The Golem … just in time for Halloween

By Robert Erlewine, Director EMU Center for Jewish Studies

Just in time for Halloween, University of Michigan Professor of Hebrew Literature and Jewish Culture Maya Barzilai will deliver the Second Annual Martin B. Shichtman Lecture for the Eastern Michigan University Center for Jewish Studies, titled “Our Golems, Ourselves: What the Golem Narrative Teaches about the Modern Human Condition.” In this talk, Barzilai will consider the ways the Golem, this artificially created anthropoid, challenges our conception of humanity, making us consider to what degree and in what ways we are different from the machines and weapons we have created in our image. Barzilai will trace the emergence of the Golem as a nineteenth century folkloric figure and consider how this story has been retold in the twentieth century through comparisons to computers, cyborgs, and superheroes.

For a short period of time around Halloween, we call attention to and celebrate the bizarre, the monstrous, and the uncanny. It is a time where we collectively think about monsters. And while thinking about monsters can be fun, it can also be serious business. As cultural critics have long argued, monsters are rich with meaning, and often reveal and reflect societal anxieties and ambivalences. Given that these are troubling times on a variety of fronts, from international conflicts to the remarkable polarization in domestic politics, not to mention the intensification of the climate crisis and recent breakthroughs in AI technology, our moment is nothing if not anxious. This October, then, is a good time to think about monsters.

The Golem is one of the more famous Jewish monsters, though its fame extends well beyond the Jewish world. As Professor Maya Barzilai has shown in her important and award-winning book Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters from 2016, writers and artists in the twentieth century have found the figure of the Golem quite conducive for articulating anxieties about modern mechanized warfare. This story gets at something profound about our experiences with and concerns about the machines and weapons we make and employ but which always threaten to escape our control. With much-publicized breakthroughs in artificial intelligence in recent months, it has become quite common to see pundits, billionaires, and intellectuals argue about whether this technology will foster human thriving or lead to our undoing. In such an environment, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the figure of the Golem will continue to have a safe place in our cultural imaginary for some time.

Professor Barzilai will deliver the Second Annual Martin B. Shichtman Lecture at 7 p.m. in room 300 of the EMU Student Center on Monday, October 30. The event is free and open to the public.

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