The legend of the Golem of Prague – and its appearance in children's and modern literature

I love when my six-year-old gets to go to the library at his school – simply because I never know what books he’ll check out that day.

I always excitedly open his backpack to see what French and/or English books are tucked away inside of it. And, I’m never disappointed.

Just one of the gorgeous illustrations in "Un Lion a Paris."

Just one of the gorgeous illustrations in “Un Lion a Paris.”

A few months ago, he brought home the beautifully illustrated book, “Un Lion a Paris” by Beatrice Alemagna. I asked him to keep it an extra day just so I could flip through the mesmerizing images of Parisian life on each page.

Some days, of course, I just chuckle to myself about my sons’ desire to read about hammerhead sharks or “Our First Thanksgiving” – in January.

And, sometimes I am blown away – both by the breadth and depth of the books at in his library and what motivates him to check them out.

That’s exactly what happened just the other week.

“Le Golem” by Adolf Born.

“Le Golem” by Adolf Born.

At the end of the day, I pulled out two books from his backpack. One was in French and one was in English. And, both were about the legend of golem.

The books were “Golem” written by David Wisniewski (in English) and “Le Golem” illustrated by Adolf Born (in French).

In Jewish folklore, a golem (גולם) is an animated anthropomorphic being (something made to resemble a human form), which is magically created from an inanimate (or lifeless) material – like clay or stone. The word, “golem,” in Hebrew means “shapeless mass.”

Some believe the most famous golem narrative originated with Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in 16th century Prague.

And, that’s why the two golem books were of interest to my young son.

The Golem of Prague

My husband and I visited Prague together (without our sons) in 2014. In our guidebook, I read a section on the Golem of Prague, who Rabbi Loew is said to have created to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms.

The rabbi made the golem out of clay that he got the banks of the Vltava River, which flows through the heart of Prague – at the base of the Prague Castle. As legend has it, Rabbi Loew brought the golem to life through “rituals and Hebrew incantations.”

The golem was named Josef. The only important thing Rabbi Lowe had to remember was that Josef couldn’t be “alive” on Shabbat, which runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. On Friday evenings, Rabbi Loew would “deactivate” the golem by removing its “shem” (or name) from its forehead.

The Old-New Synagogue in Prague.

The Old-New Synagogue in Prague.

But, one Friday evening, Rabbi Loew forgot to remove its shem and Joseph is said to have “turned into a violent monster” or have “gone on a murderous rampage.” The Golem of Prague was halted when Rabbi Loew finally managed to remove its shem and immobilize him.

Without its shem, the golem crumbled into pieces and turned back into clay.

The pieces were then said to have been stored in the attic of Prague’s Old-New Synagogue, so Joseph could be restored to life again if needed. According to legends, the pieces of the Golem of Prague are still stored in the synagogue’s attic. But, the remains of the golem haven’t been found – although many have looked for them.

During our visit to Prague, we toured the Old-New Synagogue. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit the attic, which is not open to the general public.

But, the whole time we were there, I just knew our sons would think the very idea of a golem who came to life to “save” people was cool – and consider him to almost be like an early superhero. And, so, we bought a small one, made out of clay, to bring home for our sons.

From the time they saw it, they had to hold it, hear more about it, and give it a prominent place in our home.

The  golem legend in children’s and modern literature

The golem legend made its way into mainstream European society when Gustav Meyrink’s novel, “Der Golem,” was published in 1914. The novel is said to be “loosely inspired” by the tales of Rabbi Loew’s Golem of Prague.

The book is followed by a string of many others that include their own take or account of the golem legend or character.

Well known authors, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel wrote books about the golem legend.

Singer’s “The Golem” was published in 1983. It focuses on “a clay giant miraculously brought to life by a saintly rabbi” who then saves a Jewish banker falsely accused by Emperor Rudolf II of Prague.

That same year, Wiesel published a collection of the same name, which includes many of the legends associated with the “enigmatic and elusive figure” as retold “through the eyes of a wizened gravedigger” who claims to have witnessed the Golem of Prague as a child.

In 1972, Marvel Comics published three “Strange Tales” comic books that included a golem-like character.

“Golem” by David Wisniewski.

“Golem” by David Wisniewski.

The English “Golem” book my son checked out of his school library, by author David Wisniewski, was published in 1996 and it won the Caldecott Medal in 1997. The book tells the story of the Golem of Prague, which is further fought to life for young readers through the book’s vivid illustrations.

Author Cynthia Ozick included a female golem figure in her 1998 novel, “The Puttermesser Papers.” In the book, the main female character, Ruth Puttermesser, creates a female golem out of the dirt in her flowerpots. The golem then serves as the daughter Puttermesser never had, and even helps her get elected to mayor of New York City before it goes out of control.

Interestingly, the golem appears in two modern baseball-themed books.

The Golem’s Mighty Swing,” a graphic novel penned by James Sturm in 2001, features a Jewish baseball team from the 1920s that creates a golem to help them win their games.

Chicago Cubs fans will appreciate that Byron L. Sherwin’s 2006 novel, “The Cubs and the Kabbalist,” features a group of rabbis who create a golem, named Sandy Greenberg, to help the Cubs win the World Series.

"The Golem's Latkes" by Eric A. Kimmel.

“The Golem’s Latkes” by Eric A. Kimmel.

In 2011, Eric A. Kimmel published a children’s book that brings the golem legend to Hanukkah. In the book, “The Golem’s Latkes,” a rabbi tells his “housemaid Basha” to seek out the help of the golem to make latkes (potato pancakes). But, when Basha leaves to visit a friend, the golem keeps making more and more latkes – until they pour out of the rabbi’s home. With a flood of latkes on the way, the rabbi has to come up with a way to control the latke-making golem.

Just last year, a golem was featured in “The Golem of Hollywood” by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman. The novel brings the Golem of Prague to 21st century Los Angeles to help stop a serial killer.

Now that my sons are still young, we’re content for them to enjoy our own small golem that we brought back from Prague and to read the English and French versions of the Golem books in their school library. But, I have a feeling that their budding interest in the legend of golem will lead them to read the many other books that put the wishes of a people in one “individual” who can save them from life’s adversities.

Are you familiar with the legend of the Golem of Prague? Have you read any books that feature a golem character or legend? Do you know of any golem legends from other cultures? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Golem Post

The multicultural conversation and fun continues with Raising World Citizens on FacebookInstagram and Twitter

You also can have new Raising World Citizens blog posts delivered straight to your email inbox by entering your email address in the below box. (My list is completely spam free and you can opt out at any time).

Leave a comment