The End of Adulthood or the Dawn of the American-Schlemiel? A.O. Scott’s Kvetch About America’s “Devolution”

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America is changing. We are or rather we have gradually become more and more fixated on the man-child or what in Yiddish is called the schlemiel. While academics have seen this coming, journalists and cultural critics are catching up.   In Eros and the Jews (1997), David Biale argued that Jewish-American comedians “neutralized” the negative connotations associated with the man-child slash effeminate male and, over time, it became identified with the American everyman. Most scholars agree that Woody Allen set this trend into the main stream with films like Annie Hall (1976). Sidrah Ezahi, in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination (2000), followed suit and argued that the schlemiel has become an “American icon.” Jon Stratton’s Coming Out Jewish (2000), drawing on Biale, makes a similar claim.   And Daniel Itzkovitz, in his 2006 essay “They Are All Jews,” argues that while Jewishness and assimilation are on the rise and Judaism is in the decline, American audiences have become “Jewish.” And by this he means that they have become enamored with the man-child or what he calls the “new schlemiel.”

Just yesterday, I was astonished to see two articles – one from The New Yorker and one from The New York Times – that focus in on the man-child as the norm. And both of them ask when this happened.  In response to The New Yorker article, which is entitled “The Awkward Age,” yesterday, I wrote a blog/essay.  And today I’d like to write on the New York Times article which is entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, which is written by the celebrated film critic A.O. Scott.

What both of these articles share is in interest in when things started to change.  They both ask: when did America start becoming “awkward” or “childlish”? The author of The New Yorker essay argues, against Adam Kotsko – who wrote an intelligent book called Awkwardness - that the beginning of the “age of awkwardness” was not the 60s –when traditional values were radically put into question – but after 9/11.   But, as I pointed out in my blog piece, the author of the essay needs to understand Kotsko’s philosophical and sociological approach to awkwardness before she can understand his periodization. Regardless, it’s interesting how, if we look at the dates of the above-mentioned scholarly works, the merger of the schlemiel with American culture are all dated before 9/11.

In his search for when things started changing in America, A.O. Scott, in his article “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” also goes back before 9/11 . Reflecting on Madmen, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Scott demurs that, with their deaths at the end of their respective shows, “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”

But their death, says Scott, is the result of a longer death that was going on since the 1960s: the “slow unwinding” of patriarchy:

In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.

Even though the rise of feminism “has been understood as a narrative of progress,” Scott tells us that there “may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”

Scott’s thesis, to be sure, resonates much with what Adam Kotsko says in his book. Men no longer have the same “norms” to live up to and this is what creates what Kotsko calls “awkwardness” and what Scott calls the “end of adulthood.”  And it is not a mistake that all of the examples Kotsko brings for awkwardness are the same candidates Scott has in mind when he speaks of the “end of adulthood.”

However, Kotsko gives this “end” a different, more positive valence.

To point out what has happened as a result of the end of patriarchy and the end of adulthood, Scott notes that “nearly a third” of the books for “Young Adult readers” are read by men and women between the ages of 30 and 44.

And he’s not happy about this:

Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.

Scott doesn’t stop ranting. He goes on to call this “absurd” and “impotent.” And he takes Hollywood as the purveyor of this culture and his target:

God, listen to me! Or don’t. My point is not so much to defend such responses as to acknowledge how absurd, how impotent, how out of touch they will inevitably sound. In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

The last gasps of manhood, according to Scott, can be seen in TV series like The Sopranos and Mad Men, which herald the “end of male authority.” And now “adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.” And this, for Scott, brings up the central question:

Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

Before Scott answers the question, he points out how America was, historically, born out of a rebellion against authority: “From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of paternal authority and the imperatives of adulthood.” To illustrate, he cites Leslie Fiedler who argues that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously home in the children’s section of the library.” Rip Van Winkle and Huckelberry Fin are our classics.   And as Fiedler argues, the heroes of many novels want to run away from civilization. They aren’t interested, primarily, in “marriage and responsibility.” They are “boyish.”

What sticks out most, according to Scott citing Fiedler, is the American fictional character’s “innocence and instinctual decency” which are “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.” And, here we should note, the schlemiel has much in common with these kinds of motifs. Like the American fictional character, Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim’s characters also have an “innocence and instinctual decency” which is “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the world.” For this reason, when I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” was translated by Saul Bellow and first published in The Partisan Review, in the early 1950s, was a hit. And Singer went on to be a celebrated Jewish-American writer and a Nobel Prize winner. The reason: Gimpel is nearly identical with the American fictional character, as described by Fiedler.

Although there is a history of this in American culture, Scott, like Fiedler, considers it “sophomoric.”

Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction

Scott argues that this American fictional figure is translated into novels in the 60s and 70s about “wild, uncivilized boys” who rebel against authority and express “youthful rebellion.” Scott takes this thread and argues that it is but a “quick ride” to Hollywood which, eventually, ends up in Apatow’s films that celebrate perpetual adolescence.

However, at this point, Scott makes an interesting move and argues that with Apatow’s films and actors -who play man-children like Adam Sandler – we have a “devolution.”

We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”

At this point, Scott finally lays down his cards are suggests a choice between good rebellion or giving up on rebellion. Lenny Bruce, for him, is a rebel, an anti-Hero, while Sandler is a caricature and Apatow’s characters…don’t rebel; they just hang out:

But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly. Their importation of adolescent and preadolescent attitudes into the fields of adult endeavor (see “Billy Madison,” “Knocked Up,” “Step Brothers,” “Dodgeball”) delivered a bracing jolt of subversion, at least on first viewing. Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?

Scott, understandably, can’t stand the “bro comedy” that we find in Apatow’s films, most of which cast Seth Rogen as the ultimate bro:

The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.

