By Charles Norman
The day had finally come. Thirty-four years a member of the congregation, ten of those years in apprenticeship, and tomorrow — tomorrow! — I would finally become the shamash of the synagogue. The title was very old, and sounded grand, but it meant only “building manager”.
It was the rabbi’s task to guide and care for the people, the members here; it would be mine to care for the building. Like shamashim all over the world, I would be responsible for maintaining the security of the synagogue, supervising the cleaning crews and ordering and paying for maintenance and repairs. I would also be leading tours and giving lectures to tourists and visiting historians on the history and architecture of this ancient synagogue, tasks that were uncommon for a shamash. But being the shamash of the famous Altneuschule of Prague was different.
I parked my car in the space reserved for me and was amused to see old Mordecai’s aging Skoda in the space next to it. Mordecai was my mentor and predecessor, the old shamash who was retiring. He had asked me to come to the shul at sunset. I had assumed it was to help him pack the rest of his things in his car, but I saw that the back seat was already filled with boxes.
I locked my own car and gazed at the building in the fading light. The Altneuschule, with its high, steep, saddleback roof and plain, unadorned walls, looked like a thing from another time — which, of course, it was. My synagogue had been built circa 1270, one of the first Gothic buildings in Europe. It was still standing, intact and virtually unaltered, through the Reformation, the Renaissance, and wars innumerable for more than seven hundred years — a miraculous happenstance. It would be my great honor and privilege to care for it.
I entered through the small side door and walked past the enormous octagonal columns, sparing only a glance at the five-ribbed vaults far overhead. In the dim light of the ner tamid, the “eternal light” that always burns in front of the Ark, I almost missed him: my predecessor, my mentor and my friend.
Mordecai was sitting in a pew near his office — my office, now. He was gazing around him in the darkened nave, looking up at the two massive pillars with a wistful expression. “I shall miss this place, Daniel,” he said simply.
“You can visit whenever you like,” I said. “And I hope you will. Pilsen is not far.”
He turned and smiled. “No, it is not. And there I shall live with my daughter, and let my grandchildren pull on my beard. Is it dark outside?”
There were no windows in the shul. I blinked at the sudden question. “Not quite. Soon, though.”
He nodded. “Good. We must talk.” His tone was abruptly solemn. “There is one more thing about the Altneuschule that you must know.”
I laughed. “Is it about the legend? The golem?” The golem of Prague was, and is, the thing for which our shul is most famous, but he had rarely spoken of it in all the years of my apprenticeship.
He looked at me for a long, long moment, his old eyes searching mine; then he said, “Come. We should sit down for this.” He turned away, and I followed him into the office.
Mordecai had taken down his family pictures, his beloved Hebrew calligraphy, and his panels of hammered brass and copper — as well as the large woven hanging that had been made by his late wife. The ancient, but scrupulously clean, walls were bare.
I moved toward one of the small chairs in front of the desk, but he gestured toward the big chair behind it.
“That is your chair now. You must get accustomed to it. No better time to begin than this.” He sat down in the guest’s chair, and I took a seat behind the desk — and found, to my surprise, that the big, formal-looking chair was quite comfortable.
Mordecai looked at me. “Now,” he asked, “what do you know of this — legend?” His expression was distant, appraising me somehow. This was strange; I had known him all my life, and we had worked together closely for a decade.
“Well — I know that the great Rav, Yehuda Loew, is supposed to have made a golem —”
He interrupted me. “And what, exactly, is a golem?”
I gaped at him. “We both know that!”
His reserved expression did not change. “Humor me.”
“Very well . . . A golem is a figure of a man, made of earth or clay, and brought to a — a semblance of life, by a secret kabbalistic ritual. Very large, very scary, oooo!” I lifted my hands in mock fright and smiled — but Mordecai did not. I dropped my hands onto the desk. “The rabbi inscribed the word emet, truth, on its forehead, which gave it life. Some say the story of Frankenstein’s monster was based on the golem legend.”
He nodded. “The procedure is not so secret, and it has nothing to do with kabbalah. You can find it if you know where to look. And the word was not emet. But go on.”
I continued, “The Rav supposedly made a golem here, in the late 16th century, to defend the Jews of Prague from — attacks by the townspeople. Pogroms. Riots.”
The old man nodded and stroked his beard like a character in a play. That was not his habit, and I wondered at it. “What else?”
“Well, they say that the Rav lost control of the golem —”
“Do you know why?”
I thought. “Something to do with Shabbat, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. A golem cannot be allowed to live on Shabbat.”
I was watching his lean, old face. He was quite serious, and I wondered at that, too.
He said nothing more, so I went on: “But the Rav gained control over the golem again, somehow. And that’s where the story ends. As far as I know.”
“What happened to it?”
