The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague
Curt Leviant, translator
Original publication (in Hebrew) Warsaw, 1909
New Haven: Yale University Press
Cervantes Would Have
This book is, without the least bit of exaggeration, a gem! It is a joy to read; but, beware, there are deeper meanings of a certain importance, meanings which employ fictional irony to seek to render frightful realities harmless.
A certain amount of special, added credit for the beauty, which must capture the reader of the book as a whole, belongs to the translator, Curl Leviant, whose introduction impressed me as the work of a truly important contemporary mind, in whatever language his Preface might be translated. Even at that distance from the Hebrew text, the effect of the translation could not have been other than a reflection of the intent, and also the adducible authentic genius, and sense of humor of the author of the core work of this publication, Yudl Rosenberg. Rosenberg followed the footsteps of Miguel Cervantes with such delightful, and truly creative insolence, and Curt Leviant succeeds in making the most of it in his setting of the stage. Since I do not read Hebrew, my comments are written at a certain distance from the original text of Yudl Rosenberg's work, but some meanings defy such barriers.
That defect of my role as reviewer taken duly into account, I am a seasoned American native with many relevant associations among adult American Jews of four generations, chiefly of respectively German and Eastern European descent, as from my own adolescence and adulthood in the Great Boston and New York City areas of the late 1930s through the 1960s and 1970s. I read that experience with aid of my special emphasis on the contrast of Moses Mendelssohn's role in the great Classical revolution of the late Eighteenth century, as contrasted with Heinrich Heine's struggle to resist and defeat an enemy which he hated as the depravity of the post-1815 Romantic School, as I do. This experience affords me the advantage of knowing the principled, historical features underlying that European historical setting, in which the European Jew usually struggled to find and defend a sense of identity in a largely menacing, surrounding world.
All these and related considerations taken into account, this book can be appreciated as a gem. In due course here, I shall tell you why I say this, without risk that I might be justly accused of some exaggeration on this account.
The subject of the inner life of peoples subjected to prolonged, and recurring persecution, on account of their origins or religious beliefs, has fascinated me since my childhood, especially since my adolescence in the greater Boston area, in an environment where I hated the vicious discrimination against people of Italian, Eastern European Jewish, and African-American origins, which was typical.
In this setting, two models of Jewish resistance to this form of discrimination inside the U.S.A. itself have been of continuing crucial importance for me, since then, to the present day. The happiest recollections are of the triumphant achievements of Moses Mendelssohn, and the relatively melancholy, contrasting case of the Heinrich Heine who fought most of his adult life for a great cause, the Classical Renaissance of Germany's late Eighteenth Century. Heine fought, for much of his adult life, until near the end, against the malignant filth of the post-Napoleonic Romanticism of Prince Metternich's secret correspondent, the proto-fascist G.W.F. Hegel, and the Romantic School generally. Then, from a more recent time, we have the Yiddish Renaissance, typified by what was known in the U.S.A. of my youth and young manhood by names such as the "Workman's Circle" and the writings of Sholem Aleichem.
As Yudl Rosenberg demonstrates in his The Golem, the relative defeat, almost the obliteration of the heroic achievements of Moses Mendelssohn, created a kind of vacuum in which there came into being a thus much-needed, late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century's Jewish humor, which is based implicitly, like Yudl Rosenberg's The Golem, on the image of the young child's "secret friend," his "Big Rabbit."
About two decades ago, during one of my visits to Florence, my wife and I chanced to sit in a grassy area, across the Arno, when I could fancy that this might have been where Boccacio sat, writing his Decameron while viewing the holocaust of the Black Death in those streets of Florence, across the river, which I could view from where I sat. Cervantes' treatment of a morally failed Sixteenth-Century Spain under Philip, does echo Boccacio, using the morally, utterly failed characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as the key foils of his account. It is important for readers of The Golem to recognize that Yudl Rosenberg is no gloomy Romantic pessimist; he expresses a truly delicious sense of humor also characteristic of the greatest Classical tragedians.
