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The 'Golem' Lives On At Berlin’s Jewish Museum

Picture of Lily Cichanowicz
Updated: 30 September 2016
The Jewish Museum in Berlin is hosting an exhibition about the prominent mythical creature in Jewish folklore: golem. On show until January 2017, the new “Golem” exhibition will largely feature different renditions of the artificial being made from mud, typically portrayed in a dormant state, but according to legend, awakens when a few magic Hebrew letters are uttered.

Unlike many museums dedicated to recounting the harrowing facts and chilling stories of the Holocaust, Berlin’s Jewish Museum is focused on celebrating the history, culture, and contributions of Jewish people in Germany, in Europe more broadly, and beyond. Therefore, it only makes sense that its curators might bring to life one of the most notable characters in Jewish folklore, golem.

In total, the exhibition consists of 250 different objects, sculptures, and works of art dedicated to telling the story of golem. For a bit of background, golem has been intertwined with Jewish mythos since ancient times. Essentially, the story goes that golem is a large, monstrous creature formed from clay or other materials. He is most often brought to life through the use of magical Hebrew lettering. Overtime, the number of antics in which golem — this compelling, yet, oafish being — finds himself are staggering, and possibly innumerable.

Most famously, such stories revolve around Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Jewish mystic and Talmudic scholar, who resided in Prague during the 16th century. Legend has it that he magically brought the golem creature to life and controlled him, most often in order to protect the Jews from their persecutors. Yet, what makes golem so interesting and compelling is that he isn’t entirely good nor is he completely tractable. Indeed, golem also engages in his fair share of mischief.

The ways that golem literally changed form in the various stories about him is also metaphorical for the ways he’s worked his way into cultures far beyond that of medieval Judaism. Peter Schaefer, the director of the Jewish Museum explains, ‘Its story begins in the Hebrew bible and continues, in constantly new transformations, into the present day.’ No doubt, the golem motif is present in the mythologies of many superheroes, for instance. He goes on to suggest, ‘The ancient human dream of creating artificial beings connects with today’s world: genetic technology and artificial intelligence, computer and robots,’ Schaefer said. ‘All these are endeavours to create a kind of golem.’

Thus, the exhibition will feature the breadth of variations, implications, and interpretations in both Jewish folklore and imaginative contemporary ones by artists from Israel and elsewhere. In addition to this, the museum will also have interactive displays featuring incantations and instructions derived from ancient lore that people can use to conjure golem from clay. There will also be costumes, cartoons, and games for children to engage with the story of golem.

The exhibition will run until January 29, 2017.

Jewish Museum Berlin, Lindenstraße 9-14, Berlin, Germany