On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, David Lev descends into the library, flouting both Jewish law and university regulations. The building is closed, and he is supposed to be praying, or at least meditating thoughtfully on the wrongs he has committed over the past year, not committing new ones.
This is an unfamiliar scale of sin for David, a rabbinical student whose usual Yom Kippur regrets are things like only skimmed a reading and said he’d read it or should call his mother more often. Breaking and entering, not to mention violating the most sacred day of the year, are new ones for him.
Well, if he’s lucky—or if this is yet another dead end—maybe he’ll have time to repent before ne’ilah, when the gates of Heaven will, according to ancient belief, close, and the Books of Life and Death seal for the year, his name emblazoned by G-d in one or the other.
David, of course, doesn’t literally believe in any of that. He’s not even sure about the whole G-d idea. But he has to admit there’s a certain mythic resonance to it, amplified by the fact that (his agnosticism aside), he’s fasting for the holiday, his head spinning from the denial of both food and water for the last twenty hours.
If he’s ever going to find this supposed ancient scroll, it’s going to be tonight. Not that he believes he ever will.
He’s still not sure exactly why he’s doing this. If he tried to explain it to anyone else, he’d sound like he’s lost whatever remains of his mind. It even sounds crazy if he tries to explain it to himself.
But she had sounded so sure . . .
• • • •
It’s hard to talk to Bubbe these days. She’s isolated, because ever since the pandemic no one is allowed to visit her nursing home, and every time they talk, she seems less and less clear in her thinking and speech. He’s worried that his grandmother’s mind, once so bright, is finally starting to deteriorate, as her frail body has. Isolation and loneliness, he knows, can be more devastating than any illness.
“I’m scared, David,” she says, pronouncing his name with a long ee for the second syllable, like in Hebrew. She never would have said that before.
“I know, Bubbe. I promise, I’ll come visit as soon as I can.”
“I’m not scared of getting sick. I get sick, I die, so what, I’m old, I lived my life.” She sounds just like he remembers her, the indomitable force that shaped his childhood, her words full of ironic wit, her tone full of the unshakeable confidence that had seen her from a childhood in Berlin, girlhood in the camps, and womanhood in an America whose hostility to foreigners went unmatched until now. “It is you I worry about, and all the kinder.”
“I’m twenty-seven,” he reminds her. Not a child at all, though of course he always will be, in the fond, time-clouded eyes of his doting grandmother.
“Yes, your whole life ahead of you. Very, very hard, to think you might not get to live it.”
“I’m not going to get sick,” he says, with some confidence. He’s in good health, and he’s remained careful even as cases have dropped, always wearing a mask, venturing out of his apartment only when necessary.
He hears her spit to ward off the evil eye. Not exactly good hygiene practices. In the background, a nurse is scolding her, which she ignores. “But this is not the problem, eh? The problem is, they’re back.”
A shudder runs through him, and he feels fear spreading like ice from his throat to his gut.
No one has said it quite that plainly, not yet. His friends have talked round it; there are articles in every Jewish journal about the growing threat, but no one has come right out and said it the way his bubbe does. Then again, in the grand tradition of Jewish grandmothers, she’s never been afraid to say what’s on her mind. I don’t like your new boyfriend, David, this one he’s no good. Or David, you should change, this jacket you have on, it makes you look like a potato. Brown and lumpy. Why should this be any different?
David clears his throat, surprised by the dryness that makes it difficult to form words. “It’ll be different here.”
“What, you think the government will protect us? That’s what we thought, too.”
There’s no response he can give, and David knows it. His bubbe is a proud descendant of a millennia-long tradition in which conversation is a contest, and she is determined to win it. The Holocaust card is unbeatable, which is why she plays it so often, and with such enthusiasm.
So he says the only thing there is to say, to a woman who lost her childhood to hate and who is seeing it rise again in her old age, her long and loving life bookended by people who wanted her dead simply for existing: “I’m sorry, Bubbe.”
It’s as if she doesn’t hear him. “There’s only one thing that has ever protected us. That ever will. And that’s the work of our own hands.”
