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A Conversation with Marc Estrin

The Golem Lives

by RON JACOBS

Marc Estrin is the author of the highly praised novel Insect Dreams and The Education of Arnold Hitler. Both of these books cast an unlikely character in the midst of the twentieth centruty–Insect dream’s protagonist Gregor Samsa in the first half and Arnold Hitler (the second novel’s anti-hero) finds himself in the midst of the second half of that recent past. His newest novel, Golem Song, is the story of an angry Jewish man who identifies with the bellicosity of Israel–the Israel of the Old Testament and the Israel of today–while laughing at himself and the world he blusters through. Likeable like Mort Sahl, but detestable as Meir Kahane, Alan Krieger of Golem Song is ultimately incapable of carrying out his most reprehensible fantasies.

Marc and I have worked together on various labor, political and journalistic endeavors over the past dozen or so years, usually agreeing, but at times not so much. His life includes stints as a theatre director of Micahel McClure’s paly The Beard in San Francisco back in 1965, writing and improvising antiwar agitational theater in Washington, DC during the late 1960s, time teaching at Goddard College in Vermont, working as a physician’s assistant for a few years, and teaching at an alternative high school. Anyhow, he and I carried on an email conversation in early September 2006 about the themes in Golem Song and other things.

Hey Marc, in your latest book, you tell the story of an out-of-control potentially homicidal Jewish man in the Bronx who has decided that African-Americans need to be killed. It seemed obvious to me while reading the book that there were a number of metaphors at work here, not the least of them the main character Alan Krieger, as the new kind of Jew–the militarist Zionist politician or general. What do you make of my perception and why?

It’s interesting (and perhaps a caution) that the perception of Alan as a character differs so much when viewed from the completed figure, as opposed to seeing him through his conceptual and writing development. The same stuff is in there, and can likely be perceived from either direction, but let me take you on the path from A to B, as an alternative to your looking at him from B to A.

"An out-of-control potentially homicidal Jewish man in the Bronx" — yes, definitely, that was the beginning — not only of this book, but of my writing. A phone call from same, asking me to send him "a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight". It was hard for him to get in NYC, but in Vermont… "Why?", I asked. "So I can kill black people." "Why do you want to kill black people?" "Look, there’s going to be a war in NYC between the blacks and the Jews, and I want to take some with me when I go. And any cops who might try to stop me." Well, I refused to send, got called all sorts of names, told I didn’t understand "reality", living in Vermont, and we basically haven’t talked since. That’s where it began. But it’s not where it ended.

I wrote down the conversation because it was so weird and disturbing, and then it began to grow in me — a character beyond this particular character, but sharing some of his traits, a kind of "genius", a poet, musician, someone who could quote long passages of Yates and Dostoevsky verbatim, knew every note of the St. Matthew Passion — but more malleable in a way than the original, less constricted by an already-arrived-at conviction, and therefore also funnier, more inventive, more agile with the vast pallet of materials sloshing around in his heartmind.

As I wrote further, I rolled into his character many of the wonderful maniacs I have known (and cultivated as friends, being so straight myself), maniacs from other compartments of my life: a filmmaker I lived with as a graduate student, a viola-playing computer programmer I play quartets with, my best friend in college (himself now the model for a work in progress, my own father’s Seder fights with my grandfather over whether there was any historical evidence for the Jews being in Egypt at all. All those folks are rolling around in there, and they certainly do not answer to the description of "an out-of-control potentially homicidal Jewish man in the Bronx". They generate and modify Alan’s take on things, they paint his landscape of desires, they soften the potentially vicious strangeness of his perceptions. And made my editor happier.

You’ll notice, of course, that Alan Krieger doesn’t actually kill anyone, and is not likely to. Anyone, that is, except his pet snake, Shlong, which, believe it or not I realized only last night as I was thinking about what I might write you, might have Freudian significance Why sure it does! Symbolic, symbolic!

Which brings up the strangest part of the story. The Golem was not a part of this work until it was almost finished. Alan Krieger, who wants to be a golem, who wants to be the rabbi who makes a golem to protect the Jewish community, who even wants his snaky to be a golem so they can be a team. Golem, golem, golem, the title of the book — it was all not there, even when I had almost a whole manuscript together. The golem was a completely fortuitous late entry, which took over the book, and instructed me what it was really about — not "an out-of-control potentially homicidal Jewish man in the Bronx", but rather a contemporary embodiment of a myth, happily also a Jewish myth, thematically so. And "mythic" more than adds to the levels that are playing around in there, it modulates them into a different key. At least for me.

