Chana Finkelstein made a golem baby. She was washing beets in her kitchen sink when she got the idea. The beetroots always had clumps of clay clinging to them, and there was a bright pinprick of surprise at the heft of the first little glob that she held in her hand. It was substantial, dense, like a dream when every word is weighted. She rolled it between her palms, and it became a snake. The snake whispered to her, adom, red. Her Hebrew wasn’t so great, but she knew from her years teaching Sunday school. Adom, red. Dam, blood. Adama, earth.
Adam, the first man, fashioned of clay.
She thought about how God must have felt, fingering that first bit of slick, heavy mud. She imagined God hollow-bellied, with sterile stars for eyes, like herself. She and Mordy had tried for years. They didn’t even talk about it anymore, but she felt that keening in her kishkes whenever friends in the mahjongg club showed pictures of their grandbabies, little bundles of plump flesh squeezed into I ♥ My Bubbe onesies. Chana rubbed the snake into a sphere, and dropped it into a Mason jar. She screwed on the top and placed it on the windowsill, among the little pots of aloe vera and the avocado pits spiked with toothpicks. She went back to the farmers’ market for more beets.
Her collection of clay burgeoned in steady increments, and her refrigerator began to fill with jars of pickled beets. It didn’t really seem so odd. Lacto-fermentation was all the rage. Everybody was talking about probiotics. Hilda Greenblatt was famous for her kimchi. Sadie Schwartz made garlicky green beans. Now Chana bestowed jars of beets on all the neighbors, and she and Mordy ate them at every meal. Mordy said he’d never been so regular.
When she had six jars of clay, she started on the sculpting. She wasn’t very good at it, but she spent time each night working at the kitchen table, her cheetah-print reading glasses perched on her nose. She carved with a paring knife from the set that she’d won at a Sisterhood raffle in 1989. Mordy would ghost by on his way to the refrigerator for another can of beer, shuffle back to the television set. He wasn’t one to ask a lot of questions.
Meanwhile, she started giving thought to how she’d go about actually bringing the baby to life. She’d taken a class on Kabbalah a few years back at the JCC. Jewish Mysticism, taught by one of those Chabad rabbis, the wild-bearded ones who stand outside the baseball stadium, ferreting out the lapsed and the unaffiliated, urging the men to wrap their arms in tefillin. She found her notes and the slim textbook on one of the bookshelves in the den. She thumbed through the pages one morning while Mordy was golfing with Joe Lipschitz. There were a lot of diagrams depicting God as a tree of circles, and she reread some interesting bits on meditation, and even reincarnation. But there was no practical instruction to suit her needs.
She started going to that young Rabbi Kleinman’s Lunch-and-Learn class on Wednesdays. After each session of exploring the relevance of the Genesis narratives in our Modern World and heaping paper plates with mounds of creamed herring, Chana would scour the synagogue library for clues, belching onion discreetly amid the stacks. Most of the books were biographies of Jewish celebrities and Yidded-up self-help schlock, but there were a few scarred hardcover volumes, dust jackets long gone, that seemed promising. She read her way through all the stories of the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew, who was said to have created a magical guardian from the clay of the Vltava River to defend the Prague ghetto from pogroms in the 16th century. There were reports from famous rabbis who claimed to have seen the remains of the golem in the attic of the Alt-Neu Synagogue. But there were other stories as well, the golem of Chelm, the golem of Vilna, a whole host of folktales from across Eastern and Central Europe that were dismissed as old wives’ tales, as bubbemeises.
Chana surmised that the one thing constant in the accounts was that the creatures were animated by using one of the names of God. There were seventy to choose from. Of course, why make it easy? The Hebrew letters were written out on parchment or a little clay tablet and placed in the mouth of the golem, or else inscribed directly on its forehead. There were also vaguely described “incantations” and rituals that accompanied the act, but none of the authors were forthcoming with the specifics. So she decided, if nothing else, that she would start practicing her penmanship.
She bought a notebook at the Rite Aid, and started filling it with lines of alef-bet, scrawled as neatly as she could manage, what with the touch of arthritis. By this time the golem baby was looking not-half-bad, and it sat like a centerpiece on the kitchen table, presiding over her efforts as a scribe. A real honest-to-God sofer she thought. Well, soferet, since I’m a woman. She wasn’t sure there really was such a thing, a lady scribe, wasn’t sure such things had been allowed. If there were, she was sure they weren’t old ladies at kitchen tables; they’d be the kind of hot-to-trot young women who went to beardless Rabbi Kleinman’s shul, the kind who wore men’s prayer shawls with miniskirts and dragged the tzitzis on the floor when they walked, stomping on the fringes with their hooker-shoes. Chana wanted no part of that.