• • • •
The Maharal’s collections have belonged to the university for several generations, but, unlike his more serious writings, this manuscript is wedged in an unregarded corner of the rare books room, between an 18th-century prayerbook and the handwritten journal of a noted Sephardic astronomer. David recognizes it as soon as he reaches for it, knowing that his half-hearted, self-judgmental search has come to an end.
It’s a rather unremarkable document, a small scroll, apparently vellum from the feel. He slips on a pair of white cotton gloves—he may be flouting university rules, but he’s not going to risk leaving oil smudges on a manuscript that may be thousands of years old—and unfurls it.
It looks indistinguishable from the many other alchemical manuscripts David has handled over the years. The margins dance with intricate illustrations, men shifting into animals and back again, letters illuminated with the shapes of fruit and flowers, even some graffitied notes in Latin, a common practice of bored monks. The vellum is worn at the edges, and the ink wearing with the telltale signs of age. The script is tiny, even, and neat.
More important, though, are the words. He recognizes the Hebrew characters at once, though at first they don’t seem to make sense. It takes him a few moments to figure out that most of the manuscript seems to be in Aramaic, a language that he doesn’t speak, with only a few words of Biblical Hebrew scattered throughout. He knows a handful of Aramaic words, but certainly not enough to translate it on the spot. He’ll need time, and maybe even help from a more expert friend, if he wants to make sense of what the manuscript says.
David sighs. He really didn’t want it to come to this, but a part of him knew it was likely inevitable.
He looks around one more time—as though there’s any chance that there might be someone here to see him, in the middle of a pandemic, on Yom Kippur—and slips the scroll, with care, into his backpack. He silently adds theft to his mental list of sins as he creeps out of the library and into the cool air of the September evening.
He doesn’t break rules, but something tells him that he needs to take the scroll home and get a proper look at it, and it’s something even more than his grandmother’s urging. It was in the almost-electrical spark he felt when he reached toward the manuscript, the certainty that, whatever the words inscribed on this page might mean, they were the legacy of generation after generation of his people who had fought to preserve this knowledge. It was the same feeling he usually gets in the synagogue on holy days like today, when the whole congregation chants in unison and he feels connected to something far greater than himself.
Some people call it G-d. Others call it their community, or their people. David has never known what it is, but he’s dedicated his life to studying it, understanding it for himself and striving to share it with others in the congregation he may one day lead.
And some piece of that proud legacy, of generations struggling to preserve their heritage against a tidal wave of hatred, is in this scroll, in his bag as he hurries across campus and back to his apartment.
• • • •
David’s studies focus more on contemporary Jewish practice than on his people’s long and painful history, but of course he knows that the stereotype of Jews as passive victims, herded onto cattle cars to the camps with no more resistance than the animals the vehicles were designed for, is a false one. He’s read about thousands of years of rebellion, from the mythic Maccabees to the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. He sees the work his colleagues are doing now, in Congress and on social media and in the streets, trying to educate an apparently uncaring world that the specter of the oldest hatred is once again rearing its ugly head.
He knows about the other ways they’ve tried to protect themselves, too. His father still likes to make the unfunny old joke—a rabbi? What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?—masking the deeper truth that he fears for David, the fact that he’s chosen to center his life around his identity, instead of assimilating into invisibility and safety. Why not a doctor? Doctors, after all, are valuable, respectable. Not the first to go when the pogroms start.
But this, that his grandmother is telling him, this he’s never heard of. Not outside of stories. “Bubbe, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a golem.”
“You think I am an old woman and losing my mind, hmm?” she says, a sly tone in her voice that makes it difficult for him to doubt that she’s as sharp as she ever has been.
“I think there’s no such thing as clay men who come to life through magic,” he replies. “And if they did, they probably wouldn’t be friendly.”
“You think this because you only know goyische stories, where the ending is always sad.”
He laughs. “You’re telling me you think Jewish stories have happy endings?”
“No. Our stories don’t end. Not after thousands of years. No matter what they try to do to us. Our stories don’t end. And don’t you think there might be a reason for that?”
• • • •
As the sun starts to set crimson in the sky, David sets to work. The manuscript has been easier to translate than he had feared—he’s been able to work it out through a combination of transliteration, dictionaries, his own Hebrew knowledge, and a dash of frantic Googling. It’s a relief that he won’t have to ask any colleagues for help. The very thought of admitting what he’s up to to any of his friends in rabbinical school is mortifying.
