Happy Birthday to a Schlemiel Who Just Happens to Come from New York

Image by Drew Friedman

There are many different arguments about when the Schlemiel went mainstream in America. While Hannah Arendt sees that happening with Charlie Chaplin, Daniel Itzkovitz argues that it was the debut of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1978) and its winning of four Oscars that made it clear that the Schlemiel was no longer a Jewish icon; it was an American icon. Itzkovitz argues that, following this film, the schlemiel was Americanized. The New Schlemiel, argues Itzkovitz isn’t even Jewish and has lost its Jewish particularity, such as in shows like Seinfeld or Adam Sandler’s films. However, it can be argued that with Larry David and Seth Rogen that particularity has been retained. Either way, Woody Allen is a major part of that trajectory.

One of the things that sticks out with Woody Allen – something we see in a Woman Schlemiel Character that came before him named Fanny Brice – is the use of Yinglish. That use is often associated with New Yorkers who also happen to be schlemiels (think of schlemiel characters Larry David, Jason Alexander, or Adam Sandler). Woody Allen, to be sure, is a major popularizer of the idea that most schlemiels happen to come from New York and have a Yinglish accent.

This Woody Allen joke, which has all of these elements of a schlemiel…..that happens to be from New York:

While taking my noon walk today, I had more morbid thoughts. What is it about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours. Melnick says the soul is immortal and lives on after the body drops away, but if my soul exists without my body I am convinced that all my clothes will be too loose fitting. Oh, well….

Oh well, Happy Birthday Woody!

“He adored New York City….”

Woody Allen’s Schlemiel character is of great interest to Schlemiel Theory. Take a look at these blog posts:

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

A Personal Note on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: From Riches to Rags

The Schlemiel-as-Criminal? On Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”

Blindness And Insight: From Paul and Augustine to Woody Allen’s “Anything Else” – Part I

Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting

A Note on the First Episode of Woody Allen’s “A Crisis in Six Scenes”

It’s a Family Affair: Caring Mothers, Radical Children, and…an Anxious Schlemiel Husband in Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes”

The WSJ Calls Donald Trump a “Woody Allen” (Schlemiel) “Without the Humor”

Photography, Violence, and Comedy: Reflections on Two Photos (of Goebbels and Woody Allen)

Consciousness of the Endless Loss of Small Things: Elias Canetti’s Portrait of the Happy Loser

The relationship with things and the loss of those things is something that fascinated great thinkers and writers from Walter Benjamin and Freud to Franz Kafka and Elias Canetti. What is the meaning of loss and how does it relates to the character of the person that constantly loses things as opposed to losing things once in a while?

Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for literature “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” The Nobel Foundation situates him with the great writers, Thomas Mann and Herman Brock:

“His foremost purely fictional achievement is the great novel, Die Blendung, (Auto da Fé ) published in 1935 and praised then by Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. But it can be said to have attained its full effect during the last decades: against the background of national socialism’s brutal power politics, resulting in a world conflagration, the novel acquires a deepened perspective.”

In 1979, he published a collection entitled Der Ohrenzeuge: Funfzig Charaktere (Earwitness: Fifty Characters). These short sketches of fifty characters demonstrate his acute sense of gesture and its relationship to character. He is – to so speak – more interested in what he hears than what he sees. The difference between hearing and seeing, to be sure, is a key difference between thought and experience. Hearing gives us access to the esoteric while sight gives us access to the exoteric. Emmanuel Levinas and Leo Strauss delve into these topics in their essays. However, the difference between the Rational Oral Tradition in Judaism and the Mystical Tradition in Judaism is marked between hearing (come and hear = “ta’shma”) in the Talmud and sight (come and see – “ta’chazee”) in the Zohar.

For Schlemiel Theory, Canetti’s character sketch of the loser is of great interest. The schlemiel is often called a “loser” but that doesn’t always have negative connotation. Canetti is a case in point since, for his “ear,” he hears something else, a kind of happiness that the successful human being doesn’t experience. Like many a schlemiel, he loves little things and children are enchanted by him. He doesn’t look after “things” like we do. When he loses them, he doesn’t look for them. And yet, he is surrounded by them:

He succeeds in losing everything. He starts with little things. He has a lot to lose. There are so many places where you can do a good job of losing.

The pockets he has specially made. The children who run after him on the street shout “Mister” here, “Mister” there. He smiles delightedly, and never bends over. He refused to find anything, not on your life. No number of people can make him bend over. He has lost what he has lost, and why did he take it along in the first place? But how can so many things still remain with him? Don’t they run out? Are they inexhaustible? They are, but no one understands. He seems to be in an enormous house full of tiny objects, and it seems impossible to get rid of them all.

The small things are all around him. This makes me think of Robert Walser and Franz Kafka. They see, in these small things, other worlds and entry points into infinite space and the meaning of being human. The secret is in the small. They see wonder through the smallness of things and their relationship to the small.

The loser doesn’t care about things. Canetti says that “he doesn’t experience wonder” at losing things, as if loss of things is the precursor to the philosophical and religious experience of wonder (a deep thought, to be sure).

