Monster with a Yiddish accent at TJT

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Think of him as the Jewish Frankenstein monster.

The golem is a half-formed, manmade creature that pops up in folk literature and drama from time to time just to send a few shivers down the collective Jewish spine.

Now he’s slouching towards the Bay Area as Traveling Jewish Theater presents “Dirt and Glory: Return of the Golem,” which launches a two-week run beginning Thursday, Dec. 22.

With its penchant for the fanciful, TJT would seem to be the perfect ensemble to tackle the golem tale. Surprisingly, this new production marks the first time the company has staged it.

“This is one we haven’t touched before,” says director Eric Rhys Miller. “I was interested in working with folk tales this year, and read many different versions [of the golem story].”

Unlike “The Dybbuk,” the other popular Jewish spook story, there is no single plot line for the golem. The best known is set in 16th-century Prague, in which a rabbi, in order to defend the city’s Jews, creates a golem out of clay. (The term derives from the Hebrew “gelem,” meaning “raw material.”) Unfortunately, the golem slips out of the rabbi’s control, embarking on a path of violence and mayhem.

The golem legend arguably has biblical roots (Adam in Genesis is described in golem-like terms), but the more-familiar figure began with the writings of medieval Jewish mystics. The Prague story further solidified the concept of an animated mud creature, but in more modern times, the golem emerged as a metaphor for the fallibility of human endeavor.

The figure of the golem influenced creative artists beyond the Jewish community. Writers like Mary Shelley, Wolfgang Goethe and J.R.R. Tolkein have all drawn on the concept of a quasi-human creature in their work. Even contemporary artists have taken a pass at the golem story, as did Steven Spielberg with his 2001 film “A.I.”

Miller chose to stick to the Jewish basics. He and his cast of three workshopped the story for weeks, eventually coming up with their own original take on the golem.

“It’s become a relevant metaphor for human creations that have the potential to do great good or great harm,” says Miller. “The golem is not capable of understanding justice or using mercy. He’s a blank.”

Miller is mum about how the production will depict the beast, saying only his golem will be “theatrical and mysterious. The golem has been compared to a nation state, an army and many other possible meanings. Our play will hopefully open those up.”

Though TJT tends to keep things all in the family, Miller held open auditions for roles, and two actresses — Emlyn Guiney and Sara Zimmerman — will be making their debuts with the company. Actor Zac Jaffee last appeared in a TJT production in 2003 with “The Chosen.”

“One of the aims is to get in new artists in,” says Miller. “Everyone contributed some terrific writing [to the play], and the process has been very agreeable.”

“Dirt and Glory” is part of TJT’s ongoing educational touring and outreach program, which brings Jewish cultural programming to local communities. That means the play will eventually tour beyond the normal confines of its San Francisco-home base.

Though Miller sees plenty of deep metaphorical richness in the golem tale, he remains mindful of the need, first and foremost, to entertain his audiences. “It has a kind of pulp fiction, monster-movie shiver to it,” he says. “It’s great fun.”

“Dirt and Glory: Return of the Golem” plays 8 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 22-24 and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 25 at Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida Street, S.F. Also 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 29 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 1 at the Berkeley Richmond JCC, 1414 Walnut Street, Berkeley. Tickets: $10-$30. Information: (415) 522-0786.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.