Scott, it seems, is fed up with these “coming of age” stories that fall flat. He wants men who are counter-cultural rebels (like Lenny Bruce) and a new approach to adulthood. And, at the end of the article, he’s not sure what to say. It rings of cynicism. It seems it may be too late; we, Americans, may be stuck in perpetual childhood:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

By ending on this note, we can see that Scott is not happy with what Itzkovitz would call the “new schelmiel.” And while he understands that the “boyish” man-child is a central American literary tradition, he doesn’t know what to do with this history. His appeals to Lenny Bruce echo the reading of Lenny Bruce made by David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.   But, as Biale notes, these two figures – the schlemiel and the rebel – are what we are left with. Nearly 20 years after Biale notes this, it seems that Scott sees the battle as over. After all, as Scott says, “Adulthood is dead” and now “the world is our playground.” His last notes are comic, but bittersweet.  And they give us the answer to the question he posed above: he is going to mourn the death of adulthood while we, it seems, will dance on the grave.

But as I look to show, in my forthcoming posts on Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness and my reflections on the schlemiel, one can read this turn to perpetual adolescence in a different manner.

On Awkwardness – Part I

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Last year I read Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness: An Essay.   I put it on the backburner as something I would write about in the near future because, quite frankly, Schlemiel Theory has been busy with several different philosophers, books, and comedians over the last year. That said, when a friend of mine tagged me in a post on facebook today – about an article written in The New Yorker entitled “The Awkward Age” – I felt I had to, at the very least, read the article and comment on Adam Kotsko’s book, which is referred to in the beginning of the article. While the article is not that interesting, Kotsko’s philosophical, sociological, and historical approach to the phenomena of awkwardness is. His “essay” suggests a few possibilities for schlemiel theory that may or may not be of interest because they tap into philosophical and historical approaches to one of the most notable features of comedy today: awkwardness.

At the outset, the article from The New Yorker cites and makes the following comments on Kotsko’s book:

As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness—there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary. We have Awktoberfest (awkwardness that seems to last a whole month), Awk and Pshaw (a reference to “shock and awe”), and, perhaps inevitably, Awkschwitz (awkwardness worthy of comparison to the Holocaust). We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with “that awkward moment when…” When did awkwardness become so important to us? And why?

In “Awkwardness: An Essay” (2010), the critic Adam Kotsko dates our age of awkwardness—embodied by “the apparently ontological awkwardness of George W. Bush” and manifested in television shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—to the early aughts, with a postwar prehistory. (In short, Kotsko writes, the fifties purveyed capitalism into an ideology of “traditional Christian values”; in the sixties, these values were destabilized by the counterculture movement; the ideological vacuum of the seventies led to the paranoia and nihilism, reflected in the metaphysical being of Woody Allen; in the eighties, pure capitalism became its own value system, sustained by opposition to the Soviet Union; and in the nineties nihilism returned, minus the Cold War paranoia, inaugurating the age of irony.

What caused the shift from irony to awkwardness? Interestingly, Kotsko refuses to blame September 11th, connecting the end of irony less with “a culture-wide turn towards earnestness and patriotism” than with irony having “simply exhausted itself.” My feeling, however, is that we can peg the end of irony to September 11th precisely because of the failure of “earnestness and patriotism” that Kotsko describes. We finally had an “evil opponent” again. Terrorists, like Communists, hated “our way of life.” If we neglected our Christmas shopping, Bush said, the terrorists would win. But, this time, the rhetoric didn’t stick. The U.S.S.R. had been a nuclear superpower, with geopolitical aims comparable, if opposed, to those of the U.S. Al Qaeda was nationless, nihilistic, and armed with box cutters. You couldn’t lump it together with North Korea and call it the Axis of Evil—that didn’t make sense.

The problem with this hasty overview and application of his book is that it doesn’t explain the basis of Kotsko’s reading of awkwardness vis-à-vis philosophy and suggests that Kotsko’s book simply historicizes awkwardness. This is incorrect and misleading.

Yes, the “age” we are living in may be awkward, as the author suggests, but she doesn’t understand why and neither does the reader.   To understand how he historicizes awkwardness, we need to first understand the philosophical basis for his project.

Kotsko turns to Martin Heidegger and then Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the philosophical basis of awkwardness.   Regarding Heidegger, Kotsko notes how the “most fundamental mood” that Heidegger “examines in the context of Being and Time is anxiety”(12).   Through this mood, Dasein (being-there, man) has a “special window onto a question that he pairs with that of the meaning of being: namely, the questions of time”(12). When a person “dwells” in a “mood of anxiety” he or she experiences “time” as an “existential urgency”(12).

Besides being interested in anxiety and its relation to time, Kotsko is also interested in Heidegger’s treatment of another mood; namely “boredom”: “Whereas anxiety provides special insight into the question of time, boredom bears specifically on the question of how humanity is related to animal life”(12).   Drawing on Heidegger, Kotsko notes how boredom – like anxiety – brings out what is “truly distinctive about humanity” since it enables us to be “detached” from “an amazing array of stimuli” (or what Heidegger would call the world). This detachment is what Heidegger would call transcendence.

From here, he notes how, for Heidegger sees anxiety as a more “fundamental mood” than boredom because the mood of boredom is still too connected to the world.   While boredom is a “breakdown in our normal relationship to the world…anxiety points toward the ultimate breakdown of death”(14).

Although Kotsko finds the moods of anxiety and boredom to be interesting in terms of understanding our relationship to time and the world (as well as its breakdown), what he wants to find, most of all, is a mood that will tap into what interests Jean-Luc Nancy most: the meaning of relationship as such.   To this end, he asks the question: what mood can this be. And his answer is awkwardness:

Awkwardness clearly fits the general patter of insight through breakdown, but unlike anxiety or boredom, it doesn’t isolate the person who feels awkward – as I have already discusses, it does just the opposite: it spreads. (15)

In other words, Kotsko is interested in how awkwardness is a contagious kind of mood. Other people, in relation, can catch it (as it “spreads”) can become awkward.

