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.