The Golem All Around Me
A self-described Golemologist returns to the city where this mythical creature ruled centuries ago--and still does today
I'm back in Prague, where, thanks to the ubiquitous Internet café, I can report that the Golem is alive and well.
The Golem is a magical creature made of mud. According to legend, the great Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague made such a golem from the mud of the river Vltava, and used it to defend the Jews of his time against the blood libel, the oft-recurring accusation that Jews bake matzah with the blood of a Christian child.
The Hebrew word golem occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible--Psalm 139:16--where it means, perhaps, "unformed matter." However, perhaps to make up for that, the concept of the golem became an object of intense study among kabbalists, and later the "unformed matter" spawned legends that grew into novels, short stories, films, comic books, television programs, plays, and, in Prague at least, a restaurant (The Golem) and strange pieces of ceramic.
Golems are everywhere here in Prague. There is a seven-foot brown golem holding a tray of leaflets outside the Precious Legacy tours on Sirkoa Street in the Jewish quarter. There is the outline of a golem in black and white tile in front of the aforementioned restaurant on Meiselova (which also serves a dish called "Rabbi's Pocket," which consists of cheese and ham in a pastry).
I read the menu in the window and I puzzle: Is the Rabbi's Pocket culinary sarcasm or genuine ignorance or some combination of both? What does it say about Czechs and Jews, and Czech Jews, if anything? The Golem restaurant has wooden menorah motifs at the corner of every booth, like wagon wheels in a Western restaurant. Likewise, there is a menorah and tallis displayed in the Kafka Café, of all places. It is stunning to me as a Jew to be a motif, a decor.
As a true golemologist, however, I know the real Golem of Prague is a heap of dust in the inaccessible attic of the Alt Neu Shul--the oldest standing synagogue in Central Europe, dating to 1270. The shul is an almost rustic-looking white building from the outside, with its orange ceramic-tile roof, but its sunken interior reveals the world's only genuine Gothic synagogue. When I come back to Prague, my first stop is always the rear of the synagogue. I stand on the street where Kafka once lived (and where he wrote his stunning story "The Judgment") and look at the rear wall of the Alt Neu Shul, whose name translates to "The Old New Synagogue." I follow a series of metal rungs--like huge staples--that climb up the wall. They end at the attic, at a small green door with a Jewish star but no door handle. Clearly the Golem--or what's left of him--lives behind that door.