Kotsko adds that “awkwardness is a breakdown in our normal experience of social interaction while itself remaining irreducibly social”(15). By doing this, he opens the door to a sociological and historical reading of awkwardness which is really about being unable to act “properly” in an (ab)normal situation that one is caught in. He brings in the sociological register of “norms” to explain:

Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to “get by,” with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness prompts us to set up social norms in the first place – and what prompts us to transform them. (16)

With a definition like this, how can one say that our post 9/11 age is the most awkward one of all as the writer from The New Yorker suggests? With this philosophical and sociological kind of basis, one can argue that any age that is transitional will be awkward.

However, Kotsko is responsible for the title and theme of The New Yorker article’s periodizing since he focuses on the present and the origins of our awkward time. In fact, he entitles the section, immediately after his philosophical grounding “The origins of our awkward age.”

It should be clear by this point that I believe that we are currently in a state of cultural awkwardness. Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a positive alternative….There are many possible reasons that such a condition could have arisen in the first decade of the 21st century….but…I believe we must look to the social upheavals of the 1960s. (17)

What follows is a sociological exercise. Since the 1960s challenged, traditional values the norms changed and America had a hard time adjusting. He discusses changes in terms of civil rights, sexuality, experimentation, and nihilism. Woody Allen, according to Kotsko, emerged as “one of the pioneers of awkwardness” in the 1970s because of this radical social upheaval.   And even though things changed in the 1980s because of the Regan Era (which looked to reestablish tradition and norms and “overcome awkwardness”) the 90s, which marks a fall back into instability, gives us Seinfeld.

But, argues Kotsko, “none of the main characters actually sit and stew in their awkwardness, and I’d propose that that’s because they are all essentially sociopaths. They cause awkwardness in others but don’t truly feel it themselves, because they lack any real investment in the social order – instead they merely attempt to manipulate it”(23).

The only exception to the Seinfeld rule is the schlemiel, George: “His sheer patheticness and vulnerability, his lack of the steady income and social status of Jane or Elaine or the strange self-assurance of Kramer, keep him from being completely detached”(23). In other words, he is awkward because he is not successful in a context where others are.

Kotsko argues that the “seeds of awkwardness” are planted here. And that it is after 9/11 that the we become an “age of awkwardness.”   In this age, Curb Your Enthusiasm and films by Judd Apatow illustrate how awkward we have become.   There are two ways, according to Kotsko, that we can approach awkwardness. Either it is “individuals” who create awkwardness, as we see in the US version of The Office (25) or it is a social order as we see in Apatow’s films. He finds the second position to be of greater interest to his project:

If the social order itself seems to be producing awkwardness, let people indulge in awkwardness on purpose as a way of letting off steam. This strategy is on full display in several Judd Apatow films: if men are afraid to leave behind the awkward state of overgrown adolescence and get married, then build in a space for them to indulge in their awkwardly adolescent pleasures. (26)

Besides “letting off steam” and remaining awkward, Kotsko sees awkwardness as a strategy to challenge the status quo, on the one hand, or as an opportunity to relate to each other in a way that is not based on any norm whatsoever:

When we resist awkwardness, the social order looks good. When we resist social order, awkwardness looks good. But on those rare occasions when we figure out a way to stop resisting the social order and yet also stop resisting awkwardness and just go with it, something genuinely new and unexpected may happen: we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands. (26)

Kotsko calls this “the promise of awkwardness”(26) and argues that “for all its admitted perils and difficulties, awkwardness does contain a seed of hope”(26). To be sure, Kotsko, who does much work in Continental Philosophy, is familiar with Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin who all discuss hope and its relation to opposing the status quo. He is no doubt drawing on this trend by claiming that the mood of awkwardness is a “seed of hope” and a “promise.”   It is not merely a term to describe the “age” we are it – as the writer from The New Yorker suggests.

Kotsko spells it out at the end of his first chapter: “More than describing a cultural trend, then, my goal here is ultimately to point toward what we’re all already hoping for”(28). What Kotsko means by this is that the mood of awkwardness – suggested by Apatow films and…in general – is a messianic or utopian kind of mood that anticipates living in a world where “we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands”(26).

Does Big Bang Theory also project this hope? Is Seth Rogen a messianic figure? If we are to live perpetually in a kind of childhood state, as Apatow’s films suggest, we will be in a perpetual state of awkwardness. And this anticipates, for Kotsko, a messianic state of not living up to an ideal and being an adult.

The suggestions that Kotsko makes about our age have to do with the collapse of norms that we can maintain by not wanting to return to tradition or anything normative. It’s better to just figure out our-relation-to-each-other as we go along. I find this proposal to be very interesting because it suggests something we see with the schlemiel who is often portrayed as an innocent, naïve, and awkward character. In fact, all of the characters that Kotsko looks at could be called schlemiels.

…to be continued….

The Tale of Two Sandlers: The Jewish-American Schlemiel and Adam Sandler

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Adam Sandler’s brand of comedy has always been of interest to me. And since today is Adam Sandler’s birthday, I was thinking about what to write about Sandler. To be sure, Schlemiel Theory has no blogs on Sandler save for a blog that discusses Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) within the context of the schlemiel and his/her adverse relationship with war.   In this blog I want to briefly take note of two ways that scholars have addressed Sandler. On the one hand, Daniel Itzkovitz addresses Sandler in terms of the schlemiel character and its relation to American culture; and on the other hand, Lawrence Epstein reads Sandler in terms of a new generation of post-assimilation Jews who are dealing with their Jewishness in nuanced ways that previous generations could not. Both scholars provide us with interesting insights about Sandler. But the key to understanding their differing readings depends on how you understand the meaning of (and relationship of) Jewishness in (or to) America.   Reading one against the other, we see two competing readings of Jewishness.   And we see…the Tale of Two Sandlers.

Daniel Itzkovitz brings up Daniel Sandler in his essay “They are All Jews.” In his essay, Itzkovitz queries into what has happened to Jewishness in America after films like Independence Day. Even though “Jewishness” seems to be coming more and more to the forefront in this (and other films) he wonders whether this “Jewishness” has more to do with Hollywood and less with reality (since, after all, there is a worry that, with intermarriage and assimilation, less of this new generation is interested in Jewishness and his continuation).

