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Jewish Journal

Clay Feat

by Michael Aushenker

April 17, 2003 | 8:00 pm

It may have been a silent film, but Paul Wegener made an international noise with "Der Golem." The 1920 German Expressionist classic -- screening April 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center -- remains a popular incarnation of the Golem. But it was not the first, nor the last, interpretation of the Jewish folk tale to permeate pop culture.

According to legend, Rabbi Yehuda Loew created the powerful automaton from clay to protect Jews from enemies such as Emperor Rudolf II in 16th-century Prague. The cautionary tale underscores how Loew's attempt to play God backfires when he loses control of it and is killed by his own creation.

Wegener's film surfaced after Gustav Meyrink's 1914 novel "Der Golem." Born Gustav Meyer, Meyrink, the illegitimate son of a baron and a Jewish actress, wrote "Der Golem" out of a fascination with the occult that developed following a suicide attempt.

While the Golem appears only briefly and symbolically in Meyrink's novel, the legend clearly informs Mary Shelley's 1816 masterpiece "Frankenstein." Gershom Scholem explored the myth in his essay, "The Idea of the Golem," as did Isaac Bashevis Singer in his novel "Golem." More recently, the Prague Golem was a subplot of Michael Chabon's 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Literature notwithstanding, the Golem's water-fetching fiasco inspired the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of Disney's 1940 animated feature, "Fantasia." The Golem has been a catalyst for superheroes like the Hulk and marked a memorable "X-Files" episode, in which a librarian misinforms David Duchovny that the Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation) explains how to create a golem.

The Old-New Synagogue, the Golem's long-rumored resting place, and Golem merchandise still generate tourist dollars in Prague. So what is the continuing fascination with this story?

"Mendy & The Golem" comics creator Tani Pinson believes that the secret of its enduring popularity lies with the character's identity -- as malleable as the clay that spawned it.

"He is so open to interpretation," Pinson said. "And people can seek the Golem within themselves."

The Skirball presents a newly restored print of "Der Golem," featuring a score by Israeli composer Betty Olivero and live accompaniment by the Armadillo Quartet, on April 21 at 8 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

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