Saul Bellow’s Herzog on “Downward Transcendence” and the “Humiliating Comedy of Heartache”


What does a modern Jewish heart yearn for? And how is it torn? These are questions that were of great interest to Saul Bellow when he wrote his novel, Herzog. His main character’s last name, Herzog, means, in Yiddish, the Song of the Heart.   And this song is not just Herzog’s; it is the song of the American schlemiel (as Bellow understands him).   What makes Bellow’s version so interesting is that Herzog is not like I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool (which Bellow translated from the Yiddish in an important issue of Partisan Review): he is an academic. But, like Gimpel, he has a heart and believes in goodness and truth. Like Gimpel, he lives his life in pursuit of it and it breaks his heart when he finds himself alone in his search and at yet another dead end.   However, in an important set of passages, we see the merging of the academic and the Jew.   The heart in search of truth and the broken heart mediates between the two.

In one of his letters to dead and living people, Herzog writes to “Harris Pulver, who had been his tutor in 1939 and was now the editor of Atlantic Civilization”(163).    Since Pulver is a historicist, what intrigues Herzog is the dialogue he can have with Pulver about the notion of transcendence which challenges it:

Listen, Pulver, he wrote, a marvelous idea for a much-needed essay on the ‘inspired condition’! Do you believe in transcendence downward as well as upward? (The words originate with Jean Wahl.) Shall we concede the impossibility of transcendence? It all involves historical analysis.   I would argue that we have fashioned a new utopian history, an idyll, comparing the present to an imaginary past, because we hate the world as it is. The hatred of the present has not been well understood. (163)

The name “Pulver” is an allusion to what is happening to human kind: it is being “pulverized” by historical and technological forces and it is this which causes the “hatred of the present” and a desire of a “downward transcendence.”   But that desire is overshadowed by cynicism and what Herzog calls “self-revenge.”

The drama of this stage of human development seems to be the drama of disease, of self-revenge. An age of special comedy. What we see is not simply the leveling de Tocqueville predicted, but the plebian state of evolutionary self-awareness. (164)

But the “comedy” is not seen by all because few lack a sense of “evolutionary self-awareness” like Herzog. That’s the irony. He is alone in bearing witness to this pulverization. He suggests, based on his own understanding of this comedy, that it is possible to attain an “inspired condition.”

This is thought to be attainable only in the negative and is so pursued in philosophy and literature as well as sexual experience, or with the aid of narcotics, or in a “philosophical,” “gratuitous” crime and similar paths of horror. (164)

As one can see, this “inspired condition,” this “downward transcendence” seems to be devoid of morality. The goodness provided by technology is desired, but is it really goodness? This issue troubles Herzog and his Jewish soul.

It is “good” to electrify a primitive area. Civilization and even morality are implicit in technological transformation. Isn’t it good to give bread to the hungry, to cloathe the naked…Good is easily done by machines of production and transportation. Can virtue compete? (164)

There is a tension at the heart of the modern project. (And in the following passage one can hear echoes of the Holocaust.)

Just as machinery has embodied ideas of good, so the technology of destruction has also acquired a metaphysical character. (165)

Now, all humankind instead of this or that intellectual or priest, has access to and is impinged upon by questions of good and evil, each has access to self-destruction or the “inspired condition.”

But Herzog worries that fate may take over. Will a person be prompted to “change” or will they be consumed by the energetics of technology and be pulverized? To test where he stands on all this, Herzog (and the narrator – which overlap at some points) puts himself (or Herzog) into the question or rather experiment.

Thus I want to see how I, Moses E. Herzog, am changing. I ask you to witness the miracle of his altered heart – how, hearing the sounds of slum clearance in the next block and watching the white dust of plaster in the serene air of metamorphic New York, he communicates with the mighty of this world, or speaks words of understanding and prophesy, having arranged at the same time a comfortable and entertaining evening – food, music, wine, conversation, and sexual intercourse. Transcendence or no transcendence. All work and no games is bad medicine. (166)

And this is where the Jew meets the academic or ordinary American. Herzog says that his needs are different from “Ike” (the prototypical American) who likes fishing, sex, etc.   “To get laid” is an “act of citizenship,” but Herzog is not simply a citizen. He transcends that because he, as a Jew and a schlemiel, is interested in goodness and not mere fulfillment and living well.

