Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel – An Essay Published in Berfrois

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I recently wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s readings of the schlemiel and published it on the online journal Berfrois.  This essay touches on thinkers and themes that will appear in my book on the schlemiel.  It is a foreshadowing, if you will.

Here is the link to the article: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/menachem-feuer-walter-benjamin-hannah-arendts-readings-of-the-schlemiel/

Enjoy!

Menachem Feuer, The Author of Schlemiel Theory

 

 

 

Jewishness, the Holocaust, and History: Irving Howe on the Holocaust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflections sur la question juive

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At the beginning of a chapter to his “intellectual autobiography” entitled “Jewish Quandaries,” Irving Howe begins with questions “from young friends” about the Holocaust: “When did you first become aware of the gas chambers? How did you respond to the reports from Europe that the Nazis were systematically exterminating Jews?”   Howe points out that “for some years now” these questions are also his questions (247). And when he thinks of them now, reflecting on how he first responded to them, he has a “recurrent clamor of confused memories.”   He says he cannot answer them with “clear thoughts and eloquent emotions.” Howe counts himself as one of the people who, when faced with “great cataclysms…blink and stumble…retreat into old opinions….turn away in fear”(247). Howe isn’t happy with this situation and describes his moral quandary and his failure.

Howe points out that facts and information were “pouring out after the war” but he didn’t grasp the meaning of the event until the early fifties. He personifies his awakening to this as something belated and shameful. In this trial by memory, he is guilty. And according to his conscience, he is accused of not being moral enough.

Memory points a figure: “You were slow, you were dull in responding to the Holocaust.” I plead guilty, but would add mildly that now, when incessant talk about the Holocaust risks becoming a media vulgarity, we may value silence a bit more than anyone could have supposed in the earlier years. Conscience scoffs: “Come, you’re not really trying to say you were silent because your feelings overwhelmed you? Wasn’t it more likely that your feelings were rather skimpy?” (248)

In not being able to “grapple with the Holocaust,” Howe believes he had lost his humanity. To not have thought or language to address crisis is, for Howe, tantamount to losing one’s humanity. And this failure hurts him.

Howe admits that he was not alone in this failure: “No one knew what to say, no one could decide whether to cry out to the heavens or mourn in silence. We had no language.”

Howe notes how when he first heard of this, when he was in Alaska, he “felt an uncanny sort of fear.” This feeling came when he saw pictures he saw of the “GIs, ordinary American boys” looking at the “death camps piled high with corpses.” In these pictures, he noticed that they “registered a stunned horror.” In Alaska, he had no one to talk to.

When he came back to New York from Alaska, Howe slowly realized that his Marxist framework would be inadequate to address the Holocaust:

Some of us continued to think more or less in Marxist categories – loosened and liberalized, but Marxist still. I would not go so far as to say that a Marxist framework foreclosed the possibility of grasping the Holocaust in its moral terribleness and historical novelty. The more terribleness we recognized as well as anyone else; the historical novelty we did not. Writing about Nazism in the thirties, when its full criminality was visible, Trotsky had foreseen it would end as “barbarism.” But that was only a word, though an accurate one, which neither we nor anyone else could yet have filled out with a sufficiently ghastly content. (249)

This thought prompts Howe to reflect on the creation of new categories for confronting a “new historical phenomenon.” And this is where he comes to terms with the limits of Marxism for understanding everything:

Marxism could tell us a good deal about reactionary societies, but what could it say about the roots of evil, the gratuitous et systematic sadism of the SS? I don’t know that any other structure of thought told us much about that sadism either, but at least it would not try to reduce everything to a “social base” or the “death agony of capitalism.” (250)

In many ways, this failure prompted Howe to rethink his Jewishness:

In the years before the war people like me tended to subordinate our sense of Jewishness to cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics. We did not think well or deeply on the matter of Jewishness – you might say we avoided thinking about it. Jewishness was inherited, a given to be acknowledged, like being born white or poor. (251)

Following the war and the Holocaust, the thought of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and Jewishness starts become a concern for Howe. He points out how, in 1945, he came across a few lines in an article by Dwight Macdonald (in his essay “The Responsibility of Peoples”) that sparked thought about the meaning of such uniqueness. The article wasn’t the best but it didn’t create a quandary for Howe:

Unsystematic as these remarks were, they had the virtue of insisting upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust – an event without precedent yet prepared for by the anti-Semitism of the West. (253)

Howe muses that Macdonald was “probably influenced by Hannah Arendt, who a few months earlier had published a brilliant essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in the Jewish Frontier”(253). How saw this essay as a “step forward in the effort to “understand,” precisely because it called into question the very relevance or possibility of understanding.”

