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The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction, by Elizabeth R. Baer. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012. 229 pp. $27.95.
Attending to the ways in which the golem is being revived in a substantial body of cultural production over the past few decades, Elizabeth R. Baer focuses on the Jewish imagination and intertextuality to offer close readings of many of these texts. Baer builds on the body of scholarship on the golem, and while she focuses on the important studies by Gershom Scholem (1960), Byron Sherwin (1985), and Moshe Idel (1990), she figures The Golem Redux as a sequel to Arnold Goldsmith’s The Golem Remembered (1981). While it may be true that many of the novels that Baer examines have been published after Goldsmith’s study, including James Sturm’s graphic novel, The Golem’s Mighty Swing (2001), Baer does far more than simply update golem scholarship. Her approach, a finely tuned analysis of the deployment of intertextuality that runs through these texts, and her purpose, to seek and synthesize evidence of ways in which the Jewish imagination, the story, affords understanding of the Shoah make this a compelling study.
Baer’s use of the tenets of postmodernism is particularly apt for unpacking these texts. Her considerations of intertextuality with its borrowings and retellings, and of these novels and films as historiographic metafiction, come to seem necessary as she analyzes the golem as metaphor in his reincarnations as servant, protector, legend, or threat. Noting the correlations between postmodern texts, critique, and correction, Baer focuses on the golem as text and intertext: “he has been adopted, adapted, appropriated, and riffed upon in so many post-Holocaust fictions” (p. 9). In Baer’s hands, the tools of the postmodern become the tools of post-Holocaust literary and cultural analysis. Reprised, the golem, as Baer demonstrates, becomes the imaginative figure that serves as a repository for memory, a place to formulate identity, a site to quest for divinity and social justice, and even a stimulus for laughter.
In its first two chapters, The Golem Redux covers the history of the legend, from the Book of Psalms to Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague to its versions in the early twentieth century, particularly the texts and films that established its ongoing popularity. These are the tropes and plots on which contemporary writers draw in their appropriations. Baer then offers extended readings of texts by two important Jewish authors, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel. Both titled The Golem (1982, 1983), these are texts that have not received the critical attention they deserve until now. Like Singer and Wiesel, Frances Sherwood also retells the golem’s history in The Book of Splendor (2002), which Baer also reads in the third chapter. In discussions of these three novels, Baer uncovers how these traditional retellings also employ changes and revisions that both reveal the author’s intentions and adumbrate the more recent retellings she discusses next.
Chapters 4 and 5 analyze contemporary, post-Holocaust golem texts. Chapter 4 traces the yearning for a champion golem, a Jewish superhero in three texts: a graphic novel about baseball, a novel about a Christian boy who works as a shabbos goy and creates a golem, and Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel about Jews, the golem, and the comics industry. Baer’s final chapter reads texts that examine creation (of golem and story), and the boundaries of what humans can and should create. The golem figure in these books functions in a multiplicity of ways, and one recurrent theme is that of the Second Generation, as many of these authors and their characters are children of Holocaust survivors. Baer balances analyses of the densely constructed—Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers (1997) and Thane Rosenbaums’ The Golems of Gotham (2002)—with those more rooted in popular culture—Watch Your Mouth (2000) by Daniel Handler (who also writes as Lemony Snicket) and the “Kaddish” episode of the X-Files (1997). The Golem Redux concludes with an epilogue comprising an annotated bibliography of additional golem texts. Overall, in tracing the ways in which these texts examine creation alongside heroes and saviors, love and sexuality, social reform, and utopian impulses, Baer considers how and why the golem lives on, why the golem in particular and post-Holocaust literature in general are profoundly necessary.
University of Alberta