Mrs. Friedman's Golem

Because I was “the heathen boy” and smart
enough to pass for Jewish, free I ran
on the Friedmans’ neighboring house and grounds.
One early-summer day, with Marilyn,
a year my elder, we played in the pines
that fringed their leaf-filled, empty swimming pool.
An endless ball of packing twine unwound
around the spindly trees, not spider webs,
but corridors and doorways, here a room,
a closet there – in an almost clearing
a wide space for a sunbeam-lit ballroom.
The hotel dubbed “The Sunny-Day-Only”—
the sleeping rooms and beds would be up above
in tree-house heights to be scaled by ladders.
As our fancy turned up to ziggurat
heights and bird-nest bedding, we didn’t see
the bearded, smiling Mennonite preacher
until he was right upon us. “Children!”
he hailed us, then asked if we believed
in Jesus, who was up above the trees,
and died, so we could go to heaven too.
Up then went Marilyn’s defiant chin.
“We’re Jewish.” He looked at me, dubious.
“And you?” he asked. I shrugged. “So what
are you?” —
“I’ve never been in a church,” I told him.
A pine cone fell at his feet and shattered.
Don’t you believe in anything?” he growled,
now in a tone that said grownup-to-child.
“Superman, maybe,” I mocked him, and turned
to resume my arbor-building. He left
dumbfounded, his Anabaptist faith scorned
by children’s string maze in a Druid grove.

Our string hotel survived two nights, then vanished.
“My mother told me the robins took it —”
so Marilyn explained it, “ — for their nests.
Besides, the guests are coming. It’s June now,
and the swimming season starts tomorrow.”
season, as we all came to know it,
was at the Friedmans’ immense swimming pool;
by June’s end swell, a half a hundred guests,
from wading toddlers to aquatic teens,
babies in prams to motionless elders,
umbrella-tabled at the green-blue pool.

That afternoon, indoors, we played at cards —
an outsize canasta with twenty decks,
which drew a great shriek from Mrs. Friedman
as she came home with the month’s vast larder
of picnic food and frozen lemonade.
Our task: re-separate and sort the decks
and stack them up in a neat pyramid.
Summers these rumpled cards had seen before,
beneath the hawk-eyed ladies’ gaze, enthroned
and clucking at their poolside card tables;
the cards would doubtless outlive some of them.
Scores would be there by shimmering August,
the men apart from the women, a cloud
of cigarettes where they leaned together
and worried over business and politics.
Children in bathing suits ran to and from
the house, wet trails and footprints to and from
the bathrooms, the sinks, the freezer. Sometimes
I was asked to take ice or a pitcher
to one of the tables, there where I learned
one should never swim just after eating
and tales of drowning and worries about
the unfortunates who got polio,
and Mrs. Friedman’s oft-repeated fretting
about one bad boy who peed in the pool,
never enough chlorine when that occurs.
The men talked
of other things I knew nothing of
in a language I did not understand.

The season really starts next week, you see. Next week.”
As Marilyn explained to me. “Mother has asked
everyone to come over tomorrow to help.
The pool needs cleaned, the cobwebbed furniture wiped down,
Dead leaves, dog poop and pine cones everywhere. We’ll see
if anyone shows up.” — “Won’t they?” I asked. — “Not one.”
Card sorting done, we went back to our comic books:
she read my Superman, I her Wonder Woman,
a title no boy would ever be caught reading.

Saturday came. The day waned and one car only
came up the lane and parked. All day we made the ice
for grape juice and lemonade brimful in freezer
and buckets. Sandwiches were made, and snacks put out.
Squirrels came to the windows expectantly, bird-chirp
anticipated the crowd, the crumbs, the leavings.
I lingered for dinner as Mrs. Friedman seethed on,
serving cold plate with embarrassment and anger.
The guest was new, a stranger, a bearded, calm man
in a business suit they called Rabbi. His voice
was deep, and with a foreign sound I could not place.
“Rabbi Doctor Baruch,” they said I should call him.
Already he knew my name, and turning, he said:
And you are the little boy who is not Jewish
who made string Stars of David all over the porch
December last. “I blushed, recalling Mrs. Friedman’s
horror at finding her decorated house-front.
“He felt sorry for us,” Mr. Friedman offered up,
“because we had no Christmas ornaments outside.”
They all laughed heartily. Still no one would tell me
why my six-pointed ornaments had been torn down
with such speed and alarm. “Anyone driving by,”
was all that Marilyn’s mother said, “they could see.”

But Rabbi,” Mr. Friedman continued, “I know you wanted
to meet our friends.” The rabbi shrugged. — “You call those friends?”
his wife retorted. “All summer long they come here,
they use the pool, we feed them, and pretend to laugh
at their worn-out humor. And all this work, for what?
I could be listening to the opera on the radio.
Not one of them will come and help us clean the pool!”

