Our neigbors the Friedmans were the only Jewish family for miles around. Because I was “the heathen boy” and smart enough to pass for Jewish, I ran free on the Friedmans’ house and grounds. I ate at their table sometimes and learned the mysteries of Hannukah; I frolicked with their two daughters and a fine collie dog; and I enjoyed the company of Marilyn, a year my elder, and well-read in Jules Verne novels and DC comics. She borrowed my Superman comics, and I read her Wonder Woman and Archie comics, although I would have blushed to have had another boy see me reading Wonder Woman. Boys and girls lived in separate worlds.
One early-summer day with Marilyn, we played in the cedar and pine trees that fringed their leaf-clogged, empty swimming pool. We unwound an endless ball of packing twine around the spindly trees: not spider webs, but corridors and doorways, here a room, a closet there—in an almost clearing a wide space for a sunbeam-lit ballroom. Orb-spinning, we invented imaginary spaces. A hotel—we decreed it a hotel, “The Sunny-Day-Only.” The sleeping rooms and beds would be up above in tree-house heights to be scaled by ladders—we would handle that part when we were bigger and had carpenter tools.
As our fancy turned up to ziggurat heights and bird-nest bedding, we didn’t see the bearded, frowning Mennonite preacher until he was right upon us.
“Children!”he hailed us.
We didn’t answer.
He then asked if we believed in Jesus, who was up above the trees, and died so we could go to Heaven, too.
Up then went Marilyn’s defiant chin. “We’re Jewish.”
He looked at me, dubious. “And you?” he asked.
“I asked you a question, young man, What are you?” —
“I’ve never been in a church,” I told him.
A pine cone fell at his feet.
“Don’t you believe in anything?” he growled, now in a tone that said grownup-to-child, I-know-things-and-you-do-not.
“I believe in Superman, maybe,” I mocked him, and turned to resume my arbor-building.
Little did I know that about the worst thing you can do to a preacher is to shrug and turn your back on him. It cancels his entire universe.
The Mennonite left dumbfounded, his Anabaptist faith scorned by children stringing a maze in a Druid grove.
Our string hotel survived two nights, then vanished. We both stood, our fantasies erased.
“My mother told me the robins took it —” so Marilyn explained it, “ — for their nests.”
We both knew that Mothers did things on whim, especially when certain moods overtook them, and there was no questioning it. My mother had thrown away my geology collection, not wanting “those filthy rocks” in my attic bedroom. There were two aunts who actually chased their daughters around with butcher knives when they went into rages, and then an hour later would be smiling with fresh-baked gingerbread or a plate of fried green tomatoes.
Marilyn sighed. We knew we would never find a trove of twine like that again. “There’s plenty to do, anyway,” she assured me. “The guests are coming. It’s June now, and the swimming season starts tomorrow.”
The season, as we all came to know it, was at the Friedmans’ immense swimming pool; by June’s end the aquatic population swelled to half a hundred guests, from wading toddlers to aquatic teens, babies in prams to motionless elders, umbrella-tabled at the green-blue pool. Their guests were Jews from counties around. (It was beyond children’s understanding that public pools and country clubs were closed to Jews, and that the Friedman’s hospitality was a social lifeline.)
That afternoon, indoors, we played at cards — an outsize canasta with twenty decks, which drew a great shriek from Mrs. Friedman as she came home with the month’s vast larder of picnic food and frozen lemonade. “People are coming! People! Ladies who want to play canasta, and there you two go mixing up all those decks!”
Our task was re-separate and sort the decks and stack them up in a neat pyramid. These rumpled cards had seen many summers beneath the gaze of hawk-eyed ladies’ enthroned and clucking at their poolside card tables. The cards would doubtless outlive some of them.
