Somewhere Between Trauma, Trust, and Comedy


Innocence is a key character trait of the schlemiel. And it is expressed through the pervading trust the schlemiel has for other people. The only problem, as we see in a character like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” is that Gimpel is constantly lied to and betrayed. But what makes this betrayal astonishing is the fact that it doesn’t affect the character’s trust in others.   Ruth Wisse argues that Gimpel is not a total fool, however. He knows that the world is full of lies but he, nonetheless, acts “as if” the good exists. He does this because he believes that, one day, good will triumph over evil. We find his continued trust of others astonishing; for if it were ourselves, most of us would become cynical or perhaps even traumatized.

And there is much to say about trauma and the schlemiel.   To be sure, there is a strong case to be made for the claim that the schlemiel is a character which was born out of trauma and is, in fact, a response to it.  Her trust is not a total defiance of trauma because we, as readers or viewers of the schlemiel, are astonished.   Many of us think that it is nearly impossible to defy the reality of historical trauma – especially after the Holocaust. Sidra Ezrahi and even Ruth Wisse have wondered whether the schlemiel should survive the trauma of the Holocaust. Regardless of their ethical queries, however, it has.

What makes the schlemiel so powerful is the fact that she consistently trusts the other. Her image of the other is not damaged by trauma. To be sure, this is astonishing because, after trauma, the subject has a hard time staying in any relationship. Since all relationships are based on trust and her trust was violated, things may never be the same. According to Judith Herman,

the roles she assigns to others may change suddenly, as the result of small lapses or disappointments, for no internal representation of another person is any longer secure. Again there is no room for mistakes. Over time, most people fail the survivor’s exacting tests of trustworthiness, she tends to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free. (93)

In contrast to the survivor of trauma, the schlemiel’s vision of “another person” is secure (although it is not based on reality). The schlemiel doesn’t test the other so much as the other way around. The schlemiel withstands the test of betrayal, but we can’t. And the schlemiel seeks for relationships even after she has been shamed or lied to. The schlemiel doesn’t prefer isolation.

The contrast between the schlemiel and survivor is fascinating because it brings out what is most human in humanity. When people are put into captivity, are tortured, or abused, the goal of the persecutor is to make the subject live a life in which every relationship with the other “may change suddenly.”   In every relationship, the sense of deception is palpable for the survivor of trauma. Trust is dangerous. This is what the persecutor wants to instill in the victim. And coupled with this is a sense of servitude rather than freedom.

Real freedom, as the schlemiel suggests, doesn’t happen in isolation from others. This is also what Judith Herman says in her book Trauma and Recovery.   If the survivor is to fully recovery, she needs to feel that she can live in the public realm with others who she can trust.   Building trust can take a lifetime but it is the path that Herman, a psychiatrist, practices with her patients.

We are all very cynical. But many of us don’t know the breaches of trust that are experienced by the survivor.   What we can learn from the survivor and the schlemiel is that if there is hope and if humanity has a chance, it must be built on trusting the other.   Because the rupture of trust – which Gimpel and the survivor both have to address – should be a great concern to all of us.   Wherever there is a rupture of trust which emerges out of deception, betrayal, abuse, and violence, there is an act of inhumanity. And we need to stand on the side of hope which battles these things. For without trust, the world will become chaos.

A Schlemiel With a Russian Revolver: On the Un-Heroic Conduct of Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part I


Ruth Wisse calls the schlemiel a “modern hero.” But the term is ironic. The schlemiel cannot be a typical modern hero who, like many a western hero, does something courageous and saves the day.   The schlemiel’s victories are ironic because they arise out of failure. Moreover, the schlemiel’s conduct is what Daniel Boyarin would call “unheroic.” At the outset of her book on the schlemiel, Ruth Wisse tells us that there are many jokes about schlemiels who are sent to the front of war. The schlemiel, as she shares in one joke, doesn’t know how to fight in war. But this doesn’t have to do with an anti-military stance, says Wisse, so much as an illustration that the schlemiel – like the Jewish people in diaspora – simply doesn’t know how to shoot a gun or go to war.

