Modern Wars and Their Monsters

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Maya Barzilai
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , October
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The academic study of monsters is coming into its own. With many “monster boomers” now holding tenured positions, it has become acceptable to look at monsters as metaphors. Maya Barzilai’s Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters is a welcome addition to that burgeoning dialogue.

The golem is a monster of Jewish legend. Made from clay and animated by the magical use of words, it was understood to be a protector of Jews under attack. The golem, however, was ultimately not under human control. It would often go on a rampage during which innocent people could die. It was a guardian, but an unstable one. Barzilai’s thesis is that modern golems shed light on the meanings of modern warfare. Limiting herself to twentieth-century rewritings of the story she “deals only with those works that cast the golem as a figure of war-related violence” (21). To do this she provides a historical introduction to the golem before considering it in five contexts: Paul Wegener’s films; the golem in New York City in 1921; Israel’s wars in 1948; the post-Holocaust golem as superhero; and computers and cyborgs. Her thesis holds up comparatively well as long as human conflict can be retained as a lens for wars in the future or past. Not all of the stories match up precisely with actual wars—unless conflict is understood broadly.

The first instance of this is in chapter 1 on Wegener’s three golem movies. Wegener was a German actor and filmmaker who fought in World War I. His first golem movie was filmed before his actual war experience, while his subsequent movies were clearly made in the light of his combat fighting and war wounds. This chapter illustrates Barzilai’s thesis well, although as his first cinematic golem actually precedes Wegener’s personal war experience. it is difficult to say how or whether the war impacted his version of the legend at this early stage. The mud of the trenches, and the mud of the golem after 1915, however, are well mixed by Barzilai. In 1921, addressed in chapter 2, the golem found fame in New York City with Wegener’s movies and in stage plays—some in Yiddish—representing the monster. This was post-war, of course, and Barzilai makes the convincing case that the tragedy of the conflict drove interest in the clay sentinel during that time period.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Israeli golem during the battles of 1948, shifting to literary treatments. Novels by S. Y. Agnon, Yoram Kaniuk, and a drama by Dani Horowitz shift the golem to human realms. The golem appears as a nickname for a shell-shocked German soldier—set in World War I—and a wounded Israeli soldier, as well as an actual name for a golem that is like an Israeli soldier. Barzilai suggests that the golem has been internalized here, but also, strangely, is used to describe Arab soldiers in the popular press. Always difficult to control, the golem is both Israeli and the enemy.

This ambivalence continues into the superhero world of chapter 4. Comic books experimented with the golem as a title character, but with little success. Barzilai does not survey the well-trod ground of how the golem influenced the superhero genre, but rather how golems actually appear in comics and graphic novels. Although conflict is clearly present in comics and graphic novels, the narrative slips a bit away from war here. Some comic books present the golem in wartime, but others, such as James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing are more about peacetime racism and cultural prejudice. In regard to this, it would have been interesting to read Barzilai’s reaction to Pete Hamill’s Snow in August. Although not a graphic novel, Hamill’s story clearly ties war (World War II), baseball (as in Sturm’s work), and the golem together in a literary retelling.

The final chapter returns to war: specifically the Cold War. Computers and cyborgs in science fiction novels—especially those by Stanislaw Lem (Golem XIV) and Marge Piercy (He, She, and It)—are explicitly connected to the golem either in name or in function. At the same time, in real life, “brainless” drones are referred to as golems because of their mindless killing. As in the previous chapters, the golem does not conform to any one model. Made of either clay or silicon, it is characterized by its unpredictability. Piercy even presents the reader with an unexpected female golem.

Barzilai offers a fascinating analysis of how a legendary monster was appropriated in the last century as a way of understanding the baffling reality of war. Not all of the examples fit precisely, but that is just what one expects of a golem. It is a monster not easily defined and very difficult to control. Barzilai makes no claims to comprehensive coverage; as she ably shows, there are many popular renditions of the golem in both Jewish and American culture, as well as in the works of authors living in other regions impacted by war. This is more of a sampling of golem functions brought together under the lens of human conflict. A creative and thoughtful approach, this book raises the deeper and unresolved questions of when, if ever, an act of violence justifies a violent response. Although Barzilai does not attempt to answer this question, she raises it as one of the unavoidable issues faced by an oppressed people who, in their fiction, have access to a protective monster.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steve A. Wiggins is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maya Barzilai is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Literature and Jewish Culture at the University of Michigan. 



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