Perhaps he doesn’t know what happens while he is gone (from his home). He doesn’t trouble himself about it, it doesn’t interest him; if there were nothing left to lose, he would certainly gape in wonder. But he never found himself in such a situation, a man of uninterrupted losses, a happy man.

As opposed to Job, who loses it all in one fell swoop and wonders about G-d and justice, the loser doesn’t wonder as he is always losing.

He notices smallness; he is conscious of himself as losing:

Happy, for he always notices it. One would think he doesn’t notice at all, one would think he’s sleepwalking and does not realize he is walking and losing, it happens by itself, uninterruptedly, all the time, but no, that is not the way he is, he really has to sense it, he sees every little thing otherwise there is no fun, he has to know he has losses, he has to know constantly.

One can say the same for the schlemiel. Although Gimpel appears like he’s sleepwalking through life, Ruth Wisse in the Schlemiel as Modern Hero argues that he is actually conscious of being lied to and losing.

She goes so far as to argue that “the schlemiel is neither saintly nor pure, but only weak.”  Like Canetti’s loser, the schlemiel has no power. His consciousness is of endless loss. But this doesn’t make him sad. Like Gimpel, Canetti’s loser is happy. Perhaps the key to this happiness is his/her disinterest in possessing things and not caring about whether or not they are lost. He can’t mourn their loss since this is a constant state of loss.

The schlemiel and Job seem to be on opposite sides. With this in mind, I wonder: Can there be a theology of the loser?

Paul Celan @ 100yrs – Schlemiels & Microtexts

Today is the 100th year anniversary of Paul Celan’s birth. Celan was very fond of memory and its meaning. He was obsessed with dates. He understood how we all live through these dates and relive them in language. The Holocaust is a date that lives on and through his poetry. Language, he says, in the Meridian Speech, lived through it and lives on. In a sense, language has a schlemiel-like aspect to it in that it, much like Samuel Beckett’s characters or IB Singer’s Gimpel, doesn’t stop moving, even after they have been lied to and mocked. The schlemiel lives on and in small things. As in “Conversation in the Mountains,” Gross and Klein (the main character) are wandering in search of a refuge.

The schlemiel is rootless, like Abraham in the Torah/Bible, ordered to leave his home in search of another place. Abraham isn’t promised immortality, he is promised a place and future through future generations. He lives on through them and they likewise wander through exiles and Holocausts. Their world and destination is physical, not spiritual. It is relational.

Reading the schlemiel through Celan’s poem, “Die Teuflischen” and IB Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” in the worlds eyes, the schlemiel is the subject of “devilish toungjokes of night” but those jokes break the way open through the physical world. The schlemiel may be “lord of dreams”(Arendt / Heine) but Celan shows him – just like IB Singer shows him – to be bound to the earth. The world barks us at “us” – at the reader and the character of this poem and of many poems; we are the schlemiels. Just like Klein and Gross in “Conversation in the Mountains,” we are klein (small) and gross (big). We are an odd couple that, with the voice of poem, must move on.

Let’s listen in to our conversation:

THE DEVILISH

tonguejokes of night

lignify in your ear,

what the glances

beamed back,

jumps forward,

the wasted

bridgetolls, harped,

chisel through

the chalkravine

before us,

the sea-ish lightswamp

barks up at us –

at you,

earthly-invisible

sanctuary.

(Die Teuflischen, p104,

Fadensonnen, trans Pierre Joris)

Schlemiel Theory has taken a special interest in his work because the characters and voices in prose pieces like, “Conversation in the Mountains” and in many of his poems that address smallness are those of the schlemiel.

One of the great tasks of Schlemiel Theory is to examine and discuss not only the literary or filmic schlemiel, but, even more importantly, the poetic schlemiel. The schlemiel in poetry or the schlemiel as poetry. After all, all poems are “klein” and “gross.”

Here are some of the essays that Menachem Feuer, the author of Schlemiel Theory has written. These have been gathered together in a book chapter of a forthcoming book on the Schlemiel and Jewish Philosophy:

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part I

Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part II

A Note on Paul Celan’s Minor Language in “Conversation in the Mountains”

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” A Preface to Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains”

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 1)

‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 2)

Do you Hear Me? A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in “Conversation in the Mountains” – Part I

“Do you Hear Me?: A Schlemiel’s Stuttering Elaboration of the Messianic in ‘Conversation in the Mountains” – Part II

“Speak, You Also” – Remembering Paul Celan’s Birth

Menashe Skulnik – The “Pure Schlemiel” of Yiddish America

Image by Drew Friedman

There is yet to be a genealogy of the schlemiel in America. Schlemiel Theory has – over the years – been hard at work gathering the threads. An account of the schlemiel in America would be incomplete without mentioning Menashe Skulnik. He was one of the great comedic stars of Yiddish theater in the early and mid 20th century. Skulnik appeared in films and on the radio as well as on TV, in the Goldbergs (short lived show in the post-WWWII era). He was likened by the New York Evening Journal to Charlie Chaplin. Strangely enough, while Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and others saw Chaplin as a schlemiel character, Skulnik did not. Like a schlemiel contrarian, he argued that Chaplin wasn’t the real schlemiel – the “pure” one – he was!

