Abraham Ellstein’s lifelong ambition to write a full-length opera on a Jewish subject materialized when the New York City Opera conductor Julius Rudel took an interest in the idea and helped secure a City Opera commission under a Ford Foundation grant. The result, The Golem, was premiered at City Opera in the spring of 1962, conducted by Rudel.
Ellstein had been interested in the golem subject ever since he first visited Prague about thirty-five years earlier on a European concert tour as accompanist to the world-renowned cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He had visited the attic of the Altneuschul, one of Prague’s oldest synagogues, where the Prague version of the golem legend—and the particular story used for the opera—is placed. He was immediately inspired to create a major work. “Something in the atmosphere of that old room got to me,” Ellstein recalled on the eve of the premiere, “and I’ve been aiming at this opera ever since.
The golem, a mysterious mythical creature, has been the subject of one of the most persistent legends in western and central European Jewish folklore—one that has been recycled and reinvented frequently since the Middle Ages. Although anything even approaching humanly wrought magic is clearly prohibited in Judaism, the long path of Jewish history has not been without the emergence of natural human inclinations toward folk superstitions and magical beliefs. Indeed, it has often fallen to responsible rabbinic leadership to eradicate such notions.
Generically, a golem (also homunculus) is a creature, usually quasi-human—i.e., made artificially through the magic of holy names, a phenomenon common to the magic lore of various ancient cultures. The development of the golem idea in Jewish contexts derives from the magical exegesis of the mystical work sefer y’tzira (Book of Creation) and from mystical ideas about the creative power of speech, of words, and even of particular letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The holy name involved in most Jewish golem legends is, of course, that of God—an unpronounceable tetragram of His actual Name. The word golem derives from its single mention in the Bible (Psalm 139:16), which led to the Mishnaic description of it as a fool and to the talmudic use of the word as an unformed and imperfect entity—in philosophical terms, matter without form—which it acquired only in later versions. It might simply signify body without soul, but the deeper connotations in early talmudic and Midrashic legends often concern secret powers of intuition derived from primordial clay—the earth, from which a golem is artificially fashioned.
In the medieval conception, certain transformations and reorderings of certain letters could contain secret knowledge of creation on an internal level. Although in the early medieval period some saw in this a hidden guide to magic procedures, in the later Middle Ages the idea of a golem creation became more metaphorical. In the 12th and 13th centuries, there arose among the Pietist sect ḥasidei ashkenaz the notion of the golem creation as a mystical ritual. Yet that was also the beginning of the perception of the golem as an actual creature, even though the mystics insisted on its exclusively symbolic meaning—spiritual experience of ecstasy without practical benefits or consequence. In fact, none of the early sources contain any reference to practical benefit being derived from a golem.
In the ensuing centuries, the concept of the golem solidified as a creature whose animation depended upon the “holy letters” in physical contact with it—in a particular secret order. The golem also took on the character of a creature who could serve its creator in practical terms, but could also be vaporized by removal of the life-giving letter(s). Kabbalistic opinions on the nature of the golem—whether it could have power of speech or intellect—vary.
By the 17th century, golem legends were commonly known, and they had certain features in common:
The most recent and best-known golem legend is connected to 16th-century Prague, where the fashioning of the creature is ascribed to Rabbi Judah Lowe ben B’zallel, known as the Maharal. The Prague legend has no historical basis vis-à-vis the Maharal. The story developed only after his death, and according to some estimates, its attribution was transferred from Elijah of Chelm to the Maharal possibly as late as the second half of the 18th century. Later golem legends endowed the creature with powers of protecting Jews from persecution—especially from the fallout of accusations of ritual murder. But that role is an invention of the modern era.
The Prague golem was said to have been fashioned out of clay, into which the Divine tetragram was inserted—making it obedient to the Maharal’s will. Eventually it grew to menace the entire city and turned its destructive force on the very people it was supposed to protect. The Maharal was thus forced to destroy it. The Prague legend has inspired plays, ballets, poetry, novels, abstract compositions, films—and operas.
