The Revisited Golem

LABA Buenos Aires, or LABA BA, was the first LABA satellite program to emerge outside of the NY mothership. Sharing Jewish text and incubating new Jewish culture through art is the LABA mission that we are proud now extends globally. We are excited to announce that this winter, LABA BA will be co-presenting with the Theater at the 14th Street Y, A Golem from Buenos Aires, a magical theater program suitable for families of all ages, that will include engagement activities following the December 14 and 21 performances. Read more about the production below and here is a link to purchase tickets.

The Golem (a figure of medieval Jewish folklore that appears in a 16th century legend about a giant being that was created by a rabbi to defend his community from anti-Semitism, and which took on life of its own) is a typical element of what is known as the “Jewish Gothic” style.

The Gothic was a style that mixed fear, terror and desire, and that is present in much of the architecture of churches and in somber stories about sinners and redemption. Just like the figure of the Wandering Jew or the Dybbuk (a reincarnated soul in torment that was not afraid of dying), the Golem is a metaphor about a being that was feared because it was not entirely human. Researcher Ruth Gilbert calls these three figures the axes of the Jewish Gothic style.

Many stories were told with this style in the closed Jewish communities.

A Golem from Buenos Aires, the play by Carina Toker, takes these elements, fear, desire and terror to transform them into a metaphor about love and poetry, and elevates poetry to the level of understanding among human beings; poetry as opposed to the looming cold technology.

The Golem was certainly an influence in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, also Gothic, frequently forgotten to be a protest against dehumanization.

In 2002, in the Czech Republic, the Argentine Ambassador Juan Eduardo Fleming initiated a project about the Golem, with the idea of Pedro Ruth in Argentina, texts of the Israeli historian Guershon Sholem about the Kabbalah, and of course, the poetry “The Golem” by Jorge Luis Borges.

That network resulted in an articulation of art and science between the Czech Republic and the Argentine Republic, and in 2004, seminars dedicated to the Golem were held, also with the participation of Charles University in Prague.

President Vaclav Havel, Czech scholar and writer, saw the importance of the exchange between the two cities, Prague and Buenos Aires, and praised the reinterpreted tradition in the light of the 21st century.

In April 2019, the prestigious magazine The New Yorker addressed a widely current topic: Dystopias in science fiction are the order of the day. In the article, Jorge Luis Borges was also mentioned as one of the exponents of non-dystopian fictions, such as the Golem, which recovers the story that serves as a real context for this imaginary figure.

August 24, 2019, was the 120th anniversary of the birth of Jorge Luis Borges, and the entire Argentine press and much of the international press remembered this brilliant writer, mainly in relation to his approach to the issue of the dangers of a highly technological world and the loss of the human side, in his poem “The Golem.”

Three years ago, in LABA Buenos Aires, we took the text of the poem “The Golem” by Borges and we analyzed its implications in many fields of culture.

Among them, there is the vision that questions those who “believe themselves Gods,” a danger entailed in any chaotic use of technologically applied science.

Another field fertilized by the Golem is the relationship between creator and creation, between submission and freedom, and yet more importantly, ethics entailing the manipulation of scientific forces.

Artists have that reading power, which sometimes seems prediction. That power is the one that Borges as an artist exercised with The Golem, announcing the effects of scientific and technological advances, and that Mary Shelley warned with the robotic being that preserved traces of humanity.

In LABA Buenos Aires, one of our fellows, Carina Toker, made the Golem the topic of a theater play, which she wrote and directed. The play, which combines Klezmer music, Tango, poetry by Eliahu Toker (main Jewish-Argentine poet and father of Carina), among the verses of the poem of Borges, was selected by LABA New York to be presented in that city.

By its fresh look at a traditionally scary character that loses its monstrosity due to love and to poetry, A Golem from Buenos Aires brings a message consistent with our days: art narrows distances, art is the point of encounter of what is different, art breaks down prejudices.

Furthermore, the Jewish community in New York, and the general population will be able to see, through the play, the humor of the Klezmer music, the nostalgia of Tango, the love for letters and a message of peace.

Last but not least important is the causal relation between this character, the Golem, and what will later be science fiction, a genre entirely related to the United States of America. This genre that prospered in magazines for connoisseurs and that later reached today’s apex.

There is a comic book called Golem; the computer that replaced the first computer of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel was called Golem; Jacques Lacan, the famous French psychoanalyst named it when he spoke about the “Golem of Narcissism”, a monster that can develop and turn against those exercising psychoanalysis.

Carina Toker, a LABA Buenos Aires fellow, achieved the reinterpretation of this Jewish and Universal legend, following the spirit of LABA New York, a unique institution in the world, which has received along its history the recognition of the United States of America for its inspiration and support to artists and the population of New York.

In 2014, LABA was named as one of the most innovative Jewish organizations of North America by the Slingshot Guide, and also received a subsidy by the National Endowment of the Arts.

-Tova Shvartzman

Photographer: Daniela Cilli from Cendas Theater