In this film, the main character Jeff Goldblum (who plays David Levinson, a “computer geek”) teams up with Will Smith (who plays Captain Steve Hiller, a “Black fighter pilot”) to save America and the world from an alien invasion. As a part of this teaming up, there is a “conversion of the Jewish nerd into a manly hero”(233). This “conversion” works to remake the Jew “into an unironically hypermasculine and stunningly generic ethnic: my big-fat-Jewish-savior, whose ultimate job is simultaneously to stand in as a universal representative of an unthreatening and vacuous difference, and to do so in part by converting everyone else to the newly watered down Jewishness”(234). In other words, Itzkovitz suggests that this film has the Jews stand in for a kind of bland new sense of difference in America. We are all Jews now, meaning all of our differences are non-threatening. The stand in for this is a Jew that goes from being a nerd-schlemiel to a “an unironic hypermasculine..ethnic”(234).   Itzkovits calls this “Hollywood’s ‘new male Jew’ and this is marked as a “world converting cinematic pinnacle”(235). In these moments, the minorities come together to save America and the world and, as Itzkovitz claims, to convert ethnic difference to something vacuous and unthreatening.

In contrast to this we have the “new schlemiel films” that cast actors like Ben Stiller, Jason Biggs, and….Adam Sandler. Given the new film paradigm with Independence Day, Itzkovitz wonders about these new schlemiel films. Now we have two “prominent categories” of Jewish men in America: “either as vaguely eccentric standard bearers for ethnic tolerance in a new multicultural America…or as vaguely eccentric embodiments of the middle class everyman. As the latter group makes clear, if the “neurotic nebbish” is really “out,” someone forgot to tell Hollywood”(241).   Biggs, Stiller, and Sandler, are “neurotic nebbish” schlemiels, the “unwholesome trinity of antiheroes whose in whose humiliations we find supreme pleasure”(241).   They“challenge us to rethink the manly triumph celebrated by Goldblum’s character”(241).  

Writing on Sandler, Itzkovitz notes how in films like The Waterboy (1998), Punch Drunk Love (2002), and Anger Management (2003) he “plays nice guys prone to humiliation by tougher men and women but who ultimately triumph”(242). And in other films like Eight Crazy Nights (2002) and First Dates (2004) “the manhood of his Peter Pan-ish characters is called into question by their inability to grow up”(242).

What Itzkovitz finds most interesting about Sandler (Stiller and Biggs’) “nebbishe outpouring” is that the Jewishness of these “new Hollywood Jews” reveals more about the “instability of postmodern culture than about Jews”(243). In other words, there is nothing really Jewish being disclosed about these films so much as the fact that “as much as American Jews are becoming mainstream, American audiences are “becoming Jewish”(243). They are becoming “instable.” And Jewishness is, as David Biale and Jon Stratton argue, becoming identified with being American. It is being naturalized. In this sense, Sandler really doesn’t tell us much about Jewish identity save for the fact that he, like other Hollywood Jews who play schlemiels, has “generalized” it and shown us more about American culture than about Jewishness.

What Itzkovitz would rather see, in other words, is a Jewishness that tells us more about being Jewish and not about America. But we don’t find this coming out of Hollywood.

Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, sees Sandler in a different light.

He argues that Sandler has “found a crucial spot in the comedy of his generation”(250). His films are “about the anxiety of growing up, about the need to reconcile with the family, and about taking responsibility”(250). Instead of seeing this as speaking solely to a general American audience, Epstein takes note that “part of Sandler’s comedy comes from his Jewish heritage. The emphasis on family and family reconciliation so prominent in Sandler’s films is embedded in Jewish life”(250).   He goes on to note that Sandler is “famously proud of being Jewish” and “draws on those traditions” so that other Jews of his generation and Americans of his generation “needed”(250).   In other words, Epstein argues that Sandler’s comedy draws on Jewishness and speaks to Jews of his generation and it speaks to Americans. It is literally Jewish-American comedy.

But there is more to the story.

Epstein argues that Sandler shows us that “part of his movement toward maturity” includes a “willingness to embrace an identity that transcends his individual self” – that is, Jewish identity. Epstein’s proof of Sandler’s willingness is the fact that he sung the “Hannukah Song” on Saturday Night Live which became an “ethnic anthem.”

He is openly a Jew and “like his generation, doesn’t have to or want to hide being Jewish or feel any shame either. And in this sense there is a great irony.” The irony is that in previous generations Jews would do their utmost not to appear “too Jewish” in public (even though, Epstein agues, Jewishness was “enveloped and penetrated them”). Through Sandler, argues Epstein, we can see how Jewish values can “influence other parts of….identity and vice versa”(252).   Epstein sees Sandler as “balancing” Jewishness with being an American.   “The future of American and Jewish comedians will in part be determined by how they finally balance their American and Jewish identities”(252).

In contrast to Itzkovitz, Epstein’s Sandler is not simply a stand in for American identity he is a symbol of the future task of Jews to balance Jewishness.   His Jewishness, in this or that film, is a part of a larger spectrum.   Itzkovitz sees his Jewishness in a different light. And although Itzkovitz doesn’t discuss the “Hannukah Song,” one can assume that this is a part of the multicultural project that neutralizes ethnic difference. The Jewishness that interests Itzkovitz is more ambivalent and, as I said, most likely won’t be found in Hollywood.

I’d like to end with a clip of Don’t Mess With the Zohan. It shows us a more recent Sandler who is still looking to balance out Jewish identity. But in this film, unlike his other films, he is more explicitly Jewish than ever. And in the film the nebbishe American schlemiel and the hypermasculine Israeli merge to create an odd character who is struggling with his identity. His move to America is prompted by his more effeminate need to leave war behind and cut hair. This film leaves us with many questions about what has become of Jewishness in Hollywood and the meaning of ethnic difference. It also shows us how Sandler is “balancing” his Jewish identity – between America and Israel.   Perhaps this film is also a Tale of Two Sandlers….