Ellstein’s opera is based on the play of the same title (1921) by the Yiddish dramatist and writer H. [Halpern] Leivick (1886–1962), which was produced initially in Hebrew, in Moscow, by Habima. A studio of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, Habima is regarded as the foundation for modern professional Hebrew theater, and it later became the National Theatre of Israel. Ellstein’s opera was a close collaboration with his wife, playwright Sylvia Regan, who wrote the libretto to Joseph Buloff’s adaptation of Leivick’s play. In creating her libretto, Regan did not confine herself strictly to Leivick’s play. Together with Ellstein, she scoured many other sources for variant golem legends, eventually incorporating some of those elements in a composite product.
In determining his musical approach, Ellstein realized that much of what was popularly considered “traditional Jewish music” in America—Hassidic-type tunes, klezmer band inflections, eastern European modes and motifs, Yiddish folksong, and cantorial chant—is in fact of relatively recent origin, dating to the 19th century with sometimes wishful perceptions of greater age. He became convinced that those musical elements could not appropriately express a 16th-century story with medieval roots. Therefore he chose instead to rely—albeit very conservatively—on 20th-century techniques and harmonic idioms as a more universal approach.
In the first act the Maharal creates the golem by deciphering mystical formulas in the Kabbala and deriving God’s preeminent name (shem ham’forash), believed to be the secret of all creation, and then injecting it into the skull of the clay creature in order to animate it and enable it to protect Prague’s Jews against their persecutors. Soon afterward, the Maharal is warned that a fanatic monk, Tadeus, is preparing to launch a new “blood libel” and ritual-murder accusation against the Jews by planting as evidence the corpse of a murdered Christian child. That infamous “blood libel,” which surfaced periodically in Europe from the time of the Middle Ages even into the 20th century, maintained that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in the preparation of matza for Passover. The death or even disappearance of a Christian child could instantly provoke a pogrom leading to wholesale slaughter of Jewish communities. In an attempt to forestall such an event, the Maharal decides to use his newly created golem rather than to rely on the conventional paths of beseeching God through fasting and prayer.
In the single-scene second act, only the finale of which is recorded here, the golem almost evokes sympathy as a lonely and shunned creature with no consciousness of its identity. But hints and warnings of its darker side begin to emerge and will play out in the third act, when the golem develops powers too great for the Maharal to control, becomes confused and bewildered, turns on the Jews and commits murder, and must be destroyed by its creator.
The scene here takes place just outside the Prague ghetto in a desolate, ruined castle inhabited by the city’s Jewish beggars—who chase and mock the golem. As this excerpt begins, the Maharal has just emerged from a vision in which Elijah the Prophet has appeared in disguise and offered to usher in the Messiah. The Messiah, however, would be able to raise the dead, but not prevent Tadeus’s murder of the Christian child or the ensuing massacre of Jews. The Maharal has therefore declined Elijah’s offer, rejecting dependence on messianic redemption in favor of the golem’s protection, choosing strength over supplication.
The golem enters and pleads with the Maharal to help him in his existential crisis: “Why did you bring me here to be alone, always alone?” The Maharal explains that the golem’s mission is to wait alone until needed. After the Maharal ascends to the castle’s tower, his orphaned granddaughter, Debora, appears in search of him. The golem asks her, too, for help in understanding his identity, and he wonders why the townspeople chase him and call him a “golem.” When he resists her explanation that people simply fear strangers, she concludes that the golem, too, must be an orphan, because he neither recalls his parents nor even knows what parents are. Momentarily appeased, the golem assumes that Debora must suffer from similar loneliness. But she explains that her mood is the opposite, especially in anticipation of her impending marriage, and she invites the golem to her wedding. Since the golem has no idea what a wedding is—nor of anything else human or earthly—Debora demonstrates typical wedding joy by dancing, and the golem begins to dance with her. As he gets carried away, he pulls her into a violent embrace, and she struggles in his grasp. Hearing her screams, the Maharal and his disciples—Isaac and Debora’s betrothed, Yaakov—rush to her aid. Furious that the golem has touched his bride, and foreseeing the eventual danger of its power, Yaakov warns the Maharal: “He is evil, Rabbi—put an end to him before he puts an end to us.”
