Sacha Baron Cohen has, to be sure, played the schlemiel character in nearly every one of his productions. From Ali G to Borat, we see that Cohen prefers to cast and create comical characters with a schlemiel sensibility. To be sure, Cohen has in many ways taken on the legacy of Charlie Chaplin (who Hannah Arendt saw as a quintessential schlemiel who changed American and Western Culture). She saw the schlemiel as a charming “lord of dreams,” who challenged culture by siding with nature (over culture and nationalism) or with the immigrant (Chaplin) against the world. The schlemiel is the “odd one out,” the charming pariah, a “man of the people.” She saw the greatest challenge to Chaplin’s schlemiel, which she thinks he lost, in his film, The Great Dictator (1940).
In the film, Chaplin plays a barber (schlemiel simpleton, everyman) and a dictator (who happen to look alike). The Barber gets to play the dictator in a key moment, making him look like a schlemiel and contrasting him to the schlemiel barber (the everyman, the simpleton, the real schlemiel) who, looking like Hynkel, was given an opportunity to “trade places” and defeat him thorough humor. But, argues Arendt, in her “Jew as Pariah” essay, that Chaplin fails to end Hitler’s career through mockery and is replaced with a character who goes from a schlemiel (Clark Kent) to a Hero (Superman). She was wrong.
The schlemiel lives on in Jewish American and American comedy. From “Gimpel the Fool” and Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor (1963)to Spaceballs (1987) and Forest Gump (1994) and Seinfeld, the schlemiel has become an American icon. Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, Larry David, and many others wrote schlemiel comedies for film and TV that received Academy Awards and Emmys. Hollywood writers and comic actors like Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and a host of others have made the schlemiel central to their comedy.
What makes Sacha Baron Cohen so unique is that he – fully aware of this comic tradition – wanted to make a schlemiel character that addressed things that he didn’t want to hide in his comic character, like anti-Semitism, Jewishness, and serious misconceptions about reality made from limited knowledge and experience – from Ali G, to Borat (2006) and TheDictator (2012). He uses the character to – as Ruth Wisse says about the schlemiel – to “challenge the philosophical and political status quo.”
To be sure, Cohen turns back to where Chaplin left off in The Great Dictator and created a film that brought it into a contemporary context, taken Iranian dictators to task through humor. Cohen wants to make the schlemiel relevant in ways that Apatow, Rogen, and others have failed to do.
With his upcoming animated special for HBO on Chelm – a village of schlemiel characters that writers like IB Singer and cultural critics and writers like Irving Howe and Saul Bellow made popular in the post-WWII-Era by creating kids books dedicated to these stories, illustrating them – Sasha Baron Cohen has returned to schlemiel roots. The Chelm stories are, according to schlemiel scholars, Ruth Wisse and Sanford Pinsker, folkloric sources for the schlemiel character (although this lineage may go back farther). Jewish people from Generation X as well as Baby Boomers, are familiar with the Chelm stories, growing up with them. Cohen is refreshing these comical stories for this generation. Children will now be able to access this.
According to JTA, “Cohen will develop the animated special “Chelm: The Smartest Place on Earth” for HBO Max alongside Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, known for “King of the Hill,” and Michael Koman, a former writer on “Nathan For You” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Cohen will also narrate the special.
The HBO Max press release indicates that the show will be geared towards younger audiences, marking a departure from most of Cohen’s adult-oriented humor.
“This unique project will breathe new, hysterical life into the nonsensical Chelmic wisdom that originated from this imaginary city of folks who aren’t quite the sharpest tools in the shed,” Amy Friedman, head of kids and family programming at HBO parent company Warner Bros., said in the release.
The magic of the schlemiel is that it has the potential of bringing people together – through laughter – rather than breaking us apart. The schlemiel character – whether we see him in Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, or Cohen – is endearing because, at his or her base, is a deep kind of simplicity, humility, and humanity that touches our hearts. We need to laugh at ourselves, and the schlemiel reminds us that our high and mighty ideas and passions are, ultimately, ridiculous.
There is something very spiritual about all this, as IB Singer, Malamud, Bellow, and many others knew. Cohen knows it as as well. That’s why he wants to bring these stories to children. They embody the spirit of the schlemiel (as we see in Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son).
This will set a new benchmark for the schlemiel character and bring it to a new audience and future, bringing a sense ofJewishness and its contributions to our world via wit and comedy!
In 1946, in the wake of the Holocaust, Jean-Paul Sartre published Reflexions sur la Quesion Juive. The collection of essays was renamed, translated as Anti-Semite and Jew (my edition is from 1965, Schocken Books). Sartre’s book was reprinted over twelve times, and in many languages. The book presents a reading of anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitic character as well as the figure of Jewish self-hatred and assimilation (what he calls Jewish in-authenticity).
It’s fascinating to read this book today, seventy-six years later, to see how a non-Jewish philosopher frames and explains not just anti-Semitism but also what it means to be a Jew in a French or modern society. What interests me, most, is how his reading of the Jewish body and gestures sets apart the schlemiel character (and not just the Jew) from others. It’s hyper-self consciousness and a performative kind of relationship to one’s body that, Sartre argues, upsets the anti-Semite who sees a relationship between vitalism and a relationship with the body that the Jew lacks.
Sartre sees anti-Semitism not as an “opinion” or “idea.” He sees it as a passion:
He is a Jew, the son of Jews, recognizable by his physique, by the color of his hair, by this clothing perhaps, and, so they say, by his character. Anti-Semitism does not fall with the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion.
Indeed, it is something other than an idea. It is first of all a passion. (10)
Sartre goes on to list several examples of this passion which, as he shows, ignore reason altogether. It is a hatred based on a passion. The main distinction used by the anti-semite is between a kind of mystical (land-based, nationalistic) particularity and an abstract modern universalism (which is “Jewish”).
The anti-Semite can conceive only of a particular type of primitive ownership of land based on a veritable mystical rapport, in which the thing possessed and the possessor are united by a bond of mystical participation; he is the poet of real property. It transfigures the proprietor and endows him with a special and concrete sensibility. To be sure, this sensibility ignores eternal truths of universal values: the universal is Jewish, since it is an object of intelligence. What this subtle sense seizes upon is precisely that which the intelligence cannot perceive. (24)
Sartre calls anti-semitism a “poor man’s snobbery”(26) because it appeals to a mystical sense of national propriety. In contrast to Jews who don’t understand this mystical attachment to the land and nation, “true Frenchmen, good Frenchmen, are all equal, for each of them possesses for himself alone France whole and indivisible”(26).
Drawing on his notions of existentialism, Sartre sees the anti-Semite as in-authentic and fleeing responsibility and true freedom:
If it is agreed that man may be defined as a being having freedom within the limits of his situation, then it is easy to see that the exercise of this freedom may be considered authentic or inauthentic according to the choices made in the situation. Authenticity, is almost needless to say, consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate. (90)
Sartre uses this framework, as well, to make a distinction between an authentic and an inauthentic Jew:
And the Jew does not escape this rule: authenticity for him is to live to the full his condition as a Jew; inauthenticity is to deny it or to attempt to escape from it. Inauthenticity is no doubt more tempting for him than for other men, because the situation which he has to lay claim to and to live is quite simply that of a martyr.
What does this mean?
Can the authentic Jew only be a victim?
Sartre suggests this, strangely enough – two years before the Jewish people started an independent Jewish State – because “Jews neither have a community of interests nor a community of beliefs. They do not have the same fatherland; they have no history. The sole tie that binds them is the hostility and disdain of the societies that surround them. Thus the authentic Jew is the one who asserts this claim in the face of the disdain shown toward him”(91).
In other words, Jews, to be authentic, must be openly hostile and disdain the societies that make them into anti-Semitics caricatures. They cannot be Frenchmen or Germans. Those cultures refuse to accept them and they must show anger and disdain at this to be authentic.