“So, next week I can come back,” the Rabbi offered.
“All of us need to help Jews get out of Russia.
First Stalin was killing us all over again,
and now his heir, that smiling thug Khrushchev.”
Mrs. Friedman had other worries:
“So who’s going to clean the pool? Not you, Rabbi!
Shame on us if it came to that.” Mr. Friedman
fussed with his sandwich and fork in embarrassment.
Silence and shadow-blink of a passing cloud held us.
The Rabbi’s long-fingered hands passed twirling circles
twice in his dark beard, as though he had to ask it,
then, with one hand extended palm up he asked her,
“Mrs. Friedman, you want I should make a Golem?”

Mouths opened wide, eyes wider.
Even I knew what a Golem was.
It was in
Famous Monsters.
A Golem,” Mrs. Friedman gulped.
“Would it — could it — ”
“Anything you want done, it can do.
It’s not an easy thing, and I need not say
that no one should know afterwards.
I come from Poland, where such things are done.”

The Rabbi turned an intense gaze on me.
“Boy, you are not Jewish?” —
“No, Rabbi, I’m not.” —
“You are not Christian?” —
“No, I’m not.” —
Not even a tiny bit?” —
I went two weeks to Bible School. They asked me
not to come back.” —
“So, you are not a Christian. Swear it.” —
I cleared my throat. Whatever this was,
I had to be in on it.
I swear I am not a Christian.” —
“Never baptized?”
I knew what that was from movies.
“No, never baptized.” —
So, you do not know the secret name of God?”
I could have said “Yahweh” or “Adonai,” two words
I already knew from poetry. Instead I said, “No.” —

Very well. You will be my assistant.
At ten o’clock, you come to the swimming pool. Tell no one.”
I beamed from ear to ear. “I’ll be there. I promise.”

This was better than Christmas morning. A Golem. A Golem.
They sent me home. I crept to my bedroom.
A flashlight and comics would keep me awake.
At ten, I ran alongside the Friedman house. Two cars’
headlights full beamed on the swimming pool.
The Rabbi and Mr. Friedman were up the slope
that led to the scant woods above the property.
They stooped and touched bare ground.
Strange clay, not like back home, but it will do,”
our sorcerer intoned, as with a walking stick
he outlined the lumpy shape of a man
on the bare and eroded clay hillside,
a place I knew, where owls and wild turkeys
lurked in the shrubs and saplings.
He passed his cane this way and that,
and uttering a prayer we could not-quite hear —
it seemed to hover an inch from his beard
like a will o’the wisp — a prayer not meant
for human ears but for spirits

And the shape he had outlined stood,
and separated itself from the yellow clay bank.
It stood. It shook itself free
of dust and tiny stones and tree-root.
It stood,
and moved no further, inert
as a sculptor’s first molding.
It was a lump with but a hint of legs,
arm-like extrusions bent at the elbow
and a great square head, two holes
where eyes should have been
and a mouth-gap the size of a mailbox.

Mr. Friedman pulled back in terror.
“I thought you were joking. I never thought.
My god, I never thought —”
Before I could react, the Rabbi had lifted me,
and placing a folded ribbon of paper
into my tiny hand, he put me up
on the Golem’s forearm.

Put the paper in the Golem’s mouth.
Only then will he move
and obey our orders.”
I started to raise my left hand
to the horizontal gape
that was the Golem’s mouth.
His beard brushed my ear
as he whispered, “Do not,
under any circumstances,
look into the Golem’s eyes.” —

And what would happen, Rabbi?” —

“You would see things no one
was meant to see and live.
Just do as I ask and no more,
and you will be safe, and blessed.”

My head averted, I found the mouth
by touch and slid the paper in.
There came a groan,
as low as a tuba in a passing parade,
no, low as the bass drum that rattles
your stomach in passing,

and then I was standing,
the Rabbi’s hand atop my head
for the longest time
until he let me go.

We saw the Golem in silhouette first
as the great shape lumbered
to the lit-up pool.
And so, with broom and mop
and chemicals, the hulking thing
descended the shallow-end stairs
into the vacant pool, as Mrs. Friedman,
at ease as though a local workman
were there before her, paced round
the pool and gave out orders.
Sweep there, no, higher up,
you missed a spot.

How long this took, I cannot recall.
Marilyn saw some of it
from her bedroom window,
just lights and a shape in silhouette
and her mother going this way, that way
waving her arms in command.
(Her little sister, sent to bed early,
saw nothing.)

The pool was filled, the last leaves swept
into heaps to be bagged and carted.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Friedman argued.
She wanted more done. The men were nervous.
Cars might come along Kingview Road.
So far, not one had passed.

