The story of the golem is widespread.
For years, the creature from Jewish folklore has been a staple figure in modern video games and science fiction narratives. The mythos of the golem as a powerful anthropomorphic figure animated by human sentience has even leaked into the world of technology: Various scientists have claimed the golem as a potential metaphor for artificial intelligence, naming their programs after the epic creature, for better or for worse.
Yet the golem is no modern invention. One of the earliest versions of the golem story is “The Golem of Prague.” This story takes place during a time of intense antisemitic pogroms. As the tale goes, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a late 16th-century rabbi of Prague also known as the Maharal, created a figure out of clay (and rituals and Hebrew incantations) from the banks of the Vltava River to protect his Jewish community. While powerful and effective, the golem was at times hard to control, so the rabbi deactivated the golem… but promised that it would arise again in times of need.
While golems have long been a staple in mainstream fiction, oftentimes their Jewish origins and significance have been erased by goyish writers. Or worse, the golem is misrepresented in its monstrosity, its history as a protector erased in favor of being portrayed as an antagonist.
However, with more and more Jewish writers actively centering Jewish culture and mythology in their work these days, there has been a rise in books about golems that explore the subject with cultural sensitivity and grace.
Here’s a list of some notable Jewish books that feature the golem, referencing the original narrative of “The Golem of Prague” as well as reinventing it.
1. “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker
Historical speculative fiction, 2019
What bookish list about golems would be complete without the iconic “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker? Set in late 19th-century New York City, this story features two creatures from two different diaspora mythologies: the nominal golem (a woman named Chava) and jinn (a man named Ahmad). The two find themselves stranded in the chaotic metropolis and form an unlikely bond. A potent narrative weaving together Arabic and Jewish mythology along with commentary on immigration and assimilation, this is a must-read for any golem lovers out there.
2. “The World That We Knew” by Alice Hoffman
Historical speculative fiction, 2013
Another historical fiction novel starring a golem, Hoffman’s work takes place in World War II Europe. In this tale that blends history and magical realism, a Jewish mother goes to a renowned rabbi’s family and asks that a golem be made to protect her daughter against Nazism, a dark evil taking over the continent. The legacy of the antisemitic violence in the original Golem story echoes in this historically relevant tale set in another time when the world was especially unkind to the Jewish people, especially Jewish young girls. As with any Jewish story that includes love, a little magic is also involved.
3. “The Unfinished Corner” written by Dani Colman, illustrated by Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz, colored by Whitney Cogar and lettered by Jim Campbell
Contemporary middle grade graphic novel fantasy, 2021
If you were a Jewish kid like me who read “The Chronicles of Narnia” but didn’t understand the Christian allusions in it, and now you’ve grown up to become a reader who wants a book focusing on kids adventuring to a magical land but with Jewish references, then this is the book for you. “The Unfinished Corner” centers Miriam, a 12-year-old Jewish girl preparing for her bat mitzvah, who finds herself and her friends on a mysterious mission to finish the Unfinished Corner, the part of the universe that God didn’t complete during the initial creation. As a middle grade fantasy graphic novel, this book is highly accessible to readers of all ages, presenting a universal coming-of-age story that has incredible Jewish depth and includes one of the most clever and emotional reimaginings of a golem I’ve ever seen.
4. “The Trouble with Good Ideas” by Amanda Panitch
Contemporary middle grade fantasy, 2021
Twelve-year-old Leah Nevins loves her Zaide and feels at home in his house where she and her family spend their Shabbat afternoons. So when he starts showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, she wants to find a way to take care of him. Inspired by her grandfather’s story about the Golem of Prague, she decides to make a golem of her own — but hers is not so obedient. In addition to exploring the golem figure from a modern Jewish girl’s perspective, Panitch’s story also touches on some relevant Jewish microaggressions with empathy and depth.
5. “Golem Girl: A Memoir” by Riva Lehrer
Nonfiction memoir, 2020
“Golem Girl” breaks from the list as a nonfiction title, but this book is definitely one you don’t want to miss. A narrative nonfiction book by queer Jewish disabled artist Riva Lehrer, “Golem Girl” recounts the story of Lehrer’s life. Born with spina bifida, she grew up marginalized for being different while the world judged her body. In the stunning prologue to her memoir, Riva writes that she sees the golem as a metaphor for disability, taking pride and strength in her identity as a disabled “golem girl.”
6. “Clay Man: The Golem of Prague” written by Irene N. Watts and illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker
Historical speculative fiction, 2009
It is 1595 and Jacob, the rabbi’s son, is frustrated from living his life in the Jewish ghetto, feeling trapped within its walls that people claim keep the Jews “safe.” But when unsettling antisemitic sentiment arises, showing walls aren’t enough to guarantee safety, Jacob’s father fashions a man out of the earth to do the job: a golem named Joseph who becomes Jacob’s new friend. A literal retelling of the original Golem of Prague story, this short novel touches on the timelessness of the golem and its ability to generate awe and inspire love.
7. “The Golem of Brooklyn” by Adam Mansbach
Contemporary fantasy, 2023
Set to release Sept. 26, “The Golem of Brooklyn” asks what happens when a stoned art teacher accidently makes a golem in modern-day New York City. After this 9-foot-6, 400-pound Yiddish-speaking colossus comes alive, he asks what is the purpose of his existence. He wants to know who he should protect, echoing the golem’s original purpose, and as an answer his creator shows him a video featuring white nationalists chanting “Jews will not replace us.” A golem creation that appears to mix profundity and profanity, “The Golem of Brooklyn” looks to be an interesting read.
8. “Wrath Becomes Her” by Aden Polydoros
Historical speculative fiction, 2023
From the author of “The City Beautiful” comes a new story of grief, love and vengeance set in 1943 Lithuania. After losing his daughter to the Nazis, a man creates a golem in her image to avenge her death, only for the golem to discover a complex humanity of her own. This book, described as “Frankenstein meets Inglourious Basterds,” is set to be released Oct. 10 and sounds like a story you don’t want to miss.