“The Golem of Slotnick Hills” Supernatural Fiction by Matthew Ross

"The Golem of Slotnick Hills" Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Matthew Ross
Detail from “Golem” by Philippe Semeria, 2009

Mr. and Mrs. Cohen, what a pleasure to finally meet you in person! Mitzi tells me you drove all the way out from Connecticut, did I get that right? Vey iz miroy, what a shlep! Please, sit down, sit down, make yourselves comfortable. Halevay, we’ll get you moved into Mrs. Nussbaum’s old place soon and we’ll all be neighbors before you know it. Are you hungry? Can I get you anything to eat? I’ve got a little leftover knish in the office mini-fridge, I’ll have Mitzi warm it up for you in the microwave. It’s no trouble, really. At least take some coffee and rugelach. MITZI! SOME COFFEE AND RUGELACH FOR THE COHENS, PLEASE.  She’s a lovely girl, my Mitzi. Not the greatest assistant in all the world, but she’s mishpocheh—my brother Merton’s daughter—and a lovely girl nonetheless.

Now, Mitzi said that you’ve already been to see the property twice? Wonderful, wonderful. I would have loved to have shown you around myself, but the way my back is these days…I’m sure you can understand. I won’t trouble you young people with my tsuris though. I know you don’t want to listen to an altekaker like me kvetch about my aches and pains all day long—you can believe it or not, but I can still remember what it’s like to be a young person. ‘Never get old, tsatskele,’ my bubbe used to say to me. But I got old anyways—what can you do? It’s better than the alternative…

What was that, Mitzi? Paperwork, what paperwork? Oh…the PAPERWORK. Yes, Mitzi, why don’t you go ahead and get that filed for them—that’d be lovely, thank you. Oy, what a nice girl my Mitzi is—if only she could find a nice young man to keep company with. Do either of you happen to have any eligible brothers? Or cousins, maybe? Never mind. Plenty of time for that later, if you decide that Slotnick Hills is the neighborhood for you. I’m sure you must think it’s meshugah, having to sign an NDA before you can put an offer in on the property, but rules are rules. It’s very strict, our housing covenant—if you think this is bad, just wait until you see what you have to put up with if you should ever want to paint your door a new color! Far-yehrige shnei—it’s all as useless as last year’s snow, as my zayde used to say.But now that Mitzi has added those to your file, we can finally talk tachlis. If you’ll just bear with me for a few moments more, it’ll all make sense soon, I promise.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that Slotnick Hills has long been considered one of the best neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Not the ritziest, mind you—we’re not wealthy people here, by and large, although most of us do make a comfortable living—but a wonderful place to raise a family. Top-notch schools, and the lowest crime rate in in the borough. I hope you don’t think that this happened by accident—feh! But if you want to know how Slotnick Hills ended up the place that it is today, it’s important you should understand our history. Don’t worry, I’ll tell it to you bekitzer—this won’t take long at all.

Slotnick Hills was founded by the great Rebbe Mordechai Slotnick, who emigrated here with a small community of his followers from their shtetl in Moldova in 1892. They faced terrible religious persecution in Romania before fleeing to America, you know. The poor things. Many of them had lived through multiple pogroms—Rebbe Mordechai survived five of them himself, though the last one took the life of his wife and their newborn son. That’s how things were, in those days though—it was just awful. After his family’s death, the Rebbe just couldn’t stand to see his people suffering any longer. So he said to heck with this! We’ll go to America, and these goyishe momzers and their pogroms can gai kocken afn yahm—that means they can all go shit in the ocean, dear. Not that I’m condoning that kind of language, mind you, but you have to understandit was a different time.

So, the Rebbe and his people sailed to America. They were among the first to go through Ellis Island, if you can believe it—their ship arrived just two months after it opened. Oy, what a production that must have been! And afterwards, they found the original blocks of properties that would eventually become Slotnick Hills. It was a mostly German neighborhood then, as I understand it—and those gonifs that owned it were asking a fortune. The families who followed him had pooled every last nickel they could scrape together…and if the Rebbe hadn’t been a distant cousin to the Rothschilds, it STILL wouldn’t have been enough. They must have been sitting on shpilkes when the deeds were signed over, because they didn’t know yet that there were no pogroms in America. They worried that after they’d spent their life’s savings on those brownstones, the Germans would come right back the following week and burn it all to the ground. That was how things had always gone back in the old country, after all. But Rebbe Mordechai, he was a great man—a man not just of wisdom, but of foresight. “Our old shtetl may be gone,” he said, “but our people need a place to call home. This could be such a place—so we shall pay what they ask, and make of it not just a home, but a new masada—a fortress in which we can be safe.”

