The Arts : The Rabbi Beneath the Clay
The Golem legend began in Prague, and an exhibit at the Czech Republic’s premier cultural venue explores the man credited with creating the myth.
In a painted set from the 1951 Czech film The Emperor and the Golem, a grotesque clay monster peers down on the distinguished 16th-century Rabbi Loew as the wise, pointy-bearded sage grips the creature’s iron belt.
Yehudah Loew (pronounced Lev) ben Bezalel is known far and wide as the Maharal, the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu ha-Rav Loew, Our Teacher the Rabbi Loew.
It is a paradox—and paradox is the key to understanding this rabbi—that a tableau in which he is dwarfed by his legendary servant gone awry is the promotional poster for a major exhibition devoted to the Maharal.
The real Loew, the exhibition seeks to prove, is as worthy of our attention as his mythical link with the Golem, an artificial being historians agree he never even attempted to create.
The Maharal exhibit, put on by The Jewish Museum in Prague at Prague Castle through November 8, spotlights Loew’s significance as a Czech national hero, mystic and inspiration for disparate movements ranging from Zionism to hasidism (011-420-221-711-511; www.jewishmuseum.cz).
“I do not like the Golem because the story overshadows the authentic person of the Maharal, but I admit that without the Golem legend, the rabbi would not be so well known,’’ said Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum.
Named after one of the Maharal’s tracts on the Mishna, ‘‘Path of Life, Rabbi Loew (ca. 1525-1609)” is timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of his death on September 7 (the 18th of Elul).
The exhibit includes some 200 books, records, textiles, paintings, maps and other artifacts and is divided into two parts. The first details the Maharal’s career and era. (There are thorough English-language explanations of each section and every item on display.)
Golem buffs need not despair; the second section and conclusion of the exhibit describes the Maharal’s fictional persona with clips from three different films starring the creature, including The Emperor and the Golem, which in Czech lands has achieved a level of multigenerational popularity akin to The Wizard of Oz in the United States. Golems show up in surprising incarnations in Prague—from kitschy souvenirs to the Golden Golem Hotel, even a nonkosher Golem Restaurant, which serves dishes such as the Rabbi’s Pocket, incongruously cheese and meat in a pastry.
The exhibition space, the castle’s former Imperial Stables, is another testimony to the significance of Loew in the Czech psyche.
“It is remarkable to have an exhibition on a rabbi at the castle, the premier cultural venue in the country,” said Pavlat.
“Path of Life” initially explores the Maharal’s disputed genealogy and his place in the sociopolitical climate of 16th-century European Jewry. The show moves on to reveal how the rabbi was co-opted, starting in the 19th century, by writers, dramatists and filmmakers.
“Trying to discover the true identity of the Maharal is fraught with difficulty because so little is really known about his life,” said Alexandr Putik, who cocurated the exhibit with historian Arno Parik. “He never wrote about himself, and his first biographer, Meir Perels, made many mistakes that we are only now getting to the bottom of.”
For instance, Perels’s 1727 book, Megillat Yuhasim, (Scroll of Lineage)—the original is on display—claims the Maharal was a descendant of King David, which he was likely not, according to Putik.
Although the exhibition is a history lesson reliant greatly on texts, it never becomes overly academic. Instead, the pages of handwritten Hebrew letters, religious commentary and biography are transformed into works of art in their own right. Their calligraphy draws the visitor into the ancient Prague ghetto with its intrigues and its dependence on the whims of the Hapsburg emperors.
An extensive collection of maps and drawings of the Jewish Old Town puts the Maharal in the context of a time when Jews were forced to live in separate enclaves, but never far from the persecution that frequently emanated from the non-Jewish world. (The Jewish Old Town lays between the right bank of the Vltava River and the Old Town Square and included the ghetto.)
Yet, in the 19th century, the Maharal, who championed the distinctiveness of the Jewish race in his writings, became a symbol of the struggle for national identity by another minority—Czechs chafing under Austro-Hungarian rule.
Books revering Loew by writers belonging to the Czech National Revival movement are part of the exhibition, including illustrations that show the rabbi intercepting the carriage of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, whose throne was Prague Castle, on the Charles Bridge.
“What other country’s capital has a rabbi whose statue stands in front of city hall?” asked Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, referring to the towering 1914 sculpture of an aged Loew in the muscular Romantic style of artist Ladislav Saloun, a model of which is on view.