In an interview, he said, “I play a schlemiel, a dope. Sometimes they call me the Yiddish Charlie Chaplin, and I don’t like this. Chaplin’s dope is a little bit of a wiseguy. He’s got a little larceny in him. I am a pure schlemiel, with no string attached.”

Skulnik was dubbed the “East Side’s Chaplin” by the New York Evening Journal in 1935.

Like many an American Jewish artist, he transitioned from Yiddish to Yinglish.

The legacy of the schlemiel is something that needs to be gauged since the schlemiel – over the span of the 20th century – became one of Hollywood and Television’s most popular characters. Its amazing how its Yiddish origins got lost in translation but that’s what happens in America where this Yiddish comic character (Skulnik’s demonstration of the “pure schlemiel,” not Chaplin’s imitation of it) became an American one. Whether via the avatars of Woody Allen, Larry David, or Seth Rogen the character has lived on but has, over time, lost its Yiddish accent and….purity.

Schlemiels, Gentle Revolutionaries (In Memory of Bruce Jay Friedman)

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In the post-WWII era, the schlemiel played a pivotal role in a cultural revolution in America that most of us didn’t notice. Before WWII, Charlie Chaplin was seen as a schlemiel character by some of the worlds greatest thinkers (such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, etc). They could see the powerful impact he had on people around the world. In The Sun Also Rises, a book written in 1926, Ernest Hemingway clearly recognized the challenge posed by the schlemiel – through the character of Robert Cohn – to an American type of masculinity and heroism. On the other side of WWII and well into the early 70s, John Updike, the famous American novelist, went so far as writing a series of books on a schlemiel character named, Bech.

Looking over the grand sweep of this character, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi correctly dubs the Schlemiel an American cultural icon. Ruth Wisse argued, in the early 70s, that although the schlemiel is a “fool out of step with the actual march of events,” the fact of the matter is that the “impulse of….schlemiel literature…is to use this comical stance as a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophical status quo”(3, Schlemiel as Modern Hero). This challenge – as Wisse illustrates in the opening pages of her opus – is one that comes out of the character’s gentleness. The schlemiel isn’t a fighter and his revolution is a gentle one that went on unbeknownst to many of us. Before we knew it, he became an American cultural icon: from Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to just about any Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen character, the schlemiel has changed the way we look at ourselves as Americans. This comic character – through the perfection of comical failure – has undermined, through a gentle revolution of sorts, the heroic American character.

Bruce Jay Friedman – who passed away yesterday at the age of 90 – was a major part of that revolution. His recent passing – without a doubt – marks the closing of an era of the post-WWII schlemiel and its gentle revolution. When it comes to the popularization of the schlemiel in America, Bruce Jay Friedman shares the stage with post-WWII writers, filmmakers, screenwriters, and comedians like I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, and Larry David. His schlemiel characters are memorable, whether in novels like Stern, A Mothers Kisses or in short stories and screenplays like “A Change of Plan” (which was turned into the screenplay and film Heartbreak Kid, which has two incarnations, 1972, casting Charles Grodin as the schlemiel and 2007, casting Ben Stiller).

Both films show that the schlemiel was just as relevant in 2007 as it was in 1972.

Strangely enough, Bruce Weber’s New York Times obituary of Bruce Jay Friedman makes no mention whatsoever of the schlemiel character for which he is most well-known for in literary circles and in Hollywood.

As one can see from his novels, short stories, and films, Friedman saw the schlemiel – much like Philip Roth – in terms of gender and sexuality. Unlike the schlemiels we find in I.B. Singer or Saul Bellow, for instance, the failures of the schlemiel in most of his works is nearly tragic. He is a sexual schlemiel. But, through all his failures, it is his gentleness that remains after the defeat of his manhood.

On the Schlemiel in Stern

Writing on his most famous novel, Stern, Ruth Wisse sees a schlemiel in the main character, Stern, that epitomizes what many critics call Friedman’s “dark comedy.”

Stern suffers from an ulcer, the localized symbol of all his hurt, and the actual cause of his anxiety and pain. The ulcer is a kind of “heart condition” in that it grows as Stern begins to feel estrangement and to long for accepting love…..Stern is another study of the sick man as the relatively human man, the psychological equivalent of loser as winner, but one that exposes the full horror of this inversion. (87)

In the novel, Stern is “the victim of a symbolic cuckolding.” He is emasculated by a neighbor who has “knocked down” and “seen his wife.” As a gentle Jew, he isn’t capable of pushing his neighbor back and “instead tentatively punches himself in the belly”(88).

Reading Stern through Albert Goldman’s celebrated essays, “Boy-man, Shlemiel” she argues that in Stern, “satire unmasks more than humor does by stripping away more of the trappings of civilization to concentrate on the ape beneath: to this extent Stern is the most ‘unmasked of modern schlemiels. In Stern, Jewishness is just an irrational remnant of a sterile form….family, a Mafia-type arrangement governing through overt or covert blackmail”(88).

