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One of the most persistent legends in western and central European Jewish folklore, frequently reinvented and recycled since the early Middle Ages, surrounds a mysterious mythical creature known as a golem. Although anything even approaching humanly wrought magic is clearly prohibited in Judaism, the long path of Jewish history has not been without the emergence of natural human inclinations toward folk superstitions and magical beliefs. Indeed, it has often been the task of responsible rabbinic leadership to eradicate those notions. Some of the golem legends, however, are further complicated by serious mystical and philosophical ramifications that raise them above simple folk magic—in certain cases to the level of metaphor, as opposed to physical reality or actual power.
Generically, a golem (also homunculus) is a creature, usually quasi-human, i.e., made artificially through the magic of holy names—a phenomenon hardly exclusive to Jewish legends and common to the magic lore of various ancient cultures. The holy name involved in most of the Jewish golem legends is, of course, that of God—the unpronounceable tetragram of His actual Name, which connects to mystical ideas about the creative power of Hebrew letters, words, and speech. The word “golem” derives from its single mention in the Bible (Psalm 139:16), which led first to its Mishnaic description of a fool and then to the Talmudic usage as an unformed and imperfect entity—in philosophic terms, matter without form—which it acquired only in later versions. On a basic theological plane, it might simply signify body without soul, but the deeper connotations in early Talmudic and Midrashic legends often concern secret powers of intuition derived from the primordial clay, i.e., the earth, from which a golem is artificially fashioned.
The medieval form of golem legends may have been generated by Talmudic and Midrashic references to a mystical book citing the creative power of letters—of God’s name and even of the Torah. In that conception, various transformations and reorderings of the letters could contain secret knowledge of creation on an internal level. While in the early part of the Middle Ages some saw in this a hidden guide to magic procedures, in the later medieval period the ideal of a golem creation became more symbolic and theoretical. In the 12th and 13th centuries, there arose among the pietist sect known as ḥasidei ashkenaz the notion of golem creation as a mystical ritual. Yet that was also the beginning of the idea of the golem as an actual creature, even though the mystics insisted that it had only symbolic meaning—spiritual experience of ecstasy without practical benefits or consequences.
In the ensuing centuries, the various golem legends solidified as the image of a creature whose animation usually depended upon the “holy” letters in physical contact with it—and in a particular order. The golem also took on the character of a creature who could serve its creator in practical terms, but could also be vaporized by removal of the life-giving letter(s). Various kabbalistic opinions on the nature of a golem—whether it could have power of speech or intellect—vary.
By the 17th century, by most accounts, golem legends were no longer carefully guarded secrets of clandestine rites, but were commonly known. The golem in relation to the concept of total power over the elements that can cause utter destruction dates to the 16th century (Elijah of Chelm; d. 1583), but most golem legends after that had certain features in common: 1) some type of life could be ignited in the creature by placing the four letters of God’s name in its mouth or on its arm, the removal of which would cause its death; 2) there are parallels to contemporaneous non-Jewish legends of a humanly created alchemical being; and 3) the golem may serve its creator, but once created, it can develop independent or quasi-independent dangerous powers and can wreak havoc, especially by continuing to expand in size, to the point where it must be disintegrated back into primordial dust by removing either the tetragram or one of three letters that had otherwise been placed on its forehead. (Those three letters spelled “truth,” but removal of the first letter left the word “dead.”)
The most recent and best-known golem legend is the one connected to 16th-century Prague, where the fashioning of the creature is ascribed to Rabbi Judah Lowe (The Maharal). The Prague legend has no historical basis, either in the city or vis-á-vis Rabbi Lowe. The story developed only after his death, and its attribution was transferred from Elijah of Chelm to Rabbi Lowe possibly as late as the second half of the 18th century, according to some estimates. By that time, golem legends had also come to assign to the creature powers of protecting Jews from persecution. The Prague golem became especially attached to the city’s Altneushul (Old-New Synagogue) and to certain parts of its rituals, and there are even reports to the effect that Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was inspired by his visit to that synagogue. The Prague golem was said to have been fashioned out of clay, into which the divine tetragram was inserted—making it obedient to Rabbi Lowe’s will. Eventually it grew to menace the entire city, and he was forced to remove the four letters and thereby return the golem to ordinary clay.
Beginning in Germany in the 19th century, golem legends have been the subject of countless literary and art forms, and modern interpretations have often been superimposed in modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature. In the 20th century, the golem references have invariably concerned the Prague golem, which has generated plays, ballets, operas, abstract compositions, novels, poems, and even films.
In 1931, during his New York years, Achron wrote incidental music for H. Leivick’s The Golem, produced by the Yiddish Art Theater, for which he scored music for only four instruments—trumpet, horn, cello, and piano. The play was produced initially (in Hebrew) in Moscow by Habima, the famous Hebrew theater troupe that was a studio of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, which is regarded as the foundation for modern professional Hebrew theater. (It later became the National Theater of Israel.) Music for that production had been composed by Moses Milner, one of Achron’s fellow Gesellschaft members. It is possible that Achron saw the Hebrew version while he was in Berlin, since Habima was temporarily in residence there at that time, and he had some involvement with its Berlin studio. But he is not known to have created any music for it until its Yiddish staging in New York.
On the whole, Achron’s music proved too sophisticated even for the audiences at the Yiddish Art Theater, who, despite their interest in serious theater (as opposed to the lighter entertainment of the so-called Second Avenue variety), preferred more inconspicuous incidental music. He therefore reworked some of those scores for concert use. For The Golem suite, he selected five fragments of the original incidental score and rewrote them for an atypical chamber orchestra (piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, two horns, three trumpets, trombone, tuba, percussion, harp, piano, six celli, and six double basses), but without violins or violas. The movements he extracted depict the creation of the golem, its rampage, the fatigued wanderer, the dance of the phantom spirits, and the petrifying of the golem.
The suite has an interesting structural scheme. The “golem theme” in the first movement is repeated in the last, but in exact retrograde—musically describing the creature’s disintegration into the clay from which it had come. The harmonies in the last movement, too, mirror the initial statement of the first movement. However, those structural devices are employed only as unifying techniques, seamlessly accomplished so that the listener is unaware of them.
The Golem suite was premiered by no less an internationally acclaimed maestro than Fritz Reiner (to whom the piece was dedicated) at the Second International Music Festival in Venice in 1932. Unlike Stempenyu, which became one of his best-known works, The Golem fell into virtual obscurity and received no further performances until the Milken Archive’s recording and its related performance by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz at the Musica Judaica Festival in Prague in 2000.