Thursday, October 8, 2009

Escape to the Golem


In between my adventures in Active Dreaming in Lithuania and Romania, I have taken a day to catch my breath and take in the sights in the storied city of Prague. The Czech capital is as beautiful as you have ever heard, but overrun with tourists. As I walk through the square in the Castle district where Obama spoke, and through the gates of the Castle itself, I sigh at the droves of visitors following the fluttering banners of their tour guides, cameras swinging. My attention is diverted by a huge poster showing a rabbi with a high hat and a long beard, with a giant clay-like figure. I can guess the identity of the giant. Famously, Prague is the city of the golem, an artificial being supposedly created by a medieval Kabbalist to defend the Jews in tomes when their survival was in doubt. The legend has been the stuff of countless amazing tales up to the present day; in the parallel reality of the popular young adult "Bartimaeus" trilogy, for example, the magicians of Prague are still whipping up golems to deploy against their enemies.

I inspect the poster more closely. I am in luck; in the Royal Stables there is a temporary exhibition curated by the Jewish Museum devoted to Rabbi Judah Loew (c.1525-1609) the reputed golem-maker of Prague, and it is going on now. By some merciful act of contemporary magic, the exhibit seems to be invisible to the swarms of tourists. I rush for sanctuary inside.

It's a fine exhibition, putting the life and work of a great rabbi and scholar in the context of his times and the communities that he guided. The story is edged with tragedy, since much of the Jewish Quarter of Prague has been demolished.

The section on the golem tracks a legend that only began to gain popular currency more than two centuries after Rabbi Loew's death, in folk stories that were printed in 1847. German Romantics seized on the story of the golem, and then it flourished in the early 20th century with Gustav Meyrink's novel The Golem (and the haunting illustrations by Hugo Steiner-Prag), followed by movies that included Paul Wegener's versions and Martin Fric's 1951 film "The Emperor's Baker and the Golem". Yet the idea of the golem predates the fantasy. A passage in the Talmud refers to the possibility of crearting an artificial man. The formula for doing this is later said to be in the Sefer Yetzirah. Early rabbius dsicussed the morality of killing an artificial man (and concluded this was permissible) and in early folklore pious rabbis create a calf in a time of hunger and consumer it for dinner.

Rabbit Loew was received by the Emperor Rudolf II, perhaps because of Rudolf's appetite for magical practices from every source the Empire could access. One of the most intriguing features of the exhibit is a display of magical objects that were used by Rudolf himself, in the time when he made Prague his residence and patronised a group of alchemists, scientists, neo-Platonist philosophers and "Christian Kabbalists", including the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and the Englsih sham-magus John Kelly; some of their houses can be viewed along the Golden Lane in the Castle.

I inspected Rudolf's magical bell, composed of seven metals adorned with images of gods associated with the planets. Imagine - the head of the Holy Roman Empire ringing a bell to summon planetary spirits! Here is a set of three rings that the Emperor had buried with him. One is green jade, another gilded wood, a third is set with jewels and four zodiacal signs on the outside and on the inside with four archangelic names (Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Aniel) and the magical work AGIA. And here is a kabbalistic amulet that belonged to Rudolf. On the obverse is a Jewish menorah, surmounted by the imperial crest and surrounded by jewels "from the breastplate of a high priest".

In the section on the old Jewish cemetery, there are old paintings and modern photographs of Hasidim trooping to the grave of Rabbi Loew to post their letters to the Maharal (as the rabbi was known to the faithful). Such a letter, know as a kvitl, requests one of the righteous (Tzaddikim) to intercede with the Lord on behalf of the supplicant. Kvitl-writing was introduced by the founder of Hasidism, the Bal Shem Tov (1700-1760) more than a century after Rabbi Loew's death, and was originally a process of appealing to a living Tzaddik for intercession. Later these letters were addressed to departed Tzaddikim, to whose ranks Rabbi Loew was posthumously promoted. So to this day, letters of appeal are pushed into the cracks on his tombstone in the Jewish cemetery. I visited the cementery itself later, rising up a man-made hill (produced by "shelves" created to accommodate 12,000 graves) near the Old-New Synagogue, which abuts the designer stores of Paris Street in the Old City.