Wisse argues that although he is reduced to nothing in the novel and “deflated,” at the end of the novel he shows an “overflowing sympathy which is almost recognized as the manifestation of a great soul”(89).

Instead, “he is cut down to size in the final paragraph where all this emotion is exposed for the theatrical extravagance the author finds it to be”(89). Wisse sees this character as “maimed” yet “interpreted as an example of relative health”(90). This almostness and relativity reflect a tension that Friedman portrays in his fiction. As Wisse argues, the tension of the schlemiel in secular America is between “belief in man and radical frustration”(90).

The dark comedy is not simply with the human capacity of his neighbor to be a bully; its also in Stern’s failure to man up to him and protect his family. While in IB Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” it is clear that the gentle revolution is underway and society is shown to be mendacious, in Stern it seems as if the gentle revolution is waning because both the schlemiel and the bully are pathetic.

Wisse’s observations of Friedman’s work through Stern suggest a pattern in his work. His characters are losers who show us that “unheroic conduct” (to play on Freud’s reading of his father’s failure to fight back during an anti-semitic encounter) characterize a new generation of schlemiels. The revolution of gentleness seems to have failed this next generation.

Nonetheless, the character has not faded away. If anything, many comedians and filmmakers have taken their cue from Friedman’s fiction. Think, for instance, of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010).

Ben Stiller plays a schlemiel character that seems lifted off of the pages of a Bruce Jay Friedman short story or screenplay. The Coen Brothers, likewise, developed a schlemiel character in the spirit of Friedman in their film, A Serious Man (2009)

On the other hand, Judd Apatow has – through Seth Rogen’s characters – created schlemiel characters that are less dark only because he gives them endings that Friedman refused to give them. Take, for instance, the film, Knocked Up (2007)

The characters in this film are all schlemiels; however, in the end, Rogen’s character escapes the circle of schlemiels to become a father and a companion. To be sure, what one sees here is a “gentle revolution” that has been rekindled, if you will, in these redemptive endings.

The Schlemiel, Rodney King Verdict & Gentle Revolutionaries

I have used the expression “gentle revolution” for a reason. It is a name that is embedded in a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman, entitled “Gentle Revolutionaries,” which is apropos to our own times and to this topic. It casts the meaning of a gentle revolution in terms of African-Americans, not Jews, as “gentle revolutionaries” during a time when LA went into its first curfew: the Rodney King riots. But it also raises deeper question about America and is deeply self-reflexive.

I want to evoke this story because it illuminates something deep about Friedman’s schlemiel character that eludes most of us.

In the short story, the main character, Fred Hughes, is on the seat of his pants and flies out to LA from Long Island to help his friend Ben make an “industrial show.” He’s a Hollywood schlemiel, a failure at making it big, but he’s not alone. Its a community of schlemiels that he’s working with:

Since they were doing an industrial show, there was little hope of attracting top flight talent, much less Hollywood stars. They knew they would have to settle for people who were either over the hill or unable to get jobs on TV….Fred felt sorry for the women who showed up for parts in the chorus line. The auditions were held in a personnel director’s office, beneath harsh florescent lights. Since the women had been asked to wear shorts, their legs, however well shaped, came across as being purpled and mottled. In the case of those with blemishes or small scars, the effect was ghastly. (354, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman)

The script and its enactment are in high schlemiel form: “The script, which had a jungle theme, called for an antelope, which Fred had always assumed would be a rubberized prop. But Ben insisted there be a live antelope, and had one brought to the studio each day in a van, along with its trainer”(356). Moreover, the Cyrano, a hotel that Fred stays at, is filled with a community of schlemiels.

Each day, after rehearsals, Fred returned to the Cyrano….Fred quickly fell in with a group of regulars that included Hal, a struggling portrait painter from Trinidad….and there was Jerome, a red-bearded Israeli veteran of the Six-Day War who lived in Los Angeles and traded in diamonds. An attractive man, he claimed to have trouble connecting with women and Fred quickly saw the root of his difficulty. Whenever a woman entered Jake’s, he would drape his arm around Fred’s shoulder and cry out, in a harsh, combat-ready voice: “Hey, girls. Come over here and we will take you out.”(356)

In the midst of this rehearsing for the play, we learn that the Rodney King verdict was announced: “The construction company that was sponsoring Fred’s show sent some security guards to the rehearsal hall, since some of the fires and the looting seemed to be lapping into the studio area”(358). But Fred doesn’t notice them. He thinks that they are actors. Fred – like many a schlemiel – doesn’t understand what violence is or what riots mean and the narrator takes us into this mindset: “His eyes seemed detached from their proper mechanisms and Fred wasn’t sure what it would be like to have this man spraying off rounds. And Fred himself felt in no particular danger”(358).

