Notes on the Historical Figures from the Golem Legend

Many of the characters in Golem Stories have their basis in historical figures, though sometimes liberties are taken.  Here are the biographies of the real life people who correspond to the characters found in the golem legends.

The Golem

Golem originally meant, depending on the source, “embryo” or “imperfect matter,” though now it is a Hebrew and Yiddish slang term for a thick-skulled person.  Stories of a creature of clay by that name appear as early as the twelfth century.  In the Sefer Gezirah, published at that time in Worms, it states that in a magic ritual, gestures are as important as numbers (or letters) in its creation.  In the sixteenth century, an early golem was credited to Rabbi Elijah Ball Shem of Chelm.

The modern stories of the golem are many.  In almost all of them, the golem is summoned in response to Christian attacks precipitated by the blood libel, the once commonly held belief that the blood of Christian children was a main ingredient of matzah.  In almost all of them, the golem goes out of control and the Maharal must turn him back into clay.  A number of smaller stories have also cropped up along with the main legend.  Among the best known is the story of how the golem was asked by Pearla to get water, despite warnings from the Maharal not to use him as a servant.  The incident nearly ends in disaster, for she forgets to tell the golem when to stop, resulting in a near flood.

In some legends, the golem is animated by something written on his forehead, in some a paper placed under his tongue, and in some an amulet.  The fact that the Golem is named Joseph and the idea that it is half demon also commonly occurs within the legends.  However, Joseph’s earlier relationship with the Maharal’s daughter is purely and invention of the adaptation.

The golem belongs to a small sub-genre of Jewish legends of demons and other mystical apparitions such as dybbuks, dead lovers whose souls inhabit the bodies of the women they once loved.

Perhaps the most famous adaptations of the golem legend are the play by Yiddish playwright H. Levick; the German expressionist silent film written and directed by Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener; the book by Isaac Bashevis Singer; and Michael Chambon’s recent incorporation of the legend into his book Kavalier and Clay.  Of course, many similar creatures to the golem, perhaps inspired by the Jewish legend, have popped up in literature, ranging from Frankenstein to The Incredible Hulk (originally, the Hulk’s skin was gray, like clay, rather than the later green coloring).

The golem is supposedly locked in the attic of the Alteschul, the ancient synagogue which still stands in Prague.  In recent years, a journalist went into the attic to investigate, but he found nothing.

Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal)

There are disputes as to when and where the Rabbi Loew was born—possibly in Posen, Poland in 1512, possibly in Worms in 1520.  Regardless, after studying and becoming a rabbi in a Polish yeshiva, he came to Prague to marry his wife, Pealrla, in 1544.  She was 28 at the time.  Afterwards, he became Chief Rabbi for the Moravian Jews, until 1573, when he returned to Prague.

Rabbi Loew was a distinguished scholar and an expert on the Kabbalah, and his reputation earned him the nickname the Maharal (a Hebrew abbreviation that stands for “Our Teacher, Rabbi Loew”).  He was also a prolific writer and some of his writing was a forerunner to Hasidic thought.  Rabbi Loew was conservative in his approach to Judaism, decrying the drinking of unkosher wine in the community and declaring that the Talmud should not be taught to the young, only those who are intellectually ready.  He also did not believe that advances in science had any relevance to the interpretation of the Torah.

The story of the golem didn’t become attached to Rabbi Loew until the 1800’s, the first published record of it being in 1838, by the German Czech journalist Franz Klutschack, though he was recording an already existing legend.  Many other miraculous stories have accumulated about the Rabbi as well, and the Hasidim consider him a Zaddik, a holy man whose connection with God allowed him to perform many miracles.

Rabbi Loew died on August 17, 1609, and he was buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, where he gravestone still gathers much attention.

Rudolf II

The Emperor Rudolf II of Austria (1552-1612) was born on July 18, 1552 as the eldest son of Maximilian II. He became King of Bohemia in 1575 and was made Emperor in 1576.  In 1583, he moved the imperial court to Prague and proceeded to transform Prague into a city filled with astronomers, alchemists, artists, craftsmen, and humanists.  He was fascinated with any sort of new knowledge, whether it was in science or the occult.  He gathered an enormous collection of art, including (among many others) the works of Bosch and Arcimboldo, and filled the castle with a menagerie of exotic animals.  His longtime lover, Anna Maria Strada, daughter of Ottavio Strada, the Court Painter, bore him numerous illegitimate children.  The oldest of them, Julius Caesar, notoriously murdered his mistress in 1608.  Emperor Rudolf was also rumored to have many other lovers, some of them men.

It is known that Emperor Rudolf met with Rabbi Loew at the palace, though the full details of that meeting are not known.  Rumors and reconstructions of that meeting have been many, usually focusing on Rudolf’s interest in the mystical and Rabbi Loew’s familiarity with the Kabbalah.  The Rabbi’s knowledge of the ancient texts was extensive and sometimes quite different from prevailing opinions, especially in his interpretation of the Sephirot, the ten aspects of God.  There are also rumors of other, unrecorded meetings.  Emperor Rudolf’s relationship with the Jewish community was positive on the whole—he changed the laws to allow Jews fair trials and removed restrictions on trade.  However, he still required them to wear the yellow circle that was the mark of Judaism in Prague at the time.

As Emperor Rudolf grew older, he suffered increasingly from the mood swings that had plagued him somewhat in his younger days, becoming more depressive and reclusive.   In 1611, Rudolf's brother, heir, and longtime rival, Matthias, used those depressive spells and fears of a Protestant take over as an excuse to march on Prague Castle.  Matthias forced Rudolf to turn over the rulership of Hungary, Moravia, and Bohemia, although Rudolf kept the Imperial Crown and his residence in the castle.  Emperor Rudolf died on January 19, 1612.

Rudolf life is examined is greater detail in Edward Einhorn's play, Rudolf II

Pearla (Rebbetsin Loew)

Pearla was the daughter of Reb Samuel Schmelke Reich, a rich merchant, and she became engaged to the future Rabbi Loew at a very young age.  However, her father reportedly lost his fortune and was unable to pay her dowry, as promised.  Rather than abandon Pearla, Rabbi Loew waited for their fortunes to improve, and, the legend is, Pearla’s fortunes were restored when she found a bag of gold mistakenly thrown at her by a soldier.  The legend further states that the soldier was the Prophet Elijah in disguise.

Pearla worked for many years at a bakery shop, doing the accounting, as she later did at the synagogue, like many of the women in the Jewish community.  Together, she and Rabbi Loew had six daughters and a son.  Pearla died in 1619, ten years after Rabbi Loew, and was buried at his side.

Rivka and Devorah (the Rabbi’s children)

Rabbi Loew and his wife Pearla had six daughters, who were, from oldest to youngest, Leah, Feigeleh, Gitteleh, Reichel, Tillah, and Realina.  They also had a son, Bezalel, who was killed during a progrom in Germany.  He was serving as a Rabbi there at the time.  All of Rabbi Loew’s daughters married Rabbis, as well.  Chronologically, Tillah would have fit Devorah’s role and Realina would fit Rivka, though their similarities end there.  Realina, in fact, reportedly married Rabbi Loew’s brother, Rabbi Chaim, the Chief Rabbi of Worms.

Father Thaddeus

There is no evidence of a historical figure that corresponds to Thaddeus, though he is found in most versions of the golem legend.  However, it is true that the Bohemian Jesuits in particular were very anti-Semitic at that time and that many of the priests perpetuated the blood libel.  Thaddeus is probably just a compilation of a number of real life figures.