Feature story Historical sites

The Prague Golem revisited

A formidable monster of clay protects the Jewish community of Prague since the 16th century. It sleeps in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, the oldest active Synagogue in Europe, ready to be summoned again.

The Golem of Prague was a feat of sorcery. Life was given to a large clay man who became a powerful slave to its master, the famous Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel), who then controlled this monster without a will of its own. There are various versions of the legend, of course, and in most of them the monster is very effective but eventually turn on its master, wrecking havoc.

Just as alchemy, the Golem story is a major theme for the Prague visitor, which can hardly be avoided. I ended up gazing curiously at the attic of the Old New Synagogue, eating Golem cakes and bringing a nice little clay figure home with me.

old new
The Old New Synagogue of Prague, from the 1270s. A Golem sleeps in the attic, some say.

The Golem narrative is a great story, and just as alchemy it fits very well with the gothic blocks of Prague old town. Why shouldn’t there be a mystical clay monster roaming these cobbled streets? Why shouldn’t the masterful Rabbi Loew have made one? Its moral is great too – those who create powerful monsters must beware of them turning on their masters.

The general idea of Golems is much older than the story in Prague and emerged from biblical and Kabbalist Jewish texts. The coming alive of clay monsters seems to have been a legend occurring in several places in medieval Eastern Europe. As laid out in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe vol 4 (edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope & John Neubauer, 2004), the Golem, in fact, didn’t come to Prague until the early 19th century. It was brought alive not by Rabbi Loew but by the Bohemian Jewish community, trying to establish a new literary tradition.

The Golem story got very popular. It was probably the basis for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and for numerous similar sci-fi plots such as in Bladerunner or the Terminator series.

A fantastic story, the current Golem presence for tourism purposes in Prague is also a sad reminder of an absence. The absence of once vibrant Jewish life here. Some managed to escape, but estimations say that about two thirds of the Jews in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were murdered in the Holocaust and no Golem rose to protect them.

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