But these essays didn’t reach Howe when he was in Alaska. He read them after they were published.   The only essays he came across, which appeared serially in Partisan Review and Commentary in 1946 and 1947 were essays that belonged to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflexiouns sur la question juive (translated as Anti-Semite and Jew).

Howe points out, immediately before he even starts commenting on Sartre’s book, that even flawed books can prompt insight. And this foreshadows his commentary on Sartre which, if anything, prompted him to think on a much deeper level not just about the meaning of the Holocaust but about the meaning of Jewishness:

There are times when a flawed piece of writing is more valuable than a “correct” one – honest confusions, incomplete strivings can stimulate others to think better. So it was with Sartre’s little book. Decades later it is easy enough to spot its errors, but at the tie time the book came out, it was tremendously stimulating. (254)

Howe begins his commentary by going straight to Sartre’s definition of a Jew, a definition that Howe will take as the main point of his criticism:

“The Jew” – an abstraction he could not avoid – is defined by Sartre by his “situation.” This “situation” is an ensemble of conditions and environments signifying both the relentless pressures of the anti-Semite and the tepid defenses of the democrat who is prepared to defend the Jew but not as a Jew, only as abstract “man.” A Jew, writes Sartre, “is anyone who for any reason calls himself such or is called such in any community whose practices take note of the distinction.” Yet, despite the persistence of this “distinction” Sartre comes to the odd conclusion that the Jews “have no history. What creates the Jew so to speak, and enables his twisted precarious survival, is the all-but-universal enmity he incurs. (254)

What bother’s Howe most in Sartre’s claim that Jews don’t have a history. By saying that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of this or that “situation” is, for Howe, a bad reading that must be exposed.   Sartre’s book suffers from “an extreme ahistoricity. It reduced both the Jew and the anti-Semite to bloodless, timeless essences, and failed to ask what might be the origin of anti-Semitism or, still more important, the reasons for its persistence”(255).

And this failure to grasp the Jew and to reduce the Jew to something ahistorical is something that Howe associates with a Marxist framework: “Sartre’s conclusion, so lame after his analytic fireworks, came to little more than a version of the Marxist notion that anti-Semtisim is the consequence, or index, of the social wrongs of capitalist society, and that with socialism this blight would wither away”(255).

Howe takes Sartre’s logic to its Marxist conclusion by suggesting that, in Sartre’s view, since Jews had no “history” or “community of interest,” and once they were “n longer plagued by pathological enemies,” they would then “freely dissolve themselves into the encasing classless society”(255). Howe sarcastically notes that Sartre can’t imagine the possibility of “Frenchmen becoming Jews”(255). This would turn Sartre’s scenario “upside down.”

What Sartre failed to see, according to Howe, is the fact that one “could locate” the “situation” of the Jews in a “traditional essence.” Sartre saw the Jews as merely an effect of a situation and a people without history or freedom: “He did not see it sufficiently as a persistent choosing of identity, a heroic self-assertion”(255).

This failure is what prompts Howe to undertake his query into the relationship of Jewish identity to history, tradition, and agency.

 

…to be continued….

 

Irving Howe’s Recollections of Hannah Arendt

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Irving Howe and Hannah Arendt both published important essays in The Partisan Review.   Howe published and edited the important 1953 issue of The Partisan Review where he included Saul Bellow’s monumental translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and an important introduction on Jewishness. Arendt published essays at The Partisan Review on philosophy, literature, and politics such as “Franz Kafka, a Reevaluation,” (1944), “What is Existenz philosophy?” (1946), “The Concentration Camps”(1948), and “The Cold War and the West”(1962).