Rabbi Loew was born in Poznan, Poland, and most likely studied at a yeshiva in Krakow. Although his exact ancestry is unclear, Putik said Loew’s father came from the Czech region of Bohemia.
To launch his rabbinic career, Loew worked as a teacher in the territory of Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), where he served as chief rabbi for 20 years, based in Mikulov.
The rabbi’s chastising sermons on wine consumption are represented at the exhibition by a flower-engraved pewter cask crafted by the Moravian Anabaptists during the time of Loew’s leadership.
“He was furious Moravian Jews were drinking non-kosher wine with Christians,” noted Karel Sidon, chief rabbi of the Czech Republic.
The Maharal took a step up the rabbinical career ladder by moving to Prague and running the Klaus Yeshiva, where he developed a reputation as “the most learned rabbi in the ghetto,” according to Putik.
Although he was eventually elected chief rabbi of Prague, he failed in two earlier attempts to secure the position. He criticized the selfishness of the rich, an unpopular move among the mostly wealthy elders of the Jewish council who elected the chief rabbi.
The exhibition emphasizes Loew’s social consciousness and displays his decree, in German, requiring the protection of orphans, the earliest known record of the Maharal as chief rabbi.
As evidence of the tense times he lived in, an anonymous chronicle from the ghetto states that Loew was imprisoned for some months in Prague’s Old Town Hall. A fellow Jew falsely testified that the rabbi had poisoned someone, then a common accusation made against Jews.
The exhibition features exquisite Prague panoramas, such as a 1493 woodcut with a fairy-tale depiction of spires that is the earliest known rendering of what is today the Czech capital. Another portrait of the city is a 1618 engraving commissioned by Rudolph II that stretches across several wall panels. The black-and-white rendering by Nuremberg engraver Johannes Wechter and embroiderer Philipp van den Bosche reveals tiny details of each building, including the Old-New Synagogue, the Jews’ spiritual center.
A 1665 map shows the Jewish ghetto and the Old Town, about the same size, separated by a series of gates. A panel explains that during Rudolph II’s rule, the ghetto had as many as 3,000 to 5,000 residents crammed into 250 houses.
Perhaps nothing compares in rarity to the little-known Mannerist drawings by royal court painter Roelandt Savery. During Loew’s time, it was a serious legal offense for non-Jews to go to a synagogue and mix with Jews. However, under the Golden Age of Rudolph II (1552-1612), there was unprecedented religious tolerance. Savery, a Flemish Anabaptist, is believed to have been one of the only non-Jews of his time to sketch Jews worshiping at the 12th-century Old-New Synagogue, today the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe.
One of the figures in his portrait “Two Rabbis”—the man wearing a tall fur hat—is probably the Maharal.
There is a 3-D view of Antonin Langwell’s 1830 paper-and-wood model of Prague with details of each house and street of the ghetto. The Maharal lived on Siroka Street, and the exhibition boasts the lion figure once affixed to his door. The lion, symbol of the tribe of Judah, is identical in shape to the one on his famous tombstone, the most prominent in the Old Jewish Cemetery.
The exhibition also pays homage to the Maharal’s patron, Mordecai Maisel, who funded the construction of the Jewish Town Hall and the Maisel and High Synagogues. Maisel was the only Jew in Czech lands to be allowed the nobleman’s honor of a family banner, a red flag inscribed with a Star of David.
Among the 20 books the prolific rabbi wrote, excerpts are on display from Gur Aryeh (Lion’s Whelp), a supracommentary on Rashi, as well as commentaries on the aggadot, tales and legends of the Babylonian Talmud. A plaque explains that he defended the Torah from “rationalistic critique” and was inspired by “mystical theology,” especially devekut, “cleaving to God.” In particular, he had a reputation for analyzing the deeper, mystical meanings of the Torah, which some took to mean he was a kabbalist.
This view, true or not, connects him to Rudolph II, known for his love of magic and alchemy. A 1592 chronicle by the Jewish astronomer and pupil of Loew, David Gans, reveals that Rudolph met with the Maharal in Prague.
Gans writes, “Our Lord, Emperor, righteous, great light, praised Rudolph, may his Majesty be raised, in his abundant grace and earnestness, summoned and invited…Lewa, son of Bezalel, and received him kindly and merrily. And spoke to him face to face as a person speaks to his friend. And the nature and quality of this event, which took place here in the Holy Community of Prague, on 13 Adar [February 26, 1592], are hidden, sealed and unknown.”