Joan Rivers’ Tattoo(s) – “6M” – for 6 Million Jews Killed in the Holocaust and…a Freckle

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Over the weekend, someone told me that a Rabbi praised Joan Rivers for having a “6M” tattooed on the inside of her arm in the memory of the 6 million who died in the Holocaust. Although the Rabbi noted that Jews are, according to the Torah, forbidden to have tattoos, he noted that what she did was an exception. Apparently, she did this right near the end of her life and, according to this Rabbi, her public support for her fellow Jews in Israel was of great importance. She had, in his mind, become a saint-of-sorts and it didn’t matter if she had a “6M” tattoo.

Hearing this, I immediately went on line in search of the tattoo. But when I did a google search I found no such “Holocaust tattoo.” Rather what I found was an episode of “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (Season 2, Episode 9) where she goes to get a tattoo of a “bumble bee” on her derriere. This, apparently, was her “first tattoo.”  But instead of going through it, she gives up in the process. Reflecting on the failed attempt to get a tattoo, she kvetches: “I wanted a bee and I got a freckle.”  

http://www.wetv.com/joan-melissa-joan-knows-best/videos/joan-melissa-tattoo-time

Eventually, I found a few articles that mentioned her “6M” tattoo. The reflections they offered were meager. The most I found was a statement she made about it in an interview where she notes that:

“Being Jewish has always been important to me,” she reiterated and to prove it she got a tattoo last year. “I now have 6M tattooed on the inside of my left arm. It’s only a half-inch but every time anyone sees it they’re reminded of the six million who perished, and so am I.”


In pursuit of something more reflective, I was fortunate enough to find a “diary entry from her last book, published this year, in which she talks about the tattoo within the context of a two jokes.

In her Diary of a Mad Diva (2014) Joan Rivers writes, in her June 2nd entry, of her “6M” tattoo. But before she discusses her tattoo and its relation to the Holocaust, she writes of something she’s “always wanted to do: I went shoplifting with Lindsay Lohan.”   But this is a joke. And this joke is the preface to her confession about something much more serious:

Dear Diary: 

Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I went shoplifting with Lindsay Lohan. Ha, ha. No, that’s not a joke. In my own way I have been stealing for years. I have bath towels with big Ns on them from the Ark. However, I would never steal with Lindsay Lohan, as she is not smart. She keeps putting things down the front of her dresses even though she wears see through dresses. Once I was told she stuffed a sofa into the back of her Spanx but was caught when she waddled out of the store with a huge butt. They thought she was Jennifer Lopez.

What I did do today was I got t a tattoo! To honor the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, on my left forearm I had them tattoo a little blue “6M.” Surprisingly it hardly hurt, so next week, I’m planning to get a “12M” to honor the twelve million Jews who refused to buy retail, and if that doesn’t hurt, I’ll get a “26 ½ M” for all the Jewish business men whose second wives are blond shiksa goddesses.

What I love about this reflection is that she couches her confession about her tattoo – the only one she really went through with – in a series of jokes about the other tattoos that she will get. Each of the numbers she rattles off hit on classic jokes about Jews in America and their love for a good deal and “blond shiksa goddesses.”

These jokes, so to speak, take the edge off of what she really did on June 2nd. The book was released one month later. Her death wasn’t far off.

And while one can see the pattern of her “bumble bee” tattoo on her but, which never came to be in reality, one can’t find the tattoo of the “6M” on her arm on google image search.   It’s there, but we can’t see it. She also decided not to record her getting this tattoo as she did with the bumble bee (attempt-at-a-tattoo). And this is telling. It seems that she wanted to keep the image of this tattoo to herself. She could talk about it, as we have seen above, and she shared it with a few people here and there; but she didn’t want to make it into an icon. Her reminder was something…that would remind herself primarily….Or so it seems…..

Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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During the week of Robin Williams death, I wrote a piece on his role in Jakob the Liar. As I pointed out, Williams didn’t shy away from the challenge of bringing humor to the Holocaust. To this end, he decided to take on the role of the schlemiel, Jakob, who did his utmost to distance the Lodz ghetto from its impending doom.   He and Roberto Bengnini – who wrote and played the main role in Life is Beautiful – turned to the schlemiel and both were duly criticized for this since, “after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno and several Holocaust scholars who follow in his wake argue that humor, much like poetry, might be thought to be unethical when it comes to representing the Holocaust.   However, what makes the schlemiel interesting is, as Sidrah Ezrahi suggests, that its brand of comedy “revolts” against the world so as to preserve hope.   But that revolt is in the name of innocence.

While Bengini and Williams took to the schlemiel in the face of the Holocaust, Joan Rivers took more to a comic style that was in the spirit of Lenny Bruce (who, arguably, made a major impression on Rivers and changed her way of doing comedy).   These jokes do not preserve innocence so much as the spirit of revolt itself.   They strike at the civility that is at the core of the west.   And, as David Biale argues, Lenny Bruce created a new sense of Jewishness as a position that was not so much American as marginal, counter-cultural, and against the status quo. And because Rivers is “Jewish,” perhaps in Bruce’s sense, her Holocaust jokes take on another aspect.

The most recent joke Joan told about the Holocaust was on Fashion Police. In this joke she likens the “hotness” of Heidi Klum’s ass in a dress to the hotness of Germans “pushing Jews into the ovens” in concentration camps:

On CNN she was asked if she regretted telling the joke. She starts off by saying that it’s “just a joke,” notes that a large part of her husbands family died in the Holocaust, and finishes up by saying that her joke prompts this generation to think about the Holocaust (simply because it’s not on their minds and this will spur them to think).   After being asked again if she will apologize, she notes how her Jewishness keeps her from criticism: “Why don’t you worry about Mel Gibson? Why don’t you worry about the anti-Semites out there?” But the clincher is that the main thing is to laugh because if you can laugh “you can deal with it.”