Howe first met Arendt when she was the editor of Schocken Books.   Howe’s recollection of their meeting and his description of Arendt in his wonderful book, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, are worth recounting as they give us something of an intellectual portrait and show us that Howe was impressed by her presence. Howe situates her in a chapter entitled “Jewish Quandries.” What’s most interesting about this placement is the fact that he discusses his literary project in Yiddish literature side-by-side with his meetings and encounters with Arendt. In her, he saw something of a secular Jewishness that he felt had died in Europe. He calls it an “idea” that he loved but, in reality, couldn’t make real because such Jewish secularism (attempted, he believed, by the movement of Yiddish theater and literature in the lower east side) was “decaying.”

Howe tells us that when he first met her, Arendt was looking for someone to do “literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month”(270).   Howe was her man. And he notes that though the pay was low, it “came with the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week”(270). At the time, she was not well-known because she hadn’t published On Totalitarianism, but “everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her”(270).

With a little dismay, Howe notes that even though Arendt “loved to ‘adopt’ people,” he was not one of the chosen”(270). He muses that he wasn’t “perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures”(270).

But Howe notes that there was one thing she would love to discuss with him “Kafka and Brecht,” on the one hand, and “Yiddish folk tales and American politics” on the other. The confluence of the two is telling because they touch on things that meant a lot to Howe in his work on the schlemiel, Yiddish literature, modernist literature, and politics.

Howe’s description of Arendt is, in many ways, literary.  Arendt had, for him, a kind of theatrical quality.

He notes that, although she was “far from ‘good looking’ in any commonplace way,” she was a “remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette. ‘Szee here,’ she would declare with a smile meant both to subdue and to solace, and then she’d race off into one of her improvisations”(270).

“Mere Americans,” says Howe, were “dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy” she knew. But Howe notes that what really dazzled them was not her “thought” so much as the “style of her thinking”(270). His description of her style is worth noting, at length, because he’s trying to translate it into literature. She fills the rooms she dwells in with the “largeness of her will” and is “larger than her setting.”

She brissled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender with gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm. (270)

But something was missing in this performance. He couldn’t quite grasp its “substance”:

Even while appreciating her performance, I often failed to grasp its substance.

Howe, nonetheless, tells his reader that he did learn something from his discussion with her about politics: “that politics has to be scrutinized in its own right and not just as an index of social conflict”(271).

But while she had command over thought and politics and a style that he emulated, Howe noticed that when it came to Jewishness Arendt’s attitudes were “hopelessly mixed.” And this had to do with her “hostility toward established Jewish institutions, especially Zionist ones.”

Hannah’s attitudes toward modern Jewish life, her feelings toward the Jews as they actually lived in all their frailty and imperfection, were hopelessly mixed. (271)

Howe notes how the book on Eichmann and all the attendant criticism deeply affected her. And in his reflections on her book, Howe takes the side of Norman Podhoretz who “saw Arendt’s book – rightly, I think – as an instance of that deep impulse among some Jews, especially intellectual ones, to make ‘inordinate demands…that the Jews be better than other people…braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified….But the truth is – must be – that Jews under Hitler acted as men will act when they are set upon by murderers”(275).

He notes that “such controversies will never be settled” and describes, in a sad manner, his last encounter with Arendt. At a party they shook hands, and she sharply took it away as she “turned on her heel and walked off.” The gesture was like a “wound” that remained with him:

It was the most skillful cut I have ever seen or received, and I was wounded quite as keenly as she wanted me to be. (275)

Arendt left him with a wound. And perhaps this marked his wounded sense of Jewishness as the chapter goes on to articulate.

…to be continued….

 

 

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 1

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When I first picked up David Eggers’ recent novel, The Circle, I had no idea that the novel had any comic elements. To be sure, the majority of reviews suggested that the book was dystopian from start to finish. I was expecting something very grim. But, strangely enough, Eggers includes comic elements. What has not been sought after by any review or reflection I have read is the meaning of these comic elements. I’d like to venture, in a series of blog entries, a sketch of how one can read the presence of comedy in such a novel.

