Golem gets an upgrade
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Golem gets an upgrade

Puppets, ballet, and Frank London bring the creature back to life

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Our sympathy goes to the Golem – huge, childlike, and misunderstood.

Until December 4, La MaMa E.T.C. reprises “Golem,” an innovative and colorful dance-puppet theater rendition about the mythical giant who protected Prague’s Jews in the Middle Ages. It was first presented in 1997, and now the reconceived and upgraded performance – with music by Frank London (founder of the Klezmatics), choreography by former Teaneck resident Naomi Goldberg Haas, and written and directed by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre artistic director, V’t HorejÅ¡ – is playing at LaMama in the East Village.

It features nine dancers and puppeteers, more than 20 small to life-sized wooden marionettes, and takes the audience on an 80-minute trip to a place deep in Jewish memory, one planted in us during our childhoods. It is the story of the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, who supposedly wanted to protect the Jews from pogroms. Legend says he used Kabbalah to create a creature from special mud to do just that, and even today, many people believe the story is true, and that the Golem rests for eternity in the attic of the Alte Neue Shul in Prague. (The truth is that Prague in the rabbi’s day was free from such troubles and the Maharal himself had good relations with its rulers, including the Emperor Rudolf II. More about that below.)

As the dancers and puppets swirl around the stage, London’s haunting music echoes the mournful tones of the High Holy Days liturgy and evokes a sense of the eerie, as well as the riotous joy of Klezmer music played at Jewish weddings. We are pulled into life in the ghetto of Prague – and feel the Jews’ frustrations and fears, their hopes and disappointments. Most of all, we feel for the Golem, unable to speak, and set aside once his mission is accomplished. He is huge but childlike – a child misunderstood, who misunderstands his own strength and limitations, and is abused. Ultimately, his creator must destroy him.

In an interview, composer Frank London said the project began 15 years ago, when he was asked to compose the score. He said yes because it was a challenge he relished. “By the time V’t asked, I had already been involved with Jewish and Klezmer music for 30 years. I had come from a background in theater, and was intrigued by the possibilities of combining traditional music with theater and dance, and I took the opportunity to do something creative.”

There are two stories being told here, he said. “There is the story of the Jewish ghetto and pogroms, and the story of the protector. It is a classic mythical story and one that is also contemporary. It’s a Frankenstein story, one that anticipates The Hulk and Superman and The Sorcerers’ Apprentice. But the Golem is amoral, he has no soul. He is unaware of himself, he doesn’t know limits. So they take this superhero and turn him into a drudge and slave, which never works. And in the end they destroy their protector, though the threat of danger remains.”

Does London ever tire of playing the score over and over again? “The great thing about music,” he said, “is that it is as challenging physically as a marathon, and is always creatively challenging, too. There is always the rediscovery of the melody, which allows you to put your stamp on certain moments, so that you never get tired of it. In this show, we intentionally put in lots of room for the musicians to innovate and [we] gave the performers the ability to improvise. That way the performance is always kept fresh – for us and for the audience.”

And it is a fresh, lively and engrossing performance, appropriate family entertainment worth a trip to the city with the whole family.

The scoop on the story: The Maharal of Prague died in 1609, and no one mentioned the Golem story in his obituaries or eulogies. It was never in the Prague newspapers, and his grandson, who chronicled the rabbi’s life, never mentioned it, either. As noted earlier, he had good relations with the ruling power and there is no record of any grave calamity facing the Prague Jews of his day.

Although there is some dispute over this, it appears that the Golem story made its first appearance in 1830, seven years after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. At that time, European romances were very popular and being read in the Jewish community – to rabbis’ dismay. Still, it was not until 1909, when Rabbi Yehudle Rosenberg wrote “The Golem of Prague” specifically to wean Jewish children away from secular novelists, that the story caught fire. (Rosenberg, who lived in Warsaw, and the German rabbi and novelist Marcus Lehman, wrote many such novels. Lehman, for example, wrote “The Adopted Princess,” once popular among yeshivah girls.) Once “The Golem” was published in Hebrew and Yiddish, it was translated into other languages and the story gained traction.

By 1920, movies about the Golem were made, and in Prague, the story took on a life of its own and became a myth. Some have even claimed to have seen the golem, who is stored in the Alte Neue Shul attic. The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for example, claimed that his father-in-law and predecessor as the Chabad-Lubavitch leader, Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, actually saw the golem during a visit to Prague. The experts, however, have concluded that the Maharal never did make a golem. (The expert I consulted asked to remain anonymous because he did not want reporters lining his front porch – and said that the Maharal had done something much more difficult than creating a golem – he created talmudic scholars.)

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