Not by Might and Not by Power



The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
By Michael Chabon
656 pages. Picador. $15.

September 2001 was the month when many Americans—particularly those lucky enough to come of age during an era of relative peace—began employing a vocabulary rusty with disuse. Suddenly our daily lives involved “evil”: the “enemy”, “self-defense”. Terms that weeks earlier might have seemed cartoonish were unexpectedly appropriate.

Now that Hanukkah is here, we are asked to reflect even further on tales of trial and courage. Heroism, though, is not always as straightforward as some readings of the Hanukkah story would have it. Courage does not always suffice to throw off an oppressor or save innocents. Avengers and freedom fighters, even when they focus on prevention of future violence, can be vulnerable to heartbreaking missteps.

And so we find ourselves in a complex, dangerous world that might be familiar to Joseph Kavalier and Sam Clay.The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an epic story of two young Jews, a Czech refugee (Kavalier) and his American cousin (Clay), who team up in Brooklyn as Europe catches fire. Kavalier and Clay, motivated respectively by desperation and youthful ambition, take it upon themselves to battle Europe’s evil on the pages of America’s comic books. The resulting tale is larger-than-life-suspenseful. When Kavalier and Clay create a new comic strip superhero, The Escapist, will his graphically depicted assaults on Hitler help convince Americans to enter the war earlier? Will the evil of Nazism be stopped before all is lost? Can Kavalier’s family, left behind in Prague, be saved? And if not, what can?

Chabon opens his searing tale of these struggles with the figure of the Golem of Prague—the legendary savior of the Jews, created by rabbis of a past century out of Moldau river mud, brought to life by kabalistic incantation, and rendered inert when its mission was completed and its size and strength grew unmanageable. The Golem, lifeless for generations at the novel’s opening, is depicted as unquestionably real and indisputably magical (its massive, human-like form is feather-light). Yet the Golem is not called upon to save the Jews of Prague from the Holocaust. (Why? Chabon answers this question perfunctorily at best.)

Instead of providing salvation, the Golem must itself be saved, smuggled away from the Nazis’ grasp. During the complicated process of being spirited out of Prague, the Golem does in fact provide safe passage for a single Jew—Joseph Kavalier—out of the European inferno and to the United States. Does Kavalier, once safe, inherit the Golem’s heroic responsibility of single-handedly saving the Jewish people? He seems to believe so. In a wrenching enactment of survivor guilt, Kavalier not only illustrates the cartoon version of the Escapist—and in doing so spurs his cousin and Empire Comics into a comic-book propaganda war against the Third Reich—but acts out his own torment in escapades as absurd and ghastly as those that fill his superhero comics. In true comic-book fashion, Kavalier’s torment at his inability to save his loved ones zooms him to both the crown of the world and its underbelly. (Pivotal scenes occur at the top of the Empire State Building and in the frigid plains of the Antarctic.) Kavalier—Jewish hero, self-styled Golem—is an animal smashing itself, assault after grim assault, against a pane of glass, in a futile attempt to reverse the flow of history.

In Chabon’s novel, there is no magic to save the doomed, and the greatest heroes sometimes fail. Even ingenuity and passion as great as Kavalier’s and Clay’s cannot alter the course of history. (In fact it is a triumph of Chabon’s that he makes the reader hope, for over 600 pages, for an outcome we know to be historically impossible.)

As for the powerfully magical Golem? Present at the story’s beginning, the Golem is absent for the bulk of the novel. Only near the book’s end do its remains arrive, unexpectedly, on America’s shores. Degraded by its removal from its Moldau birthplace, the Golem has disintegrated from a nearly weightless, enormous form, to a heavy collection of dust.

“[Kavalier] reached in and took a handful of the pearly silt, pondering it, sifting it through his fingers, wondering at what point the soul of the Golem had reentered its body, or if possibly there could be more than one lost soul embodied in all that dust, weighing it down so heavily.”

I came across this passage shortly after watching a television broadcast about the remains of the World Trade Center and those thousands who perished with it, and the vast task ahead of the crews laboring to sift the wreckage. I could not help associating one sacred, impossibly heavy, sorrow-laden dust with another.

The Golem of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay cannot save a single person from tragedy; its only power is to memorialize. The sole heroes available are the all-too-human variety—those Kavaliers and Clays who work with all their ability for what they believe in. They do not always succeed. In Chabon’s universe, there is no magic to save those at risk. But Chabon implies that our own ingenuity and loyalty and love for one another are enough to build a future with. One cannot undo destruction, but in destruction’s wake one can pick up the pieces and rebuild. In the conclusion of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it seems clear that that the characters’ greatest heroism is to accept those tragedies that cannot be undone, and work with all their means for a more vibrant, joy-filled future. This more modest heroism—tempered and battered and grieving though it may be—is the single tiny flame kindled in the darkness, presaging a brighter future.

And perhaps this astute understanding of heroism is more in line with Hanukkah’s true meaning. Despite the historical fact that Hanukkah represents a military victory, the rabbis of the Talmud chose to focus on the miracle of a cruse of oil, and the light that faith brings in the world. While it may be tempting to glorify military might—and define heroism by such metrics—the story of Chanukah and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay subtly caution us against such a line of thinking. And this message is echoed by the prophet Zechariah whose words we read on Shabbat Chanukah, “Not by might, nor by power, but through My spirit” can miracles exist, and freedom and heroism endure.


Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.