Scores would be there by shimmering August, the men apart from the women, a cloud
of cigarettes where they leaned together and worried over business and politics. Children in bathing suits would run to and from the house, wet trails and footprints to and from the bathrooms, the sinks, the freezer. The previous summer, I was asked to take ice or a pitcher to one of the tables there, where I learned one should never swim just after eating, heard tales of drowning, worries about the unfortunates who got polio, and Mrs. Friedman’s oft-repeated fretting about one bad boy who peed in the pool, (never enough chlorine when that occurred).
The men talked of other things I knew nothing of, some in a language I did not understand that was German and not-German at the same time.
I was surprised when it passed noon, and no one had arrived. By now, there should have been big cars in the driveway and the shouts of mothers and small children.
Marilyn explained: “The season really starts next week, you see. Next week. Mother has asked everyone to come over today to help.”
Over the sink, her back to us, Mrs. Friedman elaborated:“ The pool needs to be cleaned. The cobwebbed furniture must be wiped down. Spiders everywhere — we cannot have that. Dead leaves, dog poop and pine cones everywhere.”
Marilyn whispered: “We’ll see if anyone shows up.” —
“Won’t they?” I asked. —
“Not one. And my mother will be furious.”
Card sorting done, we went back to our comic books. The day waned and one car only came up the lane and parked. All day we made filled and stacked ice trays in the freezer for grape juice and lemonade. Sandwiches were made, and snacks put out. Squirrels came to the windows expectantly, birds chirped in anticipation of the crowd, the crumbs, the leavings.
I lingered for dinner as the unassisted Mrs. Friedman seethed on, serving cold plates with embarrassment and anger.
The dinner guest was new, a stranger, a bearded, calm man in a business suit they called Rabbi. His voice was deep, and with a foreign sound I could not place.
“Rabbi Doctor Baruch,” they said I should call him.
Already he knew my name, and turning, he said: “And you are the little boy who is not Jewish
who made string Stars of David all over the porch last December
“I blushed, recalling Mrs. Friedman’s horror at finding her decorated house-front.
“He felt sorry for us,” Mr. Friedman offered up, “because we had no Christmas ornaments outside.”
They all laughed heartily. Still no one would tell me why my six-pointed ornaments had been torn down with such speed and alarm. “Anyone driving by,” was all that Marilyn’s mother said, “they could see.”
“But Rabbi,” Mr. Friedman continued, “I know you wanted to meet our friends.”
The rabbi shrugged.
“You call those friends?” Mr. Friedman objected. “All summer long they come here, they use the pool, we feed them, and pretend to laugh at their worn-out humor. And all this work, for what? I could be listening to the opera on the radio. Not one of them will come and help us clean the pool!”
“So, next week I can come back,” the Rabbi offered. “All of us need to help Jews get out of Russia. First Stalin was killing us all over again, and now his heir, that smiling thug Khrushchev.”
Mrs. Friedman had other worries: “So who’s going to clean the pool? Not you, Rabbi! Shame on us if it came to that.”
Mr. Friedman fussed with his sandwich and fork in embarrassment.
Silence and shadow-blink of a passing cloud held us.
The Rabbi’s long-fingered hands passed, twirling circles twice in his dark beard, as though he had to consult it, then, with one hand extended palm up he asked her, “Mrs. Friedman, you want I should make a Golem?”
Mouths opened wide, eyes wider.
Even I knew what a Golem was. It was in the monster comics, and in the books on alchemy I had found in the local druggist’s trash.
“A Golem,” Mrs. Friedman gulped. “Would it — could it — ”
“Anything you want done, it can do. It’s not an easy thing, and I need not say
that no one should know afterwards. I am from Poland, and I have been to Prague, where such things are done.”
The Rabbi turned an intense gaze on me.
“Boy, you are not Jewish?”—
“No, Rabbi, I’m not.” —
“You are not Christian?” —
“No, I’m not.” —
“Not even a tiny bit?” —
“I went two weeks to Bible School. They asked me not to come back.” —
“So, you are not a Christian. Swear it.” —
I cleared my throat. Whatever this was, I had to be in on it.
“I swear I am not a Christian.” —
I knew what that was from movies.