Powerless to reject the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization on the spiritual desires, the high cravings of Herzog, on his moral suffering, his longing for the good, the true. All the while his heart is contemptibly aching. (166)

The description of the aching as “contemptible” is telling because it is so but not for Herzog so much as for “Ike.” Why care about goodness, truth, or morality when you can just have fun? His Jewishness inheres in being an American Jew who must, as a matter of course, ending the “humiliating comedy of heartache.”

He would like to give his heart a shaking, or put it out of his breast. Evict it. Moses hated the humiliating comedy of heartache. But can thought wake you from the dream of existence? (166)

The answer to this question is in the negative. As a schlemiel, as a Jew, he cannot commit himself to the academic “delusion of total explanations” or the “dream of the intellect”(166). His love for others and his pursuit of being good to them, loving them, ruin his dream of the intellectual solution and breaks his heart.   When it comes to people and goodness, actions may or may not be accepted. People die, are abused, and forgotten.   Who he is or what he becomes are riddled with his heartfelt relationships with others.   His transcendence is downward. It doesn’t lift itself beyond the world.

And if we put the pieces together of this narrative, we can see that despite the pulverization of technology and all its promises and evils, the greater appeal, the appeal of the heart, is what truly pulverizes him and situates Moses Herzog to the possibility of change and goodness. The schlemiel is oriented to the world and humankind; and in that orientation, s/he is and must be in pursuit of truth and goodness which happens between humans and not in this or that idea.   This is a comedy that is greater than the one prompted by progress and technology.

A New Essay for Berfrois on Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham: “Body-to-Body: On Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham’s Differing Comedic Treatments of Gendered Bodies, (Sexual) Identity, and Relationships”


I wrote a new essay on Lena Dunham and Sara Silverman for the wonderful journal, Berfrois, entitled:

Body-to-Body: On Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham’s Differing Comedic Treatments of Gendered Bodies, (Sexual) Identity and Relationships

Take a Look:

Enjoy, Menachem

Poetic Faith and Stupidity in the Face of Disaster – On Paul Celan’s “Twelve Years”


I am a(n) (c)academic (as the post-Holocaust writer Raymond Federman used to quip).

One of the things that I am astonished by is the pride some of my colleagues take in showing how intelligent they are. Few of them will admit to “becoming” or “being” stupid. But I would suggest that with people like NYU professor Avital Ronell there is hope. Her study of stupidity is brilliant and opens up a whole new field.  She subtly performs stupidity, while academically discussing it:

As Pierre Bordieu might say, religion is a habitus, a way of life that defines the world. But the Enlightenment takes a different kind of habitus. In the spirit of Spinoza, the enlightened must always seem intelligent…and not stupid.

This is not theory. To be sure, humility and stupiduty are not norms for the more enlightented. Intelligence is. And still, for many, stupidity is often synonymous with “religion.” Bill Maher rides on the claim:

Religion is neither necessary nor possible unless it is the worship of intelligence. But, perhaps, that’s what makes poetry unique. Reading it, sometimes, we can experience something that is religious and dumb, yet, in a way that isn’t stupid but possibly transformational and even redemptive.

humility and stupiduty are not a norm. And still, for many, stupidity is synonymous with “religion.”

Speaking of intelligence and stupidity, the poet Paul Celan comes to mind. He brings his readers to think of language in relationship to the schlemiel and the “ascription” of the “line” – which “remains” – to the other.

One of the most overlooked things I have seen in the reception of Paul Celan is that there us little attention to how his poetry is sometimes concerned with becoming “dumb.” Many of my colleagues who read him think of him and themselves as intelligent and have not, as Celan would have wished, been or are not capable of being transformed by what Lacoue-Labarthe calls the “experience of language.” That is because many of them look at language and faith as may Enlighteners do: as arbitrary and unncesarry.

Poetry teaches us that language can expose a close reader to the “experience of language” as the “experience of stupidity.”

Celan’s poems are stupid in the sense that they are obsessed with the question of salvation and experience of truth. Celan, to be sure, situates stupidity at the heart of many of his poems and this can take on many different shades of meaning.

The worst kind of stupidity happens, for him, when people hurt themselves and others.

The best kind of stupidity is experienced in the face of the incomprehensible.

And the experience of stupidity can be found in his poetry. We may undergo an experience of language as an experience. But if we are too smart, if we are too academic, we may not.

Poetry teaches us that language can expose a close reader to the “experience of language” as the “experience of stupidity.”

