A Golem into Gold

I was shamelessly tucking into a delicious dish called the "Rabbi's Pocket of Beef" in U Golema, a bizarre themed-restaurant in Prague, when a group of young Italian tourists walked in with flashing cameras. Opened in 1967, U Golema took its name from perhaps the most famous folk story to come out of any Jewish ghetto - the Golem of Prague. Inside the restaurant is a giant effigy of the golem. As I watch the tour group snap photographs of each other standing next to it, I can't help but assume that their interest has more to do with the "Gollum" character from the hugely popular movie versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Ring's" than a simple Jewish folk tale. The golem is Prague's very own Mickey Mouse. In souvenir shops all over the city you can now buy golem mugs, golem T-shirts, numerous golem books and miniature golem figurines. The golem is usually linked to Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1525-1609), known as the Maharal of Prague. Loew is buried in Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery, behind the Pinkas Synagogue. He was an enigmatic teacher, philosopher and leader who became one of the greatest universalist thinkers of the 16th century. Actually, whether Loew created the golem legend or not is a bit of a mystery. My interest in this folk tale began when Rabbi Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London told me to "Google the Golem." I did just that and began to discover just how a story that originated in the ghetto turned into a global golem phenomenon. The original story goes that Loew made a creature out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms and attacks. One of the legends surrounding the golem is that the remains of the creature created by Loew lay in the attic of the Staranova Synagogue, also known as Altneuschul (the Old-New Synagogue) in Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto. Completed around 1270, it is the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe and is still used by Prague's Orthodox community. It is certainly an atmospheric building, with its narrow Gothic windows and medieval vaulted ceilings. During my visit there, Danuse Stocesova, the synagogue's official tour tersely says that, "The golem is its own legend. We don't know if the golem existed or not." Leo Pavlat, Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, is much more opinionated, "Rabbi Loew has nothing to do with the Golem," he tells me. "You cannot find a single word about an artificial human being. It is just the product of romanticism." When I ask him about the legend, Benjamin Kuras, Czech playwright, broadcaster and author of "As Golems Go: Rabbi Loew, the Reluctant Czech," notes that, "The narrative is proven to have been a post-Loew creation. There is actually no proof that a golem, or any mechanism that we would today probably describe as a robot, actually existed in his time, let alone created by him. But the story remains an endless source of inspiration." The Golem, Kuras quips, "is a fascinating national legend that's good for business." So it may be a simple folk tale from the ghetto, but the people of Prague certainly know how to turn the golem into gold.