What Lies Beyond the Golem, and Why You Should Be Interested

The Golem is probably the most famous Jewish monster out there. He got his first film role in the 1920s, and has had guest appearances in almost any long-running series with a “Monster of the Week”  plot-structure. Whenever an author creates yet another bland kitchen-sink fantasy world, the Golem is there, representing thousands of years of Jewish superstition.  If the number of appearances in the Dungeons&Dragons Monster Manual is any indication of a monster’s success and infamy, the Golem really did fulfil the age-old Jewish dream of making it big in the USA.

This blog is not about the Golem. It’s about the underdogs. Over millennia, Jewish writers created a vast, imaginary world filled with demons, fabulous beasts and demi-human monstrosities, a world where vast deserts cover the open gates of Hell, and where singular individuals can traverse planes of existence and wield awesome powers. Compared to all this, the Golem is just a clumsy block of clay.

I was first exposed to the world of Jewish mysticism when I was 17. I found a copy of biography of 17th-century false Messiah, Shabbetai Zvi. It was written Gershom Scholem, the pioneer of Academic Kabbalah Studies, and was an attempt to reconstruct the world as Zvi perceived it – as a battleground between worldly and heavenly forces, where strange, symbolic rituals could change reality and bring redemption to all. I was shocked. For me, as a secular Jew, Judaism was mostly embodied by the long, droning prayers mumbled half-heartedly during holiday dinners. Now it suddenly became more colourful, and certainly much more interesting.

I want to introduce the English-speaking reader this vast literary tradition which is readily available to speakers of Hebrew. While there are certainly numerous academic publications in English exploring these traditions, I want to make my blog more of an easy reading for folks with short attention spans. I will translate short texts when they’re interesting – the ones that present fantastic elements, creatures or plots – and skip the parts that are not. I will not bother with a perfectly accurate translation, and will completely ignore the word-plays that make an important part of many esoteric texts. I want you to find these texts as fascinating as I did.

In a much debated article, Michael Weingrad asks why there is no Jewish Narnia, why no author takes the rich traditions of Jewish mysticism and uses them as building blocks for modern works of art and fiction.

My answer is that these traditions, once locked in the dusty book cabinets of Beit Hamdirash (the traditional Hall of Study), are now locked in the dusty book cabinets of the Jewish studies departments in American and Israeli universities. This blog is my humble attempt at setting them free.

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About daselkin

A student of linguistics, a resident of Jerusalem and a fan of all things esoteric. Definitely not religious.
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9 Responses to What Lies Beyond the Golem, and Why You Should Be Interested

  1. Rob Donoghue says:

    This is one of the best ideas I’ve seen for a blog in some time, and if the two posts so far are any indication, this is going to be an utter treat to read. Thank you!

    -Rob Donoghue

    • daselkin says:

      Welcome, Rob, and congratulation on being the first to post a comment!

      Thanks for the words of encouragement. If there’s any particular subject you want to read about, please let me know.

  2. I am stoked.

    I’m technically Jewish (through my mother) but was raised secular, so I know very little about my own religion…but ever since I read *The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay* I’ve been imagining stories about a WWII Jewish superhero team. I knew there’d be a rabbi, golem, and angel in the group, but got stuck there. Looking forward to you helping me fill out the roster.

    • daselkin says:

      Hi Jamie,

      You’re not the only one who doesn’t know much about Jewish literary traditions – that’s the whole reason why I started this blog. Hopefully there’ll be enough in here to pique your interest. It’s a rich tradition worth knowing, though not necessarily following.

      Here are a few additions to your superhero team off the top of my head. I’ll probably write on them sometimes in the future, but if you do your own research on one of them and want to share, you’d be welcome to write a guest post.

      * A demon is an obvious choice; they are destructive, but not necessarily evil. A certain circle of demons, the “Shidin Yehudain” (Jewish Demons), are said to protect the Jews during troubled periods of history, such as the First Crusade.

      * Of course, the angles themselves are pretty different from one another. There’s certainly room in the team for both an all-knowing messenger (“Maggid”) and a more human-like entity (“Malach Sharet”).

      * A restless spirit, or a Dibbuk, is a very popular motif in Kabbalistic and Hassidic literature. Their ability to posses unsuspecting Nazis is sure to come in handy.

      * A talking animal is always a popular figure in folk tales. A talking lion is an all-time favourite in Jewish myth, though desperate times might call for the less dignified members of the animal kingdom to take his place.

      * For a more prosaic choice and a good contrast to the rabbi, try a member of the Bund. Basically, they were a group of Jewish gun nuts active in Poland and Russia, and were one of the organizations responsible for the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion.

  3. Lon Sarver says:

    Thank you for this. One of the drawbacks of globalism has been the shrinking (or, at least, Americanizing) of the imaginary sphere. It’s good to see something more come forward.

    • daselkin says:

      Hi Lon,
      I’ve had some internal debate about that statement, but eventually I came to agree with you. I think “other blogs that expand the imaginary sphere” (or another phrasing thereof) will make a good theme for the blogroll. I already mentioned the “Roman Mysteries” in another post – do you know of other such websites?

  4. Carl Klutzke says:

    I’ve been curious about exactly this sort of information, but never knew where to look. I look forward to reading more. Thank you!

  5. Lynda clemons says:

    Thank you for being present.

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