In Paul Celan’s Die Niemandrose (the Nobody’s Rose, 1963) there is a poem entitled, “Twelve Years.” It gets to the heart of the matter and shows us the internal tension between stupidity and intelligence. It shows us the way of poetic faith in the wake of disaster. And, as John Felstiner suggests, Celan was thinking about “luftmenshen.” There is a mix of faith and comedy:

The eye, dark:

As tabernacle window. It gathers

What was world, remains world: the wanders –

East, the

Hovering ones, the


The people-of-the-clouds

Writing on this, Felstiner avers: “Yiddish speaks benignly of luftmenschen, job drifters with their heads in the clouds”(192). Yet he juxtoposes it with a entirely different idea:

Writing to Margul-Sperber at the time, Celan recollected how Mensch “(human being”) during Nazi-time seemed “a rhymeless word calling for rhyme.”

What is the meaning of this? Felstiner’s third sentence gives the answer:

His compound “humans-and-Jews” provides the rhyme (192).

In other words naming the schlemiel, the lumtentsch, “humans-and-Jews,” the word mensch is redeemed! The problem with what Felstinter says is not that it is improperly described. Rather, Felstiner’s work lacks insights into these moments of redemption because they are not directly named or described by the critic.

I will give it a try: for Celan the word “humans-and-Jews” is a remnant of the luftmensche, schelmiel. It gives the schlemiel new life through a kind of stupidity that comes with survival but is rooted in the holy fool.

And the holy fool is rooted in “an experience of language which is…an “experience of stupidity.”

In the first stanza, the narrator makes the case for the truth of language, the line. It survives, it remains…after the Holocaust:

The line

That remained, that

Became true:…your

House in Paris – become

The altarpiece of your hands. (165, Paul Celan: Collected Poems)

The words Celan chooses are his own. But they are also from a surreal image of the Christian tradition of faith and mysticism. The alterpiece of one’s hands. It makes sense to note that, for at least one thread of the Kabblastic tradition, the hands are read as a spiritual channel of the soul.

naming the schlemiel, the lumtentsch: “humans-and-Jews,” the word mensch is redeemed!

According to the Zohar, he soul leaves the body when one sleeps and returns to the soul every day. And this is tied to the first blessing of the day: “modeh ani’ lefanecha” (“I admit before you”) melachai v’kayam (“my living king”) sh’chezartah b’ee nishmat’ee (“who has returned my soul to me”).

Celan tells us that the return of the soul is to the hands and language (which is kabbalistic). But he grafts it with  a Christian tradition by using the word, “thrice”…in two rhythmic lines:

Breathed through thrice,

Shone through thrice. (165)

The mysticism of three. There is nothing stupid in these lines save for foolish belief in language, mysticism, and history because it is all that remains: “the line that remained.”

Is that “remaining line” “human-Jews” or some other word?

But the next lines tell us that we are losing vision, become dumb. We are losing trust in language and its power:

It’s turning dumb, turning deaf

Behind our eyes.

I see the poison flower.

It all manner of words and shapes.

The line has not just become “dumb” and “deaf”; it has seen in terms of a “poison flower” which the voice sees in “in all manner of words and shapes.”

In other words, the poison has its language, its form.

This suggests that there is no word, but the last lines tell us, or rather, command us to turn away from this turning by turning to the other:

Go. Come.

Love blots out its name: to

You it ascribes itself.

The last lines shows us that this is not the name of love is the name of redemption; it tell us to “Go. Come” It commands us. Yet, in the process it “blots out its name.” It effaces itself.

But when it is blotted out, it doesn’t go nowhere, it goes to you: “to you it ascribes itself.”

It is a religious kind of ascription.

But it also makes you in to a luftmensch, that is a “human-Jew.” That line “remains” (survives). Its stupid because its doesn’t rhyme and its looking…to the other…to rhyme.

That might be when the “the experience of language” is the experience of a certain kind of stupidity that we find in the name that survives. Since “to you it ascribes itself.” “Human-Jew” is your word. It returns…to “you.”


No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,

no one incants our dust.

No one.


Blessèd art thou, No One.

In thy sight would

we bloom.

In thy



A Nothing

we were, are now, and ever

shall be, blooming:

the Nothing-, the




our pistil soul-bright,

our stamen heaven-waste,

our corona red

from the purpleword we sang

over, O over

the thorn.

“He’s a schlemiel…And proud of it: Upstate New York native overwhelmed by hometown support” by Brian Moskowitz


Last Sunday (May 3), I spoke at Knesseth Israel Synagogue which is located in my hometown: Gloversville, New York.  I talked about the Schlemiel, being an American and a Jew, and my family’s path to and in America.