Fred’s incomprehension teaches us a lot about something that may be of interest to us now: how does a schlemiel approach rioting in America? Fred returns to his hotel to reflect on what’s going on:

From his tiny balcony, he could smell the fires and look out at the destruction. To his everlasting shame, the only loss he felt was that he would not be able to go down to Jake’s and see his friends. Most of them were black, and that’s one of the things he liked about the place – the easy commingling of black and white people. There was no such thing in the tip of Long Island, no such place.

He settled in for hours and hours and watched the local television coverage of the rioting. There was no need to watch as much of it as he did, but he could not stop, afraid he might miss something…..No doubt the King verdict had triggered the riots, but Fred felt that the underlying cause of the carnage was a statistic he’d read some weeks before – that during the eighties some 70 percent of the accumulated wealth had gone to less than 1 percent of the population. The people he watched on the news had nothing to lose. Why shouldn’t they riot. What puzzled him is why they would want to shoot themselves in the foot. Why weren’t they burning houses in the estate section of Beverly Hills? That would effect change overnight. It occurred to him that America, or at least its entrenched powers, had been blessed with gentle revolutionaries. (359)

Fred’s description of them as “gentle revolutionaries” is ironic and, I would argue, says more about himself and the schlemiel revolution he was a part of and its difference from theirs. The sad and ironic thing is that both revolutionaries – Jewish and Black – may have been seen on TV but none of them really transformed America. This isn’t simply a statement; its a question not only about African American rioting during the Rodney King verdict, but also about the meaning of the schlemiel in American culture. While the gentle revolution is one that gets eyeballs on TVs or movie screens. does it really transform America?

This – I would like to believe – is the biggest question that Bruce Jay Friedman’s fiction faces us with and it prompts us at schlemiel theory to think about America and the schlemiel. Maybe all those in America who never made it – and there are many – are all schlemiels. Maybe all those failed revolutionaries who let off a lot of steam and made some great footage are also schlemiels because America won’t let us? I would like to suggest that this story and other stories and plays written by Bruce Jay Friedman offer us an opportunity to think through the schlemiel about…America….about Jews and Blacks…about power.

Rest in Peace, Bruce and thank you for showing us that not all Jews made in Hollywood, but at least they made a few friends.


*To read more posts by Schlemiel Theory on Bruce Jay Friedman, click here, here, here, and here.

Holy Fools and Merrymakers – In Memorium of Meir Abehsera zt’l

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Today is the anniversary of the passing (yahrzeit) of Meir Abehsera.   Since Abehsera’s opus, The Possible Man gives one of the most prescient readings (and enactments) of the holy fool in our era, Schlemiel Theory has – in the past – posted several blog posts on his important book.

Today we are going to remember him and his great work, discuss it, learn from it, and determine how to best bring his teachings into action in our crazy world.  Meir always believed in the power of the deed over thought. More can be accomplished in a deed that draws on the “madness of the holy” than any idea.

The Zohar – a classic of Jewish mysticism – says that the Yahrzeit is an auspicious time to bring the energy of influence of the person who has passed into the world.  As Meir always said, “memory is redemption.”

Now is the time to make his teachings – many of which draw on the schlemiel character – into a reality!  The greatest memory of all is the one that doesn’t remind in memory alone but is living and breathing amongst us, between us.

Today at 1pm there will be a conversation on Zoom with three people very close to Meir Abehsera : Simcha Gottlieb, Yonatan Razel, and Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles.   Menachem Feuer, the author of Schlemiel Theory, will also be joining the conversation by way of selected readings from The Possible Man.  (The image on this post provides info for that online-event.)

Here is a complication of articles from Menachem Feuer, author of Schlemiel Theory on The Possible Man:

Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part I

Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part II

The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 1

The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 2

Seeking Alms at the Circus: The Schlemiel and the Old Beggar

Becoming-Dog: The Old Beggar, the Miser, and the Return of the Schlemiel as a Dog

Neo-Hasidic Magical Realism and the Revision of the Hasidic Schlemiel

In Memory of Jerry Stiller for theJ.ca

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Menachem Feuer – the author of Schlemiel Theory – recently wrote an article on Jerry Stiller for theJ.ca that addresses his Jewish identity and career: American Jew or Jewish American?

Click here to see it.

Stay tuned for a long piece he will be publishing on Stiller.  It will be appearing in London-based, Zine, Berfrois.  To see Feuer’s essays on the Schlemiel and Jewish Comedy for Berfrois – where he is one of the editors –  click here.

 

 

 

Strong Mothers, Weak Fathers & Schlemiel Children: Then and Now

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The Jewish-American family has almost always been depicted in a comical way in novels, films, and TV shows. In the Jewish-American family, the mother plays a powerful role and is the pit of many jokes. In the 60s and 70s, many novels (such as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, TV shows like the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda, display the strong mother alongside a weak father; the children are, of course, schlemiels or Jewish American Princesses.

