Welcome to Easy Stories in English, the podcast that will take your English from OK to Good, and from Good to Great.
I am Ariel Goodbody, your host for this show. Today’s story is for intermediate learners. The name of the story is The Golem of Prague. You can find a transcript of the episode at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Golem. That’s EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Golem. This contains the full story, as well as my conversation before it.
Today’s story is set in Prague, a city which I love. If you don’t know, Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, or I should say, the capital of Czechia, because Czechia, or “Czekhia”—I’m not sure how you say it. The country recently changed its name, I think a few years ago. Now it sounds more similar to Slovakia and Slovenia.
Czechia is a country in the centre of Europe, and Prague is a large capital with around a million inhabitants. I visited it quite a few years ago and I absolutely loved it. It’s a creepy and gothic city with beautiful old architecture and the world’s largest castle complex. So there’s not only a castle, but a whole kind of old city walled inside the castle area, and it’s very beautiful and interesting to visit.
If you like beer then it’s also a fantastic place to go because, as with Germany and the Netherlands, Czechia has very good beer and quite cheap beer, as well. It also has fantastic public transport, and this is something that interests me. I don’t drink beer, but I love the public transport in Prague. It is night and day compared to England. “Night and day” means it’s completely different. The public transport in the UK is overpriced, constantly late and in generally quite bad condition. Certainly going on the bus in the UK is never a pleasant experience, whereas in Prague it’s a seamless trip from the metro to the bus to the tram, and it’s all very cheap. It costs the same amount for a year transport pass in Prague as it does for probably one month of travel in London, and at this point you may be thinking, “Ariel, why do you care so much about public transport?” But I just think it’s really fantastic when it is accessible. I think when there is good, cheap public transport it really makes you want to explore a city a lot more and it makes it a much more equal place for the people who live there.
Prague is not only a city of moody castles and good beer, it’s also a party city, and I’m afraid that the British people, the Brits, have a lot of responsibility for this, because a lot of us go to Prague to get very drunk on very cheap beer. But it’s not just a party city. There is also plenty of modern art, the city is full of interesting and quite bizarre sculptures and statues, and it also has a thriving literary scene.
Czechia and Slovakia are both countries close to my heart. I like both of these countries a lot. I have a lot of friends from Slovakia and I have been trying to learn Czech for a really long time. It’s a difficult language and there aren’t that many resources for it. However, at the moment I’m focussing on the languages I already have but I will get back to Czech and I will learn the heck out of Czech. I will study hard and learn everything so I can speak the beautiful Czech language.
Today’s story is not only a famous story from Prague, it is also a famous Jewish story, a Jewish folktale. I am not Jewish myself, so it may be that in writing the story, I made some mistakes. Maybe I said something wrong or I said a fact that was incorrect. Basically, what I”m saying is, I’m sorry if I make any mistakes. I didn’t do really deep research before writing this episode, so if you are Jewish and you do notice any mistakes, just comment and let me know. It would be useful for next time.
OK, I’ll just explain some words that are in today’s story.
Ghetto. The ghetto in a historical context was a part of a city where Jewish people lived, and usually only Jewish people lived. The idea was that, well, they were treated so badly everywhere else that they had to all live together, usually in a very small area in poor conditions. This word, ghetto, is also used to refer to neighbourhoods in America which are exclusively African-American, so only black Americans or mostly black Americans live there, and they’re usually quite poor.
This word has very negative connotations and, really, it’s not surprising, because the reason ghettoes existed was out of necessity. There was so much anti-semitism in European culture in the Middle Ages that they really couldn’t join the normal society. They had to stick together and form their own communities in order to survive, and the same thing is still true of poor black people in America.
Expel is when you send someone out of something. It’s usually used for schools, so you expel students from schools, maybe if they broke a window or attacked another student or attacked a teacher. These are all good reasons to expel a student. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, so the second Harry Potter book, they have to fly to Hogwarts, the magic school, in a flying car, and they crash it into the tree in the school gardens and Harry and Ron are really worried that they are going to be expelled. It’s not just used for school, though. Expelling can also happen in this historical context that I mentioned. So unfortunately, in the past, in many parts of Europe Jewish people were expelled from cities. They were sent out of the city or killed.
A magician is a man who does magic. So like a witch but witches are women and magicians are men.
Clay is a dark, red material. It’s kind of like mud. You find it near water. And clay is very soft. So you can shape it with your hands. Clay is used to make pots, in the past it was used to make bowls and plates and all kinds of pottery. Now clay is mainly used for art. In this story, it’s used for both a practical and an artistic reason.
Holy. Holy means something is really special in a religious way. So God is holy, Jesus is holy. Anyone who holds religious power is holy. It means related to the Church and religion. In Judaism, there are several names for God, and some of them are very holy.
Sabbath. The Sabbath is Saturday. Traditionally, in Jewish culture, the Sabbath is the day of rest. So in Christianity Sunday is the day of rest, and I believe originally the Sabbath was on a Saturday, which is… There’s actually a link between the words. So in Spanish, for example, the word for Saturday is sábado, which sounds much closer to Sabbath. So when I talk about the Sabbath in the story, it is the day when the Jewish people do not work and go to church instead.
