A Lost Original Springs Up Anew
The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague
By Yudl Rosenberg
Edited and translated by Curt Leviant
Yale University Press, 256 pages, $25.
In our sci-fi era of real commercial robots, which can be programmed to vacuum and to act as surrogate pets, the Jewish legend of the 16th-century rescuer Golem of Prague has regained resonance and relevance. Some readers will know of the golem as a concept from rabbinic study. According to Yiddish translator and novelist Curt Leviant, the origin of the word goes back 3,000 years, if not longer. It makes its debut in Psalm 139, verse 16, which Leviant translates as, “Your eyes have seen my unformed limbs [or embryo, golmi].” Centuries later, Leviant continues, “the word as we know it, golem, is used in the Talmud, where it means ‘unshaped matter’ or ‘unfinished creation,’ and, in one case, in Ethics of the Fathers 5:9, the opposite of a wise man — a boor, a simpleton, which anticipates the much later evocative Yiddish expression ‘leymener geylem’ (literally, a clay golem) to signify a fool.” Between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, oral tradition concerning the invention of various golems flourished in Europe, particularly in Spain and Germany.
Many other readers, however, will know of the golem tradition from popular culture of the past 100 years: the 1915 German novel by Gustav Meyrink called “The Golem”; or the 1921 Yiddish verse drama of the same name by H. Leivick; or the silent German expressionist film “Der Golem,” which stars its director, Paul Wegener; or the 1936 French film “Le Golem,” directed by Julien Duvivier; or literary salutes to the golem by Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel, or the operas and ballets on the theme made throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
And yet, what English-language readers heretofore have not known is the little book of fictions, “Niflo’es Maharal,” which gave birth to many of these modern renderings. In Leviant’s usefully annotated new translation, “The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague,” that lost original springs up once again, elevating the reputation of its forgotten author, Polish-born Orthodox rabbi and writer Yudl Rosenberg (1859-1935), in the process. Altogether, he authored 27 books, this being one of them; however, by the time he died in his adopted country of Canada, he had little reputation as a literary presence, even though his volume of golem tales had been an international best-seller.
And a best-seller with good reason: Rosenberg’s “Golem and the Wondrous Deeds” has turned out to be a butterfly-delicate masterpiece, an enchanting collection of linked stories that purport to chronicle miraculous adventures in the life of a real personage, Rabbi Morenu Ha-Rav Loew (1525-1609) of Prague, whose popular moniker, “the Maharal,” was an acronym derived from his full name. The stories — which the preface in the first, 1909 edition by “the publisher, the insignificant Yudl Rosenberg of Warsaw” insists were historical chronicles written by the Maharal’s son-in-law — evolve from the following premise: In order to help protect the city’s Jews from the concocted charge against them by non-Jews of blood libel (that is, the accusation that Jews ritually slaughter Christian children in order to harvest their blood for Passover matzo), at 4 a.m. on the 20th of Adar in the year 1580, the Maharal, with two assistants, used loam, clay and mystical rites to create a sweet-tempered golem in “the form of a man, three cubits long” named Yossele. They endowed the robotlike creature with superhuman stamina, sight and hearing, as well as sufficient understanding to carry out direct orders, but not with the capacity for speech. As the stories have it, once Prague’s benevolent King Rudolf was led to decree a prohibition against trials for blood libel, the Maharal and his assistants reversed their mystical rites, causing the death of the golem; they hid his body in the attic of the Great Synagogue (where, legend has it, the body still resides).
Rosenberg wrote his stories in what his translator describes as “rabbinic Hebrew into which lines from the Bible, the Talmud, the liturgy, and occasionally, phrases from the Kabbalah, blend seamlessly.” A reader of both biblical and modern Hebrew as well as Russian, Rosenberg also was widely read in secular literature, including scientific studies, and, in the manner of such authors as Defoe and Swift — whose works he apparently read in Russian translations, along with Dostoyevsky — he presented the golem stories as the text of an old book that he had found in a fictitious library. (Leviant explains that Rosenberg erased his authorship because fiction, in his milieu, was considered frivolous.) The stories embody a variety of literary genres associated with the development of the novel from the 17th century through the 19th, among them the detective story, the ghost story, the domestic comedy, even, here and there, the parable, which Franz Kafka would plumb so deeply; yet, despite the possibilities for much darker material and treatment, Rosenberg’s touch is very light. There is a heartbreaking Romeo and Juliet romance whose happy ending is achieved by hardworking transformations, and an unsettling tale about the Jewish owner of a tannery and his non-Jewish workers, whose murderous resentment the owner somewhat helps to provoke.
Throughout the stories, whenever the Maharal’s congregants are in danger he advises them to read the Psalms. This seems quite appropriate, since many of the characters and plots seem to be dramatizations of themes from those poems as well as from the Book of Esther, in which lying evil is uncovered and punished and innocence rediscovered and enthroned, something for which the psalmist poets pray. A decade before Rosenberg first published his golem stories, there had been, indeed, a horrendous blood-libel case brought against Jews in the vicinity of Prague, and that certainly would have been in the memories of the earliest readers for “The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds.” But as Leviant observes, Rosenberg’s depiction of the non-Jewish government in the Maharal’s Prague — its good and sympathetic king, its fair enforcers of the law — contains no complaint of institutionalized antisemitism, as was, for example, the case in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia. His imaginative world proceeds according to the ideals one finds in the Psalms. His fiction is neither realistic nor naturalistic: It is fantastical, and, in its vision of universal justice and wry humor, it gives its readers hope.
Mindy Aloff leads seminars in dance criticism and the personal essay at Barnard College. She is currently at work on “Hippo in a Tutu,” a study of the dance sources of historic Disney animated films, for Disney Editions.