I smiled. Everyone in Prague knew that part of the legend. I resumed my mock-scary voice: “They say it is still here, hidden in the geniza, in the attic, above our heads.” Still, the old man did not smile. I spoke normally again. “The tourists ask about it, always. People even ask to see the attic for themselves.”
“And what do we tell them?” He spoke pedantically, like a schoolmaster.
I was growing mystified at the old shamash’s manner. He had never been so circumspect. Normally, he would come straight to his point and state it without equivocation. This question-and-answer game was unlike anything I had ever heard from him.
“We tell them that the geniza is not open to the public — and that there is no golem there. The attic has been inspected and searched many times. Shamash, what —?”
“I am just Mordecai now, Daniel. You are the shamash.”
I waved that away. I was puzzled and by then more than a little annoyed. “Very well, then — Mordecai — why are we talking about this old wife’s tale?”
Instead of answering, he asked another question: “Is there not another — legend — about some Nazis who broke into the attic when the Germans first took Prague?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, and I am afraid I rolled my eyes a bit. “I had forgotten that. They supposedly insisted on seeing the attic, and the golem supposedly killed them. But what is the point of all this? These are just legends, after all.”
I stared at him, scarcely believing what I had just heard.
“Of course, they —”
The old man interrupted me, which was also unlike him. “Consider this, Daniel: Hitler was burning synagogues then, everywhere he went, all he could find — often enough, with the members locked inside them.”
“Yes . . . yes, he was.”
“The Altneuschule is the oldest active house of Jewish worship in all Europe, yes?” I nodded. “It is a powerful symbol of the long history and heritage of the Jewish people, yes?” I nodded again. He lifted a finger, as he would when about to make a very important point. “And then there is this: Hitler’s right hand and closest friend, Reinhard Heydrich — a very evil man — was assassinated only a short distance from here in 1942. Hitler razed the village of Lidice and massacred the villagers in retribution — but the Altneuschule he did not touch.” He waved his hand all around, indicating the building where we sat. “The question is obvious: Of all the synagogues on the continent, how is it that Hitler did not burn this one? Can you explain this?”
I could only shake my head in amazement. Surely he was not telling me . . . No, that could not be.
He stood. “Come with me,” he said.
A short time later we were outside, standing in darkness at the rear of the ancient building, in a corner below street level. We had brought no flashlight; the dim light of distant street lamps would have to do. Above us, projecting from the back wall of the shul, were the iron rungs that led up to the attic. They had been moved to a height of three meters, long ago, but at Mordecai’s direction I had brought our long ladder and leaned it against the wall.
“Follow me now,” the old man whispered, and he began to climb. I was astonished at how quickly he scrambled up the ladder and climbed the ancient rungs. When he reached the top, he fumbled for a moment; I heard the soft click of a lock opening — and then another click and then another. Then he swung the door open and disappeared beneath the Gothic arch. I followed and entered the geniza for the first time in all my years at the shul.
Mordecai closed the door, very quietly. Only then did he strike a match. He lit a candle nearby for himself, and then another one for me. He inclined his head to indicate that I should follow him.
I would have greatly preferred a flashlight. As we picked our way through the cluttered, musty room, ominous shadows shifted and moved all around us in the dim, flickering light. This must be some kind of lesson, I thought. Mordecai is trying to frighten me, to show me the power of myth. Or something . . . And, I had to admit, it was working. I swallowed nervously and the hair on the back of my neck rose.
The smell of old books and leather and vellum — a scent that had always meant “sanctity” to me — was thick in that room. So was the dust. The eeriness of the old attic was deepened by the high, steep roof of the synagogue. The rafters disappeared into the darkness above us, far beyond the reach of our candles’ meager light.
There were open bins and boxes of books and papers all around us and others filled with worn and grimy scrolls. Not Torah scrolls: these were megillot, scrolls of other books in the Hebrew Bible, which were read during services. There were piles of letters and bound codices and, everywhere, stacks and stacks of siddurim, some dating from the early centuries of printing.
All these books bore the four-letter name of God and so could not be thrown away or burned; therefore they were stored, permanently. Every synagogue has a geniza; this one was ours, and it was very, very old indeed. How many lifetimes of piety and devotion, I wondered, and of how many long-dead Jews, were entombed here?
I was very conscious of the flame I carried. A fire in this space would be disastrous, and I was again surprised that Mordecai had declared candles the only acceptable light. “This is the way it has always been done,” was his only explanation.
He led me to a high, blank stone wall, at the far end of the attic, made of blocks so closely fitted together that I could not see the cracks. He lifted his candle high. “Do you see anything?” he asked, his voice still low.
I searched the wall with my eyes, up and down. Finally, high up, I saw some scratches. Hebrew letters, very crude and barely visible. I held up my candle, and then I nodded in recognition — and confusion. “The plagues,” I said. “The plagues on Egypt.”
