Adam Mansbach Made a Monster that Makes Us Laugh

What do you do with a ton of pottery clay when you’re stoned? What do you do when your creation comes to life? Can you teach him right from wrong? If he bludgeons some neo-Nazis in defense of the Jewish people, is that really so wrong? 

These are some of the questions explored in The Golem of Brooklyn by Adam Mansbach. Featured in the Mayerson JCC Jewish Books Series, moderator by Professor Jenny Caplan interviewed the author via Zoom. Mansbach is probably best known for his parodies of children’s books, Go the F**k to Sleep and You Have to F**king Eat. Mansbach also collaborated with fellow humorists Alan Zwiebel and Dave Barry on A Field Guide to the Jewish People: Who they are, Where they come from, What to feed them… and much more. Maybe too much more. 

Mansbach spoke with his characteristic New York bluntness and sardonic wit as he walked us through his best-selling novel, which his agent thought was a bad idea. 

A golem is a cryptid of Jewish folklore. In times of great crisis, a great mystic will create a golem, an impossibly large man out of clay, to protect Jewish people. They animate the golem by writing אמת Emet, the Hebrew word for Truth, on his forehead. He can be deactivated by erasing the first aleph, leaving him מת met, dead. The most famous golem is probably the Golem of Prague, created by Rabbi Yehuda Lev in the 16th century. 

Unlike the Golem of Prague, the Golem in The Golem of Brooklyn is not created by a great mystic but by a shmuck. An art teacher by trade, Lenny is left with a ton of sculpting clay. He molds his creation while bored and stoned out of his mind. Lenny is not terribly pious, accomplished, or even that skilled in his craft. His golem comes out grossly misshapen and not anatomically correct, which bothers the golem terribly. 

When the golem wakes up, he starts yelling in Yiddish, which Lenny doesn’t understand. So, Lenny runs down to a nearby bodega to fetch Miri, a woman who left her Hasidic community to live her life as a lesbian. Miri translates for the golem, who is asking, “Where is crisis?” As a creature designed to protect Jews with brute force as needed, he needs an enemy to crush. Miri shows him a video of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally of 2017 in which tiki torch-bearing neo-nazis marched through the streets chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” The Knights of Southern Rectitude are organizing a similar rally in the made-up town of Wagner, Kentucky, and the golem wants to kill them. 

This sets up a moral dilemma between Lenny and Miri. If they countenance the wholesale murder of these people, doesn’t that bring them down to their level? Is that how you repair the world? On the other hand, isn’t the slaughter of those who want to kill you a kind of self-defense? 

Mansbach isn’t too strict about following the rules set for golems. For example, the Golem of Prague was mute. The Golem of Brooklyn wakes up speaking Yiddish, then learns English by binge-watching Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm

Mansbach also uses his golem to explore the field of epigenetics, which suggests that severe trauma can be encoded into a person’s DNA and passed down through generations. Mansbach’s golem remembers his previous incarnations, carrying the scars of centuries of inquisitions and pogroms in his psyche. 

The point-of-view shifts from chapter to chapter. For example, Chapter 15 is narrated by Adolfo, the resident cat of Miri’s bodega, because he wanted eyes on both Lenny and Miri. Mansbach said that this choice freed him to do whatever he wanted in his novel. 

The audiobook is narrated by actor Danny Hoch, who speaks in multiple voices and accents, including Yiddish. Movie rights are possible, and a sequel is already in the works. 

The Golem of Brooklyn is available for purchase here.