Sep 25, 2016

Herein a sequence of interesting exchanges with the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I suppose I was asked to contribute because of my novel, Golem Song.


Back in Feb, 2016, I was asked by the Jewish Museum Berlin to contribute a catalogue comment on some item in a big-deal major show on the history of the Golem, a huge figure made of clay, and brought to life by the kabbalistic magic of Rabbi Löwe in order to protect Prague Jews from a gathering pogrom. This story does not have a happy end.

I chose a painting from 1916, Fritz Ascher's "The Golem".

I warned the museum about what I might write. They said, "Write anything you want." This is what I wrote:


Oh, Rabbi Löwe, [the rabbi who made the Golem out of clay and brought it to life] be careful what you wish for, and Victor Frankenstein, beware. And you, Herr Doktor Faust, don’t count on a second salvation.

Storytellers and artists foresee, but the world plays things out. Einstein nailed it: “Three great forces rule the world,” he said, “stupidity, fear and greed.”

Fritz Ascher captured those forces in 1916. His foreground translates Einstein’s trio into the hands and faces of

-- terminal Fear,

-- expiring Wisdom,

-- and desperately grasping Greed.

And rising above them, looming over the toxic miasma, their collective Golem.

“Thou shalt not pass!” say its arms, “I will kill!” say its eyes, and “darkest night” says its cloak, “No moon or stars for you. Only Nacht und Nebel.”

Behind this apocalyptic gang of four stands their salient* element: a wall, a fortress – or shall we call it a “separation fence”? -- perhaps the most iconically prescient part of Ascher’s vision. And stupidity, fear and greed have different faces now, smoother, white-haired, silver-tongued. But Ascher’s wall still evokes…the wall.

Benjamin Netanyahu: "Will we surround all of the State of Israel with fences and barriers? The answer is yes. In the area that we live in, we must defend ourselves against the wild beasts."

Hear O Israel**: hear this latest misguided, misguiding, misstepping “rabbi” protecting his community unto its death.

Will Judaism survive its current Golem? Will the snaking, apartheid wall protect -- or imprison the wall-builders in suffocating isolation? Will their Xykon breath kill not only the purported beasts beyond the barriers, but also the gassers?

I wonder if they'll permit it.


In March, I received I received the following response (the Hebrew in the text means "Shoah") from the Museum’s Deputy Director:

"We are not going to include your text because we feel that your insinuation to compare the political situation in Israel with the שואה (fog and night / Giftgas) will be thoroughly misunderstood in Germany.

What could be possibly expressed in Israel to underline the political and moral problem inherent in the governments dealings with the Palestinians will not necessarily be understood the same way in Germany. Being critical about Israeli politics ourselves, we also fight in Germany against resentful and ignorant attitudes against Israel which are based on no knowledge of the conflict in the Middle East and are mere projections on the background of German history. We deal with widespread groups of people who like to deny German responsibility for the שואה by accusing Israeli politicians of trying to annihilate Palestinians in the style of Nazi-Germany."


I responded as follows:

Upon receiving your invitation to contribute to your Golem catalogue, I wrote a warning that I would be referencing Israel in my text. I was told to write whatever I wanted, and not that it would be subject to “approval”.

Understanding that there could be cultural differences in reception, I sent the text to some German friends, one a theater director, and one the chairman of a literature department at a German university which has hosted me as poet in residence. Both thought the text to be acceptable, appropriate both to the painting and to the current understanding of the Palestinian situation in Germany.

So I sent it on to you.

Without getting into the subject, I will simply say that it is standard Israeli hasbara to delegitimize any comparison of Israeli behavior with that of the Nazis. Yet the comparisons are obvious and horrifyingly ironic. Especially to an old Jew like me.

I assume I was invited to contribute to the catalogue because of my novel, Golem Song. That work, while a comic novel, was explicitly about the pathology of thinking oneself and one’s “race” “chosen”. It had a good reception in the Jewish community, including a positive review in the Forward, and expense-paid readings in Omaha and Virginia.

Speaking openly about Israeli atrocities, —

-- settlements as Lebensraum activities;

-- restrictions of Palestinians from travel, work, building or reconstruction as comparable to race laws;

-- widespread destruction of homes and agriculture as Kristallnacht without the glass;

-- attacks on children (Ayelet Shaked’s “little snakes”)*, their schools and their health as intentional genocide of an upcoming generation

— has become more common among Americans.


I am therefore surprised and disappointed that an institution as radical in form and content as the JMB would be so far behind the general understanding of Israeli government practices among the nations of the world, as demonstrated by annual UN General Assembly votes.

Should you reconsider, and decide to use my contribution (perhaps using gas without the Gift, and night without the Nebel), you can pay me the promised honorarium. Otherwise, please send it as your and my contribution to the next Free Gaza Flotilla, and let me know you have done that.

Thank you.


The Museum ignored my request to send my honorarium to the Women’s Flotilla, but after some interesting back and forth about the continuing sensitivity to Nazi language on the part of contemporary Germans, the museum accepted a slightly expurgated version of my text, and sent me the honorarium. That honorarium (along with its story) was sent to the Women's Boat to Gaza -- the next flotilla attempt to break Israel's cruel and illegal siege on the (occupied) territory.

I'd suggest you look into what these brave women are up to, and support them however you can.

The Golem exhibit opened on September 23, 2016, and will run for four months.