But she was proud of herself nonetheless, and the baby looked on. She’d decided to give the baby eyes, pressing two dried chickpeas into the shallow sockets she’d thumbed out for it. For him. She’d decided it would be a boy, Adam. Adam Finkelstein. Adam ben Chana. She liked the sound of that. Mordy seemed spooked by Adam. He gave the kitchen table as wide a berth as he could; he kept bumping into the china cabinet, making all the plates and menorot wobble.
But Adam sat unperturbed, as Chana printed the names of God, right to left. Sometimes she’d still be hard at work after the Action 11 Late News was over and Mordy was ready for bed. He would clear his throat, use the downstairs toilet, leaving the door open so the flush would resound through the quiet house. The pipes would wail forlornly as they always did after use, and he’d drag his slippers on the hardwood floor. Sometimes she would relent and climb the stairs behind him, but more often she would shoo him off.
And then, finally, she felt she was ready. She wrote out a name on a small scroll, flawlessly – the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name that was so holy that it could never be spoken except by the High Priest, inside the Holy of Holies, on Yom Kippur. She figured an inscrutable, unpronounceable name should be the most powerful. She carefully sliced open a mouth for Adam and inserted the name, pinched his lips gently back together. She smiled at him. She stroked his lumpy head. She would still need to figure out a prayer to make her plan work.
First, she tried going to Rabbi Kleinman for help. His office was big and air conditioned, with leather couches and Chagall prints on the walls.
Mrs. Finkelstein he said, his eyes horrified, You know these stories are fairy tales, right?
Eh said Chana Who are you to say? Who am I to say? Can’t you just help me find the right words?
Rabbi Kleinman rubbed his smooth chin. He fiddled with his cufflinks.
Have you talked to Mordy about this? Have you been seeing your physician regularly, Mrs. Finkelstein?
Chana did not like the implication. She was not crazy. She got to her feet, clutching her handbag to her bosom. Rabbi Kleinman raced to open the office door for her as she turned her back to him and stomped toward it.
Oh, don’t bother. Do a good job at my funeral. I’ll see you then.
Wait! Wait, Mrs. Finkelstein! I didn’t mean any insult. He sighed, and smiled inwardly just a bit, and turned to his bookshelf. Here. I’ll give you this. I guess it couldn’t hurt anything.
He slid a book off a shelf. Sefer Yetzirah. The Book of Creation. Chana had read of it in several of the books she’d recently inspected in the synagogue library.
You’ve heard of it?
Chana tried. Every night for a week, once Mordy was snoring rhythmically in bed, she slipped out to the garage with Adam bundled up in the threadbare beach towel she’d always taken down to The Shore. She’d lay him out and recite passages from the Sefer Yetzirah. She tried bits that seemed pertinent. She tried lines at random, flipping through with her eyes closed and stabbing at the print with one finger. But nothing worked. Adam’s chickpea eyes stared blankly.
So, she visited the Chabad rabbi. Rabbi Schechter’s office was the size of her half-bath, and he was sweating profusely. Chana was nervous, but she told him everything. Rabbi Schechter was verklempt. He couldn’t choke out a word for a full minute.
Mrs. Finkelstein, with all due respect, this is the sort of study done by very learned scholars, very learned men--
Ah, men. Scholars. I see. She was too sad, too tired to even bother with proper insults. He needs to live. I need him to live. Her voice cracked.
Rabbi Schechter shook his head sadly. Pray to Hashem, Mrs. Finkelstein. Pray for a child, and perhaps you too will laugh with joy in your old age, like Sarah Imeinu, when she found she was with child.
Like Sarah Our Mother Chana said Yes, yes I see. You won’t do a thing for me.
If not like Sarah, then like Chana, your namesake. Think of Chana, she too was barren and Hashem answered her prayers.
Yes she sighed but which ones work?
Chana figured it out while in her kitchen, following the family recipe for gefilte fish. She was mincing the carp when it struck her. The pot full of heads was bubbling on the stovetop, and her mind had wandered to wondering how many logs of molded fish she’d made in all these years she’d spent in the kitchen. How many loaves of egg-washed challah, how many pots of chicken soup glistening with golden baubles of schmaltz? Oh, and to think of the number if she added in all those made by her mother, her grandmothers…
Chana dropped her knife onto the cutting board, and she ran for the attic stairs.
She found the box behind all of Mordy’s piles of junk. Her mother Rose Stromberg, of blessed memory, had presented the box to her. Inside was all that was left of Chana’s grandmother’s possessions – her immigration papers, her recipe book. Her siddur. But that wasn’t the prayer book she wanted, not the official siddur that Zelda Itzkowitz, of blessed memory, would have carried with her to shul every Shabbos, murmuring the Hebrew syllables by rote without ever really understanding. It was the little cloth-bound book of tkhines, the Yiddish devotions for women, that she wanted. These were the everyday prayers, written in the common language, that Zelda had understood. It was fitting to say that they were written in the mamaloshen, the mother tongue, for they were truly the prayers of her mothers. Chana felt in her bones that this had to be the key.