Maurice Berger in an essay entitled “The Mouse that Never Roads: Jewish Masculinity on American Television” (in Too Jewish, ed. Norman L. Kleeblatt) argues that the dysfunction of the Jewish family was central to these shows and that the mother was at the center of it all:

The Jewish mother’s dysfunctionalism – her inability to respect emotional boundaries, her disregard of her children’s privacy or feelings, and her over-controlling nature – renders her undesirable as a parent. The self-depreciating neurotic, exemplified by Rhoda Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Brenda Morgenstern (Julie Kavner), Rhoda’s bank-teller sister on the sitcom spin-off Rhoda (1974-1978), especially in contrast with her elegant WASP counterparts, continually undermines herself through whining entreaties that further denigrate her feminine voice. (95)

The weak father and the schlemiel fit well into this home which is run by the mother. Following the cultural theorist Hommi Bhabha, Berger calls this a “partial gender system.” In this system, everyone is partial in their gender. This goes for the mother and JAP daughters as much as it does for the men who are, in his reading, feminized schlemiels.

The wider significance of the partial system is exemplified by one of television’s most insidious masculine stereotypes: the feminized Jew. Given the rarity of the reverse construction, that of the hyper masculine or macho Jew, it is almost inconceivable that Jewish actors such as the starts of Bonanza (1959-1973), Lorne Green and Michael Landon, could have actually played their roles as Jewish cowboys – a role afforded to only one character on American television. (97)

Berger sees this epitomized in Felix Ungar (Tony Randall) of the Odd Couple. Even his roommate, Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), “reads as both effeminate and closeted”(99).

Martin Morgenstein (Harold Gould) plays the “subordinated schlemiel,” the “weak father…continually henpecked by the Jewish female, the Jewish father is shy , quiet, and usually un-opinionated; he is often berated or ignored by his wife and children who overrule him and undermine his authority”(99).

I’ll end this part of my reflection on the comedic Jewish family in TV and literature in the 60s and 70s with Roth’s Alex Portnoy – a definitive schlemiel character – and his awed and resentful description of his powerful mother (which goes on, in one paragraph, for a few pages):

It was my mother who could accomplish anything, who herself had to admit that it might even be that she was actually too good. And could a small child with my intelligence, with my powers of observation sought that this was so? She could make jello, for instance, with sliced perching hanging in it, teachers just suspended there, in defiance of the law of gravity. She could bake a cake that tasted like a banana. Weeping sufferings, she grated her own horseradish rather than buy the pashas they sold in a bottle at the delicatessen…..She dredges the further recesses of my ears during cold peroxide into my head….She lights candles for the dead – others invariably forget, she religiously remembers, and without even the aid of a notation on the calendar. Devotion is in her blood….When I am bad I am locked out of the apartment. I stand at the door hammering and hammering until I swear I turn over a new leaf. But what is it I have done….What can I possibly have done! (9-12)

To be sure, Portnoy blames his mother for his being an emasculated male (schlemiel). Powerful mothers and schlemiels are in films like Heartbreak Kid (1973, redone in 2017 with Ben Stiller) and also dot many stories of Bruce Jay Friedman.

What about now?

Powerful mothers and schlemiel children remain but with differences since, in the much used formula of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, the schlemiel ends up a different, more “functional” character at the end of the film and so does the mother. For instance, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand played the powerful mother/schlemiel son duo in the film Guilt Trip but the duo is functional by the end. While Jessie Eisenberg – a millennial like Seth Rogen – also turns to mothers and schlemiel duos in his book Bream Gives me the Hiccups the duo is comical in a way that is charming.

The awkwardness of the schlemiel character – from shows like Parks and Recreation to Community – makes awkwardness a norm; so, in contrast to Berger and an age that emulates masculinity, we now have shows that don’t see the awkward male or child as an issue. To be sure, both men and women are schlemiels in these shows. Disfunction is not in contrast; its the norm. If anything, masculinity and authority are the target of these comedies. Jeff, in Community, represents this kind of masculinity but, if anything, that is challenged in nearly every episode by the other schlemiel characters.

Simon Rich – who writes for SNL, the New Yorker, and is the creator of Miracle Workers on Netflix – is an up and coming writer of the schlemiel in many of his comedies.

But in these shows by Rich we see less families and more people just starting off in life. He seems to be avoiding the powerful Jewish mother trope.

Nonetheless, what we seem to be seeing more of these days is a shift. Although the schlemiel remains, the mother is not the source of all dysfunction in the Jewish comedic family. You don’t have the same kind of schelmiel family anymore, whether that is to be found in Arrested Development or in Transparent. Because the understanding and reception of gender has changed, so has the comedic family. The schlemiel – in many ways – has become more than an American icon; it has become a norm of sorts in American TV and film.

A Shtreimel in the Mud: The Schlemiel, the Mensch & Freud’s Male Fantasies

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Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are often seen by academics as figures of modernity. Their thoughts and writings have touched countless scholars who have seen the Modern world through their lenses. One can also read the schlemiel and this characters Jewishness through them, even if it is – as is the case with all of them – through opposition to the schlemiel and Jewishness. One need only think of Marx’s essay on the “Jewish Question” or Nietzsche’s exaltation of the ubermensch. But the thinker of modernity who is most important for thinking the schlemiel or Jewishness, according to Daniel Boyarin and Paul Breines, is Freud.

