by David Wisniewski

David Wisniewski's Golem

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 6-12

Savior or Monster? A Cabala Creature to Save the Jews

My favorite definition of the religion of my birth describes it as an ethical religion. Many Jews would maintain that being Jewish doesn't even require the worship of - or even the belief in - God.

It only requires a willingness to live one's life ethically, to consider seriously issues of right and wrong.

And please know that Judaism doesn't tend to look at right and wrong as black and white. Our Talmud contains not only Jewish law, but, even more importantly, a discussion of the law, citing various and conflicting opinions on interpretation.

It's from such a style of thinking that the story of Golem emerged.

In Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the year 1580, Jews were consigned to a ghetto. More immediately, enemies of the Jews were spreading a "Blood Lie" (also known as Blood Libel) about them, namely that Jews were slaughtering Christian children for the purposes of Jewish rituals.

The Blood Lie was being used to justify violence against the Jews of Prague.

Enter, per the legend, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the chief rabbi of Prague and a practictioner of Cabala (also Kabbalah), a form of Jewish mysticism.

Inspired by a dream, and with the fate of his people at stake, the rabbi endeavored to create a Golem, a giant man "of untold power," made from clay.

(Hearing echoes of Frankenstein? It's thought that author Mary Shelley took inspiration from this legend. You'll see a bit of Incredible Hulk as well.)

And, according to the legend, Golem did his job. By day, he was to masquerade as a "servant in the synagogue." But at night...

You will guard the ghetto...and catch those planting false evidence of the Blood Lie... You must bring them unharmed to the authorities.

Review continues.

cropped image from Golem

Golem did his job well, but his success only served to further inflame the ghetto's enemies. The story climaxes with them storming the gates of the ghetto. Golem then swells to truly monstrous size and angrily destroys the tormentors.

And with black and white morality, this could be easily justified. But author-illustrator Wisniewski captures both ways of looking at the creature. As he kills and maims, we see the hate in his eyes. We see that can't possibly be a good thing.

Wisniewski won the 1997 Caldecott Medal for this book featuring his cut paper renderings of the ambiguous creature.

Cabala isn't something all Jews believe in, but the moral thoughtfulness of Golemcaptures the ethical soul of Judaism for Jews and non-Jews alike.

More Caldecott books.

More picture books about other places and times.

More of Steve's reviews.

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