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The Golem Legend from I.L. Peretz to Pokémon Go and Everything in Between

Jan. 10 2017

Originating in the 17th century, the standard form of the golem legend has the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (better known as the Maharal) using his kabalistic powers to animate a sort of primitive robot to protect Jews from Christian violence. The story gained popularity when it began cropping up in 19th- and early-20th-century literature and film and has recently experienced yet another revival. Reviewing some recent examples of the form, Michael Weingrad compares them with their predecessors and seeks to explain the legend’s hold on the Jewish and non-Jewish imagination:

One reason for the attraction of the golem is that it has served as a charged metaphor for Jews and Judaism themselves, reflecting the biases of Christian writers who first took this obscure story and popularized it in the course of the 1800s as well as attempts by later artists, Jewish and Christian alike, to reframe the figure in more positive terms.

Golems, after all, are ugly, crude, lumbering clods of earth. They are of limited utility, cannot think for themselves or can do so only in the most literal-minded fashion, and must not be allowed to get out of hand. They are, in short, a classically negative Christian imagining of Judaism itself: unlovely, slightly threatening, and hopelessly literal and earthbound. The golem is a perfectly Pauline figure for Judaism as crude and unimaginative materialism, the dominance of the letter (in this case, the Hebrew letters famously inscribed on the golem’s brow) over the spirit. . . .

A second factor in the popularity of the golem is its use as a figure for meditations on Jewish power, violence, and vengeance. The theme of the golem as a malfunctioning household servant dates from the 17th century; by the end of the 19th century, the golem becomes the protector of the Jews against Christian violence, a protector that sometimes grows so indiscriminately violent that it must be destroyed by those whom it protects. In 1893 [the Yiddish writer] I.L. Peretz penned a brilliantly satirical version of the golem story in which the golem successfully defends the Jews of Prague from being massacred by their Christian neighbors. Peretz’s Jews then plead with their rabbi to deactivate the golem since if it continues its rampage “there won’t be any Gentiles left to heat the Sabbath ovens or to take down the Sabbath lamps.” Committed to the status quo of diasporic powerlessness, the Jews allow the golem to be locked away in the synagogue attic under cobwebs—a symbol of dormant Jewish vitality.

By contrast, in a number of 20th-century American iterations the golem is a figure for what Peretz in his own time was satirizing: Jewish discomfort with violence. From Marvel comics to Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the golem becomes a figure for Jewish vengeance against Nazis, about which the stories express deep ambivalence.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Arts & Culture, Golem, I.L. Peretz, Jewish literature, Maharal, Science fiction

Putting Aside the Pious Lies about the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

Jan. 23 2018

In light of recent developments, including Mahmoud Abbas’s unusually frank speech to the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s leadership, Moshe Arens advocates jettisoning some frequently mouthed but clearly false assumptions about Israel’s situation, beginning with the idea that the U.S. should act as a neutral party in negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah. (Free registration may be required.)

The United States cannot be, and has never been, neutral in mediating the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is the leader of the world’s democratic community of nations and cannot assume a neutral position between democratic Israel and the Palestinians, whether represented by an autocratic leadership that glorifies acts of terror or by Islamic fundamentalists who carry out acts of terror. . . .

In recent years the tectonic shifts in the Arab world, the lower price of oil, and the decreased importance attached to the Palestinian issue in much of the region, have essentially removed the main incentive the United States had in past years to stay involved in the conflict. . . .

Despite the conventional wisdom that the core issues—such as Jerusalem or the fate of Israeli settlements beyond the 1949 armistice lines—are the major stumbling blocks to an agreement, the issue for which there seems to be no solution in sight at the moment is making sure that any Israeli military withdrawal will not result in rockets being launched against Israel’s population centers from areas that are turned over to the Palestinians. . . .

Does that mean that Israel is left with a choice between a state with a Palestinian majority or an apartheid state, as claimed by Israel’s left? This imaginary dilemma is based on a deterministic theory of history, which disregards all other possible alternatives in the years to come, and on questionable demographic predictions. What the left is really saying is this: better rockets on Tel Aviv than a continuation of Israeli military control over Judea and Samaria. There is little support in Israel for that view.

Read more at Haaretz

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Mahmoud Abbas, Peace Process, US-Israel relations