Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

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I have two inchoate strands of thought which I would like to disentangle.

One of them is about understanding what an adversary really thinks (as opposed to what they say).

The other is about antisemites‘ anti Zionists’ perception of British Jews’ relationship with Israel.

No one admits these days to being antisemitic – not even neonazis! I need another word; Judeosceptic comes to mind but anti Zionist is the word that anti Zionists are willing to own.

In olden times before social media, it seemed to me that I had no enemies and would halt over passages in the Psalms where David speaks of the foes who pursue him across Saul’s kingdom and into the land of the Philistines. Now that I read occasionally very disobliging comments about myself online, I can participate more fully in the sense of having enemies. This occurs in relation to my activity against antisemitism of the left, the right, and also the centre, when its walls get breached due to strong currents coming from right and left.

Apart from remarks about my ghostly appearance – always with an allusion to Lazarus of Bethany (John 11) – online antagonists attribute my stated opinions to a relationship with Israel which strikes me as so implausible that it is most likely not believed even by those who proclaim it.

A very common riposte to all who oppose antisemitism is ‘How much is Israel paying you?’ If asked that question this minute, I would answer, ‘How come you don’t know?’ We make jokes on the subject of our salaries from Israel, talk of cheques lost in the post, being paid in rugelach and so on. Essentially, the accusation that we are paid for activism is water of a duck’s (see below) back as it seems no one can take it seriously, not even the accuser. Even so, there is seldom a day, as I read the outpourings against Keir Starmer on Corbynist social media, when I do not see an allegation that he is paid by Israel and, as proof, a meme is presented showing Trevor Chinn’s £50,000 donation to Starmer’s leadership campaign. The fact that Sir Trevor Chinn is a British Jew and a philanthropist never arises. Synecdochally, he is Israel, as far as they are concerned. They do not draw the line at Sir Keir. David Lammy, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and many more MPs are named as the improbable recipients of Israel’s largesse.

The comrades who make these allegations – do they believe them or do they believe something else, more nuanced which is harder for them to express?

Do they believe that we have an emotional bond with Medinat Israel? That would be true of many of us, self included, but apparently not all. Jon Lansman, for example, the founder of Momentum and no Zionist, was accused of working in Israel’s interests when he complained of antisemitism in the Labour Party. David Baddiel, who famously disavowed enthusiasm for Israel, is targeted for his vocal opposition to antisemitism. He may not have a bond with Israel but he is connected to it, the connection being made almost invariably by his detractors.

I have written often on this blog about the use of articles and photos posted almost daily, sometimes more often than daily, on Corbynist forums, from various Palestinian presses or UK publications such as Electronic Intifada, Skwawkbox and The Canary. Typically, the photo will depict a child, crying or smiling. If the child is crying, the text explains that they are being terrorized by the IDF. If the child is smiling, the text reports that the child has been murdered by Israelis. The difficulty is that one cannot know the circumstances behind the photo.. Is the report truthful, the translation accurate? If, baruch Hashem, research shows that the child is alive , one can assume that reports of their murder are exaggerated. These pictures with their unreliable textual interpretations always trigger responses along the lines of ‘Murderers. Inhuman bastards. They learned everything they know from the nazis. Worse than nazis. If being against child murder makes me an antisemite, so be it. This is what Keith [sic.Their name for Keir Starmer] supports.’

Are the comments performative, to gain approval from the other comrades, or do they entirely believe what they are saying? Or do they just not think deeply about it? The remarks often strike me as unsophisticated, ill-informed and not entirely literate. The original posts and the articles tend to come from another demographic: politically active persons, dedicated to changing society which they perceive as being hamstrung by Zionist influence. Rarely would they speak of Jewish influence, preferring circumlocutions, including ‘Chosenites’ and ‘Paymasters’. Non-Zionist Jews are cited to show that the speaker is free from the taint of antisemitism: JVL, Jewdas, Neturei Karta, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and the late Gerald Kaufman. The comrades profess undying devotion to Miriam Margolyes. How could anyone so frank and uninhibited be suspected of self-promotion? The rest of us, including David Baddiel and John Lansman, are stigmatized as Zionists because we speak against left antisemitism – as well as the racism of the far right, which is acknowledged by all.

It seems that, whatever relationship we have with Israel, we cannot disconnect ourselves from it when we oppose Jew hate in the diaspora. Unfriendly first responders will say ‘What about Israel?’ A recent tweet of Tracy-Ann Oberman, referencing antisemitism she received after a television appearance, provoked references to Israel in nearly all of the hostile replies.

