A celebration of Prague: my photo and Madeleine Albright’s words (from her book Prague Winter).
“On a hill in Prague there is a castle that has stood for a thousand years. From its windows one can see a forest of gilded cupolas and baroque towers, slate roofs and sacred spires. Visible too are the stone bridges spanning the broad and winding Vltava River as its waters flow northward at a leisurely pace. Through the centuries, the beauty of Prague has been enriched by the labor of artisans from a plethora of nationalities and creeds; it is a Czech city with a variety of accents, at its best in spring when the fragrant blossoms of the lindens burst forth, the forsythia turns gold, and the skies seem an impossible blue. The people, known for their diligence, resilience, and pragmatism, look forward each winter to when the days lengthen, the breezes soften, the trees regain their covering, and the river banks issue a silent summons to play.” Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter.
“I read the news today, oh boy . . .” (A Day In the Life, Lennon and McCartney)
The news this week is heartbreaking, incomprehensible, and ugly. Why is the human race so quick to choose fear and anger over love and tolerance?
Amid all of the rainbow pride flags being flown in solidarity and pasted across Facebook homepages, I wanted to offer up this traveler’s “peace flag”–a photo of the Lennon Wall (sometimes called the Peace Wall) in Prague.
The wall began after John Lennon’s death in 1980. His picture appeared on the wall, with anti-communist slogans (remember, this was during the communist regime). The wall was painted over, but the paintings of Lennon, along with graffiti about Lennon and Beatles lyrics, kept reappearing. It was an act of defiance against the corrupt and oppressive government.
During the 80’s, student protesters who called their movement “Lennonism” (ironic and clever!) often clashed with police in the area. Whenever the wall was repainted, the graffiti just came back.
The communist regime is long gone, but the wall still stands and continues to draw crowds and artists. It has been painted over many times, by whitewash and by years of artists leaving their messages, and it’s even been reconstructed as it crumbled. Unlike the Berlin Wall, which crumbled with the demise of communism, this wall stood for peace and watched communism fall in the (non-violent) 1989 “Velvet Revolution” in the former Czechoslovakia.
This week it stands and speaks to all of us with its rainbow of colors and its haunting refrains of “Give Peace a Chance.”
*The Lennon Wall is nearby the Charles Bridge and the French Embassy.
This is one of those moments that gets under your skin, one of those moments that you wonder about long after the moment has passed.
We woke up early one day in Prague–planning to walk the town, and especially the Charles Bridge area, before the rest of the tourists woke up and the crowds gathered. It was a good plan. Prague is a fantastic city, but the summertime throng of tourists (added to the 100 degree heat of this particular week) is oppressive.
So we started early, in order to have views like this:
We very nearly had the bridge and the streets to ourselves. We meandered, took photos, and drank coffee.
The sky was hazy in an early-morning way, and, while our spirits were high, our brains were just peeking out of their foggy morning stupors too. We were in a quiet, subdued sort of morning state when we turned to make our way back over the Vltava River.
We walked slowly, sipping our coffee, and looked up to see this:
I snapped a photo and sipped more coffee. As I walked along, I kept a lookout over my left shoulder to watch the rower’s progress.
Once he was close to me, I realized that this was a very elderly man, rowing his solitary boat down the long river ever so slowly. He was dressed for more than that slight chill of the morning, in a heavy jacket and old camouflage pants, and he sat with his back to his travel bag and crutch in a rustic wooden boat.
Where was he going, this elderly man who walked with a crutch and a heavy bag? Was he rowing across town because it was easier than walking? Was he making a longer journey, across towns or across borders, with just his arms and the current to propel him? This man was a story that I’d never have the chance to read to its end–and that made me a little sad. But I quietly cheered him on as he passed– he was the old man and the sea, full of determination and greatness, bowing neither to age nor circumstance.
When you look at a map of the Czech Republic, you will see a land locked country. I used to see the same. No more. To me, the old man and the sea will always be an integral part of the city of Prague.
There are things that go bump in the night, and, then again, there are things that go bump in our psyches and rattle around with such fury that they can’t be quelled by any night light. In fact, at some point and in the full light of day, they will trip from our tongues or scurry across the pages of our books—out into the world, across eras, and even across cultures. These monsters may prove themselves useful to us, even noble at times—our defenders from the monsters that show up at our doors in human flesh– but they are problematic nonetheless. They are never really controllable.
