Clay statue depicting Prague Golem. Image credit: Snek01 / Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0
In a recent conversation at The New School, history professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela chatted with writer Adam Mansbach about his new novel, The Golem of Brooklyn (One World, 2023), in which ancient Jewish folklore meets contemporary Brooklyn. As they discussed the origins of the golem, a mythical figure brought to life in times of crisis, Mansbach offered a fresh perspective by reimagining this legendary creature in a hilarious and thought-provoking narrative. With wit and candor, Mansbach provided a window into the creative process behind this remarkable novel, its audience, and his personal journey into the complexities of Jewish themes. The following is a transcript of that conversation, which was presented by the Jewish Culture department at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: Let’s start with the basics. What is a golem and why are you writing a whole book about it?
Adam Mansbach: A golem is a creature from Ashkenazi Jewish folklore dating to the 1500s. A golem is a humanoid creature built of mud or clay, nine- or ten-feet tall, animated through secret prayers and incantations by a rabbi or a very learned man, and always at a time of crisis. And by crisis, to be clear, I don’t mean like “anti-semitism exists in the world”–type crisis. I mean “the villagers are marching with torches and something must be done or we will all die”–type crisis. A very immediate crisis isart of the golem’s animation—and I try not to use the word life or anything of that nature because the golem is not alive. The golem is animate or the golem is inanimate, but he’s never alive and he’s never dead. My golem, the golem of this book, is not made by a learned man or a rabbi or at a time of crisis. He’s built by an art teacher in Brooklyn who happens to have stolen a massive amount of clay from his school over the course of the last few years and is extremely stoned. When he comes to life, the golem begins trashing this dude’s apartment while screaming at him in Yiddish. A language that Len, the creator of this golem, does not understand. My golem also differs from the golem of folklore in one essential way: rather than being an empty vessel—a monster who just does its master’s bidding and has no real will of his own—my golem is a creature who has an ancestral memory. He’s not made as much as remade. There’s only ever been one golem in the world of my book, and he goes back to the dawn of creation. He remembers every previous iteration of himself, so he’s a walking repository of Jewish history and trauma, who has only ever been created when somebody’s trying to kill the Jews, which, granted, is most of history.
Mehlman Petrzela: This all sounds very serious, but this is a really funny book as well. For people who have not yet read it, can you tell us a little bit about what it’s about?
Mansbach: The golem comes to life and is screaming at Len in Yiddish, which he doesn’t speak, so Len runs out to try to find a translator for the golem, but first he parks the golem in front of a television, so the golem will chill out. He parks him in front of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he runs out to a nearby bodega where he once heard a woman behind the counter speak Yiddish. She was cursing out some Yeshiva kids who came in trying to buy cigarettes. So he’s like, “Aha! A Yiddish speaker.” And he goes there to try to convince her to come back to his apartment and translate, which is a very dodgy proposition.
Mehlman Petrzela: What’s it like to write characters who do not reflect your identity or your experience?
Mansbach: I think the bar is always higher the further away from your own experience and your own identity you go, whether that is a cat, a woman, or an ex-Hasidic lesbian. Writing fiction in particular is a project that is, at its core, a humanistic one and a humane one, which requires tremendous empathy from us. Part of that can involve projecting yourself into other people’s consciousness, their lives, their experiences. None of us are ever writing ourselves, even if we attempt to. That attempt is mitigated by the distance between yourself and the page. Even when you attempt to write something utterly autobiographical, you’re selecting details, you’re editing, you’re shaping. So I think it’s a fallacy to think that we’re ever not occupying a character. But I do think the stakes are higher, and I think when somebody attempts these things and gets it wrong, it’s glaring. And I’ve been critical of people who do that many times in my life.
Mehlman Petrzela: There’s a lot of very true to life political context that goes into the book. I’m curious what sparked this? Was there a particular moment, or something that was going on in the news?
Mansbach: It happens that the book is published at a moment that feels timely. But I sold the book about a year ago. I wrote it the summer before this one, I wrote it pretty fast, in three-and-a-half, four months. The publisher wanted to get it out quickly by publishing standards—which means one year, not two years, basically. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that anti-semitism would still be around in the spring.
