A Golem from Thames Mud: Who was the “Baal Shem of London”?

May 2019 has seen me deep in research for a strange and fascinating project.

It started when George showed me this entry in “Martyrs and Mystics” by Ed Glinnert

“an alchemical laboratory on London bridge”… “creating a Golem of Jewish Legend…” Wow!

I had no idea that London had its very own Golem story!

I suggested the story to Chabad Lubavitch Islington who put on public events in North London. They thought the story would be a great addition to their free event the Big Jewish Summer Fete.

But evidence about Samuel Falk is scarce and contradictory.

To some he is “The biggest rogue and villain in all the world” (The Gentlemans Magazine Sept 1762)

To others he is “a holy light, a saintly man” (Susman Sheznowzi)

We don’t know if he was married and if he had any children. We don’t know the place or date of his birth- or where he travelled before he came to London. The golem story is unsubstantiated as are many of the other extraordinary tales about him!

I needed to tell a true story about someone for whom there is very little documented fact.

Racking my story-devising brain for a good angle I thought I might tell the story from the point of view of the people around him. Neighbours, servants, maybe a local rabbi and his wife… people who had perhaps heard some stories about him and witnessed others. This would allow me to allow for contradiction, argument and involve a woman’s voice too!

When I got started I realised that this wouldn’t work either.

We have no idea who most of his neighbours were. Of course I could make people up but then I’m introducing another element of fiction and pastiche into an already multilayered story. The more convincing these fictional neigbours are, the more you care about them and the more the focus of the story shifts away from someone real (Samuel Falk) to someone unreal (this invented neigbour!)

I found myself getting lost in a labyrinth of reality and fiction.

Meanwhile I pursued the avenues of research I could and finally got the precious permission letter from the United Synagogue to view the restricted access microfilms of his magical notebooks!

I saw Falk’s own handwriting, Spanish script, Hebrew texts and strange tables and cyphers.

And then…

… I had a brainwave as to how I could tell the story and express the gaps and contradictions while keeping the spotlight where it was meant to be, bright and clear on the mystic himself.

if you want to find out how I did it, you will have to come along and listen!

The Big Jewish Summer Fete is on the 30th June and it’s FREE!

Find out more about the excellent programme of events and all details here.

Special thanks to Jewish folklorist and storyteller Del Reid and to cultural historian and writer Jonah Locksley of Thinkers Garden.

Find out more about upcoming London Dreamtime events here.

* a bit more info about Falk here:

Falk lived in Wellclose Square E1 a neighbour and contemporary of Emmanuel Swedenborg. (You can go and see the square now, it’s very near to Wiltons Music Hall.)

“Wellclose Square was the first planned residential square in East London and aimed at intellectuals and freethinkers… It was the apex of the new London designed by the team around sir Christopehr Wren who reshaped London after the 1666 fire. Using biblical measurements and ‘sacred geometry’  Wren and his assistants created the square 2,000 cubits from st Dunstan in the East, his favourite church, which itself stands 2,000 cubits from St Pauls. Smart houses lined the square around a railed off grassed area at the centre of which stood a church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and the danish architect Caus Gabriel Cibber,  the designer of the relief on the Monument based on the book of Lamentations.” (Ed Glinert)

“Baal Shem” is a general title referring to a mystic and holy man who performs cures and exorcisms and various magics. It means “Master of the Name”. It is NOT the same as “Baal Shem Tov” (“Master of the Good Name”) which was the unique title of a contemporary, Israel ben Eliezer who is regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism.