“Twenty-two are the letters, the foundation of all things.”
It was in the Fall that he began to think about the Golem. The subject had been preying on his mind for several months. But the effect had been unconscious. He had not really thought about the Golem before then. But the Golem had been thinking of him. Little claws were working their way through his brain. They scuttled below the surface of the conscious and unconscious. The dividing line between sleeping and waking. Several times in his dreams he had glimpsed looming figures. They were black and gray, surrounded with a blurred aura that defeated his attempts at recognition. The figures were hulking and grotesque. They were in the image of a man. But the man was impossibly wide. Broad in all its limbs. Thick as if it were formed of bricks. And they did not move like men. Their movements were slow, unwieldy, and strange. They moved like something between an automaton and a human being. They never spoke. They never came close. They were always glimpsed at a distance of perhaps ten or fifteen feet. Only on one occasion did one of them approach him. It leaned forward and appeared to reach out one of its square arms toward him. At that point he awoke. But found that he was not frightened. He had felt no sense of menace in the dream. Only the recognition that he had seen something very strange. That his mind was taunting him with impossibilities.
It was in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that the possibility occurred to him that it was the Golem. And then he began to think about the Golem. The rains had already come to Tel Aviv. On cold nights he had sat by his window and watched the water descend across the glass. His air conditioner hummed and coughed. The downpour outside remained unperturbed. The wind occasionally shook the pane. Sometimes lightening flashed and he heard the rumble of thunder. And he thought about the Golem.
There was a message from her sometime in the night. The time difference would have meant he didn’t catch it. But he was awake and he did. It was a recitation of the days events. It excluded, for the most part, her husband. That was a kind of delicacy. They had known each other for so long that it was longer than she knew her husband. He knew her when she was a small, desperately insecure teenager with a penchant for self-harm. They had kissed once when they were both 16. Then there was silence between them for a long time. It was suddenly broken three years ago. Out of the blue came a message that simply said, Hi. How’s it going? He replied that he was fine. They had corresponded every day since then. Each morning he looked for her nightly email. Sometimes he was still awake when they came.
He replied to her that he was thinking about the Golem. He knew she would be moderately interested. So he ran down the few facts that he knew:
The Golem: A mystical anthropoid that looms large in the legendaria of the Kabbalah. According to the myth it is constructed of clay, mud, or dirt, and then given life by a series of mystical incantations, usually combinations of the Hebrew letters and/or the various names of God. These manipulations are based in the mystical theology of the Sefer Yitzirah (the Book of Creation), the foundational text of the Kabbalah, which holds that God created the world through the incantation of the Hebrew alphabet. The Golem has the form of a man but lacks a soul. Usually portrayed as unintelligent and at times violent. The most well-known variant of the legend is that of the Golem of Prague, supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal) of Prague in order to defend the Jewish community against antisemitic violence. The Maharal’s Golem eventually ran amok in the Ghetto and had to be destroyed. This was done by effacing the letter Aleph from the word Emet (truth) on the creature’s forehead, leaving the word Met (dead). Another variant of the legend suggests that the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire begged the Maharal to destroy the Golem. The great rabbi then put the creature to sleep in the attic of the Great Synagogue, where he sleeps to this day, awaiting another summons when the Jews are once again in peril. Entrance to the attic of the remains of the Great Synagogue remains forbidden. The legend has been the basis of several stage and screen adaptations, but is now considered to be primarily a 19th century literary forgery.
He pressed Send. With the time difference, she would be awake to receive it. Even though it would be late in America. Perhaps in between the time she put her daughter to sleep and went to bed she would read it. Then she would write back. That would take some time as well. Even if she decided to answer right away. He would see her response when he woke up the next morning.