Professor David Miller of Bristol University has been in the news in recent weeks and has described the students in the University’s Jewish Society as ‘pawns of Israel’. I do not suppose he believes that they are getting coded Whats App messages from Mossad, at least, I hope not. I think he believes Bristol’s Jewish students are controlled by a complex, interconnected framework of influence, as shown in his map, featuring Jewish education, social care, media, business and prominent individuals – influencers. Behind it all: Israel. Neither do I think he believes we are all paid by Israel but that we have been worked on subliminally by Zionist powers. This is likely to cast someone like me as an influenced person as well as an aspiring influencer. The network of propaganda catches me in its web and I do its bidding.

There is always a question about the deterministic force of our background and situation in life but this is not something which applies only to Jew or only to Zionists.

Miller has gained support as his notoriety grows from the the very people who were the most vocal supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Jewdas, to be fair, have stood back from supporting him but Na’amod appear at this point to be largely in the Miller camp. I have not been able to find any statement about David Miller from Jon Lansman. Zog gornisht is probably the way forward there.

Do his supporters believe in a sinister, orchestrated network of Jewish organizations in the UK? I think they do. It is more subtle than the pay packet theory and probably harder to disprove.

What do the adversaries really believe? What did people really believe in medieval Lincoln and York, or in the service of Chmelnycki in the Ukraine or on Kristallnacht in Germany? Pass..

It was a person of great wisdom who said ‘If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.’

This is going to be a very short post. I’m not going to express opinions, just to use it as storage for the most recent rampant Jew hate I have seen on Corbynist forums (Someone out there is muttering ‘fora’ every time I say ‘forums’).

As Israel’s vaccine roll out has been a bit of a success story, the Corbynist comrades are beside themselves. But when have they ever been anywhere but beside themselves? They are distressed since Keir Starmer recruited an Israeli expert on cyber warfare, in a social media role. Taking their lead from Skwawkbox, Novara Media, The Canary and a variety of Middle Eastern presses, they declare that Keir Starmer is employing an Israeli spy.

As Kenneth Jones expresses it, on Jeremy Corbyn’s Socialist Forum, ‘Well Starmer, explain why you need a Jewish intelligence officer?’ In months gone by, someone would have counselled Kenneth, ‘Change Jewish to Zionist or the Zionists will weaponize it.’ They no longer bother. They know what they mean. We know what they mean.

The Dreyfus Affair kicked off when the French army found there was a spy in their ranks and assumed it must be none other than the Jew, Dreyfus. When Keir Starmer employs an Israeli, the Corbynists conclude, in a curious reversal, that he must be a spy.

I intended to add screen shots from January 2021 and leave it at that, but I have added and added until the present day and the post has become a dossier. Obviously there is more to be seen if you go to the Facebook forums:

Recognising Jeremy Corbyn’s Dedication to a Just Society

The Left Fights the Media

Jeremy Corbyn Should Have Been Prime Minister

Jeremy Corbyn’s Socialist Forum

Jeremy Corbyn – True Socialsim

Jewish (not likely!) Voice for Labour (also not likely)

We Support Jeremy Corbyn.

Indeed, any forum which exists to magnify and sanctify the name of Jeremy Corbyn will include hardcore antisemitism. I could add to the list Truthers Against Zionist Lobbies, but they seem to be in a depleted state, nearly all of their recent posts coming from group admins Rita Allison and Marino Robles.

Jew hate isn’t new; it isn’t even new in Labour. It is a hardy perennial, just now proliferating on the far left and the far right and perhaps spilling over a little into the areas in between.

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ. שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם

…in every generation, they stand against us to destroy us

But here we are and there are many indomitable friends who stand with us. Be strong and of good courage.

On 23rd January, the Israeli spy is still of paramount interest on the forums.

And still, they continue in the same vein.

And on the evening of 24 January, one subject absorbs the comrades on ‘Jeremy Corbyn Should Have Been Prime Minister’.

I did a key word search on the forums – fora if you insist, to see how frequently Myanmar got mentioned and if there were any posts about the Uyghars in China. Results varied. In some cases, they hadn’t been mentioned for the best part of a year but in one case, someone had posted just the day before about demonstrations in Myanmar against the recent coup. There were no comments but you can’t expect people to have an opinion about everything. When I typed Israel into the search field, it was like turning on a tap, on all the forums. How the comments flowed!

Am I wearing rose-coloured glasses, I sometimes wonder, when I look back at my working life, employed by a variety of booksellers, retail giants and small independents? Students and school leavers love to get jobs in book shops and there are many candidates for every vacancy, but the pay for an adult with a family is quite silly, even at management level.