Daniel Boyarin and Paul Breines read Jewishness (and the schlemiel or “gentle Jew”) through Freud. They argue that Freud’s recollection of his “father’s hat in the mud episode” is a watershed moment not only in the transition of Jews into modernity, but also a figure of the moment in history when the “tough Jew” came into conflict with the “gentle Jew” (that is, the schlemiel and frail mensch/bochur).

Modernity spelled the end of a Jewish figure that was part and parcel of Jewishness.

Boyarin, “With all that has been written about this text connecting it with Freud’s individual psychology, I think it has not been sufficiently emphasized how emblematic the story is of a historical moment, the parallel shift of Jews from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’ and ‘eastern’ to ‘western’, and the ways that both are intimately implicated in questions of male gender”(34, Unheroic Conduct)

At that point I was brought up against the event in my youth whose power was still being shown in all these emotions and dreams. I may have been ten or twelve years old, when my father began to take me with him on his walks and reveal to me in his talk his views upon things in the world we live in. Thus it was, on one such occasion, that he told me a story to show how much better things were now than they had been in his days. “What I was a young man,” he said, “I went for a walk one Saturday in the streets of your birthplace; I was well dressed, and had a new fur cap on my head. A Christian came up to me and with a single blow knocked off my cap and shouted: “Jew! Get off the pavement!” “And what did you do? I asked. “I went into the roadway and picked up my cap,” was his quiet reply. This struck me as unheroic conduct on the part of this big, strong man who was holding his little boy by the hand. I contrasted this situation with another which fitted my feelings better: the scene in which Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, made his boy swear before the household alter to take vengence on the Romans. Ever since that time Hannibal had had a place in my fantasies. (Interpretation of Dreams, my emphasis)

Boyarin represents this moment in epic terms and parts with Freud. Boyarin prefers his father’s “unheroic conduct”(the title of Boyarin’s book) to Freud’s masculine fantasies of Hannibal (which, for Boyarin are anti-Jewish, even self-hating):

First of all, there is the signal that a historical shift is at stake in the father’s declation that he is about to tell the story that will indicate how much “better things are now.” Second, there is the indication of the shift in space. The incident took place in “the streets of Freud’s birthplace,” that is, in the eastern place from which the Freud’s had come to Vienna. Third, ther eis the indication that Freud’s father had been, at that time, a very traditional Jew. He was wearing a streimel, the Sabbath fur hat of the East European Hasid….All of these cultural forces are explicitly concatenated with the ideas of masculinity within the text. Freud’s father, “a big, strong man,” behaves in a way that Freud experinces as shameful, and Freud seems to know that…this passivity has to do with his father’s Jewishness.

In fact, as Martin Berman has noted, the “feminine” response of Freud’s father in this incident was not “unheroic” but antiheroic and indeed traditionally Jewish: ‘A Jew was expected to be able to control his anger, not to be provoked; his feelings of inner dignity were sustained by a belief in his own spiritual superiority which a ruffian and a ‘Goy’ and in no way touch.” For traditional Jewry there were both alternative civilities, Edelkayt, and alternative paradigms of ‘manliess’ that could be summed up in the relatively modern term mentsch. (35-36)

Boyarin sees the gentleness of traditional Judaism (Edelkayt) as the meaning of Yiddishkeit. (Boyarin sees Yiddish as a non-masculine/feminine language as opposed to Hebrew, which is, for him, “masculine”). Boyarin sees Yiddish as linking men and women in a language that has nothing to do with the masculine: “The Yeshiva Bochur, as the Male Ideal (the later mentsch) and the domestic and female”(37).

This ideal of the gentle Jew is, because of the “westernization process” “abandoned for a dawning ideal of the ‘New Jewish Man, ‘the Muscle Jew,” a figure almost identical to his ‘Aryan’ confreres and especially the ‘Muscular Christian’, also born about this time”(37).

In other words, what Paul Brienes calls the “tough Jew” comes out of the process. Unlike Boyarin, Breines sees the gentle Jew embodied in the Schlemiel and the Schlemiel’s body, not the Yeshiva Bochur or the metsches body.

Breines, like Boyarin, cites Freud in much the same manner: to illustrate the dawn of the split between the gentle (traditional) Jew and the “muscle Jew.” The latter, for both, is a male fantasy (which we see embodied with Freud’s shame that his father opted to do nothing and be “unheroic”).

Both see the idea of Jews having a nation state as making the schlemiel/gentle Jew option untenable, since the Nation State needs people to go to war for it and die for it. They would rather the Jew be stateless. Freud, for them, made a mistake and became a self-hating Jew of sorts. But that’s not his fault; as Boyarin and Breins argue, it’s a part of Jews becoming modern.

What is the solution to the “tough Jew” problem that Freud poses? Is it, as Boyarin seems to suggest, a return to traditional Jewishness (Yiddishkeit, Edlakayt, the Yeshiva Bocur) or is it a return to the schlemiel and gentleness, which Breines seems to suggest? Can we go beyond Freud by choosing what he rejects?