Some of the political applications of the Golem myth are obvious: The US in the world, Israel in Palestine and Lebanon — scenes of vast, out-of-control violence visited on others in the name of self-protection. But there are many other qualities of golem and golemism which I am only now learning from reading the text I had written without knowing what I was writing about, material which on the surface has little to do with "the golem" per se, material which was developed only characterologically without any demonstrative purpose.

Examples:

– Alan’s answer to a Personal ad in the NYR showed me the fascinating combination of übermensch and untermensch thinking, the inherent sadomasochism of creating golems, the phony "realism" invoked, the fundamental misogyny of golemism.

– Alan’s tutorial on Jews and goys for his German girlfriend, demonstrates the off-kilter nature of talmudic pilpul when appled to human pain, and the lopsided evaluations of "everyone good is us."

– Alan’s tête-a-tête with Mary Brown shows how easily golemists can dismiss others’ suffering,

– his psychoanalizing himself in the "Shrinking" chapter shows how self-deceiving such self-analysis can be, and the ridiculousness of self-improvement (and weight loss) is under such conditions.

None of these qualities of people-who-make-golems were "put in there" to demonstrate a political analysis, but were rather arrived at by inviting all my crazies to come together to generate a character. So once again, although true, "an out-of-control potentially homicidal Jewish man in the Bronx" is not really the way I perceive it.

As far as "the new kind of Jew" goes, yes, of course, that concerns me greatly, and was part of my original perception of the phone call. As you probably know, Yiddish is looked down on in Israel as victim-language, while modern Hebrew is the preferred language of warriors. I read Yiddish writers as a specific antidote to Netanyahu/Sharon/Olmert and their military gangs. Walter’s letter, read with saliva and stuffed mouth to Ursula pretty much represents my own take on things. It was written at the end of the 90’s during the first conflict with Hezbollah, and lo and behold, has become totally current once again.

If it is is true, does his failure to undertake his plan for mass murder signify anything as regards Israel’s apparent plan?

I think this is more charactological than anything else. Alan is basically full of shit, an Ubu-like coward, puffed up with his own playfulness and erudition. He spent bigtime money on his shiny "Israeli sniper rifle", but I don’t think he even bought any bullets.

Israel, however, is another story. The government is clearly more than willing and most able (given massive US political, economic and military support) to perpetrate any mass murders it needs to achieve its golem goals. And there seems to be no Rabbi Loew to bring it up the stairs in the Altneuschul, remove the aleph from its forehead, or the parchment from its mouth, and make it once again into gray Vlatava clay. Perhaps the most disturbing thing in the whole disturbing gemisch is a poll taken by Tel Aviv University in the middle of the Lebanon campaign which indicated that 93% of Israelis believe that "the campaign (was) justified", and 91% back the airstrikes "even if they destroy infrastructure and inflict suffering on civilians." How much destruction does the Golem need to do before the people understand what they have created and endorsed?

The protagonists in your other books (Insect Dreams and The Education of Arnold Hitler) are also creatures on the outside of society–the other, if you will–yet they internalize their feelings about their otherness. Krieger, as a Jewish man, is also another human on the outside of society, not only because of his Jewishness (which until recently was the ultimate otherness in most of Western culture and remains so in much of it still), but because of his personality and habits. Yet, instead of retreating from society like Gergor Samsa in Insect dreams and Arnold Hitler in the Education of…, he assumes a position that he is superior to the rest of humanity and designs a plan to kill those whom he fears the most. Why the different reaction?

Well, first of all I wouldn’t agree that Gregor, at least, retreats from society. He tries his damndest to stop the development and deployment of the bomb, with the determination (and success) of a Leo Szilard. Both Gregor and Arnold, are actively searching. Their values are in conflict with the dominant values around them, values affecting the world via violence and the distortion of language. But they do struggle to find a solution to their conflicts with the outside world (ours).

Alan, too, is searching. But unlike Gregor and Arnold, and prompted by some very local experiences — his getting rolled on the subway, his experiences in the ER, his getting fired over racial issues, his girlfriend leaving him for a black man — he is prompted to come up with a "solution". A golem solution. I originally had him going psychotic at the end, thinking the Exterminator was Tolstoy or God come to punish him, ready to commit suicide using roach poison "tomorrow" Now, he’s just mucho-neurotic, playing out, perhaps in an extreme way (especially for Schlongy) an absurd theory and fantasy life.

