Prejudicial Monsters

snowinaugustWitnessing injustice is traumatic. Especially when you’ve been conditioned to believe there is nothing you can do about it. That helpless feeling crushes you as you see the guilty, the powerful, the cruel getting away with whatever they want to do. This is the perspective of young Michael Devlin in Snow in August. Pete Hamill’s novel is full of observations about prejudice and ignorant blustering about those who are different in 1940’s New York City. Michael accidentally observes a robbery that may also be a murder. The perpetrator, an older boy who leads a gang in Brooklyn, hates Jews. Michael, however, has become the shabbos goy for a synagogue that has seen better days. Although a Catholic, he is curious about this strange rabbi he comes to know and what this other religion teaches. At the same time, Jackie Robinson is being called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and prejudice about an African American playing in the major leagues sets up a parallel to the story of understanding the Jews.

It is an engrossing novel. I have to confess, however, that I read it because of the golem. A traditional Jewish monster, the golem is an animated being of mud that protects oppressed Jews. In the novel this begins as a legend Rabbi Hirsch tells the boy as they teach each other their native languages. Michael learns Yiddish as the rabbi learns English, and the story of the golem is part of the rabbi’s own sad history as a Jew during Nazi days. Then as Michael, his mother, and the rabbi are all beaten or molested by the gang, it is time for the golem to make his appearance.

Not exactly a monster story—as often in such cases the monster is someone recognized as fully human but without sympathy for those who are different—Snow in August is a thoughtful, almost nostalgic tale of “a simpler time.” What we learn, however, is that it wasn’t really simpler at all. Prejudice could be worn openly and proudly. What many of us may have forgotten, until recent elections forced us to remember, is that such hateful intolerance is still very common. We live in a world where hatred can be currency and bigotry has more power than we’d like to admit. Reading stories, such as Snow in August, will become increasingly important in days ahead. We will need to remind each other that even if only as metaphors golems do indeed exist. All we have to do is believe.


GolemReduxI read a lot of books. About a hundred a year. At the end of the year I go over them all again and many of them, I see, failed to make a deep impression. Some, I know, before I close the back cover, will stay with me. Maybe even haunt me. I count Elizabeth R. Baer’s The Golum Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction among those that will linger long. My regular readers will know of my predilection for monsters, so a golem book will hardly be a surprise. I realized, however, upon completing my academic paper on Sleepy Hollow, that my reading on the golem was rather slim. I’m no longer sure that it’s even a monster. As a goy who’s spent a good deal of his life among the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s a natural resonance, it seems, with those oppressed for being who they are. Golems are created in times of crisis but have unexpected, or at least unwanted, repercussions. Baer offers a thoughtful, intertextual study of the golem, largely through the lens of Jewish fiction.

Having dealt with the Bible as portrayed in Sleepy Hollow, I treated the episode where its significance truly unfolds (“The Golem”) as the entryway into the culmination of the first season. Now it appears likely that season three will be the erasure of the aleph, it seems appropriate to give golems their due. The story begins with the oppression of the Jews in early modern Prague. Rabbi Loew makes a golem from mud to protect the beleaguered community. This soulless, selfless protector becomes an archetype for various superheroes and literary characters ably summarized by Baer. The book put me in mind of my only visit to Prague, too brief and too ill-informed to truly appreciate what I was seeing. To see you have to learn to read.

While some writers have fun with the golem, others understand it in more serious tones. Those who can’t forget the Holocaust see things in a way that others cannot. Not that only Jews can summon a golem, but its origins and reuse have a special place in a community that longs for a protector. I’m reminded of the book of Job, and there’s a good reason for that. While reading The Golem Redux on my commute, I came home to find a copy of Pete Hamill’s Snow in August on my wife’s stack of books to read. As it is one of the titles studied by Baer, I felt an odd synchronicity at play. The book had been recommended by one of the booksellers at our local indie shop just a few weekends back. Tied in with all the other golem-based thoughts in my head recently, I’m inclined to think that this was no mere coincidence.