I don’t miss the heavy work, lugging skips of books from floor to floor, the endless shelving or the fractious or patronizing customers who make up about 5% of the clientèle. I miss the cultural diversity and co-operation; Muslim colleagues explaining to me about the Hadith and Sufism and checking the Arabic text on my Ramadan posters; getting Caribbean recipes off of colleagues; discussing bible translations with a bookseller who was also a church deacon and making him Hebrew flashcards because he wanted to learn the aleph bet. Gay colleagues advised on the LGBTQ displays and were photographed with them for the trade magazine, The Bookseller.

Just once, a colleague – a handsome, edgy, white Canadian whose name I forget – said ‘Gill, we need to talk about Israel’. We talked and I was surprised to learn that he, so well-educated, had never heard of Partition or the War of Independence.

I remember a haughty customer being dismissive to two BAME colleagues, young women, and turning to me, an old white woman, as if I were a reliable source of information. We talked about it afterwards and all interpreted the customer’s preference in the same way, but nobody asked me to check my white privilege.

I was responsible for books on religion: for keeping in stock the Adi Granth, the book of Mormon, the Pali canon, the Vedas, the Qu’ran in Arabic and English, Tanakh in Hebrew and English and the Stuttgartensia, Douay-Rheims bibles with the Deuterocanonical books and KJV without them; ESV, NIV, Tyndale and Coverdale, Good News and Greek interlinear. Ah. I miss being with so many bibles, I really do.

And I miss the colleagues. Friendships endured but then lapsed a bit, as the years passed. I retired about seven years ago.

Worst of all were the hand held computers we all used for stock-taking and other quantifying tasks. The batteries would run down very suddenly and then all the data would be wiped. We would hasten to the stock room taking the stairs two at a time, to reach the chargers which would preserve the battery life.

The powers at head office purged the lower management shortly before I left; knowledgeable, experienced booksellers replaced by yet less expensive retailers from other industries.

I don’t know how the business works now in the age of Covid. The managers must have adapted to the crisis by conducting sales predominantly online.

I wouldn’t wish to be back, dragging three skips piled up like a tiered wedding cake, towards the rickety lift but I have fond memories. It makes me think that, away from political arenas, people usually get on.

Over the years, I paid only moderate attention to the illustrious career of Margaret Hodge, but I watched a documentary about the BNP leader Nick Griffin standing for parliament in her constituency, Barking. It was May 2010. Ten years later, Dame Margaret wrote in Labour List:

Back then the threat was very real as the BNP poured all their resources into taking over the Town Hall and gaining their first parliamentary seat.

The battle for Barking – ten years on – LabourList

The BNP lost and it was the beginning of their decline. I had not realized that Margaret Hodge was Jewish until it was mentioned in the documentary.

Fast forward to the present day and everyone knows. Her confrontations with Jeremy Corbyn are one of the most popular topics for Corbynists on social media. Not for them the dullness of Brexit or the unproven efficacy of the latest measures against Covid. They know what they like: Corbyn and all those who sail in him. They know what they don’t like: the opponents of Corbyn. If these happen to be Jewish, and they often are, they take it as proof of what the more careful comrades call ‘foreign intervention’.

Even the careful comrades are often transparently antisemitic in their identification of British Jews as ‘a foreign power.’ Those who are not careful – well, in the screen shots below, you will get a glimpse of their vocabulary.

Last night, as the Prime Minister was in Brussels with a no deal Brexit hanging in the balance, I browsed one of the Corbynist forums on Facebook: ‘Recognising Jeremy Corbyn’s Dedication to a Just Society,’ moderated by Caroline Tipler. Originally the group was called ‘Jeremy Corbyn Leads Us to Victory’ but it has undergone more than one name change since the General election of 2019. One subject dominated the forum: Margaret Hodge. There was more than one post about Dame Margaret and one of them attracted well over a hundred comments as the comrades vied to see who could express the greatest hatred.

Not one of the contributors would admit to antisemitism. They justify their venom by accusing Margaret Hodge of a variety of sins, venial and mortal. When one of them pointed out that she belongs to ‘a group of people who love money’, my acquaintance Margot Koroviev asked them to be explicit. ‘Fascist Zionists’ was the answer, lest anyone might think they meant Jews. Margaret Hodge’s greatest sin, in their eyes, is alleging that antisemitism became a force to be reckoned with in the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. They will agree that it may have been present before Corbyn and possibly under Starmer but Jeremy, they insist, was the one person who defended the ungrateful Jews.

The epicentre of their antisemitism is their assertion that it doesn’t exist.

