When my father was a middle school kid at the Yeshiva of Hartford, his preoccupations were relatively simple: He imagined being one of the few great Jewish baseball stars, and thought a lot about comic books. He rode his bike down the street to the drugstore and bought mostly Marvel comics for 20 cents (25 for some special editions), and organized them by relative fighting power of each protagonist. The Avengers comics, for example, would be higher up in the pile than the books just featuring Thor, who, by himself, was obviously less powerful than the Avengers as a group.
One eternal question spans all of pop culture: "Who would win?” That's why we're dedicating an entire week to debates that have shaped comics, movies, TV, and games, for better and worse. Prepare yourself for Polygon’s Who Would Win Week..
My dad didn’t go on to be one of the great Jewish baseball stars, but he did hold on to his passion for comics. Growing up, he filled lulls in our conversations with “who would win, Superman or Batman?” And “so, listen, if the Hulk and Godzilla got into a fight … ” And in those early hero versus hero discussions, he made sure to tell me how fundamentally Jewish comic books were. He was right: Superman’s Kryptonian name came from Hebrew, and most of the early Marvel authors were immigrant Jews and their children. The history of American comics is inseparable from the history of Jews in America. My father was sure to tell me this, and I remembered.
“I just wanted to teach you Yiddishkeit … teach you a certain amount of pride in the Jewish contributions to American culture,” he told me.
I didn’t really start seeing my culture in comics in a way that excited me until years later, when I learned about the Golem and the Dybbuk.
The Golem and the Dybbuk are the two creatures of Jewish myth that have made it most conclusively into American popular culture today. As such, I think it’s an essential investigation that I apply my father’s “hero versus hero” framework to them. Which one has the greater impact on how Jews see ourselves in this adopted country — and, if the two were to step into some sort of boxing ring or wild-west shootout, who would win?
In order to figure out which creature is more powerful, we have to investigate them: from the almost-mythical Old Country to the modern comic-book and horror-movie era.
The golem, at its most basic form, is a giant humanoid creature made out of clay. It is brought to life through the use of sacred words, and is tasked with defending the Jews. The best-known version of the golem legend, according to the researchers at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, takes place in Prague and revolves around the learned Rabbi Loew, who brings a great clay golem to life to defend his people from pogroms, and then takes that golem’s life away after the massive earthen creature goes feral, Frankenstein-style.
The first practical instructions on creating a golem can be found in medieval commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation). Originally, creating a golem was a way for medieval Jewish mystics to come closer to God.
And now, the golem is everywhere: Polygon’s readers might know a version of the golem from Minecraft, in which it is a neutral mob creature that might either help or harm a player.
The first golem film was made in Germany in the 1920s by the well-known director Paul Wegener, and retells the Rabbi Loew story with an added love-triangle for extra flavor. Echoes of the golem can be found in Frankenstein stories, as this, too, is an almost-human created innocent but with great power. And now the golem is featured in several novels – The Puttermeser Papers, in which a woman creates a golem in her New York City apartment, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay both come to mind. The golem has left its mark on my dad’s comic books, too, with the Hulk and the Fantastic Four’s Thing thought to be versions of the creature. Miniature golems are sold throughout Prague to this day.
So, there we have our golem: generally agreed to be big and strong, but with a literal born-yesterday innocence underlying that strength. As my dad describes him, “he has no maturity. He’s not thinking … like the Hulk, like Frankenstein.”
The dybbuk is in some ways the golem’s opposite: Rather than being a weighted-down creature of Earth without a soul, the dybbuk is a soul disconnected from the Earth. It’s a human spirit whose unfinished business (or incredibly weighty sins) on this Earth compels them to possess the body of another, and can only be banished from this world through rituals conducted by a rabbi.
The dybbuk has found its home in horror films over the years, from the early — and gorgeous — 1937 Yiddish horror movie Der Dybbuk to more recent (and worse) movies such as the Possession (2012) and even 2021’s Indian horror-drama Dybbuk.
In the original Der Dybbuk movie, a young man falls in love with a girl from a neighboring shtetl -- unaware that they were betrothed to each other since birth thanks to a foolish vow by their fathers. The boy dies before he can marry the girl he loves, but his vengeful spirit returns to Earth to complete his vow by possessing the body of his beloved and preventing her marriage to a rich man. Eventually, he is exorcized, but his beloved dies too, giving her life for her forever-fiancé.
And that brings us to the ways in which the golem and the dybbuk are the same: they are both most vanquishable through an understanding of history and of sacred rites. They are more killable by humans than they are by each other. In fact, it’s difficult to see how a golem and a dybbuk could fight at all. The golem is an entirely physical creature, while the dybbuk is entirely metaphysical.
According to the Safed-based kabbalist Hayyim Vital, in order to get rid of a dybbuk, “It was imperative that the exorcist remained strong-hearted, displaying no fear. The spirit was to leave the body only between the big toe and its nail; any other exit route might cause permanent damage to the possessed person.” The dybbuk was, critically, to be made to return to the place it came from, rather than just jumping from one body to another.
One might ask — could the dybbuk possess the golem? But the answer to that lies in the spiritual physiology of the golem itself: which is to say, it has a void where a soul should be.
A dybbuk cannot possess a golem, as the golem is soulless. But a golem cannot speak, and as such cannot utter the words that would banish a dybbuk.
When I asked this question in some rabbinical student group chats, it generated fierce debate, but no easy answers.
When I asked my father, he told me he’s a firm believer in the dybbuk’s victory, for the same reasons he believes Superman would defeat Batman. “I always think those who have the … metaphysical powers win,” he said. “It’s not about raw strength – but the dybbuk has to enter the bodies of people. Whereas, what’s the golem supposed to do, hit the dybbuk over the head?”
Shoshana Gottlieb, prolific Jewish meme creator, disagrees — and says that the golem’s physical strength, with a little help, might be the key to banishing the dybbuk from this world.
“My first thoughts are that a golem would win, simply because a dybbuk is a spirit, right? The thing that defeats the dybbuk is exorcism, and words, which is something that a golem does not have. But a golem can hold down a person … while the rabbi performs the exorcism. They aren’t physically fighting, themselves, but the golem, I think, is the key to the dybbuk’s defeat.”
“There’s no soul for it to attach to;” ergo, a dybbuk couldn’t possess the golem itself.
In the end, it’s not the strength or weakness of each creature that wins the day, but their cultural relevance. I have to call this one for the golem as it has spread itself mimetically into our consciousness, our souls making up for its lack of one; our words bringing it to life.