The post-Holocaust thinker, Jean Amery, took Sartre seriously and, in the wake of the Holocaust and the birth of the Jewish State in 1948 embraced Zionism. In his important book, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, Amery illustrates his authenticity in Sartre’s sense by describing his major realization that he was a Jew when he read, for the first time, the Nazi’s Nuremberg Laws in the paper. He realized that he was the other and could not be an Austrian or German. That would be inauthentic. He embraced the situation, as Sartre might say, by realizing and expressing his disdain for German anti-Semities. The Jewish State was his opportunity to freely embrace a collective situation and solidarity with other Jews.
To mark a point of contrast, I’d like to point how thinkers like Irving Howe have interpreted Sartre’s reading of Jewishness. As I noted in an another blog post, Howe sees the flaw of Sartre’s reading in terms of this ahistorical frame. There, I note the following:
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-Semitism 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).
Returning to Sartre’s ahistorical reading of authenticity and inauthenticity, I want to follow through his logic and how it reflects on the Jewish body and its relation to flight and Jewish self-hatred. Sartre notes that the inauthentic Jew is one who is in “flight” from the situation Jean Amery confronted, attempting to deny his Jewisheness:
In a word, the inauthentic Jews are men whom other men take for Jews and who have decided to run away from this insupportable situation. The result is that they display various types of behavior not all of which are present at the same time in the same person but each of which may be characterized as an avenue of flight. The anti-Semite by collecting and assembling these distinct and often incompatible avenues of flight has traced out a monstrous portrait of the Jew in general; at the same time he explains these free efforts to escape from a painful situation as hereditary traits, engraved on the very body of Israel and, consequently, incapable of modification. (93)
Sartre’s claim that the anti-Semitic caricature (“monstrous portrait of the Jew in general”) originates in the “avenues of flight” of the inauthentic Jew and its being “engraved on the very body of Israel” – is telling. (It’s interesting to note in passing that Gilles Deleuze uses this idea of “lines of flight” in his reading of comedy and “nomadic creativity”.)
Lines of flight are to be understood, Sartre tells us, by paying close attention to situations Jews are put in. They inform a turn to being a “complicated being who passes his time in self-analysis”(94).
For my part, I recognize that the effort to escape produces in some Jews – for the most part intellectuals – an almost continuously reflective attitude….This reflective behavior is not inherited. It is an avenue of flight, and it is we who force the Jew to flee. (94)
Sartre goes so far as to argue that Jews who are overly complex, self-conscious, and intellectual are inauthentic but sees this in terms of a kind of anxious denial of Jewishness: “He has allowed himself to be persuaded by the anti-Semites; he is the first victim of their propaganda. He admits with them that, if there is a Jew, he must have the characteristics with which this particular malevolence endows him, and his effort is to constitute himself a martyr, in the proper sense of the term, to prove in his person that there are no Jews”(95).
The complexity is found in what Sander Gilman calls “living schlemiels” in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews. These are Jews, like Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Borne who try to deny their Jewishness but end up realizing that this denial doesn’t make them acceptable to Germans. Judaism was Heine’s “misfortune.” But that has a dark comical sense if one looks at his life and his poetry. Heine called himself a schlemiel poet, as Hannah Arendt points out. Perhaps, Sartre would have seen this as an “avenue of flight” but, then again, the irony and complexity of the schlemiel, for Arendt, is a form of cultural critique. The schlemiel is a variety of the pariah. But, for Arendt, it could also be seen as a kind of worldlessness and self-hatred, as we see in Rachel Varnhagen.
Sartre sees the universalism that Heine and Varnhagen envisioned as their way into German culture as a key point of flight. Anti-Semitism is obsessed with particularism and despises universalism, but this universalism itself is at conflict with nationalism.
This universalism, this critical rationalism, is what one normally finds in the democrat. In his abstract liberalism, he affirms that Jews, Chinese, Negroes ought to have the same rights as other members of society, but he demands these rights for them as men, not as concrete and individual products of history. Thus certain Jews look at their own personalities with the eyes of the democrat. Haunted by the specter of violence, by the unassimilated residues of particularist and warrior societies, they dream of a contractual community in which thought itself would be established under the form of contract….and the in which the “social contract” would be the sole collective bond. The Jews are the mildest of men, passionately hostile to violence. That obstinate sweetness which they conserve in the midst of the most atrocious persecution, that sense of justice and reason which they put up as their sole defence against a hostile, brutal, unjust society, is perhaps the best part of the message they bring to us and the true mark of its greatness. (117-118)
Because this belief is something beyond the national, in the “social contract,” the anti-Semite sees this as a “permanent threat to national ties and French values”(118). The anti-Semite doesn’t see the “obstinate sweetness” and the hostility against violence as a “true mark of greatness” ; they see it as a threat.
In terms of the body and life, the body of the Jew is seen as different from the body of the Aryan or Frenchman who has a mystical connection to his or her land: “it possesses” that “same profound and mystical participation which assures them the enjoyment of their land and culture”(119). The national body is seen as graceful, vital, and noble (119); in contrast, the Jewish body is a means to an end, it is mechanical, unconnected to the land or a national culture (122-125).
The anti-Semite sees awkwardness and a kind of performative relationship to oneself and one’s body as a sign of Jewishness. The comical body of the Jew shows that they are to self-conscious and complex to have a relationship to the body that is deemed organic and meaningful.
To be sure, the Jew was seen by many anti-Semites, like Wagner, as someone who has no culture or land of his own and mimics and appropriates the culture of others. Without essence, the Jew is, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, a chameleon. His relationship to national identity is performative and doesn’t draw on the mystical relationship with the land. It is, for this reason, not to be trusted by the anti-Semite.
Sartre sees the desire to assimilate (and the anxiety that goes along with it) as an “avenue of flight.” In other words, the very things that we see in Allen’s schlemiel characters (like Zelig) is a comical inability to assimilate. The way Sartre seems to see it, the only way one can authentically be a Jew is to mock and deride the society that wants him to assimilate. Arendt suggests that this is what Heine does in his comical repudiation of the parvenu.
One can argue that the schlemiel takes its “avenue of flight” and exposes it, comically. But unlike Sartre and echoing Irving Howe, we can say that the “obstinate sweetness” of the schlemiel character is something that is not simply situational; it is historical. Schlemiel humor has, as Ruth Wisse says, given the Jews an “ironic victory” over the anti-Semites and persecutors. It is the best scenario for a people who were exiled from their land and were powerless.
But with Israel, we have a new kind of Jew. One that Jean Amery (and Sartre, on the very last pages of his book) identified with, a Jew who no longer wins ironic victories or falls prey to hope of assimilation and the tension with different national identities. Although the book ends before the beginning of the Jewish State, Sartre recognized this as an important trajectory rather than an “avenue of flight.”
Shalom Auslander’s short story, “Somebody Up There Likes You” (in his Beware of Godshort story collection) opens up a comical side to negative theology and literally turns it inside out. This fictional foray into two realities, one of a schlemiel character (Bloom) who thinks he is saved by God, contrasted with the portrayal of God and his angels hunting this innocent survivor down in the aftermath of his near death experience is literal, “negative theology.” But of an entirely different sort, one much different from the one I came across and studied in graduate school and beyond.
Rather than deal with the limits of language and thought about the meaning of “God,” Auslander’s negative theology uses comedy to open up a comical affect about God and the meaning of death and salvation. It contrasts a Jewish God – of the believer – to a God who behaves like a character in a Martin Scorcese film or the Sopranos. The ridiculousness of it all creates a negative theology that employs comedy to test the limits of faith and experience.
As a graduate student, my academic circle in continental philosophy and comparative literature during the late 90s and early 2000s, had a moment when it was very smart (and fashionable) to have seminars and discuss the work of Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and others on Negative Theology. This conversation was of interest to me at that time since I was writing about the Holocaust and literature. (See here, here, and here, for instance. These articles, and others like it, have been cited in over a hundred academic publications).