On this account, reading The Golem, one should think of Schiller's famous observation on the intent of Classical drama: that the citizen entering the theater, and seeing the pervasive folly enacted there, should resolve, leaving the theater, to be a better citizen upon leaving, a citizen who considers himself warned to adopt a sense of responsibility for the way things go in his or her society. Schiller points, thus, to the essential optimism, the optimism of the citizen provoked to take care of what a society neglected by its citizens might inflict upon itself, which is implicit in the Classical tragedy, when all within the action of the drama on stage is horrifying.
There had been no tragic element in the work of Moses Mendelssohn and his dear friend and collaborator Gotthold Lessing. Mendelssohn, the poor young Jewish son of a minor religious figure of Dessau, raised the banner of Gottfried Leibniz and Plato before him, and thus shook the pillars of the Philistine temple of Friedrich der Grosse's Berlin, in the onslaught against the corruption of the empiricist school of the Voltaireans, D'Alembert, Leonhard Euler, and Joseph Lagrange. This pair of friends, together with Lessing's mentor, the great mathematician Abraham Kaestner, unleashed, from within Germany, the great Classical upsurge which spread throughout Europe, and, was, in fact, crucial for the creation of the U.S. Constitutional Republic.
These often almost penniless friends shook the world in their time. For example, as some of my collaborators have published the relevant evidence of this, the greatest musicians, the leading followers of J.S. Bach of their time, including Wolfgang A. Mozart, Ludwig v. Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and others were within the family circles, from Leipzig and Berlin, of Moses Mendelssohn. From that time on, there is nothing truly great in German culture which has not been rooted in the Classical conspiracy in which the circles of Lessing and Mendelssohn played a crucial part, the circles from which the genius of Friedrich Schiller leaped upward to shape much of the best which lingers still in the world of today.
This was echoed in the circles of Benjamin Franklin in the U.S., in the exemplary circles of Percy B. Shelley and John Keats in Britain. Then came the evil of the siege of the Bastille, the Satanic reek of the Jacobins and their Terror, and of Count Joseph de Maistre's virtual "Trilby," Napoleon Bonaparte. The Vienna negotiations of 1812-1815 turned back the clock of European history.
The genius of Schiller, Beethoven and Schubert, had been a reflection of a glorious time past. The disease of what Heinrich Heine called "The Romantic School" and its wickedness took charge of a new trend. Later than that came the ouster of Germany's Chancellor Bismarck, and, with that, what became known as World Wars I and II was the result of the intended effect launched by Britain's "Lord of the Isles," Prince Edward Albert, Edward VII. In that same time came a turn typified by the strange police chief and torturer, the Okhrana's Zubatov, who served as architect of Russia's 1905 Revolution, a plot pivoted on the Okhrana progroms against the Jews of Eastern Europe.
The Bund of that time created a tradition, which spilled over into the communities of Jewish immigrants pouring into the U.S. version of ghettoes. This was a generation with a deeply felt need of a secret life shared among those who enjoyed a sense of the presence of a child's "invisible friend." The Golem, as presented by Yudl Rosenberg's referenced work, reflected that desire for "an invisible friend," with whom the hopes for a miraculous justice could be expressed in whispers. Every child, once tucked into bed, may think of what he, or she imagines to be the whispers of the parents in a room below. To sleep, that child, thinking his or her parents brave but helpless against the lurking danger, must whisper silently to the consoling presence of an imaginary, powerful friend.
What is important about the sensed presence of the child's invisible friend, is not what the child might believe explicitly, but, rather, the fear which underlies that hopeful wish. That child, at his or her best, is Schiller's ordinary citizen, leaving the theater a better citizen than he had entered, despite the playwright's inspired, warning depiction, as by Shakespeare and Schiller, often of the total depravity of all of the principal characters of Wallenstein, and such as those of Posa and the King, of the conduct of virtually all of the characters of the tragedy itself, and of the fears lurking in the hushed voices of the parents in a room below.
Under the Floorboards of Dreaming
On this latter account, I urge the reader to give special, thoughtful attention to the pages of Curt Leviant's Introduction. Now, permit me to speak briefly on those deeper implications of the work, as I see them for myself, and as those indicated pages from Curt Leviant's Introduction prompt my own deeper thoughts on the same matter of the "invisible friend."