The list was familiar to every Jew. From childhood, we recite the names of the ten plagues, in Hebrew, during the Passover Seder. We spill a drop of wine onto our plates as we name each one, to commemorate the suffering of the Egyptians, even after so long. I could almost hear my father’s voice at our table:
Dam, blood; tzephardayah, frogs; kinim, lice . . . and so on, till the cruelest plague of all: makat bechorot, death of the firstborn. The entire list was scratched roughly onto the wall, in clumsy Hebrew characters, as if a child had written them, but they were too high up for that.
I swallowed. “Is the golem — behind this wall?” I whispered, my voice more than a bit shaky. I
still thought this was some sort of elaborate prank, a lesson of some kind, but the eerie
atmosphere of this ancient and forbidden place was getting to me. There was an acid, coppery
taste at the back of my mouth and a lump in my chest.
“No.” Mordecai lifted his candle higher. “Look again. Look at the first word,” he whispered.
“Yes.” Some scraps of paper and wood and other detritus lay piled against the base of the wall, and Mordecai bent and lifted a stick from among them. He handed it to me.
The stick had a rusty nail bound to one end, while the other end was wrapped in a scrap of old, cracked leather: a sort of rough handle. I held the stick near my candle and examined it more closely. The nail was not rusty, but browned — the patina of metal kept oiled for long years — and it was a square nail, bound to the stick with what looked like animal sinew. It appeared to be very old indeed.
I looked up at the old shamash. In the candlelight, his bearded face was unreadable. “Scratch an aleph in front of the dalet.”
The stick was not long, but it was long enough. I did as he asked, making the three strokes of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet to the right of the dalet — and then I exclaimed, still speaking softly, “Adam!”
“Yes. Adam — the man made by God from the earth, just as the golem was made by the Rav. Now stand back, and watch.”
I stepped back and stood beside him — a little closer than I might have done in any other place.
As we watched, I felt the lump in my chest draw in and tighten. The copper taste grew strong as my mouth went dry.
The stone of the wall began to — move. To flow. I dropped my candle — and the stick as well — with a low clatter that seemed deafening in the deep silence. I jumped violently, and even old Mordecai startled a bit. He bent again, picked up my candle and relit it, quite calmly.
The stone shifted and heaved and bubbled, as if it were mud with something struggling beneath it. It’s going to step out of that wall like it’s rising from a swamp, I thought — but that is not what happened.
Deep channels formed in the wall, hollows and bulges, growing and changing and bending to join with one another. A shape began to form in the stone.
In only moments, the shape was distinguishable: it was that of a gigantic man, kneeling sideways. The names of the other plagues had faded into invisibility, but the three letters — aleph, dalet, mem — that formed the name Adam, were still clearly visible in the stone of the forehead. As we watched, the figure grew more and more distinct. Finally, the flowing stone grew still. I was shaking, both hands over my mouth, my eyes wide.
The figure was that of a heavyset man with massive arms crossed on a barrel-like chest. Its head was bowed, and its eyes were closed. The features of the broad, grim face were coarse — a Slavic peasant’s face. It wore, or appeared to wear, a belted tunic that fell to its knees over loose breeches and rough boots, all carved of stone. Even kneeling, it towered above our heads.
The golem was not behind the wall; it was the wall. No wonder it had never been found.
I saw a scrap of paper or vellum projecting from the wide, frowning mouth, and then I remembered the rest of the tale. The Rav had caught up to the out-of-control golem and somehow pulled that scrap — which bore a large Hebrew letter shin — from its mouth. The thing had instantly fallen to the ground, once again a figure of dead, inanimate clay.
We stood there looking up at the thing. I was speechless with wonder and fright, clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering crazily, but Mordecai seemed only a little sad. “Its name is Yossele,” he said. The name meant “Little Yosef.”
I felt hysterical laughter rising behind my hands — but then I froze.
Until that moment, the thing might have been nothing more than a crude statue. Its bizarre emergence from the stone wall was frightening enough, but upon hearing its name, its eyes opened.
They glowed yellow-red, as bright as incandescent iron in a furnace — and then the creature moved. Its enormous head turned and bent in our direction.
This was more shocking, more unnerving, than anything that had gone before. Those huge, fiery eyes were fastened upon me, and I have never felt so weak, so defenseless, so insignificant, in all my life. I cowered before it, my knees like water, and my own staring eyes open so wide they hurt. I pressed my fists to my mouth harder to keep from screaming.
The golem — was real.
Mordecai put a comforting hand on my shoulder, but I hardly felt it. “Yossele,” he said. “Stand up.” The statue that was not a statue rose ponderously to its feet and waited passively, the glowing eyes looking forward now, at nothing. It stood four meters high, perhaps more. I was in no condition to make an accurate estimate. I was shivering and staring but not thinking. I could not accept that what I saw was real — but I had to. It was.
