Golem Girl, by Riva Lehrer

A few days ago I finished reading our friend Riva Lehrer’s new memoir, Golem Girl. I closed the back cover of this most beautiful book and felt so full of wonder, joy, spirit, and hope that I wanted to get down on my knees and pray and then get up and dance and sing. It’s the way I feel after having preached a sermon and while preaching it, unbeknownst to me, the Spirit rushed into the words and into my body and made it into something completely beyond me. My knees are shaking, my eyes are tearing, my nose is watering, and I feel my heart is going to beat out my chest. Sorry to go on so about trying to describe something I most likely can’t.

When Tim and I saw Riva last week Friday sitting outside Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, we stopped to say hello before going inside to view the exhibition of Riva’s paintings/drawings. Jokingly, Riva commented that I was dressed looking like a Reverend, as if I would break out in preaching a sermon any minute. Yes, I was wearing an embroidered black jacket that I bought years ago exactly for that purpose. I laughed it off though, and said that I am retired now and wasn’t going to be doing that any longer. 

“But you’re still a Reverend, aren’t you?” Riva asked.

I chuckled again and said, “Yes, I am.” 

“Well, in any case, I still revere you,” Riva looked back at me and smiled.

“I bowed my head slightly and said, “Thank you, Riva. Thank you.” (I did not say, but wanted to say, “I revere you so much.” “I am in awe of you.” I the Rev. and you, the Reev.)

Riva told us that someone had written to her after reading her book and asked if she is a “believer.” She said that she didn’t know exactly how to respond to that question, knowing the background beliefs behind such a question. 

Tim (somewhat jokingly) said you could respond “Yes,” since you believe in something. And I said, “Well… if being a believer means spiritual, you could say, Yes.”

I will describe Riva’s memoir, Golem Girl, as a deeply spiritual book. That is the experience I try and put to words in the first paragraph of this piece—being filled with spirit. It is the story of someone who has squarely faced death, the perverse, abnormal, loneliness, the “other” and has chosen to participate fully in building a life and an identity with a wholeness of body and spirit that comes from such a reckoning. It is what I define as Love, the Spirit, creativity, beauty—a web of relationship. 

Based on the legend from sixteenth-century Prague, the story of the Golem tells of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and his creation of a living being made of clay. In all the many stories of Golems that come after this most famous version, every creature is made of inanimate material that is shaped and awakened by the will of master in order to serve a specific purpose. None are given purposes of their own. The Golem of Prague was built by the Rabbi to save the Jews from a pogrom. When a Golem wakes up and determines its own purpose, it is almost always destroyed. The Golem is often disabled, unconscious of its own self, acting on dreams and animal instinct.

“I am a Golem,” writes Riva. 

Born with spina bifida, “A body with irregular borders.”

“My body was built by human hands.”

“And yet—

If I once was monere, I’m turning myself into monstrare: one who unveils.”

Thus Riva builds her story: with the support she writes about with such care, of her family, most especially her mom, Carole, who pours life into her baby girl; the many, many doctors and surgeons who built and continue to build and rebuild Riva’s body; and the many school classmates, friends, teachers, lovers, partners, colleagues, more friends, animals, and a most amazing group of people joining together under the name, “Chicago Disabled Artists Collective.” In her book, Riva unveils a web of relationships, out of which she weaves, paints, draws, writes, and creates beautiful and wonderful art. Many of the drawings and paintings are reproduced and woven into the book, along with Riva’s great dry humor and love for life. 

In a chapter titled, “Freaks”, Riva describes her experience of developing and teaching a Medical Humanities course called “Drawing in a Jar,” in which first-and-second-year med students learn to draw a collection of fetuses in jars at various stages of standard and variant prenatal development called the Arey-Krantz collection. She ends the chapter with this:

“For myself, I want a new medical language. One that lets us describe ourselves (and be described) with clinical accuracy and as fascinating and wonderful phenomena. I want to revel in Latinate words of pleasure: Lipo (fat), Myelo (spinal cord), Meninges (membrane), Cele (swelling); an efflorescence, a disruption, an excrescence from the secret to the known. Might I describe spina bifida as a poetic occurrence? Can I say that my spine is awe-inspiring? Nature is wayward and perverse: there is wild inside what we call abnormal.

I slip on my white coat and step into the lab. Carole and I press our fingertips against our separate sides of the jar. I am close to my mother. I am whole.”

Golem Girl, by Riva Lehrer, 2020. One World, Penguin Random House. pp. 346, 347

I am in awe and reverence, Reev. Thank you for writing yourself into wholeness and in the process bringing me and so many others into our own.

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