The artist Toby Cohen offers a new perspective on the famous story of the Golem and the Maharal of Prague, this time through stylized and mysterious photographs in which the story is not set against the conventional backdrop of Europe, but in an Israeli setting, in the very sites in which the ideas of the ancient mystic tradition of Kabballah were born and formulated.
In order to gain a profound understanding of Cohen’s revolutionary approach to the famous story, it is worth examining the previousiterations of the story of the Golem and the Maharal of Prague in the visual art that serves as the background to Cohen’s innovative work.
In the story, the Golem who "turns on his creator" was made of clay by the Maharal of Prague, both to perform house chores and to protect the Jewish community against external enemies, until it eventually runs amok and poses a threat to its creator, who has to destroy it. Over the years, this myth gained power as an allegory of the relationship between man and technology,which supposedly serves him. From a story known only to a few Jews, Germans, and Czechs in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the myth has become widely known all over the world and serves as a source of inspiration to dozens and hundreds of authors, writers for film and television, painters, and sculptures.
Over the centuries, and in fact increasingly so closer to our days, this version became the most famous and popular legend among Jews and non-Jews. Indeed, it is unclear whether this tale originated from a folk story or written by a writer in the early decades of the nineteenth century, possibly inspired by non-Jewish works like Goethe's ballad Sorcerer's Apprentice (1797) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Scholars date the earliest version of the story of the Golem and the Maharal of Prague to 1834. This story served as a special inspiration to artists of all disciplines, as it touches on creative process and the perils and opportunities it entails.
The Golem appeared in visual art relatively late, probably due to the reluctance of various Jewish groups to create visual images, rooted in the commandment "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." We find the first visual image of the Golem only in the late nineteenth century, and primarily – and for a long time – by non-Jewish artists. These artists had very few visual details to go on in the original Jewish Golem stories. All that was said about the Golem is that it was of tall stature, and that the Hebrew lettersא מ ת were inscribed on its forehead (and that erasing the letterא would lead to its death). Nothing more.
The earliest painting that I found of the Golem is the iconic illustration that was created in 1899 by the Czech artist Mikoláš Aleš (1852-1913), considered one of the greatest Czech artists and illustrators of his time. The illustration was first printed in a Czech magazine, and later in the collection Old Czech Legends (Staré Pověsti České) by the famous Czech writer Alois Jirásek from 1893, which includes one of the earliest versions of the story of the Golem. In this illustration, the artist seems to encapsulate the significance of the legend in a depiction of the Maharal conjuring up the Golem with the Hebrew letters. However, the writing (while correct in terms of Hebrew and proving that artist consulted an expert), is somewhat incorrect as the letters spell out the Hebrew word "Golem" (גלם) rather than "Truth" ((אמת as is customary in the Jewish tradition.
It is quite obvious that when painting the illustration, Aleš thought about One Thousand and One Nights’s summoning of jinn by a wizard (the demons in Arab and Islamic mythology), and the Golem is reminiscent of these jinn more than it resembles the creature described in the Jewish sources. Aleš was dealing here for the first time with the problem that all future artists who portray the Golem will have to face: the total absence of details describing the Golem’s visual appearance in the texts. He chose not to portray the entire Golem, but only its face. An incomplete and larger than life creature, the Golem looks at its creator – the Rabbi who seems to conjure him up from thin air with menacing expression.
It is possible that this illustration (also) served as a source of inspiration for the best-known visual representation of the Golem –the three films created by the German director Paul Wegener. In the first two films, screened in 1914 and 1917,the Golem comes to life in modern times, while the third and most famous film (released in 1920), recounts the original story is great detail. In the film, the Golem –played by director and screenwriter himself – is a creature with Asian features, more Mongolian than Jewish, like a grim monstrous giant that represents an alien, hostile, and menacing world, which at any moment may get out of control and threaten its creator and the people around it. This visual representation had a big impact on the later Hollywood Frankenstein films, which starred Boris Karloff in the role of the monstrous manmade creature (that was much more human than Wegener’s frightening Golem).
