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A 21st-century golem tackles US white nationalism in modern retelling of Jewish myth

In 16th-century Prague, a golem patrolled the city’s ghetto to protect its Jews from pogroms.

In 21st-century Brooklyn, a golem wakes up to discover – to his great dismay – that his creator failed to fashion him a, ahem, key part of the male anatomy.

That scene sets the tone in “The Golem of Brooklyn,” a new darkly comic satire from author Adam Mansbach, which envisions the mythical Jewish creature being brought to life by a stoned art teacher in New York City.

Mansbach, best known for the runaway bestseller “Go the F**k to Sleep,” has brought the classic folklore into today’s era, bringing to life a golem who comes face-to-face with modern-day antisemitism in the form of a white nationalist rally.

In the novel, bumbling art teacher Len Bronstein is fairly surprised when the nine-foot golem he molded out of stolen clay successfully animates itself and punches a hole in the wall of his Brooklyn rental apartment. When he realizes that the golem only speaks Yiddish, Len sets off to enlist the help of an ex-Hasidic lesbian bodega clerk named Miri Apfelbaum, plopping the golem down meanwhile in front of reruns of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where he picks up a rudimentary and fairly vulgar English vocabulary.

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From there the unlikely trio sets off on a series of madcap adventures – venturing within the headquarters of a Hasidic sect, wandering the forests of rural Maryland before arriving in Kentucky ahead of a rally by virulently antisemitic white nationalists, not long after the now-infamous similar gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

Author Adam Mansbach and his newest book, ‘The Golem of Brooklyn.’ (Susan Chainey)

From dust to dust

For the uninitiated, a golem is a mythical Jewish creature, fashioned out of mud or clay, engraved with the Hebrew word “emet” – which means truth – and often brought to life during times of great distress for the Jewish people. Once the golem has fulfilled its purpose, its creator erases the first letter of the word “emet,” turning it into “met,” or dead, and the golem deactivates.

“Sometime after that, I sort of got the idea of the comic premise of a guy who makes a golem despite being totally unqualified to do so… a regular schmuck making a golem,” the author said in a recent phone interview from California. “The moment that this book came together was when I had the realization that the golem could be a creature with an ancestral memory, who could be this embodiment of Jewish history and trauma.”

Mansbach’s nine-foot clay protagonist is reimagined as the same essential creature on hand during every other such golem tale throughout Jewish history – the most famous of which is the Golem of Prague, fashioned by the Maharal in the 16th century to protect the Jewish community from pogroms. This time around, the modern-day golem believes he is tasked with protecting American Jewry from antisemitism in the form of neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

“The project ended up feeling timely because I wrote it just as a conversation about the mainstreaming of antisemitism was gaining traction,” said Mansbach. “I started writing the book before Kanye or Kyrie or any of that stuff – but it’s also a never-ending roll call of incidents and events.”

Illustrative: In this photo from August 11, 2017, multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

In conversation, Mansbach pointed initially to antisemitism from prominent Black figures like the rapper Kanye West and NBA player Kyrie Irving, but the book takes a clear stance that the biggest threat to American Jews comes from white nationalism.

“It’s really important to me that we understand and continually articulate the fact that the most important and most virulent and most dangerous forms of antisemitism in this country are not coming from a Kyrie or a Kanye, they’re not coming from Black people,” opines Mansbach. “They’re coming from white nationalists and the praxis of white nationalism, the praxis of hate that they practice and that their followers consistently transfigure into actual violence.”

Tropes and myths

Before the golem sets off toward Kentucky, it first detours into the world of the Sassover Hasidim, who Mansbach said are only coincidentally named after a small real-life Hasidic dynasty.

In the novel, the members of the Hasidic sect – who the author said are modeled after the Satmars – seek to utilize the golem in order to further their plot to control elected officials in order to build a new compound upstate and firm up their powerful voting bloc. It’s a plotline that fairly drips with antisemitic tropes, though Mansbach is unapologetic about his portrayal.

“I think there’s a fascination on the part of a lot of more secular Jews with the Hasids,” he said of the decision to include such a storyline. “Our feelings run the gamut from sort of fascination and veneration and disgust and guilt. We look at them and we see all of these things that we are not, that we’ve chosen not to be and have no actual desire to be – but we still feel in some way chastened or chastised by everything that they represent.”

Illustrative: Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, New York (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Mansbach said he doesn’t believe that depicting a fictional Hasidic sect as attempting to buy power at any cost is problematic or antisemitic.

“In the case of Hasidic sects in Brooklyn, it’s also extremely accurate,” he said. “These are voting blocs that are incredibly influential on a local level,” he added, noting that many other groups and sects in New York City “attempt to wield political influence over local elections… it’s because of the nature of antisemitism that it becomes sinister when the Jews do it.”

Moral quandaries

One poignant moment in the otherwise flippant book comes as Len and Miri realize that the golem – whose most recent memory in this retelling was witnessing the devastating Babyn Yar massacre in Ukraine by the Nazis in 1941 – does not know about the full history and impact of the Holocaust.

“It’s a pretty complete rewrite of what the golem has been and has meant because the golem is regarded in almost all of the lore as kind of this empty vessel, this unfinished thing,” said Mansbach.

And while setting a powerful nine-foot protector into attack mode against a crowd of angry antisemites may feel like a revenge fantasy come to life, Mansbach said that was not his motivation.

“Ultimately, I think I’m more interested in exploring the issues, the decision making, the moral quandaries surrounding whether you slaughter your enemies than I am in just writing scenes where hundreds of white nationalists get murdered,” he said. “It’s satisfying to murder a few – don’t get me wrong.”