The Circle is a novel that hits home. It speaks to an age that is dominated by Google, Facebook, and Social Networking. Since we are in the midst of rapid shifts in the way we think and do things by virtue of social media and incredible new technology (computers, smart phones, tablets, etc), it’s very hard for us to reflect on what is happening to us. We are changing. We don’t think in the same ways. What does all this mean and how do we reflect on this? Fiction, to my mind, is one of the best mediums that we can use to explore and address the polyvalent meanings of this shift-in-progress. We can see ourselves through characters who are not-ourselves but are strangely similar to us. This is especially prescient when the characters in this novel are in hub of the social-networking business.

Through the two main characters, Annie and Mae (who are both fresh out of college), Eggers explores the hypothetical idea that is floating around most of our heads: what would it be like if I were to get a job at Google or Facebook?   One can imagine the prestige and power that goes along with a job that puts one in a company that is virtually changing the way we look at ourselves and the world. It’s very exciting.

Eggers brings this excitement out in the fact that the two main characters, as I mentioned above, just left college. As one can imagine, they are hopeful and eager to be a part of something that has the capability of changing the world for the good. This is a serious endeavor (and adventure). It seems as if comedy has no place.

However, throughout the novel there is laughter and joking around. What Eggers does is to make that laughter uncanny. He suggests that we pay closer attention to this laughter by virtue of the fact that, at one point in the novel, when he first introduces her, he describes Annie as a “dufus.” And, by way of another character who is not immersed in the world of social networking, we hear Mae described as a “dork.”   Reading these descriptions, one wonders if they should not be applied to just these two characters but to the members of the circle and perhaps ourselves.

Of the two, it is Annie who gets Mae into “The Circle.” And it is her description which should be of great interest to us because she is the character who we would all like to be: someone who goes from college to a place like Google or Facebook and rises to the top of the command. However, the description of her is not enviable. She’s a “doofus.”

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

The narrator goes on to describe her as a woman-child of sorts. She is a “scattershot and ridiculous person, who still carried a piece of her childhood blanket around in her pocket”(14). He muses, confusedly, about how such a person had “risen so quickly and high through the circle? Now she was a part of forty most crucial minds of the company – the Gang of 40 – privy to its most secret plans and data. That she could push through the hiring of Mae without breaking a sweat”(14).

All of this troubles the narrator because he can’t understand how a “doofus” like Annie could rise to such heights. Something is peculiar about this and his use of a comical descriptor suggests that the reader, like the narrator, should be suspicious. What, after all, does it mean that some of our greatest secrets – circulating on the internet – are in the hands of a “doofus?”

When we meet Mae, however, we think that she is more normal and not a doofus. Mae comes from a less privileged background. Her parents are more blue-collar, her father is dying, and she has a much more realistic sense of reality.

However, something happens to her after she starts working in the company for a few weeks.   Her initiation into The Circle prompts her to become obsessed with social media in ways she never was. At work she has three screens that she has to attend to: one for incoming customer service (which she is rated on), one for messages from her supervisors, and one for social media. She must pay attention to every screen. If she neglects any messages – even the social media messages – she is disciplined in some fashion. Moreover, the companies ethos suggests that the knowledge of all things that have ever happened can be beneficial to humanity. Instead of being judged for what a person is, one is judged by the things said online, by algorithms, and comments of people.   Being obsessed with this makes her into, what she will later be called by an ex-boyfriend, a dork.

But, as Eggers suggests, there is a difference between a “doofus” and a “dork.” Regardless of the difference (which we will explore in upcoming blog entries), Eggers’ use of comical terms to describe Annie and Mae functions to give us a comical distance from the condition we are immersed in.   Where do we fit on this spectrum? What does it mean that we might be a dufus or dork by virtue of being immersed in (or desiring to be immersed in) social media?

….to be continued…..

