Monday, February 6, 2012

Matt Freedman


464 Seneca Ave. Ridgewood, NY
Valentine is open Saturday & Sunday from 1-6 and by appointment on Fridays.
The exhibit runs through Sunday March 11. Valentine will be open until 10:00 on March 10th as part of Beat Nite.
L train to Dekalb
M train to Seneca

This exhibition commemorates a film made over 70 years ago by a young member of the Congregation Agudas Israel on Cornelia Street in Ridgewood, Queens. The film, which survives only in fragments, documents the efforts of Rabbi Jacob Weiss to build a golem, a supernatural being made of animated clay, to protect his congregation from their anti- Semitic neighbors in the early 1940s. In 2002 artists Jude Tallichet and Matt Freedman bought the Cornelia Street building thereafter known as “the ’gogue” and turned it into a studio and living space. While exploring their new property and neighborhood, they discovered the half-degraded film; they were subsequently able to recover props and artifacts connected to it. In seeking to contextualize these fascinating relics of Ridgewood’s recent past, Freedman and consulting art-historian Frances Rabinovitch have compiled the following timeline.


Eden−6000 BCE: G-d fashions Adam from the dust of the ground, and animates him.

Troy−1183 BCE: The Greek warrior Patroclus, wearing Achilles’ armor, slaughters 53

Trojans before being killed himself, by Hector, at the city gates. Eventually, to break the

bloody stalemate between fortified Troy and the Greek besieging army, Odysseus the

Great Tactician constructs the Trojan Horse, a gigantic creature designed to protect its

makers and wreak havoc on its enemies.

Attica−540 BCE: The Kroisos Kouros, also known as the Anavyssos Kouros, is erected

to mark the grave of a fallen warrior named Kroisos. The well-muscled nude, an archaic

smile on his lips, bestrides a marble base on which is inscribed this admonition: “Pause

and show pity beside the marker of Kroisos, dead, whom once in battle’s front rank

raging Ares devastated.”

Corinth−323 BCE: Diogenes, a founder of Cynic philosophy, dies. Diogenes is known

for dwelling in a tub, as well as for his praise of canine virtues; he believes that human

beings live artificially and hypocritically, while dogs live in the present, free from anxiety.

Humans dupe others or are duped, but dogs will give an honest bark at the truth. The

name “Cynic” derives from the Greek kynikosm (“dog-like”).

London, England−1189: Richard Coeur-de-Lion girds for the Crusades. On the eve of

his embarkation, anti-Semitic rioting breaks out, encouraged by a rumor that the king

has ordered all Jews in England killed; the rumor is triggered by Richard’s decision to

bar Jews (and women) from his recent Coronation ceremonies. Mindful of the

destabilizing effect of such unrest as he departs for what may be years in the Holy Land,

Richard orders the worst offenders executed and issues a writ protecting Jews in his


Limassol, Cyprus⎯1191: Richard conquers Cyprus. Part of the booty is a trove of

Trojan artifacts, including regalia believed to belong to Achilles. Coeur-de-Lion seizes the

armor as a royal perquisite, wearing it at the siege of Acre. Despite his victory there,

Richard falls out with his erstwhile ally Leopold V, Duke of Austria. The Duke in turn

seizes the armor as spoils. Eventually, it makes its way to Prague.

Württemberg, Germany−1550: A German mercenary knight loses his right arm in

battle, and an iron limb is forged to replace it. Far from a simple Ersatzhand rigged by

the village blacksmith, the prosthesis is a state-of-the-art construction fabricated in the

technically advanced workshops of Nuremburg and Augsberg. With it, Götz von

Berlichingen (“Götz of the Iron Hand”) can grip not only the reins of his horse and the

haft of his lance, but a playing card, and even a quill pen. He continues his military

career, and gains fame as a poet and memoirist. The “Götz curse” later becomes a

euphemism for the expression er kann mich im Arsch lecken (“he can lick me in the

arse”), attributed to the knight by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who writes an

eponymous play based on Götz’s life.

