Monday, May 11, 2009

Prague -- NYTimes Discovers the Golem

Menu, Prague. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

One of the plusses, but also one of the pitfalls, of following certain phenomena for a long period of time is that you trace the development and look at what goes on today with that in mind. Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times has an article about the popularity of the Golem in Prague. It's a cute and lively article, pegged to the economic crisis that has hurt tourism in Prague (the Jewish Museum attendance fell by as much as 40 percent over the winter) as well as to the upcoming celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Jehudah Ben Bezalel Löw (or Loew), the great scholar whom legends recount as the creator of the Golem. But, like several other NYTimes pieces in the past couple years, it plows old ground.

The Golem, according to Czech legend, was fashioned from clay and brought to life by a rabbi to protect Prague’s 16th-century ghetto from persecution, and is said to be called forth in times of crisis. True to form, he is once again experiencing a revival and, in this commercial age, has spawned a one-monster industry.

There are Golem hotels; Golem door-making companies; Golem clay figurines (made in China); a recent musical starring a dancing Golem; and a Czech strongman called the Golem who bends iron bars with his teeth. The Golem has also infiltrated Czech cuisine: the menu at the non-kosher restaurant called the Golem features a “rabbi’s pocket of beef tenderloin” and a $7 “crisis special” of roast pork and potatoes that would surely have rattled the venerable Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Golem’s supposed maker.
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The Golem frenzy in Prague may be taking some new forms, but it erupted in the early 1990s, after the fall of communism opened the country up for tourism, for "things Jewish" and for the commercial infrastructure and exploitation spawned by the tourist demand.

I have written about this in some depth in both Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today. The first section of Doorposts, published in 1994, is a lengthy examination of Jewish Prague, the history, the legends, and the concentric circles of Jewish experience, focusing largely on tourism and on which Jewish aspects were promoted touristically and which were ignored and forgotten.

In both books I described the Golem kitsch, the Golem figures on sale, the contrast between Rabbi Loew as a real scholar and as a mythical Golem-maker, the power of the Golem legend as part of Prague folklore, the Golem restaurant with its non-kosher dishes. In Doorposts, I have a photograph of Golems on sale that is very similar to the one in the Times. For some reason, the Golems on sale in post-Communist Prague have always been modeled on one cinematic version -- the way the Golem appeared in a 1952 Czech movie called The Emperor and the Golem: a menacingly massive and clumsy, almost headless form held together by bolts and a big belt.

In a previous post, I wrote about my friend in Budapest, the late Levente Thury, a ceramic artist who used the Golem motif in all his work. He, like many other artists and writers, was inspired by the Golem because of the implications of the myth: technology spiraling out of control, the foiled attempt to compete with God, the failure to manipulate the universe. "I would like to make things that are a mixture of spiritual and material," he told me. "That is the most important meaning of the golem. The body of the golem is material: clay, stone and earth -- the oldest materials. The message, the amulet, the spell" that brings the golem to life is the spirit. Levent's golems, I wrote in an article about him were compositions of faces, heads and other body parts.

All the parts are distorted to some extent, as if their emergence from the clay was halted before it was finished.

A hand grasps an armless torso. A baby's features form a beautiful face on one side of a partially modeled head. In some pieces, tiny golem figures emerge from larger, partial forms.

The expressions on the faces are serene but soulless. The eyes are unseeing.

There is no explicit violence in the compositions, but the elements of Thury's work are arranged in ways that can be eerie and disturbing -- as well as highly sensual.

"I make the surfaces a little bit raw -- raw human bodies, details of bodies," he told me. "I don't want to make a complete human body. I prefer to make parts."

"They aren't human people, but remembrances of the body," he added. "They have no soul, no wish. The owner, the maker, has to give a soul to them, give direction, like a computer program."

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