,” Isaac Bashevis Singer observed that the creative minds were intrigued by the golem legend because “It possesses the tension and the suspense of the supernatural. It is based on a Faith...that dead matter is not really dead but can be brought to life.” The golem represented humans being able to invoke divine powers to resurrect the dead. Ancient idol-makers too had believed that they could breathe life into their creations. (Jeremiah 10:14, 51:17, Habakkuk 2:19)
The most famous Jewish story of the making of a golem is the legend of Rabbi Loew (also called Liva or Levy). In 16th Century Prague the story is that Rabbi Loew, a Talmudic scholar, renowned Kabbalist and dabbler in science, fashioned and incantated a golem out of clay as a helper and protector of the Jews. The golem had the Hebrew emet (truth) on him and could be dissolved by erasing the "e" leaving met (death). The dissolution of the golem was required because the golem would gradually go out of control and become destructive. The golem story percolated through the cities of Europe.
In the period just before the Revolution in 1791, the French were fascinated and disquieted by a rage to create human beings. Popular stories abounding about secret Jewish efforts to create golem fed an Enlightenment conceit that they were on the brink of discovering the secret of life and a political golden age. For example, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac promoted his empiricist psychology through an extended examination of how sensations could turn an inert statue-man into a living human being with rational consciousness.
In the 19th Century the golem story was put into print and influenced mainstream literature. Some scholars point to an influence of golem ideas on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus which was published in 1818. The monster refers to himself in golem like terms as “the Adam of your labors” who is instead “your fallen angel.” Perhaps, Goethe’s Faust, written between 1808 and 1832, was also inspired by the golem stories. In the late 19th Century the golem legend landed in New York City through Yiddish literature and theater.
In the 20th Century the golem legends were collected and elaborated to include claims that Rabbi Loew incanted the golem to defend Jews against persecution because of charges of sprinkling children’s blood in the matzoh. Paul Wegener used an expressionist sensibility to make “The Golem” (1915) and “The Golem and the Dancer” (1917). Until recently both of these films were lost. In 1920 he made his classic silent film on the same themes, also called “The Golem.” In 1920 Karel Chapek was inspired by the golem idea to invent the word "robot" for his R.U.R. Rossum's Universal Robots, a satirical look at soldiers "made" by the state, dandies "made" by their clothes, scarecrows, people "repaired" with prosthetic devices and the fantastic worlds of the cubist and futurist artists.
In 1921 H. Leivick wrote an operatic The Golem. A dramatic poem in eight scenes. To him the Russian Communist Revolution had turned out to be a golem run amuck. Rather than saving the Jewish people, the Communist Party was killing its own supporters like an out of control golem that turns on its creator. Jacob Talmon called this out-of-control ideology “political messianism.” Leivick turned away from mass movements and totalitarian ideology to a heroic but somber invidualism. He found a fellow sufferer in Jesus.
He contemplated how the crowd idolized and then turned on Jesus to crucify him. Afterwards, his followers forgot about the man and his values. In a poem called “He” Leivick imagined that Jesus had visited him during a pogrom.
“The Nazarene himself, as a man of suffering, attracted me,” Leivick wrote. Jesus endured the persecutions of his opponents, the temptations of the flesh, the manipulations of his disciples and the greed of his followers. Perhaps in a shot at the Roman Catholic Church, Leivick wrote of Mary’s lustfulness for her son. “I saw him simply a prisoner…I am excessively pained by the figure of Jesus Christ. He is to me the expression of all who find salvation through pain.” The poem recounts:
He walks into my place, an unexpected guest
Sits down and says:
They’ve built temples for me –
But isn’t the cellar my true home?
They’ve adorned my forehead with diamonds –
But aren’t thorns my true reward?
Leivick was not the only author who used the golem story to criticize out of control social movements of the day. In 1927 Wegener’s cinematographer Karl Freund brought his skills in making “The Golem” to help Fritz Lang to make the legendary cry against mechanization “Metropolis” in which Rotwang the sorcerer creates a mad robot that wreaks havoc in the city.
In 1937 J.R.R. Tolkien introduced “Gollum” in The Hobbit. One wonders if the Gollum/Smeagol character in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. At present there is little evidence that Tolkien was alluding to golem with his Gollum, through the current Tolkien research is remarkably sparse on Gollum when compared to other figures in the Tolkien corpus. In his desperate desire to possess and use the ring of power, Smeagol turned into his evil doppelganger Gollum. In his psychological interpretation Robert believes that in the 1945 book That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis alludes to the golem of Psalm 139:15-16 when describing the impoverished state of the relations among human beings. Ransom, the hero, explains to Merlin about the strange sexual behavior of man in the moon: “There when a man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place. “
As he worked on That Hideous Strength Lewis had regular discussions with his good friend Tolkien, and one can imagine that Tolkien would see the connection between golem and his Gollum. Tolkien not only had read the folk tale collections that included the golem story but also knew enough Hebrew to appreciate the meanings in the Biblical text that mentions the golem.
Leivick fled to New York City where he lived for most of his life. With Leivick the golem tradition took firm foothold in the city.
