Golem Meets ‘Taxi Driver’ in New Novel

By Saul Austerlitz

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Golem Song
By Marc Estrin
Unbridled Books, 320 pages, $15.95.


For Rabbi Loew, the legendary maker of the original Prague-based golem, his creation was a photographic negative of the studious, passive Jew: muscular rather than atrophied; doltish rather than learned; a man of action, not of words. For Alan Krieger, antihero of Marc Estrin’s novel “Golem Song,” the rabbi is indeed a role model. But rather than craft a helper out of clay, Alan’s goal is to turn himself into a golem of sorts, defending his town (New York City) from the onslaught of Jew haters and potential killers stalking the streets. That no one has asked him to do so, and that most of the threats seem to emerge from within the folds of his own tattered psyche, is beside the point.

The real golem -maker here is not Alan but Estrin. With his third novel, he has found the perfect vessel for his gifts — a relentlessly punning, quoting autodidact, content with no one else gleaning his references to obscure 19th-century operas and Russian literature. Estrin’s gift for bending language finds its ideal agent in Alan the subway kabbalist, lover of learning and amateur vigilante. Alan begins the book as a jovial raconteur, playfully bantering with his lady friends, with his mother, and even with his success-story brother, Walter. Juggling two girlfriends and a stressful job as an emergency-room nurse, Alan seems like a typical casually abrasive New Yorker, fond of the sound of his own voice complaining as a means of letting off steam.

As the book progresses, and Alan’s diatribes gather force, it becomes clear that Alan is more than just a stressed-out professional; one of Estrin’s inspired strategies is allowing his readers to slowly come to grips with their protagonist’s own loose grip on sanity. Charming as Alan may be, he is also a vicious racist, in thought if not yet in action, who sees African Americans as the source of all of American society’s ills, and as the major threat to maintaining Jewish life in New York — if not worldwide.
Alan’s two girlfriends, Jewish social worker Debbie and German psychoanalyst Ursula, both play along with Alan for a while, but his complaints about rap music, crime rates and antisemitic patients grow wearisome, and Ursula bails on him in favor of an African American convert to Judaism. “I’m not your doctor,” she tells him, “but I think you’re bordering on pathological narcissism and just barely holding in your aggression.” Trapped as we are inside Alan’s psyche, his funhouse-mirror version of the city begins to appear genuine — a roiling maelstrom of racial tension and antisemitic hatred. Strolling in the park one weekend afternoon, Alan comes upon a black-nationalist assembly followed in close order by a neo-Nazi rally, with four out of five white and black supremacists agreeing that Jews are the true cause of all their problems. Alan’s patients in the E.R. appear similarly threatening, putting his livelihood and his life in danger. And the fact that Alan has informed one particularly uncooperative patient, while immobilized by a muscle relaxant, that he was due for an impromptu eunuchization, does not enter into his ledgers.

Alan pays verbal obeisance to his new fighting ideal, inspired by the golem of Prague and Israeli soldiers, seeing their muscular Judaism as an escape from the prison-house of words. And yet Alan, whose last name means “warrior” in Yiddish, can do little other than celebrate the supposed splendor of violence via another feverish flight of words: “But hell, why not a new testament — and I’m not talking about Paul’s epileptic ravings and Jesus’s mishegas — I’m talking about the norm of a new kind of Jew, no more bent-over rabbis but patriotic, bronzed warriors, kicking ass and transvaluating values. It’s time for the Viconian age of the post-schlimiel!”

“Alan Krieger… golem of the Grand Concourse, savior of the Jews,” as he describes himself, sees the Jewish mission of healing the broken world as a new, ugly but necessary round of ethnic cleansing, bringing peace to the Jews via genocide: “We need to take on evil where it lives, some bigtime fall cleaning, straighten up the house, even if it means getting messy.” Alan’s racism, which began as merely uncomfortable, descends deeper and deeper into ugliness, bottoming out with this vision of mass genocide of African Americans as a means of saving American, and Jewish, society.

Estrin’s protagonist is a troubling character, delusional but entirely coherent within his own tightly enclosed worldview. “Golem Song” does a fine job of capturing the loping rhythms of Alan’s mindset, which leaps from his craving for a sack of White Castle hamburgers to his musings on the evils of African American culture to Travis Bickle-esque fantasies of murder. It is only once the Joycean wordplay and the buoyant good cheer have lured us inside that we realize we are trapped with a delusional maniac. For this golem, who seeks to defend the promised land of the Grand Concourse, now laid waste by marauders, the demons and devils live only inside the confines of his own brain.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Forward.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.