Albert Einstein described our universe as finite in its wholeness, and yet self-bounded without external "fences." As Einstein credits Johannes Kepler and Bernhard Riemann on this account, the human individual's power to discover those unseen principles which shape the universe in which we act, reflects a kind of knowledge pertaining to that which lies beyond an attempted literal reading of sense-experience. We meet this higher realm in the discovery and mastery of universal physical principles; we meet the work-product of the same marvelous human faculty, in great Classical artistic composition. A child, drifting toward sleep in an attic room, may sense the presence of universal principles more powerful than the mere objects of sense-perception. In fact, that sense reflects the mental faculty on which discovery of universal principles of the Solar system and galaxy depends, the sense of some power which is good by nature, acting upon the shadow-world of simple sense-perceptual experience in the small.
In judging this just-described irony, we must take into account the fact known to every great physical scientist, that what we regard as simple sense-perception is our image of the experience of sense-perceptual faculties of the mortal flesh, and that images of sense-perception are merely the shadows cast upon sense-perception by a reality which the person does not see directly. The reality lying behind that sense-perceptual view of experience, is what we locate as the domain of experimental knowledge of the certainty of existence of certain principles.
The result of the exploration of these types of ironies, has been, repeatedly, the notion of a physical universe like the domain of Sphaerics of the ancient Pythagoreans and Plato, and, in modern times, of Nicholas of Cusa's restatement of the Pythagorean-Platonic principle of Sphaerics under the title of De Docta Ignorantia. This was the method employed by Kepler, and such among his followers as Fermat, Leibniz, and Riemann. This is the anti- Euclidean, anti-Cartesian notion of the universe associated with the work of Kepler, Leibniz, and Riemann, as Einstein referenced this.
If we extend this properly, we trace the development of the notion of harmonics by Kepler into the developments, reflecting both Florentine bel canto vocal methods and Kepler in the system of counterpoint of J. S. Bach. We see reflections of this in the revolution in painting by Leonardo da Vinci. These experiences demonstrate that the mind is able to know the principles of physical geometry located within the real universe beyond our sense-perceptions. The power to do this, and the impulse to do this lies within the mind of the growing child who invents his or her "invisible friend." This is not mere fantasy; it were fantasy to deny the efficient significance of that rather commonplace phenomenon of the young child. Yudl Rosenberg's Golem is fictional, but the faculty of the human mind which generates the fancied existence of the Golem is not fictional.
Those among us, who have long since rejected the Euclidean and Cartesian fantasies, and recognized the basis for a Riemannian physical geometry in the ordering of the demonstrated lawful processes of qualitative change in principle of processes, can assure the child that something like an invisible friend does exist in a universe which is essentially good. The child's mind reaches out, saying: "Please!" Some day, if that child follows the thread which leads into real science and real Classical artistic composition, the child will find there the evidence of the the real friend for which he or she had hoped in early years.
Yudl Rosenberg's Golem does not exist, but the world in which he should exist is real. The nightmares associated with the Golem's adventures seem to speak of pessimism, but Rosenberg's Golem is an expression of a deep optimism. Rosenberg's delicious sense of humor, as expressed in his creation of a fictive universe like that of Cervantes' Don Quixote earlier, expresses a form of deeply innate optimism expressed in a world which seems otherwise an abomination. There is a rustling of hope which whispers from behind the curtain of an awful tragedy; it is not on stage, but it is there. As adults we call this science, and Classical artistic composition; each of those is conceived as an expression of the same essential substance as the other. That substance is to be known as the expression of individual human creativity.
That sense of the presence of creativity, is the essence of what I read in the course of the Transatlantic flight where I had the opportunity to concentrate on the reading, essentially uninterrupted, from cover to cover. I thank Curt Leviant very much for that. I suggest that you do the same; however, remember, the price of the ticket is on your account.