So although he appears to be more agentic than Gregor or Alan — he makes things happen rather than having things happen to him — he actually makes very little happen, other than to increase the profits of White Castle hamburgers. If anything, he is more in retreat than they are, more internal. He just wears his inside articulately on his outside.

Good questions!

I’m going to jump very far astray (or maybe not so far) and ask you about Bread and Puppet Theatre. I know you are one of the early (or is it original?) members. Also, that you were involved with a theatre group in DC as part of the Washington Free Community back in 1967-68, I think it was. First, can you let the readers know what bread and Puppet is about and what they are doing now. Plus, what was the deal with the Washington Free Community and the theatre group you were with?

Well, that IS a huge leap — especially in the quotient of evil. And yet — as you observe — maybe not so far. For the first step in the puppet making is hauling gray clay from the banks of a river. Then Rabbi Schumann fashions it into often huge figures, yes, finally designed to protect the community (all of us) from the butchers and horrorists which threaten. The protection, however, does not involve violence but rather a change of consciousness, a prick for conscience, ridicule where warranted, and bathing in mysterious beauty.

Bread & Puppet and I came together in 1970 when the group became theater-in-residence at Goddard College (in PLainfield, Vermont), where I was teaching and conducting the college/community chorus. I had known of them in my last incarnation, as theater director and Institue of Policy Studies visiting fellow in DC, and had reprinted a booklet of theirs in ReCreation, a collection of resistance strategies I had edited the year before. But I’d actually never seen them. Their arrival in Plainfield was a life-changing event for me, and for Vermont. I have recorded thirty-five years of impressions and speculations concerning Bread & Puppet in Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer), a book that recently won a book-of-the-year award. It was the subject matter, for sure, since (in my opinion) Bread & Puppet — along with Stanislavsky and Brecht — is one of the three most crucial contributions to theater in the last century. And unlike Stanislavsky and Brecht, they are still with us, and going strong in this one.

In Washington, while trying to raise money (never, never again!) to build a radical political theater in the belly of the beast, I was biding theatrical time by doing workshops and organizing demonstrations with my buddy, Dennis Livingston. Out of that collaboration came The American Playground, a group that specialized in street theater and "guerrilla-ing" events — pulling off political stunts at affairs organized by others. Out of that work, I developed what I think of as my most original theater contribution, the theory and practice of "infiltrative theater" — theater pieces which the audience would simply think of as real, if strange-ish events in their non-audience lives, hopefully getting them to question things they may not have questioned before. Example: eight of us dressed as sales people going into a large import store, accosting customers, and praising the items they might be looking at — especially the low price, and explaining the wonderful way large-scale buying can reduce the cost of labor: "Hey, better 50¢ an hour than nothing, right? The natives have to live too." Or stealing books from a famous lefty bookstore, having one of us discover the thievery, having the thief break into a defense of stealing from "left capitalist pigs", and invoking (three times) a big discussion among customers about the ethics of theft, and questions of community policing. I wrote some of these pieces up, published them in The Drama Review, and received much nasty mail about "manipulation". I tried to distinguish between manipulation that closes minds down, and manipulations that open them up — but still felt shaken enough to stop doing infiltrations. Even now I’m not clear on what to think about that theater form. But in today’s climate of secrecy, spying, and normalized sting operations, and to avoid even more public paranoia and cynicism it’s probably best to refrain. On the other hand, in the Baudrillardian world of simulacra…

The American Playground fit easily into the world of the Washington Free Community, an authentic, post-revolutionary, 60s collaboration of housing cooperatives, free medical and legal clinics, underground newspapers, news services, and film groups, all infused with the general consciousness that things could be changed for the better.

Do you think there’s a progression from that group to the puppets at protests today? Do you think they are effective?

There’s no doubt that, beginning in the 60s Vietnam war protests, Peter Schumann initiated a new way (for America) of using big puppets in large street events. We see (bad) imitations of his puppets at almost every major demonstration. And we understood the effectiveness of those huge puppets when the first act of the Philadelphia police at the 2000 Republican convention was to "bust the puppets", to break into the citywide puppet-making workshop, confiscate material, break and smash sculpture, and accuse puppet-makers of having "molotov cocktails" — jars of paint thinner. Now, puppets are routinely kept out of demonstrations by some police departments (along with picket signs) because they use sticks or other hard objects which "could be used for violence." So yes, there’s been a quantitative progression in puppet use, even if sometimes coupled with qualitative regression.