Marriage, Fate, and a Bathroom Epiphany in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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Irony often plays on the gap between expectation and reality. The gap between is a commonplace in much schlemiel fiction.   Playing on the main motif of How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti, the main character and author of the novel, casts the other as her teacher. She looks for ethical and artistic models of personhood outside her self. Following this model, Heti notes how, several months before her wedding, she saw a beautiful wedding (the perfect model of how a wedding “should” be):

Several months before our wedding, my fiancé and I were strolling together in an elegant park when off in the distance we noticed a bride and a groom standing before a congregation, tall and upright like two figures on a cake…The vows were being exchanged, and the minister was speaking quietly. Then I saw and heard the lovely bride grow choked up with emotion as she repeated the words for richer or for poorer. A tear ran down her cheek, and she had to stop and collect herself before she finished what she was saying. (23)

When she comes to the same moment, years later, Sheila did the same things but “felt none of it.” She felt it was canned and she felt as if “she was not there at all”:

Then something happened. As I said the words for richer or for power, that bride came up in me. Tears welled in my eyes, just as they had welled up in hers. My voice cracked with the same emotion that had cracked her voice, but I felt none of it. It was a copy, a possession, canned. That bride inhabited me at the exact moment I should have been more present. It was like was not there at all – it was not me. (23)

Compounding the feeling of alienation and bad luck, Heti recalls a painful event with her last boyfriend before she got married. She and her boyfriend used to have desks in the same room. Both of them would sit at their desks and write plays (24). But one day, after hearing her on the phone talking about a crush she had a on a photographer, he got angry, stole her computer where she was sleeping and returned it to her desk with a play he wrote about her. The play had plotted out her entire life leaving nothing to freedom or chance. The plot casts her as a kind of existential schlemiel (in the worst sense):

When I go up the next morning, I found, there on the screen, an outline for a play about my life – how it would unfold, decade by decade. Reading it compulsively as the sun came up in the window behind me, I grew incredibly scared. Tears ran down my cheeks as a I absorbed the horrible picture he had painted of my life: vivid and vile and filled with everything his heart and mind knew would hurt me best. (24)

The play culminates with Sheila in a pornographic encounter with a Nazi. She kneels in a dumpster and gives a Nazi a blowjob (25). When she asks the Nazi, in her “last bubble of hope,” “Are you mine?” he says “Sure, baby,” and “cruelly stuck my nose in his hairy ass and shat. The end”(25).

Heti is disturbed by the play and tries but cannot stop thinking about it. She thought, in some way, that it could come true! She felt she could not escape this theatrical fate:

It lodged inside me like seed that I was already watching take root and grow into my life. The conviction in every line haunted me. I was determined to act in such a way as to erase the fate of the play, to bury far from my heart the rotting seed he had discovered – or planted – there. (25)

In these lines we see that Heti’s schlemiel is struggling with fictional fate. She wants freedom. But how will she get it if she is constantly making big mistakes. It seems as if there is no way out. It’s as if she was fated to be a slave, a schlemiel-slave-of-fate.  Marriage seems to promise a way out of fate, but it only seems to reiterate eternal repetition.

In the beginning of their marriage, they have “two years” of parties. At the end of the second year, she wonders “Why are we having these parties?(26). Imagining she was someone from the future looking back she says, winking at the Jews building pyramids: “That could only have built by slaves.”

While in the bathroom, Sheila thinks of a dream she had about writing and shitting: “Sitting there, I recalled a dream from the night before, in which I was taking pills that made me shit a lot. In my dream, I decided I would only write what I thought about as I shit – since I was now spending all my time shitting”(27). Her dream parallels shit and writing and touches on the main theme of making Big Mistakes (as noted in another blog entry, Heti points out that all artists must make “Big Mistakes” – a motif shared with schlemiels). It seems she is reconsidering not just her marriage but also her art.

Right after she leaves the toilet she meets someone who takes part in the Ugly Painting Contest: Margaux. The backstory of her relationship with Margaux gives us a sense of how artists, like schlemiels, have dreams about art but are awakened, like Sheila, to the fact that their project (writing, painting, acting) might be meaningless.   (The metaphor Sheila will use, which we have already seen above, has to do with waste: either having one’s face put in someone’s ass or defecating.) But the lesson is never final. The schlemiel, like all of these artists, seems to repeat the cycle. To be sure, the postmodern schlemiel goes through this process, returns to her original naivite, and starts again.

