Modern Wars and Their Monsters

288 pages

24 halftones

October, 2016

ISBN: 9781479889655



Add to Cart Available: 9/16/2016

Also available in


Maya Barzilai is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Literature and Jewish Culture at the University of Michigan. 

All books by Maya Barzilai

2017 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award in Jewish Literature and Linguistics

Honorable Mention, 2016 Baron Book Prize presented by AAJR

A monster tour of the Golem narrative across various cultural and historical landscapes 

In the 1910s and 1920s, a “golem cult” swept across Europe and the U.S., later surfacing in Israel. Why did this story of a powerful clay monster molded and animated by a rabbi to protect his community become so popular and pervasive? The golem has appeared in a remarkable range of popular media: from the Yiddish theater to American comic books, from German silent film to Quentin Tarantino movies. This book showcases how the golem was remolded, throughout the war-torn twentieth century, as a muscular protector, injured combatant, and even murderous avenger. This evolution of the golem narrative is made comprehensible by, and also helps us to better understand, one of the defining aspects of the last one hundred years: mass warfare and its ancillary technologies.

In the twentieth century the golem became a figure of war. It represented the chaos of warfare, the automation of war technologies, and the devastation wrought upon soldiers’ bodies and psyches. Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters draws on some of the most popular and significant renditions of this story in order to unravel the paradoxical coincidence of wartime destruction and the fantasy of artificial creation. Due to its aggressive and rebellious sides, the golem became a means for reflection about how technological progress has altered human lives, as well as an avenue for experimentation with the media and art forms capable of expressing the monstrosity of war.

New Books Network interview with Maya Barzilai on Golem


  • "[Barzilai] wisely decides to focus on . . . golem representations in response to war and other mass violence. Barzilai’s extensive research and clear, interesting style make this a fine work."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Barzilai makes a bold – even brilliant – connection between . . . the golem and . . . the soldier."

    Times Literary Supplement

  • "Barzilai offers a fascinating analysis of how a legendary monster was appropriated in the last century as a way of understanding the baffling reality of war. . . . A creative and thoughtful approach, this book raises the deeper and unresolved questions of when, if ever, an act of violence justifies a violent response. Although Barzilai does not attempt to answer this question, she raises it as one of the unavoidable issues faced by an oppressed people who, in their fiction, have access to a protective monster."

    Reading Religion

  • "In her wide-ranging Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters, Maya Barzilai argues that the myth of the golem tells us something about humanity more generally. It teaches us about what she calls 'the golem condition,' inwhich 'the fantasies of expanding our capacities and transgressing our natural boundaries are always curbed by the inborn limitations of human existence.'"

    Jewish Review of Books

  • "The multiple strands of Golem are what constitute its great strength, presented not just chronologically but within themes that cross eras and borders… Barzilai painstakingly analyses films, books and comics to reveal the Golem’s enduring cultural presence and influence. And the violence of this appealing creature, especially the idea of Jewish violence, is what makes it simultaneously so threatening."

    Jewish Chronicle

  • "A thorough and suggestive review . . . with a wide array of 20th-century sources, including films and cartoon literature. It will be a useful resource for those interested in modern history and culture."


  • Golem: Modern Wars and their Monsters is highly recommended to those with an interest in the intersection between Jewish tradition and pop culture, as well as anyone with a focus on monster and twentieth century cultural studies.”

    The Journal of Religion and Culture

  • “The cultural productions surveyed deftly by Barzilai frequently have a memorializing impetus insofar as they draw attention to the human costs of war and link representations of violence to critical reflection on the present.”

    Polar Journal

  • “Barzilai certainly puts her finger on a central paradox of European and Jewish culture coming out of the Great War: how can death and technological creativity coexist? The golem myth is a clever and successful way to probe that question.  . . .  Fascinating and intellectually venturesome.”

    —Alan Mintz, Chana Kekst Professor of Jewish Literature, The Jewish Theological Seminary

  • “Savior, soldier, demon, oaf—a golem is all these and more, and Barzilai guides us a fascinating tour of its supple mythology through shifting cultural and historical contexts.”

    —Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman, authors of The Golem of Paris

  • "Fascinating and well argued, Golem examines the modern incarnations of the old Jewish myth, tracking its many meanings as it crosses between generations and cultures, from the muddy trenches of WWI to the killing fields of science fiction. An indispensable text for anyone looking to understand our ongoing fascination with the golem figure, in all its malleable forms."

    —Helene Wecker, author of The Golem & the Jinni

  • "This tracking of the adaptations of the Golem myth from World War I to the present becomes a probing cultural history of the past hundred years. Maya Barzilai moves with assurance from fiction, theater, and film to comic books and graphic novels, perceptively commenting on their formal aspects while preserving a lucid sense of the relevant historical contexts. This is a splendid piece of critical reflection."

    —Robert Alter, University of California, Berkeley