Kabbalist footnote: A Kabbalist friend who read this piece wants me to be sure to note that genuine golems come with an ON/OFF switch. You write the Hebrew letters for EMET ("truth") over the third eye to turn a golem on. When you erase the first letter, producing the word MET ("death") the golem is ready to return to the mud. I haven't road-tested this. Try it at your own risk.


Savannah said...

Just fascinating Robert! "Overrun with tourists" is the exact phrase I keep hearing applied to Prague... I'm glad you hit a sign post to the magical tour! -- and I'm chuckling at the image of your pulling "rabbit Loew" (at the start of the third to last paragraph) out of a hat :-). I also love this, having just responded to a forum post on synchronicity and emailed a friend to say I felt a peculiar resonance with this East European itinerary, likely for having worked on Bartok's Rumanian Dances for the last month or so. After sending that message it occurred to me this is likely more related to suspected Jewish ancestry -- though I couldn't have said any more about that. I just "happened" to sail by this essay within seconds of it being posted. Thank you so much for sharing, and good wishes for the rest of your journey!

Robert Moss said...

Thanks, Savannah! My other respite from the tourist hordes on that day in Prague was in the Royal Gardens, when a young woman falconer approached me with a Harris hawk (native to North America) on her wrist and introduced me to a fine mixed flight of raptors - including an eagle-owl, a golden eagle and a pregrrine falcon - that volunteers have nursed back to health. A reminder of how often, in my life, important messages have come through a brush with a member of this bird tribe.

I am now in Romania, where the traveler on the main road from the airport to downtown Bucharest is greeted by a statue of a she-wolf with the infants Romulus and Remus. This was the Roman province of Dacia and patriotic locals say they have a btter claim than Rome to R&R (and that their language is the oldest and purest child of Latin). Stay tuned...

Anonymous said...

Robert, what did the eagle-owl look like?

A lioness is prowling around my deck she has flower pots and gardening trowels attached to her body.

Robert Moss said...

An eagle-owl looks like a great horned owl. As with all raptors, the female is bigger than the male.

Robyn said...

Ah, Prague--the melancholy place of beauty that even the crowds of tourists can't obscure. I'm glad you found a sanctuary wherein to immerse yourself. Another is the banks of the Vltava River at dawn.

Valerie said...

So very interesting, I have always wanted to visit Prague.I remember a well traveled old gent that I met when I was in the travel business, told me he thought it was the most beautiful city he'd ever been to. We have friends from there and hopefully one day we will go. How lucky to find the museum and exhibit,minus the crowds, it sounded fascinating. I did not know much about Golums, so thanks again for sharing the info.
What a wonderful trip !!

Berlinkat said...

This was such an interesting post, Robert. I went to Prague about 15 years ago when I was living in my birth city, Berlin. Whenever we saw tourists (this was about a year after it was "rediscovered"), we headed down yet another fascinating passageway to escape the tourist flood. Since Kafka was my special area of study whilst I was in grad school, I was especially keen to experience his Prague... I was just thinking about my Prague poems from that time earlier this week. Dream work, especially from the recent Madison workshop, has been helping me rework my older poems, especially those having to do with my German (and Czech) it's no wonder that I remembered (thanks to Karin) to look at your blog today! Thank you...happy travels! Katharina

Robert Moss said...

Hi Katharina - Good to hear your voice. I had a glass of local pilsener in front of one of the Kafka houses - the one with the stone lion, known as "At the Minute" - while trying to dodge the tourist mobs waiting for the figures to move on the clock on the Old Town Hall. "For every setback, look for an opportunity" is one of my personal rules for navigating by synchronicity, and the recurring need to avoid the tourist hordes did lead me down some interesting alleys and byways in Prague.