Now, if you ask me, this is a lot less comforting than it sounds, because the Jews in the masada were wiped out to the last man. Took their own lives, you know—they held a meeting and decided they’d save the Roman soldiers who surrounded them the trouble of doing it themselves. Terrible story…and yet, such was the faith that the people had in their Rebbe that they trusted him implicitly to know what was best. So, they forked over the gelt, not knowing if they would still have a roof over their heads a week hence. I think about that a lot, you know—the courage it must have taken to do such a thing. But they knew that the Rebbe had seen something in those old brownstones that went far beyond mere bricks and mortar. He saw a safe haven. He saw a place where they would no longer need to live each day wondering when the next mob would show up armed with torches and pitchforks to drive them from their homes. A place where they could finally stop fleeing, where they could feel safe enough to put down their roots. It didn’t matter to them whether they could see such things in those buildings—the Rebbe did, and that was good enough for them.

 As great as he was, the Rebbe had never been able to give them that kind of haven back in the old country. He had tried everything he could think of. But what could one small shtetl do against the antisemitism of an entire country other than pull up stakes and seek out a fresh start in a new one? Perhaps now you can understand why, after everything the Rebbe had suffered, he was so determined to protect his people. Why he would have paid any price to ensure that they should never fall prey to violent persecution ever again.

And that is why the first thing Rebbe Mordechai did, after the Germans had finished signing over their deeds, was to head straight to the East River and gather mud to make his golem. Didn’t even wait for the ink to dry on the paperwork, according to the neighborhood yentas that I grew up with. You know how legends go, though—some of those altakakers used to insist that he carried the mud with him all the way from the Prut River in Moldova. Feh! What a bunch of shlemazels. Trust me, after you’ve had one whiff of that golem, there’ll be no doubt in your mind that its mud came straight out of the East River…

Would you listen to me go on, though—do young folks even know what a golem is these days? It’s a creature out of Jewish folklore. Kind of like a what-do-you-call-it…a Frankenstein. But not the farkakteh kind that Gene Wilder made out of dead people, like an oifgebluzeneh ei.It’s something a rabbi makes out of river mud or clay and brings to life by inscribing the holy word of truth into its forehead—the emes, it’s called.

Oy…I can see from the looks on your faces that you think I’m meshugah. Or worse yet, that I’m telling you bubbe meise—old wives’ talesto pull at your leg. But this is no bubbe meise. Golems are serious business—our golem especially. You see, a golem is not a thing to makes jokes of. Nor is it a thing that one makes lightly—even the biggest schlemiel knows that one doesn’t just trundle down to the river and whip up a golem on a whim! To make a golem is an act of desperation—a last resort, you might say—when the Jewish people are in dire need of a protector. Or an avenger…

I won’t pretend to know which one Rebbe Mordechai had in mind when he crafted our golem. But let me assure you, bubbeles—it’s quite real. Which, if I may be frank with you two for a moment, brings along with it a whole different kettle of tsuris, for all the good that it does for our neighborhood. According to legend, a golem can be deactivated simply by wiping away its emes—that word of truth that animates it—thereby returning it to the dirt from which it came. A loch in boidem! In real life, it’s a bit more complicated than that—as things so often are, nu? As it turns out, a golem’s emes can only be removed by the person who placed it. And when Rebbe Mordechai passed in 1924, yehi zichro Baruch—may his memory be a blessing—the golem he’d created was still very much alive. If ‘alive’ is the right word for it, that is—I don’t pretend to be a maven on all things golem, so I don’t know if there’s another term for it.

In any case, Rebbe Mordechai’s golem has remained with us since then, protecting Slotnick Hills exactly as the Rebbe intended to this very day. And that’s where things get a little…tsemisht. You see, for all their virtues, golems aren’t exactly the brightest creatures to ever walk the earth. They’re faithful and dedicated and strong as an ox, but they’re also a bit klein-keppig—even if they weren’t made out of mud, they’d still have a headful of rocks, if you catch my drift. Whatever instructions they’ve been given by their creator, they’ll follow them to the letter…and I don’t mean that as a figure of speech. You tell a golem to nem zich a vaneh—to go jump in the lake—and that’s exactly what they’ll do, even if they have to shlep three hundred miles to FIND the nearest lake. They’re like children, in some ways—incredibly literal-minded—but also totally incapable of deviating from their orders in even the slightest way. In other words, you never want to let a golem hear you say you need something like you need a lokh in kop—a hole in the head. And God forbid you ever tell a golem kacken zich ahf de levanah—to go take a shit on the moon…

