The legend of the Golem of Prague, a Jewish folktale that originated in the 1500s, has been told and retold for centuries.
There are countless narratives and variations of the story – a version of the tale was even featured in an episode of The Simpsons in 2006.
In Irène Cohen-Janca’s version of the story, titled The Golem of Prague, the beautifully illustrated picture book for children aged nine to 12, begins more than 300 years after the Golem’s time, and is told through the eyes of a dreaming boy named Franz.
Cohen-Janca, who is Tunisian-born, and lives in France, is no stranger to presenting dark, historically-based literature to children. In 2015, she authored a book called Mister Doctor – a picture book based on the true story of a doctor who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
In The Golem of Prague, published by Annick Press, Cohen-Janca retells the story of the legend of the Golem, which was created, as the story goes, to combat the vicious persecution of Prague’s Jews in the 16th century.
The story is told around Franz, who makes his way into the forbidden attic in the Old New Synagogue in Prague, where the Golem was said to have been brought to life three centuries earlier.
Franz falls asleep in the attic and finds himself transported to his town in the 16th century, at a time when the Jews of Prague were being framed for heinous crimes, arrested and hanged.
In his dream state, Franz witnessed how the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Loew, who was admired by all for his intellect, asked the powers above, “How shall we battle evil?’’
The answer, which came to Rabbi Loew in a dream, was to make a Golem out of clay.
The non-verbal, soulless, indestructible Golem, standing 12-feet high, was created for one purpose.
“Your mission on Earth is to protect the Jews!” Rabbi Loew instructed the Golem as he came to life.
The Golem did more than physically protect the Jews using his super-human strength. He was able to see into the future to prevent Jews from being framed and prosecuted.
“He wandered into the cemeteries looking for open tombs from which children’s bodies had been taken. They were going to be used to frame Jews. He explored secret cellars and apartments where people were conspiring. He could see what was hidden and what would happen. He could look into people’s hearts, hear their secret thoughts, and understand the language of animals and the earth.”
As time passed, it became apparent that the Golem was beginning to gain self-awareness, which inevitably drove him mad.
Franz’s dream ends after Miriam, a girl from Franz’s village, appears in it and calms the Golem and brings about his peaceful death.
The story of the Golem, alongside the spectacular art by Italian award-winning artist Maurizio A. C. Quarello, serves its purpose of offering young readers a glimpse into the centuries-old Jewish folklore.
However, the fact that the story of the Golem is sandwiched between a scene during which children gather to watch a puppet show, and an ending that depicts an underdeveloped romance between Franz and Miriam, makes the story difficult to follow.
The legend may have been better presented to young readers without those confusing elements.