“The Golem of Chelm” (traditional, video)
This week we’re mixing storytelling forms, and we’re going to begin today with an eleven-minute animation.
We’ve studied a number of legends, fairy and folk tales . . .
Have you ever heard the story of the Golem? This particular Golem is The Golem of Rabbi Elijah; also known as the Golem of Chelm.
Listen as the story’s told, and let us know what you think.
For another Golem story everyone will enjoy, try Golem by David Wisniewski.
Golem is a 1996 picture book. With illustrations made of cut-paper collages, it is Wisniewski’s retelling of the Jewish folktale of the Golem (of Prague, this time, not Chelm) with a one-page background at the end.
This picture book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997
The story is set in year 1580, and the Jews are being persecuted. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the town rabbi, can think of nothing more than creating a being out of mud and bringing it to life, using the holy name of God, to protect them. Once the Golem stops the persecution, Rabbi Loew erases the letters on the Golem’s head, making the Golem “sleep the dreamless sleep of clay”. The ending is ambiguous, ending with the words: “But many say he could awaken. Perhaps when the desperate need for justice is united with holy purpose, Golem will come to life once more.”
The book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997
. . .for movie fans . . .
Check out this old silent film:
The Golem (1920) by Paul Wegener
The 1920 silent film classic, The Golem
This film stars Wegener as the golem. The film was the third of three films that Wegener made featuring the golem, the other two being The Golem (1915) and the short comedy The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), in which Wegener dons the Golem make-up in order to frighten a young lady he is infatuated with. The Golem: How He Came into the World is a prequel to The Golem from 1915 and is the best known of the series, largely because it is the only one of the three films that has not been lost. One of the early horror films, the film was sensational upon its release and has left a lasting legacy within the film industry, alongside another early German expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).¹
“By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét
Painting, “By the Waters of Babylon,” Arthur Hacker, 1858-1919.
Looking for a second optional reading to pair with “The Golem of Chelm?”
John, the son of a priest, is one of the hill people. What will happen when he sets out on a spiritual quest to the forbidden place of the gods? Let’s find out in this often-anthologized science fiction story.
Here is “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét.
How would you compare or contrast this to the tale of Rabbi Elijah’s Golem? Let us know!
Why do you suppose Stephen Vincent Benét chose this title for his short story?
Benét wrote the story in response to the April 25, 1937 bombing of Guernica, in which Fascist military forces destroyed the majority of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. This story took place before the public knowledge of nuclear weapons, but Benét’s description of “The Great Burning” is similar to later descriptions of the effects of the atomic bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His “deadly mist” and “fire falling from the sky” seem eerily prescient of the descriptions of the aftermath of nuclear blasts. However, the “deadly mist” may also be a reference to chemical weapons in World War I, particularly mustard gas, a feared weapon of war that Benét’s generation was very familiar with. The story was written in 1937, two years before the Manhattan Project started, and eight years before there was widespread public knowledge of the project.
Elements of the plot and themes of By the Waters of Babylon appear in the 1970 feature film Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
The psalm is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BCE. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river. In its whole form of nine verses, the psalm reflects the yearning for Jerusalem as well as hatred for the Holy City’s enemies with sometimes violent imagery. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah, and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: “For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.”
- By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
- We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
- For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
- How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
- If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
- If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
- Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
- O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
- Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
The early lines of the psalm describe the sadness of the Israelites in exile, weeping and hanging their harps on trees. Asked to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, they refuse. The speaker turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” (אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם–תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי). The psalm ends with prophetic predictions of violent revenge.
. . .A bit about Stephen Vincent Benét . . .
Stephen Vincent Benét (July 22, 1898 – March 13, 1943) was an American poet, short story writer, and novelist. He is best known for his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War John Brown’s Body (1928), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and for the short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) and “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). In 2009, The Library of America selected Benét’s story “The King of the Cats” (1929) for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales edited by Peter Straub.