All things considered, for the most part our golem is a real mensch. The Rebbe ordered it to protect the righteous citizens of Slotnick Hills from harm, and that’s exactly what it does. You tend not to see it that often—the Rebbe also instructed it to keep out of sight—but it’s always there. It saved my sheyna little granddaughter’s life once, you know. She’s all grown up now, but back when she was a little girl, she was playing tea party with her dollies out on the stoop one day, when out of nowhere this vilda chaya came speeding down the street and lost all control of his car—turns out he was farschnickert at ten in the morning, the schmuck. I remember hearing his brakes squealing from inside the kitchen, and then this terrible crashing noise—oy, I was so terrified I could have plotzed! But what did I see when I ran outside? What was left of his ongepatschket Range Rover, crumpled up in front of the golem like an old tin can. The driver died on impact, migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hangen, un bay nakht zol er brenen. Oh, I’m sorry dear—that means, “he should be turned into a chandelier, to hang by day and burn by night.” It’s a little more poetic in the Yiddish, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Not a scratch on the golem, by the way—as soon as it saw that my Sadie was safe, it just lumbered off back to wherever it is it disappears to. She never even looked up from her tea party until the whole thing was over.

So maybe you can understand why we’re so protective of our golem, even if we have had to learn to adapt ourselves to some of its, well…let’s just call them quirks. I don’t want you should think it’s a shlemazel—like I’ve said, it does a lot of good within the community. Most of the time, you won’t even notice it’s there. It’s just that when Rebbe Mordechai made it, it was a different time. And since the Rebbe (yehi zichro Baruch) was the only one who could have deactivated it, or tweaked the little pisher’s programming, it’s up to us to adjust to it and not the other way around. Maybe it’d be easier if I just gave you a few examples, nu?

When the Rebbe first made our golem, his top priority was protecting the people in the neighborhood from physical violence. After everything they had gone through back in the old country, the Rebbe was determined that no one in Slotnick Hills should ever have to fear for their safety again. And in those days, everybody was just a bisl prejudiced—even the Rebbe. Farshteist? You understand? So, the Rebbe instructed the golem that there were, eh, certain people it was not to let into the neighborhood…no, no, it’s not what you’re thinking! I’m not talking about the people of color. Khas vesholem! Thanks to that farshtunkener redlining, I doubt the Rebbe ever met a person of color in his life. What a shanda, that redlining was. It’s still a mostly Jewish neighborhood, but we’re very diverse these days—the Chikondis have lived next door to me for years, and Mrs. Sutthiprapha down the street makes a pastrami curry to die for. No, the Rebbe instructed the golem it should keep out the Cossacks. And also, for some reason, the Irish. The Cossacks, I can understand, but the Irish? I don’t know. Maybe the Rebbe had a bad experience with them at Ellis Island? Who’s to say.

Listen, I’m not defending the man, I’m just saying there are practical reasons why we have to screen potential homebuyers the way that we do. Don’t ask me how the golem knows such things, but it does—I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. If you decide to make an offer on the house, you’re going to need to check before you invite just anybody over for shabbos dinner. Ten years ago, I invited my Cousin Shelly and his wife over for dinner—they’d just moved back from Oregon. He met her while he was taking college classes out there—lovely girl. A little skinny, but still. Anyways, it somehow slipped my mind that her maiden name was O’Malley, and well…yadda yadda yadda, we haven’t seen them again since. He’s a good boy though—still sends us a card to wish us shanah tovah every year at High Holidays. His mother would have a conniption fit if he didn’t…

What’s that, Mitzi? Right, the golem. Let’s see…the Rebbe also instructed it to keep the neighborhood free from foiler shtricken—it means, eh, idlers, or gadabouts. Which, just between you and me, did always strike me as being a little bit on the preachy side. How a person makes their living is their business, and not for me to judge—that’s what I always say. In any case, it doesn’t matter what I think, because the golem’s a bit of a fanatic about the whole foiler business. Have you noticed how few homeless there are in Slotnick Hills? Well, there you go. Of course, the Rebbe didn’t know everything we know now about the mental health and systemic racism and all that mishegoss. Luckily, he also instructed the golem to watch over all the “street peddlers of honest virtue,” so the local homeless know that as long as they have some kind of art or craft or what have you to hock, the golem will leave them alone. I understand that many of them have their own Etsy stores now—in fact, I bought some very nice potholders from one of the gentlemen who camps out in the park nearby—so who knows? Maybe it’s a blessing.

