They huddled around the fireplace, watching the potato-skins crackle and blacken: this was one of those times when hunger trumps fear. Pulling his shawl close, Josiah turned his head, eyeing the street through the window. Oil street lamps burned, snaps breaking the night?s silence. Sometimes these were the worst nights, and he could almost see goyim hiding behind garbage pails and under awnings, concealing clubs and unlit torches. At the slightest provocation they would rush windows with bricks and flames, killing men and raping women. Not even children were safe in this ghetto; the king turned a blind eye to the vicious pogroms as his soldiers perpetrated them. Josiah turned back to the fireplace, looking across the faces of his fellow students and their teacher, Rabbi Yosef. They were all fearful, clutching at long forks and shoddy garments after a day?s worth of Bible study. The ghetto gates had been torn asunder the night before by an angry mob, chanting of matzah made from the blood of Christian babies. Maybe outside of Poland it was different. Here, however, there was no safety, where fifty could die in one night. Now eating the potatoes, now cleaning up, now ushering people out of the house through the back door ? everything had to be done quietly, in secrecy, with the utmost care.
?Josiah. Wait.? Josiah heard Rabbi Yosef?s voice hiss his name through the darkness, piercing the silence. ?Go back to the fireplace, meet me there.? Josiah didn?t know why, but there was no reason not to: if it came, it would come, wherever he was. As he stepped through the doorway, he saw Yehuda, a fellow student, already there. He and Yehuda were not close; he asked him no questions, only took up a Bible and pretended to read. Minutes later Rabbi Yosef returned as well, holding a heavy book that Josiah did not recognize, embroidered in gold script. ?Shhhhh,? said Rabbi Yosef. ?Follow me upstairs.? Lighting a candle in the fireplace embers, Rabbi Yosef led the two students into his own room, a cramped study-with-cot at the back of the house. The desk was spread with scrolls in some indecipherable language, not Polish but certainly not Hebrew, for the script was entirely foreign. ?Come closer, closer,? said Rabbi Yosef, and they did as the Rabbi placed the heavy tome upon the table with a thud. He opened it to an arbitrary page and started flipping pages, forwards and backwards, until he came upon the one for which he was obviously searching. It was stained with candle-wax and oil and, surprisingly, mud, somehow still wet, and along one side was a drawing of a large, clay man with vague features. The unknown script ran in lines along the page. Yehuda let out a stunted exclamation: ?Golem!? Josiah had heard the word, but did not remember the context..
?Yes, you are right, Yehuda. This is the Golem, that mythical creature made of mud and clay to protect the Jews in time of need.? That was it! Legend had it that, in times of desperation, a great Rabbi could recite the words of the Schekhina, of Jewish mysticism, over a man made from the ground of a Jewish cemetery, and that monster would come alive. Of course no one had believed it. ?We must go to the cemetery ? tonight! ? if we are to save ourselves and our people. You must help me to construct this man, and we must work with utmost haste. We have no choice.?
The trudge to the graveyard was long, for the three found it necessary to skirt the city so as not to attract any attention, as Jews were not supposed to be outside the ghetto at night. Through the fog, under the cloudy sky, Rabbi Yosef carried the heavy volume as Josiah and Yehuda helped to keep him steady. Happening upon the cemetery gates, Rabbi Yosef reached into his robe to retrieve a silver key and, slipping it into the lock, pushed the gates open slowly to minimize the creaking sound. There were new graves all around, half-dug and just-filled and barely-started. Evading the gaping holes proved some difficulty as they ascended the mount to the furthest and oldest graves. Here, where the dirt was soft and wet, they could construct a man.
And construct him Josiah and Yehuda did, working for hours to make a giant ten feet tall with forearms wide as cannons and fists like boulders as Rabbi Yosef muttered incantations and threw dirt and etched symbols on the clay monster?s cold body. As they finished, the Rabbi wrote the word Emet ? Hebrew for ?truth? ? on his forehead and asked the two students to step back. Holding the tome, he stood at the creature?s feet and called to God in a language Josiah had never heard before. The clouds above opened and lightning cackled down from the sky, and Josiah knew that he was in the presence of the Lord; angels descended a ladder of light, spirits of God, and gave life to the monster, and suddenly all was silent and it was somehow dawn. Josiah did not know how the time had passed, but he was standing beside three men now and not two: Yehuda, Rabbi Yosef, and, clad in grey rags, a hunched-over, dark-skinned giant. ?I would like you to meet Yonatan,? said Rabbi Yosef. ?He will be a new assistant at the synagogue.? Together, Rabbi Yosef clutching the book to his chest, they walked back to the ghetto only to find that in their absence, more had been killed in another pogrom. ?This was just in time,? whispered the wizened Rabbi. Somehow he looked older.
In the synagogue, Rabbi Yosef showed Yonatan to a room in the back which was filled with decaying books and layers of dust, one that Josiah had never found unlocked before. ?This will be your room, Yonatan, when you are working in the shul. At other times, you will be at the ghetto gates.?
Yonatan spoke for the first time and sounded like a child of only eight or ten years: ?Yes, Rabbi,? he replied meekly. ?I know what I have to do.?
Then it was night, and it was time. Yonatan stood by the newly-repaired gates as an army of Poles marched up the path with blades and torches, chanting something in their horrible language. Josiah, from the walls, could make out one word repeated over and over: ?Jew.? They did not know what awaited them.
And then it was over, eighty, ninety Poles dead and no Jews hurt. The gates had been torn from their hinges, but by Yonatan, who had grown to twenty feet and then thirty feet and then fifty feet tall in his rage. His fists pounded the ground as the Poles approached, and he threw them miles, cracked their bones in his hands and stomped them as they came close to his feet. His voice boomed with anger, no longer young but with the voice of an angel of God. Truly the Golem was the savior of the Jews.
The next day, Rabbi Yosef was called for an audience with the king. He took with him his three attendants: Yonatan, Josiah, and Yehuda. They were led immediately to the royal chamber: ?Stop this carnage,? the king said, ?and we will give you what you want.?
?We want only peace and safety,? the Rabbi replied.
?Then we will grant you that,? conceded the king. The Rabbi went back to the people filled with relief, and they accepted him with joy. He had saved them.
Yet in the synagogue, there was someone who was filled with sadness. ?What is my purpose now?? asked Yonatan. ?How am I to fight, if there is no one to fight??
?You have fulfilled your duty,? said Rabbi Yosef. ?You are free to go.?
?I like it here. I do not want to go back to the cemetery.?
?You must,? said the Rabbi. ?It is your place.?
?I will not go!? insisted Yonatan. ?I saved you! You owe me something in return!?
?You saved yourself and your people, Golem, as an angel of the Lord. It is time, now.? The Rabbi took his cane and rubbed the first letter ? the aleph ? off of the Golem?s forehead. It no longer read ?Emet? for ?truth.? Now it read ?Met,? which in Hebrew means death. The Golem crumbled onto the floor of his dusty chamber, and Rabbi Yosef returned the heavy tome to the pile. Stepping outside the room, he locked the door. He hoped no one would have to open it again for a long while.