Prague, Bohemia−1550: Pogroms rage through the streets. Chief Rabbi Judah Leow

ben Bexalel, anxious to protect his people, sculpts a golem from clay and brings it to life

by writing the names of G-d on the figure’s forehead⎯or, alternatively, on a slip of paper placed in its mouth, or in its shoe. Rabbi Leow, knowing something of Richard Coeur-de- Lion’s behavior following the London riots 361 years before, deems it propitious to kit out his creation in armor proven on the bodies of two famous warriors, one pagan and the other Christian. In fact, however, only the helmet of Achilles now survives in the royal treasury. Leow somehow secures it for his golem.

Chelm, Poland−1583: Rabbi Elijah Ba’al Shem likewise creates a golem, who wields a

sword (or axe) to kill those miscreants who threaten Jews in the marketplace. Stories of

the Wise Men of Chelm—the proverbial fools of Jewish folk humor⎯emerge around this


Prague, Bohemia−1648: The Bohemian princes’ cabinet of wonders is pillaged in the

aftermath of the Battle of Prague. A centerpiece of the collection, the purported Beast of

the Apocalypse or Seven-Headed Hydra, is seized by the German General Hans

Christoff von Konigsmarck. He removes the Hydra to Hamburg, where it becomes the

prized possession of the mayor.

Hamburg, Germany−1735: Carl Linnaeus, passing through the city on his way to study

at the University of Harderwijk in the Netherlands, describes with a taxonomist’s

precision the dress and rituals of local Jews. He also exposes the Seven-Headed Hydra

as a hoax constructed⎯allegedly by fifteenth-century monks⎯using snakeskins and the jaws and paws of weasels. Linnaeus is forced to leave Hamburg quickly to escape the mayor’s wrath.

Frankfurt, Germany−1773: Goethe, having been dissuaded by his father from pursuing

his desire to write, practices law. For pleasure, in a few weeks’ time, he pens his drama

Götz von Berlichingen; the next year he will complete the book that brings him universal

fame, The Sorrows of Young Werther. During this period, he is also at work on what is

now known as the Urfaust, though the complete Faust is not published until 1808.

Vienna, Austria−1782: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composes his canon in B-flat major,

a party piece for six voices based on a text from Goethe and titled Leck mich im Arsch.

When the song is published in 1799, after Mozart’s death, the lyrics are bowdlerized to

Laβt froh uns sein (“let us be glad”).

Lake Geneva, Switzerland−1818: Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein.

Diverse sources for her modern myth include experiments by the pioneering chemist and

inventor Sir Humphrey Davy and by the physicist-physician Luigi Galvani, along with 3

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound; John Milton’s Paradise Lost; Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s

Émile, or On Education; and both The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust, by Goethe.

Shelley’s novel is interpreted, in ensuing decades, as a metaphor for the dangerously

hubristic achievements of science, as well as the plight of various oppressed groups,

including American slaves, the starving Irish, and the English lumpenproletariat. Less

well-known is a reading of Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster as “the goyische golem,”

sometimes called “the Mad Jew in the Attic.”

Rochester, New York−1874: Cassius Marcellus Coolidge patents “Comic

Foregrounds”⎯also termed head-through-the-holes, carnival cutouts, looky-loos, mug

boards, faceless cutouts, and passe têtes⎯that allow people to pretend to be,

amusingly, that which they are not. 29 years later, Coolidge paints the well-known Dogs

Playing Poker series, to advertise cigars.

Lyon, France−1884: The Michelin tire company introduces its now-familiar figurehead

Bibendum, accompanied somewhat cryptically in advertising posters by a motto from

Horace’s Odes: Nunc est bibendum (“now is [the time for] drinking”). The figure becomes

synonymous in popular imagination with a bundled-up or “pneumatic” appearance: “I [or

he] look[s] like the Michelin man.”

