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In Beacon Hill, the Golem rises as ‘a protector of all people’ for Passover

Julie Weitz’s “Golem v. Golem” photo installation graces the façade of Beacon Hill's Vilna Shul Jewish center.
Julie Weitz’s “Golem v. Golem” photo installation graces the façade of Beacon Hill's Vilna Shul Jewish center.Aaron Farley

Jews and others who gather for the Passover Seder Saturday will recount the 10 plagues of Egypt, sprinkling a drop of wine for each, as they commemorate God delivering Jews from slavery in Egypt.

It’s also a moment to consider our modern plagues: COVID-19, anti-Semitism, racism, a divided nation. “Golem v. Golem,” Los Angeles artist Julie Weitz’s photo installation on the façade of the Vilna Shul, the historic synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Beacon Hill, is inspired by Weitz’s own confrontation with modern plagues.

“Golem v. Golem” is the centerpiece of Passover programming presented by the Jewish Arts Collaborative and Asylum Arts (other offerings are available online, in a program called “Reimagine Exodus”). It’s also part of “Dwelling in a Time of Plagues,” a host of Passover projects in nine cities sponsored by the funding collaborative CANVAS.

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“After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where they were chanting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ I was compelled to respond,” said Weitz over the phone from Los Angeles.

She started making Golem videos. This installation and its online component, eight short videos spooling out over the eight days of Passover, follow the artist’s odyssey with the Golem, a figure from Jewish folklore crafted from clay and brought to life with incantations.

“The Golem is intentionally amorphous and can mean many things,” said Laura Mandel, executive director of JArts. “Julie created the character the way a cartoonist, say on ‘South Park,’ creates — to say things a human can’t say.”

In legend, the Golem was created by a 16th-century Czech rabbi to combat persecution of Jews in Prague. Weitz’s 21st-century Golem is performance art: She dons white makeup and costumes. But the Golem’s mission has not changed.

A photo from Julie Weitz's 2019 "Tashlich"  performance.
A photo from Julie Weitz's 2019 "Tashlich" performance.Aaron Farley

“My Golem is a justice seeker and a protector of all people,” said Weitz, a Jewish video artist who had never performed before.

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Her Golem is silent, sexy, comical, clownish, and something of a lightning rod. In a 2018 video, “The Great Dominatrix,” a riff on Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Weitz plays with the notion of global domination as the Golem has her way with a three-foot inflatable globe.

But what started out with a parodic edge took a turn in October 2018, after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“I realized this sense I had that Jewish Americans needed a protector is actually real now,” Weitz said.

As she continued to produce videos, she said, “I was trying to find a spiritual grounding in the chaos of the Trump era.”

Weitz began showing up at protests for immigrants’ rights in character. “She came from a history of diaspora and exile,” she said of the Golem. “Activist communities embraced her.”

The Vilna Shul was built by Lithuanian immigrants in 1919 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and it’s the only immigrant-built synagogue still around in downtown Boston.

“When you look at a synagogue built by … people who were seeking a new life, and to become a nation within a nation,” said Dalit Ballen Horn, the Vilna Shul’s executive director, “Julie’s symbolism goes deep.”

Lately, Weitz has turned to climate issues. One photo banner at the Vilna Shul features the Golem as a firefighter with a shofar, an instrument made from a ram’s horn and blown as a call to action — in this case, to protect the environment.

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A view of Julie Weitz's "Golem v. Golem" at Vilna Shul.
A view of Julie Weitz's "Golem v. Golem" at Vilna Shul. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Weitz, working with filmmaker D.S. Chun and a creative team including a choreographer and a costume designer, has made several videos since Charlottesville and posted them on social media. They have been met with an upwelling of support and an outpouring of anti-Semitism.

“It presented an aspect of risk I’d never considered as an artist before,” Weitz said. “You open your phone and there are 50 horrible new comments and horrible new followers.”

The second video episode of “Golem v. Golem” considers dichotomies we face as a nation and within ourselves.

“The Kabbalah talks about how the Pharaoh and Moses live within us. The Pharaoh is the denier, the negater, the tyrannical figure in us. Moses is the opposite,” Weitz said.

She and her character also represent a dichotomy. “‘Golem v. Golem’ is me in relation to the character,” she said. “I think about what her process has meant to me as an artist and a Jewish American.”

For a nonperformer to take this powerful a character into the public realm — to be channeling a mystical element of herself, and perhaps all of us, in broad daylight — has been an adventure.

“To have this form of expression to respond to horrific aspects of our culture, to speak it from a Jewish perspective,” Weitz said, “it required a lot of chutzpah.”

GOLEM V. GOLEM

At Vilna Shul, 18 Phillips St. through April 4. Online videos at https://bit.ly/304xOlc. Further information: https://jartsboston.org/event/golem-v-golem

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REIMAGINE EXODUS

Through April 4. https://asylum-arts.org/reimagine-exodus


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.