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Brenda Barrie
photo by the Golemess

Brenda Barrie At Limmud: Sometimes the Golem is A Girl !

by Jane Enkin, March 7, 2013

At the Limmud Conference, former Winnipeger and author Brenda Barrie  spoke on the topic "Sometimes the Golem Is a Girl."

I had a wonderful time talking with  Barrie, who is a contributor to the Winnipeg Jewish Review. 

She spoke  about the Golem legend in fiction, about writing from the perspective of a former Winnipeger, and visiting family. I told her I was surprised when I found out she is  the  mother of  Aviva Cohen's mother. "I love being Aviva's mom, or Renata's mom or Shuli's grandma. They had to deal with being Brenda Barrie's daughters for a long time." [Editor's note: I think of Barrie not as the mother of Aviva Cohen but as the mother-in-law of Yossi Cohen].

It was great fun to hear Barrie speak informally and personally about her encounters with“cranky” and brilliant author Marge Piercy and about her responses to 20th century fiction based on the Golem legend. A rise in interest in Jewish folklore, the influence of South American style magic realism, and the perennial popularity of science fiction all contributed to the trend in Golem novels.

 Barrie spoke about the emotional impact of Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the political commentary and kabbalistic references in Piercy's He She and It. The “perfect man”or “ish tam” of He She and It isYod, the tenth man.As for the girl golem, she is the huge, powerful woman created in Cynthia Ozick's novel by the mild-mannered Ms. Puttermesser, whose name, Barrie pointed out, means “butterknife” -- she has no“cutting edge.” True to the ancient legend, all these golems are“uncreated” when their usefulness is overshadowed by their dangerous might

The Golem is sometimes a fantasy figure, sometimes, sci fi, and sometimes a real human caught up in a dangerous situation--- all the characters have a lot in common. They are brought into being to help the Jewish community, as in Kenneth Wishnia's The Fifth Servant, or to offer more universal help. The are big, strong and dumb -- they take things way too literally -- and in the end must have their powers taken way.

Barrie has no attraction to magical legends as a writer, preferring to explore contemporary Jewish experience. She first wrote a non-fiction piece about two men she met, children of Holocaust survivors. One became Orthodox, the other was a "closeted Jew", whose wife longed for the time he would finally read history books in the light of day. But fundamentally, for both, their parents' experiences were the most important in their lives, and the message they responded to was "Survival at all costs."

Barrie  developed her thoughts in her novel The Binding, its title referring to the binding of Isaac. The children of Holocaust survivors, she finds, are bound by their parents, whether intentionally or not.

The Rabbi's Husband is Barrie's second novel. She was fascinated by the experiences of the first female rabbinical students, "a minyan of women." On the advice of writer Carol Shields, Barrie focused on just one student rabbi in her novel.

While research has a place in her work, Barrie prefers to listen to contemporary lives and learn through the process of writing. "I'm most interested in going inward," she explains.

Barrie marveled that Isaac Asimov worked on six pieces of writing at once, on six different typewriters scattered around his home. She's working on two novels of her own now simultaneously -- watch for them!

p.s. For those who crave more Golem stories and other Jewish legends in contemporary settings, I recommend the entertainingWandering Stars, An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction.


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