Jewish Stories of Old Prague
Years later I met K in a coffeehouse
he had in his pack pictures of Prague.
Did you take any pictures of the rabbi’s grave?
You know — Yehudah Loew, the rabbi of the Golem.
We call him the Maharal, I told K, meaning
our teacher the rabbi Loew. master of Kabbalah, in old Prague.
The Maharal was buried in the Jewish cemetery
where his gravestone is a holy place of meeting.
Have you seen it? I asked K.
Sure. I have some pictures of his grave, K said,
right here, take a look.
He was a person between worlds,
more than anyone before him, he devoted himself
to the non-legal portions of the Talmud, the story.
He is ancestor to something that would rise,
something quite modern, in generations to come.
He bridged worlds, he was a kabbalist who wrote
like a philosopher. Rav Kook said: he was a father
both to the Chassid and to the Gaon of Vilna,
two faces on the Jewish soul
that would take a long time integrating, if ever.
He became known as a master of Kabbalah.
There are many wonder tales associated with him,
the most famous the story of the Golem.
He died on August 17, 1609.
The Golem legend was not written down until 1838,
though the story was well known throughout Europe.
In the legend of the Golem,
the Maharal met with Emperor Rudolph II
(1552 – 1612) at his palace, what was discussed remains hidden,
perhaps someone had Rudolph’s ear and introduced him to the rabbi
(there is a legend that Rudolph had a Jewish mistress).
The Maharal created a Golem, a humanoid from clay,
out of his knowledge of the Kabbalah. In some versions
the Golem is animated by something written on its forehead,
emet or truth, in other versions a paper placed under its tongue,
in some an amulet. In almost all the legends, the Golem is created
in response to Christian persecution, especially the blood libel.
The Golem loses control, and must be destroyed. There is no controlling
vengeance, even if it is earned. By erasing the alef,
emet – truth becomes met – dead.
At the Intersection of Tales
One late night I received a call:
I am in a library in Old Russia researching
I am a historian of the early modern period
which is to say roughly the era between the flowering
of the High Renaissance and the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
I keep running into an unusual Jewish story from old Prague.
At the close of the seventeenth century
the story of Shimon Abeles, twelve years old, his mysterious death,
his father Lazar found hanged from a beam in the Prague town hall,
presumably a suicide. In some versions, the father had hung himself
with his tefillin. It is about the time as the celebrated
rabbi of the Golem legend, no?
Just after, I said. That would be Yehudah Loew of Prague, sixteenth century.
Yes, that one, and he told me the sad, bizarre story of the boy, Shimon Abeles.
At the age of twelve, the Jewish boy Shimon Abeles
began receiving instruction from Jesuit priests
in the Clementinum, at the edge of the Prague ghetto.
The boy was found dead in a grave,
Shimon’s father Lazar was questioned,
I AM INNOCENT, said Lazar.
Lazar Abeles was found hanged from a beam
in the Prague town hall. Suicide? In some versions,
he had hung himself with his tefillin, physically almost impossible.
More: a friend of the Abeles family, Loebl Kurtzhandl,
confessed to the crime. He was condemned to death
by being broken on the wheel. During the slow torture, it was claimed
that he converted to Christianity, taking the name Johannes.
He was then put to death, buried in a Christian church, this was 1694.
Meanwhile, in the cellar of the city hall, the body of Shimon Abeles
lay unembalmed. It was reported that the body did not decompose.
Five days without decomposition, then an additional three weeks.
Blood flowed from his wounds, even in death, visitors came to see him,
dabbed at the flowing blood with handkerchiefs.
A miracle, the makings of a martyr, the body was reburied
at the church of Our Lady of Tyn, attended by the aristocracy of Prague,
and a huge crowd of commoners. Shimon Abeles became famous.
The Celebrated Rabbi of Prague
I lived before Shimon Abeles
but it pleases me that you are remembering him
in the future.
Begin with the plain, simple story:
here was a boy, plucked out of his life to become history
for a century, two centuries, remembered by a scholar in searching
a Russian library in the future, the scholar speaks to the rabbi
who is a poet and has a friend who has been to my grave.
The scholar puts young Shimon in the context of the rabbi of Prague,
not so — I lived before him, but there is something in the tale that redeems,
if only to remember the boy, his father, the suffering of a family.
It happened in my city and it would not be soon forgotten,
but what a curious story, the photographer, the rabbi, the scholar,
realize themselves in proximity, living in my story,
for the few months in what you will call the twenty first century
the rabbi will then contact a man in Prague
who knows his friend the piano player
and ask to tell these stories
and bring his songs and tales and poems to the city
the rabbi feels some sense of the circle of stories —
we are all ridiculous when the future becomes the present
and even more absurd when it becomes past.
I am preserved in the sixteenth century imagining redemption,
I too could not predict personal redemption of a particular story
obscured by the loyalist doctrines of the small Church, but let us make this one story all stories. Let us rework this tale so that it refracts all tales,
let this one story
be all stories.
If I could redeem one story, could a million such stories be redeemed in the future?
There will be many millions.
The Church would remember Shimon Abeles, baptized in his own blood,
for its own theology, its history, its service to itself.
For the Jews, one question:
Who killed Shimon Abeles?
From the future, let them speak up.
james stone Goodman, usa