When I set out to write a book about a (not the!) Jewish American experience, I knew I’d have a few half-forgotten lessons to relearn. I needed to brush up on history, like the timeline of German-occupied Europe and Jewish immigration to America, and on contemporary customs—the order of a shiva service, a calendar of our more obscure holidays, the wording of the handwashing ritual, etc. The building blocks of my religious, cultural, and ethnic identity. But like every shared identity, ours is made up of more than that. Our stories, full of monsters and heroes and heartache and magic, are as much a part of us as any fact or ceremony.
Because storytelling in the Jewish tradition is an act of remembrance, I wanted to share a story with you; one I first heard as a kid, and which came back to play a vital role in my novel, From Dust, a Flame.
As folktales go, the Golem of Prague is one of our most famous (so famous, I thought it might be too well known to tell here, but then I polled Twitter and: nope). So it goes that in the 16th century, the priests of Prague claimed that Jewish people were using the blood of Christian children for twisted ritual purposes. This was—obviously—a dangerous and completely fabricated accusation which has persisted since before the Middle Ages, commonly known as blood libel. But more about that later.
The old Jewish Quarter in Prague
Anyhow, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal—or Rabbi—of Prague, went down to the river and sculpted a large man-like creature out of clay. He brought it to life using a top secret Kabbalistic formula, inscribing the Hebrew word for truth, “emet,” on its forehead. He then instructed the golem to guard the Jewish Quarter, patrolling the cramped and crowded streets of the ghetto, guarding its people from persecution. Every Shabbat, Rabbi Loew would disable the creature, allowing it to rest as the Jewish people rested. When the sun set and Sabbath was over, the golem would begin its work again, helping and protecting the community.
Alas, every version of this story I’ve read ends when the golem has to be deactivated for good. Some say that Rabbi Loew forgot to disable the creature before one particularly busy Shabbat, and it went on a rampage through the ghetto, pulverizing buildings and pulling trees up from the earth. One version says that unrequited love drove the golem mad, though it doesn’t say for whom. When Rabbi Loew erased the first letter on the golem’s forehead, creating the word “met” for death, the creature slumped to the ground, returned to lifeless clay. The golem was boxed away in the attic of the Altneuschul, the Old New Synagogue of Prague, where rumor says it rests to this day, waiting to be revived. Waiting to protect the Jewish people in times of greatest need.
The Altneuschul, then and now
You can probably see why we like this story.
Unfortunately, the false claim of blood libel lives on today, not only in political and cultural hate speech, but in contemporary sci-fi and fantasy. It’s embedded in stories where antisemitic stereotypes such as the greedy, hook-nosed villain appear alongside plots of ritual murder or blood magic. Once you look for it, it’s hard to unsee.
But in Jewish SFF, like in my own fantasy, the golem lives on, returning again and again to protect its people. What I take from this folktale—what I love about it, and made a central theme of From Dust, a Flame—is the idea that whatever you think is dead and gone has a way of coming back, in one form or another, again and again. And that can be dangerous, as alarming as a rampaging golem on Shabbat, but it can be beautiful, too. Hatred persists across the ages, but so does hope.
Hope is an essential part of the Jewish identity, and stories of hope are always worth telling.
Rebecca Podos is the author of Lambda Literary Award-winner Like Water, The Wise and the Wicked, and The Mystery of Hollow Places. She is a graduate of the writing, literature, and publishing program at Emerson College, where she won the MFA award for best thesis. Her fiction has been published in Glimmer Train, Glyph, Paper Darts, Bellows American Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She is also a literary agent. She lives with her husband and two children in Connecticut. You can find her online at www.rebeccapodos.com.
Hannah’s whole life has been spent in motion. Her mother has kept her and her brother, Gabe, on the road for as long as she can remember, leaving a trail of rental homes and faded relationships behind them. No roots, no family but one another, and no explanations.
All that changes on Hannah’s seventeenth birthday when she wakes up transformed, a pair of golden eyes with knife-slit pupils blinking back at her from the mirror—the first of many such impossible mutations. Promising that she knows someone who can help, her mother leaves Hannah and Gabe behind to find a cure. But as the days turn to weeks and their mother doesn’t return, they realize it’s up to them to find the truth.
What they discover is a family they never knew and a history more tragic and fantastical than Hannah could have dreamed—one that stretches back to her grandmother’s childhood in Prague under the Nazi occupation, and beyond, into the realm of Jewish mysticism and legend. As the past comes crashing into the present, Hannah must hurry to unearth their family’s secrets in order to break the curse and save the people she loves most, as well as herself.