Saul Bellow’s Herzog, at a key point in his novel, illustrates this lack of knowledge or is it, rather, the inability to take part in an act of violence or heroism?   Bellow sets up Herzog’s challenge in the first half of the novel. It involves the fact that Herzog has been duped by a person he thought of as his friend. Valentine Gersbach, a radio announcer who is something of a Martin Buber hack, fools around with Herzog’s wife, prompts their divorce, and becomes the surrogate father of Herzog’s daughter.

Like many a schlemiel – as we see in Singer or Aleichem – Herzog loves children and especially his own daughter. He wants her back, but he fears that this will be impossible, legally, so he ends up taking things into his own hands. But before he does this, he stops by to see his lawyer, Simkin.

What makes Simkin so important for Herzog (and Bellow, in terms of the novel) is the fact that Simkin understands Herzog on a deep level but, in many ways, offers a different way of life for Herzog. He is what Herzog calls earlier a “reality teacher.” The schlemiel-question, however, is what does that mean in terms of action. Will Herzog act on what Simkin tells him about reality?

Bellow makes sure to present Simkin’s body and demeanor in a way that is contrary to that of the schlemiel, Herzog. But not completely.   Simkin loves art, loves family, and is sensitive, but he is also tough and he is a man of action. He manages to do everything he wants to do:

The ruddy, stout Machiavellian old bachelor lived with his mother and a widowed sister and several nephews and nieces on Central Park West….At eight or so he shaved his large cheeks with Norelco, and by nine, having left instructions for his staff, he was out, visiting galleries, attending auctions. (209)

Herzog asks Simkin for advice about how to act toward his ex-wife Madeline who has his child.   Simkin asks Herzog many questions about his relationship and takes note about how Gersbach took advantage of Herzog’s innocence.   He points out that Herzog could have acted but found a way to distract himself. This leads Herzog to look down on and berate himself:

Obviously, thought Moses, I wasn’t fit to look after my own interests, and proved my incompetence every day. A stupid prick! (211)

The ensuing dialogue between Herzog and Simkin is about Gersbach and it only serves to exacerbate the fact that Herzog was duped and taken advantage of:

“I was kind of surprised when you named him,” said Simkin.

“Why, did you know anything?”

“No, but there was something about his looks, his clothes, his loud voice, and his phony Yiddish. And such an exhibitionist! I didn’t like the way he hugged you. Even kissed you, if I recall…”

“That’s his exuberant Russian personality.” (211)

The irony of this dialogue is that Herzog, even though he has been duped, is still endeared by Gersbach. His love keeps him from feeling the need to hate him and take revenge.

After hearing all this, Simkin puts aside sentimentality and love and tells Herzog exactly what to do:

“Get a clean-cut gentile lawyer from one of the big firms. Don’t have a lot of Jews yelling in the court. Give you case dignity. Then you subpoena al the principals, Madeline, Gersbach, Mrs. Gersbach and put them on the stand under oath. Warn them of perjury…” (213)

All of this talk of putting them on trial and publically extracting the truth, makes Herzog nervous:

With his sleeve, Herzog wiped the sweat that broke out of his forehead. He was suddenly very hot. (213)

Simkin goes on to pose and frame the difficult questions about the betrayal and the framing. And this prompts Herzog to back off and consider not even doing the trial. It would be too intense an engagement with reality and to courageous. He would rather wait until Madeline died:

“I often think, if she died I’d get my daughter back. There are some times when I know I would look at Madeline’s corpse without pity.”(214)

In response, Simkin brings Herzog back to reality by reminding him that Gersbach and his former wife plotted and deceived him for years.   And, to emphasize how evil this was, Simkin says that they murdered Herzog: “They tried to murder you,” Simkin said. “In a manner of speaking, they meant to.”

Herzog immediately reacts to these words and realizes that this situation is a test of manhood. Will he or will he not take revenge?

He wants me to say that I actually feel capable of murdering them both. Well, it’s true.   I’ve tested it in my mind with a gun, a knife, and felt no horror, no guilt. None. And I could never imagine such a crime before. So perhaps I might kill them. But I’ll say no such thing to Harvey (Simkin). (214)

This moment is the first point in the novel that Herzog admits to such violent thoughts. They go on, inside of him, while he listens to Simkin. His thoughts and emotions start manifesting, physically:

Herzog listened, looking through the window with a hard gaze, and tried to master the spasms of his stomach and the twisted knotted sensations in his heart. The telephone seemed to pick up the sound of his blood, rhythmic, thin, and quick, washing within his skill. Perhaps it was a only a nervous reflex of his eardrums. The membranes appeared to shiver.   (214)

Although he keeps these bodily feelings and thoughts of murder to himself, as readers, we wonder: could a schlemiel really kill a man out of revenge?

