Children's literature

25th April 1997 at 01:00
The Golem of Old Prague By Michael Rosen Illustrated by Brian Simons Five Leaves Publications PO Box 81 NG5 4ER Pounds 5.99

The cover says "a children's classic by Michael Rosen", but this is a rather problematic claim. There is no acknowledgement of the 1915 text by Gustav Meyrink from which some of the story is derived. Moreover, the theme of virulent anti-Semitism that impels the narrative (Jews as alleged child-killers; babies' blood mixed in the matzo balls for the Seder night soup) require careful guidance from adults if young readers are not to confuse myth and fact.

Rosen's way of telling the tale echoes some of the horrors of recent European history, and no one would query his total commitment to a literature promoting equality and tolerance.

Nonetheless, the fact that the villains here are explicitly Christians, led by the mad monk Thaddeus, will also need sensitive handling despite the balancing presence of wise cardinals.

The central character, the rabbi Loeb, teaches through precept and example a simple code of morality: against greed and selfishness, deceit and vanity, and in favour of steadfastness, quiet scholarship and walking humbly before the Lord. He certainly makes salutary reading during an election campaign.

The Golem himself, the artificial man made by the rabbi from the four elements, with the aid of psalm singing and the secret name of God, doesn't appear till halfway through. Children used to Frankenstein's monster, or recent experiments in cloning, will have little difficulty with the notion of a man of clay who carries out his master's commands.

The Golem's actions, from minor tricks such as passing on warts to major acts like saving the Jews from pogroms, feature in a series of brief chapters.

The use of Yiddish and Hebrew is delicately done. Translations are quietly offered in context so readers won't be fazed by "meshuggener" or "shemozzle". But while the book has something of the Isaac Bashevis Singer sense of gossip and wonder, it misses out most of the fear and pity.

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