The Golem of Prague


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Keynard: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Editor Candace Keynard joined by fellow editor Katie Lambert.

Katie Lambert: Hello, Candace.

Candace Keynard: Hi, Katie. We are going to be doing something a little bit different for Stuff You Missed in History Class today. We don't usually begin the history lesson with a reference to the Talmud or the Bible but we have an interesting facet of religious history that may have influenced a piece of history in Prague during a time when Jewish ghettos were very much alive and a part of the city's landscape. An unfortunate, I should say, part of the city's landscape.

Katie Lambert: I don't know if ya'll have ever heard of a golem. The first time I came across one was reading the novel, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, but it's basically a soulless, thoughtless lump of clay in the shape of a man that's been animated with some sort of life-force and the most famous golem is the Golem of Prague and let's go back to 16th Century Prague in the Jewish Ghetto when there was lots of anti-Semitic feelings and there were allegations of blood libel which basically means that people were saying that the Jews were using the blood of Christians and, specifically, Christian children, in some of their religious ceremonies, such as Passover during the sadder meal.

Candace Keynard: In the 16th Century, one of the most famous Rabbi's who lived in Prague was Rabbi Loew and today he's very much revered for his scholarly contributions to the Jewish community. He was a very prolific writer. Wrote some 27 different books about Jewish philosophy, Jewish mysticism, and helped propagate ideas about - the idea of Jewish exile and Zionism and really instilled in the Jewish people who are forced to live in the ghettos a sense of hope and a sense of purpose despite the fact that they were being shut out of society and met with such opposition from the rest of Prague.

Katie Lambert: And in the 1500s, it wasn't just anti-Jewish feeling. There were violent attacks, there were [inaudible] on the Jewish people and basically they were in need of a protector. And the story goes that Rabbi Loew created a golem, I believe with some members of his family?

Candace Keynard: He did. And this is where history turns a little bit to legend and folklore so you'll have to pardon us on this tangent into semi-history and then we'll get back to the facts. So, according to legend, Rabbi Loew and his son-in-law and his best student set out to create a golem which would be designed, automaton that it was, to protect the Jewish people of Prague. And the reason that Loew choose his son-in-law and the student was because they embodied the different elements that were necessary to make a golem. Loew had the element of error; the son-in-law, fire; and the student, water. And those together, with the clay, used to make the body of the golem and pure virgin spring water would've brought it to life and I believe legend goes that Rabbi Loew used his knowledge of Kabala to make the golem come alive by, I think writing one of the names of God on a piece of paper?

Katie Lambert: Well, it seems that there's different ways, from what I understand of what I've read about the very intense mystical and spiritual process behind creating a golem, it seems like there's a couple of different ways that one could be created. Like you mentioned, putting sacred words on a piece of paper and attaching it to the golem's forehead would've brought it to life. In one version of the story I read they circled the body of the golem seven times and then chanted sacred words and other sources say that there's a special type of alphabet that's recited in accordance with the sacred name of God and there's an activation word that brings the golem to life.

Candace Keynard: One of the more common legends I think is that the word truth, it's what was inscribed on the golem's forehead.

Katie Lambert: Right, and to be clear, the legend attributed to the Golem of Prague. Of course, we get into a very grey area when you start talking about religious tenants because some people may hold those to be true and others may not ascribe to that particular religion, in the case of the Golem of Prague, that's part of the legend, that the word truth was the activation word used to bring this golem to life.

Candace Keynard: And, after the golem came to life, he set about or it set about taking care of the Jewish people. It was said that he could be invisible and raise up spirits from the dead to help protect the people.

Katie Lambert: And to clear their good name because there were many instances of the Jewish people being scapegoated by members of the city who would bring dead Christian children into the ghettos to make it look like the blood libel was true, that they were killing these Christian children. But eventually, the golem somehow went bad and went on some sort of a rampage and started ac tually menacing the Jewish people he was supposed to protect as well as everyone else in Prague.

Candace Keynard: And, so, Rabbi Loew of course was forced to deactivate, for lack of a better word, take the life-force out of the golem. And, according to legend, he took the life-force from the golem away and then put him in the attic of the synagogue.

Katie Lambert: The old new synagogue in Prague.

Candace Keynard: Which still stands today? Here we are crossing again from the [inaudible] legend back into history, so, follow me if you will, back in history now. Great. So, the old new synagogue still stands today and no one is allowed into the attic. We don't know what's there.

Katie Lambert: But people still go to Prague looking for the golem, much like they go looking for Kafka souvenirs.

Candace Keynard: Very nice. And there are some merchants in Prague who have made a living out of popularizing the figure of the golem; golem dolls, restaurants named after the golem, golem tours, things like this. People are very curious about it but it's unfortunate for serious scholars in the Jewish community that Loews name is associated with the Golem of Prague because he likely had nothing to do with the legend and the legend is likely just that, legendary.

Katie Lambert: The legend came about - I don't even think the golem was attached to Rabbi Loew's name until what, the 1800s?

Candace Keynard: Yeah, 200 years after his death in 1847.