Ridgewood, Queens−1898-1914: German immigrants found numerous breweries,

including the Diogenes Brewery. Many Diogenes employees worship at the nearby New

Apostolic Church, built in 1910. Congregation Agudas (“Gathering”) Israel is chartered in


Leoncin, Poland−1902: Isaac Singer is born. His father, maternal grandfather, and

maternal uncles are rabbis. Having found that rabbinical school does not suit him,

however, Singer takes as his middle name the possessive form of his mother’s given

name, Bathsheba (“Bashevis”) and begins a career as a writer.

Ridgewood, Queens−1916: The Ridgewood Theater, designed by Charles Lamb,

opens. An attic storeroom, located adjacent to the projection booth and accessed by a

small door behind the candy counter, later becomes an unofficial clubhouse for

neighborhood teenagers.

Prague, Bohemia−1912: Personal-injury consultant Franz Kafka, employed by the

Workers Accident Insurance Institute of the Kingdom of Bohemia, invents the hard hat.

Ridgewood, Queens−1924: Jewish merchants are taking over German businesses on

Fresh Pond Road and Myrtle Avenue. The New Apostolic Church on Cornelia Street is

sold to Jewish leaders, who rededicate it as Congregation Agudas Israel.

Prague, Bohemia−1925: Young Jacob Weiss, despairing of his talent and stung by his

father’s remarks about the need for a Brotberuf (literally, a “bread job”), gives up the

study of literature and enrolls in rabbinical school. Upon his ordination, he emigrates to

New York.

Ridgewood, Queens−1931: James Whale’s Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as the

Monster, plays to capacity crowds at the Ridgewood Theater.

Rochester, New York−1932: Edgar Bergman patents a simple device made of curved

wire (the “Bergman loop”) designed to be fastened to the backs of pews in synagogues

and churches, to hold men’s hats during services. In the same year, Eastman Kodak

releases the Standard 8mm movie camera for home use.

Berlin, Germany−1936: The Olympic Games put a pacifist face on Hitler’s murderous

ambitions, and Tilly Fleischer wins the women’s javelin competition for Germany. She is

one of Hitler’s favorites. Leni Riefenstahl documents the games for her film Olympia.

Ridgewood, Queens−1940: German spy Kurt Frederick Ludwig settles in Ridgewood.

He recruits a ring of pro-Nazi agents and couriers, many of whom are brewery workers.

A weekly poker game held at various neighborhood locations is later revealed to have

been a clearinghouse for information passed by the conspirators.

Ridgewood, Queens−1941: Local Jews feel at risk as the German-American Bund

takes root in the area. To reassure his flock, Rabbi Weiss creates his golem. A young

congregant, Elias Bergman, stumbles on the plot; his father, the inventor, belongs to

Weiss’s trusted inner circle. Curious, young Bergman follows his father to the shul, with

Edgar’s 8mm camera in hand. From the surviving footage, it appears that the boy is

discovered while filming. Perhaps considering the uses of newsreels as propaganda,

and presaging the role of moving-image documentary in disseminating information about

the death camps, the rabbi then allows him to film openly.

Ridgewood, Queens−1942: Elias Bergman and Edith Weiss, the rabbi’s niece,

frequenters of the Ridgewood Theater’s attic hidey-hole, become an “item.” Anxious to

enhance his reputation as an artiste, Elias boasts to Edith that he could screen a film at

the Ridgewood if he wished. She does not believe him. Daringly, he replaces reel 2 of

Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons with his golem footage. A melee erupts in

the theater, but Bergman’s film fortuitously breaks in the projection gate. The

projectionist, not coincidentally, is Bergman’s brother Arthur. He quickly mounts Welles’s

reel 2, and the scheduled movie proceeds normally.

South Africa−1944: Flying Officer Christopher Reuel Tolkien is serving with the Royal

Air Force. His father, at home in Oxford, decides to complete a previously abandoned

project, which he serializes in letters for his son’s entertainment. The sprawling saga of

war between good and evil turns on the subplot of a fratricidal struggle between

Sméagol and Déagol, two “Stoor Hobbits” (“strong” Hobbits), over a magically inscribed,

periodically dormant, yet uncannily sentient and all-but indestructible weapon. Sméagol,

the victor, devolves into a misshapen creature that Tolkien christens Gollum, after the

peculiar swallowing noise that the character habitually makes.

