'For and of Clay: The Golem of Prague and Modes of Jewish Resistance' / Matthew Foreman
The names in this essay have been changed for anonymity’s sake
Years ago in Prague, I saw the old Jewish quarter and its cemetery. The graves lean on one another; they are grey and moss-grown. I saw Thereseinstadt too, the hybrid ghetto-concentration camp. Walking around there it was hardly the fairy-tale-esque landscape that Prague’s buildings are described as by so many. I did not see a fairy-tale, though it is undoubtedly beautiful. I saw the blood made invisible by time which flowed in the cobblestone and I could not cry for as hard as I tried.
I had not known how I would respond when I would eventually come to see crematoria and train tracks and barbed wire in my travels. I had not known if the years of Jewish education had maybe numbed me through images of ragdoll bodies being dumped on top of each other. But now, years later, having not cried does not convince me that I am numb, for I am angry. I am searching for Jewish resistance everywhere as we are gunned down in our places of worship. As are our Muslim brothers and sisters in theirs. We Jews know that we serve as a good canary down the coal mine for violence against other minority groups. Tree of Life was attacked specifically because of the recurrent Jew-Puppeteer myth, the story that it is in fact Jews who are orchestrating the flow of refugees. Usually if the Jews are in trouble, everybody else is probably in trouble too. Naturally not long later was the Christchurch massacre, an Australian export no less. It is through this that I am tapping into an urgency demanded of us by the reversion in the political reality. An urgency to resist or perish as we have before.
As I search, what is most prominent in its voice is not a politics of resistance, but a politics of settling. And that is a word here which seems to have two meanings: the politics of Zionism. The loudest voice in the room of Jewish politics is undoubtedly Zionism. And in times where this violence against Jews rises still, and fascists are stirring, it must be appraised as any other politics must. Indeed, I have had to appraise it my whole life. It was Zionism that was imposed upon me from my childhood at school. Through Gilad Shalit’s scripted public appearance or the celebration of Israeli Independence Day (Nakba) as a day off. That two-fold settling, even as a child, seemed obvious as we would learn from energised young Israelis garrisoned at our school teaching us. Perhaps in the way that youth pastors work among gentiles. Though of course, the occupation wall was always an unfortunate precaution, and the death-toll in Gaza collateral damage.
My politics has become activated in another way after the discovery of revolutionary tradition through my family. Whether serving alongside Nelson Mandela on the treason trial or further back still in the old shtetl and Pale of Settlement, my family has had in it a revulsion exactly toward the atrocities that Zionism commits now in our modern day. I feel as though my inheriting of a Marxist politics has coincided with leaving the Jewish community in Melbourne as it stands, overwhelmingly Zionist. These days I feel more myself. But in Prague, at the sight of Theresinsdadt, I thought of Zionism and my family. The settler-colonialism of the land, absolutely, but a settling in the other sense, too. An acquiescence. A concession.
I did not cry in Prague, but I know that I am not numb. I recall a potent inspiration as I entered the medieval Prague Synagogue. Old Jewish folklore tells us of an automaton built there in that synagogue made from clay that was sculpted with ancient Kabbalistic Hebrew incantations. A hulking protector. Never male, nor female, but something else. Made from the same progenitor in our scriptures as all of us: the earth. An icon of resistance that would protect us from the Blood Libels which mounted all the time, and an outcome of ingenuity and self-determination: The Golem. The Golem offered a mythological figure of hope to Jews through the Blood Libels, the lies that Jews ritually killed Christian children and used their blood to bake Matzoh bread over Passover. A story as preposterous as it sounds, but even where it is not outright believed (though make no mistake that in some corners it is), it persists today as background radiation for gentiles’ mistrust of Jews. A story derived out of suspicion of Jews’ isolationist position in our early Shtetls, a seed much like the Judas-betrayer story which grew into murder and pogroms.
