Growing up in Jerusalem, Israel, and attending the secular school system, I never heard about the clay golem and its narrative of Jewish mystical creation. I was an avid reader throughout my childhood and consumed books about robots (Asimov), fairy tales (the Grimm Brothers), and magical creatures (C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien). Still, the tale of a clay anthropoid animated by a rabbi to serve him and the Jewish community was not prevalent in the Israeli society in which I grew up. When writing my first book, Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monster (NYU Press 2016), I believe I figured out why that might have been the case. In early twentieth-century European film and literature, the gigantic and all-powerful golem came into the world in order to protect a vulnerable Jewish community. In Paul Wegener’s 1920 film, The Golem, How He Came into the World, Rabbi Loew fashions a golem and animates him in order to prevent the expulsion of the sixteenth-century Jewish community from the Prague ghetto. Scattered across Central and Eastern Europe, early modern Jews lived at the mercy of Christian rulers such as Emperor Rudolf II Habsburg. They needed the fantasy of power embodied in the golem. With the establishment of the State of Israel, this fantasy and its accompanying diasporic vulnerability were no longer culturally and socially acceptable. Secular Israel society de-animated the golem, as it were.
When I first arrived at Berkeley, California, to embark on a graduate degree in Comparative Literature, I enrolled in Anton Kaes’s Weimar film course. In this seminar, I encountered Wegener’s film for the first time. I did not know what to make of the mishmash of occult, Christian, and Jewish practices on the fantastical Weimar set, although Karl Freund’s camera work and the poetic quality of the film’s editing made a deep impression on me. However, a chance juxtaposition of The Golem with a literary text by the Hebrew author S. Y. Agnon helped me understand the film and how I might approach it. Agnon describes the golem fad in World War I, comparing a brain-injured soldier returning from the battlefront to a golem. When subsequently conducting research in Wegener’s archive, located at the German Film Museum in Frankfurt am Main, I read his diary and letters from his own time on the Western Front. I found in them descriptions of the “monstrosity” and senselessness of war and of Wegener’s uniform as caked in “clay” (Lehm) from the trenches. Wegener had endured severe battles and could no longer contribute to the war effort because of the physical and psychological toll of trauma. The Golem, How He Came into the World, his most important postwar film, reconstructs a battlefield set consisting of Jewish “trenches,” a collapsing Habsburg court, and an all-consuming fire set by the golem run amok. Wegener used the narrative of Jewish-Christian strife to reflect more broadly on human vulnerability, loss, and potential recovery.
Rather than consider the golem as an expression of an inherent Jewishness, my research revealed the modern golem to be an indeterminate monster, molded in a variety of forms by a wide array of writers and artists. In many journalistic accounts, the golem became a metaphor for the destructiveness of a World War that had grown out of proportions, exceeding all imagination of potential loss and destruction. Still, for Wegener and others, the golem was also an automaton, a war machine yearning for recognition and relationship, beyond its function as savior. This broader understanding of the film’s significance has also deepened my appreciation for it, allowing me to reconsider its conservative narrative of Jewish separatism as linked to the rise of Zionism rather than denying it.
This guest post was written by MAYA BARZILAI, Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Jewish Culture, University of Michigan.