A Golem is Going Around Berlin

The golem, a character from Jewish mythology, is currently present in an interesting exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin. But not only there.

Photograph of men dancing with dancing female robots

Yves Gellie, Human Version 2.08, Dancing Robot, Tohoku University, Japan; photo: Yves Gellie, galerie du jour agnès b

Guest article by Roberto Giardina, www.ildeutschitalia.com

In the foyer of the Museum for Communication, three robots – reminiscent of chess figures – are roaming around. They talk to the people walking up to them, stop and take a different route if you block their way, or accompany you when you walk next to them. Adults are just as fascinated as children. A visit to Berlin museums is fun, and doesn’t necessarily require you to speak German.

After playing on the ground floor at the Museum for Communication, you can visit the special exhibition on the Golden Section and have your forgotten school knowledge entertainingly refreshed (the exhibition Göttlich Golden Genial (godly golden genius) runs until 26 February, more on the Museum for Communication website (in German)).

Robots are fun to play with, but they have been the stuff of nightmares since time immemorial – will they take our jobs away from us soon? Such machines, be they humanoid robots or whatever they look like, can write an article such as this one or even a novel, they can beat a chess master, replace the postal carrier, and produce other machines on the assembly line. It is mankind’s dream or nightmare to create a being like ourselves. Kabbala researcher Gershom Scholem named the first computer built in Israel in 1965 “Golem Alpha.”

A room with exposed action figures and their huge shadows on the wall

View of the exhibition GOLEM; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Yves Sucksdorff

The Jewish Museum is currently showing an exhibition on the golem (until 29 January, more on the exhibition at www.jmberlin.de/en/golem). It is fascinating and exceptionally well designed – and in its own way also suitable for young people. The first descriptions of a creature modeled of dust and earth which comes to life thanks to a magical combination of Hebrew letters can be found in the Talmud. The experiment fails because, as the Talmud explains, it can only be achieved by a perfectly righteous rabbi – one completely free of sin. Since this is not true of any human being, the golem remains an impossible dream.

Action figure with huge shadow behind it on the wall

Stone golem in the exhibition GOLEM; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Yves Sucksdorff

Nevertheless, man has never been able to resist the temptation. Each epoch has had its golem. And because the attempt to create it is a sin, the experiment will end badly. Our creation will turn against us. “Since its opening 15 years ago, the golem has been on the Jewish Museum’s list of topics,” says Cilly Kugelmann, program director at the museum. “It is the ambivalence of this figure that has kept interest alive throughout the ages and to this day.” The exhibition presents 250 objects, some of which come from New York and Jerusalem, which range from cinema about comics to novels, from the first pictures in the Middle Ages to pop culture.

Scene from Der Golem, 1915

It is not by chance that the golem reappeared on the scene again thanks to the novel by Gustav Meyrink in 1915 – in a world at war, the first war in which machines became protagonists, from tanks to airplanes. “There was a proper golem boom,” noted Cilly Kugelmann. In the same year, Paul Wegener shot a film based on the novel. Three further silent films followed. “The golem is still a popular metaphor,” says curator Martina Lüdicke. “It remains a fundamental question where we find the golem today, and it is surprising how it is also in areas we do not expect.”

Six little golem figures

Golem action figures and souvenirs, 21st century; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Stefanie Haupt

Young people visiting the museum will be surprised when they discover that the golem can hide – to name just one example – in a mobile phone where it dominates, controls, directs, and spies on its victims. Visitors will wonder why Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” baseball cap is displayed. And in the museum shop, children will find a Lego set to build their own golem out of plastic like the two rabbis from Babylon.

The author Roberto Giardina has been living in Germany since 1986. He is correspondent for QN (Giorno-Resto del Carlino – La Nazione) and Italia Oggi and author of several novels and essays that have been translated into French, Spanish, and German. Published in German, Anleitung die Deutschen zu lieben (A guide to loving the Germans; Argon und Goldmann), Königliche Verschwörung (Royal conspiracy; Bertelsmann), Keine Angst vor Rothaarigen (No fear of the red-haired; Argon), Hundert Zeilen (A hundred lines; Arena) and most recently Berlin liegt am Mittelmeer (Berlin on the Mediterranean; Avinus publishers).

This text was first published in Italian in the online magazine Il Deutsch-Italia.

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