Synagogue is a church for Jewish people. So Jewish people go to synagogue instead of going to church.
Salute. When you salute someone, you put your hand on your head and it is a way of showing respect. So soldiers salute, they are trained to salute very well. To be honest, it’s mainly in the army that people salute each other, and I say ‘each other’—you always salute people who are a higher rank than you, so people with more power than you.
Rebellious. If someone is rebellious it means they like to rebel. They like to do their own thing. They don’t just follow what everyone else does. I’m actually quite a rebellious person myself, I think I could say.
Finally, a lump is like a heavy thing. It could be a lump of clay, a lump of coal, a lump of fat, a lump of meat. The important thing is that it’s heavy, it’s not got any very specific shape, and it’s usually nothing very nice or special.
If you enjoy the podcast and want more, you can support us on Patreon. For just $2 a month you can get exercises with each episode, and for $5 you get an extra story every month. You can support us at Patreon.com/EasyStoriesInEnglish. That’s Patreon.com/EasyStoriesInEnglish.
Thank you very much to the three new patrons: Giuliano Enea, Adriana Lucía Dueñas Garzón, and Sal Mia. We really do appreciate your support. Thank you so much.
OK, so listen and enjoy!
The Golem of Prague
Prague was a city of mystery. It was a city of narrow streets and broad desires. It was a city of money, magic, and murder.
It was also a city of hate. The Jews of Prague lived in the ghetto, and they were attacked from all sides. People spread lies. They said that the Jews did magic, that they attacked Christian girls, that they went into churches at night and destroyed the holy body of Christ. The Jews of Prague were poor, and still, people came and threw rocks at their houses, shouted names at them in the street, and refused to sell them food.
The leader of the Prague Jews, Rabbi Loew, watched all of this with great sadness. His people had been expelled from Provence, from Naples, and from Laibach. Only in Florence had they resisted. Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, did not approve of them in Prague, and the Rabbi knew that soon they would be expelled as well.
One day, Rabbi Loew sat on the banks of the river Vltava. Lately, he was very busy. He had much work praying, writing, and helping others, but he had no assistants to help him. In truth, many people were afraid of the Rabbi. He was educated and wise, and a great scientist. He did many wonderful experiments in chemistry and biology, but for those who did not understand, this scared them. They called him a magician, and kept away from him.
Rabbi Loew stared at the towers of Prague and thought. He needed to protect his people, but he could not do it alone. He watched a child playing by the river, making a castle out of clay. ‘If they think I am a magician,’ he said to himself, ‘why should I not simply make my own assistant? One who will accompany me in prayer and battle.’
So he collected clay from the riverbanks and went to work in his tower. For many weeks he worked, and slowly built a woman out of clay. Inside there were complicated mechanics, like the insides of a clock. Still, she did not move, because she did not have life. But the Rabbi had a solution for that.
In the quiet of the night, he wrote one of the Holy Names of God on a piece of paper. It was a secret name that no-one could pronounce. Then he rolled up the paper and put it into the creature’s mouth.
Suddenly, the creature began to walk. It moved slowly, like a stupid child, and almost walked out of the window. The Rabbi jumped and took the paper from its mouth, and it went still again.
‘I have created my assistant,’ said Loew, ‘but I must be careful.’
He called it Golem, which means “unfinished”, because the creature was not a real human under God’s eyes.
Every day, the Golem helped the Rabbi. It did daily tasks for him, and was capable of carrying heavy weights and moving large things. Whenever people came to the ghetto to throw stones or shout names, the Golem came out, and they ran away in fear. Everyone was impressed by Loew’s creation.
The Rabbi quickly learned how to control the Golem using his thoughts. He also learned that he must take the paper out of its mouth every night before going to sleep, as otherwise it moved according to its own desires, and did whatever it wanted.
One afternoon, on the Sabbath, the Rabbi was teaching in the synagogue. A cold wind blew, and many children sat outside. They went to the Rabbi’s house, and saw the Golem through the window. They tapped on the glass and the Golem looked at them. Some of them ran away in fear, but one brave child said, ‘Golem, we are so cold! Can you make a fire for us?’
The Golem jumped through the window, smashing the glass. It was made to follow orders, so it immediately got to work, picking up sticks and building a fire. Soon it had built a great fire in the middle of the street, and all the children danced around it.
‘Golem, dance with us!’
Once more, the Golem had to follow orders. It danced with the children, and they laughed and sang.
‘Golem, make the fire taller!’ said one of the children.
So the Golem went and took chairs from Loew’s house, breaking them onto the fire. The fire grew and grew, and the children got scared and ran away. The fire spread to one of the buildings, and then another. The Golem stood and watched, because nobody told it to put the fire out.
By the time the fire was put out, several houses had been destroyed. All that remained of the Golem was the burnt piece of paper from its mouth. Naturally, the council of the city was furious, and Rabbi Loew was called before Emperor Rudolf II.
Loew felt a great fear on that day. He prayed and prayed, because he was sure it was to be his last day on Earth. He had wanted to protect his people, and instead he had put them in danger. There was no doubt now that the Emperor would expel the Jews from Prague.
