The Real Golems of Prague: interview with Kenneth Wishnia
I had the great pleasure of meeting author Kenneth Wishnia at the Jewish Book Council’s Meet the Author event. We had a great time discussing Hasidic mystics, the places in history where much of traditional epic fantasy comes from, and (best of all!) golems. I love me my golems, and thought I would bring you some highlights of our discussion. Here Ken talks about his new release THE FIFTH SERVANT (which I have just started reading and is *fantastic*).
Without further ado, here is Kenneth Wishnia and THE FIFTH SERVANT!
Life in central Europe during the 16th century was daunting, especially for the Jews of Prague. Forced by papal decree to live within a walled ghetto, Jews were relatively safe from Christian persecution—but not for long. On the eve of Passover in 1592, a young Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish shop, causing panic for Christians and Jews alike. The Jews are accused of stealing the girl’s blood, a crime that threatens to remove what little security and freedom they have. Recently arrived from Poland, the rabbi’s new sexton, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, is given three days by the Jewish authorities to find the real killer, or the entire Jewish population could face annihilation. Verdict: This fast-paced historical from Edgar nominee Wishnia (23 Shades of Black) combines scholarly historical details that bring the 16th century alive with believable characters and a compelling mystery. Highly recommended for mystery lovers and fans of historical fiction.” — LIBRARY JOURNAL (Starred Review)
An extraordinary novel. – Sara Paretsky
Please tell us more about The Fifth Servant, including the historical background that inspired it.
Like a lot of lunatics–I mean, writers–I went through a period of fascination with the magical medieval worlds of Tolkien, LeGuin, the Book of Kells, etc. Then I discovered Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Sholem, which opened up a whole new world of uniquely Jewish approaches to the metaphysical and supernatural for me. This led to many more books and articles on the topic.
My original plan was to set The Fifth Servant earlier in the Middle Ages, like the 14th century, when the battle lines would have been much more clearly drawn: Jews vs. Christians, us vs. them, good vs. evil, etc. But as I did more research, the Renaissance began to present many more ambiguities and complexities. A lot of the hatred toward Jews shifts from pure racism (“They’re the spawn of Satan who have to wear hats to cover their horns”) to economics (“Gee, I don’t feel like paying back the 500 gold pieces I borrowed from Mordecai last week, so let’s burn down his shop”).
I chose the year 1592 because the great Rabbi Judah Loew (of the Golem legends) was active in Prague at the time, and because the people were on the cusp of modernity, but they weren’t there yet. There are always a lot of interesting dramatic possibilities in a time of great upheaval
What kind of research did you do to make the world of your book come alive?
Tons. Since my characters would have had the Torah memorized by age 6, the Mishnah at 10 and the Talmud at 15, I had to study a lot of traditional Jewish knowledge.
I also read general European history (e.g., the Catholic Counter-Reformation), Czech history (I had to read 3 books about Emperor Rudolph II just to get his character right for a single 10-page scene), and dozens of articles about such topics as witchcraft, herbal healing, 16th-century clocks, the development of wheel-lock pistol technology, etc. Once you’re onto a topic, almost everything you read gives you some ideas, even if you end up not using a lot of them.
We’re starting to see golems appear again in fiction these days. Did the golem legends originate in Prague? Can you describe them to us?
The earliest references to mystical rabbis creating life are in the Babylonian Talmud (cir. 5th century C.E.). Rava the Sage creates a man out of clay and sends him to Rabbi Zera, who tries to speak with him. When the clay man does not answer, Rabbi Zera says, “You are a creation of magic; return to your dust” (Sanhedrin, 65b).
The same source tells us that Rav Hanina and Rav Oshaya got together every Sabbath eve to study the Sefer Yetzira (the “Book of Creation,” compiled between the 3-6th centuries C.E.) and created a three-year-old calf, which they then ate. [Insert Homer Simpson voice: “Mmm. Golem calf. (Drool...)”]
Moses Cordovero (1522-70) wrote that man can only give “vitality” to the Golem, but not life (nefesh), spirit (ru’akh), or soul (neshamah), and specific legends about the Golem (and his destructive powers) first appear in connection with Rabbi Elijah of Chelm (d. 1583). The social upheaval of the 16th century seems partly responsible for the re-emergence of this idea.
The legends associating Rabbi Loew (c. 1525-1609) with the creation of a Golem to defend the Jews against ritual murder accusations began to emerge at least 150 years after his death.
What do you think is the appeal of golems? How do golems, or the legends of golems, play out in The Fifth Servant?
In terms of the Golem being a protector of the Jews, it’s clearly related to every wimpy kid’s fantasy of having a big, strong friend to defend him from schoolyard bullies.
But the more frightening aspect of an unstoppable, soulless creature that begins with the Golem has come down to us via such figures as the stone statue of the Commander who comes for his murderer, Don Juan; Victor Frankenstein’s famous, misunderstood creation; and most recently, the Terminator in all its forms.
The current resurgence of interest in the paranormal resembles the Romantic rejection of industrialization. The 19th and 20th century Golem figures are man-made and mechanical, products of misdirected science. The clay Golem is supernatural, created by manipulating the letters of God’s name and the letters in the Torah that God used to create the universe. He is brought to life not by an electrical storm, but by calling upon God’s power and writing “emes” (“truth” in Hebrew) on his forehead. It’s a return to the primordial sense of the magical power of words and writing.
Of course, my characters are primarily interested in manipulating Christian fears of Jewish magic, and they use the Golem legend to great effect.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I’ve wanted to do something like this since I was about 15 years old (see Tolkien, above). It just took a few decades to get good enough to do it justice.
Thank you so much Ken! Now I have visions of golems dancing in my head…
Here’s where you can get your own copy of THE FIFTH SERVANT:
Kenneth Wishnia was born in Hanover, N.H. to a roving band of traveling academics. He has lived and worked (and been chased by riot police) on three continents, including several years in Scotland, France and Ecuador. The urgent need for a day job forced him to earn a B.A. from Brown University (1982) and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from SUNY Stony Brook (1996). He teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Long Island, where he is an Associate Professor of English, and would like you to know that, despite all the crap ya gotta put up with, being a writer is a dream come true.
His first novel, 23 Shades of Black, was nominated for the Edgar and the Anthony Awards and made Booklist’s Best First Mystery list, and was followed by four other novels, including Soft Money, which Library Journal listed as one of the Best Mysteries of the Year, and Red House, which was a Washington Post Book World “Rave” Book of the Year in 2002. His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Murder in Vegas, Queens Noir, and elsewhere.
He has held many odd jobs over the years (simultaneous translator, carpenter, furniture builder and mover, rehearsal pianist, opera chorus singer, extra in film and TV, etc. You get the idea). He studied mime in Paris, taught English to the Ecuadorian Army, and worked in New York theatre for many years. He is married to a wonderful Catholic woman from Ecuador, and they have two children who are completely insane. Visit Kenneth on the web at www.kennethwishnia.com.