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According to Yale University Press, Curt Leviant's is the first English translation of this 1909 collection of interrelated stories about a 16th-century Prague rabbi and the golem he created. In addition to translating Rosenberg's classic golem, Leviant also offers an introduction in which he sets Rosenberg's writing in historical context and discusses the golem legend before and after Rosenberg's contributions. Generous annotations are provided for the curious reader.
The Chief Rabbi of Prague, known as the Maharal, brings a clay creature, the golem, Yossele, to life to help the Jews fight false accusations of ritual murder--the infamous blood libel. More human, more capable, and more reliable as a protector than any golem imagined before, Rosenberg's Golem irrevocably changed one of the most widely influential icons of Jewish folklore.
Translator and editor Leviant other translations include five volumes of works by Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Basheiv Singer's "More Stories from My Father's Court".
I.L. Peretz, Father of the Yiddish Renaissance
Fidelio Magazine Table of Contents 1992-1996
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Meet Lyndon LaRouche
Moses Mendelssohn and Bach
Moses Mendelssohn - Philosophical Vignettes
Friedrich Schiller's Works
On Music, Judaism, and Hitler- Fidelio Editorial
Conference Discussion of "The Big Knife" by Clifford Odets
LaRouche On Mendelssohn and the Immortality of the Soul
The Life of Moses Mendelssohn
LaRouche on the Mozart the Mozart Revolution
Mozart and the American Revolutionary Upsurge
Leibniz, Halle and the American Revolution
LaRouche Memorial Day 2002 Speech
What It Takes to Be A World Leader
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Russia Articles Pages, (links to Puskin, Lermontov Articles)
On Cervantes' Don Quixote
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Background Notes on Cervantes
Edited by Ken Kronberg
Spain under the Hapsburgs
Under King Phillip II (1527-1598), the relatively tolerant policies towards religious dissent of his father, the German emperor Charles V (1500-1558, who counted Erasmus among his official advisors), the first Hapsburg to rule Spain, were reversed, while Charles' disastrous economic and social policies were made even worse. Spain declared sovereign bankruptcy four times in the Sixteenth century, and most of the gold, silver and other wealth coming from its colonies in the Americas, went to pay debt to Genoese, Venetians, Dutch and other foreign bankers.
The privileges of the feudal Council of the Mesta, which had the right to drive its herds of sheep over cultivated fields, without paying any compensation to the peasants, who were prohibited from putting up fences, wrecked havoc with agriculture, a situation that was made worse after 1609, when Phillip III expelled the Spanish Muslims, called Moors, who were the country's most skilled farmers, leading to the collapse of the irrigation systems. Manual work?in fact, any productive activity?was considered anathema by the nobility, and by those that pretended to be noble, which was pretty much everyone else. Intellectual pursuits, commerce, science, were also considered a treath to honor, and there were few who engaged in these activities, especially after the expulsion of the Jews a century earlier, in 1492. The grandees, the upper aristocracy, were exempt from taxes, but so too were the lesser hidalgos, the clergy, and many others, so that the majority of taxes were payed by poor tenant farmers. It is estimated that in 1597, only 17 percent of the inhabitants of the city of Burgos were subject to taxation.
The bubonic plague returned periodically, and some areas of Spain became virtually depopulated. In the Eighteenth century, the Bourbon king Charles III brought in German colonists to resettle the Sierra Morena, the scene of some of Don Quixote's most memorable adventures.
All government appointments required a "certificado de pureza," proving one was free of any taint of Jewish or Moorish blood. And then there were the thought police, the Inquisition. While the Inquisition was active at one time or another in nearly every European country, in Spain it took on a special character: it became a State institution, rather than just an arm of the Church, at times vying even with the monarch for power, and did not disappear completely until the Nineteenth century, although it had been weakened significantly earlier by Charles III. At the height of its power, specially after the Counter-Reformation launched by the Council of Trent (which was instigated and kept going by the Hapsburgs) officially imposed Aristotelian thought-control, the Inquisition "examined man's religious conscience without pity, even to its innermost spiritual sentiments. With religious fanaticism, and without Christian charity, it rigorously judged and punished any anormality or deviation from the fixed ideas held by the feared tribunal of the Inquisition." And, owing to the "inflexible intolerance of Phillip II and the Inquisition, Erasmian thought soon disappeared from Spain."