Now, back to the Golem. Is Israel the Golem? Should it be decommissioned, much like the Golem of myth was? Does this version of Judaism have much of a shelf life or is it, as many Israelis seem to think, the Judaism of the Old Testament?

No one, no nation is "the Golem". Golem is an idea, a disturbing myth, a strategy of self-protection at all costs, regardless of the consequences for others, and often for oneself or one’s own nation. We see examples of golemism all around us, all nourished on fear, from the obvious lethality of some nations, to the manipulation of elections, to the backlash against threatening feminism, to the catastrophic overuse of antibiotics "just in case". If there is an October surprise (this year or 2008), that will be an example of golemism.

It makes little sense to talk of "decommissioning" Israel, "pushing it into the sea", an idea useful only to Zionists for rallying the troops and spinning events, and having no "reality" attached. There are huge "facts on the ground" — not the settlements and Jewish-only rules and roads, but the people-facts: lives lived, trying to be normal. What needs discussion and action is the ongoing relationship of Jewish immigrants to their Arab hosts, and to the people displaced by their coming. Should the world normalize the idea of "a Jewish state", or should there be a democratic state in the middle east, one person, one vote, irrespective of race or religion? Rightwing calls for the United States to be or become "a Christian nation", are generally seen as outrageous except among the callers. Yet the analogous demand by Israel is seen as reasonable. The topic of "Should Israel become a nation like any other (borders, military, etc.)?" was once a topic for rich, passionate debate among Jews and others, beginning with 1Samuel:8. This needs more level-headed discussion now, when such discussion has become verboten.

There are certainly Jews who don’t embrace the aggressive military Zionism of the current Israeli/US governments. I am one. But here in the US, it’s very hard to speak or write about it — much harder, in fact, than in Israel. Read Haaretz (available in English), not the New York Times, if you want to hear varieties of opinion and obtain wide objective reporting of what’s really going on over there. But people who see the almost 40-year brutal occupation of Palestine, as destructive not only to world peace, but to Israel itself, and the fate of Judaism, are called "anti-semitic" or "self-hating Jews", and are often intimidated from speaking out concerning issues which are still reasonable to discuss, and crucial to the world, Jews, and Judaism.

Golem Song is my attempt to engage two major, related, themes — golemism itself, and the pathology of thinking oneself "chosen". It is set not in Israel/Palestine or at the Pentagon, or in Teheran, Najaf or Karbala, but in a landscape I know better, and in a context — though the original phone call was unreasonable — which was, is, not unreasonable in itself. That call came ten years ago in 1996. In 1996 Carl Rowan, the widely-syndicated black columnist, published a book called The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call. The tensions are still simmering ten years later, exacerbated by Israeli behavior in the middle east and US behavior across the third world. Golemism is with us big time, and needs to be dealt with. My book, though basically a comic novel, tries to raise the subject to broader consciousness, and not just as interesting, even charming, Jewish kitsch.

Why do you think religion matters so freaking much today? What happened to good ol’ secular revolution? Progressing from there, what happened to good ol’ secular revolution?

I don’t think the secular revolution was ever a revolution in the sense of replacing anything with anything else. What it, and the march of science and technology, did was to add a dimension of rational, and — in its place — effective thought to a body of complex human urgings and behavior. It certainly seems as if the temperature of the rational side of things has gone down lately, while the temperature of the other sides (I’m not opposing "rational" to some sort of disparaged "irrational") has gone up, at least among those among us who embraced the totality. The fundamentalists had always held the latter high, the former low. The rationalists-only now feel ever more irrelevant and deflated. Why that particular direction? Let’s just look at US Americans.

I think some of it has to do with the general dumbing down in schools, the replacement of thoughtful speech and reading by soundbites and eye candy, the loss of historical memory, the inability to concentrate on one thing for any length of time, the decay of language with its consequent inarticulateness of thought. As a culture, we are largely pushed back towards the cave, both Plato’s, and to actual Paleolithic thought-conditions.

(On the other hand, I am reminded of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons: two cavemen standing outside a large opening in the rock in which one can see people wall-painting, making music, dancing around a fire. One says to the other something like, "Big budget crunch. We’ll have to get back to basics." The other responds, "Yeah. Music and art." Alas, with the hegemony of capitalism over art, they ain’t exactly basic anymore.)