The following is an article written by Brian Moskowitz, a freelance journalist and copywriter currently based in Toronto.  He reported on the event.  (For more on Gloversville and the schlemiel see this.)


He’s a schlemiel…And proud of it

Upstate New York native overwhelmed by hometown support

By Brian Moskowitz

As a professor, blogger, musician and schlemiel theorist, Menachem Feuer is the pride of his hometown.

“The schlemiel brings warmth to cold hearts,” the York University professor of Jewish Studies told an esteemed audience of 50 people at Gloversville, New York’s Knesseth Israel Synagogue, on May 3.

Feuer, who currently lives in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Thornhill, Ontario, was invited to speak about his work on the comedic Jewish character that originated in Europe, and to celebrate his accomplishments and deep personal connection to Gloversville. Along with local Jews and non-Jews curious about Judaism and its relationship to comedy, a New York state Supreme Court Justice and a frontrunner for Fulton County Sheriff, were also in attendance.

The self-described “schlemiel from Upstate New York”, explained how the schlemiel uses comedy to triumph over adversity; and how this seemingly awkward character who inevitably “spills the soup” when attempting to serve it, has found new expression in American culture through the films of Woody Allen and the writings of Saul Bellow, among other artists.

“Two of the schlemiel’s main characteristics are his humility and simplicity, and this town has shown me how people are at their best when they stick to these modes of being, despite whatever hardships they may be facing,” said Feuer, alluding to the town’s twenty-five per cent unemployment rate.

“I’ve known Menachem since he was in diapers and it’s wonderful to have one of our own be successful as he is today and come back and share his experiences with us,” said Ron Olinsky, past president and Chair of United Jewish Federation programming at Knesseth Israel.

An avid reader of Feuer’s blog,, Olinsky explained that Feuer’s program is the beginning of an effort to highlight the achievements of community members who have moved away from the town’s Jewish community, which has decreased from roughly 250 families to approximately 40.


Feuer’s paternal Austrian zaida, Menkis Feuer, immigrated to Gloversville in 1921 and helped establish the pastoral upstate New York town as the deer skin capital of the world.

Designed by Edgar Tafel, a protégé of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Knesseth Israel Synagogue stands together with the local library built by Andrew Carnegie and the Glove Theater, purchased by Jewish immigrants Louis and J. Myer Schine in 1920, as testaments to the heights of affluence once reached by the former leather goods mecca.

“This place has a very rich culture made up of Italians, Jews, Poles and Germans who did their best to make Gloversville the best it could be,” said Richard Giardino, currently running for Fulton County Sheriff.

The 44-year-old Feuer moved to Toronto in 2000, after marrying Kinneret Dubowitz, a yoga teacher who started a Yoga Alliance certified teacher’s training course for women in Toronto, Israel and the U.S. in 2006. Dubowitz and the couple’s sons were in Montreal where their 11-year-old, Shalom, was participating in the Chidon Hatanach Canada Bible contest.

“He’s one of our own, and it’s wonderful for our community to have somebody who goes out to the world and accomplishes great things,” said New York State Supreme Court Justice, Richard Aulisi.

A long-time friend of Feuer’s father, Aulisi added that he experiences a distinct personal pleasure listening to Feuer’s scholarship and thinks that it is “wonderful” when Gloversville natives return home to share their experiences with the community.

Gloversville Knesseth Family

Because of his eclectic mix of literary erudition, Torah learning and appreciation for the Grateful Dead, Feuer became the focus of a 2011 documentary entitled Shlemiel, by filmmaker Chad Derrick. The documentary, currently available for free online at, explores Feuer’s relationship to Hasidism, his family and his musical aspirations with his band, Men with Babies.

“Sholem Aleichem’s greatest schlemiel character, Motel, had an intimate relationship with the forests and animals of Eastern Europe. These find an American home in the rustic settings of Upstate New York,” said Feuer. “Gloversville is my ‘Yechupetsville’, my Anatevka, my Kasrilevke…and your trusting, encouraging, hopeful schlemielkeit, brings me home,” he told the audience.

Missing Saul Bellow’s Legacy: On Gary Shteyngart’s Tepid Reading of Bellow for “The New York Review of Books”


One of the main tasks of the introduction is to make the work of an author relevant for contemporary readers. But sometimes book publishers choose the wrong people to write introductions for books of dead authors. And what happens is that the legacy that this or that writer wished to pass on – if indeed they had one – is lost.