Katie Lambert: Well, the funny thing was that rabbis of the time were actually, supposedly, trying to make golems, but not Rabbi Loew.

Candace Keynard: No, he was more known for the aforementioned facts of his scholarly pursuits into philosophy and mysticism.

Katie Lambert: So, who was it exactly that started putting his name with the Golem of Prague?

Candace Keynard: I'm not quite sure that I can put a name with that person but I do know, like I said, in 1847, a book of Jewish folklore came out that attributed Loew to the Golem of Prague and because Loew was so well respected in the Jewish community, he would've been very well known and very famous for his time, and so it's likely that the person putting this compilation of folklore said, well, the golem is pretty famous, so is Loew, they must be connected somehow, when in fact, they were not. But that's not to say that the legend of the golem hasn't influenced popular culture in the arts today because it has in very strange and interesting ways.

Katie Lambert: The golem has actually appeared on the Simpson's, in case you were wondering.

Candace Keynard: And in 1920s German silent films the golem appeared as this lumbering monstrous figure and some sources say that that type of lumbering automaton went on to influence Frankenstein's monster.

Katie Lambert: I watched a clip of that silent film actually today. You can find little bits of it on You Tube.

Candace Keynard: Good to know. It's also good to know that the golem persists as this type of legendary savoir who can rescue the world from its darkest hour, not unlike King Arthur, you know, I guess that's the closest corollary I can think of but we discussed King Arthur in a podcast a while ago and we talked about that when the world reaches that point where it just can't be turned back to good, King Arthur will come and set things right and part of the legend of the golem that persists is that when we're in our darkest hour, the golem will return and I guess walk the streets menacingly until things are good again. And the New York Times ran an article earlier this month about the golem coming back in this time of crisis and they quoted a derivatives trader, Jacob Roth, who is also a prominent member of the Jewish community, who explained that the golem protects from, "global recession, Islamic fundamentalism, Russian aggression, it wouldn't be out of left field to say that these types of conditions are ripe for the golem to come back," and he's certainly suggesting that the world is in a place now that it could use a golem. But you raised a question to me earlier, Katie, when we were talking about the golem that made a lot of sense because, by definition, the golem takes instruction very literally and unless it has that guiding force, what would happen?

Katie Lambert: Well, exactly. And it's not a messiah that just comes. It's something that the people of a community create and give life to and then give direction to even if the Golem of Prague was said to have gone on its murderous rampage, that's not generally what golems do.

Candace Keynard: No, and I guess the part of the legend where I'm a little bit foggy is the idea of the golem coming back. I think the New York Times was referencing the Golem of Prague specifically, that the Golem of Prague would come back but as you were saying, he had reached such a point of destruction in this legend, that it seems unlikely that that would be the right golem for the job but if the world needed a golem, is it unthinkable to say that members of the Jewish community today couldn't create one to set things right?

Katie Lambert: Well and there seems to be a bit of debate about whether a golem could be real or is just in fact some sort of myth.

Candace Keynard: And it's hard to decipher between fact and fiction because, as we began the podcast by saying, there's mention of golem in the Talmud and the Bible makes reference to this incomplete substance that gives rise to man.

Katie Lambert: Exactly, like with Adam in the Bible who is made of clay and then was imbued with a spirit from God to become a person and become someone with a soul but before that, he was just a man-shaped clay figure.

Candace Keynard: Exactly. So, when we talk about the Golem of Prague, it's certainly an intriguing legend and even a little bit of a scary story to think about a golem amuck in the streets, but in a religious context, obviously, it's an idea that's very important to the tenets of Jewish mysticism. And, in a historical sense, to take it one step further, it's also important to remember, despite the aspect of the story that includes the golem, that the Jews very much were persecuted in Prague and that they were forced to live in the ghettos and even though the idea of the blood libel is in dispute whether or not the Jewish people were charged with blood libel, it is a facet of history and it's a facet of Prague's history.

Katie Lambert: Well, and it's something that's still important, neo-Nazi's have been on the rise in Germany and in other countries and anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past.

Candace Keynard: Katie, you've raised a very serious question but I do have one last aspect of Nazi history that pertains to the Golem that I think would be an interesting tidbit to leave our readers with. Again, this is all dependent on whether you buy into the golem legend or you ascribe to a religion that supports the idea of the existence of a golem but according to the Golem of Prague's story, he's so fiercely guarded the attic of the old new synagogue where he was kept, where Rabbi Loew put him, that the synagogue stayed intact and no one disturbed it. We're talking about the Gestapo coming through; we're talking about maybe even urban development coming through. This place really withstood it hold in Prague and my favorite story is that when the Nazi soldiers came through and were raising the temples, raising the synagogues, this one was untouched and apparently a few Nazi soldiers got up into the attic of the synagogue where they found the golem and the golem tore them apart limb by limb.

Katie Lambert: I think there's a lesson there.

Candace Keynard: A sobering fact indeed.

Katie Lambert: So, be sure, as always, to email us your feedback and your comments on this podcast and any others. That email address again is historypodcast@howstuffworks.com. And be sure to visit our website for more information on legends and folklore at howstuffworks.com.

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