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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.

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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.

Golem by David Wisniewski

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 Latkes by 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.

Clay Man: The Golem of Prague

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.

Clay by David Almond

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.

Swoon by Nina Malkin

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.

Storm Thief

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

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.

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Yes,the GOLEM is interesting. Maybe he can take care of Iran??

JCarpenter says:

Would a golem for peace be an oxymoron?

pete hamill says:

What about Snow in August!

Ack! Sorry, Pete Hamill! (And OMG are you really Pete Hamill??)

What a wonderful set of books. But, yes, I got to the end and wondered about the absence of Snow in August. Such a powerful, (literally) magical novel. And I am not Pete Hamill.

Snow in August in not a children’s book.

How about Dan and the Mudman by Jonny Zucker? The Golem and time travel.

Great topic – thanks, Marjorie!

MattZvi says:

I once took a course in college that talked about Jewish demons. I remember the professor saying that it was interesting how the Golem was the most embedded in the non-Jewish imagination as a Jewish demon, even though this monster was the “least Jewish” of all Jewish monsters—a Golem was non-intellectual, didn’t solve problems through reason, didn’t speak, etc. (As opposed to a Jewish demon with more typically Jewish characteristics, like a dybbuk or a gilgul, for example.) She asked us all why the non-Jewish world would so remember such an un-Jewish monster as THE Jewish demon. Food for thought!

AlizaG says:

I read The Golem by David Wisniewski to my class last year when Halloween fell on a religious school day. The kids (6th graders) couldn’t believe that such a cool story was a part of their Judaism. I also showed them a couple of videos I had found (not the scary ones) on You Tube.
I plan to make it part of every year’s lesson right around Halloween.

MattTzvi, such a great point. I think non-Jews embrace the golem because of the universality of the thing-that-is-made-destroying-its-maker trope. Since Icarus, and presumably before, people have just loved hubris stories. Plus the themes of the responsibility of the artist and the godlike power inherent in the act of creation? Adoptable by people from all cultures, way less specific than other Jewier demons. (Though hmm, lotsa Lililith-type succubus-women in lots of cultures’ folklore…)

(Me, I dig the dybbuks.)

And AlizaG, such cool (and genuinely scary) Halloween reading! Brava.

Rebecca says:

Going a little further afield, golems appear in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. “Going Postal” and “Making Money” feature the Golem Trust, made up of freed golems working to buy and liberate other golems. In “Feet of Clay,” the free golems build themselves a king, named Meshugah, who by the end of the book ends up truly meshuga from too many “chems” (vivifying instructions) in his head. Jewish references are fairly incidental, but Pratchett uses his golems to comment on labor, money and slavery. The Tiffany Aching series is specifically for younger readers, while the main Discworld series is appropriate for teens, though perhaps a bit challenging (complex plots, social/political parody, endless puns, and very British humor).

Bradly Baird says:

Mattzvi and Majorie:

Speaking as a non-Jew with no little interest in Judaism, the golem (as well as the dybbuks) are the figures of Jewish lore I seem to come across the most when reading/searching for things about Judaism. Not sure why that is, but they just seem to be mentioned more often than other demons and creatures in the things I read. Especially by people who are attempting Judaism to non-Jews. So, whenever I think of Jewish “demons,” those two particular creatures leap to mind first.

Rebecca, you’re the second person to mention Tiffany Aching to me this week — I’ve just ordered the first book about her to read with my girls at bedtime. Thanks!

Peter is an author, psychology professor and former private practitioner. But Peter himself didn’t put pen to paper at all, and he once even stated he’d never read them coz he “Knew what was in them anyway”. Peter may have 500 articles in Canadian and USA media/magazines written and also many more books, so you could try looking up? I read books written HAUNTED NIAGARA: LEGENDS, Best Selling Vampire Book and Horror book for Children, Vampire Book
Peter who can write their own work.

Melogg Serial says:

A helpful guide to young-adult reading about what I thought as a difficult concept.

Karen Goldman says:

Dear Marjorie,
I was very excited to see your article on the golem concept appearing in books for young readers. I have recently published a book called Jordan and the DREADful Golem. It is a story that takes place in Israel, (where I reside) and it is for readers between the ages of 9-12. Of course I was disappointed that you did not mention my book. It’s a great read…especially for boys.
Karen Goldman


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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.

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