Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Golem Stories

Two famous books about the golem of Prague:
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1914), translated by Mike Mitchell
  • The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague by Yudl Rosenberg (1909), translated by Curt Leviant.
Pursuing my fascination with the development of the golem story, I've recently read both of these books. Each one has an extremely useful and fascinating introduction, offering insights about the authors' originality and background.

I believe that both books had great influence on the huge number of adaptations and appropriations of the Golem story during the last 100 years -- a history that's documented in detail in Wikipedia (accuracy as always unknown and stability of the article unpredictable).

Meyrink's Golem tale is phantasmagorical. The narrator sees words in a book emerge like living creatures. The houses of Prague appear to him to squat like animals. The narrator is never even certain of his own identity.

The appearance of Meyrink's golem is preceded by "eerie portents which presage the irruption of that spectre into the physical world." (p. 59) And people who see the golem are paralyzed with fear at the sight of the hulking figure with a smooth, round head. They are never sure they have witnessed its presence, which manifests only every 33 years.

You can read Meyrink's book as one of those dreams where you keep waking up but you wake up into another dream, becoming more and more disoriented and frightened, and indeed the character of the Puppetmaster, a tale teller in the story, says: "dreams carry within them dark truths, which when I am awake, glimmer faintly in the depths of my soul like the after-images of brightly coloured fairy tales." (p 42)

Yudl Rosenberg's Golem is narrated by an eyewitness to the legendary events in Prague in the days of Rabbi Judah Loew. Rosenberg invented many of the now-classic heroic deeds in which the Rabbi outsmarted the antisemites of Prague by using the Golem to do his bidding. The golem had an invisibility cloak and massive strength, two features that made him especially effective in carrying out his trickster duties and revealing the machinations of Jew-hating evildoers to the more sympathetic authorities. Rosenberg was so effective at making his original tales sound like old legends that most people attribute his creations to folklore.

These two approaches to the Golem as either a figure of fearful danger or as a helpful tool in protecting the Jews are both very fascinating. The straightforward folkish narrative style of Rosenberg contrasts to Meyrink's unreliable narrator: a man who isn't sure of his own identity, much less capable of really explaining what's happening to him. So many other approaches to the idea of a Golem have followed, from serious treatments to those bordering on silliness -- a literary history to savor, I think.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"On the Eve"

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein is a magnificent book but almost unbearable to read. Organized in a fascinating way, the book documents the disintegration of Jewish life in Europe. Each topic is handled brilliantly, in my opinion. The sketches of life in cities with important Jewish populations, the description of the lives of the religious and the assimilated, of luftmenchen, of women, of young people, of various political sides, of scholarly organizations and secular organizations, of social life and work life, and of many other trends are all fascinating. But in each case, the promises of belonging to the greater European society, the promises that Jews had believed in earlier in the twentieth century, were all betrayed as antisemitism took over European thought -- and not solely in Germany.

The Jews' growing consciousness of what was coming, and their ineffective efforts to escape, as well as of the efforts of Jews elsewhere (and the indifference and hostility of so many non-Jews) are harrowing. Wasserstein quotes a number of poems and statements showing how aware and desperate the Jewish people became. For example, a 1938 poem titled "Unser shtetl brent" -- Our town is burning." He quotes both the Yiddish and the translation:
"Everything around is on fire!
And you stand and stare
with folded arms,
and you stand and stare.
Our town is burning."
-- Mordkhe Gebirtig (p. 50)
The last two paragraphs of the book -- unbearable:

"They might be captains of their souls but they were not masters of their fate. Theirs was, for the most part, the agitated ineffectuality of flies sealed in a bottle, slowly suffocating. 
"Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the even of their destruction, waited for the barbarians." (p. 436)
I knew the outlines of this horrific part of history. But the details are important, if you can stand to learn about them.