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

Israel Has Survived Eight Years of Barack Obama’s False Friendship

Jan. 20 2017

In his speech justifying America’s decision to allow passage of the UN Security Council resolution declaring it a violation of international law for Jews to live in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “friends need to tell each other the hard truths.” John Podhoretz comments:

The decision in December by President Obama to abstain on the UN Security Council vote . . . marked the moment he crossed the finish line in the course he had charted from 2008 onward. The turn against Israel was complete. And, as he had when he began it, in farewell interview after farewell interview he characterized his assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as an act of tough love. . . .

Which raises the key question: why [only] abstain [from the resolution]? If “hard truths” define friendship, then by all means they should have made the truths as hard as possible. If Barack Obama and John Kerry truly believe the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem is illicit, then they should have voted for the resolution. Instead, they took the coward’s way out. They opened the vault to the criminals and placed the jewels in their hands while wearing white gloves so there would be no residual trace of their fingerprints. The abstention was in some weird sense the mark of their bad conscience. They wanted something to happen while maintaining some historical deniability about their involvement in it.

In the eight years of the Obama presidency, war broke out twice between the Palestinians and the Israelis and nearly broke out a third time. In each case, the issue was not the West Bank, or east Jerusalem, or anything near. . . . The idea that the settlements and the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem are the main barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians was proved to be a lie right before Obama’s eyes in 2009, and 2012, and 2014. And he didn’t care to see it, because he is blinded by an antipathy he wishes to ascribe to Israeli action when honesty would compel him to find it in his own misguided leftist ideology—or within his own soul.

Israel has survived the horrendous blessing of Barack Obama’s false friendship.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Barack Obama, Israel & Zionism, John Kerry, U.S. Foreign policy, US-Israel relations