Such is the case with Gary Shteyngart’s essay for The New York Review of Books, entitled “Bellow After Death.” This was not a special essay for NYRB so much – as the blurb at the end of the article tells us – as the “new introduction to Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, to be published in May 12th.”

The introductory essay doesn’t spell out a legacy so much as its death. Throughout the article Shteyngart takes on what Leo Strauss, an intellectual deeply respected and followed by Bellow, would call a modern “historicist” or “progressivist” reading of a past text. Strauss made this comment in relation to how modern thinkers – such as Julius Guttman or Herman Cohen – would read Moses Maimonides and Medieval Jewish philosophy.   Instead of allowing oneself (and the modern reader) to learn from the legacy of Maimonides or Medieval philosophy, it judges it to be a thing of the past. Our reading of it, rather than its own intrinsic meaning, matters. Strauss called the opposite approach to the text “immanent criticism.” In this modality, we have to let the text teach us, not the other way around.

And for Strauss, modernity has a lot to learn about how certain questions have not been resolved and remain for modernity. And these questions involve questions about the relationship between faith and reason.   In his introduction to Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and his Predecessors, Strauss argues that many modern Enlightenment thinkers thought they decide on and won the argument simply because the Medievals were ridiculous. But, as Strauss reminds us, one doesn’t end an argument or kill a legacy by virtue of mockery (29-30).

Building on what Strauss says, I would argue that the same can be said for Shteyngart’s treatment of Bellow. He historicizes him in such a way as to argue that he is in the dustbin of history (even while seemingly praising him). He suggests that we mock him and put his claims to rest as they are all dated. On the one hand, we seem to lack the intellectual rigor for his texts, but, on the other, its dated and simply not worth it. And the latter wins out over the former. And this pronounces the death sentence to Bellow’s legacy; hence, the ironic title, “Bellow After Death” which is contrary to what one would think. He doesn’t live on after death; he dies. And that’s that. There is no legacy and there is nothing to learn except that…that what happened in Bellow’s novels…was something that had an appeal…at one time…but not today.

I’d like to briefly show how the deracinating of Bellow’s legacy works in each part of Shteyngart’s essay.

In the beginning of the essay, Shteyngart associates Bellow with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The quote suggests that his books – like Maimondies’ Guide for the Perplexed – will be “hard to read” and, as the “illiteracy of the public increases,” will become “harder.” Shteyngart’s addition is to suggest that it will be impossible. He uses himself as a modern example:

As I try to read the first pages of Ravelstein, my iPhone pings and squawks with increasing distress. The delicate intellectual thread gets lost. Macaulay. Ping! Antony and Cleopatra. Zing! Keynes. Marimba! And I’m on just pages 5 and 6 of the novel. How is a contemporary person supposed to read 201 pages? It requires nothing less than performing brain surgery on oneself. Rewiring the organ so that the neurons revisit the haunts they once knew, hanging out with Macaulay and Keynes, much as they did in 2000, before encounters with both were reduced to brief digital run-ins on some highbrow content-provider’s blog, back when knowledge was actually something to be enjoyed instead of simply being ingested in small career-sustaining bursts.

If Shteyngart, a novelist can’t read, how much more so will the average reader not be able to get anything from Bellow. For Shteyngart, Philip Roth’s Portnoy rather than Bellow’s Herzog (a character from his earlier and most popular novel of a schlemiel) is more relevant. Portnoy, in all his vulgarity and rude wit, speaks to “low” culture, today. While Bellow’s Herzog oscillates between “high and low” culture – an oscillation which, apparently, modern people don’t get since they are too distracted by iphones etc to be affected by this movement.

But Shteyngart’s characterization of Bellow’s novels suggest that his novels are filled only with high cultural kinds of characters. And the language they use is outdated:

Or perhaps it’s just Bellow’s formative haunts—the stables filled with poets, thinkers, and novelists—that have lost some of their appeal, not to mention their hay. Where academia and literature intersect today, you will find a bunch of dudes in Converse and dudettes in skinny jeans grimly discussing their health care premiums in an overlit conference hall just outside Minneapolis or Denver. Few would turn to one another and say, like Ravelstein: “But can you explain what Nature does for you—a Jewish city type?” And yes, that’s Nature with a capital N.