The Aramaic text, once he has it sorted, is fairly straightforward: a set of instructions, and not complicated ones. He copies them out onto a separate piece of paper, along with a list of what materials he’ll need.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he mutters to himself. But the process is so simple. He needs clay or earth, a piece of paper, black ink, and fresh water. That’s all.
And a word.
Traditionally, according to the legends (like a good scholar, he has done his research even before he has begun to let himself hope Bubbe’s stories are anything more than the ramblings of a woman losing her last wits), it’s emet, or truth, inscribed onto the parchment, or perhaps one of the secret names of G-d.
He’s chosen a different word. With a steady hand, he lays out the three letters on his spare piece of paper, from right to left. The black ink cuts into the white expanse of paper, like lines of fire.
• • • •
He had still made her explain it half a dozen times before he’d started to take her seriously.
“You’re telling me this thing is in the library? At school?” It can’t be that easy.
“I don’t know for sure. But that’s where most of your ancestor’s papers ended up.”
“Wait, we’re related to the Maharal?” David has heard of him, of course—famous 16th century scholar of Talmud and Jewish mysticisim, and apparently creator of a magical force for self-defense. He just hadn’t known that they had anything to do with one another.
“Yes. He was my . . . ” She pauses, no doubt counting on her fingers. “Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.”
“There’s no way you know that.”
“We kept good records in the old country. But of course, he didn’t write this paper, or discover the secret. It’s much older than our family. We were supposed to pass it down, keep it secret if it was ever needed again, but somewhere along the way it was lost. The Maharal’s papers were saved, though.”
“And ended up in New York City?”
“That’s as far as I could trace them.” He can hear the shrug in her voice, though he can’t see her. He misses the sight of his grandmother, the careless gestures that help her take up so much space despite her tiny frame. “Maybe they’re long gone. Maybe you’re right, and they never existed. But would you do your sick old bubbe a favor?”
“I feel like you know how I have to answer that,” he grumbles.
“Would you go and look?”
• • • •
He shapes the clay with care, though the manuscript says it doesn’t really matter, and most of the legends have described a clumsy figure, barely human in form. David is an artist at heart, though, and he wants his creation to look lifelike, if possible.
It’s well after sundown, now, the first day of a fresh new year, but David hasn’t stopped to eat or drink. Having begun his task, he feels he ought to finish it. Besides, if he pauses even for a moment, he’ll probably realize how insane all of this is . . . and the instructions said the golem maker should be fasting, for best effects.
The clay mannequin is only a few inches tall, as an old packet of modeling clay was all he could find. This is only a test, after all—if he wants to make a hulking monster later, he should be able to do so. Not that this is going to work, of course. It’s ridiculous to think this is anything other than idle curiosity. Why does he keep having to remind himself of that?
But the instructions on how to shape the clay work remarkably well. After perhaps half an hour of shaping the little creature, frequently coating his fingertips in water to keep the clay soft enough to mold, David has created a figure that is obviously recognizable as a man, if imperfectly shaped and depicted in miniature.
Well, a child could do that, of course. Decent sculpting instructions do not ancient magic make.
He reads over his translated instructions one more time, muttering to himself as he does.
“When you have shaped the golem, inscribe the word you wish to govern it upon a scroll, and place it in the golem’s forehead.”
He writes out, in three careful letters, tzadik, dalet, koof. These three letters spell out the root tzedek. Justice.
And he presses the scroll into the clay.
• • • •
“What makes you believe in this so much?” David asks his grandmother, after another fruitless day of searching the library. “You’re not usually superstitious.” Bubbe doesn’t even believe in G-d, though she attended services every Friday night until her declining health made that impossible.
“It’s simple,” she says, and even over the phone he can picture her expression, her lips pursed, her eyes about to roll. The pain of how badly he misses her flares anew, and he lets up a prayer—whether or not he believes anyone is listening—that the end of the pandemic will come in time for him to see her again, before the end of her life. “It’s hard to believe I could have survived, no? After everything?”
“Yes,” he admits.
“Hard, too, to believe they could be back, trying to kill us again, even after we took them down, even after the whole world condemned the camps, the murders.”
