My mother always told us she could do magic. And though my sisters and I were modern children of the ’70s, brought up by this very same mother to be lefties and intellectuals, we believed her – all the way into early adulthood. She was that powerful a figure to us.
She said her beloved bubbe and zaide had taught her the potent, sometimes scary elements of Jewish magic – part of the “folk Kabbalah,” I would later learn – that allowed her to predict the future, interpret dreams, and – did she actually say this, or was it extrapolated by me as a frightened five-year-old listening? – manipulate the world to her liking.
As an older child, I once boldly asked her to teach me “the signs” she mentioned so often, by which she could read the future. She refused, saying “Once you know them, you’ll see them everywhere, and it will terrify you.” I couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than her warning.
Still, part of me was incredibly intrigued. “Magic” was the thing I myself most wanted to do from an early age, and J. R. R. Tolkien became my favorite writer at the age of nine (and remains my favorite today). Fantasy and sword-and-sorcery were among the genres I loved the most, but I had never heard of any Jewish sorcerers or magicians until my mother mentioned them. Continue reading
I’m a nonobservant Jew, except for going to a seder every time I’m invited and vaguely wishing I did more to celebrate Purim because I love its spirit of play and rebellion. In my writing life, I’ve identified much more as a lesbian than a Jew. My own religious feelings tend toward pagan or atheist, and living in New York my entire life, I’ve encountered much less overt anti-Semitism than I have homophobia. So why did I wind up writing my memoir, Growing Up Golem, with the fabulist premise that instead of giving birth to me, my mother had actually used magic from Kabbalah to create me as her own personal golem?
One reason is that my parents’ lives were extraordinarily affected by anti-Semitism. As American Jewish children during the Holocaust, they grew up with the terror that they themselves would almost certainly have been killed, had they but lived in Europe. My mother quite frequently mentioned her lifelong consciousness of this fact to me. And my parents’ fears were hardly confined to the hypothetical. My father, growing up in the Bronx in the ’30s and ’40s, was beaten up every Halloween by young toughs in his neighborhood because he was Jewish. Later, drafted into the Army and stationed in Germany during the Korean War, he was so viciously Jew-baited by his own sergeant that he actually attacked the man and was put in the stockade (and, probably more damaging, given a less-than-honorable discharge).
My mother was raised largely by her grandmother and grandfather, immigrants from Romania and Austria respectively, who educated my mom in the folk Kabbalistic tradition as a young child (I know the young are not supposed to be taught Kabbalah, but my mother very definitely was), and encouraged her to study Jewish philosophy, at a time almost no girls were. As adults, my parents were both fierce about fighting to preserve Jewish identity, their own, mine, and everybody else’s: “You’re a Jew if Hitler would have killed you for being a Jew,” my mother would say bluntly.
I was sent to yeshiva for the first three grades of school, by parents who wanted me to have a strong foundation in Judaism, despite the fact that they themselves were almost entirely secular.
It worked. I’m a would-be radical writer of 49, but the stories that have the most emotional relevance for me, in the whole of human history, are the Hebrew Bible stories I learned before the age of eight:
Samson, a man of superhuman strength, betrayed by the woman he loves until the Philistines gouge out his eyes and his only remaining remedy is suicidal. Jacob pretending to be Esau, a hairy, masculine man, so that his own blind father will give him the blessing intended for his brother, the favorite. Joseph, who his own father, Jacob, loves the best, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Jacob, again, wrestling with God (with God!), getting his thigh pulled out of its socket in the process, and demanding (and wresting) a blessing from the Lord. Gritty, often violent stories, filled with personal emotion – rivalry, envy, love, betrayal.
These stories are not superficial, not mealymouthed, not “nice” in the sense of bland, inoffensive, “pious.”
They are not easy stories, and Jewish culture at its depths is not an easy, sanitized, goes-down-smooth culture.
Precisely why I love it, and why I (a woman educated in the antireligious theories of deconstructionist literary criticism and the English (Christian!) literary tradition), made it the foundation for my book.