The Maharal, however, merely reprimands the golem for its inadvertent excess and aggression, and reveals to it the purpose of its existence. He asks God to bestow supernatural powers on the golem so that it will be able to “see all without being seen.” He then hypnotizes the golem and—without telling it of Tadeus’s scheme—instructs it to discover and reveal any secret plans of the Jews’ enemies. With its newfound clairvoyance, the golem foresees the murder of a child, its corpse hidden in two sacks that have been planted as culpatory evidence in a tunnel under the castle. The Maharal realizes that his prayer has been granted: the golem has been endowed with the requested powers. He instructs it to retrieve those sacks—i.e., to prevent the blood-libel accusation, or perhaps the entire incident, in advance. As the golem disappears into a cloud to do the Maharal’s bidding, the Maharal rejoices in triumph over the success of his newest creation: a golem that not only has life but also obeys his commands in the service of Jewish protection: “A miracle blessed by Thy holy Name, O God!”
(Act II - Finale)
Libretto by Abraham Ellstein and Sylvia Regan
Based on a story by Halpern Leivick, adapted by Joseph Buloff
MAHARAL [Comes out of trance]
He is gone. I have driven him out, and with him the long, sweet dream of all my fathers. Now am I free at last to do what must be done.
[The Golem enters. Maharal addresses him.]
I go to the top of the tower. Wait here for my return.
Do not leave me. Stay, Rabbi, stay. [beseechingly] Speak to me—tell me, Rabbi, who am I? What am I? Why do I feel closer to earth and worms than people? Why did you bring me here to be alone, always alone?
That is as it must be, Yosef. Your entire life is but a waiting expectation for the moment when I shall need you. Only then will you understand the meaning of your aloneness.
[Maharal slowly starts to ascend stairs. The Golem sits waiting.]
[exits into tower]
DEBORA [from a distance]
Grandfather, Grandfather, if you are within sound of my voice, answer me.
[The Golem moves from the ruins toward Debora.]
Grandfather, answer me. Oh!
[Frightened by the giant figure in the semidarkness, then recognizes the Golem with relief.]
It is you. Have you seen the rabbi? It is long past evening prayer, and we have not seen him since early morning.
The rabbi is there. [points]
At the top of the tower? Why would he be there?
I do not know. I only know, I wait for him; always I wait for him. [slowly, childlike] Tell me, when you look at me, what do you see?
I see Yosef the woodchopper; I see Yosef the water carrier.
I know I am Yosef, but who is Yosef? If I am Yosef, why do people chase me and call me Golem?
You are a stranger from a faraway place. It is the old, old fear in them—the fear of strangers.
What is stranger? Where is far away? Who was I before I came here?
DEBORA [with pity]
Poor, unhappy soul, do you remember nothing? Not your mother? Your father?
What is mother? What is father?
You never knew them, as I never knew mine. Now I can tell you who you are: you are what I am, an orphan.
We are alike, you and I.
You are also a poor, unhappy soul? Alone, always alone?
Oh, no, I am not alone. I have happiness to spare, and I will share it with you when I become Yaakov’s bride.
You will be a guest at my wedding.
Wedding? What is wedding?
A wedding is a uniting of two souls pledged to each other in heaven long before they were born. There will be joy and celebration when we plight our troth beneath the open sky under a canopy of stars. Fiddlers will play happy music all through the night. There will be singing. There will be dancing. Do you know how to sing? Do you know how to dance? Do you know how to receive a bridegroom in a circle of lighted candles and drink his health with wine?