Below are some of their comments.

I would not want you to think that ‘Recognising’ differs from other Corbynist forums or that last nights contributors were exceptionally acrimonious. The vindictive malevolence exceeds in quantity anything I can display here, but here are some screen shots from other forums, on other days, all since the General Election of December 2019.

And here they reprise their thoughts about Margaret Hodge, in the bleak midwinter, from the heart of lockdown.


When I enter the name of one of these forums in the Facebook search box, they often appear with a thumbnail picture of Margaret Hodge. I assume this is because any post about Margaret Hodge always produces the most abundant replies.

I have continued to add screen shots to this post since the day when the EHRC report was published. While the report was hot from the press, Mr Corbyn made his statement, was suspended and readmitted and then lost the Labour whip.

Members of the Corbynist forums react with fury (the same views are found on Twitter). I will not even attempt to describe their comments but invite you to read them. Targets today, 29 November, are Angela Rayner and the left wing Labour MP Nadia Whittome. Everyone who backs Keir Starmer or is supportive of Jews, is said to have accepted the Israeli shekel.

Many of the comments and assertions are naive or plain ignorant but that does not make them less dangerous. Antisemitism in and around the Corbyn movement has reached critical mass and does not depend on Mr Corbyn. If it is driven out of Labour, it will not disappear into a black hole.

Screen shots below are approximately in chronological order.

Flitting between Corbynist forums, I’m not always able to get an impression about which groups are more intensely antisemitic than others and besides, the groups have a fluidity, often very much affected by the administrators. One forum was highly antisemitic, then somebody left and the remaining administrator was pro-Starmer. The group is still well to my left but it isn’t antisemitic.

Through Twitter, I met Natalie Evans, who works as a volunteer in Holocaust education. Natalie, a Labour supporter, had joined a forum called The Left Fights the Media and became aware quickly of the rampant antisemitism and misinformation in the group. She stayed in the group to argue back and was finally expelled last night, after questioning their received opinion that a holocaust was occurring in Gaza, perpetrated by he Israelis and equal in extent to the Shoah.

This post will be mostly screen shots as the threads I have seen on The Left Fights the Media leave me bereft of words. I will show two threads. One, from last night, got Natalie expelled. The other, from eight weeks ago, is a response to harsh words about Jeremy Corbyn, printed in the Jewish Chronicle. Thanks to Natalie for drawing my attention to the comment, ‘He isn’t the first JC they crucified.’

Below is the thread reacting to negative remarks about Jeremy Corbyn in the Jewish Chronicle.

Mr Corbyn and his supporters claim that the EHRC report ‘dramatically exaggerated’ the extent of antisemitism in the Labour Party during the period of his leadership. I believe that Mr Corbyn has a poor diagnostic eye for antisemitism and so do many of his supporters, not all, no doubt, but the many not the few.

Today, they continue what they consider their ‘fight for justice and fairness’.

In recent weeks, I’ve had some run ins with neo-nazi accounts on Twitter. The accounts belong to Americans, possibly a small number of individuals, opening a new account as soon as one gets closed down, or conceivably, as they insist, a large number of people, preparing retribution against non-whites, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ. One can see the advantage of having them hate diverse minorities, in the sense of them promoting solidarity among us, their targets.

What after all is more painful than division between black and Jewish, Muslim and Jewish, gay and trans, gay and Muslim, Zionist and non Zionist, BLM and African Americans for Trump?

You would think the neo-nazi accounts might be an amusement almost, but they are so queasily gruesome, with their Stürmerish cartoons of Jews and their graphic depictions of black people as primitive, that they do have at least one power if no other, the power to disgust. And they are worse than I describe them here, as I don’t like to linger over their effluvia, which trickle sometimes into my notifications.

When I am exposed to far right racism, I think it must surely be worse than racism as it occurs on the left. If I were prepared to discount the antisemitism of the left, this would be nothing but the truth, but obviously, or not obviously, this isn’t something I’m prepared to do.

Whether it is myself or other Jews who are being called supremacist, colonialist, apartheid lover, Khazar or murderer, I’m not prepared to give these ‘anti-racist’ self-congratulatory, ill-informed moralists of the left the benefit of the doubt.

The very names which they call us tend to belong to the left and not the right. There are those on the left who say that our bloodlust targets Palestinian children. The neo-nazis say that our victims are white children, like little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. The word Khazar is used by the left to deny the Jewish connection with the Land of Israel. The far right call us Semites and embrace antisemitism, regarding us as non-white. Supremacist is not derogatory in their book.