A Manual of International Statescraft
Cervantes' contemporaries were very aware of the world-historical significance of Don Quixote. Márquez Torres, who was assigned by the Vicar General of Madrid to censor Part II, wrote in his 1615 "Approbation," that Part I of Cervantes' masterpiece had had a tremendous impact "on Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Flanders."
He adds: "I certify as true, that on February 23 of this year, 1615, having my lord, the illustrious don Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, cardinal archbishop of Toledo, gone to repay the visit that he had received from the French Ambassador, who had come to deal with matters having to do with the marriage of their Princes and those of Spain, several French gentlemen of those who had come accompanying the Ambassador, as courteous and knowledgeable and friends of good writing as one could find, came to me and to other chaplains of the cardinal, my lord, wishing to know what books of inventiveness were most esteemed, and upon mention of this one, which I was censuring, as soon as they heard the name of Miguel de Cervantes, they started talking about the high esteem in which Cervantes' works, La Galatea, which some of them have almost memorized, the first part of this and the novels, were held in France, and in the surrounding kingdoms. Their praises were so numerous, that I offered to take them to meet the author of these works, for which they expressed their gratitude with a thousand expressions of ardent desire. They asked me in detail about his age, his profession, and his worth. I was forced to respond that he was old, of noble blood, and poor, to which one of them replied in the following terms: 'So, a man such as this is not sustained and made wealthy by Spain's public treasure?' Another one of the gentlemen replied with the following thought, and with much wit said: 'If necessity forces him to write, pray to God that he never has abundance, so that with his works, he being poor, he makes the whole world rich.' "
Cervantes well understood that he was fighting a rearguard action, similar to that of his English contemporary William Shakespeare, to save the achievements of the Fifteenth century Golden Renaissance, and to prevent the religious butchery of the Thirty Years' War, which loomed on the horizon. Thus, Don Quixote is, among other things, a political intervention. This is one reason it has been a favorite of statesmen ranging from the Philippines' José Rizal, to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India and father of Indira Gandhi, to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who "laboriously learned Spanish" so he could read Don Quixote in the original. Ben Gurion tried to reread it once a year, because he considered that all the secrets of statecraft were contained therein.
Cervantes and Shakespeare
The Englishman William Shakespeare, who was baptized on April 26, 1564, was a contemporary of the Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes. In fact, they both died on the same date, April 23, 1616, though not on the same day, since England still followed the Julian calendar, whereas Spain had adopted the Gregorian one.
That Shakespeare knew Cervantes' work is clear, since he co-authored with John Fletcher a play, Cardenio, based upon the tale of Cardenio from Don Quixote, which was acted at court for the royal wedding of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I, to the Elector of Palatine, on June 8, 1613. The first English translations of Don Quixote, both Parts I and II, were printed by Shakespeare's publishers.3 It is quite possible that Cervantes knew Shakespeare's work as well, Cervantes started and ended his literary career as a playwright (Eight commedies and Eight Interludes). Both he and his fellow playwright, Shakespeare, sought, through their writings, to uplift their respective populations.
Both were "political" writers, as all real artists are. This is most notable in Shakespeare's history plays, but also in his works of "legendary" history, such as Hamlet and Macbeth, where the issue is how a society can deal with its flaws before they lead to tragedy.
Similarly in Cervantes, all of whose works take aim at the tragic flaw in Spanish society: the fantasy state of the "glory" of the medieval feudal past, versus the reality of a decaying empire. Compare Hamlet's crazy behavior, with that of the characters in Don Quixote. ("Who is more crazy: he who is thus because he can't help it, or he who is willfuly thus?", asks the peasant Tomé Cecial to Samson Carrasco, after the latter, posing as the "Knight of the Mirrors," has been defeated in battle by Don Quixote. "The difference between those two kinds of madmen, is that the one that is crazy by compulsion will always be thus, while he who is willingly crazy can give it up when he wishes.") What the artist seeks is for those who are willfuly crazy to get to the point were they wish to give up their disease.