Och—listen to me. There I go getting off track again. Now, I spoke already about the Cossacks and the foilers and all that, so what’s next…ahh! The nudniks. Do you know what this means, nudnik? It means a nuisance, or a pest. When you’ve got a younger sibling and they’re bothering you, and you say, “Go on, get out of here, you nudnik—go bang your head against the wall!” That’s a nudnik. So anyways, the Rebbe instructed the golem to keep the neighborhood free from nudniks—he was probably thinking about the gangs of street toughs that used to run around New York in those days. Like in that Cameron Diaz movie, nu? Which would be fine, if only the golem wasn’t such a tipesh—it somehow got it into its head that the Rebbe was talking about meizen…that means pests like vermin, insects, that sort of thing. It’s not all that bad—you could walk the streets of Slotnick Hills for twenty years without seeing a single mouse, rat, or squirrel. Very few pigeons, too. But you have to be careful what kind of pets you bring into your house—every couple of years, someone’s kid will sneak a hamster or a gerbil home from school, and let’s just say it always ends in tragedy. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, it seems to be fine with—don’t bother trying to figure that one out, you’ll only drive yourself meshugah. Oh, and if you ever get a dog, try to remember to get one that doesn’t look too rat-like. The Patels brought home a Chinese Crested for their little boy a few years back, and oy! The less said about that disaster, the better.

Now let’s see, is there anything I forgot to mention? Oh, right. The shiksas. Vey iz mir, how should I explain…do you know what this is, a shiksa? It means a gentile woman. Is it the nicest word in the world? Eh—not exactly. But again, try to put yourself in the Rebbe’s shoes. Back in those days? The Jews, they mostly kept to themselves. Why? For one thing, they were a very family-oriented people—and still are, for that matter. To this day, mishpocheh is everything to us. And for another thing, back in the old country, the goyim used to make a sport out of beating the pish out of any Jews they caught outside the shtetl—that’s when they weren’t getting shikkered and coming TO the shtetl with torches to burn the whole place to the ground. Is it any wonder that after living through all that, the Rebbe might have been just a weensy bit paranoid maybe about outsiders? I’m not defending, mind you—just trying to explain what the Rebbe might have been thinking.

Now I don’t want you should think that we’re prejudiced, or anything—we accept people of all colors, backgrounds, and creeds here in Slotnick Hills. You remember my sheyna little granddaughter Sadie? She’s dating a nice Asian girl over in Queens now. They’re not lesbians though—Sadie says she’s pansexual, and her girlfriend Rebecca is sapiosexual. She keeps explaining it to me, but to be honest with you, I still don’t understand the difference. Lovely girl, though. They come over every Friday for shabbos, and Rebecca’s even calling me bubbe now. I’ve been teaching her to make soup. Oy, I’m so proud I could plotz! What a cute couple they make—if you decide you like the house, we’ll have you over one of these days so you can meet them. Rebecca’s kreplach has really been coming along lately…

Hmm? Oh, right—the shiksas. Thank you, Mitzi. So anyways, after they came to America, Rebbe Mordechai must have been very concerned how his people would adjust to their new environment. They’d been living in the shtetl, in their own little enclave, for hundreds of years, and now all of a sudden here they are in New York City, the greatest melting pot in all the world? He must have been sitting on shpilkes, worried that all the menfolk would race out and try to shtup everything that moved, if you’ll pardon my French. “We raise our girls to have good morals, but those goyishe women? Feh! Nothing but a pack of nafka—slatterns and harlots, every last one of them!” You say something like that today and everybody knows it’s verdt a rettech—nonsense that’s not worth a radish. I’ve seen plenty of ‘nice Jewish girls’ who turned out to be no saints behind closed doors, believe you me. But it was 1892—they really believed that kind of bupkis back then. At least the Rebbe did, anyways, since he instructed the golem to drive away “any and all shiksas of marriageable age and loose morals”—which, in his book, I’m sure, would mean all of them.

This also is one of the reasons why we’ve had to develop this screening process over the years—we can’t exactly go on Zillow and say, “Brownstone for sale in lovely, tight-knit family community in Brooklyn. Reasonable HOA fees. Neighborhood security provided by immortal golem that evicts Cossacks, gerbils, and unmarried shiksas on sight,” even if it’s the truth. ESPECIALLY when it’s the truth, maybe. It’s like those dating apps that the young people are using these days—some things are meant to go on your profile for all the public to see, and some things are best kept for a later conversation in private. Is that where you two met? My Sadie met her Rebecca on the Bumble, you know. When I was a young person, you would go to a dance hall, or maybe flirt with a boy that you met on the street. Back then it was common for the boys to whistle at you while you were out walking in the neighborhood, but that was before the Me Too. Maybe if they’d had these dating apps like they do now, they wouldn’t have wanted to catcall…