Holocaust denial is de rigueur on the far right, while the radical left on social media ask why Jews should get special treatment in the memorializing of the Holocaust – were there not other victims and anyway, they sometimes ask, how many really died? And were Zionists not in cahoots with the nazis, they ask and what was wrong with Ken Livingstone’s remarks, he got it right didn’t he?

The left speaks of Jewish political power and martial brutality while the right maintains that we are insidious, physically weak but paranormally potent. There is an overlap. I have seen left wing forums where members maintain that Jews use occult power as well as money, to dominate the entire world.

The far left says, ‘If you don’t want us to hate you, stop being bad to Palestinians.’

The far right doesn’t offer us any terms for eluding their hatred.

Both far left and far right accuse us of complaining too vociferously about antisemitism. Why don’t we just shut up about it and, as Len McCluskey might say, go into a room and count our gold?

I am referring to the racists of left and right, not to the spectrum of opinion which appears in parliamentary democracies. After all, I am myself left and right, albeit, most of all, centre. Political quizzes place me on the centre left, socially progressive but tending to favour a free market economy, more so in recent years, observing the Corbynist attachment to government regulation. But, to be honest, I don’t even know what that last sentence means.

I resent that left antisemitism undermines the natural solidarity I would feel with people whose causes they rightfully embrace. As for the neo-nazis, I resent that they are still with us, showing up in my notifications, while Twitter averts its algorithmic eyes.

As an undergraduate, I resided in a large hall of residence where, in my final year, I met my first husband, not Mr Gould zichrono livracha nor Mr Lazarus, but the father of my first two children.

There were three communal television rooms for the entertainment of the students residing in three adjacent blocks. Watching television must have been a bit of an event because I remember what I watched and how it felt. For example, on the night that I believed I’d mastered truth tables in symbolic logic (I probably hadn’t) I  went light-hearted to the TV room where The Third Man was showing. I had seen it before but never with such appreciation and exquisite enjoyment. When I see it now – and it holds up marvelously well – I think of truth tables.

Another film, and why this 1936 classic was being watched by students in 1970 is a mystery, was San Francisco with Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable. There was some laughter at the cheesier moments but the earthquake montage, when it came, was met with a stunned silence. In the nineteen thirties, special effects were special indeed.

As Sartre was then my favourite living philosopher, I watched with great interest a BBC serialization of his trilogy The Roads to Freedom, with Michael Bryant, Georgia Brown and Daniel Massey – BAFTA nominated, but it seems to have vanished, leaving behind only a footprint on IMDb.

Most memorable, in terms of viewing, was the night of the 1970 General Election, 18 June. I would have been home with my parents in London where, for the first time, I had the right to vote, but I had become ill after the exams and, while the lurgy persisted, was holed up in my room in the hall of residence. By 18th June, I was well enough to make my way to one of the television rooms. I imagine that all three were tuned to the election results.

I was a Labour supporter. My parents and sister were Labour supporters. So were most of my friends, even the revolutionaries from the Socialist Society. So also were my grandparents, uncles and aunts although there was one cousin who said he voted Conservative. That got talked about in the family, in lowered voices.

It was just two years after the Evenements de Mai, the groundswell of student and trade union activism which flourished in France in May 1968 and spread across Europe and the USA. It made stars of student leaders Danny Cohn-Bendit in France and Rudi Dutschke in Germany. Here we had Tariq Ali, notching up more television appearances than could be claimed in 2019 by Ash Sarkar and Owen Jones combined.

The most average and conventional of the students at my university, those who were still comparing A level grades, suddenly grew their hair, called each other ‘Man’, became revolutionary socialists and, in many cases, ‘dropped acid’.

 For the record, I never did LSD – too fearful of hallucinations. ‘For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?’

Well, Labour was defending a majority of over a hundred, the like of which we don’t see these days, and their poll lead was around 12% so the odds looked favourable on Harold Wilson being returned to Downing Street.

As you will know, the Conservatives won the General Election of 1970 and Edward Heath became Prime Minister.

The TV room gradually emptied, leaving just a disconsolate few, myself among them, to see in a Tory dawn.

In 1968, France at least had seemed to be on the cusp of revolution. By 1970, De Gaulle had retired and Georges Pompidou was the President. In America, the Democrat Lyndon Johnson was out and the Republican Richard Nixon was in.

What happens when the Left gets disappointed? Does the conservative Right consume the middle ground?

During my teenage years in the SWP, I heard Tony Cliff blame the failure of the German revolution in 1919 on the Social Democratic Party of Germany which, insisting on a parliamentary system of government, then put down the Spartacist movement. The Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by the paramilitary Freikorps. Weimar followed and we know what beast burst forth in its wake.