The problem with negative theology is the limit of language and speech. How, Derrida and others asked, can one give phrase to the unsayable? Does the speech about God, mark the limit of language?
John D. Caputo, in his book on Derrida and Negative Theology and the Eschatalogical, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion, defines negative theology in the following, some would say, obtuse way (much like Derrida):
Negative theology belongs to the promise insofar as it protests that it cannot say a thing. That is apophataicism’s particular twist, its most particular trait (trait), its special way of being drawn into the trace – by retreating and withdrawing (retrait) what it has to say. Over a long and powerful tradition, negative theology responds to language by promising silence and gives its word not to say a word. It is at its most eloquent just when it says it is at a loss for words. By promising to efface the trace, negative theology traces out its place within the archi-promise. But in Derrida’s view, what happens in negative theology happens to us all, is of “general” import. We are all dreaming of the tout autre, about which we do not know how not to speak, under many names, so we will have to learn negative theology, if not in the “original,” if such a thing exists, at least in translation, in a generalized apophantics. (31-32)
This paragraph leaves a lot of questions. What we can see is that Caputo frames negative theology as a “response” to language that “promises” silence. What does that mean? How can one promise silence? It seems counter-intuitive. Caputo elaborates this by saying that Derrida sees negative theology in terms of something we all share: the “dream of the tout autre,” (total other). In other words, we all dream about God, “about which we do not know how not to speak, under many names.”
Dream speech sounds a lot of like fiction. In fact, it is. The model of speech as dream speech is central to not only Freud but also Jacques Lacan. (Also, note that Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt call the schlemiel the “lord of dreams.”)
Caputo goes on to say, paraphrasing Derrida and the tradition of Negative Theology, that it is “both from God and to God….Negative theology is not only a predicative discourse about God, a ‘theology’, what Levinas would call le dit, but also a discourse sent to God, a Dieu, addressed to God, a prayer, (“Oh God”), what Levinas calls dire (“Bonjour”, or better, “adieu”)”(32).
Negative theology is a prayer, words to God, that say hello and goodbye, at-the-same-time.
While it may seem odd, Auslander’s short story – while, quite clearly, heretical for portraying God as a mafia-like killer with his angel henchman – espouses a kind of negative theology in the sense put forth by Derrida and Levinas. But it is comical, something that the seriousness of John Caputo, Derrida, and Levinas seems to contradict.
Because of the excessive ridiculousness, a thinker like George Bataille – who wrote a lot on laughter, surrealism, and transcendence – would see something salvational in comedy. The pathetic, in a sense of becoming abject, is in many ways mystical in a Christian sense. Think, for instance, of The Idiot by Dostoevsky.
But while he associated it with the childish, the Jewish tradition as filtered through Jewish humor, Purim shpiels, Yiddishisms, Yiddish fiction, etc shows us how the ridiculous stops short of the passionate transformation of the fool and brings us to a contradiction between the reality and the dream of God and history, otherwise known as the difficult life of God’s chosen people.
Auslander does this well in his short story. To show the contrast, I’ll quote lines about Bloom, the schlemiel character who I can’t help but think of in contrast to James Joyce’s version of the schlemiel, Leopold Bloom.
In the wonderfully simple (Shalom Aleichem-ish) fictional prose of Auslander, the story starts off with Bloom’s accident. The simplicity of the schlemiel is foregrounded in this manner:
Bloom’s Volvo finally came to rest upside down on the right-hand shoulder of the New York State Thruway. The roof was collapsed, the front end was crushed, and the driver’s side door was torn nearly in half.
The policeman shoot his head.
“You’re very lucky.”
“Somebody up there likes you.”
Whatever dying mechanism was coughing black smoke from the underside of the car soon ignited. The car filled with flames, incinerating Bloom’s insurance papers, his registration, the picture of his deceased grandparents that hung from his rearview mirror….It was a romantic comedy.
The fireman shook his head.
“You’re very lucky” (24)
After bearing witness to this, a religious urge comes out of nowhere:
Bloom was leaning against the guardrail, trying to catch his breath, when from some dark, dusty distant part of his mind, some cobwebbed corner of forgotten phylacteries and skullcaps, came words Bloom hadn’t said or heard or even thought of in thirty years:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
In the next section, responding to this (remember, negative theology, for Caputo, Derrida, and Levinas, is call and response), Auslander turns to his comical (anthropomorphic) depiction of God and his angles as mafioso:
“Fuck,” said God.
The angels stood quietly at the back of His office, their eyes nervously on the place where there feet would have been. The Angel of Death – the bearer of the afternoon’s cosmically bad news – wrung his hands nervously as he stood before God’s enormous oak desk. Lucifer stood behind God, calming cleaning his gun.
“What do you mean he waked away from it?” asked God.
Death shrugged. “I don’t know, Boss. Not a scratch on him.”
The angels sang, their sweet melodic voices ascending as one: “Hallelu…”
“Not now,” said God.
He closed His eyes and messaged His temples, trying to stave off the migrane He knew was coming. He was getting tired of this. Tired of the whole damn business.”(25)
Following this section, we see Bloom go into theological reflections on whether “somebody up there really liked him.” Why as he spared? In a schlemiel-like fashion, he ponders God, his accident, providence, etc.
Was it a miracle or was it a warning? And didn’t anybody up there like Luis Soto, the drunk driver they dragged off the bloody hood of Bloom’s car? Surely, Bloom reasoned, if God wanted to kill him, God could kill him. Then again, if God wanted him dead, why the Volvo? If death is predetermined, wouldn’t automobile purchaces be predetermined?
He goes on to wax mystical about numbers and things that happen to him. He starts to see providence all around him and signs of God, a kind of conversation with God (if you will).
The dialectical contrast between God as a savior and God as killer comes out in hilarious dark-comical contrasts throughout the story in a tight kind of literary syncopation.
When Bloom reaches the height of his faith and joy in God, near the end of the story, he thinks of the Yom Kippur Prayer about “Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of His decree,” which is inscribed above the door of his old synagogue.
At the moment when he decides to give charity, after thinking of these words, so as to acknowledge and accept “God’s judgment.” What, says the narrator, “was the value of money in the face of God’s eternal judgment”(36).
At this moment, “he heard the squeal of tires behind him, but there wasn’t even time to turn around before the car slammed into his back, throwing him up in the air and into oncoming traffic.”
Death checked out the back window.
“Got him,” he said.
“Got him.” (37)
God’s response, after witnessing the funeral, is interesting. After seeing the mother cry, Auslander repeats the figure of a stressed out God, mafia boss: “God closed his eyes and massaged His temples, trying to stave off the migrane He knew was coming. He was getting tired of this. Tired of this whole damn business”(39).
These are the final words of the story.
Without a doubt, these words pose some interesting theological questions about God, death, and finitude. It is a “negative theology,” but one that uses comedy to pose questions and form a dialogue with a God that seems to be different from the One to whom Bloom was praying. But, more importantly, we readers want to know why God keeps on doing this business if he’s tired of it.
Bloom is a schlemiel caught up in a comical, (call it neo-Midrashic) jagged dialogue with God. When the reader realizes how “somebody up there really likes you,” comes across in a dark-ironic sense, it becomes clear that Bloom is what one might call a schlemiel of “negative theology.”
As the crisis in the Ukraine has grown, I – like millions of other people – have become very interested in the meaning of Volodmir Zelensky’s journey to becoming the hero of the West in the drama of war. What interests me most, as a scholar of the schlemiel and a schlemiel theorist, is the trajectory of his performance and identity: in terms of the relationship of Jewishness to his schlemiel character in “Servant of the People,” to his actually becoming not only a leader but also a symbol of the heroic in the West. Why is it that the schlemiel and his/her transformation has – of late – become the focus of the West’s greatest challenge?
