Purgatory Pie Press- The Art Party  Photo by Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat (2011) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Purgatory Pie Press- The Art Party
Photo by Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat (2011) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I love projects in which something old gets transformed into something new. When I was a little kid, I had Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasies of sewing a quilt from fabric scraps my grandmother gave me to play with. (I found some of my squares when cleaning out some of the Stuff – not bad for an 9 year old!) I love recycled papermaking and upcycled envelopes. (I just spent a very happy Sunday morning listening to TED talks and assembling collaged envelopes while basking in the full-spectrum glow of a Happy Light.)

Maybe it comes from my grandma’s lifelong reuse-ethic (acquired during her depression-era childhood) – Maxwell House Instant Coffee Jars became fridge soup storage receptacles, vitamin bottles were repurposed as travel wheat germ containers (Yeah, my grandma travelled with a wheat germ stash.) Even packages from grandma might arrive in boxes that once held raisin brain or rye krisps.

As an environmental educator, I was able to bring my love of reuseables into art projects with kids. Everybody fondly remembers childhood art projects constructed from egg cartons, 2 liter soda bottles and toilet paper tubes. One of my favorite activities while working with camps has been presenting a group of 9 year olds with a box of various recyclables and say, “Build a robot!” (Kind of like that scene from Apollo 13 where they say to the engineers “Build a Filter!” out of random parts.)

At Teva, we were trying to come up with elective activities (“Chuggim”) for our students with both Jewish and environmental connections. I had a revelation: “Instead of ‘Build a Robot,” why don’t we have kids “Build a Golem” out of recyclables?”

The Golem is a heroic, tragic, superhero-Frankenstein’s monster creature from Jewish Folklore. Shaped from the mud of the Vltava riverbank by the Rabbi of Prague, and brought to life with mystical Kabbalistic spells, the creature was a magical protector of the Jewish community of Prague. However, the Golem eventually ran amok and the Rabbi had to deactivate it. (Robot-Golem connection: Apparently, Czech writer Karel Capek, the originator of the word “Robot” in his play R.U.R., was inspired by the legend of the Golem.

I adapted the story for my own purposes. Instead of building a golem out of earth, we would be building our Golems out of reused materials. I scavenged and/or rinsed recyclables from various receptacles around the Isabella Freedman campus. Yogurt containers, milk cartons, cardboard, packing materials – whatever. (I amassed quite a stash of Golem-construction materials which I stored in untidy piles in the art room.)

I even found stick-on Hebrew Letters to create the Golem on/off switch: The letters “Aleph” “Mem” and “Tav” to spell out “Emet” (Truth)on the creature’s forehead activated the Golem; while removing the Aleph left the word “Met” (Death) and turned the Golem back into clay.

During the Build-a-Golem activity, I first told the kids a slightly-sanitized version of the Golem story and then had the kids break into groups to construct their own “Golem” from the sundry recyclables. “You need to have a backstory for your Golem,” I told them. “What’s its superpower and why did you create it? Most importantly, you must share the rolls of masking tape!”

Each week was slightly different – some kids (and teachers) from visiting schools really got into the activity and created amazing pieces. Other kids just played with tape or ran around in circles.

The deactivating switch came in handy if kids didn’t want to bring their golems home – instead, we removed the “Aleph” from their foreheads and reduced them to constituent parts for the next week’s students.

The golems were often silly and shoddily constructed with masking tape, but I still think of them fondly.

For other Golem-related resources, I recommend:
Marjorie Ingall’s article in Tablet about Golems
Checking out David Wisniewski’s Caledecott-award winning children’s book, Golem
Shalom Neuman’s
fusion golems.


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