Two Takes On the Golem
Retold and Illustrated by David Wisniewski
This is an extraordinarily beautiful book which tells the story of the Golem, a giant made from the earth and given life by the Cabalist Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the year 1580. This story has been around for many centuries, and is considered to be the forerunner of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
There are no scientists here, however, only Cabalists and practitioners of the occult. Once the giant is raised and given its marching orders – to destroy the enemy – it does not then go quietly into the night.
“Your purpose is at an end,” says Rabbi Loew, standing on the balcony and considering the many hundreds of graves strewn below.
The towering Golem asks if he will remember this day.
“No. You will be clay.”
“Then I shall not obey you,” responds the creature, his forehead still marked with the Hebrew letters which gave him life.
The book is illustrated with incredibly detailed cut-paper, and the scope it offers is thrilling. Wisniewski is equal to the task of creating extreme close-ups in which we see both the sorrow and the bloodlust present within the Golem, and also city scenes with seemingly several hundred tiny figures rushing through the streets, brandishing torches.
The Golem (1976)
Retold and Illustrated by Beverly Brodsky McDermott
Gouache, watercolor, dye and ink on watercolor paper
The Golem rises again – 20 years earlier – in this splendid, beautifully chilling picture book. I say ‘rises again’ because of this enigmatic passage as the Golem slowly awakens:
The Rabbi stretched himself over the Golem and gave him the breath of life. The Golem’s eyes opened wide. His memory awakened. There had been another time and another Rabbi long ago.
There is never mention of this again, but I like that it casts the tale in a continuum of tales. This has happened before, this will happen again.
McDermott’s interpretation of the tale is very simple, yet filled with symbology. The Hebrew alphabet appears on nearly every page in different forms… on an ancient book clutched by an aging rabbi, on the forehead of the great beast itself, above the synagogues and in the angry mobs. Letters are not just letters in this cabalistic tale, of course. Each character of the Hebrew alphabet is imbued with deep, resonant mysticism.
She begins with a quote from Martin Buber:
The origin of the world is dust, and man has been placed in it that he may raise the dust to spirit. But his end is dust and time and again it is the end where he fails, and everything crumbles into dust.
That, of course, is the basic story of the Golem, but gives it such a large context its almost staggering.
The Golem itself is large and nearly shapeless. She gives it only the very minutest of form. Once it is given life, it spends it days in relative peace.
As the days passed, the Golem became a familiar presence everywhere. He often went to the synagogue and heard the songs of the people.
Every Sabbath he visited each house in the ghetto and lit the hearth fires.
He watched over the preparations for the Seder, the Passover feast that celebrates the time long ago when God helped Moses free the Jews who were slaves in Egypt.
This peace does not last, and soon the Golem is called upon to pursue his true purpose. In a sudden rage, the Gentiles turn on their Jewish neighbors, accusing them of killing their children and using the blood to make their matzos. (This is a concept which I’ve seen come up time and time again, most recently in Will Eisner’s The Plot). “The Jews are a plague on our lives!” shout the angry mob. “Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!”
McDermott now completely alters the look of the Golem. He grows larger, resembles a towering pillar of sand, his face distorts in rage. He is surrounded by burning buildings and tiny humans… whom he crushes with powerful blows. Then he levels their houses, he rips trees from the earth. He is seen as a fierce maelstrom moving through the city, larger than any Godzilla, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake. It is only when he begins lifting powerful boulders and throwing them at the fleeing survivors that the Rabbi Lev runs after him and commands him to return to dust. “His mouth opened wide and the Name of God tumbled forth.”
That is all it takes for the Golem to be destroyed, to return to the dirt of the earth.
“As I explored the mysteries of the Golem an evolution took place,” McDermott writes in the introduction. “At first, he resembled something human. Then he was transformed. His textured body became a powerful presence lurking in dark corners, spilling out of my paintings. In the end he shatters into pieces of clay-color and returns to the earth. All that remains is the symbol of silence.”