The post 1968 narrative of the left was that, as in 1919, it had been betrayed by the centre, a motif overused at the present time by the disappointed ‘Many’ following the most recent UK General Election of December 2019.

Surrounded on the streets by like-minded people, calling in their thousands for justice, peace and plenty, with banners and placards carrying variations of the same message, some more inventive than others, and the chants of so many voices:

…one, two three, four, we don’t want this particular war,

Two, four, six, eight, choose the villain, feel the hate…

how can we account for the conservative tendencies of ballot box voters? Is it a desire for the quiet enjoyment of the life adumbrated in the final speech of Trainspotting or a fear that those street activists who may have been us in a previous year or decade will gain power and be the most conservative of all?

In 2019, for the second time in my life, I didn’t want a Labour victory (the first time was 2017) because the Left seemed to have taken on a brutal and intolerant triumphalism. It looked possible that we were at last on the cusp of a societal change which would harm me and many of those close to me. I realize that this is denied most emphatically by the disappointed hard left.

Where do the hard left go when they are disappointed? Presumably to the same place as the electorally disappointed far right: the fringes, the shadows and the room above a pub, to plan the next upheaval, the next threshold and how to cross it.

Yom Kippur discussion group 5781/2020

גָּלְמִי רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ 

You saw my unformed substance/golmi

Psalm 139: 16

I wanted to talk about golems, because it seemed relevant to the repentance theme of Yom Kippur to discuss the aspects of ourselves which might be excessively defensive, or offensive, or triggered or even out of control, the way the Prague Golem became too powerful and delinquent for its creator.

The most well-known golem legend attributes its creation to Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, a mystically inclined rabbi and scholar who was born about 1520 and died in 1609. He is sometimes referred to by the honorific acronym Maharal, Morenu ha Rav Loew, our teacher, Rabbi Loew. In order to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms, he created a humanoid from the mud of the Vltava River and brought it to life by inserting into its mouth a clay tablet bearing the name of God. The rabbi would deactivate the creature every shabbat by removing the clay tablet. One week he forgot to do this and the Golem went on a destructive rampage until Rabbi Loew removed the clay tablet.

This legend post-dates the lifetime of the Maharal. It was a fiction which resonated with Jewish and non-Jewish authors alike.

What brings a golem to life is the name of God or another mystical formulation of letters which the golem wears, on his forehead or over his heart and when this is removed, life departs from the golem.

It was believed that a letter of God’s name would animate the clay figure of the golem or, conversely, subtracting a letter would take life away.

In 2009,the Czech Republic issued a stamp depicting the Maharal, minus the golem, price 21 korunas.

The German film director and actor Paul Wegener made two films about the Golem, the first one in 1915 being lost but the second film, from 1920, is extant and available on Amazon Prime. I watched it. Unavoidably, there is a slightly King Kong aspect to the narrative in which the monster falls in love with a beautiful girl. Paul Wegener played the role of the Golem in his films, so it is his image which we see in the stills from the movie.

Rabbi Jacob Emden, eighteenth century, gave an account of the Golem of Chelm, created by Elijah Ba’al Shem, a near contemporary of the Maharal, but not blessed with the Maharal’s longevity. The story is told in an anonymous manuscript dated 1630. The word emet, meaning truth, was inscribed on the Chelm Golem’s forehead. When it became too powerful,  Rabbi Elijah destroyed it by removing the letter א aleph from the word emet. This left the word met which means dead and so the Golem was rendered lifeless.

In the popular American television series X Files, an episode called Kaddish concerns a golem wreaking vengeance on some neonazi killers. As always, the golem goes beyond it remit and is returned by its makers to dust. In this dramatization, it is terminated by the removal of the aleph.

The Babylonian Talmud makes reference to the creation of a man by the sage Rava, in Babylon, third to fourth century CE.

רבא ברא גברא שדריה לקמיה דר’ זירא הוה קא משתעי בהדיה ולא הוה קא מהדר ליה אמר ליה מן חבריא את הדר לעפריך

Indeed, Rava created a man, a golem, using forces of sanctity. Rava sent his creation before Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira would speak to him but he would not reply. Rabbi Zeira said to him: You were created by one of the members of the group, one of the Sages. Return to your dust.

Sanhedrin 65b

The Gemara relates another story to support the statement that the righteous could create a world if they so desired:

Rav Ḥanina and Rav Oshaya would sit every Shabbat eve and engage in the study of Sefer Yetzirah, and a calf would be created for them, and they would eat it in honour of Shabbat.