But when Loew went before the Emperor, the Emperor was smiling. ‘I hear that in your religion it is a sin to make a living creature. How can you explain yourself?’
‘It was not a living creature. Only a doll powered by the Holy Name in its mouth.’
‘You are an interesting man,’ said Rudolf. ‘You are too valuable to kill. You will be my prisoner, and while you are here, I want you to make another creature. You call it a “Golem”, yes? Make another Golem for me. I have yet to see one with my own eyes, and it is hard to believe the stories. If indeed you are telling the truth, and the creature serves me well, then I shall let you go free. If not, then you shall die, and your people will be expelled from Prague.’
The Rabbi thanked the Emperor for his kindness. He was placed in a simple but comfortable prison, and immediately got to work. He built a Golem twice as large as the last, with huge, strong arms and horrible red eyes that burned bright red. When he was finished, he was brought before the Emperor.
‘As you can see, Your Majesty, this creature is made simply of clay, along with some mechanics. But watch what happens now.’
Loew put the Holy Name inside the Golem’s mouth, and it came to life. The Golem saluted the Emperor.
‘Wonderful, Rabbi! I will make great use of him.’
Rabbi Loew shook his head. ‘I cannot give it to you. The Holy Name cannot go to a non-believer. It is too dangerous. The creature might not follow your orders, and could cause great destruction.’
The Emperor looked unhappy for a moment, but then smiled again. He had a warm, friendly smile, even though he was an evil man.
‘I understand, Rabbi. But may I see it in private, alone, for just a moment?’
The Rabbi hesitated. He was sure that the man was going to take the Holy Name from the Golem’s mouth. But equally, if he did not obey, he would likely be killed.
‘Of course,’ he said.
The Emperor took the Golem into another room for a few minutes, and then let both it and the Rabbi go free.
Loew returned to the ghetto, and everyone was happy to see him. But when they saw the Golem walking beside him, they ran away in fear, calling it a monster. Rabbi Loew felt sad, as he knew his reputation as a magician would only grow.
This time, though, he was very careful. Every Friday, before the Sabbath began, he made sure to remove the Holy Name from the Golem’s mouth, so that it could rest like the rest of the Jews. The Golem grew stronger and smarter every day, and impressed the Rabbi with its abilities. Slowly, the people of the ghetto came to trust it, and the Rabbi was happy to lend it to help others, as long as it returned to him before sunset.
But one day, the Golem truly surprised the Rabbi. It talked.
‘I want to be a soldier,’ it said.
‘Why?’ said Loew. ‘You can be a baker, a painter, or a builder. Why would you want to be a soldier?’
‘I must fight for my master.’
‘But I am your master, and I do not want you to be a soldier.’
The Golem shook its head. ‘You are not my master. The Emperor is my master, and I must fight for him.’
The Rabbi shook with fear. ‘Be quiet!’ he shouted, and the Golem stopped speaking.
The Rabbi took the Holy Name from the Golem’s mouth and sat down to think. The Emperor had clearly done something to the creature, and now it presented a serious danger to him and his people. But he was close to making a scientific breakthrough with his experiments, and he needed the Golem’s help to operate his equipment.
For a few days, he let the Golem work and watched it carefully. It did not speak again, but it became dull and clumsy, and was often slow to respond to orders. The Rabbi wondered if he had indeed committed a sin by making the creature. But he was so accustomed to having the Golem now that he could not imagine doing all the work by himself.
However, after those days the Golem went back to normal again. It obeyed orders, and never spoke another word. It seemed like its rebellious phase had ended, although it had picked up a strange habit: in the evening, it carried large lumps of clay around, and piled them up outside the house. Loew thought this was odd, but it did not bother him, so he ignored it.
On a Friday afternoon, when the Rabbi was preparing to go to synagogue, he heard a crash in the street, and someone came to him and said, ‘Hurry! Your monster is trying to get inside the synagogue.’
The Rabbi ran outside and shouted at the Golem, ‘Stop! Stop!’
But the Golem did not stop. It kept banging at the door to the synagogue.
‘What are you doing?’ he cried.
‘I must destroy the Holy Law. It is inside the synagogue. When I destroy the Holy Law, you will not be able to control me, and I will create others like me. We must fight for our master. We must destroy the Jews of Prague.’
‘Monster!’ shouted the Rabbi.
He jumped up to remove the Holy Name from the Golem’s mouth, but it batted him away, and he landed painfully on the ground. A crowd had formed around the Golem now, and they pushed and pulled at it. The monster fought them, and was able to keep many away, but a small child managed to climb up its back and onto its shoulder, and pull the paper right from its mouth.
The Golem shook, and then started breaking apart. It fell into lots of pieces on the ground. The crowd cheered, and Rabbi Loew kneeled before them.
‘Forgive me. I did a most foolish thing, and put all our lives at risk.’
‘Do not apologise, Rabbi. You had your best intentions at heart. But we cannot rely on a monster to protect us. We must protect ourselves.’
They locked up the pieces of the Golem in the attic of the synagogue, but stories of the monster continued forever after. Rabbi Loew was remembered throughout history for his monstrous creation.