To wit—the golem.
Long before Prague was Prague, “the Golem” began rattling around our psyches as a shadowy form in Hebrew lore. The word references an unshaped form, or possibly an unrefined person—someone who is clumsy. A clod.
Yes, a clod of dirt and dust . . . like Adam before Eden. But without the divine breath, the breath of life.
So, how did this golem come to be animated? Scholars can point to moments in the Talmud or the Hebrew Book of Formation when a golem was brought to life by use of a shem—a name of God. If one of the names of God was inscribed on paper and placed in the mouth of the mud man, or perhaps inscribed upon its forehead, then the golem became animated.
Something to remember: the name of God represented the reality and power of God. To invoke God’s name meant to invoke a truth and a power beyond any a mortal could/should wield. But this doesn’t stop mortals from prying in business beyond their wisdom, does it? (The atom bomb comes to mind.)
And so, tales of the golem took foot like so many clay men, trodding the shadows but living beyond a world they could understand or be understood in. Glimpses were reported in tales from Poland, Russia, Germany (at the hands of Jakob Grimm), and Prague.
Prague. There was a city ripe for things that go bump and holy incantations both. In 16th century Prague, these elements mixed to create a famous tale in which the golem was a being animated to protect the Jewish ghetto from oppressors.
Although tales of the golem had been around centuries before, this famous tale of the golem was created by Rabbi Yehudah Levi ben Betzalel (aka, Rabbi Loew) . Rabbi Loew had his reasons: anti-Semitic attacks were a fact of life, and rumors abounded that a local priest was about to launch a new accusation at the Jewish community in Prague. They were to be wrongly accused of ritual murder of Christian children. To avert this disastrous situation, Rabbi Loew formed his golem from the mud of the Vltava River and, in a god-like act, placed life into its mouth with the Shem Hameforash.
The golem was named Joseph, and he served as the protector of the Jewish Quarter. He was a hero, but he was also a monster–human-like, but not human. Created from the machinations of a man who, though holy, was less than God. And what happens when man meddles with the power of God? The story always turns dark.
The golem grew stronger and stronger as time passed, and more violent too. He couldn’t be controlled. And so, the shem had to be removed from his mouth and the noble monster had to be “decommissioned.” The clay figure was locked away in the attic.
If you are starting to think that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster has eerie undertones of the golem, then I agree 100%. Sure, Rabbi Loew had more noble intentions than Dr. Frankenstein, but nobody ever really controls these monsters once they come to life. And no one really understands them, either. There is something poignant and lonely about these beings–despite the danger and the grotesque qualities they possess, they are almost us. Oddly, they are better than us in moments–they have the physical power to protect and they have remarkable innocence despite their power. Until the story turns. But it turns, at least in part, because of the violent world they must confront.
Life is complicated, no?
And, having trod through the ages– from hints in the Garden of Eden, to full power in 16th century Prague, to the quintessential monster of British horror tales–the golem now prowls the streets of modern America in our dime store comics. Remember The Thing?
He was a rock-man. The character’s real name was Benjamin Jakob Grimm (hello!), and he was a Jewish New Yorker. Ben Grimm was a test pilot turned astronaut who was transformed by cosmic radiation. Bummer. Of course, he’s a good guy (like the golem Joseph), but he does have a temper (like Joseph). Uncontrollable? Not necessarily, but the golem influence is undeniably strong here. In fact, there is apparently even one story line in which Benjamin Grimm reanimates the dead body of an innocent neighbor by reciting a Shem or a Jewish prayer.
We’ve heard this tale before–at different times, in different places, for different cultures and eras–but it never fails to catch our attention. How could it? It’s one of those stories that looks outward: to a world we live in that’s dangerous, and where we need protectors from violent forces (forces that are usually all too human themselves). But it also looks inward at human nature as a story of incurable meddlers: we dabble in things when we think we have a little technical knowhow, but we are radically lacking in the wisdom to wield the power that knowhow brings. (It’s the classic tale of hubris, and it’s our specialty as a species.)
Prague claims the golem as one of its famous tales, and it should–that history is rich and deep. But we all know that the golem didn’t stay locked in that attic in Prague.
No, it’s afoot and will always be. Told and retold, as long as there is mud and there are meddlers.