The old man’s hand squeezed my shoulder. I tore my gaze away from the golem and looked at him. “Now you believe,” he said. “And that is good. But now you must also understand.”
“. . . Understand?” I felt slow and stupid. The earth had just moved under my feet, from its accustomed place to some other, stranger place. “Understand what?”
Mordecai looked up at the golem. “Yossele is your responsibility now, Daniel. Your charge. Part of that responsibility is making sure that everyone else continues to think it is a legend, a myth — an old wife’s tale, as you put it.” He looked back at me and smiled sadly. “The rabbi does not know. They never do. A rabbi must be an honest man. We shamashim —” he shrugged — “we have no such obligation. Yossele has been preserved and hidden by us for more than four hundred years, since the Rav first charged his own shamash with this task. Only we know the truth. Only we hold the power, and that power must be protected.”
“Yossele is yours to command, Daniel. That is the other part of your responsibility.”
“M. . . mine? To — command?” I shook my head, then shook it again, more fiercely. “To command to do what? I only want it to stay where it is, hidden away. Or not to be at all.”
“That is within your power as well. Yossele can be destroyed. Easily.”
“How?” I asked. Looking at the grim stone giant towering over us, I could think of no better idea.
“Wipe off the aleph from its forehead, and then pull the parchment from its mouth as well. If both are gone, Yossele reverts to being a mass of ordinary clay, and can never again be restored to this — this simulation of life. If that is your decision, so be it.”
“Then let us do it now. Now. Right now!” My voice was edging toward a shriek. I could not understand why this monster had been allowed to remain in existence. I wiped my quivering palms on my trousers.
Mordecai looked at me patiently. “I understand. I felt the same way when old Nathaniel, my predecessor, first showed me what you have seen tonight. And so, I do not doubt, have many shamashim before you and me.” He squeezed my shoulder again. “But do you not wonder why Yossele still — is?”
I looked again at the monster — and I nodded. I did not trust myself to speak. When Mordecai remained silent, I looked at him again.
His white eyebrows were drawn downward, his frown forbidding. “There are worse monsters than Yossele, Daniel. Do you remember the tale of the Nazis who burst into this attic?”
“And were killed by the golem? Yes.” I swallowed, and my throat gave a dry click. “Yes. I believe that story now.” I looked at the creature’s enormous hands.
“Yossele did not kill them.” My eyes turned back to Mordecai. He shook his head grimly. “It would be sacrilege to shed blood within these sacred walls.”
“Then — then what happened to them?”
He pointed into the space where the golem had been minutes before, a rough, arched alcove that had been filled with the disguised body. I saw that the space was deeper, went farther back, than I had first thought. Mordecai gave back my candle and gestured: Go and look. Holding the flickering candle in my shaking hands, I stepped carefully around the enormous man-shape and peered into the dark space beyond.
By my dim light, I saw three statues. They were rough and unfinished-looking but recognizable. I could see their uniforms, their jackboots, their peaked caps — even a trace of their armbands, though the hateful symbol upon them was not visible. One held a Holbein dagger in his clenched fist.
I realized that these were not ordinary German soldiers. They were SS men, every one.
“Look closer,” said Mordecai from behind me. I lifted my candle —
And I saw their eyes.
Their eyes were alive. Alive and moving. Wide open, fiercely bloodshot and bulging from their stone sockets — eyes that would never blink again. The eyes stared at me in desperation, flicking back and forth between my face and the candle’s flame.
“There were four,” said Mordecai. “Yossele let one escape, at Nathaniel’s order. The other three . . .”
“Are still here,” I said. My voice sounded flat and toneless, even to me. I looked at the three miserable beings that had once been men and thought of the things that they and men like them had done to our people.
In the 1920s, Germany was the most advanced, the most educated, the most cultured and the most civilized nation in the world. And we Jews were more secure, more accepted, than in any country, or at any time, in all our long history . . .
And then men like these had seized power.
Their crazed eyes moved frantically from me to Mordecai and back again.
I turned my back on them and went to rejoin the old man. “Yossele,” I said.
My voice was no longer quavering, and my candle’s flame was still and steady. The golem’s head turned toward me, its blank eyes glowing brightly. I no longer found them terrifying.
“Resume your place,” I said coldly. Mordecai nodded in satisfaction.
The golem knelt, and I used the leather-wrapped end of the stick to wipe the aleph from its forehead. In only a moment, the wall was as it had been.
We returned to my office in silence, and the old shamash presented me with the very large, very old bronze key that opened the three locks of the geniza. I wear it on a chain around my neck, as he did.
I am the shamash of the Altneuschule of Prague, and now I know — I truly know — exactly what that means.