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National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene presents a dramatic reading of H. Leyvik’s poem The Golem on May 7 at 7:30 PM, in Yiddish with English supertitles. The cast includes members of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.

By Motl Didner, Associate Artistic Director, National Yiddish Theatre Foksbiene

H. Leyvik’s 1922 dramatic poem The Golem is among the most important works of the Yiddish theater, tracing the roots of antisemitism and the blood libel which has been the pretext for antisemitic violence for centuries.

This play was written in the years following several high profile 20th century blood libels which led to the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 and the Beilis trial in Kiev in 1913. The blood libel would come up time and time again in Nazi propaganda to evoke deeply ingrained fear and hatred.

It is set in 17th century Prague, just before Passover, among a Jewish community which has experienced pogroms at the hands of Christians during their holy season. The community is frightened of renewed violence orchestrated by the antisemitic priest Thaddeus. The historic wonderworking Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharel, creates a Golem to protect the Jewish community.

Where this version departs from most versions of this well-known folk story is that rather than the Golem being a brainless and soulless creature, Leyvik’s Maharel channels the spirit of Meshiekh ben Yoysef, a Kabbalistic figure who precedes the redeemer Meshiekh ben Dovid, by leading the apocalyptic final battle of good and evil.

The disembodied spirit of Meshiekh ben Yoysef warns the Maharel not to bring him into this world, only to be ignored. In fact, the Maharel takes the further step of driving off Meshiekh ben Dovid who waits beyond the city gates, telling him that his time has not yet come.

The Golem is sent on a mission to thwart Thaddeus’ plan to hide the body of a murdered Christian child along with flasks of blood in the catacombs underneath the synagogue.

The Golem succeeds in his mission, but cannot escape his own inherently violent nature. When the Maharel has no further use for him, the Golem has a tantrum and murders several Jews. The Maharel, realizing his own culpability for bringing the Golem into the world, destroys his creation.

The great conundrum at the heart of the play is that when Jews take no action to thwart antisemitic actions, we suffer as the victims of violence. And yet, when we employ violence, it erodes the central Jewish tenet that we endure the trials of this world as we work towards our own perfection and patiently await redemption.