This is the question and this is the test that Bellow puts his American schlemiel through. The dilemma is deep because he wants to save his daughter. He is confused because he loves her and wants her back, yet, at the same time, he knows that the only way he may get her back is either through an intense court case or…murder.   But if he is to act, he will no longer be a schlemiel.

This is the borderline that Saul Bellow places the American schlemiel on….which way will Herzog travel?

….to be continued

Siding With the British Writers: Irving Howe’s Sarcastic Criticism of the Beatniks


Irving Howe’s criticism is consistently compelling.  He is truly a brilliant critic and his writing is pedagogical in a deep sense. Howe writes like a Magid tells a story. Like a Socratic-Rabbinic sage of the Talmud, he ponders the questions he poses with each new sentence or thought (and there are many).

Howe lived in an era much different from our own, the post-World War two era. But as a Jew and a son of immigrants, he felt it and live through it in the shadow of the Holocaust. It was in the wake of destruction of Jewish life that his parents fled to America.   And, over time, he, like many “New York Intellectuals” (like Irving Kristol and Alfred Kazin) thought of himself as an American and committed himself to American letters.  In the 50s and 60s he was one of the most important literary and cultural critics on the American scene.

There is interesting criticism of the beatniks by Irving Howe that paints them in ways that Karl Marx would characterize the petty bourgeoisie. It is a trenchant claim against them. He compares the Beatniks to the English writers of the early 1960s and late 1950s. They are, together, at his time, “the most-discussed literary groups of the last few years.”(94 – A World More Attractive).

Howe comically notes, as if he is sharing a secret, that the English writers have “earned the scorn of a great number of American critics – notable, of course for aestheticism – who point out that it is not clear whether it is better or just a bigger share of material goods in contemporary England that these writers want”(95).

The punch line of the joke is that everything really might be economics. This is the possibility that Howe is playing around with. It is also the possibility that the consciousness of economics, in fiction, is, for Howe, the best of all. He sees this possibility at ripping up American criticism.

And what he does is to show that he, son of Jewish immigrant parents, sides with the English in this fight!

He argues the his main target is and must be the Beatnicks. In contrast to the English writers:

The young men in San Francisco seem largely a reflex of circumstances of mass society. They are suffering from psychic and social disturbance: and as far as that goes, they are right – there is much in American life to give one a pain. But they have no clear sense of why or how they are troubled, and some even of them seem opposed to a clear sense of anything. (95)

They are confused and don’t know why. They are foolish characters. Howe’s sentence say it clearly. Howe goes on to take a stand on this and say that the “angry men” of “England, even if their protests will prove to be entirely opportunistic and momentary, can say what it is that hurts”(95). But, says Howe, Kerouac can’t (96). They cannot pronounce that pain which is…social. It comes, says Howe, mass society. All pain is economic.

But American, Beatnick writers cannot say it.

Howe makes fun of them at the end of his essay “Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction.” He does this by way of comparison to the English writers.

These (English)writers…illustrate the painful, though not inevitable, predicament of rebellion in a mass society: they are on the other side of the American hollow. In their (the Beatniks) contempt of mind, they are at one with the middle class that they scorn. In their incoherence of the feeling and statement, they mirror the incoherent society that clings to them like a mocking shadow. (95)

In other words, we should scorn and laugh at the beatniks and their “rejection of the mind” and its “social clarity.” This is why they are dialectical opposites of the English writers.

And he ends, like Voltaire, on a sarcastic note:

In their yearning to keep “cool,” they sing out an eternal fantasy of the shopkeeper. Feeling themselves lonely and estranged, they huddle together in gangs, creates a Brook Farm of Know-Nothings, and send back ecstatic reports to the squares: Having a Wonderful Time, Having Wonderful Kicks! But alas, all the while it is clear that they are terribly lost….and what is more pitiable, that they don’t even have the capacity for improvising vivid fantasies. (95).

I’ll end with that.

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.