But while Shakespeare worked in England, a society in which a nation-state had been established by Henry VII, Cervantes wrote in an environment that was not yet a nation-state (Castille, Aragon, Portugal, etc., all had their own laws, customs, and systems of taxation, although they were ruled by the same monarch). Spanish society had turned its back on the Renaissance, on progress, and become a racist police-state, rigid in its feudalist outlook.
Don Quixote and America's Founding Fathers
Perhaps no group of statesment enjoyed Don Quixote more than the Founding Fathers of the United States. "Dear sir: I have received your letters of the 29th of October and the 9th of Novr. The latter was handed to me by Colo. H[enry] Lee, with 4 Vols. of Don Quixote which you did me the honor to send to me. I consider them as a mark of your esteem which is highly pleasing to me, and which merits my warmest acknowledgment. I must therefore beg, my dear sir, that you will accept of my best thanks for them." So wrote George Washington in a letter, which he addressed from Mount Vernon on Nov. 28, 1787, to Diego Gardoqui, Spain's first ambassador to the United States. During the American Revolution, Gardoqui had functioned as the conduit for the millions of pounds that the Spanish gave to the American cause. Spain's financial contribution to the American Revolution was equal to that of France, with Gardoqui serving as the Spanish counterpart to the Frenchman Caron de Beumarchais, author of the play on which Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro is based.
Washington was not able to read the four-volume Spanish set of Don Quixote he got from Gardoqui, which can still be seen in his library at Mount Vernon, but he did read an English translation that he obtained soon after. Don Quixote was also a favorite of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams (who travelled with the book in his saddlebags), and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, as he told his son-in-law to be, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., thought that next to French, Spanish was the modern language "most important to an American," given that "our connection with Spain is already important and will become daily more so. Besides this the ancient part of American history is written mostly in Spanish." Jefferson supposedly taught himself Spanish in a few days in 1784, while crossings the Atlantic on his way to Europe, by means of a copy of Don Quixote and a borrowed Spanish grammar, according to what he later told John Quincy Adams in 1804. Adams took the story with a grain of salt: "But Mr. Jefferson tells larges stories," wrote Adams in his diary. Nontheless, throughout his life Jefferson was an ardent proponent of Don Quixote, insisting that his daughters Martha and Mary read it as part of their learning Spanish.
Benjamin Franklin, America's senior statesman, who organized the French and Spanish contributions to the American cause, listed Don Quixote in the first catalogue of his Library Company, in 1741. In his Autobiography, Franklin himself notes that he taught himself the French and Italian languages. "I afterwards with a little painstaking, acquir'd as much of the Spanish as to read their books also." Notably, Cervantes' Don Quixote.
Friedrich Schiller and Cervantes' Spain
The great Eighteenth-century German historian and poet Friedich Schiller dealt extensively with the disastrous rule of Phillip II, both in his historical writings, as well as in his truthful drama Don Carlos. Schiller addressed, in particular, Phillip's ineffectual policy towards the rebellion in the Low Countries, of first, doing nothing, and later, of bloody repression, but never attempting to engage his subjects to reach a working solution. In Don Carlos, the character Marquis of Posa tells Phillip what Cervantes must have wanted to tell the Hapsburgs more than a century earlier: "Give us back what you have taken from us. Thus become among a million kings, a king. ...Give to us the liberty of thought."
There is no question that Cervantes and Schiller held similar views of the Hapsburg Phillip II. After mocking the elaborate preparations and ceremonies for the obsequies held in Seville on the death of Phillip II in 1598 ("I would bet that the soul of the dead man, to enjoy this place today, has abandoned his place of eternal rest"), Cervantes tags an additional triplet to his satirical sonnet, in which a braggart tells the narrator, the soldier Cervantes: '"Everything you have said is true, and whoever says the contrary, lies.' And then, incontinent, he pulled his hat over his head, checked his sword, looked askance, left, and nothing happened." (Excerpted from Fidelio Magazine, Winter 2003, No 3.
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