This principle, it seems, is nearly identical to the one used by Begnini and Williams in their use of the schlemiel. It is not simply revolt for the sake of revolt. It seems that Rivers is suggesting this and the fact that it can spur people to think about the Holocaust.

In her interview with WSJ live, she says something a little different. She begins by saying the joke is on the Germans; they and not the ADL and Abe Foxman should be upset.   And she finishes off the discussion by noting what Dick Cavett said via Mark Twain: “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand. Don’t flinch, Joan.” In other words, comedy is pure revolt.  Perhaos Cavett is suggesting the same thing as Lenny Bruce: Jewish comedy should always be in  revolt. She says it’s a brilliant comment (several times, in fact).

This year Rivers began her appearance on Jimmy Fallon (the first return to the Tonight Show for decades – since she was “banned” from the show) made a Holocaust joke about how if the German’s could successfully kill millions of Jews at least they could make cars that work. Its interesting that, in following up this joke, she told a joke about her getting vagina rings, and then she turned to a joke dealing with ethnicity and emotion. The joke is an inside/outsider joke. She asks Fallon if he is Irish. He says yes and then she says that she and Fallon get this but WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) don’t. (This initial insider/outsider joke hearkens back to Lenny Bruce’s jokes about what’s “Jewish” and “Goyish,” meaning WASPish. 

Her Jewish/Goyish kind of routine with Fallon sughests that she us in the same camp as all ethnic comedians who fight to succeed in a WASP culture.  This seems to authorize her to tell jokes about anything, even the Holocaust.

But this is not the first time she has told jokes on the Holocaust.   In her book I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me (2012), Rivers tells jokes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and Anne Frank.

On Hitler:

“I hate people who say they’re ‘workaholics…There is no such thing. Hitler put in a lot of hours. Would you call him a workaholic? People who work 24/7 are not ‘addicted’ to work … they either hate their families or don’t have basic cable.”

On Anne Frank:

“They only order half a chicken, take two bites, then put it in a doggie bag to take home, where it lasts them for six months. Anne Frank didn’t hoard food like this, and that bitch was hungry.”

And in Larry King’s interview with her in 2010, King asks Rivers about Holocaust humor in 5:49.   He asks her if there is any “area you will not go to?” And she says, “No. If I think I want to talk about, it’s right to talk about.” And she goes on to say that if she were in “Auschwitz she would tell jokes just to make it ok for us.”

And she concludes, as she did three years later, that if you make something funny you can deal with it. Both statements are telling, but the first is more telling since it has resonance with the films made by Begnini and Williams. Both of them play characters who also tell jokes to help make it ok for us. But the “us” is different and so are the jokes. The humor that Robbins and Begnini use is the humor of the schlemiel. It’s purpose is to make fool younger people so as to preserve their innocence. In contrast, one can imagine that River’s humor, inside of Auschwitz, would have been much different. Instead of prompting Jews to live “as if” the good still exists (and preserving innocence), one can imagine that her jokes would be anything but innocent. However, they would work in the same way: they would make things ok for us (for fellow Jews who were suffering in the Holocaust). And this suggest that Rivers would use humor to revolt against the world. By saying no to it, things would be “ok for us.”

One may disagree with this approach – and many Holocaust scholars and the ADL have. But one needs to ask not just whether humor is tenable after Auschwitz but whether it is tenable during Auschwitz. This is what Rivers suggests to Larry King. And, unlike Williams and Bengini, she saw the Jewish humor that subscribes to vulgarity as more powerful than the humor that subscribes to the schlemiel when it comes to the Holocaust. And this difference also shows us a difference between two trends in post-Holocaust Jewish-American humor: one leaning toward Lenny Bruce and the other toward the traditional schlemiel that we see in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the face of Evil, Gimpel acts “as if” good exists. In contrast, Rivers, in contrast, laughs at Evil. And perhaps her revolt is the demonstration (instead of an acting “as if”) of what’s best in humanity. 

And this appeal to comedy – in the face of disaster – harkens back to what Walter Benjamin once said of Franz Kafka: “the only thing Kafka was certain of is that only humor helps. The question, however, is whether it can do humanity any good.”

Joan Rivers, “She Was the Bravest of Them All”

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The death of Joan Rivers has left its mark. Many of us have been searching for words. And, as with any death, we try to remember the best things about her. So many things come to mind, but how, I wondered, could I find words. This was too much. After Robin Williams death, I was besides myself and now Joan. All of the joy they brought to my life, the life of my friends, and my family. It felt as if it was all gone.

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As soon as I heard the news of Joan’s death, I went immediately to twitter to check the comedians I follow for insights into who she was and what she did. After learning of her death, Mel Brooks tweeted: “Joan Rivers never played it safe. She was the bravest of them all. Still at the top at the end. She will be missed.”

Something about Brooks’ words resonated deeply in me. Yes, he was right. She never played it safe. She was the bravest of all. Her bravery, however, didn’t have to do with the comic boundaries she broke with her words so much as with her person. As a female comic, she took risks that broke boundaries for other women comics. And this, I thought, is what Brooks meant when he said she was “the bravest of them all.”   And this needs to be recognized and remembered in the wake of her passing.

Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, gives Joan her own chapter. The title of the chapter and its subtitle suggest that with female comedy had radically changed Jewish comedy in America: “Kosher at Last: Jewish Women Comedians.” Epstein begins his chapter without mentioning Joan’s name. Joan is presented as a woman without a name (“she”):

She was still struggling for recognition as a comedian. Billed as “Pepper January – Comedy with Spice,” she was faced with a hostile audience. The raucous men seated at the tables had a very definite set of ideas about the men and women who stood in front of them to provide entertainment: the men were supposed to tell jokes, and women were supposed to take their clothes off. Here, though, was this thin, loud woman trying to tell them jokes. The audience members began booing. (253)

After writing this description of “her” act, Epstein tells us her name: Joan Molinsky. As with many Jewish-American comic artists (and artists in general), she had to change her name. She went to her agent, Tony Rivers, and he told her that in order for her to get recognized as an American artist she had to change her last name to Rivers. From then on, she was Joan Rivers.