He spent some time surfing the web after that. Nothing caught his eye. He considered indulging in pornography, but felt too weary for onanism. He put Chopin’s nocturnes on and went to bed. He dreamt for some time. In this dream, the rain was pouring down like the Mabul, the great flood. Allenby Street had become a river. Even in his sleep, he thought that it was an old film. In it, an escaped lunatic obsessed with jackhammers begins tearing up Allenby street. The local bureaucracy decides someone must have ordered it. The wheels start turning. With no accountability, no coordination, and officials enmeshed in ego and infighting, the municipality joins in the digging. Eventually, the digging reaches the sea and Allenby is flooded. The municipal establishment promptly names it the Allenby Canal. The film concludes with a dedication ceremony complete with water sports. Above the assembled dignitaries was Herzl’s admonition, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Satire of the highest level. Then the one official who realizes what actually happened is carried off to an insane asylum. After all, he must be delusional to gainsay the municipal establishment. With its plans, its projects, and its forms in quintuplicate. As he is driven past Kings of Israel Square, the hapless official glimpses the madman. The brutalist edifice of the Town Hall looming over him. He is happily ramming his jackhammer into the concrete plaza. It is all beginning again. And the official laughs. Laughs like the lunatic he is soon to become. At least officially. The forms will call him mad. So he will be mad. It is that simple.
And Kings of Israel Square became, in the end, Rabin square. Things change.
His dream was different than the film. The film occurs in broad Mediterranean daylight. In his dream it was fearfully dark. A brown-grey dark. The stars and moon blotted out by yellow polluted crowds. The water cascades over the asphalt and the sidewalks. Chairs and supermarket carts flew by. Caught in the rush of waters. But standing astride the waters, just where the angles of the street bore down in perfect symmetry to zero point, was the Golem. It seemed much larger than before. Its thick stone limbs braced against the current. As the debris swept past, it remained immovable. The water frothed and spattered around its legs like marble pillars. He squinted. Trying to determine the Golem’s features. But his glasses were soaked. The reflections from the streetlights radiated like stars against the wet lenses. He could see only the looming silhouette. Unmoving. Absolute. A wall. The lightening flashed. He heard thunder. It sounded like the report that sounded when Iron Dome struck its target. A popping, snapping, cracking sound. It shook the windows and the walls. He awoke covered in sweat.
The light outside was a dull yellow. The infected overcast of a polluted city. Smog. It was not uncommon. It was a humid city. And humidity catches poison as well as moisture. Or at least poisoned moisture. He tumbled out of bed. The sheets were wet. He spread them out to dry. There was no point in changing them. He often awoke drenched after a night of strange dreams. If he changed the sheets every time there would be no end to it. A girlfriend had once convinced him to use carpet scent on them. He rarely did so. It really only mattered if he was going to fuck somebody who might be put off by the smell. And no one had fucked in his bed for quite a while.
He stumbled to the kitchen counter. He made himself some Turkish coffee. The kind where you put the grains in and drown them in hot water. It leaves a brown sludge at the bottom. They called it “mud coffee” sometimes. Precisely for that reason. He liked it because it was easy. He was a lazy man. He was aware of it. He had many character flaws. This early in the morning there was no need to go through them.
He sat in front of his computer. He lit the first cigarette of the day. The nicotine hit him and he felt complete again. It was his one vice. His one addiction. And he persisted in it. One needed a vice. At least, like any addict, that was how he rationalized the desire. He smoked a pack and a half a day. In one dream, he and the Golem had shared a cigarette. But it was too dark for him to see the Golem’s face. There was only its deep silhouette and the red circle of fire when it inhaled. For a moment, he had thought the Golem might speak. But it did not. That time too he woke up in a sweat.
There was no message from her. He tapped ash into the tray and thought about that. She almost never left his messages unanswered. Had he said something wrong? That was impossible. It was all about the Golem. And there was nothing about the Golem to offend anyone. But women were offended by the strangest things. You could never tell. He had often wished he were telepathic. So he would know that when a woman says “it’s fine,” he would know if it really was fine. Because usually it wasn’t. And she would never tell you. It was enough to make you paranoid. And he already had tendencies in that direction.
His paranoid tendencies were one of the reasons he took a cab to work. It was expensive. But even all these years later, he was afraid of bus bombings. He knew the odds were on his side. But they were even more on your side if you didn’t take the bus. He was afraid of a lot of things. Bombings, missiles (conventional, cruise, and nuclear), cancer (ironically), paralysis, heights, enclosed spaces, malicious gossip, humiliating himself. This was a partial list. Above all, of course, he was afraid of death. But that was so common it didn’t worry him. It didn’t set him apart from others. That was one of the worst things. To be set apart from others. But he had always been apart from others. It was the great disappointment of his life. That he did not know how to be with people. It was probably why he chose the occupation he had. Computer programmers tended to be introverted types. And famously inept in social interactions. Here, at least, he fit right in.