To be sure, the transformation of the schlemiel into “the everyman” – in American culture – is a theme that has been addressed by Daniel Itzkovitz in his work on the “new schlemiel.” For Itzkovitz, the new schlemiel instead of challenging the status quo, becomes the status quo and in the process loses his Jewishness. He, like others, would like the schlemiel to be more edgy. Not a hero. For in becoming a hero, the schlemiel transforms. To be sure, this is a formula that Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow have use in some of their films like Knocked Up (2007).
In many of Apatow and Rogen’s films, the Schlemiel’s Jewish body is a central figure. We also see this in the depiction of Zohan, by Adam Sandler and in the Costanza character in Seinfeld. A.O. Scott of the New York Times, sees these characters as advocating for a “perpetual adolescence” which is, for him, bad for America as it keeps American adulthood at bay.
How is Jewishness depicted in America and to a Western audience through the body and why is it of any relevance to American identity or Western identity?
In terms of politics, Daniel Boyarin – in his book Unheroic Conduct – has argued that the Jewish body is “soft” – eydl – and is closer to the Yeshiva Bochur one would find in Poland or the Ukraine. He contrasts this body to that of the Zionists and their “muscle Jews.” One is Jewish, says Boyarin, the other isn’t. A Jew can’t become a muscle Jew. It’s a contradiction for Boyarin. And it is also a contradiction for Paul Breines, in his book Tough Jews. Not surprisingly, one can deduce from this that Boyarin and Breines aren’t zionists. Indeed, they are anti-zionists and see zionism and the displacement of the schlemiel (Breines) or Eydl Jew (Boyarin) as an affront to Jewishness. The soft Jew – that we find in IB Singer’s Gimpel (Breines) – is lost and so is the moral sensibility.
As Breines puts it in his criticism of Ken Follet’s transformation of the post-Holocaust Schlemiel, Dickstein, in The Triple, and his own personal transformation, this is a contradictory body image/fantasy which has political import:
My own particular revision required Isaac Beshevis Singer. For me to accept and eventually embrace Nat Dickstein, he had to become Isaac Beshevis Singer, and my need for a Singerized Dickestein only mirrored the ideological necessity with the novel itself. For if Dickstein is to have any moral stature at all, he must have the body of a schlemiel. of a victim. Only such a body – those “narrow shoulders…shallow chest, and knobby elbows and knees” – can imbue Dickstein’s killings with some sort of moral action. For that body crystalizes the history of hapless Jewish suffering. Only such a body could vindicate Dickstein’s actions, transfiguring him from a killer who is merely skilled into one who is moral as well. (16)
The schlemiel, in his view, can be used – after the Holocaust – to make “killing” moral. This, for Breines is a Western / American fantasy that uses the Jewish body to justify political violence. It is also, in his view, a Jewish American fantasy.
When I recently came across Benjamin Balthaser’s essay, “From Schlemiel to Super Hero: Volodmir Zelensky and the Price of Western Inclusion,” I was happy to see that – since Breins and Boyarin – someone has taken up this thread about the schlemiel. His reading has, however, given me a lot of questions about the political fantasies at work in the appropriation of the schlemiel to the hero narrative that is being projected by “the West” on Volodimir Zelensky. I want to carefully go over this essay and unpack it so as to understand and make clear what it says and what questions is invokes.
Balthaser, in the very first sentence of the essays, argues that Jews have “once again” been “conscripted” into the “West’s fantasies of itself”: “As Russia invades Ukraine, Jews find themselves yet again conscripted into the West’s fantasies of itself.”
His interesting thesis is that “those in power” are using Jewish memory and Jewish “otherness” to vindicate its violent actions:
On March 1, reports came that Babi Yar, a major memorial of Judeocide in Europe, had been destroyed by Russian missiles. But while Russia’s bombs had hit a nearby communications tower, they did not in fact hit the Babi Yar memorial. The story’s prominent media coverage and its emotional charge are emblematic of how this war mobilizes Jewish memory. For his part, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly invoked the need for “de-Nazification” as a pretext for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One may debate the Azov Battalion’s and fascism’s role in producing the conditions for this conflict and in the historical formation of Ukrainian nationalism more generally. However, it remains clear that Putin wishes to press strong cultural memories of the German blitzkrieg into service as legitimization for his own illegal invasion. Despite some Jewish Studies scholars such as Enzo Traverso and Marc Dollinger who persuasively argue that the formation of a Jewish state and the assimilation of Ashkenazi Jews in the United States have ended the phase of Jewish marginality, the ongoing perceptions of Jews’ “otherness” apparently remains politically useful to those in power.
According to Balthaser, they seize on the narrative of the schlemiel’s transformation, in the figure (and “perhaps the body” – of Zelensky in order to “project Jewish history”
Nowhere is this projection of Jewish history more salient than in the person—or perhaps the body—of President Volodimir Zelensky himself. Elected in a popular landslide as a political outsider, his promises to clean up endemic corruption in Ukraine and to end the war between Russian-speaking separatists and Ukrainian nationalists in Donbas region garnered him wide popular support. It has been noted how much the scripts of Servant of the People, the satiric TV political comedy Zelensky wrote and starred in, prefigure his actual life: Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a bumbling, underpaid schoolteacher who attempts in vain to get his mother to iron his shirt, is elected president after he makes an anti-corruption rant that goes viral after being surreptitiously recorded and shared by a tech-savvy student. Vasyl’s transformation from schlemiel to a serious man, as he accepts his duties as president, seems to mirror Zelensky’s own transformation in the Western media from feckless actor to war-hero.
He argues that Zelensky went on to be a threshold figure in his country when he went from being a TV star (playing a schlemiel) to a leader of the Ukraine who had to deal – in some fashion – with the complicated anti-semitic past and right wing nationalism of the Ukrainians:
Despite Zelensky’s media makeover, it needs to be pointed out that Zelensky did not become “serious” only after the invasion of Ukraine. His grasp on the complexities of Ukrainian nationalism and on Ukraine’s middle-man position between NATO and Russia, as well as his own perhaps analogous role as a Jew within these opposing polarities, were apparent from the beginning. Zelensky’s position as a Jewish liberal in a state historically articulated through exclusionary ethno-nationalisms was perhaps most clearly framed in his nuanced praise and critique of the Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi sympathizer, Stepan Bandera. In a 2019 speech, Zelensky, who lost family in the Holocaust, lauded Bandera as an “undisputed hero” for “some Ukrainians” as a man who “defined Ukrainian freedom.” But he went on to say “it’s not quite right” that so many “streets and bridges” in Kiev are named after him, going further to ask if there weren’t other heroes who could unite Ukrainians. Showing his bent toward comedy and populism, Zelensky suggested the Ukrainian football star, Andriy Shevchenko, as a possible replacement. This form of nuanced liberalism found its geopolitical equivalent in his critique of the ongoing war in the Donbas. While visiting the site of a separatist ambush last year, Zelensky praised the courage and sacrifice of the dead Ukrainian soldiers, while eschewing the need for revenge. “He questioned the wisdom of sacrificing soldiers in defense of these muddy dugouts,” a Time reporter recorded with surprise. Revenge only means, Zelensky continued, that for some, “their sons would not be coming home.”
Baltheser notes that the world had seen him, before this crisis, as a schlemiel leader who was “in over his head.” However, the Russian incursion changed all that. At which point, the transformation from schlemiel to hero was complete. He was no longer a failed, self-deprecating leader:
For U.S. media, Zelensky’s attempt to responsibly thread the needle between Ukrainian sovereignty and a complicated, multi-ethnic nation met with unbridled scorn. In a widely reprinted guest column in the New York Times, Zelensky was described in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion as “in over his head.” Zelensky’s attempts to defuse the crisis that now engulfs his country were not understood as the quality of a responsible statesman, but rather “dispiritingly mediocre,” more of a “showman” and a “performer” than a serious national leader. Yet weeks later, Zelensky’s transformation from schlemiel to martial hero seemed complete. From the New York Times to MSN to the Washington Post, Zelensky was reborn not only as a war-time leader, but as a man who could “unite the world” as a “symbol of bravery”; his line, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” is read as action-hero bravado rather than self-deprecating comedic satire.
