Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899

My reflections on The World That We Knew
by Rabbi Sally Finestone


The golem is a well-known part of Jewish folklore and superstition. The early Jewish mystical movements were concerned with the “how” of the world’s creation, and developed elaborate theories involving mathematics and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The hope was that somehow humanity could replicate the creative acts of the divine. Although such thinking was strongly condemned by the mainstream Rabbinic leadership, the mystical movements of Judaism continued to try to understand and duplicate the mysteries of creation. The creation of a golem, a being formed from the dust and clay of the earth, just as the first humans were, soon became a part of Jewish folklore in Eastern Europe and in Germany. The most famous of these created clay creatures was the golem of Prague, supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bazalel in the late 16th century. Although there is no mention of such a creature in any of Rabbi Bazalel’s voluminous works and writings, his name became attached in later centuries to the legend.

In all of the tales of the golem found in Jewish folklore, three things are clear. First, the golem is always created during a time of great danger, when the Jewish community is under attack from riots, pogroms, or threats of expulsion. What a wonderful fantasy of protection the golem represented! To have a creature who could keep one safe, who could protect one’s community from such horrific hatred and violence….it is easy to understand how so many wished the legends and tales could be true. The golem is a projection of a persecuted people, in many lands and centuries, who had no one else to protect them, and who were unable to protect themselves.

Second, the golem is always silent in the folktales. He (and it is almost always a “he”) is a large, dimwitted giant, who never possesses the capacity for speech.  He literally does what he is told, and cannot think or decide or reason for himself. In fact, in almost all of the legends, the golem grows too powerful over time, and can no longer be controlled to only protect and serve. At the end of these tales, he is always destroyed by necessity by his creator.

Third, the golem is always portrayed as an empty shell of clay, devoid of human emotions and feelings, incapable of feeling love.

I was fascinated with the way in which Alice Hoffman changed these three key aspects of the golem folklore. To have the golem take the form of a normal woman, to give this golem not only the capacity to speak, but the capacity to feel, to rejoice and feel sorrow, and the ability to love, was a remarkable and deeply touching twist to the old legend. It is a woman’s twist, I feel, for the major themes of the book reflect themes that are universal to all women.

The redemptive and saving power of the love of a mother for her child is the first of those themes. And in time, our golem, Ava, indeed becomes a mother to Lea.

The ability of women to create life is another one of the universal themes in our book. All of the female characters in the book find a way to literally create and continue life, through magic, through daring treks across the mountains, through the hiding of children in convents and homes, or through giving birth. And in a way, the golem is able to create her own, real human life at the end.

The third theme is the transformative and redemptive nature of love. All of the women in the book are profoundly changed by the love they give and by the love they receive from another – and no one more so than our golem, Ava, who is transformed by both Lea’s love and by her own love of life into a real woman at the end.

The irony of the novel is of course how the real humans are such monsters, and how the monster is so truly human. With the growing lack of knowledge of the Holocaust, I was grateful that this book was chosen for Fort Collins Reads, as it will help all of us better understand the horrors of the Holocaust. The book has many personal connections for me: I am dear friends with one of the French Jewish children who was saved in one of those remote villages, and my mother-in-law was a fighter with the Resistance movement in Poland when she was just 16. I have heard many of their stories, and carry the images always in my mind and my heart. I will add to those images the one of Ava, our remarkable golem. How sad that she was only another folktale.

Rabbi Sally Finestone