“No, never baptized.” —
“Very well. You will be my assistant. At ten o’clock, you come to the swimming pool. Tell no one.”
I beamed from ear to ear. “I’ll be there. I promise.”
This was better than Christmas morning. A Golem. A Golem.
They sent me home. I crept to my bedroom. A flashlight and comics would keep me awake.
At ten, I ran alongside the Friedman house. Two cars’ headlights full beamed on the swimming pool. The Rabbi and Mr. Friedman were up the slope that led to the scant woods above the property. They stooped and touched bare ground.
“Strange clay, not like back home, but it will do,” our sorcerer intoned, as with a walking stick he outlined the lumpy shape of a man on the bare and eroded clay hillside, a place I knew, where owls and wild turkeys lurked among the shrubs and saplings.
He passed his cane from hand to hand, and uttered a prayer we could not-quite hear — it seemed to hover an inch from his beard like a will o’the wisp — a prayer not meant for human ears but for spirits
And the shape he had outlined stood, and separated itself from the yellow clay bank. It stood. It shook itself free of dust and tiny stones and tree-roots. It stood, and moved no further, inert as a sculptor’s first molding. It was a lump with but a hint of legs, arm-like extrusions bent at the elbow and a great square head, two holes where eyes should have been and a mouth-gap the size of a road-side mailbox.
Mr. Friedman pulled back in terror.
“I thought you were joking. I never thought. My god, I never thought —”
Before I could react, the Rabbi had lifted me, and, placing a folded ribbon of paper into my tiny hand, he put me up on the Golem’s forearm.
“Put the paper in the Golem’s mouth. Only then will he move and obey our orders.”
I started to raise my left hand to the horizontal gape that was the Golem’s mouth. His beard brushed my ear as he whispered, “Do not, under any circumstances, look into the Golem’s eyes.” —
“And what would happen, Rabbi?” —
“You would see things no one was meant to see and live. Just do as I ask and no more, and you will be safe, and blessed.”
My head averted, I found the mouth by touch and slid the paper in.
There came a groan, as low as a tuba in a passing parade, no, low as the bass drum that rattles your stomach in passing, and then I was standing, the Rabbi’s hand atop my head for the longest time until he let me go.
We saw the Golem in silhouette first as the great shape lumbered to the lit-up pool. And so, with broom and mop and cleaning compounds, the hulking thing descended the shallow-end stairs into the vacant pool, as Mrs. Friedman, at ease as though a local workman were there before her, paced round the pool and gave out orders.
“Sweep there, no, higher up … you missed a spot … Do that part over … Stains, there on the deep end.”
How long this took, I cannot recall. Marilyn saw some of it from her bedroom window, just lights and a shape in silhouette and her mother going this way, that way waving her arms in command. (Her little sister, sent to bed early, saw nothing.)
The pool was filled, the last leaves swept into heaps to be bagged and carted.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Friedman argued. She wanted more done, but the men were nervous. Cars might come along Kingview Road. So far, not one had passed.
What they knew, and I did not, was a threat. There was that house, at hilltop, whose windows frowned down on all their summers, a house that just a dozen years back had hosted a rally of sheeted rioters. Once, so it was told, some thirty thousand Klansmen poured into town to terrify the Catholics. Catholics then, but now the Jews and Negroes. You worried about groups of men riding on the back of a pickup truck up to no good on a Saturday night.
The moonless night blazed with stars.
Shapes, human and not, moved in and out of the headlamps as the Golem swept, and scrubbed,
and swept again. At the end of it all, the Golem returned to the edge of the wood.
All looked with relief at the still-black windows of the big white house on the hill. No light had come on up there. No one had seen us.
Then I was raised once more to retrieve the undecipherable scroll that I knew, but did not tell them that I knew, read Emet, the word for Truth. The clay mouth was wider, deeper than when the Golem was made, wide enough for a small boy to fall in and be devoured.
“Go on!” the Rabbi chided me. “He cannot bite. He has no teeth. Just find the paper.”
