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The Golem of ‘Sleepy Hollow’

Fox’s popular otherwordly TV show borrows some familiar Judaic lore

Marjorie Ingall
December 11, 2013
Sleepy Hollow's Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills. (Facebook)
Sleepy Hollow's Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills. (Facebook)

Add one more to the ever-growing list of golems co-opted by American pop culture creatures.

TV’s biggest new hit is an insane mash-up of colonial history, otherworldly monsters and romance-novel yearning. There may be less nudity than in True Blood, the other smoldering, demon-inflected, Spanish-moss-bedecked show I’m obsessed with, but Sleepy Hollow’s chest hair is better.

And True Blood took five seasons to introduce a character from Jewish folklore; Sleepy Hollow needed just 10 episodes.

The backstory (you may need a drink for this): Ichabod Crane, a Revolutionary War soldier who fought alongside his friend and fellow mason George Washington (hush, go with it) was made mostly dead by the Headless Horseman, who it turns out is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Ichabod was put into a state of suspended animation by his wife, Katrina, a witch (again, STOP QUESTIONING THIS). Now revived and looking super-foxy in his vintage piratical coat and billowy shirt, Ichabod and his new friend Abbie Mills—a young African-American lieutenant in the modern-day Sleepy Hollow Sheriff’s Department with a monster-laden history of her own—fight otherworldly Book-of-Revelation-inflected crime.

In Monday’s episode, we see in flashback that Katrina has had to flee from murderous fellow witches, for reasons still unknown. She has to leave her and Ichabod’s newborn son behind, but she does not leave him alone. She leaves him with a SUPER-CREEPY DOLL. “I made you a little friend who will watch over you when I’m away and make sure you are safe,” she tells him weepily. It looks like a dun-colored mandrake root with blank beady eyes and stitched together horror-movie lips, exactly what every child wants when his mother is abandoning him.

In modern-day Sleepy Hollow, a dun-colored monster comes out of the leaves and dirt and kills a librarian who is also a witch. There is a bunch of goyish talk about apostles and martyrs and witnesses, along with another flashback showing Ichabod and Katrina’s son as a boy in an orphanage getting mercilessly beaten by a priest…until his doll suddenly turns into a big hulking monster version of itself. “In the absence of someone to protect him, he made real a champion to keep him safe,” Ichabod realizes. Ichabod looks up Psalms 139, intoning, “‘And your eyes did see my substance being yet unformed’—a reference in both the Bible and the Judaic Talmud to an enchanted being made from inanimate matter—’like the first son of God, born of mud.’” (Ichabod, who has a dreamy British accent, pronounces the “Tal” in Talmud to rhyme with “Prince Hal.” Let’s all say it that way!)

Abbie exclaims, “A golem! Remember, from Sunday School?” (Where did she go to Sunday School, Temple Emanu-El?) They quickly figure out that the golem has killed all who threatened Ichabod’s son, and though the Sleepy Hollow coven tried to get the boy to give up his protector, he refused, and they killed him. (In this show, however, deadness tends to be a temporary state of affairs.) Now the golem is rampaging through present-day Sleepy Hollow, killing the descendants of those mean witches. Ichabod runs headlong into a spooky amusement park and stabs the golem with a shard of blood-drenched funhouse mirror, saying, “You’ve endured enough pain. Bear it no more. Be at peace. Be at peace.” He holds its big blocky dirt hand as it dies. (My house got really dusty all of a sudden and I had to wipe my eyes.) Suddenly, the golem is a doll again.

This isn’t, of course, the canonical golem of the Maharal of Prague story. But the bones of the narrative—a seemingly powerless person beset by tormenters who creates a giant being to fight on his behalf—is the same. The tale has long held appeal for creators of science-fiction and fantasy, who have historically been nebbishes. The classic superhero The Thing—like most superheroes, a product of American Jewish immigrant writers—was even given an explicitly Jewish backstory. In one 2002 comic a Jewish pawnbroker character named Mr. Sheckerberg draws a direct parallel between The Golem and The Thing, who has returned to the Brooklyn ghetto that spawned him to defend his people.

Sleepy Hollow’s golem isn’t the only TV fantasy golem this year. Back in February, the show Supernatural had a golem-themed episode called Everybody Hates Hitler. In a plot that makes masonic demon-fighting George Washington seem mundane, Supernatural’s golem was created by a hidden society of mystical rabbis during the Nazi occupation of Belarus to protect the Jewish community from magical Mengele-esque experimentation by the evil occultist Thule Society. One of the Eastern European rabbis smuggles the golem into America and winds up giving him to his grandson as a bar mitzvah gift, but the boy uses the instruction manual to roll joints. You can see why the Jewish people are in trouble.

This summer, my colleague Liel Leibovitz looked at the expressive modern golems in Pacific Rim and Despicable Me 2. In literature this year, too, we got some new golems: Helene Wecker created a lost female golem on the Lower East Side in The Golem and the Djinni (a book I liked infinitely more than Tablet’s Adam Kirsch did); Ilan Stavans and Teresa Villegas produced a Latin-American-Jewish picture-book hybrid called Golemito; and Jane Yolen and her son Adam Stemple contributed B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy), a middle-grade novel about a bullied kid who makes a golem that becomes the drummer in a klezmer-soul-fusion rock band. (I loved the notion of a child struggling to control his creation and his own desire for power, but the book wasn’t good enough to warrant being added to my list of excellent children’s books with golems in them.)

Clearly the golem story is particularly rich clay from which to build a narrative about power, responsibility, mysticism and parenthood. It might even be more metaphorically juicy than a vampire story.

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.

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