Sanhedrin 38b

Their arcane knowledge is said to be obtained from a mystical work Sefer Yetzirah, which means The Book of Creation. The date of Sefer Yetzirah is generally thought to be Talmudic although there is a view that it dates from the later Geonic period. As it is referenced in  the Babylonian Talmud, fifth or sixth century CE should be the terminus ante quem unless it is a later insertion. The subject matter is creation through the force of words, letters and speech. In the account of creation which we read in Genesis, it is God’s words which create everything in the universe, from light on the first day to a human being on the sixth. Sefer Yetzirah served as a kind of How To manual for creation ex nihilo.

Another Babylonian sage states that Adam was created initially as a golem.

It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: The dust that served to form Adam the first man was gathered from the entire world, as it is stated: “When I was made in secret and wrought in the lowest places of the earth, Your eyes did see my unshaped flesh” (Psalms 139:15–16).

Sanhedrin 38b

God breathed the breathe of life into Adam and he became a man, in the divine image.

Midrash speaks of Abraham as having mystical powers of creation and this is based on Genesis12:5:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂ֣וּ בְחָרָ֑ן וַיֵּצְא֗וּ לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

The souls they had made is interpreted usually in Midrash as referring to converts Abram and Sarai had made.

It is said that the eleventh century Andalusian sage Ibn Gabirol created a female servant – an early medieval Stepford wife, perhaps. Although a story about Ibn Gabirol creating a golem is found in more than one contemporary source, I can find nothing which isn’t modern and it may be derived from a fantasy or a metaphor which can possibly be attributed to a twentieth century American Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser.

What do all the golems have in common? They are created by humans in their wisdom, in imitation of God’s creation. The golems are physically mighty and the creators tend to lose control of them.

A golem is servile, obedient, physically strong, primitive, wild, sometimes emotional and sometimes vengeful. It can be a servant or a weapon, an industry or a movement. It may be managed or it may be out of control, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster or like a nuclear bomb. A golem can be a creation made by humans, or by God. There is usually a danger of it becoming more powerful than its creator intended.

In Freudian terms, the Golem might be our id, out of control and disempowering the superego.

It may be a synth who gets ideas above their station.

It may be a powerful political leader whose clout exceeds their reason.

According to cinematic representations, it may be an emotionally sentient creature who falls in love.

God’s creation, humanity, got out of control in many ways. The disobedient Adam was followed by the fratricidal Cain and eventually an entire generation did ‘nothing but evil’.

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֗ה אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃

The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.”

וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (פ)

But Noah found favor with the LORD.

Genesis 6:5 – 8

We, God’s creation, are likened to clay. Our beginning is the unformed substance – ‘Like clay in the hands of the Potter,’ said Jeremiah.

וַיְהִ֥י דְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה אֵלַ֥י לֵאמֽוֹר׃

Then the word of the LORD came to me:

ק֥וּם וְיָרַדְתָּ֖ בֵּ֣ית הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר וְשָׁ֖מָּה אַשְׁמִֽיעֲךָ֥ אֶת־דְּבָרָֽי׃

“Go down to the house of a potter, and there I will impart My words to you.”

וָאֵרֵ֖ד בֵּ֣ית הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר והנהו [וְהִנֵּה־] [ה֛וּא] עֹשֶׂ֥ה מְלָאכָ֖ה עַל־הָאָבְנָֽיִם׃

So I went down to the house of a potter, and found him working at the wheel.

וְנִשְׁחַ֣ת הַכְּלִ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֛ה בַּחֹ֖מֶר בְּיַ֣ד הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר וְשָׁ֗ב וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֙הוּ֙ כְּלִ֣י אַחֵ֔ר כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יָשַׁ֛ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י הַיּוֹצֵ֖ר לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃ (פ)

And if the vessel he was making was spoiled, as happens to clay in the potter’s hands, he would make it into another vessel, such as the potter saw fit to make.

הֲכַיּוֹצֵ֨ר הַזֶּ֜ה לֹא־אוּכַ֨ל לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לָכֶ֛ם בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נְאֻם־יְהוָ֑ה הִנֵּ֤ה כַחֹ֙מֶר֙ בְּיַ֣ד הַיּוֹצֵ֔ר כֵּן־אַתֶּ֥ם בְּיָדִ֖י בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ס)

O House of Israel, can I not deal with you like this potter?—says the LORD. Just like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in My hands, O House of Israel!

A golem has its origin in common with Adam, who was made from the dust of the ground, and adam is a generic name for mankind.

