Review: Golem Goes to Camp

Golem Goes to Camp

by Todd Gutnick, illustrated by Ruth Bennett

Apples & Honey Press (imprint of Behrman House), 2023

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Rebecca Klempner

Buy at

Emmett Cohen, a 10-year-old from Philadelphia, spends the summer at Camp Teva in Upstate New York. While he's generally excited about camp, he's annoyed that his artist parents signed him up to take a week of art classes, since Emmett is entirely disinterested in art. He spends his first day in the art shed making a clay monster. When he carves his name in Hebrew letters -- alef, mem, tav -- onto the sculpture. Later, we learn those letters also spell the Hebrew word EMET, "truth."

At first, Emmett sticks it in a corner of his bunkhouse, Cabin 15. But then, it winks and smiles at Emmett's pal, Jake. When Jake freaks out about that, Emmett and Jake's conversation is overheard by Reisha, a particularly smart girl. She explains what a golem is and how Emmett accidentally made one.

Reisha explains that the golem has no soul and suggests that Emmett blows up its nose. Emmetts follows instructions, and the golem wakes up the rest of the way. Shocked, Emmett, Jake, Reisha, and Emily (who tagged along to figure out what was going on with Emmett's sculpture) make a pact to keep the golem's existence secret.

As Emmett's friends start to blab about the golem, more and more campers become aware of the golem's existence.

Given the golem's talents, Emmett's friends brainstorm things it could do. They send it to the dining hall. It breaks in and steals ice cream for a late-night party. The golem cooks in the camp kitchen. The food is excellent, but the golem trashes the kitchen and Cabin 15. When the golem cleans Cabin 15, the bunk wins Cleanest Bunk.

Everything is going fine until a bunch of 6-year-olds see the golem. One of them, Gabe, recognizes it as Emmett's creation from the art shed. However, Emmett again evades the adults.

Finally, there's a terrible storm. It knocks down trees, etc., causing trouble for the camp. The kids send the golem out at night to lift downed trees and repair broken property. Its presence stays undetected until it rescues Gabe from drowning. While Gabe is safe, the water melts the golem's body back down to mud. The friends regret the loss of their friend (and hero!), but collect as much clay as they can. Perhaps they will try to recreate the golem when they are together again the following summer.

Golem Goes to Camp
feels very culturally Jewish if not particularly religious. The names of the kids and the names of the camp and its venues are all super Jewy. Camp Teva refers to the Hebrew word for "nature;" Lake Yafeh references the Hebrew word for "pretty;" the campers refer to the place were they hold Shabbat services and assemblies as the B.K. for "beit knesset." There are references to Shabbat, Jewish history and folklore. These elements are woven into the story well, and while I'm not sure that a non-Jewish reader would catch them, they wouldn't be confused by them either. While I enjoyed the age-appropriate details and the very logical ending to the book, I didn't feel fully satisfied by this read due to a lack of suspense and very low stakes.
Illustration Editor Dena Bach adds: The expressive lines and comic style of the black and white spot illustrations match the humor found in the story line. In many cases, the illustrations add information that is better presented visually than in the words of the narrative, such as the map of the camp, and the significance of the Hebrew writing on the golem’s forehead as it plays on the protagonist’s name.

Are you interested in reviewing books for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze? Click here!

Reviewer Rebecca Klempner is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles, best known for A DOZEN DAISIES FOR RAIZY and ADINA AT HER BEST. Her newest book, HOW TO WELCOME AN ALIEN, is due out August 1st and is available for preorder.