You’ve seen him in many guises: the Frankenstein monster, the Incredible Hulk, even as the heart-breaking protagonist of Diane Arbus’ photograph, Jewish Giant with his Parents in the Bronx. But even in his original guise, his dramatic, but very soulless persona, he just can’t be kept down. He is the Golem, whose name and brief and violent existence in the Prague ghetto continues to resonate in novels by authors including Elie Wiesel and I.B. Singer, poetry, plays, comics, operas, ballet and an early film classic whose imagery inspired several generations of those seeking to capture the monster’s persona.
Legends vary regarding the larger than life male creature, but one of the most prevalent attributes its creation to the 16th century by Rabbi Loew of Prague, a mystic who in at least one version of the folktale had the power to enervate inanimate clay by means of cabalistic rituals and prayers. Controlled by combinations of Hebrew letters imbued with magical powers, the super strong Golem could destroy any enemy and would be ready to do so in times of trouble. Incapable of thought, the Golem could only obey orders, that is, until it didn’t.
Now wonderfully restored with color added, the early German expressionist cinematic feature, The Golem (1920), directed by and starring Paul Wegener in the title role (which can now be viewed on YouTube) depicts Loew as a medieval sorcerer who not only violates God’s law by creating life, but does so by calling on the devil for his help. When he loses control over the Golem, the monster violently turns against the Jewish community, wreaking havoc. Characteristic of German films of this era, the use of stylized two-dimensional sets – the endless stairs and crumbling architecture of the nearly animate ancient ghetto – is what sets this movie apart.
An actor who worked for the great Jewish theater director Max Reinhardt, Wegener had become obsessed with the Golem legend in 1913 and had based several of his films on the story.
While thousands of graphic art aficionados are familiar with the many guises of the comic book Golem, his giant form packs the greatest wallop when it can be experienced in three dimensions. California-based artist Joshua Abarbanel created his first small-scale Golem in 2013 for a Los Angeles gallery show centered around sacred texts. The multi-media artist remembered that “I spent a lot of time thinking about the subject and experimenting with Hebrew letters for both their aesthetic forms and various word associations. Eventually the Golem story came to my mind, especially the version in which the Golem is ‘activated’ and ‘deactivated’ through the power of Hebrew letters.” In this work, Abarbanel fuses the Golem’s physical and metaphysical natures; his sculpture is constructed from a dense wooden latticework of calligraphy referencing its magical birth and unique mission.
The artist’s monumental, Golem-size version commissioned by Berlin’s Jewish Museum for its 2016 show devoted to the mythic creature will soon be on view again in the city of Worms, where it will be on display at Rashi House for SchUM on the Rhine – from Medieval Era Into Modernity, a city-wide celebration of the region’s Jewish heritage.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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