No one talks about Nature anymore, apparently. I find this interesting because, as a Professor (Shteyngart notes he is also a teacher) I find many students interested in discussing these very issues.   In fact, they want to know. They aren’t all historicists as he suggests. Or perhaps I have the wrong students.

Although, in this part, the historicism is evident in Shteyngart’s reading, it is most evident in how he characterizes Bellow’s Jews versus Jews today:

“As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow also not,” Chick muses. I could well hear these words emerge from my father’s mouth, and from others of his generation, and for a few bunkered-in Jewish stalwarts of my own. But how I disagree, generationally and experientially, with that line of thinking. In post-Seinfeldian, post–Larry-Davidian America, the very opposite could be inferred: “As an American you are also a Jew, but somehow also not.” The fantasies of being pogrommed out of New Hampshire by an anti-Semitic militia nonetheless serve as a useful reminder of what post-Holocaust life was like for a generation of Jews who believed the ashes of the crematoria could one day fall upon the Berkshires.

Shteyngart’s distinction makes a mockery of those Jews from the past. We, in our “post-Seinfeldian, post-Larry-Davidian America,” can’t understand the “post-Holocaust” life. It is not our legacy. It may “nonetheless serve as a useful reminder of what post-Holocaust life was for a generation of Jews, etc.” In other words, it’s for the dustbin of history and need not affect Jewish readers today. Today, we are Americans first and maybe…Jews second. These generalizations reek of fatalism and assumptions about “post-assimilation” American Jews. Should the reader see him or herself in this way, they may approach the book as yet another relic of Jewishness that is unattainable; namely, a Jewishness informed by history. Some of my students, actually, have a contrary drive. What about them? Has the question of what it means to be a Jew disappeared from our horizon? Are all American Jews comfortable with being Americans?

The only thing Shteyngart finds relevant is the remainder of history for Jews, our only legacy, is materialism and anxiety. Jews need to critique it and make fun of it:

What remains relevant more than ever is Bellow’s take on our hyper-materialistic, luxury-goods-loving society. If this were an Updike novel, it might be titled Ravelstein Is Rich. “It was wonderful to be so public about the private, about the living creature and its needs.” Chick thinks of the French, and the novel positively luxuriates in Ravelstein’s newly minted millions. There’s an exquisite description of the purchase of a BMW (“With extras, the car would cost eighty thousand bucks”) that lasts for two entire pages. There are Lanvin jackets “advertised in Vanity Fair and the other fashion slicks, and they’re usually modeled by unshaven toughs with the look of rough trade or downright rapists.” There’s the appearance of the then-exotic Visa Gold card on which you could slap $4,500. And then there’s also the comedy of physicality and decline, as Ravelstein’s third espresso serré finally puts an end to the reign of the aforementioned Lanvin jacket. “I tried to interest him in bow ties,” the narrator tells us of his efforts to rescue Ravelstein’s multitudes of Zegna neckties from similar fates, a sentence I would also crown as One of the Best Examples of Jewish Thought in the Twentieth Century. By which I mean it’s funny, tender, menschy. It’s all about trembling fingers and hot beverages; it’s about anxiety, desire, and death.

Nothing else remains, apparently.

The last paragraphs of Shteyngart’s essay are sheer mockery. He suggests that Bellow wanted to live on in “pictures” of the past. Shteyngart identifies with the writers interest in childhood and its juxtaposition with death – he says that it is a topic he revisits in his own fiction. But in the last lines he also suggests that Bellow’s obsession with his childhood and the past marked his death sentence. And it’s a wonder that his work had an after life of “eighty more years.”

It never hurts a writer to nearly die in the first decade of his life, as Bellow did. But how exceptionally kind was the universe in that it allowed him eighty more years of existence.

But what Shteyngart misses, especially in a novel like Herzog, is that Bellow turns back to his past continually so as to relate it to his present. In fact, this is what Jewishness does; it is the legacy of Jewishness to do this. But Shteyngart does the opposite. He mocks it and situates his Jewish childhood and Jewishness in the dustbin of history.

Bellow’s movement to the past, which put the present into question, was a gesture that he shared not just with Allan Bloom but also with Leo Strauss and Irving Howe. Without doing so, we pronounce the past as posing no questions to the present. And for Bellow’s Herzog, these questions had to do with morality and faith and their tension with modern brutality and evil.

In an important criticism of Leslie Feidler, Irving Howe suggested that Fiedler must be called out as a “crank.”