As he punched in lines of code that day, he periodically checked to see if she had responded. There was nothing. The day passed in growing anticipation. He wondered if something had happened. If she was in distress. At times she became deeply distressed and unstable. At those times he usually managed to convince her to see somebody. Call a mental distress hotline. Anything. So now he was worried. And he would worry all day. He was well aware of that tendency. To live carelessly was inconceivable to him. And yet the price was high. It stole one’s ability to enjoy life. He understood that. But it was like the nicotine. It was an addiction. There was nothing he could do. Finally, he gave into it and typed out a brief message: Are you ok? And pressed send.
He returned to his lines of code. Then he stopped and stared. He clicked on to the Design page. There was no sign of it. He clicked back to the code. It was unmistakable. He leaned back and looked at his watch. There were fifteen minutes to go before quitting time. He felt the tension rising in his chest. He thought quickly for a workaround. It occurred to him three minutes later. He hurriedly rewrote the line in question. Then he exhaled with relief. It was gone. No one would see it. Twenty minutes later he left. Management liked it when people left a few minutes late. On the cab ride home the driver tried to talk with him. He barely gave a few perfunctory replies. Finally the driver gave up. He was lost in thought. He was convinced that he had seen the Golem in the code.
An hour after he returned home he received a reply from her. Yes, she was fine. Just very busy. He hoped that was the truth. He wrote that he was worried about her and glad to hear everything was ok. Then, not knowing if she really wanted to hear more, he continued his lecture.
The Golem: Emerged out of a topography as artificial as the modern world itself. Unlike his brethren (werewolves, vampires, et al.), he was not born out of the Teutonic black forests, those symbols of the terrifying indifference of nature. He is, instead, unmistakably urban. He is the minotaur at the heart of the labyrinthine city. In this sense, the Golem has come to personify the fear that we are all becoming automatons in the grip of a mechanism that we cannot fully comprehend even as we know that it is of our own making, or at least the making of other human beings. Here lies the comparison between the Golem and the HAL 9000-style supercomputer and the nuclear bomb. Perhaps we see Golems everywhere because they are indeed everywhere: the avatars of our artificial environment.
He concluded by saying that if the subject bored her he would not continue. Then he pressed Send. He went to bed and did not dream.
The next morning there was a message from her. She told him she wasn’t bored. And he could lecture if he wanted to. It was interesting. If a little depressing. She didn’t like to think of herself as a cog in a machine. Were we all really prisoners of our creations? She didn’t think so. Anyway, everything was fine. He had no need to worry. She appreciated his concern.
He spent the day happy. She had approved of him. He often depended on that. It probably wasn’t healthy. But it took place all the same. Like so many things. He vigorously tapped out his lines of code. The Golem did not appear again.
When he got home he barely had the energy to compose a reply. His fingers felt tired from a day of typing. And perhaps the tension of the last few days exhausted him. He dashed off a few lines expressing his happiness. He went to bed early.
That night he had a nightmare. He was walking through the backstreets of Jaffa. The buildings broken-down shadows. The streets dark. The streetlights were not working. The winding roads became a labyrinth. They turned and crossed each other until he was certain he was walking in circles. Then he felt a presence behind him. He turned around and saw that a man was following him. Not even a man. A boy. A teenager at best. He was walking quickly toward him. He could not see his face. But he sensed an intensity in his invisible eyes.
Then the man was upon him. A knife flashed in the moonlight. Aimed at his throat. The carotid artery. Bleed out in 30 seconds. He swung himself away. The knife cut the humid air. He felt himself falling. His body struck the pavement. He reached instinctively for his throat. He felt no wound. The man pivoted toward him. He raised the knife again. Then the man seemed to fly away into the sky. He blinked his eyes and saw that the youth was squirming two feet off the ground. Behind him was the Golem. It held the youth by the head. His feet flailed against nothing. Then the Golem crushed his skull in its great stone hand. The youth’s feet went limp. The Golem hurled the body against a group of dumpsters. The body lay there inert. Its face a horrific mass of mangled tissue.