In the 1940s Jewish artists and writers created superheroes in the image of golem who could defend the free world. Marvel Comics writer and artist Frank Miller told Stan Lee and Danny Fingeroth that he believes that “All of the major superheroes throughout the 1940s were created by the Jews [during a] time of persecution. ... Superman was a golem.” The golem idea kept being revived in New York by retellings of the original legends and recasting it into modern forms.
In 1962 New Yorkers got a taste of the golem tales of the bygone era of great Yiddish theater when the great playwright Abraham Ellstein and his wife Sylvia Regan put on their “The Golem” at the NYC Center Opera.
In a 1972 comic book Lex Luthor created “Galactic Golem” to fight Superman. In 1974, Marvel produced a series called “Strange Tales” that included a story centering on a version of Rabbi Loew's golem of Prague.
By the 1980s retellings of the golem story are almost prolific. In 1983 Elie Wiesel published The Golem with Mark Podwal's illustrations. In Wiesel’s telling Rabbi Loew had made the golem to save the Jews from persecution. But in one pen and ink drawing Podwal hints at the failure of the golem. He illustrates a river with a silhouetted cross on a distant bridge. The story recounts that as punishment the Jews of Prague were forced to erect upon the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River a cross of gold bearing the symbols for "Holy, Holy, Holy." The golem is underneath struggling or fleeing as if vanquished. The style combines motifs similar to Masaccio’s painting showing "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" 1427-1428) and to a drawing by Bedrieh Lederer, who was forced to work for the Nazis at the Museum of Extinct Races. In Lederer’s depiction "Golem in Prague, 1943" the faceless golem is fleeing. The imagery strikes a pathetic scene of two messiahs: the vanquished golem; and the murdered Jesus.
The following year Joseph Papp promoted a revival of Leivick’s “The Golem” at the New York Shakespeare Festival with Randy Quaid as the golem. By the 1980s Cynthia Ozick’s sophisticated stories of false messiahs stalking the streets, golem run amok and idols turning on their masters emerge as a literary force. There were also a number of children stories featuring golem.
For example, David Gantz created Davey's Hanukkah Golem in 1991. Gantz imagines a young Davey riding his scooter around his New York City neighborhood the day after his grandfather tells him about the golem. He feared that some boys were going to beat him but so he darts into a cave to scrape clay from its walls to make a tiny golem for protection.
In 1997 Cynthia Ozick explored the pathetic utopian aspirations of golem-making in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” a story that she dedicated to Mark Podwal. The golem's creator, Puttermesser, bitterly discovers, "Too Much Paradise is Greed." Ozick uses the idea of the golem as the doppelganger of its creator to reflect on failure, bitterness and blind hope. A failure in love and in work as a faceless city bureaucrat, Puttermesser creates a golem, named Xanthippe, from the soil of the potted plants in her apartment. Xanthippe proceeds to manage Puttermesser’s winning campaign to become mayor of New York City. But Puttermesser won’t control the golem’s irresponsible use of city administrators as sexual toys. Losing her grip, the mayor gets kicked out of office into the streets, is raped and ends up with a pathetic life.
Contemporary artists started using the golem to explore the relation of the artist and his or her art. The exploration typically portrayed the artist as trying to become like God or at least so closely identified with God in a mystical way as to almost be God. In 1980 Jules Kirschenbaum from Brooklyn made a "Dream of Golem" which portrays a golem-maker preparing to incant or dream together bones, skull parts and other odds and ends into a man. He provided a caption from Jorge Luis Borges which read, "The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man, he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality." Kirschenbaum added to the caption “eyn sof,” which means “without end,” a name of God.
Also in Gotham City since 2001, the Golem band has been turning klezmer music into punk rock about fresh off the boat drunks picking the pockets of hipsters, and in 2002 Thane Rosenbaum identified The Golems of Gotham as writers on the Upper West Side.
Golem feature prominently in current steampunk, supernatural fantasies, and video games. The television series “Supernatural” just ran an episode, “Everyone Hates Hitler,” that featured a giant Golem and a purported rabbi who team up with two brothers to hunt demons, ghosts, and monsters. Waiting in the wings is a golem video game. However, neither of these two golem items involve the original American home of the golem New York City. That privilege has been taken by the 2012 steampunk novel Joe Golem and the Drowning City illustrated by the creator of Hell Boy.
Like all steampunk works, Joe Golem appears in the past, after a 1925 flooding of Lower Manhattan. The rich have moved uptown leaving the Wall Street area as a wet, dangerous ghetto called “Drowning City.” “Gas-men” are sent by an evil doctor to snatch people off the streets of the dark ghetto. Detective Simon Church and his sidekick Joe Golem travel the ghetto looking for clues to uncover the whereabouts of the evil doctor. Golem is an enormous, rough-hewn character clad in snazzy 1930s tough-guy suits. Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden have also produced a prequel short story entitled Joe Golem and the Copper Girl.
Also last year, the Jewish Tablet Magazine ran a serialized comic called “The Modern Golem” by Liana Finck. She placed the golem and Rabbi Loew on the streets of modern-day New York City at
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City Fashion Week, and the New York Public Library. The golem was able to get a job as a fact checker for The New Yorker. It appears that the golem’s solution to the New Yorker’s fact-checking problems was to destroy the books in its library by eating them. Watch out at 4 Times Square: golem out of control!