In American literary life, the crank is by now a familiar figure. He is a man who believes he has found a total and thereby solacing explanation for the chaos and multiplicity of existence…There has been a similar development in literary criticism….What can one say about such books except that they are sincere, often ingenious, and quite batty?

Shteyngart should also be called out in this way since he is also speaking about the legacy of Bellow in such broad brushstrokes. He is not bothered by Bellow’s Herzog. And in not being bothered, Howe would likely say he lacks a literary and historical conscience. I’ll end with Howe’s words on the role of the critic, words which can and should be applied in relation to Shteyngart who hasn’t let the text put him and his Jewishness into question. It would, to be sure, silence his mockery and self-congratulatory hip-historicism. The better introduction would suggest – to Bellow’s new and future readers – that everything is or can be at stake when we read:

Mr. Fiedler lacks the one gift – I think it is gift of character – which is essential to the critic: the willingness to subordinate his schemes and preconceptions to the actualities of a particular novel or poem. (154)

Jewish Mothers – Schlemiel Children

Menachem Feuer:

Happy Mother’s Day from Schlemiel in Theory

Originally posted on The Home of Schlemiel Theory:


Growing up, I was always surprised by the representations of Jewish mothers I would see in films, TV shows, and books.  I was, in particular, floored when I first read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint when I was an undergrad.  I read my father’s autographed copy of the novel and knew, well before reading it, that it was an important book for another generation (the baby boomers); and I wondered if it would speak to me.  But something about the representation of Portnoy’s mother didn’t resonate.

Perhaps I was surprised by the representation of Portnoy’s mother because I was raised in upstate New York by a mother whose Long Island upbringing didn’t include all of the urban, immigrant, or post-immigrant fears that many Jewish mothers are “supposed” to have.  I did in fact have some very aggressive New Yorkers in my family, but they seemed tame in comparison to Philip Roth’s…

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On Harsh Realism, Ethical Hope, and the Meaning(s) of Jewishness in Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part II


The schlemiel is a moral figure. In Yiddish literature, there are many examples of the schlemiel’s generosity and kindness to others. However, even though the schlemiel is kind he or she is often laughed at. Think, for example, of the famous schlemiel joke about the schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik. The schlemiel is the one who wants to feed the schlimazal but, right when he is about to give him soup, he spills it on him. And in the schlemiel classic, I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” the main character, Gimpel, is a very kind character. He trusts people. And even though they repeatedly betray him, he keeps on trusting them. Although this blindness to their betrayal (Ruth Wisse, however, does not think it is blind) may seem foolish and comical, it underscores the importance of the schlemiel’s goodness.

Unlike any Jewish-American writer at his time, Bellow, in his novel Herzog, was the first to give an extensive genealogy of a schlemiel’s moral character.   To this end, Bellow includes a large section on Herzog’s mother, father, and brothers. This section follows in the wake of a section on his childhood friend, Nachman.   As I pointed out in the last blog entry, Nachman is a troubled man who cannot come to terms with his father, a Rabbi, and his upbringing. He intentionally forgets it all and when he sees Herzog he is painfully reminded of it. For this reason, he “runs away.” By way of Herzog, Bellow suggests that the reason why he is so reactionary is because he didn’t grow up with a family that was good to the downtrodden. His father is more bitter and cynical than caring and optimistic.

Although Nachman runs away from his past and Herzog’s memory, he does remember that Herzog may be “blind” (to how bad things are) but he is “good.” Nachman remembers the schlemiel’s moral quality and he does this by way of remembering how good Herzog’s mother was to him and how kind his mother and father were to his “Uncle Ravitch,” a “drunkard”(134).   It’s because of these deeds that Nachman says that he “prays” for “her” and for “Moses.” In other words, goodness is contagious and can pierce through even Nachman’s trenchant cynicism and alienation.

After saying this to Herzog, Nachman gets on a bus and leaves him. They never speak again. And Herzog is left with their memories, which oppress him: “But I, with my memory – all the dead and the mad are in my custody, and I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten. I bind others to my feelings”(134).

Herzog learned this practice of binding “others” to his feelings from his parents. He suggests this when he reflects on “Uncle Ravitch” and how his parents helped the drunkard:

He drank his pay – a shicker. No one judged himself more harshly. When he came out of the saloon he stood wavering in the street, directing traffic, falling among horses and trucks and slush. The police were tired of throwing him in the drunk tank. They brought him home, to Herzog’s hallway, and pushed him in. Ravitch, late at night, sang on the freezing states in a sobbing voice.