I write “seems” because, Breines way of going beyond Freud is to argue that the schlemiel and the tough Jew dichotomy should be transcended. He argues that, after the Holocaust, in figures like Nat Dickstein of Ken Follet’s, The Triple, whose body is weak, schlemiel like, yet his actions are those of a tough Jew who kills Arabs and Russians to protect Israel. The schlemiel’s body, argues Breines, justifies the killing and makes it moral.

To go beyond the schlemiel in the post-Holocaust era, would suggest – since Brenies is no fan of Zionism (and neither is Boyarin) – is to become anti-Israel. He wants to channel the “ethical” aspect of the schlemiel in this direction because he, like an anti-Zionist such as Marc H. Ellis, thinks that the ethical calling for Judaism is to say “Judaism does not equal Israel.” The diasporic positon, it seems, for all of them is not comical; its political and utterly serious. Marc H. Ellis thinks its “prophetic.”

While they make these points, the fact of the matter is that the schlemiel has become a norm in American culture. The dichotomy doesn’t seem to work, and the alternative to it is either to become gentle (a schlemiel) or militant (politically). But there are more problems with this either/or.

Isn’t the tough Jew being sublimated in such anti-Zionist militancy whether in Breines, Ellis, or even Boyarin?

All of them feel like they have the real grip on the meaning of Jewishness and to have taken to political activism as the only solution. To be sure, this is a route that Hannah Arendt was traveling when she said, in 1944, that Chaplin’s Great Dictator (the schlemiel) was displaced by superman. In our time, the figure of people like Judith Butler, who took on Arendt’s mantel, is the political anti-schlemiel whose main target is Israel.

The schlemiel reminds us that militancy isn’t the answer. The comedy of the schlemiel is something that resists it all. Freud knew this when he wrote Wit and the Unconscious. That’s the Freud we don’t hear about in either Boyarin or Breines’ books because you can’t find the tough Jew/gentle Jew dichotomy in place and also because not all fantasies – as Freud knew – are fantasies of power.

The schlemiel is a dreamer, not a fighter. As I.B. Singer points out, Gimpel is looking for someone who won’t lie to him and he is foolish enough to believe he can find one who will. This isn’t a fantasy of power. It’s the dream of trust, which is the bedrock of humanity. Our greatest fantasy (one we share with Gimpel) is that, despite all of the violence and militancy in the world, humanity is trustworthy. It’s also a fantasy of Judaism: just like the Jewish people trusts in God, God trusts the Jewish people. But history – the greatest threat to keeping ancient promises – says the contrary.

The schlemiel is the figure of that contradiction and not simply (or only) the figure of Jewishness as frailty and gentleness. The schlemiel – as a figure of this contradiction – is like the Shtreimel of Freud’s father…in the mud of history.

Kierkegaard’s “Happy” Birthday: “Repetition’s Love is the Only Happy Love”

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Circa 1843, Soren Kierkegaard published a book called Repetition.   When one thinks of Kierkegaard, one usually thinks of anxiety, impossible existential dilemmas, and binding of Isaac.  These things, by and large, don’t evoke the image of happiness. However, in Repetition, he entertains the possibility of happiness through the idea of repetition.

Today is Kierkegaard’s birthday.   Since one usually wishes another a happy birthday, I thought it would be opportune to briefly think about what that would mean for Kierkegaard.

At the outset of his inquiry into repetition, Kierkegaard creates a dialectical contrast between recollection and repetition.  Which of the two yields true happiness?

Recollection’s love is the only happy love, according to one author. He is absolutely right about this if one also remembers that it first makes a person unhappy.  Repetition’s love is in truth the only happy love.  Like recollection, it is not disturbed by hope nor by the marvelous anxiety of discovery, neither, however doesn’t have the sorrow of recollection.  It has instead the blissful security of the moment.  Hope is new attire, stiff and starched and splendid.  Still, since it as not yet been tried on, one does not know whether it will suit one, or whether it will fit.  Recollection is discarded clothing which, however lovely it might be, no longer suits one because one has outgrown it.  Repetition is clothing that never becomes worn, that fits snugly and comfortably, that never pulls nor hangs too loosely.

Based on this reflection, it would be fair to say that Kierkegaard’s birthday would present a dilemma.   On the one hand, it repeats over and over; and in that sense it is the source of happiness. On the other hand, every year one has a birthday one recollects the one’s before.  Its both recollection and repetition.

This kind of dilemma reminds me of Larry David in Woody Allen’s film Whatever Works, singing Happy Birthday to himself.   Too be sure, as David demonstrates, it’s also a schlemiel’s dilemma.

 

In contrast, how would Forrest Gump say “Happy Birthday Jenny?”  Jenny, the name repeated throughout this film by another, less grumpy, American schlemiel character, evokes happiness and sorrow.

With that, I want to suggest that you take a look at several other posts by Schlemiel Theory on Kierkegaard as a way of….celebrating his birthday.

Why not?

If you want to read more, check these out:

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 1)

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 2)

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 1)

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 2)

Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 1

Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 2