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.
In case I need any reassurance of that fact, I stroll around to a nearby alley, where postcards, T-shirts, and miniature Golems of Prague are sold--and find the booth for Chabad Lubavitch. I speak to a young Chabadnik visiting from South Africa, and I ask about the Golem.
He mentions a letter from the rebbe--by which he means the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, whom he refers to nevertheless as though alive. The letter speaks of the rebbe's father-in-law (Rabbi Joseph Yitzhak Schneersohn, d. 1950), who as a young man bribed the gabbai--spiritual caretaker--of the synagogue and went up into the attic to see the Golem.
His father gave him hell for that, because the great Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague had issued a herem--a Jewish form of excommunication--to any who ventured to see the remains of the Golem. "You have made a lot of work for me," he said to his son.
The story proved beyond doubt to the young Chabadnik that the Golem was there, or else why else would the rebbe write such a letter, and why would Rabbi Judah Loew have issued a herem in the first place? He added that the first Lubavitcher rebbe was himself a descendant of the great Rabbi Judah Loew.
Perhaps some will find the logic circular. But for myself, in Prague, I feel differently. Before World War II there were 120,000 Czech Jews, and today there are 6,000. Walking through a Jewish Quarter that is no more Jewish than the French Quarter in New Orleans is French, surrounded by synagogues that are mostly museums and by Jewish symbols in a place with few living Jews, I think there's no harm in conjuring a real golem in the dust behind a certain green metal door.