The Golem looked down at him. He thought he saw its eyes. They were obsidian black. Abyssal. Endlessly deep. Then he woke up.
He was gasping. Covered in sweat again. His hands trembled. His heart was pounding. He closed his eyes and fought to control his breathing. Finally his heartbeat slowed. His breath began to come naturally. He touched his face and found tears on his cheeks. He wiped them away.
He looked up and saw that it was still dark outside. He slid out of bed. He sat before his computer and looked at the time. It was 5am. He lit a cigarette and sighed deeply. The tingling in his limbs began to dissipate. He surfed the web for a while. He found some relatively tame pornography and watched it in full. For some reason it calmed him. Then he opened his email and saw there was a message from her.
She told him again that everything was fine. She asked if he remembered someone from high school. She had run into her randomly the afternoon before. She was heavily pregnant and at first did not recognize her. She was married and living primary in Los Angeles. She was visiting her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday.
He made a few perfunctory comments about the person in question. He vaguely remembered her. But he couldn’t conjure up her face in his mind. He could not even remember if he had liked her or not. That was all. Because he needed to tell her more about the Golem.
The Golem: According to the noted scholar Avi Marcus, the representation of the essential contradiction in the Jewish self-image, what might be called the Gentile at the heart of the Jew. The Golem embodies action, power, liberation: qualities officially eschewed but, through the medium of fantasy, projected onto a creature that lives and yet does not live, just as these same qualities lived and yet did not live in the psyche of his creators. This is a creature, moreover, given life not only by the wisdom and knowledge of the Jew but by his rage, his thirst for retribution, his hatred of the life he is forced to endure in exile: a life that appears to be life, but is not.
The Jewish Golem, then, emerges as a reification not of the horrors of technology or the inhuman architecture of modern existence but rather of the suppressed forces that Judaism historically preferred to hide from itself: forces that, out of the sheer necessity of survival, eventually erupt, creating a new, Promethean form of life. It is not a coincidence that the awakened golem appears at the dawn of modernity as a close contemporary of the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi, who unleashed another and much more explicit eruption of the same forces. Indeed, for the Jewish people, modernity has consisted of more than one awakening of the Golem.
Whatever may be the universal afterlife of the Maharal’s Golem, for Jews and for Judaism the legend foreshadows something very particular: the reacquisition of the capacity for historical power and agency, which is to say the capacity for creation as well as for destruction. It is a capacity that is not to be trifled with—whose exercise, as the legend implicitly recognizes, demands vigilance and discipline. But without it, existence itself lies fallow, without form and void.
He managed to get back to sleep. He was thankful that the next day is Saturday. There would be no work. He awoke in the early afternoon. He spent the rest of the day watching movies. Nothing particularly inspiring. But enough to take the tension off. Occasionally an image from his dream passed through his mind and he winced. He tried to console himself that it was only a dream. It didn’t quite work. Dreams, after all, are something real. Or not quite real. But not quite false either. They existed. One couldn’t question that.
The sun went down. He began to hear the sound of the city reawakening. Voices. Cars. Music from the apartments across the way. A few hours later he decided he needed to look at naked women. There was a strip club down the street and around 11pm he set out. He was always nervous on such occasions. So he didn’t look anyone in the eye on the way there. The streets were alive. The roar of cars greeted him on every corner. The headlights blinded him.
The security guard at the door took his money. Then he patted him down. They were always paranoid at strip clubs. With good reason. A drunk man with his sexual desire inflamed was dangerous. And of course there was no real outlet. You just watched. And touched a little. But there was nothing that men really wanted. Not from arousal.
Inside he sat in a corner in the back. Where no one could see him without searching him out. He watched as the dancers writhed on the stage. They were beautiful. He could feel the calm washing over him. He imagined he was the only man in the place calmed by watching. Then he picked the most beautiful and asked for a lap dance. She had a lovely smile in response. She ground against him. And touched his penis through his pants. He caressed her breasts. Ten minutes later it was over. She smiled again and bounded away. A few minutes later he saw her grinding on an elderly man on the other side of the room. He stayed a half hour longer. But found he was desperately bored. He got up and left. Outside the streets were quiet again. It was quite late. A few cars passed him as he walked home. But only a few people. He wondered if they were also searching for some kind of calm pleasure.