Wine, wine, what is wine?
DEBORA [pulls red kerchief from her neck, waving it]
Wine is the essence of goodness, sparkling red as this kerchief, warm and sweet to the lips. As bread sustains the heart of man, wine makes his spirits rejoice.
Wine makes you sing; wine makes you dance. The fiddlers play louder.
Sing, dance, louder!
Arms spread out like wings. [moving her arms in rhythm] Feet fly faster. Round and round they go.
Like wings! Faster! Round and round they go!
[Debora circles, kerchief in hand. As she gets closer to the Golem, he grabs the other end of the kerchief and moves with her. As he gets carried away, the Golem pulls Debora into a violent embrace. Debora screams, struggling in the Golem’s grasp.]
Let me go! Let me go! Grandfather!
[Overhearing her cries, the Maharal, Yaakov, and Isaac have run downstairs.]
Golem! [He lunges at the Golem and is restrained byvIsaac.]
I am not a Golem. I am an orphan.
You are nothing human! You were sired by a prayer and mothered by a stone.
He is evil, Rabbi. Drive him away or put an end to him before he puts an end to us.
Quiet! [to Debora] Go, child, go. Yaakov and Isaac will lead you home.
[Debora, Yaakov, Isaac exit.]
[fiercely, with staff raised over the cowering Golem]: The terror you have provoked still whirls about your head, and you stand rigid as a rock, not seeing me near you. Raise your eyes so I may look into them! [The Golem raises his head.] The odor of rotting clay is still heard from your breath and already possessed of all human frailties. Have all my prayers to the Almighty brought forth only weak, vile flesh?
Rabbi, she was near, telling me of joy—wedding, wine, dancing. Under my feet the earth began to tremble. A hand seized me, flung me high out of the darkness into light. [drops to the Maharal’s feet, pleading] Rabbi, Rabbi, do not drive me away.
MAHARAL [looking heavenward, hand on the Golem’s head]
You have sent a servant to help us who is himself helpless. Have mercy on us and help us both.
[commandingly, hypnotically] Listen, Yosef, and listen well. Your waiting is over. The moment of expectation is upon us as I prepare you for your first mission. You will lie down now, stretch yourself in your full length.
[The Golem stretches out on the ground.]
What will you do with me, Rabbi?
I will reveal to you your true face—the meaning of your existence. With tears and with pain have I implored the Almighty to give you miraculous powers that you would scent the spirits from the most distant winds—that your body will penetrate fathoms deep and would not burn in fire nor drown in water. That you would be translucent as air—see all without being seen.
GOLEM [struggling against the hypnotic spell]
For you, distance and depth are but a step, a leap, a glance, and thus as our enemies move against us, you will trespass their hidden paths to bring salvation to my afflicted people.
GOLEM [in a trance]
Your eyes are closed; your body sleeps. You will hear all, see all—and that which is revealed to you, you will reveal to me.
I hear. I hear the murmur of roots under earth as footsteps hurry over them.
Follow those footsteps.
I see. I see men like shadows moving through blackness. I see a knife.
I hear a cry—the last breathless cry of a child.
Father in heaven, the child is dead.
I see a path deep under the earth, dark and narrow.
I see two sacks.
Too well do I know their contents. Listen now to a word which I shall tell you. A word to make the heart tremble. The word is blood.
I command you now, using all your powers to terrify: get those sacks and bring them to me!
I see, I see a face. It stares at me. It is my face. Now a body hovers over me on wings. [He extends his arms.]
As your unseen spirit spreads its sheltering wings over you—rise now and go! Do not look back. Power is yours!
[A huge cloud arises. When it clears, the Golem has disappeared. The sky above the ruins is now black with clouds. The wind blows fiercely, auguring a coming storm.]
A miracle, a miracle—blessed be Thy Holy Name, O God!
Publisher: EMI Mills Music, Inc.