“Truth. Emet means truth. See, Mr. Mulder, therein lies the paradox… because the danger of the truth is contained in the word Golem itself. Which means matter without form, body without soul.” – Kenneth Ungar
Mulder and Scully contend with ancient Jewish mysticism as the forces of love and hate rock a community.
Max: Here, we see The X-Files doing yet another of its patented MOTWs examining a marginalized culture/people: in this case, the Hasidic Jewish community that has a large presence in Brooklyn, New York. Written by longtime X-Files writer Howard Gordon and dedicated to his late grandmother, the episode plays as a reverent homage to Judaism. While Gordon is Jewish himself (although not Hasidic), I think the episode presents a balanced tone. I may be biased (being Jewish myself), but the episode certainly handles the culture of the Hasidim much better than any of the other cultures we’ve touched on before. Of course, the episode being conceived by a member of that same culture helps in this department, making these characters seem more well-rounded and not exotic caricatures.
For an episode that focuses so much on the concept of death, “Kaddish” (a Hebrew word for a praise to G-d, specifically in this case the prayer said on the occasion of a death) has a fortuitous place in the season, coming right after Scully’s initial struggles with the cancer that may lead to her own demise. Here, a local Hasidic shopkeeper named Isaac Luria was robbed and gunned down by three anti-Semitic youths. A few days later, one of them turns up dead, and Isaac’s fingerprints are found on the body. Approaching his widow Ariel, Mulder and Scully are chastised by her father for not protecting people like Isaac, showing them a pamphlet of hateful rhetoric and asking what are they going to do, given the number of crimes committed against Jews in his neighborhood and the police’s inaction.
They turn to Curt Brunjes, a printer who works across the street from Isaac’s shop and has a side business in printing pamphlets for the Neo-Nazi cause. He refuses to help our agents, even going as far as demeaning Mulder for looking like one of “them.” To make a long story short, Brunjes had been inciting these youths to commit violent acts (including Isaac’s murder), and someone is picking off those involved one by one. Ariel’s father Jacob confesses, but after Brunjes dies while Jacob is in custody, Mulder believes he knows who is actually doing the avenging. Consulting with a Jewish scholar, he learns of the Golem, a creature formed from mud and clay and summoned with incantations as a sort of defending boogieman. In this case, Ariel has summoned a Golem (in the form of Isaac) to say a proper goodbye as well as be properly married (Judaically speaking), something she never got the chance to do. It all ends when Ariel, upon completing the ceremony, returns the Golem to the mud from which he came.
A common criticism we’ve made regarding MOTW episodes is that when Mulder and Scully tend to become background actors going through the motions, then the episode tends to be on the weaker side. I like to believe that this episode bucks that trend to some degree, given how well the episode’s themes were elucidated through the characters. The faith of the Hasidic people is extraordinarily powerful, and it makes sense that Ariel’s devotion would drive her to want to be properly married in the eyes of G-d, even if that comes in the guise of a creature that looks like Isaac but does not have his soul. The Jewish faith is, as the scholar intimates, heavily predicated on the power of the written and spoken word, how he describes the word that brings life to the Golem also has contained within it the word for its destruction. It’s this kind of detail, based on actual Kabbalistic teachings, that puts the episode above others.
Originally, Gordon was to make the adversary a Louis Farrakhan type, but decided against it not only because of concerns about the African American community but also because the concept was too complex for the episode’s structure and running time. After all, the episode aired less than a decade after the Crown Heights riots boiled over the simmering tensions between the Jewish and African American communities. The kind of persecution though that the Hasidim experienced in the episode was very much a product of reality, exemplified by the communal wedding ring which was an actual relic from a rabbi that survived the Holocaust. The episode may not be a prototypical X-File, but the sprinkling of mysticism over a well-written foundation spares it from the charge of cultural tourism that episodes like this usually are afforded. It’s a shame that there aren’t more of them.
Radhika: While I am not Jewish, I do agree that this episode manages to portray a minority community in one of the best ways yet seen on The X-Files. Yes, Ariel and her father are certainly “foreign” by mainstream standards, but their story — and that of Isaac’s — is a poignant one that can cause just about anyone to relate. The level of emotion found here, from grief and anguish to love, is rather impressive for a MOTW episode, especially considering how sympathetic these one-time characters are. Similarly, one need not be a survivor of the Holocaust or the recipient of anti-Semitic fliers to understand the themes of hate in this episode.
For me, everything about “Kaddish” is filled to the brim with a beautiful kind of melancholy — from the dialogue and acting to the filming style and the music, which manages not to be as literal an interpretation as some of the tribal music heard in other episodes. The actors playing Ariel and her father are so genuinely affecting that it’s difficult not to feel their sorrow. The scene where Ariel explains her motivations for creating the Golem to her father, saying she “just wanted to say goodbye” and that she didn’t really think about what she was doing admittedly made me well up a bit. These are just everyday people trying to regain what they lost — there is no malice behind the decision to bring Isaac back. It is in large part, all due to simple human emotion and desire.
The theme of loss pervades in other ways as well: The story of the ring made by the man Ariel’s father apprenticed for before his community was massacred in the 1940s helps drive home the point that this is a community that has always had to deal with loss, and that even when a moment of happiness appears — in the form of marriage between Isaac and Ariel — it can soon be taken away.
All in all, I don’t mind that Mulder and Scully end up stepping to the side a bit in this episode. It’s a MOTW episode where the characters of the week are pretty compelling on their own, even though the monster itself isn’t the most terrifying one in the history of the series.