When he got home he couldn’t sleep. That didn’t surprise him. He surfed the web for a while. Then his computer made a sound to tell him an email had arrived.
It was from her. He opened it expecting another short missive. I’m fine. Thank you for worrying. Instead, it told him that she was flying to Israel in a few hours. She would arrive around 2.30pm the next day. She was sorry she hadn’t told him before. It was a spur of the moment thing. If he liked, they could meet at the airport. Perhaps it was time they actually saw each other. In flesh and blood. Anyway, she would look for him. He sat frozen for a while. Then he smoked a cigarette. He calmed down a little. Then he typed out a brief message. Yes, he would come. He pressed Send.
Suddenly he felt exhausted. He found a site that produced the sound of rain. He went to bed. For a time he lay awake listening to the artificial patter of falling water. And the occasional distant thunder. Then he finally drifted off.
His dreams were fleeting and quiet. He was walking again through the streets of a labyrinthine city. This time he thought it was Jerusalem. It was strange. Because he didn’t care for Jerusalem. It was too fraught. Too religious. Too beset with endless tensions. He realized that it was the Old City. With its smooth stones and nights of total silence. Here and there he thought he saw the Golem. A fleeting shadow. A slight movement in the corner of his eye. Flitting in and out of the maze of buildings. Then he emerged on to the plaza and he saw the Wall. Luminous. Towering. And the Golem was gone.
He awoke feeling even more exhausted. He crawled out of bed. Performed his ritual of coffee and cigarettes. He called his boss and told him he was ill. It was accepted without question. He never took days off. And never came late. So he wasn’t surprised they believed him.
He spent the next few hours surfing the web. He found nothing interesting. But he wasn’t disappointed. He was just marking time after all. Around 1pm he got dressed. He walked down to King George Street and hailed a cab. It took him to the train station. He went through the security check easily. He didn’t look suspicious. The train was a half hour late. He began to worry. Every few minutes he checked his watch. It finally arrived. It was crowded inside. The car was partially blocked by soldiers sitting on the floor. There were no seats. He maneuvered between the massive packs and machine guns. He spent the rest of the time standing by the doors. Finally the train pulled to a stop. The doors opened. He stepped through into the station.
He checked his watch. It was 2:45pm. He didn’t know if she would still be there. He trudged up the stairs. It was raining and he ran from the station to the arrivals hall. Passengers scurried around him. Tour guides waited with their paper signs. The security guards again passed him through easily. Inside children howled and laughed. People pushed their baggage trolleys toward the doors. From outside came the sound of vehicles starting and stopping. Occasionally the PA system barked not to leave baggage unattended. The cacophony of a hundred voices was a low rumble beneath his feet. He looked around for several minutes. And then he saw her.
She was standing to the side of the arrivals gate. She had two suitcases. One large and one small. She was shorter than he remembered. Her face had filled in. Her features were weathered and sad. Once they had been smooth with youth. He barely recognized her. But it was her all the same.
He approached her slowly. Wondering how long he ought to avoid her eyes. Whether she would recognize him at all. Then she looked up and their eyes met. She smiled.
He smiled back. And even laughed a little. She said they should sit. They walked to a café on the other side of the hall. They sat down across from each other. For a long moment, they looked at each other. Finally she spoke.
“Isn’t it strange,” she said, “that it took us so long, and so far, to find out we loved each other?”
He gave a rueful smile.
She told him that it didn’t really matter now. He asked about the flight. She told him it was fine. He ordered coffee and so did she. When it came they drank it. He asked her why she was here. She told him she was going to visit relatives. They lived on a kibbutz in the north. Her train left in an hour. They would pick her up at the Haifa central station. It was a very beautiful kibbutz. Right on the Sea of Galilee.
He told that the first time he saw the Galilee he was shocked at how small it was. She agreed. They didn’t say anything for a while.
