According to Jewish folklore, the golem is a monster made from clay. The golem was brought to life by Rabbi Löew in Prague in the 16th century as a protector of the Jewish community. In 2017 the golem continues to inspire art, including five artists from Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk.
Golem in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Jewish Art Gallery at Congregation Kol Israel has a new exhibit called “Golem in Brooklyn.” Artists shared their interpretations of the golem story in a variety of media. The grand opening last night featured many of the artists whose work appeared in the exhibit and the first performance in “a month-long celebration of all things Golem.”
The klezmer-rock band Golem headlined last night and rocked the house. I’ve seen Golem two dozen times, and this was one of their best shows because of the crowd energy. A lively, engaged, dancing group of artsy Jews in Brooklyn was the perfect audience. It didn’t hurt that the band and concertgoers were surrounded by visual artwork about golems in an intimate space.
Golem singer/accordionist Annette Ezekiel Kogan explained that when she was choosing a band name in 2000, she had a golem statue on her desk from a trip to Prague. She chose a name that described a “monstrous approach to Yiddish music, but with respect and a good heart.” She later said, “It sounds good in here surrounded by all these golems—and all you golems.”
Each time that Golem performs the song “Rumenye” live, the band’s other singer, Aaron Diskin, offers a different maniacal rant. Last night’s glorious rant included, “Is it Dracula? Is it Frankenstein? Is it the Wolfman? No, it’s my buddy, the golem!”
The exhibit featured a photograph from Ellen Levitt, who explained in Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk that a punk approach to art was about “looking beyond the surface.” Matthue Roth, author of the Jewish punk novel Never Mind the Goldbergs, contributed “The Last Golem in Prague,” a short story in zine form. On November 11, Pitom guitarist Yoshie Fruchter will perform a live score to accompany the 1920 silent film The Golem of Prague.
The Book of Dirt
Bram Presser, best known to Jewish punk fans as the singer of the Australian band Yidcore, just published his debut book, The Book of Dirt. It’s a moving Holocaust novel based on his own family’s story. Presser includes accounts of his research and his family, and he hopes that he’s “been true to their voices.” Ultimately, though, Presser says, “This is my story, woven from the threads of rumour and legend, post-memory.”
Much of the novel revolves around Prague during the Holocaust, and a key narrative thread involves trying to recreate a golem as a protector of the Jewish community in a time of crisis. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Professor Glanzberg gestured towards the cup. “We had to face the possibility that the tales about [Rabbi Löew] were real, that his golem was real.”
“Prague was all abuzz over the clay man. … The people had found in this golem a saviour more tangible than any messiah. The transports [to the camps] were already in full swing. If only the force of the golem‘s fury could be released before the last Jew was taken away. Frightened fathers beseeched the chief rabbi to open the attic, to let the clay man out to save their children.” . . .
“So we did the only thing we could do,” said Muneles. “We returned to the sources, studied every permutation of the legend, scoured the notes of our predecessors, hoping to find sign of the creature. Perhaps they had been too quick to dismiss it.”
“Picture this if you will: ten of Prague’s greatest minds, crawling along the banks of the Vltava River,” said Glanzberg, “feeling for the spot where the clay had maintained its shape. We searched the cemeteries, dug up the graves where damaged books and Torah scrolls were buried, went to Rabbi Löew’s old house … and lifted the floorboards. But we found nothing.”
The legend of the golem has lived on in Jewish art. It’s powerful to think that the golem was “a saviour more tangible than any messiah.”