After noting this, Balthaser lays out his lens on Zelensky in terms of what “Americans” want – in a psycho-sexual (fantasy) sense – the Jew to become for them:
Comparisons between Zelenksy, Putin, and Trump only underscore how much the question of manliness is at stake in leadership: Zelensky is undoubtedly a courageous person in an impossible situation doing the best he can, but to suggest that his actions are a replacement, or should be read as a replacement, for the masculine power of Trump and Putinsuggests how much Zelensky’s gender, and not just his politics, is the question at hand. It is one thing to be a leader in a time of crisis; yet Americans seem to want a virile ubermensch who can stand before the bombs as a knight errant. That Zelensky has also become a global sex symbol merely adds a layer of the absurd to the already incredulous.
The problem, now, as Balthaser points out, is that since Zelensky is no longer a schlemiel but a hero, he is no longer in the “interstices of society” – like other “worldless” schlemiel-slash-pariahs (think of Hannah Arendt’s read of Charlie Chaplin):
As Time Magazine framed it in a rather revealing metaphor, Zelensky has been remade from “Charlie Chaplin
” to “Winston Churchill.” The comparison is not only revealing insofar as Churchill was a flaming antisemite and Western chauvinist, but Chaplin, who played Jewish characters and was often derided by the right in antisemitic terms, was often thought to be Jewish himself and may have actually had Jewish roots. Regardless of Chaplin’s actual identity, as Hannah Arendt argued, his most famous and identifying role as “The Tramp” carried with it the entire history of Yiddish theater and a Jewish sensibility of the pariah, existing between borders of identity and in the interstices of orderly society. One might say, Zelensky has been baptized by fire.
Following this, Balthaser turns to the Israelis. How do they see Zelensky? He tells us – citing an article in the Forwards – a “modern Maccabee”:
Jewish-American and Israeli media have also noted the Jewish dimension of Zelensky’s transformation. Yet, rather than engage with subtlety and nuance, they have transformed him less into a literal Anglo-Saxon, and instead into a muscle-Jew, a figure of Jewish martial vigor and strength. In an article in the Forward, Zelensky was praised as a “modern Maccabee,” referring not only to ancient Judean zealots, but to the Zionist cultural myth of the “New Jew” who triumphs over Jewish enemies real and imagined with military prowess and masculine courage.
At this point, Balthaser brings in Daniel Boyarin, who – as I have noted above -sees the Zionist and the muscle Jew as betraying the “soft Jew.”
As Jewish Studies scholar, Daniel Boyarin, narrates in his seminal Unheroic Conduct, there has been, half constructed and half real, a stark binary between Jewish and Christian ideals of manhood. As Boyarin historicizes from medieval Europe to the present, the Ashkenazi Jewish ideal of “Edelkayt” has long offered the gentle, timid, and studious male of the Yeshiva as a Jewish model for masculinity, one that has been secularized into the figure of the “mentsh.” This ideal Jewish manhood was explicitly contrasted with both Roman and later Christian values of masculinity that interpret “activity, domination, and aggressiveness as ‘manly.’” From Freud’s narrative of a Jewish father who allowed his yarmulke to be knocked off by an aggressive and antisemitic Christian, to Passover haggadot that depict the “righteous son” to be a scholar and the “wicked child” to be dressed in Roman robes with sword, the “soft man” often quite self-consciously was celebrated against the “knight in shining armor” of Christian myth. Of course, Boyarin is at pains to point out that there have been Jewish warriors, but that dominant diasporic Ashkanzi culture not only frowned upon such activity, it invented “soft masculinity” as a counter-tradition. The bookish, non-violent, “sweet and delicate” Jewish man was seen as both responsible and sexually desirable. “As it developed historically,” Boyarin concludes, “diaspora Jewish culture had little interest in Samson, and its Moses was a scholar. . . even the Maccabees were deprived of their status as military heroes.” As Boyarin himself states, he thinks of his own “sissy” lack of adherence to dominant masculine ideals as not so much “girlish” as positively “Jewish.”
Jewish ideals of masculinity have changed a great deal since the mid 20th century, as Zionism has risen in cultural and political ascendency. This is not to say Zionism is the only cultural model among Jews. The zealous praise of Zelensky as a “Maccabee” suggests that there may be some anxiety among Jewish nationalists that such a manly, Christianized ideal is not necessarily widely shared: one does not need to make propaganda to convince people the sky is blue. Yet this cultural celebration of Zelensky’s newfound manliness fits within a Zionist cultural framework that understands masculinity as part of the redemption of the Jewish people into their new state. Zionism, as an historical project, was, as Boyarin chronicles, not just a solution to the Jewish national question, but was also intended to redeem the “soft man” of the diaspora and transform him from his “state of effeminate degeneracy into the status of. . . a mock Aryan male.”
Balthaser reads this “association” in terms of something going on not just with the Jewish pysche but the western psyche. In this paragraph, he gives it words that translate Boyarin’s framework for understanding Jewishness into a western (not a Jewish) narrative that has influenced – as Boyarin argues – Zionist colonialism and masculinity (both of which are alien to, in his view, Jewishness):
But the chain of associations from diasporic effeminacy and the transformation of Zelensky’s initial image in the West as a schlemiel into that of a Maccabee carries an often deliberate reference to both the Holocaust and the strong, virile Jewish state as its cultural redeemer. One can argue that Zelensky has been transformed discursively from a Jewish “sissy” into gentile knighthood.
He argues that the US has – to play on the title of Dara Horn’s latest book – used “dead Jews” (in the Holocaust) to legitimate American imperialism:
For victims of the Nazi Judeocide, the U.S. supported success of Israel served to burnish both the U.S.’s own story about itself, as the liberator of oppressed of Europe, as well as to prove that martial vigor had a legitimate and legitimating role to play in the world. As the bellicose Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech after his nomination, his father knew only three words in English when U.S. soldiers rescued him from a Nazi concentration camp: “God Bless America.” “That’s who we are,” Blinken asserted, “That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.” America’s legitimation as Jewish liberator was solidified by the almost unanimous support for Israel’s triumph in the Six Day War. Not only was it seen as a final Jewish victory over the Holocaust, the lightening battle was offered as lasting proof that the IDF could do what the U.S. marines in Vietnam could not: win swiftly over its enemies in the clean, clear light of the Arabian desert. As Melanie McCalester and Amy Kaplan note, the 1967 victory was not only a victory of East versus West, but an incorporation of Israel—and the New (military) Jew—as the elite commandos in a clash of civilizations. Saving Jews, and remaking them into proper gentile men, one could say, has been a vision of Jewish life not only among Zionist radicals, but also among American Jewish and non-Jewish imperialists alike.
Balthaser’s distaste for Israel’s “fascist movements” and different imperialisms – and also for the war in the Ukraine – comes out, here. This war is using Zelensky’s Jewish transformation into the “modern Maccabee,” to further imperialisms and the narrative of “defeating fascism” to legitimate imperialism:
From Charlottesville, Victor Orban, the Azov Battalion to Putin’s own Russian Orthodox nationalism, “Jewishness” has become yet again a means to narrate the collapse of liberalism and its normative inclusion of minorities into its framework. Putin himself trades on the long memory outside of the U.S. of Soviet resistance to the Nazism, as well as to Cold War anti-communism and imperialism. Yet as seen through a glass darkly, it is clear that for Putin, as for Cold War imperialists, the story of the defeat of fascism has been just another way to legitimate his own form of extra-territorial domination. U.S. support for the state of Israel, with its own fascist movements, can be no more seen as antifascist, or pro-Jewish, than Putin’s own claims to be a bulwark against Western chauvinism or the far-right.
