Image credit: Front cover of The Golem of Brooklyn by Adam Mansbach (One World, 2023)
Len scratched the surface of his golem, bending over the supine form with a wooden chopstick in his hand and etching the Hebrew letters into the golem’s heavy, clumsily made brow. He checked his work frequently against the translation website open on his laptop, balanced atop the golem on the cement part of the backyard. Hebrew was not a language Len knew; he had grown up observant only in the sense that he noticed things.
The golem’s body was chunked with slabs of muscle up and down its four-hundred-pound, nine-and-a-half-foot length. Len was immensely proud of the golem’s shoulders, which were filigreed with remarkably realistic-looking striations along the deltoids. The hands were artless, and the feet looked like a pair of cinderblocks the golem had decided to wear as bedroom slippers. The face was brutal and amateurish, but expressive—the broad lips eager to peel back in a snarl or a laugh, the deep-set eyes oddly cagey and alert. The ears looked like actual clumps of sun-bleached dog shit that someone had decided to glue to a human head, but they were Len’s eighth attempt at ears and enough was enough.
It was dark now, and Len’s only break had been four hours ago, to wolf down a takeout container of pad see ew while scouring the internet for phonetic English renderings of the incantations and secret names of God he needed to recite to fill the golem’s lungs—Len had not made lungs—with the breath of life. Naturally, there was no consensus to be found on which prayers were the proper ones or which secret names were real. Len thought highly of his ability to discern good information from bad, but whether those skills translated to the arena of online Jewish mysticism was yet to be determined. He had taken his best shot: spoken what might be the right words, walked the prescribed number of circles around his creation, mixed his own blood with dirt from a cemetery and dipped his chopstick in the gunk and used it to scrawl the all-important letters, the last of which he was completing now.
Technically, the dirt wasn’t from a cemetery, just a corner of the yard. But what was a cemetery? Just a place where something dead was buried, and a bee or worm or dinosaur had almost certainly died here at some point in history and decomposed into this soil. This logic, like the golem’s anatomically precise shoulders, suffused Len with pride. What was Judaism if not an exacting, totalized system of laws handed down by the divine, then kitted out with redundancies and fail-safes by the scholars to eliminate any chance of an infraction—building a wall around the Torah, it was called, the process by which don’t cook a goat in its mother’s milk ballooned into never mix dairy with meat, buy two sets of dishes, wash them in different dishwashers—and then, finally, poked full of loopholes so the devout might obediently circumvent those laws?
Len finished his work, sat back on his haunches, rolled his aching neck, and waited.
Five minutes passed, and nothing happened. Len reminded himself that he didn’t actually expect anything to, and not because the dirt was improperly sourced or his penmanship was suspect, but because he didn’t believe in any of this shit. He stood, dusted himself off, and went inside to grab a beer and text Waleed, see if he was in the neighborhood.
He drank the neck off his beer and thought about the obscurely revolting phrase drank the neck off his beer, as he did every single time he drank a beer because he’d once read a hacky detective novel that employed it whenever a character drank a beer, and everybody in that book was an alcoholic. He drank the chest and stomach off his beer, then startled when he heard a noise outside that sounded like a monster pounding a granite fist against a tiled Moroccan table and smashing it to smithereens.
Len deposited his beer in the sink just as The Golem ripped his back door off the hinges and flung it aside.
“Holy shit,” said Len, as The Golem ducked into the apartment and lurched toward him. And all at once, Len realized that while he had been careful to make sure the bottoms of his golem’s feet were perfectly aligned, he had neglected to really think about where each leg began, how it fused into the hip, and the result of this negligence was a pronounced limp, perhaps even a dysplasia.
The Golem galumphed to a stop in front of Len, and a pair of eyeballs pushed forward through the milky vacancy of his sockets, like the answer cube floating to the surface of a Magic 8 Ball.
The Golem closed his eyes. Len did not remember providing him with eyelids.
When he opened them, the eyeballs had anchored themselves. The Golem’s ink-black pupils dilated, and he seemed to take Len’s measure.
“Hi,” said Len, stifling a surge of panic. “I, uh I made you.”
The Golem’s brow furrowed and roiled.
“I’m not really a sculptor,” said Len, as the panic softened into self-reproach. “I had some trouble with—”
The Golem wrapped his misshapen hand around Len’s neck/shoulder region, his fingers so large—so disproportionately large, Len admonished himself—and so lacking in fine motor skills that it was unclear whether his intention was to choke Len or merely brace him against the wall.
“Vu zaynen mir? Ir zet nit oys vi a rov. Vi lang iz es geven? Ver zol ikh oyshargenen?” demanded The Golem, his voice sludgy, his tongue and vocal cords and trachea and epiglottis nonexistent to the best of Len’s knowledge.
“Ver zol ikh oyshargenen?” he said again. Len could tell it was a question by the way The Golem’s voice lilted into a slightly less guttural register on the final syllable, and he could tell The Golem really wanted to know the answer by the way he tightened his left-handed vise grip on Len’s neck/ shoulder and with his right hand punched a massive hole straight through the door of Len’s stainless steel refrigerator. “I’m sorry,” said Len. “I don’t speak Yiddish?” It was a guess, which Len hoped he could convey by lilting his voice into a slightly higher register despite the increasing pressure The Golem was exerting against his windpipe.
The Golem grunted and flung Len aside, much as he had the door. Len scuttled back against a wall and sat there, panting.
“Thank you,” he said after a moment.
The Golem turned away and began to inspect his own body, while Len weighed the idea of trying to download a Yiddish-English voice translation app against the likelihood that if he tried, The Golem would pulverize his phone.
“Avu iz mayn shmok?” The Golem said, without looking up. There was a catch in his voice, as if he were confronting the unthinkable.
An idea struck Len, and he stood and backed into the living room.
The Golem’s head whipped toward him with big-carnivore energy, and Len froze and showed The Golem both his palms. “Listen,” he said, “I’m going to run out and find someone who can understand you. But I need you to stay here and not trash my place, okay? Can you do that?”
The Golem didn’t respond, but he also didn’t destroy anything. Len darted over to the television and turned it on. “Here,” he said. “Watch this until I get back.” He pointed at the sixty-inch screen, which was filled with Larry David’s face.
The Golem took a cautious step forward. He seemed frightened, but entranced. He took another step, and the light from the television bathed his steak of a face.
The Golem blinked, and planted his cinderblock feet. Len grabbed his keys and bolted for the door.
Excerpted from The Golem of Brooklyn by Adam Mansbach. Copyright © 2023 by Adam Mansbach. Published by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Read a conversation between Adam Mansbach and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela on the themes of The Golem of Brooklyn and the possibilities of fiction.
Adam Mansbach is a prolific author known for the #1 New York Times bestseller Go the F**k to Sleep (Schuler Books, 2011), as well as acclaimed novels, screenplays, and a diverse body of work featured in prestigious publications and media.