As Heti’s metaphor suggests, being an artist-schlemiel and making art is like returning to the bathroom, repeatedly.   And if one model fails, the schlemiel – at least in Heti’s version – will always move on to another. Once that fails, one goes to the bathroom and then returns to start again. In other words, as a result of repeated failure, the schlemiel’s models will always be tainted or will become tainted (at some point).   Yet the schlemiel doesn’t give up hope that he or she will, one day, know “how a person should be.”

The Schlemiel, Zionism, and Self-Criticism: On Joseph Hayyim Brenner’s “Self-Criticism”

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Before Israel became a state, Zionist thinkers did their utmost to win the minds of Eastern and Western European Jews. As I had pointed out in my last blog entry, the Schlemiel Journal was dedicated to using the schlemiel in this Zionist project. The point I wished to make – by way of Michael Brenner’s insightful chapter on the journal – was that the editors of the journal, in its first year, struggled with how to present the schlemiel. One reading was influenced by an Eastern European reading of the schlemiel (one which had a more positive view of the schlemiel and blended well with Ahad Ha’am’s form of “cultural Zionism”) while the other was influenced more by the German-Jewish Haskalah’s reading of the schlemiel (which was much more negative than it’s Eastern European counterpart).   Although this distinction, by and large, holds, sometimes we find that Zionist writers from Eastern Europe may blend both views. One such case can be found in the work of Joseph Hayyim Brenner.

Brenner was an original Zionist thinker who was deeply influenced by the fiction of Mendle Mocher Sforim (a Yiddish writer who had written several stories that cast schlemiels as main characters).   Sforim is aptly called, by Sholem Aleichem, the “zayde” (grandfather) of Yiddish literature. His book, The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III, was a foundational text for Yiddish literature. The text shows us the travels of Benjamin and Senderl, two schlemiels who dream big of leaving the Pale of Settlement to discover a “new world,” but go nowhere except…within the Pale of Settlement. Yet, they imagine they have gone somewhere. While the characters are endearing, the fact of the matter is that it depicts a bad state of affairs for the Jews and it portrays the Jews through these two schlemiels. They live in dreams, not reality. This, to be sure, is a major Zionist thought about Jews who need to leave their abnormal conditions, find independence, and make, as Theodor Herzl once said, their dream a reality.

In a piece written in Hebrew, in 1914, entitled “Self-Criticism,” Joseph Hayyim Brenner cites and uses some of the comical rhetorical techniques that we find Mendle Mocher Sforim’s work in order to further the Zionist idea. He does this by reflecting on the meaning of survival and asking whether the schlemiel’s way of survival is the right path:

The skeptics and rebels who have just recently appeared in literature say: What? The Jews have survived? Yes, it is true they have survived. But, my friends, survival alone is not yet a virtue. Certainly, it is better for any man, any people, any organism to be than not to be….but existence in itself is no evidence of an estimable character. (307, The Zionist Idea)

This survival, he suggests, doesn’t come from a willingness so much as…luck or groveling. He uses the schlemiel as the model for the old, Diasporic, form of survival and he cites Sforim’s (Mendele’s) schlemiel in this regard. The word he uses for schlemiel, in this context, is luftmensch (a person who lives on air):

The Jews are one of the peoples of antiquity who have survived and remained. How does Mendele put it? “Caravans come and caravans go – but the Luftmenschen of Kislon and Kabtziel go on forever.”

But, says Brenner, “this proves nothing.” He says that it is a “mystery” as to how these schlemiels survive (“it is beyond our ken”). However, Brenner tells us that survival is not how Jews should understand themselves rather; they should look at their “mode of living.” And that mode is that of poverty and subservience.

Brenner sees the Rabbinic traditions that are “transmitted” to the next generation were “better never handed down to us” because they have done nothing to change this condition of subservience. Now, says Brenner, Jews exist as a “mass” and their existence is merely “biological.” “Yes, we may exist as a mass of gypsies, peddlers, traveling salesmen, and bank clerks; in this guise we may survive biologically for years”(308).  We survive, Brenner argues, like “ants” and “dogs.”