In one of his his boldest claims in the essay, he argues that the West “narrates itself into the 20th century” through the use of the schlemiel and the Holocaust narrative. In doing so it “erase(s) actual Jewish complexity.”
This conscription of Jewish masculinity and the Holocaust into stories of U.S. imperialism, Zionism, and Russian military aggression, however unfortunate, thus must also be seen as a key way the West, broadly conceived, narrates itself well into the 21st century. While many Jews from the U.S. to Israel embrace these narratives, it should be remembered that these are narratives that also erase actual Jewish complexity. As my Ukrainian-Jewish-American friend and colleague Maggie Levantovskaya posted on Twitter, relationships to Ukraine for the many American Jews, including myself, who can trace their ancestry there, are complicated: there were, as she said, Jews who wanted to flee Ukraine; Jews who lost their family there; Jews who remained there and feel it is their country; and Jews who married Ukrainians, who are now Jewish American Ukrainians. There are also, including in my own family, Jews who associate Ukrainian nationalism with fascism and who regard President Zelensky with a speculative wonder.
This “erasure of complexity” is the main problematic that, apparently, the schlemiel as schlemiel can disclose. We see things in terms of a hero/enemy binary and can’t see the complexity of Eastern Europe and the schlemiel’s complex relationship with Jewishness (which puts him somewhere between a schlemiel and a hero):
Zelensky’s own relationship to masculinity and to Jewishness are complicated. For instance, in one of his sketch comedy acts before becoming president, he imitated playing a Jewish folk song with his penis. This comedic and satirical act can be read much like the way Jews are asked to relate to Jewish history: with what part of phallic military life will it be played? Even as I write, Zelensky has survived three assassination attempts and I wonder if he will be alive when this piece is published. It is a chilling and awful thought to have Ukraine’s first Jewish president deposed or even murdered at the barrel of a gun. While I have no idea what Zelensky himself feels about his newfound role as savior of West and America’s thirst trap; it is entirely possible he will lean into it as a means, conscious or unconscious, to save his country and his family. Yet his reinvention from untermensch to Maccabee means that he has never really been seen, nor could he be seen, any more than the complexity of Jewish life in Slavic countries can be seen for all the contradictions it inhabits.
Balthaser ends his essays with a meditation on Western blindness, fantasy, and anxiety. The West can’t see itself because they can only see their fantasy of Jews and Jewishness:
But the misrecognition of Jews and Jewish history, aided or not aided by Jews themselves, means as always, that people in power or who want power, never see themselves, or the people they wish to conscript into their plans. In this way, Zelensky is yet another Jewish mirror of the West’s anxieties and fantasies.
This evening, in fact, we see an interesting fantasy being played out against Israel via the “New Macabee,” Zelensky. Senator Adam Kinginger, noted the call Zelensky had with Israel today, and delivered a threat to Israel if they didn’t give Zelensky what he wants:
Now, for Kinzinger, Zelensky has more power than Israel itself (!), and this assertion, Kingzinger claims, is now backed by American power. If Israel does not supply him with weapons, they will not receive any more “future aid.” It’s an interesting moment in Jewish American / Israeli history where – via Kinzinger – there seems to be a narrative displacement that is thought-provoking.
What I find interesting about Balthaser’s reflections are the questions they evoke. Is there ample proof that the West “narrates itself into the 20th century” through the use of the schlemiel and the Holocaust narrative? In doing so, is the “erasure” of “actual Jewish complexity” at stake? Must we, in turn, speak out against this appropriation and point out that the read on Zelensky – as a “Jewish leader” – and the invocation of the Holocaust (today, in fact, Zelensky argued that the Ukraine faces a Holocaust, and this upset some people at the Knesset who saw him as making an unethical and hyperbolic analogy)? Should we – like Briens and Balthaser – read Western fantasies of “tough” post-Holocaust Jews as fundamental to covering over western and Israeli aggression (what Balthaser calls fascism)?
This reading is influenced, without a doubt, by a strain of anti-Zionism (as a variety of anti-imperialism, for Boyarin anti-colonialism). According to this reading, the schlemiel (and Jewishness) is sacrificed by the West, by America, by Israel, and its fantasies in the name of political aims that increase power by legitimating violence and war. These kinds of readings are supported by left leaning outlets like Jewish Currents, Mondoweiss, and journalists like Max Blumenthal and Aaron Mate who argue that we can’t see the complexity of the situation in the Ukraine, American imperialism, etc because of such fantasies. They make it their task to undo these fantasies and complicate the narratives about the Ukraine, Israel, America, etc and their moral missions.
It’s interesting how the schlemiel has come into this discourse by way of Boyarin, Breins, and now Balthaser. It shows how the left can use the schlemiel to understand the west and its desire to fantasize about and use Jewishness and the Holocaust for its purposes.
One doesn’t have to agree with this reading, but one must deal with the fact that Zelensky has, indeed, gone from a schlemiel to a hero in the West. The meaning of this transformation may be regarded in many different ways, but, as we can see from Balthaser’s reading it takes on more of a political meaning that an aesthetic or cultural meaning. This is in the spirit of Ruth Wisse, who, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argued that the schlemiel “challenges the political and the philosophical status quo.” For her, the schlemiel’s victory is “ironic” and emerges not out of power but out of powerlessness and weakness. Her thesis has major implications.
But unlike Balthaser, she sees Israel in a much different way and sees Jewish power – in the wake of the Holocaust – as a good thing. Wisse and Balthaser also have different readings on the relationship of the schlemiel to Israel. That’s another discussion that can benefit from a reading of Sidrah DeKoven’s Ezrahi’s reflections on the post-Holocaust schlemiel in Booking Passage.
I am happy to see this essay because it shows how the schlemiel is not simply a character one finds in film and TV, on Netlfix, or Hulu (in Hollywood or streaming). The schlemiel is not simply, as Ezrahi says, an “American icon”; it is a figure that has entered the political. What that means can be found in the questions that the representation of Zelensky – and his transformation from schlemiel to the “new Maccabee” – evokes. Kinzinger ups the ante by saying that the fate of the Jewish State and its relationship to American depends on whether it obeys Zelensky’s orders.
I love going on podcasts and discussing the schlemiel character. This recent podcast with Live Kabbalah – hosted by Rabbi Amichai Cohen (who also happens to be a long-time good friend of mine) – gave me an opportunity to discuss the character, its spiritual meaning, and also reflect on my life in relation to the schlemiel. We can all learn a lot from this character, especially, today (or rather, tonight): Purim!
The Mazsihisz Magyar Zsido Museum is not far from where I am staying in Budapest. (I am giving a Graduate Seminar on the Schlemiel here.) It claims to be one of the first Jewish Museums in Europe. One of the things I came across there was an embroidery of the four sons from the Hagaddah. Since the schlemiel is called – in Yiddish and Hasidic literature – a Tam (Simpleton), I have always been interested in how it is depicted in Hagaddahs.
I also saw this image of the simpleton in the Haggada (below) at the museum – which has been used by Daniel Boyarin in his book, Unheroic Conduct.
What I find interesting about all this is that the simpleton is usually a young boy who emerges from the woods with a stick. He seems to he a Shepard or a walker in the country. A Jewish peasant of sorts. His walking stick reminds me of something you’d find in a Lord of the Rings depiction.
He is naive and trusting.
To be sure, one finds similar figurations of the simpleton in German and French medieval folklore. Rabbi Nachman of Bresla v’s tale, The Tam and the Chacham (wiseperson) shows how important this figure is to thr Hasidic tradition. Simplicity is close to godliness as it is imbued with trust.