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:7

In the ensuing discussion which was via Zoom after the Yom Kippur musaf service, members spoke about aspects of personality which may appear to be out of control and the relationship of hidden aspects of the self to creativity. The question arose whether comparing a human to a golem emphasised the passivity rather than the free will of the human being.

By the time the discussion was over, there were only four hours remaining until the end of the fast.

אבינו מלכנו זכור כי עפר אנחנו

Our Father, our King, remember that we are dust.

Avinu Malkenu

Last year, just before Rosh Hashanah, I decided to use a rectangular canvas, 30 x 20 centimetres, to paint an angel. The big white wings spread across the width of the canvas. The angel himself was a teenage boy, early twentieth century Europe perhaps, old enough to wear a tallit but too young for a beard. He wore a peaked flat cap above which floated a silver halo and his tallit had gold fringes. His trousers appear either too short or too long, ending just above his working boots and he stood firmly in the sky casting a slight blue shadow. Most importantly, he carried an open book, bound in red leather and this, I supposed, was the book of life or, due to its relatively small format, the book of my life. This year, I look at the painting again and it strikes me that this is my guardian angel, not an archangel but one who died in Europe in the twentieth century and ascended to heaven and whose remit is to do whatever guardian angels do, in respect of myself.

I can go no further without mentioning Clarence, about whom George Bailey muttered ‘You look about like the kind of an angel I’d get.’ Henry Travers as Clarence in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life is the prototype of the kind of angel we expect  to take an interest in the daily grind of our labours, problems and pleasures. And he is precisely the right angel for George as the benign Clarence is no fast-tracker but on the contrary, rather slow to get his wings, which is true also of George, bound by duty but not inclination to Bedford Falls.

When George remarks sourly ‘I got a bust in the jaw in answer to a prayer,’ Clarence corrects him: Oh no no no George, I’m the answer to your prayer.’

Peter Stanford in his book ‘Angels, a Visible and Invisible History’ (Hodder & Stoughton 2019) refers to a decline in theological angelology from about the mid twentieth century and cites Karl Barth’s view – which probably Peter Stanford does not share – that it is a mistake to treat angels as if attached to individual human beings. (Stanford p 283). Angels, according to Barth, are a force of heaven, not operators on earth for the resolution of human problems.

One must therefore rule out Cary Grant, the angel who befriends the eponymous bishop’s wife whose repressed husband, an uncharacteristically subdued David Niven, appears to disadvantage compared to Grant’s debonair and attentive angel. (The Bishops’s Wife directed by Henry Koster, 1947).

Films about angels are legion, literally in the case of Legion, Scott Stewarts’s 2010 horror movie. Often the angels are fallen, troubled and anthropomorphic, as in Kevin Smith’s 1999 comedy fantasy Dogma. I eschew horror film about angels and generally cannot take to stories about angels falling in love with individual human beings. Why would they? Our days are as grass.

I have worked in bookshops where the genre Mind, Body and Spirit was big business. Included on the MBS shelves were tarot cards including angel tarot with their Botticelli-meets-DG-Rossetti illustrations and popular memoirs by authors who spoke of being visited by angels.

The word for angel in Hebrew (מלאך) and Greek (ἀγγελος) means messenger as well as angel and the Latin angelus is virtually the same word as the Greek angelos. In the Hebrew bible, an angel is not always called a malakh but sometimes an ish – simply meaning man – especially when there is direct interaction with a human being. In the case of Jacob, he has a vision of angels of God ( malakhei Elohim) ascending and descended a ladder, but it is a man (ish) who wrestles with him until break of day.

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel (face of God); for I have seen God face to face and my life is saved.

Genesis 32:31 in Tanakh or Genesis 32:30 in some translations

There is certainly a human desire for intermediaries between us and God: angels, saints and messengers whose messages bear life-changing import. Perhaps also, there is a desire for human beings to be more than merely human and only a little lower than the angels.

מָֽה־אֱנ֥וֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ׃

What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him,

וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָב֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ׃

You have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and majesty.

Psalm 8:5

On Yom Kippur, we abstain from food, drink, sexual relations, bathing and wearing leather and we wear white, all these things in imitation of the heavenly host.

Of course we want to keep our angels close.

For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee upon their hands, lest thou strike thy foot against a stone.

Psalm 91:11-12

  • melvyn wilcox: I noti
  • Jonathan Meldrum: I am a bit nervous about this popular view that where there's an alternative & popular English usage, proper Latin declension is incorrect, merely
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thanks for that Mel. My son is always telling me 'These freaks are a minority' but when their posts come thick and faat (especially thick) it feelslik