Sudan−1965: Leni Riefenstahl lives with and photographs the Nuba. Like Tilly Fleischer,

the tribesmen are adept at spear-work. The same year, in Manhattan, advertising

executive Rudy Perez sculpts the prototype for a new corporate mascot—the Pillsbury

Dough Boy—out of clay.

Ridgewood, Queens−1975-1980: The Agudas Israel congregation is in decline. Regular

services are no longer held in the sanctuary, although a reduced congregation continues

to worship on the site, establishing a smaller ark, with its own Torah, in the basement.

Maintenance is deferred, and the building falls into disrepair. Elias Bergman dies.

Ridgewood, Queens−1984: The Dan Ackroyd/Harold Ramis hit Ghostbusters plays at

the Ridgewood Theater. Critics note that the towering Stay Puft Marshmallow Man bears

a resemblance to both the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Michelin’s Bibendum; a columnist in

the conservative National Review (founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley) quotes

Ackroyd explaining his brainwave: “You created this white monster to sell your products,

and it seems harmless and puffy and cute—but, given the right circumstances, everything can be turned back and become evil.”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania−1988-91: Cartoonist Matt Freedman draws a weekly strip

titled “Professor Tatlin’s Do-It-Yourself Comics” for the University of Wisconsin−based

free newspaper The Onion. Each week, a new project is presented for Freedman’s

followers to cut out and assemble, e.g. a series of dioramas depicting World Leaders

Stranded on a Desert Island, including full-frontal-nude paper dolls of Margaret Thatcher,

Mikhail Gorbachev, George H. W. Bush, and Dan Quayle. The local jobbing printer,

outraged by what he understands as disrespect aimed at authority, refuses to print any

subsequent issue of The Onion featuring nasty pictures.

St. Petersburg, Florida−1996: The search portal is founded. Its name

rhymes with “promise”; the portal privileges “search terms popular with male users.” Its

name is reportedly an acronym for “Bitter Old Men In Suits.”

San Diego, California−2001: Former Bomis entrepreneurs found Wikipedia.

Ridgewood, Queens−2002-3: Artists Jude Tallichet and Matt Freedman purchase the

Agudas building. In accordance with Jewish law, in order to effect the transformation of

the structure from a consecrated place of worship to a private live/work space, the wood

that has lined the two arks of the covenant must be buried like a human body. The

Torahs themselves are donated to the Israeli army.

Edith Weiss Bergman, one of few congregants remaining in the neighborhood, is battling

cancer. She has, however, been athletic all her life, and remains strong enough to walk

her dog, Little Eva. Tallichet and Freedman, out walking their own dogs Sparky, Fleurry,

and Pluto, befriend her. Mrs. Bergman tells Tallichet and Freedman the story of the

temple’s golem, her husband’s footage, and the romantic bet. She reasons that the lone

print of Elias’s film is likely to be where they left it, in the defunct “clubhouse.”

Ridgewood, Queens−2005: Pluto Freedman-Tallichet dies.

Ridgewood, Queens−2008: The Ridgewood Theatre goes bankrupt. The building is

offered for sale for $14,000,000. Tallichet and Freedman tour the premises posing as

prospective buyers and, under the pretext of examining water damage in the attic,

discover a single film canister labeled, in two different hands, “Artie−Bar Mitzvah” and

“The Golem of Ridgewood.” They spirit it back to their home. The film is badly

deteriorated, with only a few minutes’ footage intact.

Ridgewood, Queens−2008-2011: Guided by clues in what remains of the film,

Freedman and Tallichet recover parts of the lost golem. The left hand is buried the

garden; the odd object they had previously removed from the synagogue’s safe (in what

is now their living room) is revealed to be the right or “iron” hand. The sword is in the

shed. The head, complete with helmet, turns up in their own attic, which the two

sculptors use as studio storage.

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