But the name change wasn’t enough. As Epstein notes, after World War II Borsht Belt humor, which Brooks, Reiner, and Allen (amongst many other famous comedians) participated in, “instilled a deep hostility toward women and mothers”(254). But these comedians weren’t doing something that went against the norm. Epstein tells us that they were a part of a “wider American culture” that was changing radically and was anxious about its identity. They, like many Jews, wanted to assimilate as they moved from the city to the suburbs. Given this situation, male comedians, argues Epstein, were worried that women comedians could “retard their entrance into American society.”

Within such a cultural milieu it was hard for a woman comic to survive unscathed.

And while men had an easier time assimilating, Jewish women, argues Epstein, were the “new Jews, the unaccepted minority, the people seeking power who were not allowed to gain entrance into society, in this case the society of comedians”(257).

For this reason, Epstein argues that women comics, like Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, were “unable to engage normal comic subjects.” As a result, a woman comedian was “stuck making fun of herself”(257). Totie Fields was the first to do this.

And Joan Rivers “built on Fields’s success.” Her humor, like Fields’ was based on self-deprecation.

However, she was also adept at speaking whatever came to her mind and this helped her to become more independent. However, Epstein argues that it wasn’t until she saw Lenny Bruce perform in 1962 that she became radically independent: 

The real turning point for her…was in watching Lenny Bruce perform in 1962. She saw in Bruce a sort of comedy she wanted to perform, a comedy that came from personal, intimate experiences, a direct and honest approach. Rivers was not interested in the political and religious confrontations that came to dominate Bruce’s material, but she was deeply impressed by his delivery style. She transformed his blunt obscenity into softer words such as tramp or slut. She also made a deliberate choice. She went for the large lower middle class. (258)

Epstein characterizes her transition as a “change from self-mockery to self-assertion.”   She talked about subjects women never talked about.   For a woman to do this was heroic and courageous.

What I find so interesting about Epstein’s reading is that it parallels, in many ways, the reading of David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews. But in Biale’s book, there is a different trajectory which moves from the male “sexual schlemiel” to Lenny Bruce.

Biale, to be sure, gives the schlemiel a fundamental role in the creation of American culture and a new, awkward sexuality which finds its best expression in the work of Woody Allen. He argues that the schlemiel doesn’t simply adapt to American culture; it also creates something new.   The sexual schlemiel, with his “comic fumbling,” de-eroticizes “gentile America.”   And in doing so, his comic fumbling and “sexual ambivalence infects gentile women and turns them into mirror images of himself: even gentile Americans become ‘Jewish’”(207). With this unique claim and powerful rhetoric (“infests,” “turns into mirror images”), Biale does something no schlemiel theorist has done before: besides noting how women become mirror images of the schlemiel, he also argues that America has become more “Jewish” by virtue of the schlemiel.

Biale goes on to elaborate that there is a “hidden agenda”(207) that goes hand-in-hand with this “mirroring,” which is “to identify American with Jewish culture by generalizing Jewish sexuality and creating a safe, unthreatening space for the shlemiel as American antihero”(207). And this identification illustrates what he means by “harmonizing” Jewish experience with American culture.   By being the American anti-hero, Biale is suggesting that the “sexual schlemiel” plays an important role in a new American culture that, in many ways, emulates the anti-hero.

Biale’s choice of words is instructive as it suggests that this “unthreatening space” was prefaced by living in a space of cultural anxiety and a desire to get rid of it. In fact, he notes that in “America a deep insecurity about the Jews position in American culture seems to underlie this instinctive turn tot comedy”(207).   Based on this reflection, Biale muses that the distance afforded by comedy may have relieved anxiety by winning over a “potentially hostile gentile audience”(207).   For this reason, Biale ventures a hypothesis about how, if Americans can laugh at Jewish sexual neurosis and see such a neurosis as it’s own, then “perhaps the Jew will be accepted as an organic part of the cultural landscape”(207).  

However, he notes that since Jews put such neurosis on the screen and in novels, one can argue that they weren’t too anxious so much as slightly anxious. Rather, he argues that they “assumed” that the “sexual schlemiel” was a “legitimate part of American culture”(207) And this prompted them to “generalize Jewish sexuality” by way of the schlemiel.

Biale notes that this generalization of Jewish sexuality by way of the schlemiel was challenged by another one; namely, that of Lenny Bruce. He, “perhaps more than any other comedian, broke with the tradition of the Jew as a sexual schlemiel in order to outrage conventional morality with Jewish eroticism”(216). While Roth and Allen have schlemiels who freely talk about sex, these characters don’t challenge the status quo. As we saw above, they create it by creating an identification between being a schlemiel and being an American.

For Bruce, being Jewish means to “be outside the American mainstream, both verbally (mouths) and erotically (bosoms). It means to identify with what was sexually liberated on the margins of American culture”(217). Biale’s reading makes it clear that the schlemiel – though an anti-hero – is a character that belongs to the American mainstream while Bruce’s anti-schlemiel does not. Bruce, in contrast to the schlemiel, is a part of and edgy and “hip” Jewish culture (217) which “was in as much conflict with Jewish convention as with Christian convention…and for Bruce the former was more sexually liberated than the latter”(217). This suggests a political reading of the schlemiel.

However, Biale notes that while Bruce was going against the American grain he was not a feminist. At the very least, he was “able to imagine a male Jewish counterculture that was subversively erotic”(217).   Moreover, Bruce’s kind of comedy – in contrast to the schlemiel’s – taps into a working class ethos. It is Lenny Bruce’s brand of comedy that “captured the bawdy tumult of the Lower East Side culture, from the ribald Yiddish theater to the lurid tales of the Bintel Brief” (219).   His work, along with the work of E.L. Doctorow (namely in his novel, The Book of Daniel), evinces a Jewish sexuality that refutes “America’s erotic and political hypocrisy”(220).