I was trying to figure out how to get people to buy My First Kafka from me directly instead of, say, Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy when anyone buys my book from anywhere, but it’s a nice feeling when you actually sell the copy yourself. (Also, you make slightly more than the 43 cents per copy or whatever that you get from your publisher, but that’s a different story.)
So I wrote this tiny mini-book. It’s a short story, and it’s called “The Last Golem in Prague.” It was an eleventh-hour creation in every sense. The books had just arrived in the mail, people were actually buying them, which I couldn’t (and still mostly can’t) believe, and I had to send out something. For months I’d sat in front of my notebook, page blank, wondering what sort of story I should write for whatever people might buy my weird children’s book.
And then, at 11:59 or so, everything clicked together. Continue reading
Here’s a confession: I haven’t read that many golem stories. Or at least, as many as someone who’s written a book called The Golem and the Jinni probably should’ve. I haven’t read Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, or Marge Piercy’s He, She and It. I haven’t cracked Thane Rosenbaum’s The Golems of Gotham, or the more golem-centered volumes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
When I started writing The Golem and the Jinni, I was really, really unsure of myself. I was embarking on what I knew was my first real book, and it was like all newborn things, delicate and easily disturbed. Something warned me that if I filled my head with the golem stories of other, far more talented writers, I would crowd my own barely-formed golem right out of my brain, or unintentionally mash it into a different image.
Over the years, that intimidation became an almost superstitious avoidance. Maybe now that the book is finished, I can finally crack The Puttermesser Papers without worrying that Ozick‘s golem will feel more real to me than my own. But in any case, here are a few golem stories that I do know, and that added their own particular flavors to my book, whether I meant them to or not.
1) The old, classic stories of Rabbi Loew and his golem. Honestly, I’m not sure when I first heard these stories. At Sunday school? That sort of Old World folk culture didn’t fit with our modern Reform curriculum. My grandparents? My mom’s parents were cosmopolitan German Jews; this wasn’t really their thing. My dad’s folks were the Yiddish speakers, but I don’t remember them telling me folk tales. Usually they were too busy trying to get me to eat things. So where did I learn them? It feels like the stories were always there, floating through the ether: Rabbi Loew and his golem, the protector of Prague’s medieval Jews during the pogroms. Years later, after I’d started writing The Golem and the Jinni, first my parents and then my in-laws visited Prague and brought me back little translated volumes of golem stories. A few were variations I hadn’t read before, but mostly they were already familiar.
2) Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. If you haven’t read this yet, seriously, treat yourself. The golem in Kavalier and Clay is the golem, Rabbi Loew’s legendary creation. It’s a real-world presence in the first part of the book—one of the characters attempts to smuggle it out of Prague—and a recurring motif through the rest of the book, one of its many threads of longing and sadness. (Really, you’ve read this, right? Because I can lend you my copy if you haven’t.)
3) James Sturm, The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Sturm’s graphic novel follows a 1920s all-Jewish baseball team facing anti-Semitism as they travel the Midwest. Going broke and looking for a gimmick to fill the seats, they dress the team’s one African-American player as a golem, and advertise his prowess. Then, of course, things start to go awry. It’s a sad but satisfying tale, and a good baseball yarn as well.
4) Naomi Kritzer, “The Golem.” “The golem woke on December 1st, 1941, and saw the future before her like an unrolled scroll.” With a first line like that, how can you not read more? This particular golem—the first female golem I ever encountered—is built by two women in Prague who hope to survive the unsurvivable. Kritzer (whom I’ve known since college) uses her prescient golem to examine ideas of free will, destiny, and choice. (You can find “The Golem” in 2001’s Year’s Best Fantasy, and in Kritzer’s digital collection Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.)
5) The X-Files, “Kaddish.” Maybe I’m cheating a little here, but shows like The X-Files have been as formative to my imagination as the books I’ve read. In this fourth-season episode, Mulder and Scully go to Brooklyn to investigate the strangulation of a neo-Nazi who murdered a Hasidic Jew. I remember feeling proud that the show was tackling a golem story, but also thinking that the supporting players suffered from the unfortunate exoticization that happened whenever The X-Files dealt with an ethnic beastie. That golem, though: pretty creepy.