The Golem Revamps Jewish Horror

Hello, everyone! When I think about Jewish centric films, the movies that come to mind explore the trauma and violence of the historical Jewish experience. As a Jewish woman, I’ve always been a little bothered by the fact that the majority of American movies with Jewish characters focus only on portraying Jews as passive victims. Movies like Fiddler on the Roof, which sets a vibrant musical against the horrors of Russian pogroms, or the countless Holocaust films like Schindler’s List and The Devil’s Arithmetic which detail the horrific brutality done to Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Although the Jewish characters in these films are strong and charismatic, they are almost always reduced to victimhood, powerless to combat the far more powerful people that work to destroy them.

The Golem, an Israeli-American horror film that debuted on Netflix last month, aims to change that narrative. Original, haunting, and emotionally nuanced, The Golem may begin in a world that viewers are familiar with, but it soon challenges that story by providing a fresh perspective on the victimization and suffering of the Jewish people.

Synopsis: Set in 17th century Lithuania, The Golem follows the story of Hanna, a learned woman whose husband helps her read the texts of the Kabbalah in secret while the other men in the village study the Torah. Hanna’s husband desperately wants another child after losing their son seven years before, but Hanna secretly uses preventive herbs to keep from becoming pregnant. During Hanna’s sister’s wedding, the isolated Jewish village is invaded by a group of Russian men who blame the villagers for spreading the plague and threaten to raze their town if they do not heal one man’s sick daughter. The Rabbi refuses to fight and insists on praying, but Hanna knows that the only the way to save their town is through more insidious means. She raises a Golem, a protector made of mud and the secret name of God, to save their village. But the Golem, who appears in the form of a young boy, is not the protector she expects. As the Golem grows more unpredictable, and the Russians grow more violent, Hanna must choose between her love for the Golem and the safety of the village.

My take: Directed by Israeli brothers Doron and Yoav Paz, The Golem strays away from easy jump scares and gross-out gore and relies on a slow-moving, emotionally haunting plot to bolster the film. Many horror movies fail to develop their characters, but the central couple Hanna and Benjamin carry the film with their subtle portrayals of a relationship stricken by grief and unfulfilled expectations. Benjamin is a traditional Jewish man, well-versed in the Torah and a provider for his family, but he is also shown to be a generous and loving husband. He refuses to “cast away” Hanna for failing to bring him a child, even though his father, the rabbi, reminds him that he is within his rights to do so. He also rebels against the strict gender divide by letting his wife study the Torah and learn about Kabbalah. Hanna, however, is something of an enigma from the beginning. While the other female characters in the film are paragons of Jewish womanhood, taking care of their children and bringing their men lunch during Torah study, Hanna defies her gender’s stereotypes to secretly learn the Torah and deliberately prevents her own pregnancy. Her motivation for deceiving her husband is not immediately revealed, and in any other film it would be easy for the directors to demonize her. The Golem is not that type of film. Every character in this movie is drawn in shades of gray.

As often happens in horror movies, it’s the most unconventional character who is tasked with making the hard decisions. The directors use  the conventionality of Jewish history to their advantage as a kind of subtle foreshadowing. When the rabbi begs the men of the village to refrain from fighting their invaders with violence, viewers know that this peaceful resistance can only lead to decimation. I enjoyed the fact that the Paz brothers set the film in a lesser known period of history to demonstrate that the themes of Jewish vilification have existed long before the Holocaust. During the Black Plague many Jewish towns, spared from the disease due to their isolation and the frequent bathing inherent in Judaism, were made into scapegoats by those affected and massacred. Setting a micro-version of that story in a small Jewish town in Lithuania shows us that these themes are destined to be repeated. We know what will happen to Hanna’s town if she does not find a way to protect it, and thus we can empathize with her even as her decision places the town in a new kind of danger.

The most fascinating theme in the film is the conflict between creation and destruction. Many horror films revolve around the loss of children, but The Golem examines that theme through the lens of a strict Old-Testament society. As a woman, Hanna’s primary role is to bear children for her husband, but she is so stricken by grief at the loss of her son that she cannot face having another child. However, her role as a giver of life is so ingrained in Jewish society that if she reveals her true reason for preventing her pregnancy, she would be vilified and her husband would leave her. Her attempts to create in other ways are ignored by the men in her town, such as when she suggests raising a Golem for protection. None of the men believe that she has the knowledge or power to raise a Golem and refuse to believe that a woman can create outside of the typical boundaries of childbirth.

Yet it’s the biblical nature of the woman, the life-giver, that allows Hanna to raise the Golem and control it. The Paz brothers draw on the biblical connection between womanhood and creation and extend it to womanhood and destruction. It is only Hanna who can choose to give her husband a child, or choose to prevent the child from growing. It is only Hanna who can raise the Golem, and Hanna who can make it kill, or kill it herself. While the men in the film pray for salvation, Hanna takes salvation into her own hands as only she can.

Unlike a child, however, the Golem’s main purpose is to destroy. As the wise woman Perla warns Hanna early in the film, the Golem has no heart or soul. It destroys indiscriminately, a fact Hanna soon realizes when she sees the Golem kill an innocent woman in the town. What Hanna doesn’t realize is that the Golem is as much a part of her as her own child. Instead of being made from her flesh and blood, it is created from her  pain. The Golem is a physical expression of Hanna’s rage and frustration, her powerlessness as a woman, and her grief as a bereft mother. When she needs protection, it protects, but when she needs vengeance, it provides that, too. We can finds the seeds of the “nature vs. nurture” question in Hanna’s relationship with the Golem. As a giver of life, Hanna’s duty is to create, but how does her duty shift when her creation is destructive? If she kills her Golem, is she going against her nature as a creator? Or did she accomplish that by creating the Golem in the first place?

The ethics of creation is at the heart of The Golem. Motherhood is humanity’s most concrete act of creation. As a mother, Hanna was powerless to save her own flesh and blood, but as the creator of the Golem, Hanna has the power to choose whether her creation lives or dies. By examining these ideas, the film provides a surprisingly meaningful twist on traditional Jewish theology. Throughout the many horrors of Jewish history, the Jews have usually relied on God for their salvation, which for the most part led to their destruction. Here Hanna defies that tradition and takes her salvation into her own hands. She defies God’s mandate to be a creator of life and instead becomes a creator of death, as well as becoming a destroyer of creation. In the span of 90 minutes, and in the context of an insignificant horror movie, The Golem ponders some of the essential elements of Jewish theology. That, to me, is what makes the film so powerful.

In terms of scares, The Golem is pretty tame. There is gore and violence, but it’s done tastefully. The cinematography is beautiful and restrained for a horror film. And the acting is top notch. I’ve never seen actors Hani Furstenberg or Ishai Golan in any other films, but they’re both superb in their roles.

Overall, The Golem is a Netflix hidden gem. I was not expecting such a moving and haunting take on Jewish theology in a horror film. It is sophisticated, well-written, and sheds a new light on the contemporary narrative of passive Jewish victimhood. I hope to see more Jewish-centric stories that move beyond Holocaust films and dare to give more complexity to Judaism. Jews may have been victims in history, but they were also warriors and survivors. I’m glad we are finally seeing American movies that allow this nuance to be shown.

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