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Going Golem

Forget vampires and zombies. For meaningful meditations on attraction, power, and body, young readers should turn to that ancient Jewish monster, the golem.

Marjorie Ingall
August 30, 2011
(Michael Jones/Flickr)
(Michael Jones/Flickr)

We’ve always loved golems. The notion of a soulless husk suddenly given life is deliciously resonant. First there was Adam, formed from dust and given breath by God. Then there were a thousand variants, from the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the manic cleaning implements that Mickey Mouse animated but failed to control in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The idea of a powerful creature being given consciousness, then behaving in unpredictable ways, is thrilling.

It’s also troubling. The legend of the Golem of Prague involves the 16th-century Maharal, also known as Judah Loew, a powerful rabbi who created a golem (the word derives from the Hebrew for unshaped form) to defend the ghetto from pogroms. In the tale’s many versions—a 19th-century German novel, short books by Elie Wiesel and Francine Prose, golem-themed episodes of The X-Files and The Simpsons—the golem often winds up attacking its maker, becoming more vicious than intended, or devastated by its own clay heart.

Given the folkloric, timeless nature of the tale, it’s no wonder it has inspired so many children’s books. This year’s entry, The Golem’s Latkesby Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Aaron Jasinski, is a cartoony, not-very-scary version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which a lazy maid delegates the potato-pancake-making to a golem, leading to a giant interfaith party to which the emperor brings applesauce. It’ll be out in a couple of months and would, of course, make a delightful holiday gift. However, I’m drawn to the darker versions of the tale. David Wisniewski’s Golem, which won the Caldecott Medal for the best illustrated children’s book of 1997, is really, really scary. (Any book that explains blood libel is not for the youngest kids.) The layered, paper-cut illustrations are amazing, and the story emphasizes the golem’s nascent humanity. The creature cannot control its anger, but also loves sunrises and flowers. After an explosion of rage, it begs the man it thinks of as its father: “Please! Please let me live! I did all that you asked of me! Life is so … precious … to me!” Rabbi Judah returns him to clay anyway, with the (comforting?) observation that the golem won’t remember anything about being alive.

For middle-grade readers, there is 2009’s Clay Man: The Golem of Prague by Irene N. Watts, illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker. This one draws a pretty explicit Holocaust parallel (the Jews have to wear yellow circles on their clothing), and the soft pencil illustrations have a gentle, mournful quality. Other excellent middle-grade versions are Barbara Rogasky’s 1996 The Golem, with ominous, deep-toned illustrations by the late, great, four-time-Caldecott winner Trina Schart Hyman (it’s out of print but still readily available online), and I.B. Singer’s The Golem, in which the pathetic golem falls in love, featuring soft watercolors by another Caldecott rock star, the brilliant Uri Shulevitz.

But it’s in the young-adult category that I think the golem story achieves the most nuance. Teens love horror: Conventional wisdom has it that monsters represent the untamed id of adolescence, the inability to control one’s own urges. Vampires, a staple in young-adult lit, are all about longing and sometimes sublimated sexuality; werewolves are pure animalistic brutality; fallen angels reflect fears about the consequences of not being perfect; zombies represent brainless conformity.

The golem fits in perfectly. Clay, the 2007 novel by the acclaimed British writer David Almond, is perhaps the most literary of young-adult golem books. In it, an altar boy in a faded coal-mining town meets a mysterious newcomer who may have the power to create life from earth. Almond’s perspective is Catholic, but his biblical and moral themes are very familiar to Jews, and the book is clearly based on the golem story. Davie, the protagonist, wrestles with notions of good and evil, the desire to create and the power to destroy, and the way attraction and repulsion can be mixed. There are themes about the end of innocence, the expulsion from paradise, forgiveness and redemption, and the responsibilities of the artist. The Northern English dialect can be challenging, but this is a powerful, very creepy, and haunting book.

On the other end of the literary spectrum is Swoon, a 2010 novel by Nina Malkin. This is your classic girl-meets-boy-who-inhabits-a-golem-that-girl-has-created story. It is sexy, sexy cheese. The book’s heroine is Dice (short for Candice) and the hot, nasty golem is Sin (no, really–short for Sinclair). Do not confuse Dice or Sin with the other Gossip Girl-esque characters, Pen, Marsh, Gel, Crane, Doll, Con, Duck, and Boz, though everybody does tons of drugs and has tons of sex. Turns out, as things so often do, that Sin has been seeking a body to inhabit so he can return to the Connecticut town where he was murdered a couple hundred years earlier and take revenge on the descendants of his torturers. Sin is horrid to Dice, but she loves him anyway, because he’s a hot golem. Malkin keeps using the word “golem” (along with “dust-boy” and “dirt devil”), but Swoon differs from the classic golem tale in that Sin exists independently of a body; Dice has only provided a receptacle for his angry soul. In that way, it’s really more of a dybbuk story. A sexy, cheesy dybbuk story.

I loved the heartbreaking golem in Storm Thief by Chris Wooding (2006), and I think teenage fans of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fantasy will, too. After being caught in a “probability storm,” a kind of violent ripple of atmosphere that unpredictably changes things in its wake, the golem has been separated from his maker. He has only flashes of memory of being made, and he desperately wants to know who he is and what his purpose is. The golem is prone to flashes of rage, but he also wants to love and help. (He’s a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and Wolverine.) Unlike Swoon, which is a story of selfishness, this book is all about sacrifice. The golem is a secondary character, but he’s the one who stuck with me. Maybe because I’m a parent; we understand sacrifice.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011), by Catherynne M. Valente, is pretty florid; I wanted to yank out half the adjectives and stomp on them like ants. But among all the over-the-top fairies, marids, gnomes, changelings, witches, selkies, hippogriffs, and djinn, there’s a female golem made of soap. I loved her. “Her face was a deep olive-y green castile, her hair a rich and oily Marseille, streaked with lime peels. Her body was patchwork: here strawberry soap with bits of red fruit showing through, there saffron and sandalwood, orange and brown. … Her eyes were two piercing, faceted slivers of soapstone. On her brow someone had written TRUTH in the kind of handwriting teachers always have: clear and curling and lovely.”

This golem, too, longs for her absent maker. Despite her grief, she lives to serve. She cleanses the book’s heroine of the dust of her journey, breaking off her own fingers with a snap to throw into different baths—baths that give courage, renew wishes, foster luck. This rare female golem wants to nurture, not destroy. Unlike most golems, she can speak (when she does, soap bubbles escape her lips). She’s powerless, but not voiceless: Many young girls, pouring out their hearts in diaries and to friends, can understand that duality. She’s all yearning; again, girls can understand that feeling all too well. She’s also the only completely kind female figure in a fairyland full of men and boys and mean girls. And like the tree in The Giving Tree, she disappears as she helps and helps and helps.

A golem is a sturdy creature on which to hang a young-adult story. It works as a repository for every theme that speaks to teenagers: Who am I in the world? What powers do I have? Who can I trust? How do I create a separate existence from my parents’? How do I control my anger and manage my baser instincts? In many stories, the golem is an overgrown child, an identity teenagers fight against and relate to simultaneously. In When Toys Come Alive, Lois Rostow Kuznets, a professor emeritus of children’s literature at San Diego State, discusses how toys can represent our concerns about technology. Kids today have even more understanding of the dangers of technology than their predecessors—they grew up seeing the way gossip and bullying can spread through social media in the blink of a non-soapstone eye. Stuffed animals, unlike Facebook and Twitter, wait patiently for loving humans to come back. Perhaps the golem, made of earth and clay, represents a longing for a simpler, less networked, more easily turned-off past.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.