Hard in a different way. Not difficult to believe, not after the synagogue shootings, and the spike in hate crimes, and the men with their buzzcuts and torches shrieking Jews will not replace us. But hard to accept, that this country where he was born and has lived all his life, his home, is no different than any of the thousands of places that had cast out his ancestors, condemning them to exile or death. Hard to live with the fact that, despite the fact that he believes sincerely in the goodness of people and the possibility of tikkun olam, of restoring the world, that there has never been any version of the world where his people could be safe. Hard to believe that there’s nothing anyone can do, that all the well-reasoned arguments and informative articles and careful lobbying in the world cannot change the fact that Jews are, and always have been, a tiny minority in a world that hates anyone who is different. Hard to know how to move forward, when hatred is swirling thickly through the air and you know that, sooner or later, it is going to land on you.
“Very, very hard,” Bubbe concurs. “Many things that are very hard to believe have come to pass—that you might say G-d has made, if you like. Why then, is it so hard to believe there could be something made to protect us, too?”
• • • •
The golem’s empty clay eyes fill with red fire, and it turns its head to look at David.
He’s so surprised he knocks the pen and the bowl of water off the table. He narrowly avoids fainting.
“You created me,” it answers, fortunately in Hebrew. The form is archaic, Biblical, but luckily David has been immersed in the language for long enough that he can answer back. It could be worse—it could be Aramaic, in which case he would need to refer to a dictionary in between every word, and how is this what he’s thinking of right now?
He’s looking at a living mannequin of clay. Which he created. With ancient magic.
He’s really starting to wish he’d taken that snack break earlier. His head is spinning badly enough that he’s not entirely sure this isn’t a hallucination, except for the fact that there is nothing more solidly real than this figure of pure earth.
“Yes,” David says. “I suppose so.”
“For what purpose was I made?”
That’s the question, isn’t it? The question everyone who has ever lived longs to have an answer for. The difference is, this golem has the chance to look his creator in the eye and ask.
Out of idle curiosity seems a bad answer. Because I didn’t believe it was possible seems a worse one.
David wonders if G-d would give one of those answers, if the humans he sculpted from the earth (metaphorically speaking, of course) and breathed life into could ask G-d. “Protection?” David tries for an answer.
“Ah.” The golem’s eyes flare, and its tiny, inch-high body shimmers with that red fire. David blinks, the room spinning around him, and grips onto the edge of the table for support.
A second later, the golem, now easily seven feet tall, is standing on the kitchen floor of David’s apartment, still watching him with those expressionless eyes.
“Will this do?”
“Um. I did not know you could do that.”
“I can do what you ask of me,” the golem responds. It is impossible to judge what emotion is in its voice, if indeed it is capable of any feeling at all. Certainly there is no indication on its smooth clay face, which does not move as it speaks.
“There is one thing,” David says, and he doesn’t know he’s going to say it until he’s talking. He would have taken more time to consider it, if he had, because stories like this, stories of magical power, end only one way, and that is with the unfortunate young man who let his curiosity get the better of him regretting using a power beyond human ability. It’s the story of Faust and Frankenstein, of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of Midas and the Monkey’s Paw.
Those are goyische stories, he hears his grandmother say. Intended to teach a moral lesson, to frighten children into being compliant with a society that valued obedience to the rules over learning.
They are not his stories.
And there is one thing he could never regret, no matter how this order is carried out. “I want you to make sure my grandmother is protected. That nothing, and no one, can hurt her.”
“Yes,” the golem says, in its strange, echoing voice. “This will be difficult. Much will need to change. I will do it.”
“Thank you,” David replies, and he smiles.
It has been years since he felt safe. David watches the golem stride out of the apartment and towards the task he has set for it, and then digs through the fridge for something to break his long fast on.
The next morning, as he scrolls through the news, he sees the first stories. Three white supremacist leaders, found dead in their beds, apparently bludgeoned to death. A senator who has openly called for non-Christian religions to be suppressed, now resigning his office, one arm in a sling. The servers that host a prominent neo-Nazi forum, smashed to pieces by an unknown assailant.
David Lev looks down at his own pale, thin hands, and rejoices at what they have wrought.