As I stepped around inside the synagogue, these ideas around the Golem fascinated me, even if today they are sold as kitsch necklaces to tourists by street vendors. I was engrossed by the legend that, to this day, the Golem lies dormant in the attic of that synagogue. I stood just below it, picturing its sheer mass perhaps gathering dust or coated by cobwebs. The stories of SS soldiers who had combed that place and were never found. The tales of its magics. This image of the slumbering unassailable resistance fighter has stayed with me since. In my mind, it has grown with me.
The Golem seems like the Jewish people’s perfect symbol of resistance once again. It is strong, it is made of the ecology itself, offering an image of acknowledgement of our growth from the Earth, as opposed to a dominion over it. A symbol of existence of life and spirituality outside of gender binary, its creation loaded with Jewish perseverance. It occurs to me that we should all be a Golem, or at the very least, the Golem is what we should be fighting for. These values are at the core of Judaism. Even if you are not religious, they have always been at the core of the tradition of revolutionary Jews anyway. And they are the values imbued into the golem which are required of us to survive.
Prague was years ago. I returned with a grim attitude, but the Golem lay and slept interned in my mind for years, as they say it has in its attic. And no more does it press me, than on this day where I am schlepping southward toward a house party of an old Jewish friend. In more ways than one I have extricated myself from the Jewish community, but one of those ways is certainly geographic. I left the South Eastern suburbs and the occasions are few and far between where I visit these parties. But this one interested me. I knew that a man would be attending whom I had not seen for years. Eli, an old schoolmate who had eventually made ‘Aliyah’, or had immigrated to Israel. More than this, he had joined and served in the Israeli army. But today images of its architecture and the Golem and what it might be to embody one surely are floating around my mind as I approach the house and know that eventually I would have to hear that loudest voice in the room of Jewish political discourse. That this time it would be Eli’s voice but the points would all be the same.
When I arrive at the party, I see Eli standing in the backyard. He approaches and we exchange platitudes. I notice the strange expressions on his face with a swinging jaw. The small talk evaporates, and he gets to it.
“We called it the dildo” Eli tells me. I am familiar with what he is talking about before he explains it, but I let him. Everyone here is in blue dress shirts and khakis and Chelsea boots.
“The vertical foregrip on the M4 carbine. It has a built-in extendable bipod.” He shouts as his eyes roll into the back of his skull for a moment, and it is difficult now and then to hear him over the sound of the beat that drives into the crowd.
“I know our politics probably aren’t very compatible, but these people don’t get it,” he says, gesturing at them, our old school friends. “They don’t know anything about politics.” A synth whines and he shudders in empathogenic raptures.
“I have respect for the liberal movement. I know the Palestinian people aren’t my enemy. The bad guys are the old guard.” I am not sure what liberal movement he is talking about as he tries to extend an olive branch to me. Perhaps the American drum-circle brand, the I’m-with-her brand. The we-need-more-billionaires-of-colour brand. I am not sure what he means here about the Palestinian people either. Their reduction into some ignoble seething mass, monolithically susceptible to the propaganda that Eli knows I know all too well. For of course, we had been shown at school. The costumed children’s characters who instruct on suicide vests. The IDF footage of Hezbollah children with rifles. A tapestry of images which cumulatively served to convince generations of children in Jewish institutions that the sum of the Palestinian liberation movement is shrill, and armed, and coming for you specifically. That it is frightening, and that it is the aggressor, the instigator. That it can only be criticised, and woe betide thee.
Cornered beside a potted palm by the swimming pool, I look at the crowd that aims their sideward reverent glances at him, now inducted into the same canon of stoic heroes as the ‘settlers’ who toiled the land and hardened their hands on the shafts of spades and mattocks so long ago. The men and women in the black and white photos on the walls of the Hebrew classes I shared with these people, now adults. Smiling broad-shouldered farmers with Mauser rifles slung safari style among desert shrubs. Eli has become a soldier, but more than that, he has become a veteran. A prodigal son that has returned and they all look at him without really knowing how to talk to him now that he has. I would see the pictures of him on Facebook in his olive drab BDUs and slung rifle of his own standing at the Kotel or some barracks in our modern day. I would always imagine him stationed at a pillbox, sweating and throb-hearted in the heat rueing the day that he had joined. Of his own volition, too. No conscription, no national service at the risk of jail-time. The Lone Soldier, is what they call them. I had four alone in my year level at school. A turn of phrase so Hollywood, so inflated with veneration it bursts at the seams.