This biological type of survival is not enough, argues Brenner. Jews need to work to settle Israel. But to do that Jews need “real national strength.” Instead, Jews have the legacy of schlemiels, of dreamers, not a national legacy:

We have no…workers, no laborers; all we have are pipe dreams of speculation worthy of the heirs of Reb Leib the Melamed (the hero of a Sforim story entitled “The Stampede”).  

Brenner goes farther to argue that the Jews have nothing of their own; everything – their language, creativity, customs, etc – is borrowed (309). And wherever Jews went they did this in order to survive. But like Benjamin and Senderl of Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, Jews may survive; but they aren’t going anywhere. The reminder of the “impasse” that Jews experience, according to Brenner, can be found in Mendele’s schlemiels. And this reminder prompts us to what he calls “true self-criticism”:

We are at an impasse, but the pen is still in hand. Our literature lives with Mendele and with all who have succeeded him, and it continues that way, with true self-criticism for a guide. (311)

Brenner drives this point home when he argues that “literature since Mendele” (meaning his own literature) says: “Our function now is to recognize and admit our meanness since the beginning of history to the present day, all the faults of our character, and then to rise and start all over again”(312).

The reading of the schlemiel that comes out of Brenner suggests that this character should prompt us to confess our faults and move on. The irony of it all is that Brenner misses the fact that schlemiel, though a dreamer, is a saint of sorts for this very reason. It isn’t the schlemiel who is the problem; it is reality.   Sforim shows us that their dreams meet with harsh reality; but that doesn’t mean that they simply need to sober up. It should prompt us to change that reality. But does it mean, as Brenner suggests, that we should leave the schlemiel behind as a representation of all the “meanness” and the “faults of our character”?

This reading of the schlemiel suggests a more German reading of the schlemiel, one than finds no redeeming qualities in this character so much as a rendering of what Jews should leave behind.  “Self-Criticism” was a part of the Zionist project which saw the schlemiel as an obstacle yet knew it had to work through this character which had captured the hearts of so many Jews in the Pale. The “new literature” that Brenner speaks of must leave it behind if the Jews are to have their own state and be a “real people.”   This is the crux of Brenner’s brand of “self-criticism.”

Zionists and Schlemiels: On the Difference Between Cultural and Political Zionists at “Der Schlemiel” Journal

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Very few scholars have addressed the appropriation of the schlemiel by Zionist thinkers and critics. Daniel Boyarin has suggested the contrast between the less masculine, Medieval model for the Jew (which, to be sure, is a humble simpleton who bears many of the more feminine qualities that are associated with the schlemiel) and the more masculine Zionist model for the ideal Jew. Although his study suggests such contrasts, he doesn’t use the schlemiel or discuss how this comic figure was situated within the tension between the Diaspora Jew and the Zionist. Moreover, he doesn’t look at the differing cultural representations of Jews by Cultural Zionists (who aligned with Ahad Ha’am and included people like Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and others) and Political Zionists in his study.  In his book Unheroic Conduct, he is more interested in the representations of the Political Zionists.

Building and extending Boyarin’s work to the subject of the schlemiel, David Brenner, in his book German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka’s Kitsch, dedicates a chapter to the schlemiel as a “proto-post-colonial subject.”   He takes the 1903 pro-Zionist journal Der Schlemiel: Illustriertes judisches Witzblatt [The Schlemiel: An Illustrated Journal of Jewish Humor] as the basis for his reading of the schlemiel in these terms.   What makes Brenner’s chapter on the schlemiel so important for schlemiel theory and scholars interested in Zionism is the fact that he historicizes the journals shift from a position that was informed by Cultural Zionism to one that was informed by Theodor Herzl’s version of Political Zionism.

Brenner points out that, in its first issue (and following issues) of Der Schlemiel, the German based journal looked to appeal to Eastern European Jews who had a great love for Jewish culture and Jewish humor. The first subject of the journal was the failed attempt of Theodor Herzl to make Uganda the homeland of the Jews. The Zionist congress, in this first issue, becomes a “congress of schlemiels” and Herzl is presented as parodying his thinking of such a possibility as schlemiel-ish.