Another famous visual depiction of the Golem was created by the artist Hugo Steiner-Prag (1880-1945) in his illustrations for the classic novel The Golem (1915), by the fantasy writer Gustav Meyrink. This book represented the Golem as the gloomy and monstrous spirit of the Jewish ghetto in Prague. In fact, the Golem is a minor character in the story that takes place in a completely contemporary Prague, and not in the Maharal’s days. Despite its marginal role in the story, the Golem leaves an impression on the readers’ imagination, partly thanks to the striking paintings of Steiner-Prag. Steiner-Prag decided not to paint the Golem as a monstrous giant with tremendous power, but as a foreign and strange man with Chinese features, who embodies the foreignness of the Jewish ghetto in Prague itself.
One of the earliest prominent drawings of the Golem for a text in Hebrew is the illustrations of the talented painter and graphic artist Lea Grundig (1906-1977) for the 1942 poem by Isaac Loeb Baruch, the Golem of Prague 1942. In the illustration by Grunding, who fled from the Nazis, the Golem appears as a primal destructive force. Its features are not clearly Jewish but utterly primitive, like that of a Neanderthal or a barbarian warrior from the steppes of Asia. It is quite possible in these paintings she expressed her fears of the barbaric Nazi beast, which represents the spirit of the ancient terrifying past come to life to threaten the present in the image of the destructive Golem. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a woman illustrated the Golem’s story and character.
Since then, the Golem received many other representations. I will mention only a couple of these here.
From the 1950s, the Golem starts to lose its potency as a terrifying creature, and becomes a comical figure that symbolizes technology chained by man to do with it as he pleases. In a Czech comedy from 1941, Emperor’s Baker and Baker’s Emperor (Císařůvpekař a pekařůvcísař), the Golem is presented as a giant, clearly inhuman, creature, and as such, loses all element of horror it inspired when he was supposedly human, like in Wegener’s films. It appeared in several comic books, like those presented below, in which it looks like a perfectly “ordinary” comic monster, without the elements that evoked fear and alienation – which were created by the artists
. To sum up, I will mention that the Golem even starred in a book about a comic series, which never really existed, but in an alternate universe was hugely popular in Israel since the 1940s.In the book, written by the writer of these lines and painted by Uri Fink, the Golem is completely featureless, since it represents something that does not really exist.
And now, the classic character is given a new adaptation by the artist Toby Cohen – this time not in painting but with photographs, which do not depict it in Europe and the old city of Prague, as usual, but on the backdrop of the Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the city of Kabbalists, Safed. It is set in a world of menacing water and nature, and not one of ancient, dilapidated, urban world, as it was thus far. However, the sense of supernatural mystery is maintained, even though Cohen underscores its affinity to the world of Kabbalah and Safed (which is a very marginal element which does not exist in the original stories).
In his photographs-illustration of the story, Cohen creates an atmosphere of stylized horror that lurks beneath the surface, which eventually erupts with unbeatable force, like one of the earthquakes that strikes the area in which the photos were taken once in a century. In Cohen’s photographs, the horror does not lie only in the Golem but also in its surroundings and in the people around him – each can potentially add to the threat of the Golem. For Toby Cohen, the Golem only enacts what people like the Rabbi and like us set in motion.
In Toby Cohen’s work, the story of the creation of the Golem, his struggle against the pogrom, and rampage are set in the magical landscapes of the Land of Israel, which add another layer to the famous story. Created two centuries ago, it speaks to us now more than ever, since we all live in times when man is replaced by technologies and experience the attraction of the “Golem” and the fear it evokes, as it is reflected in Cohen’s photographs. In effect, the fear of ourselves and of what we may bring about in our inhumanity to one another.
 This version was translated into Hebrew by Yitshak Avnon in the collection Dad’s Tales: selected stories for children, illustrated by D. Sahdrin, Parparim Publishing, 1972.
Gustav Meyrink’s book was translated into Hebrew by Miriam Krauss, and printed by Carmel Publishing in 1997. The cover illustration was not one of Hugu Steiner’s famous illustrations, but a famous painting by the artist Michail Grobman.
The Golem of Prague: a folk’s tale, Dvir Publishing, 2011.
Eli Eshed and Uri Fink, The Golem: Hebrew Comics – A History, Modan, 2003.