“But I’ve done enough house raids, seen enough kid’s bedrooms and their textbooks to know that the brainwashing is the problem.” He says, his foot tapping. A man with a slicked back undercut in wide sunglasses and a singlet puts his hands up as he stands over the DJ booth and the synth begins to climb in octaves, pulsatile. I remember Eli as a boy before any of this.
Eli, by all accounts, had been a nudnik. We would get in trouble through some insolence against our teachers, or some cruelty against our peers and of course kids handle this situation in different ways. Some kids will point the finger and blame their collaborators. Some might cop it on the chin and sit silent detentions. But Eli was a scrambler. It was what he had always done and what he was best at. He was admittedly a small boy and he had the longest record on the beep test. And more than that stamina, he was fast. Fastest sprint in the year level in fact. And standing there cornered at the pot plant beside the pool presented with him once again, it was clear. Clear that it was the way it was always going to go. The hushed inanities among fellow Jews milling around at parties when I would see them now and again. Whisperings about how he was struggling, how the family had maybe always been a little bit troubled. It was clear that as he had grown, as he had come to smoke more and more weed and life’s malaise and uncertainties weighed on him, he was always going to be scrambling somewhere.
Of course, Eli was not the only one who faced such uncertainty. We folks at home had seen photos of schoolmates in high echelon special operations units with faces blurred. We had seen the glowing youthful grins in other photos when they ascended in rank or were awarded a particular beret colour or epaulette. A handful of kids who bought a plane ticket, uprooted their lives and joined that foreign military. Not because they got the letter in the mail, but because they wanted to.
“Anyway, I was a combat medic. Specialised as a sharpshooter, in taking down moving targets at about four hundred meters.”
When I was in Israel I didn’t see war, and I certainly didn’t see occupied Gaza or the West bank. But as he says this, news footage of protruding rebar and charcoal-faced children and the screams of jetfighters and the rumble of tank columns flash in my mind. Picturing Eli amongst all of it as he stands before me truly does disturb me. Amongst all of it behind the sights of a rifle with his hand firmly clutching the dildo, no less. I remember also, as he tells me this, standing at assembly singing Hatikvah and the Kaddish with the names of the concentration camps inserted once a year. The Hebrew I would speak at school regularly too. I picture Eli out in some desert somewhere, perched on a rock with a dextroamphetamine pill coursing through him to keep him awake for some three-day convoy ambush. Maybe whispering in Hebrew to camouflaged men supine beside him. What comradery they might be exchanging, what jokes about the icy night, or pebbles against their dicks they might be making. But the words are lost to me after all these years. Standing there I both wish they were not lost to me and take pride in the fact that they are, all at the same time.
Hebrew does not sit well with me as a Communist Jew. It is nothing short of amazing that it has been revived, absolutely. However, its co-opting by the settler-colonial state of Israel which enforces new forms of apartheid instils in me the feeling that it has been tainted. The star of David too. Just this month there was an outcry among Pride parades over Jewish flags. A demand that they ought to not fly the star superimposed over the rainbow. This has been a longstanding discussion among Jewish comrades of mine – where we ought to derive our symbology and whether being anti-statist should mean that we should look to diasporic Yiddish imagery, instead of harping on rehabilitating the easier ones that Zionism has chosen. Where we can look to for images of resistance against our brutalising through history. The singing men who sung We Will Outlive Them as they were shot by Nazis above graves that they had dug for themselves. Mir veln zey iberlebn. The Partisan marching song, Zog Nit Keynmol. All evocative, but not visual-semiotic. Perhaps the flag of the Polish partisan army with its anchor, we had pondered, but rejected. For they were never monolithically Jewish and were often a worse enemy than the Nazis for their knowledge of the forests and a sizeable contingents’ hatred of Jews.
