The Golem

The legend of the golem (or goylem – גולם) of Prague, a clay figure supposedly brought to life by the 16th-century Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew), has served as inspiration for many writers and dramatists through the years.

In 1921, seven years after the release of Gustav Meyrink’s German-language novel Der Golem and one year after Paul Wegener’s silent film, Yiddish writer H. Leivick published his own work, Der goylem: a dramatishe poeme in akht bilder (The Golem: A Dramatic Poem in Eight Scenes) in New York. As with many of the publications by writers of “Di Yunge,” the original edition of Der goylem was gorgeously illustrated, in this case with woodcuts by the Bialystok-born artist Max Weber.

Max Weber created a woodcut for each of the eight scenes of Leivick’s Der goylem. From right to left we see “leym” (Clay), “vent” (Walls), “durkh finsternish” (Through Darkness), “betler” (Beggars), “nit gerufene” (The Unbidden), “antplekungen” (Revelations), “in heyl” (In the Cave), and “di letste shlikhes” (The Last Mission).

In his play, Leivick went beyond the basic theme of hubris commonly associated with the legend, introducing new characters and Christian motifs to create what Joseph Landis called “a play about mankind’s yearning for redemption…a play in which Jews, as bearers of a redemption in peace and justice, suffer because that vision runs counter to the ways of the world.” Since 1921, writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Cynthia Ozick to Michael Chabon, have drawn on the Golem in their own works, but perhaps none have produced as complex or compelling a depiction as H. Leivick.

GOLEM:

I know you will not hear my plea.
Therefore I come to give you warning—
And let my warning be a plea. 
The whole night through you created me;
With coldness and with cruelty you shaped me.
How good it was to be mere clay,
To lie, lifeless and calm,
Among the sands and stones of earth
Between eternities.

MAHARAL:

Now vanish to your refuge, Figure,
And take your fear of life,
Your sorrow, with you to your lair.
When the hour of wonders comes
As soon as night retreats before the eastern sun,
Then, too, will your despair retreat.
For I was sent by God to knead you,
Disjoin you from the stony earth
And with the first ray that lights the sky
Breathe into you the breath of life.
Translated by Joseph C. Landis

Watch Yanek Lewin performing Leivick’s “Der goylem” in an old video from the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club: