Suszynski: On the Golem’s head was written Truth
In 1808, Jakob Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm, wrote a short description for the literary magazine “Journal of Hermits” about the Jewish folkloric creature known as the Golem.
“The Polish Jews, after speaking certain prayers and observing fast days, made the figure of a man out of clay or loam, and when they speak the miracle-working Schemhamphoras over it, the figure comes alive. It is true that he cannot speak, but he understands reasonably well what anyone says to him and commands him to do. They call him Golem and use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework, but he may never leave the house alone. On his forehead is written Aemaeth (Truth; God). However, he increases in size daily and easily becomes larger and stronger than all his housemates, regardless of how small he was at first. Therefore, fearing him, they rub out the first letter, so that nothing remains but Maeth (he is dead), whereupon he collapses and is dissolved again into clay.”
I found this description as I was reading the book, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon several years ago. “Part 1: The Escape Artist” details Josef Kavalier’s escape to the United States as German armies moved into Prague.
Josef appears at the apartment of his old mentor and performing illusionist, Bernard Kornblum, for help to escape across the ocean. It so happens that just before Josef’s appearance at Kornblum’s apartment, the local Jewish community had tasked Kornblum with moving the Rabbi Loew’s famous Golem “into the safety of exile” in Vilna, Lithuania, so they could preserve some of their religious artifacts from the encroaching German army.
In the very first paragraph of the book, we encounter Josef’s cousin, Sam Clay. We are in the future, after Sam and Josef have achieved notoriety in the Golden Age of comic books in the U.S. This is many years after Josef safely crossed the ocean and found his cousin. Sam is ruminating on the past, and alluding to the importance of Josef’s first escape: “You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in. Houdini’s first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called ‘Metamorphosis.’ It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation.”
Kornblum uses this idea of transformation in the plan to get Josef safely to the U.S. Josef will travel in the giant pine casket with the giant Golem, dressed and rouged to look like a giant dead man, all the way to Lithuania.
Once Kornblum and Josef find the Golem in an old apartment complex in a forgotten room, they maneuver him out and start preparations for the journey. First, Josef must find a big enough suit for the Golem, and so he sneaks into his family’s apartment. In his father’s office, he has a premonition: “Josef felt a bloom of dread in his belly, and all at once he was certain that it was not going to matter one iota how his father and the others behaved. Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom.”
After the suit has been adjusted and the rouge applied, Josef looks at their work; he asks Kornblum if people will notice that the Golem is just made of clay. Kornblum answers with one of his maxims: “‘People only notice what you tell them to notice … And then only if you remind them.’”
This first part of the book sets moving, albeit subtly, important thematic threads: exile, escape and illusion, but also these themes’ relationship to the solidity, or lack thereof of, of existence.
I have been thinking about this book and the Golem in part because it reminded me of an interview between the author and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that was conducted in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in 2016. This is the same neighborhood in which the Israeli government is evicting several Palestinian families.
“From my point of view, to see that place (Hebron) being dishonored and made less sacred and less holy by the presence of this incredibly cruel and unjust machinery, some literal machinery and figurative machinery of oppression, it offends me,” Chabon says in the interview.
I find the Golem a fascinating image, especially Grimm’s details of it. One function of the Golem in Jewish history is that it fought the oppressors. What I see is a figure come to life from earth, made by the hands of the people that need it. But the Golem grows too big, so big that the people fear it, so they must cut it down to manageable size, so small that it becomes part of the Earth again.
What is also interesting about this tale is that it is rooted in language. Words call the Golem into existence and are inscribed on its forehead. In order to get rid of it, one must only rub some of the letters from its face. Erasure, the right to live and grow, violence — all of these tall tales are alive in the Golem as they are alive in us.
Anna Suszynski is a staff editor at the Vail Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at annasuszynski or on Twitter at anna_suszynski.