Mehlman Petrzela: When did you start to write about Jewish themes?
Mansbach: I think it started with a novel that I published in 2008 called The End of the Jews. I didn’t go into that book intending to write a book that was heavy on Jewish themes or the contemplation of Jewish identity. What I set out really to do with that book was write about my grandparents’ generation and mine, and really write a book about a family of artists over the course of much of the twentieth century. I researched that book by talking to my grandfather who was still alive at the time and I began to understand that although he was not religious—and in some ways openly hostile to religion and to Judaism—the fact he was Jewish was a constraint and a defining factor of his life. It was eye-opening for me and set me on a path of wanting to know more, of wanting to read more and understand more about the complexities of the Jewish identity. I think I’d always identified with Judaism primarily through the artistic production of Jewish artists. Particularly the artistic production of a kind of Jewish artist who is occupying some part of the margins of Jewish life, which allows you to write critically on the pain of being marginal, of feeling ambiguous, of feeling ambivalent about this culture that you’re born into and cannot escape from. Because Judaism is the Hotel California of religions. You can check out but you cannot leave. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you want to do, you’re still a part of it. Give it a shot. You got Jewish people saying shit like, “I’m Jewish, but I’m Buddhist.” Find an Episcopalian who says that.
It’s been a long journey trying to delve more deeply into the culture, the religion, the history. For a long time my orientation was to write about race and whiteness, and Judaism was something I wasn’t entirely sure how to fit in. But since then I’ve spent a lot of time trying to grapple with those complexities. Specifically the relationship between Judaism and whiteness, Jewishness and whiteness, which is an evolving one in this country. Whiteness recruits as needed so that it can maintain the numbers necessary for hegemony. That’s a kind of devil’s bargain. Whiteness opens the books, opens up the ledger, invites you in, but there’s a price to pay. I think that’s been the story of Jewish folks in this country over the last 50 years or more, this tenuous whiteness that we’ve been granted. We will never be full citizens of the policy of whiteness. The specter and the persistence of anti-semitism in the history of this world will not allow that kind of easy synthesis into whiteness now or ever. We occupy this liminal space. Liminal spaces are what Jewish folks have occupied throughout history for a variety of reasons. You figure out what the fuck they’ll let you do, then you do that until they stop letting you do it, and you hope that nobody kills your children in the streets.
Mehlman Petrzela: I know you want the book to be for everybody and everyone should read it, but who’s the book for?
Mansbach: I never really know how to answer that. Certainly the various types of Jews out there will probably get different things from it than the various types of non-Jews out there. I do hope everyone reads it. I don’t think I wrote it with an audience in mind, although I will say that my writing process for this book was different than any other that I’ve ever had because I wrote it quickly and I was just having a fucking blast.
Mehlman Petrzela: Has there been anything surprising about the feedback that you’re getting or the reaction of the people reading?
Mansbach: It’s mostly been gratifying and cool because people seem to be reading the book. I’m getting a lot of love from people who choose to get in touch with me. My dealings with the Jewish press—the traditional Jewish press—are always quite fraught. I don’t think that this book is probably for their readership so much, at least that seems to be their impression, but it’s something I forget and then remember every time I publish a book. That’s my least favorite part of publishing a book with Jewish content, the sense that people in those very specific sectors are not so much looking to engage with the art, but are looking to give a litmus test to the writer to see if the views align, and if they don’t, figure out a way to malign or cancel you. I’ve seen that happen in much bigger ways to other artists besides me. If we’re going to have a conversation about Jewish art or celebrate Jewish artists or support them, then you have to let Jewish artists make the art they want to make, not the art that you think is good for the Jews. That is going to be shitty fucking art.
Read an excerpt from The Golem of Brooklyn, courtesy of Adam Mansbach and One World.
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.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Associate Professor of History at Eugene Lang College, podcast host, and author of books including FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (University of Chicago Press, 2023).