Adam Mansbach's new book is "The Golem of Brooklyn." (Photo/Susan Chainey)
Adam Mansbach's new book is "The Golem of Brooklyn." (Photo/Susan Chainey)

In Adam Mansbach’s latest novel, a golem confronts white nationalists in present-day Kentucky

In the classic folktale about the golem of Prague, a 16th-century rabbi fashions a protector for the city’s ghetto-dwelling Jews out of mud from the banks of the Vltava River.

In the new novel “The Golem of Brooklyn,” a present-day art teacher named Len gets stoned and uses sculpting clay pilfered from the high school where he teaches to create a golem of his own, just for the hell of it. The 9-foot-tall golem drops acid, learns to speak broken English by binge-watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” complains that Len forgot to give him a “shmok” (Yiddish for … you know what) and breaks a lot of stuff.

When it learns about an upcoming white nationalist rally in Kentucky, the creature demands to be taken there to confront the marchers. “Plan is, The Golem gonna kill everybody,” it tells Len. “The Golem gotta protect Jews. This not hard concept to understand.”

“I wanted to write a funny, shit-talking, aggressive golem,” Berkeley author Adam Mansbach said about his latest novel in a recent Zoom interview. “I just had such a good time with every aspect of this book.”

At an event co-presented by JCC East Bay, Mansbach will discuss “The Golem of Brooklyn” on Sept. 26, its publication day, at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. He will also participate in book events at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael on Oct. 26 and the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on Nov. 9.

Mansbach, 47, began researching the mythology surrounding the golem a few years ago while working on “A Field Guide to the Jewish People,” a humor book that he co-wrote with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel. Around the same time, he became interested in epigenetics, the study of changes in gene activity, and in particular the notion that trauma can be passed down via DNA from generation to generation.

“It occurred to me that what I could do is rethink the entire being of the golem in a way that, to my knowledge, has never been done, which is to make the golem a creature who has an ancestral memory,” he said. “That opened up immediate possibilities for me.”

I wanted to write a funny, shit-talking, aggressive golem.

In the world of the novel, the same golem has been animated throughout history by successive righteous men to rescue Jews from calamity. But in September of 1941, the golem failed to prevent the Nazi massacre of more than 33,000 Jews at the Babyn Yar ravine in Kyiv and was destroyed.

To his surprise, Len — “a regular schmuck,” Mansbach called him in the interview — is able to conjure the golem back into existence by following instructions he found on the internet. Initially, the creature speaks only Yiddish, so Len enlists Miri, a formerly Hasidic woman who works as a cashier at a local bodega, to serve as a translator. (In real life, Mansbach relied on Yiddishist Eddy Portnoy for help writing the dialogue.)

As they make their way from Brooklyn to Kentucky in a modified SUV — the golem ripped out the back seats to make room for itself — the characters argue over what, exactly, they should do when they get to the rally. “Curb” creator Larry David shows up in one scene to offer his characteristically flippant perspective.

Mansbach said he dashed off the comic novel in a few months last year, with the resurgence of antisemitism in the United States on his mind. His publisher One World fast-tracked it into print.

“They felt that it was so timely and relevant, and, like, I didn’t want to burst their bubble and tell them that antisemitism would still be around in the winter,” he said wryly. “I think ultimately this book is about how you confront hatred, and how doing so can transform you. And yeah, I think that’s an important and timely thing to be writing about right now.”

As he has done for other books he’s written, Mansbach invited musicians to create a companion piece. “The Golem of Brooklyn Original Soundtrack,” which will be released on Sept. 29, includes 12 original songs produced by Messiah Musik (real name Dan Zunikoff) and written by Defcee (Adam Levin). Mansbach executive produced the album and narrated passages from the book that Messiah Musik incorporated into the songs.

“There’s a track called ‘Thrash, Memory,’ which is one of the names of the chapters in the book, and I started crying listening to it because it was so beautifully reflective of what I had put in the book but not derivative of it,” Mansbach said.

On another track that is sure to raise some eyebrows, Defcee expresses his disgust with racism in Israel and with Jewish supporters of right-wing politicians such as former President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Many of us became who we hid from in basements,” he raps on “Met: Confederate Flags in Tel-Aviv.”

He also appears to place some blame for the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting on the late casino mogul and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson: “Sheldon Adelson shared the wealth and wound up funding the domestic terror cells / Stained synagogues with blood in Pittsburgh so his legacy’ll wear the shells.” (“Shells” is a reference to bullet casings.)

Defcee told J. he took poetic license with that line; Adelson did not fund the Tree of Life attacker, nor does Mansbach suggest as much in the novel. But Defcee, 34, wanted to spotlight what he called the hypocrisy of American Jews over whom they choose to hold accountable for stoking antisemitism.

“We’re very reluctant to call out white [people] whose words and actions have a much more lasting effect on our day-to-day life and could inspire violence against Jews,” he said, but quick to “pounce” on Black figures such as politician Jesse Jackson and rapper Jay Electronica for making statements deemed antisemitic. “The kind of rhetoric that inspired the person who shot up the synagogue in Pittsburgh, a lot of that rhetoric is publicized by people who are campaigning for Trump,” he added. (Adelson, who died in 2021, contributed millions of dollars toward Trump’s first two presidential campaigns.)

Mansbach declined to comment on the song, saying he wished to allow Defcee to speak for himself.

By the end of “The Golem of Brooklyn,” the creature has been turned back into an inanimate pile of clay. But that does not mean that Mansbach is done with his creation. “The golem is a renewable resource, right? The golem of this book is deactivated but can be remade at any point in the future,” he said. “There’s more golem to be written by me.”

“The Golem of Brooklyn” by Adam Mansbach (One World, 272 pages). Mansbach will be in conversation with W. Kamau Bell at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, 2619 Broadway. $25 for admission and a copy of the book ($10 no book).

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.