There was that house, at hilltop,
whose windows frowned down
on all their summers, a house
that just a dozen years back
had hosted a rally of sheeted rioters,

that day the thirty thousand Klansmen
poured into town to terrify the Catholics.
Catholics then, but now the Jews and Negroes.
You worried about groups of men
riding on the back of a pickup truck
up to no good on a Saturday night.

The moonless night blazed with stars.
Shapes human and not,
moved in and out of the headlamps
as the Golem swept, and scrubbed,
and swept again. At the end of it all,
the Golem returned to the edge of the wood.

All looked with relief
at the still-black windows
of the big white house on the hill.
No light had come on up there.
No one had seen us.

Then I was raised once more
to retrieve the undecipherable scroll
that I knew, but did not tell them,
read “emet,” the word for truth.
The clay mouth was wider, deeper
than when the Golem was made,
wide enough for a small boy
to fall in and be devoured.
“Go on!”
the Rabbi chided me. “He cannot bite.
He has no teeth. Just find the paper.”
I reached, back till my elbow was wet
with clay. He smelled now of chlorine
and year-old leaves. I found it.
My fingers closed around it.
My head went back. My eyes
gazed straight into the emerald
furnaces of the Golem’s still-living orbs.

And I saw everything —
A high-domed palace of giants,
packed to the walls with them,
legion of lumbering Golem shapes
impatient to be born
from a place of good deeds unbidden,
of help that could have, but never came —
the nullity of unworked magic
and failed alchemy.

I saw new kinds of geometry —
triangles unnamable
through which the news of past
and future calamities flies
like telegraphs, most sent
to wrong recipient, and read too late --
how triangles, upward and downward
formed openings how spun they formed
vast polyhedrous entities
whose facets were the insides
of never-opened geodes,
arched around gateways
of onyx and adamantine —

Vectors of force and how
to form and shape them
from nothing but will,
nudged by the eye
in forehead’s center
into a brooding shape
of inward angles
then up and out bat-winged
hurled down as a smiting force
upon the smiters —

Power I saw, but not compassion,
a dark, cold cavern
despite the light of whirling wish-forms
and the firefly storm of eyes
the color of emeralds.

I think I fainted.
The Rabbi, the Friedmans
stood in a circle around me.
A cold cloth was on my forehead.
Thank God,” said Mrs. Friedman,
we don’t have to call an ambulance.”
The Rabbi leaned down
and hissed in my ear:
Did you see? Did you see?”

I dared not smile, despite
the exultant knowledge
that flooded over me.
I saw,” I answered simply.
He paused, eyes shining.
I saw … everything.”

He raised his hands in horror,
then waved two counter-circles
above my head
as if to cut a cord above me.

I went back home. I added
the Hebrew-lettered paper
to my Famous Monsters scrapbook,
Golem marked off between
Frankenstein” and “Mummies.”
I had an ovoid sandstone
warm in the palm, I dubbed
The Philosopher’s Stone,”
thought it would help make
little Golems I’d shape one day.

The following week
the Rabbi ignored me
as I carried ice and card decks
to the women’s tables
the darting eyes of Mrs. Friedman
said Don’t you dare tell.

I stood off in the pines to watch.
The women sunbathed and played at cards.
The shirt-sleeved men kept apart
as one by one they came to the Rabbi’s table
and passed him envelopes, a stack
before him by the end of the afternoon.
They had done their part against Krushchev.

He watched them. He watched them watching
as one another’s wives dived in
to the deep end of the swimming pool.
His back was to the women.
After one walk uphill to the clay bank,
just to be sure it had resumed its previous state,
I’m sure, he went to his car. I waved.
I think he saw me. I think a slight nod
was his only thank-you. I was the clay
he could not put back from where it came.

Not to worry. I am still
not a Christian.

Rabbi, The Golem said to tell you:

A hammer is as nothing
without a hand to wield it.
A hand is as nothing
without a mind to guide it.
A mind is as nothing
without the will to drive it
The will is as nothing
without the gift of knowing
Knowing is as nothing
without the love that burns
at the core of the never-dying stars:
love of what was, love of what is,
love of what can be.

vi-a (The Golem’s message in Yiddish) (tentative)

A hammar iz gornisht
felndik a hant
tsu vild es.

A hant iz gornisht
felndik a gayst
tsu firn es.

A meynung iz gornisht
felndik di vilpauer
tsu for es.

Vilpauer iz gornischt
felndik di talant
fun visn.

Veyst iz gornischt
felndik di libe
vos brent
in di harts
fun imortal shtern:

libe aoyb vos iz geven,
libe aoyb voz iz,
libe aoyb vos kenen zeyn.


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