Today’s simpleton vis-à-vis the schlemiel character lacks that woodsy, folksy aspect and just appears as a person who doesn’t know how to act or be in this or that social situation. Think of the George Costanza character in Seinfeld.
Things have certainly changed since the emergence of the simpleton character, who has a Mystical air to him and is presented as the perfect vessel for holiness because he is so unjudgmental and trusting.
I arrived in Budapest last Thursday and on Friday I started my Graduate Seminar on “The Schlemiel in European Literature and Culture” at the Ashkenazium Program (which includes several notable Jewish Studies, Philosophy, and Literature scholars on its faculty such as Elliot Wolfson, Paul Franks, Shaul Magid, Peter Trawny, Susan Handelman, etc.) To give an idea of what I am teaching and the scope, here is my reading list for the six days of my seminar:
Day 1: Folklore, Genealogies, Definitions – an Intro to Schlemiel Theory and this Seminar
We will be reading full books, short stories, and scholarly essays that trace the trajectory of the schlemiel from Europe to America. As one can see, the readings on Day 5 and 6 I am using two historical benchmarks: the Holocaust and the transport of the Schlemiel to an American context. (A third benchmark, which doesn’t appear in the outline, is the advent of Zionism and the founding of the Jewish State. Both will be discussed in the final classes in tandem with the American innovation of the schlemiel).
Being in Budapest and lecturing on the schlemiel here have brought up a lot of things for me as a scholar of the schlemiel and the creator of the largest blog/website on the schlemiel in the world. As Ruth Wisse, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, and others have pointed out, the Holocaust destroyed not just a people but an entire culture. It destroyed a large part of the audience that adored the schlemiel and saw themselves through novels, short stories, and plays that evoked this character.
On this, the following is noted by the USHM – US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Before World War II, approximately 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest, making it the center of Hungarian Jewish cultural life. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Budapest was a safe haven for Jewish refugees. Before the war some 5,000 refugees, primarily from Germany and Austria, arrived in Budapest. With the beginning of deportations of Jews from Slovakia in March 1942, as many as 8,000 Slovak Jewish refugees also settled in Budapest.
Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany. Despite discriminatory legislation against the Jews and widespread antisemitism, the Jewish community of Budapest was relatively secure until the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. With the occupation, the Germans ordered the establishment of a Jewish council in Budapest and severely restricted Jewish life. Apartments occupied by Jews were confiscated. Hundreds of Jews were rounded up and interned in the Kistarcsa transit camp View This Term in the Glossary (originally established by Hungarian authorities), 15 miles northeast of Budapest.
Between April and July 1944, the Germans and Hungarians deported Jews from the Hungarian provinces. By the end of July, the Jews in Budapest were virtually the only Jews remaining in Hungary. They were not immediately ghettoized. Instead, in June 1944, Hungarian authorities ordered the Jews into over 2,000 designated buildings scattered throughout the city. The buildings were marked with Stars of David. About 25,000 Jews from the suburbs of Budapest were rounded up and transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Hungarian authorities suspended the deportations in July 1944, sparing the remaining Jews of Budapest, at least temporarily.
On November 8, 1944, the Hungarians concentrated more than 70,000 Jews—men, women, and children—in the Ujlaki brickyards in Obuda, and from there forced them to march on foot to camps in Austria. Thousands were shot and thousands more died as a result of starvation or exposure to the bitter cold. The prisoners who survived the death march reached Austria in late December 1944. There, the Germans took them to various concentration camps, especially Dachau in southern Germany and Mauthausen in northern Austria, and to Vienna, where they were employed in the construction of fortifications around the city.
In November 1944, the Arrow Cross ordered the remaining Jews in Budapest into a closed ghetto. Jews who did not have protective papers issued by a neutral power were to move to the ghetto by early December. Between December 1944 and the end of January 1945, the Arrow Cross took as many as 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, shot them along the banks of the Danube, and threw their bodies into the river.
Soviet forces liberated Budapest on February 13, 1945. More than 100,000 Jews remained in the city at liberation.
The strangeness of being here was redoubled when I first arrived at the hotel I am staying at: The Hotel Astoria. When I first looked around the hotel and took photos, I had this intuition that since the hotel was centrally located it may have been used by the Nazis as a base of operations. Lo and behold, I was correct.
When I read and write notes on the schlemiel, in a hotel room that may have been used by Nazis to plan the destruction of Jews, I get a keen sense of the tragic irony of history. After the Holocaust, some writers and scholars – especially from Israel – argued that the schlemiel was a figure of powerlessness. We need to turn to different characters, one more powerful and heroic rather than to the schlemiel anti-hero who, during the Holocaust failed to act (see Nathan Englander’s, “The Tummlers,” for instance).
Be that as it may, the schlemiel character lived on and survived in America to become, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi notes, a “cultural icon.” What people don’t know – who love schlemiels played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Amy Shumer, etc – is about where this character came from and its tragic-comic history. It has survived the Holocaust, but its audience has changed and they no longer speak Yiddish as a common vernacular.
For this reason, I have made it my task to teach the history of the schlemiel – here, in Budapest – and discuss its meaning and trajectory. This character survived. We need to ask why and how that is the case. What is so special about this character that it could survive? This city reminds me that the Nazis were not out to kill Judaism; they wanted to kill the Jewish people. They knew that without a people, there can be no culture or literature or Judaism. We lived on – and so did my family, some of which came from Austro-Hungary – and it will be us who will give and who give life to the schlemiel….after the Holocaust.
More importantly, I would argue that the schlemiel’s survival is the survival of goodness in a world that the Nazis tried to reshape in their twisted image. We need to recall that character to better understand how comedy must win out over tragedy and the deep dark pit of nihilism that showed it’s ugly faced and killed thousands of my people in this city and was organized in this hotel, where I, at this very moment, write these words.
As Rosh Hashana approaches, Jews from around the world become introspective and start doing what is called, in Hebrew, a Cheshbon Nefesh (“accounting of the soul”). To my surprise and to the surprise of thousands of his social media followers, Seth Rogen decided to cut his hair and shave. He shared this image a few days ago on Instagram. Moreover, the selfie he took has a seriousness to it that we seldom see. It also shows his finitude and his aging. When I first saw it, I thought of a Tibetan Monk amd wondered: Is Seth Rogen becoming a JuBu (Jewish Buddhist)?
As Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have noted in their work on photography, photography is polyvalent. This photo suggests meaning on a few registers. But the JuBi seems to be sticking out. Rogen, like Sarah Silverman, are no longer doing comedy, it seems, and have become utterly serious. Perhaps Rogen is returning to his roots? Perhaps he is paring down and embarking on a spiritual journey?
As I.B. Singer brilliantly articulates in his book, The Magician of Lublin, schlemiels are filled with the spirt of teshuva (return). Perhaps Rogen is returning. While we don’t know what that it is, it is certain that with this image he seems to be turning away from his comic iconic image projection. Jewishness, so to speak, is always on Rogen’s horizon. And in the Jewish world, now is the time and the season to turn inward.
After reading and writing on Walter Benjamin for nearly twenty years (since I was first introduced to him as an undergrad), I seldom saw any photos of him smiling or happy. Most of the images I saw were pensive or melancholic. One of my graduate school professors, Max Pensky, wrote a book entitled Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning. The image used for the cover is one that is used for the cover is similar to the images we find on his most read books: Illuminations and Reflections.
To be sure, when you do an internet search on Walter Benjamin, the majority of images don’t show him as having fun, smiling, or laughing.
When I posted the screenshot of the Tweet by David Hering with the caption “Possibly the only photo of Walter Benjamin enjoying himself” on the Walter Benjamin Facebook Page (where I am the admin) many people chimed in about the photo and (as of this moment) 275 people have liked the photo (replete with laughing icons, etc). One of the 50 + people who shared the post this morning commented, “Is it just me or isn’t the idea of Benjamin having fun quite disturbing?” Another said, “I can’t unsee this!”