I reached, back till my elbow was wet with clay. He smelled now of chlorine and year-old leaves. I found it. My fingers closed around it.
My head went back. My eyes gazed straight into the emerald furnaces of the Golem’s still-living orbs.
And I saw everything — a high-domed palace of giants, packed to the walls, a legion of lumbering Golem shapes impatient to be born from a place of good deeds unbidden, of help that could have come, but never came — the nullity of unworked magic and failed alchemy.
I saw new kinds of geometry — triangles unnamable through which the news of past and future calamities flies like telegraphy, most sent to wrong recipients, and read too late — how triangles, upward and downward formed openings; how, spun, they formed vast polyhedrous entities whose facets were the insides of never-opened geodes, arched around gateways of onyx and adamantine —
A mentor of fire and ice showed me vectors of force and how to form and shape them from nothing but will, nudged by the extra eye in forehead’s center into a brooding shape of inward angles then up and out bat-winged hurled down as a smiting force upon the smiters —
oh, what might I was shown!
Power I saw, but not compassion, a dark, cold cavern despite the light of whirling wish-forms and the firefly storm of eyes the color of emeralds.
Then, I think I fainted. The Rabbi, the Friedmans stood in a circle around me. A cold cloth was on my forehead.
“Thank God,” said Mrs. Friedman. “We don’t have to call an ambulance.”
The Rabbi leaned down and hissed in my ear: “Did you see? Did you see?”
I dared not smile, despite the exultant knowledge that flooded over me.
“I saw,” I answered simply.
He paused, eyes shining.
“I saw … everything.”
He raised his hands in horror, then waved two counter-circles above my head as if to cut a cord above me.
I went back home. I added the Hebrew-lettered paper to my alchemical loose-leaf scrapbook, Golem marked off between “Frankenstein” and “Mummies.”
I had an ovoid sandstone warm in the palm — the only survivor of my mother’s geological holocaust — that I dubbed “The Philosopher’s Stone.” I thought it would help make little Golems I’d shape one day.
The following week the Rabbi returned on his fund-raising mission. He ignored me as I carried ice and card decks to the women’s tables, the darting eyes of Mrs. Friedman said Don’t you dare tell.
I stood off in the pines to watch. The women sunbathed and played at cards. The shirt-sleeved men kept apart as one by one they came to the Rabbi’s table and passed him envelopes, a stack before him by the end of the afternoon. They had done their part against Krushchev.
He watched them. He watched them watching as one another’s wives dived in to the deep end of the swimming pool. His back was to the women, not to be tempted, no doubt.
After one walk uphill to the clay bank — just to be sure it had resumed its previous state, I guessed — he went to his car. I waved.
I think he saw me. I think a slight nod was his only thank-you. I was the clay he could not put back from where it came.
Not to worry, Rabbi. I am still not a Christian. But your protective spell worked, for I forgot all of this until it came roaring back half a century later in a dream. The memories leaked out of me like grains in an hourglass, but something out there in that other dimension flipped the mechanism, and the memories are fresh again.
And there was more, Rabbi, for the Golem told me to tell you something:
A hammer is as nothing
without a hand to wield it.
A hand is as nothing
without a mind to guide it.
A mind is as nothing
without the will to drive it.
The will is as nothing
without the gift of knowing.
Knowing is as nothing
without the love that burns
at the core of the never-dying stars:
love of what was, love of what is,
love of what can be.
(The Golem’s message in Yiddish)
A hamer iz gornist
oyb es felt im a hant
im tsu haltn.
A hant iz gornisht
oyb es felt ir a moyekh
ir tsu firn.
Der moyekh iz gornisht
oyb es felt im dos viln
im tsu traybn.
Der viln iz gornisht
oyb es felt es di matone
Dos visn iz gornisht
on di libshaft vos brent
in di hertser fun di umstarbike shtern:
libshaft fun dem vos iz,
libshaft fun dem vos iz geven,
libshaft fun dem vos ken zayn.