She’d never learned Yiddish, of course. There were still Hasidic families teaching it to their children as a first language, and speaking it fluently among themselves, but nobody modern took it seriously anymore. All of the great Yiddish literature, the novels and plays, were lost. Sure, Singer was translated. He’d won a Nobel in 1978; Chana remembered it well. But even then, Yiddish was considered an embarrassment. Everybody was busy resurrecting Hebrew, making it into a spoken language after centuries of merely liturgical use. It was part of Jewish pride now, part of loving Israel, to learn Hebrew, to forget about Yiddish. Yiddish was vulgar, Yiddish was for the unlearned. Yiddish was the language of Our Mothers.
But Chana knew now just where to go. She would pay a visit to the Mikvah Lady, Miriam Leibowitz.
Miriam had been the attendant for the women’s ritual bath for as long as Chana could remember. Chana had only visited the mikvah once herself, to immerse on the night before her wedding. She had just never really been that religious. She could never imagine herself abiding the observance, going every month after her menses, counting clean days and slipping away to the building behind the Orthodox synagogue under cover of night to dunk in the waters and emerge a new, ritually pure wife. Like popping out of a cake, but without the sugar frosting. It did always seem like it might be kind of exciting though, returning home to Mordy knowing that they’d be right off to bed. That it was a commandment. That no baseball game or episode of M*A*S*H could trump her marital needs. It always seemed alluring to Chana, but also a lot of bother. In any case, Chana was well past menopause now, and it would seem well past passion with Mordy, too.
But she knew where to find Miriam Leibowitz in the middle of the day, and she went the next afternoon, the book of tkhines snug in her handbag. Even though she was at least as old as Chana, Miriam was not well past passion. Miriam was infamous for her regular visits to the Shalom Gardens Hebrew Home for the Aged. She was a widow, after all, and it was known that she had a lunch date with a different eligible alter kocker every day. Excluding Shabbos, of course. That was apparently not only when God, but also Miriam Leibowitz, rested.
Racy rumors buzzed around Miriam’s perfectly coiffed raspberry-red hair like a crown of bees, but she would not let her honor be besmirched by petty gossip. She comported herself with the utmost dignity, and she had on more than one occasion called out a bewigged lady or two for their loshen hora. In the aisles of Stan Fleishman’s Kosher Market & Fine Deli Meats. Loudly. And in Yiddish.
Chana ran into her outside Arnie Glick’s room that Tuesday afternoon. She asked to speak with Miriam privately, and they walked together, and sat in the shade of the oak trees, on the patio where Shalom Gardens erected their sukkah each fall.
So Chana began I seem to have gotten myself all mixed up in some mishegoss…
While Chana talked, Miriam rummaged in her bag and withdrew a long cigarette case, the soft leather kind with a metal clasp at the top. She slid out an ultra-slim cigarette and lit it with a blue Bic. She directed the thin streams of gray smoke over Chana’s head, not saying a word. Chana reached the end of her tale and looked at Miriam expectantly. Miriam snubbed out her cigarette on the flagstone at her feet, and then leaned in.
She whispered El Shaddai.
Chana drew back and looked at Miriam, puzzled, but then she gathered her wits.
That’s one of God’s names.
But did you know its root? Did you know that the Hebrew word for breasts is shaddayim?
That I did not know said Chana.
You’ve been calling on the wrong name, I figure. That’s the name you write out tonight. And you’ve been asking for help in the wrong places, too. That Kleinman thinks you’re as demented as Rochel Nudelman, bless her poor fercockt heart, and that Schechter, even if he does know something, he’s not going to whisper a word of it unless you’ve got a schmeckie between your legs. Anyway, why ask a man how a woman should make a baby? Their golems are all brutes, what would you want with that? said Miriam. Now let me see your Bubbe’s tkhines.
She looked through the little book, and then she tapped a prayer with the tip of her red-lacquered nail. She read it aloud, and Chana felt her veins swell, although she didn’t understand a word. It was still the most beautiful poetry. Miriam translated it into English, then handed Chana the book.
So she said you learn this one. You say it every chance you get, everyday, for a week. Can you do that?
Good, said Miriam, but remember this. Chana did not just say magic words to get a miracle from God. Chana prayed with kavannah. With intention, with fervor. So much so that the priest at first believed she was drunk. You remember?
You learn this tkhine backwards and forwards until it’s seared into your heart, Chana Finkelstein. And next Tuesday at midnight, you come to the mikvah.
Chana kept nodding.
Bring your son with you.
A little gasp, like a sudden bloom, passed Chana Finkelstein’s lips, and she started to cry.
Nu, voos vet zein? Chana Finkelstein made a golem baby.