One symbol we have come to value though is the Golem of Prague. It was begrudging at first, as we saw the futility in claiming the star. But now we see it with warmth. For, how uninspired a solution to our liberation Zionism is, and Eli too as its avatar. How unimaginative and half-measured its objectives. The walls of its citadel which loom and cast an imprisoning shadow. How shameful its scar on the earth and our history, that we would enforce and besiege a ghetto of our own after what we have endured. How backward that we would erect the very apparatus that has marred us for so long at the hands of others, only because now it is our own. Eli is no Lone Soldier. He is no Jewish emancipatory hero. He is spilling his drink, weary-eyed. He is spitting on me as he talks.
He and the others like him, with their blurred faces and epaulettes, are fools suckered into a military-industrial quicksand. They wear the star of David and the menorah on their uniforms and come home dog-tired. Spent by the state as all states spend its people to wring them of blood and sanity to bolster its walls and borders. A pursuit of national service under the guise of Jewish self-determination, and yet Eli does not seem so self-determined. In earnest he seems out of control. Indeed, Israel did not give this Jew any better lot in life. It has not brought forth a reality through him either of the liberation we’ve laboured for. He and the rest are traitors to any outcome that would see Jews and the colonised and the queer folk and the women of the world (and sometimes all four at once) united against and surfaced above oppression, murder and mistrust. Let alone a liberation that would see no further massacres in mosques nor synagogues. The golem of Prague though is a symbol as-yet lost to such treachery, and it is perfect. A person made from clay, a resistance fighter made of the earth and ecology which made us.
Eli tells me something about how his politics have softened since he actually saw war. Something about the fact that a lot of the rhetoric goes out the window when you really see the violence and suffering. He tells me about a stabbing he had attended. A Palestinian who knifed a soldier. The man was shot in the gut and it was Eli that had kept him alive. He describes him lying on the ground bleeding through the gauze pads. Describes him as “going elsewhere you know, maybe inward”, as his eyes rolled. And he describes the letter in the mail. It said something to the effect of, Dear Eli, thanks to you I lived. I now realise the Israeli forces are there to protect us, that I would not have been shot if I did not attack them. You have shown me, in your treatment of my wounds and the saving of my life, he paraphrases to me over the music, that violence is not the answer. I will no longer be attacking Israelis. Kind regards. “That changed my life,” he says, “I want to get away from war now that I’m back. Anyway I have respect for the liberal movement, more than I used to.”
He strikes me as having a disdain for the people in the Chelsea boots as much as I do, but it seems to come from somewhere else. And of course he does. A boy who left to fight in a military, which like the meatgrinders that all state’s armies are, spat him out with the traumas of beholding an occupation. Eli hates in them all their naivety, for it is the same naivety that put him on that plane, that put the dildo in his hands. It is the same naivety that I disdain and Eli senses it on me.
“I respect it more than I used to, but don’t get me started on this whole transgender thing.”
I wonder what might rouse the Golem out of its attic nowadays if it truly were real and what it might do with folks like Eli and the blurred faces and Iron Domes. The rumbling tank columns and dildos. Though of course it is not. But its image and its ideas are, and they can be realer still. From them can spring forth another voice. A voice that exists proudly, and has existed for a century, that exists without the shame of clutching for our turn behind the reigns of oppression in exchange for a flimsy safety. A voice that is not surprised by an outcome of children’s suicide vests as acts of resistance. A voice that has bellowed for not only the liberation of Jews but all of us. For the workers, for the interned in tents and cages offshore. For the people who stand between trees and bulldozers on Country. A voice that has shouted alongside those in the streets at the outset of black liberation from Johannesburg to Washington DC. A voice that has cried out for the dethroning of the idol of capital and its choking of us and the earth. A voice that cries in unison with the refugees, the dispossessed and the abused of the world. A voice that will not settle for being a settler. Eli’s eyes roll and vibrate again.
“Anyway, have you got any gum?”
Image: Courtesy of Flickr / @hannibal1107