Then he told her that he remembered her very well from back then. She was the girl everybody wanted. The one all the boys talked about. Every one of us was doomed to be disappointed, he said. Because she could only ever have one of them. They all pined and longed and masturbated to thoughts of her. And perhaps she had never even known it.
No, she told him, she had known. But she couldn’t explain it. She was just a desperate insecure young girl. Like most young girls. None of it made sense to her. He told her it didn’t make much sense to him either.
She remarked that this didn’t make much sense. This little scene they were playing. He agreed with her.
She looked at her watch. She told him that she had to go now. That she wouldn’t see him again. And that their correspondence had to end. She had a husband. They had a house. They paid a mortgage. He wanted a child. She was going to give him one. He told her that he understood.
She got up to leave. Then she put a hand against his cheek. She asked him if he knew how beautiful he was. He said he didn’t. She smiled. Then they kissed. It was a long kiss. And when it was over she smiled again. She extended the handles of her bags. He told her he would miss her. She said she would too. She turned and walked away. As she reached the sliding doors, she turned and waved to him. He waved back. He watched her as she receded into the distance. Then she went down the stairs to the train station and was gone.
He sat for a long while. He touched his face and discovered his eyes were dry. He wondered if she would cry later on. When it sunk in. He wondered if he would. Probably not.
He spent the rest of the day at the sea. He watched the slate-blue waves come in. Crashing over the artificial breakwaters. Around him tourists chattered. Young girls in bathing suits ran up and down the beach. This time he didn’t follow them with his eyes. Waitresses weaved between the tables. He felt sand in his shoes. He never took his eyes off the sea. The Mediterranean was the only sea, he thought. There were no others. In ancient times they had called it the Central Sea. In Hebrew, you still did. Because then the known world was Europe and North Africa. The borders of the world were the great waters. Surrounding a flat sphere. And in between was the one sea. Homer called it the wine-faced sea. He thought that maybe Homer was right.
That night he couldn’t sleep. He lay awake thinking about the Golem. And he wondered, what if there had only ever been one Golem? What if he wandered from nation to nation, place to place, home to home? What if it had been given birth here, created by some ancient rabbi reciting the letters and the names of God? What if after the great destruction it had wandered with its masters. Perhaps to Sepharad. Perhaps to Ashkenaz. Perhaps from Spain to Rome, Provence, Poland, Izmir, and finally to Prague. What if the legend were true? What if it had risen up again and again against the enemies of its creators? And then finally slept a long sleep in the attic of the Great Synagogue. Waiting for the summons.
But this time the summons never came. And somehow, it had awakened. But it had awakened to a world grown vast and empty. For the Maharal was gone. The Jews were gone. The ghetto was all rubble and waste. All around lay the shattered and skeletal remains of man.
What must it have thought? Standing there reborn amidst so much death. For it had now to navigate a new world. A world in which all its strength and power meant nothing. The world now contained things of such destructive force that its stone body was as fragile as human flesh. Even its immortality could not save it from this solitude. It must have been lonely. Terribly lonely.
Perhaps it began again to wander. Through the great forests and wastelands of the earth by night. Seen only in glimpses. Spoken of only in whispers. Until it returned again to the land of its birth. But how different it must have seemed. A labyrinth of lights and glass and steel. Of highways. Of machines. Everywhere machines. And perhaps it was comforted. Because so much of the world was now, like it, artificial.
His eyes grew heavy. He felt himself drifting. She was gone. Let the past die. Remember. He closed his eyes. There would be no dreams. He knew the Golem was sleeping now.
It came as no surprise to me that the Golem lives on in Tel Aviv. Benjamin Kerstein’s short story makes a case for the eternal urbanity of the Golem, whether bred from a synagogue in Prague or Tel Aviv’s wastewater. Kerstein recognizes the Golem as the “minotaur at the heart of the labyrinthine city,” storming and wandering the streets wherever he is called. He takes the iconic Golem and updates it for modern life in the first Hebrew city, taking a classic emblem of Jewish literature and making it Israeli, no matter the language.
Whether or not the Golem finds itself at home in Tel Aviv is anyone’s guess, a question the story wonders out loud, conjuring the Golem in a mystical incantation of its own.