Iron Man V. The Golem: Who Would Win In A Fight?
May 08, 2010, 04:48 PM
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A friend writes:

One of the most astonishing Jewish cultural transformations in the Australia of the last decade - which is also the decade in which the ultra-Orthodox Jews, mostly Eastern European in origin, started exercising serious muscle - has been the overall decline of Woody-Allen-type New York Jewish intellectuality (in my experience Seinfeld's Aussie following was almost wholly gentile), and the rise of Jewish mysticism in its weirdest, most quasi-cabbalistic forms.

Ten years ago Jewish artistic life, whenever an outsider like myself encountered it, was pretty much entirely Annie Hall, violin recitals by Jewish princesses in fashionable music clubs, and "my son the doctor". (Shades of the proverbial blue-rinse Catskills matron who is said to have complained about a production of Fiddler on the Roof: "It can't have cost much to put on that show. Look how cheap all the costumes were.")

But now, I have seen the future, and it is ... golems. That's right. Goodbye Podhoretz, hello Isaac Bashevis Singer. If you are a young Australian composer who wants to win an award for a new opera, you make your central character the Golem of Prague. Golems are sexy. With golems, you cannot fail, whatever the difficulties in terms of production costs of having a ten-foot zombie on stage.

I, too, had been thinking about the Golem of Prague, a giant dimwitted magic robot supposedly made out of clay by the Rabbi of Prague. Why is our popular culture suddenly besieged with golems? I think this is a good, not very sinister example of how the past (in this case cultural history) is always changing to fit the demands of the present. As Orwell said in 1984, "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."

I was thinking about golems because on Wednesday I was rereading parts of Michael Chabon's golem-centric Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about two Jewish cousins in New York from 1939 onward who team up to create comic books about a superhero named the Escapist, whose true identity is the superWASPy Tom Mayflower.

There were a lot of now famous pairs of Jewish writers and artists who together created superheroes, such as Siegel & Shuster (Superman), so this is a rich vein for historical fiction. One of Chabon's many theses is that Jewish-American comic book creators were inspired by the purported legend of the Golem of Prague.

My kid took the Advanced Placement English Literature test on Thursday, and he had decided that if the third essay question turned out to be at all relevant, instead of writing about one of the recommended books, he would avail himself of the option of writing about another book "of comparable literary merit" and explicate the relevance of Kavalier and Clay to the assigned topic. When I looked through K&C again, I realized the wisdom of his choice. Chabon had made his magnum opus relevant to almost any conceivable AP English Lit question. The only other book I've read that radiates so much authorial hard work at exemplifying every single "literary element" that the AP test might ask about is Alan Moore's graphic novel, The Watchmen. Both The Watchmen and Kavalier and Clay are attempts by very smart and industrious writers to vindicate the much-derided genre of comic books by creating extremely sophisticated superhero-related works.

Unfortunately, I found The Watchmen unpleasant. In contrast, Kavalier and Clay is a good read, with likable characters and lots of plot. (Chabon is outspoken about how literary fiction needs more and better storytelling.)

Not surprisingly, K and C proved red meat for this year's AP question, which turned out to be on the theme of "exile." Exile, golems, whatever you are asked to expound upon, K and C's got all your AP needs covered. Indeed, as Wikipedia's article on "Golem" explains:

One of the two protagonists, an amateur Jewish magician and escape artist named Josef Kavalier, arranges to smuggle himself out of Nazi Europe along with the famed Prague golem in a coffin. Kavalier comes to identify with the golem as a symbol of Jewish resistance against the Nazis, basing his comic book character The Escapist on his own revenge fantasies, and eventually enlisting in US service during WWII. The theme of vengeance against anti-Semites and subsequent regret of such pervades the novel, culminating in Kavalier's own drawing of a modern graphic novel centered around a golem.

Meanwhile, Kavalier's American cousin Sammy Klayman, the writer of the pair, change his name to Clay. ("Klayman" = "clay man" = golem. Get it?)

So, golems are everywhere in today's popular culture.

Why? In the past, Jews made up stories about WASPy superheroes with names like Clark Kent, but now Jews make up stories about Jews making up stories about WASPy superheroes. (Did you know that "irony" is an official AP literary element?)

The only problem with Golem Mania is that, well, the concept of a big lunk made out of clay just really isn't that awesome. (There's the other problem that the Golem of Prague story probably isn't an 18th century folktale as alleged, but was likely made up out of whole cloth in 1837.) 20th Century superheroes like Iron Man are a lot more fun than the Golem.

Or, more directly, let's compare 18th Century sci-fi stories (or pseudo-18th Century): the Golem of Prague v. Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Which one is more interesting? Which one is better? Who would win in a fight?

In the 20th Century, Jews in America and Australia would almost all say: Gulliver's Travels.

And that reflected a general pattern. Most educated Jews in the 20th Century tended to view medieval (i.e., pre-1800) Jewish culture as kind of boring and claustrophobic. There's something depressing about contemplating all that Ashkenazi talent spinning its wheels endlessly in the same old ruts. If you consider the life of, say, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), it's really just more interesting and fun and broadly innovative than the life of almost any culturally Jewish European before they began to liberate themselves from medieval Jewish claustrophobia around the time of Franklin's death.

The 20th Century Jewish solution was to blame this pre-1800 history of cultural isolation and lack of artistic and scientific productivity on gentile discrimination. Obviously, that played a role, but a fairer reading would be that much of it was self-inflicted.

Europeans Jews tended to be richer, on average per capita, than Christians for much of this time period. Thus, they didn't see much they needed to borrow from the culture of their neighbors. In dozens of generations in Eastern Europe, for example, Yiddish-speaking Jews typically didn't bother learning more of their Slavic neighbors' languages than the minimum necessary for doing business.

In the later 18th Century, though, some German Jews, such as Moses Mendelssohn (the composer's grandfather) began to wake up to the progress made by gentiles and to their own increasing quasi-Malthusian impoverishment due to their vastly increased population.

But the problem in the 21st Century is that, say, Gulliver's Travels just isn't Jewish. Today, ethnic pride demands that a rich, powerful group have a rich, powerful, vibrant cultural history, even if it actually had a kind of dull, self-limited one.

So, Jewish artists at the elite level, and their funders, are turning inward. Thus, Golem Mania.

The good news is that there is still a huge amount of Jewish talent, such as Chabon. On the other hand, there was presumably a huge amount of Jewish talent in, say, the 17th and 18th Centuries. But how much good did it do?