Enough already, Mitzi—I get it, I get it. The young marrieds don’t want to sit and listen to an old yenta going on and on all afternoon. You want that your arm should fall off? Stop waving at me already. She’s a good girl, my Mitzi, but so impatient sometimes. I don’t know why the young always have to be in such a hurry over everything—especially when you’re the ones who have time on your side. But who am I kidding—I’m sure I used to give my bubbe that same look you’re giving me when she would start kvetching about Kennedy and the hippies…

Och—settle down over there, Mitzi, before you have a conniption. I’m going to finish telling Mr. and Mrs. Cohen about the golem and the shiksas and then I’m going to go freshen up my arthritis cream—I’ve got a farshlepteh krenk in my fingers that just refuses to go away. So, anyways, long story short, the Rebbe ordered the golem to keep the neighborhood free from shiksas of loose morals and marriageable age. It never bothers the Jewish families, and it also leaves the gentile women who are married alone—we’re not quite sure if the Rebbe told it that married shiksas were kosher or if it decided that on its own, but it’s been like that for as long as I’ve lived here, so I’m not sure if it really makes much of a difference either way. Single gentile women, on the other hand, are a different story. Even if we’re talking about a couple who’s lived together for years—if they don’t have a marriage license, the golem always knows.

It’s also a real stickler about the whole ‘marriageable age’ business—all of the gentile families in the neighborhood know to send their daughters away before they turn twelve. Who knows how it knows, but it always does—right up through the day before, it’s as sweet as hamantaschen. But if the girl is still there on her twelfth birthday? There’s going to be tsuris.It’s so young, I know—if such a thing happened today, it’d be a shanda. But in the old days, that was the tradition—boys could get married at thirteen, and girls at twelve. The rest of the world marches on, but what does that matter to a golem? It cares only for the instructions that Rebbe Mordechai gave to it—everything else can gai in drerde, as far as it’s concerned. It’s a bit of a pain in the tuchis, but it usually works out well enough in the end—some of the girls go off to live with family, and the rest get sent to boarding school. We’ve got a few members on the board at a lovely place out in New Hampshire, so getting them in is no big whoop. It’s a real feeder school, too—sends at least a half dozen girls to Cornell each year. A lot of them end up at Colgate and Brandeis, as well. There are plenty worse fates that could befall a young lady, nu?

Maybe it’s not exactly legal, screening the people who buy into our neighborhood the way we do…but, you have what’s legal, and you have what’s necessary, and sometimes those two things just won’t line up punkt gut—100%. For 130 years, Slotnick Hills has had a golem protecting it, and for 130 years, the neighborhood has prospered. Now I’m not saying that those two things are related, and I’m not saying that they aren’t—all I know is, the people in this neighborhood love living here, and very few ever desire to leave it. If we have to adapt ourselves a little to abide by a golem’s rules? So be it. It’s certainly not going to adapt itself to ours. And I think that’s all the news that’s fit to print, my dears, as my father used to say—yehi zichro Baruch.

Now—maybe you’ll decide to make an offer on Mrs. Nussbaum’s place, and maybe you won’t. You seem like a lovely young couple, and I, for one, would welcome you into our community with open arms. But that’s your business, so I leave that up to you.  Before you go, there’s just one last thing I need to mention: in case you should decide that Slotnick Hills is not the neighborhood for you, be sure not to breathe a word about the golem to anyone—and I mean ANYONE. The Rebbe also instructed the golem to come down very harshly on “whosoever shall breaketh a covenant,” and we happen to have a number of attorneys in the neighborhood who made sure that those NDAs you signed for us earlier are ironclad. If you should ever happen to let slip what we’ve discussed here today, rest assured—the golem will know. It always knows.

Halevay, we won’t have to trouble ourselves with such worries for much longer though. I have a good feeling about you two—you remind me of me and my Herman when we were young marrieds, yehi zichro Baruch, and I think it would have made Mrs. Nussbaum very happy to see that old house of hers go to a nice young couple like yourselves. I might be getting a little ahead of myself, but just in case you are thinking about putting in an offer—do you happen to know what a dybbuk is? Never mind…if you buy the house, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Matthew Ross is a writer, editor, and English professor living in Los Angeles, CA. His fiction has previously appeared in Teleport Magazine and will be forthcoming in Literally Stories. He is also the co-author of The Book on Velour Tracksuits. Find him online @matthewrossphd

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