But what interests Brenner most is the representation of the Jew who goes to Uganda and mixes Jewishness and African culture. The cross between the Jew and the African that is seen in some of the caricatures, according to Brenner, has a positive valence. The main character of one of the parodies is called Mbwapwa Jumbo. As Brenner notes, “Jumbo converts to Orthodox Judaism and Mizrahi Judaism.” And, “with time, he becomes an Eastern (African) Jew, speaking a German admixed with (and some English) syntax and vocabulary”(30). He argues that this caricature looked to create a kind of “cultural Judaism” (in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am).   This schlemiel is a proto-post-colonial schlemiel because it is a hybrid which inverts the degradation of Eastern European Jews and Africans by German and Austrian Jews who, like most Europeans, were bent on a colonial project.

To support his argument that the journal began with a bent toward Cultural Zionism, Brenner argues that Leo Wintz, a Ukranian Jew, founded the journal. He saw the schlemiel as a vehicle and as a “weapon against both anti-Semitism and assimilaton”(34). However, Brenner argues that Herzl wasn’t happy with the journal’s parody of his Political Zionistic move to leave for Uganda; and by the end of the year he suggested that they change editors.

When the Political Zionists take over, the schlemiel becomes, as Brenner argues, a “colonial subject.” It is more feminized and takes on a negative valence; now the mixture of the African and the Eastern European Jew takes on a more negative valence (36). The tough African takes on Eastern European customs (including Yiddish) and in doing so becomes weak. He leaves for Israel, is forced to emigrate to Galveston, Texas and falls victim to a pogrom (36).

Jumbo becomes the pit of a joke and is seen, a German-Jewish sense, as the schlemiel one doesn’t want to be.   According to Brenner, the new editors “stereotyped Africans and Jews in order to promote – but also to deconstruct – identity politics and other essentialisms”(38). However, this “should come as no great revelation: stereotypes were a time-tested effective means of attracting Jewish audiences in Western Europe to Jewish nationalism”(39). Jews learned what to be, in other words, by learning what not to be.

Brenner is on to something here because the German Schlemiel, as characterized by Sander Gilman in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, defines schlemiels as a comic characters who “believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.” But according to Gilman, this character did not emerge out of Jewish folklore so much as out of the Enlightenment: “Schlemiels are the creation of the Enlightenment. It is the Jewish enlightener’s attempt to use satire to cajole the reader into not being a fool.”

In contrast, Ruth Wisse argues that the Eastern European schlemiel had more of a positive valence. Although it had negative features, it also had positive features such as humility, trust, and optimism. It translates the religious aspect of this character: “In the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living as if good will triumph over evil and right over wrong.”

The difference between the German and the Yiddish schlemiel is clear. While Gilman argues that the schlemiel was used by the Jewish-German enlightenment as a foil to show German Jews what not to be; in Eastern Europe, the schlemiel’s comic failures had a more positive aspect. In other words, the German enlightenment courted the meaning of failure differently from their Eastern European brethren.

Brenner adds to Wisse’s reading of the Eastern European (Yiddish) schlemiel by suggesting that Cultural Zionists read the character in terms of being a kind of Jewishness that was open to otherness; a post-colonial Jewishness that found hybridity funny, yet in a positive manner.   The non-militaristic and non-athletic aspects of the Jumbo character, according to Brenner, didn’t have a negative effect on the Eastern European readers of the journal.

Nonetheless, as Brenner points out, the schlemiel still trades in stereotypes. But that is the case with any stock character which conveys Jewishness to large audiences. The difference, however, is what these stereotypes convey. He looks into what features we identify with and why. And in the context of Political and Cultural Zionism, we can see that the representation of the schlemiel in Der Schlemiel differed along the lines of how they thought of how Jews were and…should be. In the schlemiel, in other words, we can see a criticism of Jewishness and a new vision. One is open to hybridity and the effeminate aspects of the character while the other trades, according to Brenner, in a kind of “nationalistic essentialism.” The schlemiel can help us to look at ourselves. The question, however, is what we see and what decide to identify with and what to reject. The Political Zionists leaned toward a German Jewish reading of the schlemiel; while the Cultural Zionists, who first started the journal, took on a more Eastern European reading.