Hasid or Hipster? A Word or Two on Nextbook’s Golem Animation

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No.  This blog entry is not on the Hasid or Hipster tumblr site, which, believe me, I really enjoy as does Jimmy Kimmel and a variety of people who regard themselves as “hipster Jews.”   Rather, its on an animation by Nextbook called the Golem which pits a group of Hasids against a group of Hipsters.   Playing on some kind of possible tension, which may or may not exist (after all, a lot hipsters live in Williamsburg which is home to Satmar Hasidim) this short animation does a lot to diffuse it.    And it does it by way of showing that, in the end, the Hasid, the Hipster, and the Golem are all schlemiels who, instead of putting up a fight, would rather just hang out and chill.

As you can see from the opening credits, Golem graphic, and music, this animation (set against the background of a city) seems to promise something ominous.  After all, a Golem is a creature which, the Talmud tells us, is made out of clay and given life by virtue of a magic spell.  The famous words that are associated with the Golem in the Talmud are “Rava Bara Gavra.”  Although they sound like a spell, they simply mean that Rava, an esteemed Rabbi from the third century, created (Bara) a man (Gavra).  Apparently, as Midrashic legend tells us, he may have also made a lamb that would be killed for a Sabbath meal.  Years hence, in the times of the Maharal of Prague, the story re-emerges of a Golem that was solicited to protect the Jews from attacks by mobs of anti-Semites.  (At the time, Jews in Germany were often accused of what’s called “blood libel”: the hateful and totally false claim that Jews would kill Gentile babies and use their blood for Matzoh on Passover.)

The opening of this animation draws the story.  But this wasn’t simply a legend amongst the Jews.  The Golem story found wild expression in the German Expressionist film from the 1920s.  In this film, the Golem is associated with the something very grim and Gothic.  He appears to be a monster of sorts.

In the animation, this is displaced 11 seconds in to the clip.  Not only is the dark imagery supplanted, so is the music.  Now, we see a lighter background and odd techno-retro-ish music against the subtitle “Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

We are then introduced to three Hasidim who are gathered in the apartment of a Hasid who lives above a Hipster Bar.  He asks the other two Hasidim if it’s “Simchas Torah” (a Jewish holiday that celebrates the Torah) downstairs.  This comment is effaced when, downstairs, one of two hipsters in the bar asks: “What is that pounding…is it Simchas Torah already?”

One of the Hasidim gets the idea that the Hasidim should boycott their establishments so that the Hipsters will leave.  But this plan falls flat because, as he says, “none of them have jobs.”  The same Hasid suggest that they take graver measures.  And by this he means the creation of a “monster” who will “do our bidding” (a Golem).  While he says, this we hear chilling music.

One of the Hasidim says that “the secret of the Golem has been lost for generations” while the narrator says “until now.”  At this point, the animation shows us a Wikipedia page which shares the Golem’s secret.  (The joke, in this instance, targets a Messianic kind of valuation our society gives to Wikipedia.)  .  And the comic blunders that follow accumulate and bring out sheer schlemielkeit.  After all, what kind of Golem would Hasidim reading a Wikipedia page on the Golem produce?

The Golem they produce – first of all – speaks (which goes against the legend; the Golem, as a rule, can’t speak).  But, more to the comic point, when it speaks he comes across more as a Nebish-schlemiel than as a monster.  His back hurts.  He needs to go lie down.  And he’s worried that, since he may have been made of clay he may have allergy problems.  When told that he will have to scare the Hipsters away (or, rather, “destroy them”), he comically points out how ridiculous this would be: “I mean..have you seen my body?  What do you want me to do? File their taxes to death?”

These comical rhetorical questions tell us that this Golem is a schlemiel.  He would rather have peace than war.  As the Golem says, “Go destroy them yourselves.  I’m no fighter.”  (I discussed this trait of the schlemiel in my blog entry on the Political Schlemiel and in my entry on the schlemiel and weakness.)

After feeling a little Jewish guilt because of his “creators” kvetching, he goes downstairs.

But before he does, we bear witness to a hipster conversation which is, as in the earlier parts of the animation, looking to be cool and disaffected.  In the midst of this conversation, the Golem breaks through the wall to scare them.   In response, the hipster asks for his iphone.  Upon hearing this, the Golem acts “as if” he is angry, calls them fools, and tells them that the “police won’t help them.” But the hipster doesn’t want the phone to call the police.  Rather, he wants to “tweet a photo” of the Golem and put it on facebook.

This works to disarm the Golem and his act.  Following this, they all start chatting and the Golem sets into his true identity: like them, he’s a hipster.  When asked about the word on his head – what one of the hipsters calls a “head tattoo” (the word is Emet – Truth – which in the Golem story stays on his head to keep him alive; when the Aleph of Emet is taken away, he dies), he says it means truth but adds in indifferent hipster parlance: “Uh…I mean…but what is truth anyhow?”

Continuing the comedy, the Golem’s arm falls off and he asks the female hipster to put it back.  She tells him not to worry: she’s dated Golems before.

In this world, all is banal.  In a Warholian fashion, nothing shocks, not even a Golem.  But that’s hip.

In characteristic fashion, the Golem makes it into the news, becomes popular, and attracts a group of ‘sports-bar’ types to the Williamsburg bar.  At that point the hipsters, rather than the Hasidim, say: there goes the neighborhood.  The last words they utter suggest that they go, instead, to Crown Heights, were there is a “Manticore” DJ (who is apparently half human/half scorpion).  The Golem stays there, in the back of the bar, as they walk away.  This suggests that the Golem is passé and that there are many other hybridic half human beings out there.  But they are no longer scary monsters; they’re cool.

And the last scene we see of the Golem become a jock while the Rabbis complain of assimilation. Like Woody Allen’s chameleon-Schlemiel, Zelig, the Golem changes with every person he is around.  But he is left back, while they move on.  And we are left with a few questions: Should the Golem have gone off with the hipsters?  Is his assimilation, now, giving in to jocks rather than hipsters?

Ending on this note of assimilation is telling because the Golem, like the schlemiel he has become, has been transformed by the American cultural imagination.  This transformation of the Golem into schlemiel suggests that what lasts, in America, after all is said and done, is the schlemiel.  American Jews, who may align themselves with  the comic aspects of Jewish identity, feel more akin to the schlemiel than to the Golem.  Of all characters, the American-Golem-Schlemiel – whose greatest asset is his coolness and indifference to fighting – remains.

Contrast this to Israel and its historical consciousness and you will find that their reading of the Golem is much different; for many, the schlemiel represented something Jews were not: a figure of power who could protect the community from enemies.  Israelis deemed, in the wake of figures like the Golem, to protect themselves.

But in this animation, where Hipsters are seemingly pit against Hasidim, protection isn’t the issue: comedy is.  In this battle, comedy displaces the Golem legend and transforms the Golem from a monster-of-sorts to a schlemiel.  In this piece, the Golem-Schlemiel is the “unlikely hero.”   And instead of Hasid or Hipster we have the schlemiel.

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