The earliest testimonies to closing Jews in ghettos date back 500 years ago in Venice. From that time and throughout European history, Jews were accused of different forms of heresy and betrayal of the “true religion”, namely, Christianity – and later also in financial domination and cosmopolitan manipulation. Jews in the shtetls and the ghettos knew that this is their fate and accepted it as the way of the world. And as always, said “Let us deal wisely with them.” And so, to this day, we open the door of our home during Passover Seder, calmly singing “pour out thy wrath upon the nations” and waiting for Elijah to drink from his cup – a custom commemorating the recurring scene in Passover, in which the village’s thugs (in Galicia, Bohemia, or elsewhere), would throw different objects covered in blood into the courtyards of Jews, whether blood-soaked rags or bread that stands for the desecration and murder of Jesus’s flesh. Their only shield was those with Talmudic cunning and knowledge in the ways of the gentiles – the rabbis, and particularly the most famous among them. The Maharal of Prague, a mythical and mystical figure who was invited to meet with the religious and political leaders of his time, became “the protector of the Jews. He stood up to the wave of blood libels against Jews that put them in danger of expulsion, and argued the falseness of these accusations. It is unclear whether a written debate with 300 priests actually took place, as described in the fictional book Sefer Niflos Maharl, but the echoes of this debate are preserved in the writings of the Maharal himself. Eventually, the emperor accepted his arguments, and rejected the false claims that Jews use human blood to prepare Passover matzo.
Mystical powers were attributed to the Maharal of Prague. Legend has it that he created the Golem, which had superhuman powers, to protect the Jewish community against persecutions. This myth inspired books, films, and a thriving industry in the city of Prague. Some even find support for this story in Hassidic writings. Thus, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov “Bnei Yesoschor” wrote about the Maharl of Prague that he was known to engage in Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Formation”) yet nevertheless zoche to Ruach Hakodesh. And so, creation becomes possible, and in fact creating something out of nothing glorifies God’s name in public. Even though it is an idol created as the protector of Jews, his forehead carrying the Hebrew letter. And when an urban Jewish legend does not engage in gossip, it concerns the fear of the persecuted, and serves as a fount of inspiration in global culture (and sometimes as an anti-Semitic document that shows Jews as the creators of monsters like the Golem).
Toby Cohen’s exploration of the Golem offers a contemporary Israeli perspective on a legend whose roots go back to the darkness of the exile in past centuries – recounted in the 21st century and in the Land of Israel. From the lowest place on earth – the Dead Sea, to the slopes of Jerusalem in Beit Zayit to Kadita and Gush Halav in the Galilee. The story covers the land and its inhabitants, like a contemporary storyteller who travels amongst the different circles in the Israeli society, creating an original Israeli image of a Jewish myth in the Hebrew language.
Press here to view the full Golem portfolio
press here to download Eli Eshed’s article on the exhibition