During this extraordinary royal audience, at which Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was present, it is widely thought that the emperor sought the rabbi’s kabbalistic knowledge.
There are numerous items from the emperor on display, including rings, amulets and Rudolph’s Magic Handbell. Made of seven different metals, the bell is inscribed with a “kabbalistic message that no one has figured out yet,” said Putik.
This is where the exhibition moves from fact to legend.
“A rabbi who the emperor believes has magical powers is a good candidate for the creator of the Golem,” observes Parik.
As the exhibition recounts, in 1909, Polish Hasidic rabbi Yudl Rosenberg published a tale in which Loew creates the Golem to fight off blood libel accusations. Rosenberg was borrowing his theme from Galerie der Sippurim, an 1847 collection of Jewish tales published in Prague. Here, Loew created a clay servant with a piece of paper on which God’s name is written. The rabbi forgets to remove the paper on the Sabbath and the Golem turns violent. He is deactivated when the paper is removed, then hidden in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.
(In fact, the only rabbi that Jewish records say tried to create a golem was a contemporary of Loew, Elijah of Chelm, in Poland. The idea of a golem, however, defined as “unformed being,” dates back to the Bible.)
Next comes German writer Gustav Myerink, author of Der Golem (1915), which became a European best seller. There are dozens of drawings on display by Der Golem illustrator Hugo Steiner-Prague. He depicts the Golem as a slender ghoul with slanted eyes and the Jewish ghetto as a dark, nightmarish realm in a German Expressionist style. (Steiner-Prague was not only a Jewish graphic artist, his mother claimed to be a descendant of Loew.)
The exhibition delves into the evolution of the Golem’s relatively human appearance in Czech theater and German film to his more contemporary image as a clunky clod.
In the first Golem film, the 1920 hit Der Golem by German actor-director Paul Wegener, the destructive Golem marauds through town with an odd page-boy haircut. The Golem as a Frankenstein character is what emerges in the film stills on display, which show a young child giving the destructive monster an apple.
“In all of these dramatic depictions, the rabbi takes a back seat, if present at all, to his creature,” said Parik. But that is the opposite impact of the show, at least for some viewers.
Czechs emerging from “Path of Life” all knew about the Golem, but said they were surprised to learn details of his master, particularly his interest in education. Reviews in the Czech press were positive, emphasizing that it was a revelation for many who believed that Loew really made a giant clay being. (Since its opening, the show has attracted about 200 visitors a day, an excellent turnout according to the Jewish Museum.)
The exhibit is not the only event in Prague paying tribute to Loew this fall. Conceptual light and sound artist Petr Nikl created an exhibit, which closed in October, in the Jewish Museum’s Robert Guttmann Gallery that allowed visitors to make their own golem. There was also a scholarly conference on the Maharal in September, sponsored by the Prague Jewish Community and several international Jewish organizations.
Even jews tend to interpret Loew’s writings, still highly influential, in accordance to their needs. The first chief rabbi of British-run Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, called Loew the father of Hasidism. The Lubavitch movement opened the Maharal Institute, a center dedicated to Loew, last year. (The late Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, claimed the Maharal as an ancestor.)
“Loew was an inspiration for Hasids because he believed that the rabbi, and not the laity, should run all aspects of Jewish life,” said Putik. “In this way, he shares the Hasidic notion of a rabbi as an emissary of God.”
Meanwhile, acclaimed Jewish philosopher Martin Buber thought of the Maharal as a proto-Zionist.
In a tract on exile, the Maharal describes the state of diaspora as unnatural, that Jews belong in the Land of Israel. “But he never says this should be changed by man himself, it is rather implied that the arrival of the Messiah will change the situation,” noted Putik.
Perhaps the biggest scholarly debate regarding the Maharal is whether he was truly a kabbalist. “Kabbala has its own lingo and code from the Middle Ages and the Maharal never uses this in his writings,” said Joseph Davis, a specialist on Jewish thought at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. “So either he is translating Kabbala into non-code or maybe he was just a Jewish mystic and not a kabbalist.”
For most people, however, the biggest mystery is why Loew is credited with creating the artificial being.
“It is well known that there were legends about him just after he died, legends about the Old-New Synagogue and his work there,” said Davis. “The story may have started with people asking, ‘What’s in the attic?’”
Today, any tour guide in Prague will answer: The Golem. H
Dinah A. Spritzer is the Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent in Prague and writes for The New York Times’ Globespotters blog.