Given Biale’s reading, we can say that Rivers also passed from a self-deprecating schlemiel phase to a Lenny Bruce phase. She didn’t simply, as Biale says above, “mirror” the schlemiel. She left this comedic-type behind for a more aggressive kind of comedy. We can also argue that though Bruce was courageous for what he did, perhaps Rivers was even more courageous since she was a woman. And doing what Bruce did, as a woman, was much more difficult.

The question we need to ask is whether Joan Rivers created such a subculture as well.   Epstein suggests she did in the sense that she created a space for women comedians to speak and for Jewish women to feel comfortable with being assertive and bold.

And in this, Mel Brooks was spot on. He suggests that she had more courage than all of them. This means that she had more audacity than the Borsht Belt comedians (who he was a part of) and Lenny Bruce. As a woman, she broke more boundaries then they did. And she led the way for comedy to where we are today with comedians like Gilda Radner, Sandra Bernhard, and Sarah Silverman.

We will miss you Joan. You opened doors for women that were closed and you changed the face of comedy. Your legacy lives on and you were…the hardest working woman in showbiz.

Almost Communicating, or What Happens When a Middle-Age Schlemiel Falls in Love With a Korean Girl – Part I

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Over the last decade, we have seen countless films about “middling” or aging schlemiels. Think of Ben Stiller’s roles in Meet the Fockers (2004), Greenberg (2010), or The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Seth Rogen’s Neighbors (2014) or Guilt Trip (2012), or of Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), or This is 40 (2012).  Apatow, more than any filmmaker, has made something of a cottage industry based on middle age schlemiels.

Also think of Sarah Silverman’s latest work for her youtube channel, Jash, where she is constantly looking into what her character, a 40 plus year old woman, goes through as she ages. The task of documenting the aging schlemiel is nothing new, however. One need look no father than the popularization of this in Woody Allen’s films – especially Annie Hall (1977).   

While the filmic exploration of the aging schlemiel is widespread and noticeable – to such an extent that the middling schlemiel is becoming something of an American cultural icon – the literary equivalent is less noticed by the everyday American. To be sure, books like Stern, by Bruce Jay Freedman, Herzog, by Saul Bellow, A New Life, by Bernard Malamud, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti – to name only a handful examples which span over four decades – take the aging schlemiel as their theme.

What’s most interesting about these literary treatments of the middling/aging schlemiel is that they give us an acute sense of how the schlemiel – and we ourselves – are becoming more and more out of sync with the times we are living in. After repeated failure, the schlemiel eagerly tries to carve out a “new life.” But as s/he ages s/he comes to realize that she hasn’t succeeded and that now, with age, things are more difficult than before. This creates a desperate situation and character whose new failures are much worse than before. Yet, with all of this failure and repeated failure, there is a kind of charm that comes through in this or that missed encounter, missed social cue, or belated response. Most charming is the middling schlemiel’s failure to communicate when love is on the table and cultural differences are front-row-center. The conceit of the narrative is to be found in how the middling schlemiel navigates these gaps.

We see an exceptional illustration of this middling schlemiel’s attempt at bridging the gaps between youth and middle age as well as between Korean and Jewish in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.   The fascinating thing is that one gap challenges another in his novel. The middling main character Lenny Abramov – a Russian-American-Jewish son of immigrants – stumbles across Eunice Park, falls in love with her, and does his most to deal with this gap and win her over. But his failures show the desperation of this gesture; nonetheless, she also fails. And the way she fails – with her family’s expectations and her own expectations – transforms her into a character who, though Korean, shares much in common with the schlemiel. Regardless, the communication gap, the age gap, and the cultural gap challenge this commonality and make for a fascinating read on the middling schlemiel which solicits culture, love, and communication as relevant to being (and understanding) a schlemiel.

For now, I just want to touch on the communication gap when they first meet. It becomes the foundation for the ensuing struggle to bridge it. When he leaves with her, after a party that he and she occasion in Rome, Italy, he feels she left with him because she really likes him and that, in some way, he is her hero. In his mind, he has saved her from another middling man – a physically intimidating sculptor – who, aggressively, challenges Lenny when he tries to talk with Eunice, his Korean love interest. He is snubbed by the sculptor but, in the end, he wins a kind of indirect victory when she leaves with him not the sculptor.

Notice the comedic rhetoric that is used to describe his movements in relation to hers. He thinks of himself as a hero, but comes across as an anti-hero:

Eunice Park and I marched ahead. She marched, I hopped, unable to cover up the joy of having escaped the party with her by my side. I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her from the sculptor and his stench of death. I wanted her to get to know me and then to repudiate all the terrible things he said about my person, my supposed greed, my boundless ambition, my lack of talent…I wanted to tell her that I myself was in danger….all because I had slept with one middle-aged Italian woman. (21)

But telling her wouldn’t matter. Eunice could care less about the situation Lenny was going through.

Feeling young and hip – although he is middling – he tells her of a cool “Nigerian” restaurant in Rome to go to following the party: “I stressed “Nigerian” to underline my openmindedness. Lenny Abramov, friend to all”(21). But this doesn’t get through to her.

She calls him a nerd and throws several three letter abbreviations – hip in youth culture – at him to show the gap between them. And this “hurts” him:

“You’re such a nerd.” She laughed cruelly at me.

“What?” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laughed to, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt.

“LPT,” she said, “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP, PRGV, Totally PRGV.”

The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. “Right,” I said, “IMF. PLO. ESL.”

His abbreviations emerge out of a different era and show what things that were of interest to him, then: ESL (fitting in to American culture), PLO (being a Jew whose Russian parents were very concerned with Israel’s future), and IMF (which shows he may have had interest in activism against globalization, when it first started emerging)

The gap is pronounced and the pain that comes with the missed encounter and communication lag show us the life of a middling schlemiel who desperately tries to overcome what, in fact, may not be possible to overcome. After all, age is existential. So is culture….

Charm…that’s another issue…. Can it bridge the gap?

….to be continued…