Given the loss of rationality necessary to capitalism the other sides tend to burgeon out and take over in cultures such as ours, which once had a balance, or at least the option of enlightenment thought. Other cultures have kept such thought-trains at a distance, preferring to concentrate not on the "finite and corrupt", but on what Tillich called "ultimate concern". This is not an entirely bad idea, and it even has a holographic representation on the "secular" side: Do we really want to follow every detail of the rhetoric in Bush’s speeches, or the rationalizations for mass murder by Bush and other terrorists around the world? Or do we want to ask and demand answers to questions on other, higher levels, more ultimate levels, like "Regardless of the intensity of your golem’s need for protection, is there a humane and justice-embracing way to achieve whatever security is possible in the face of the unpredictabilities of life?" Bad prose, but you get the idea. I’m for more ultimate concern.

More ultimate concern. Is it too late for such a thing? If not, where do you think it will come from? And what are people really so afraid of that they’ll give up what they will redefine their values in such a way that they become something quite different. for example, democracy and freedom have a very different meaning when Bush and his supporters use them then the meaning assumed by more traditional conservatives.

Well, let’s remember that we’re not talking Tillich here. Or at least I’m not. If we were talking Tillich, answer would be a simple no — one cannot be "too late" in his intended dimension of "To be or not to be" — finding and actualizing the meaning of life. Nor can a society be too late — at least until its death. And as Monty Python once said, "I’m not dead yet."

Things get more problematical if we ask "too late to save the planet", "too late to avoid fascism", "too late to avert nuclear proliferation" — questions like that. So many variables are at play, including hidden ones, like unthought-of positive feedback loops catastrophically increasing global warming, or pandemic-causing mutations coming out of once-innocent genomes, or assassinations or false-flag attacks. Chaotic systems can go anywhere including a rainstorm of too-lateness.

But let’s at least discuss a homey, and not improbable — in fact, partway accomplished — situation: rewriting fundaments of the American condition, lately, and most obviously, by the Bush administration, but equally assignable to Clinton & Co. who weakened habeus corpus, did away with "welfare as we know it", DLC’d the Democratic Party to further approximate a one-party state, and committed economic genocide with his Iraqi sanctions. People put up with it. Some even encourage and root for it. American friendly fascism.

I am so often driven back to a particular quote of Einstein’s: "Three great power rule the world: stupidity, fear, and greed. Interesting allegation.

Fear is in the limelight now — Rove’s favorite ploy, a popular topic for journalists, and, even if over-hyped, a real concern for the public, even that public that sees through the mixing-liquids-in-aircraft-toilets farce. So yes, as you imply, fear suggests a trade-off of freedom for security. Those who are freest and have most to lose are security’s biggest fans. Many can buy their own, but it’s nice to have the government supply the Pinkertons for you.

What is less often addressed are the other two great powers.

Stupidity has been a long-term project. Stupidity buys what you want it to — objects, attitudes, and political behavior. American "dumbing down", widely noticed and documented, is not related to natural human capacity — orientals and other "exotic" groups seem to be doing quite well in their test scores — but to policy decisions largely determined by profits and desired behaviors such as complacency. We score high on that. We love stupidity so much that half of us vote to have a beer with it for leadership.

But the biggie, I think, is greed, a pathology so large as to contain the other two. Greediness involves both fear of deprivation, and the prize-winning stupidity of thinking that the way to be secure is for others to be insecure. But greed is also a condition unto itself, since the very rich and the very secure, even the very fearless, are frequently greedy, and lethally so. Greed is often the way they got to be very rich and secure.

When does greed develop? We see it in childhood, and wait for "moral development" to keep our toddlers out of jail. We see it in the competitions of adolescence, in the position-jockeying of middle age, and in the golden parachutes of maturity. It tends to disappear on the death bed.

Man, greed is a tough one. It may be the core of our fallenness (to go back to theology). People will mouthe sermons against it, but when push come to shove, all but the saints grab for the gold. Paul advised us towards faith, hope and charity, "but the greatest of these is charity". And, I would add, the most difficult. One can try to shame the greedy into giving up some of the goods, perhaps offer them tax incentives or carbon-trading credits. But guilt-tripping is a poor tool.

I have no answer. I don’t get it.

And with that, we ponder on.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net