            “Alein, alien, alien, alein

            Elend vie a shtein

            Mit die tzen finger – alein”(135)


            (“Alone, alone, alone, alone

            Solitary as a stone

            With my ten fingers – alone”)


After hearing this song, the narrator tells us that “Jonah Herzog,” Moses Herzog’s father, “got out of bed and turned on the light in the kitchen, listening”(135). All of his children, including Moses, watch the father as he listens to the song and moves to act. Herzog’s mother urges the father to help the drunkard:

Mother Herzog spoke from her room, “Yonah – help him in.” (135)

The narrator details all of the movements and hesitations that go on before he helps “Uncle Ravitch.” And the children witness this. It has a great affect on them, especially Moses Herzog, the schlemiel:

It amused the boys to hear how their father coaxed drunken Ravitch to get on his feet. It was family theater. “Nu, landtsman.” Can you walk? It’s freezing. Now, get your crooked feet on the step – schneller, schneller.” He laughed with his bare breath…The boys pressed together in the cold, smiling. (136)

Following this, the narrator points out how, in Russia, “father Herzog had been a gentleman” and wealthy.   Now he was reduced to poverty and taking care of a drunkard in the middle of the night.   None of that mattered in this moment.

The narrator goes on to tell us how Yonah Herzog’s life became the life of what Hannah Arendt – in her essay “The Jew as Pariah” – would call the “schlemiel as suspect.” To support his family, he would run alcohol in an age of prohibition:

He sold a bottle here and there and waited for his main chance. American rum-runners would buy the stuff from you at the border (of Canada), any amount, spot cash, if you could get it there. Meanwhile he smoked cigarettes on the cold platform of streetcars. The Revenue was trying to catch up with him. Spotters were after him. On the roads to the border were hijackers. (138)

Herzog recalls his childhood poverty and the dirtiness and crime around him. At the same time, he recalls how, in the midst of all this, he and his brothers prayed and his parents persisted despite the circumstances. And with all this, they still felt it was necessary to help out others such as “Uncle Ravitch.”

The chapter ends with the children bearing witness to Zipporah, Yonah Herzog’s successful sister, berating him – in from of Moses Herzog and his family – about working with criminal types:

“You think you can make a fortune out of swindlers, thieves, and gangsters. You? You’re a gentle creature. I don’t know why you didn’t stay in Yeshiva. You wanted to be a gilded little gentleman…You can never keep up with these teamsters and butchers. Can you shoot a man?” (145)

To be sure, there are many schlemiel jokes about how the Jew can’t be violent (or, rather, doesn’t know how to). The schlemiel is a humanist. But this is the question. The sister keeps on asking Yonah whether he can be violent. Yonah’s wife goes along with his sister.

Herzog admits that he is “no weakling” but, says the narrator, “all his violence went into the drama of his life, into family strife, and sentiment”(146). He can not hurt others in order to survive.

This all comes to a head when Moses Herzog recalls how his father, one night, came home beaten up:

We were all there. It was a gloomy March…It was like a cavern. We were like cave dwellers. “Sara!” he said. “Children!” He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters…Then he turned his pockets inside out – empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him – a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes he was a king to us. (147)

The reduction and humiliation of Moses Herzog’s father have a deep impression on him of the kind of evil that exists in the world. But at the very end of the chapter, Herzog notes that his father’s suffering, after the Holocaust, is not exceptional:

What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog’s claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. (148)

Given the long sections on Nachman, the reader can see that Herzog is now faced with a choice between being or not being a cynic.   And this is where Bellow gives his reading of Jewishness and its relationship to comedy and suffering the stage:

Personalities are good only for comic relief. But I am still a slave to Papa’s pain. The way Father Herzog spoke of himself! That could make one laugh. His I had such dignity. (149)

Irving Howe was very attracted to Bellow’s reading of humor. In the midst of suffering (tears), there is laughter and a sense of self remains…despite all of the humiliation.   Moses Herzog recalls the “two figures” of his father: one beaten and humiliated and the other self-mocking and dignified. He acknowledges the dead and the suffering and at the same time remembers how…there is still hope.

And that is what informs the schlemiel’s genealogy. His hope, suggests Bellow, is not born in a vacuum but out of Jewish history and in response to violence and needless suffering. The moral quality stands out against this backdrop. And the schlemiel carries all of this with him in all of his interactions.

Without comic relief, Herzog would become a cynical and self-destructive Nachman.