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The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction by Elizabeth R. Baer (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Volume 6, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 73-75 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0008

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Responding to Theodor Adorno’s condemnation of poetry after Auschwitz, Elizabeth Baer urges readers to consider “the viability of imaginative works about the Shoah” (2) in The Golem Redux. But Baer’s work is no gauntlet thrown glibly down to Holocaust scholars, rather she traces the figure of the golem from its first mention in the Psalms to sixteenth-century Prague tales surrounding Rabbi Loew, and on to early twentieth-century versions, in order to support her reading of the golem in post-Holocaust works as a “tribute to Jewish imagination and imaginative literature.” (3) The role of the post-Holocaust golem, she asserts, is “to affirm the viability and authority of the imagination, of story, and of creativity.” (12)

Baer’s discussions of language and word anchor her focus on intertextuality in later golem works as a vehicle for creativity. In her first chapter dealing with the Jewish tradition of the golem—and as a prelude to her discussion of intertextuality—she highlights both the speechlessness of the traditional golem figure, and the animating Hebrew words emeth (truth) or aemaet (life) that deanimate the golem when a letter is removed, resulting in meth, “death.” Baer’s four subsequent chapters treat, in order, pre-Holocaust non-English appropriations (Meyerink’s 1915 novel Der Golem, Wegener’s 1920 film Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam, and Duvivier’s 1936 film Le Golem: the Legend of Prague), post-Holocaust traditional retellings (Bashevis Singer’s 1969 and 1982 The Golem, Wiesel’s 1983 The Golem, and Sherwood’s 2002 The Book of Splendor), portrayals in comic books and graphic novels (Marvel Comics 1970s Golem issues, Sturm’s 2001 The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Hamill’s 1997 Snow in August, and Chabon’s 2000 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), and recent intertextually-rich golem manifestations (Ozick’s 1997 The Puttermesser Papers, Rosenbaum’s 2002 The Golems of Gotham, The X Files’s 1997 “Kaddish” episode and Handler’s 2000 Watch Your Mouth.) Certainly any work devoted to a figure as ubiquitous as the golem cannot claim to be exhaustive, but Baer enhances her work with an annotated bibliography of other golem texts in her epilogue.

Throughout her analysis, Baer argues for the golem as the manifestation of the creative urge, both artistically and, as in Sherwood and Ozick, sexually. This particular focus, which culminates in a discussion of post-Holocaust golem tales, establishes her study as something more than a well-researched catalogue of golem-retellings. In her approach to each text, Baer summarizes the work—including the details of the golem creation ceremony as a parallel to artistic creation—and skillfully addresses important themes that emerge in connection to the Holocaust. Her discussion of the most recent works proceeds thematically rather than chronologically, and she hones in on the significant differences among retellings, situating them in their socio-historical context. Although Baer’s comparison of Singer and Wiesel’s similarities strays into the realm of the irrelevant when she notes, for example, that both “enjoyed visiting Miami” (81), her biographical notes about the authors serve to locate their works in a specific setting. Her analysis thus provides insight into both the development of the figure and the malleability of its meaning, while acknowledging other golem scholars (87) and their contribution to the evolution of the figure.

Baer’s treatment of the early twentieth-century German appropriations is particularly interesting in its handling of the nationalism inherent in popular culture surrounding the First World War and the transition to Weimar Germany. The tension between scientific and romantic sensibilities common to late nineteenth-century horror literature fed into apprehensions concerning the dehumanizing technologically-advanced battles of the First World War. On one very general level, early twentieth century literary monsters can be read as critiques of industrialization and science by a conservative central European populace terrified of the modern world. At this time, the “Jewish monster” became notorious in the context of central European nationalisms, and an accompanying anti-semitism finds voice in both Meyrink and Wegener’s versions. In spite of her criticism of Meyrink’s and Wegener’s appropriation of a Jewish legend for popular consumption, Baer is not...

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