The claim made by the tweeted photo and caption was challenged by a few people on the thread who said that Walter Benjamin liked to have fun (in fact, all the time). I asked them to share photos to visually illustrate their claim and was shown these photos of Walter Benjamin letting loose.
I find this comic angle of great interest to my own work on Benjamin for Schlemiel Theory. The visual complements the textual and we are, after all, learning more and more about his life with all of the books coming out on him.
I have written several essays on Walter Benjamin’s interest in the comic modality and in the schlemiel. To be sure, this topic, like these images suggests another side of Walter Benjamin, one we seldom see. It is good because it directs us to the hidden (dialectical) side of melancholia and tragedy. There is a relationship between comedy and tragedy that Benjamin, himself, was interested in. But more often than not – as you can see from the google image search I did above and in the majority of texts on him and his work – he is portrayed as a serious thinker of melancholy, tragedy, the daemonic, and the apocalyptic.
In the spirit of dialectics, I think it is good to push in the other direction. The tension between the two can produce a new thought (perhaps). As one of Woody Allen’s characters explains, time plus tragedy equals comedy.
To that end, here are some essays/posts I’ve written on Benjamin and the Comic.
What is “the witz”? Freud and his friend (and subject) Theodor Reik wrote books on wit(z). For Freud, one can learn about how the unconscious and dreams work (Freud cited many Jewish jokes in his book on this subject) through humor; while Theodor Reik saw the witz as the key to understanding not just masochism, but also Jewishness. Namely, through its most celebrated comic character: the schlemiel.
When he wrote the book, The Witz, Joshua Cohen was no doubt tapping into the relationship between Jewish humor and Jewish identity. Through an endless stream of Jewish humor (witz), this novel suggests the reader can experience the lebenswelt of Jewishness through an immersion in a kind of humor that turns Judaism (itself) into a source of insight and comedic transformation.
In the epigram of Joshua Cohen’s novel, Witz, the author suggests a definition of Witz that can be read in terms of Yiddish humor and in terms of something that comes out of being Jewish, or comes after the last (and the first) Jewish name:
being, in Yiddish, a joke;
and, as the ending of certain names,
also meaning son of:
The first lines of his novel suggest coming too late, being belated, something we find with many a schlemiel. But this time it seems as if it’s not only the Creation story that is followed by the Witz, it’s also the Creator:
IN THE BEGINNING THEY ARE LATE. Now it stands empty, a void. Darkness about to deepen the far fire outside. A synagogue, not yet destroyed. A survivor. Who isn’t? Now, it’s empty, a shell, a last train station after the last train left to the last border of the last country on the last night of the last world; a hull, a husk – a synagogue, a shul. (13)
The narrator, sounding like a New York Jew (sounding like a Woody Allen character), makes it clear that the subject of this joke is not Judaism, God, or the Creation; it’s himself/herself. The Witz follows the Jew, the narrator around, and the space of Jewish life, the synagogue, is empty. Like schlemiels in Chelm, Jews aren’t on time for the minyan. And now the house is empty. When the witz follows the name, it makes the named into the joke. Judaism, in a sense, or being Jewish, makes him into a joke. This self-deprecation goes on throughout Cohen’s long (817 pages) book.
The book ends with the polyvalent Schlemiel monologue that strings one joke after another – in the form of a conversation with another Jew (perhaps himself) – that shows the witz as a way of life and an insight into Jewish life (or what was Jewish life, after all “they are late”). Like much of the book, it makes grammar into a joke; it is without punctuation:
I don’t understand says the man if I’m broke I can’t eat strudel tell me then when I am supposed to eat strudel you call this living this you call living what do you know from living no sometimes we switch aha what’s it to you if it doesn’t whistle I just put that in there to confuse you nu so it doesn’t sing two out of three ain’t bad you’re going to lose your hundred because I ain’t gonna dream of paying you back until the Day of Judgment we have three days to learn to live underwater schmuck I”m drowning nu so its like a fountain welcome to America Shaun Ferguson he lived at home until he was thrirtythree he went into his father’s business and his mother thought he was God I know that one too hey Yossi print one less doctor gave him another six months he just puts a sign on the door that says Closed for Business the Holidays sh don’t make trouble it could’ve happened to me but the suspicion remains what’s a bracha don’t disturb the Rabbi on a night like this better one of them should die than one of us Bernie great news your sister died the dead girl is one of us you’re Joseph Cohen I didn’t recognize you funny you don’ look who thinks he’s a nothing also a Cohen it’s like this: my father was Cohen and his father was Cohen and his father before that was a Cohen its steady work. (817)
It ends with a joke on the real author. It ends with self-deprecation and acceptance of the Jewish past, the narrator’s Jewish past, through humor. Like Abramowitz, this is a Cohen-witz. Cohen suggests that witz is the glue that keeps Jewishness together.
Jean-Luc Nancy‘s essay, “Menstrum Universale” suggests that the Witz – although given some treatment by the German Romantics and Freud (amongst others) – was a neglected area of study vis-a-vis its real centrality:
Witz is barely, or only tangentially, a part of literature: it is neither a genre nor style; nor even a figure of rhetoric. It doesn’t below to philosophy, being neither concept, judgment, nor argument. It could nonetheless play all these roles but in a derisive manner. (248, The Birth of Presence)
Be that at is may, Nancy tells us that “the founders of German Romanticism – the Schlegels, Novalis, Bernhardi, along with Jean Paul and later Solger – made Witz a dominant motif, indeed made it the principle of a theory that claimed to be aesthetic, literary, metaphysical, even social and political, all at the same time. Finally, Freud’s first work devoted to aesthetics was on Witz and established what would remain to the very end of his work his definition of aesthetic pleasure”(249).
The Witz is – like Derrida’s notion of differance – in the margins of language and theory: “It does not constitute, or barely constitutes, a system; it does not constitute, or it barely constitutes, a school; it somehow avoids becoming a work as it avoids becoming thought. Its constructions are as stunning as they are unstable”(249).
Nancy calls it an “element” which is “indispensable to the psychoanalytic apparatus as well as an equally indispensable element of literature that claims to be modern (always at least in part inseparable from a Joycean ‘tradition’ where in the European nouveau roman, in Faulkner, in Burroughs, or even in Borges, to limit the references arbitrarily). Such recognition verges on the religious”(250).
To explain the dynamic power of the Witz, Nancy cites Novalis at the opening of this essay – in the epigram: “Witz as a principle of affinities is at the same time the menstrum universale.” Based on this reading, Nancy suggests that Novalis is making a claim about the power of humor to dissolve and transform things (as in alchemy, transforming base metals into gold):
If Novalis…could call Witz the menstrum universale, meaning “universal solvent” in the vocabulary of alchemy, that i is the in the end…dissolution itself, in Witz and of Witz itself, with which we have to deal. (250)
There is something about the Witz that brings together multiple things and transforms them. Perhaps we can read Cohen’s long Witz novel in terms of a kind of Jewish comedic alchemy, as a series of elements (jokes) that transform Jewishness. Maybe the Witz is the life of Jewishness and the schlemiel narrator is the alchemist?
As Nancy argues, the witz (thought of as literature) is a challenge to philosophy. Perhaps this is another variety of the Jerusalem / Athens dialectic since, as Nancy suggests, the Witz is a challenge to Greek (Cartesian and German idealist) philosophy. If, as Nancy argues, the witz is a key “element” of modern literature and psychoanalysis, the challenge of the witz goes beyond the Jewish tradition to take part in a bigger battle in modernity which parodies philosophy and “essentialism.” This is what Diogenes, the father of cynicism, who was called the ‘mad socrates” does. It should be noted that Peter Sloterdjjk – in The Critique of Cynical Reason – likens the cynic to a Jewish joke teller.