On Seth Rogen’s Tweeted Response to My and (The) Essential Schlemiel Question

Last week, before New Years Eve, I decided to take my chances and Tweet a Question at the biggest Schlemiel Celebrity (other than, say, Larry David or Amy Schumer) in the USA: Seth Rogen. The question I asked Rogen is, to my mind, the ultimate schlemiel question. I framed it in a way so as to make it a trick question: Is Seth Rogen pitiable or endearing? The answer is both. He got it.

His twitter response to my schlemiel question got over 1400 likes.

What is my source for this question?

If you look at the Schlemiels we find in Yiddish literature, from the first major Schlemiel novel by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Tales and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, or to I.L. Peretz or Shalom Aleichem, all of the schlemiels we find are both pitiable and endearing. The same goes for schlemiels in American film and fiction: from Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen and Amy Schumer. That’s the key. We are fascinated with their failure and find it sad and charming.

Writing on the schlemiel in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah,” Hannah Arendt articulates this as a key feature: “Innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born.” These characters are also a critique of society since they touch on this innocence and humility that is part and parcel of the everyman and built into nature in its contrast to society: “Confronted with the natural order of things, in which all is equally good, the fabricated order of society, with its manifold classes and ranks, much appear as comic, hopeless attempt of creation to throw down the gauntlet of its creator”(279, Jewish Writings)

Chaplin’s schlemiels, argues Arendt, are similar in that they are endearing and innocent (“warm and convincing”) but is different from that of Heinrich Heine’s in that “Chaplin’s heroes are not paragons of virtue, but little men with a thousand and one failings, forever clashing with the law. The only point is that the punishment does not always fit the crime, and that for the man who is an any case a suspect there is not relation between the offence he commits and the price he pays”(287).

This is what makes him endearing and pitiable, today. Rogen’s schlemiel characters are always getting hit and live out this gap between the offence and the price he pays. But, for Rogen, that is the charm. We identify with this because, in our complex world, we – in all our failures – also seem to get hit for actions that don’t measure up with the consequences. In this wild world of social media, one’s fate can turn on the time. By being humble and endearing, the schlemiel shows us a way which, though pitiable, is redemptive. As Arendt notes, the ultimate innocence of the comical and pitiable victim is the key to Rogen’s success and our adoration of his pathetic characters.

Walser and Kafka’s Literary Dogs

Kafka with a Dog

Writing of Kafka’s short stories and parables (which include all kinds of animals from mice and apes to dogs and moles), Walter Benjamin takes note of the reader’s experience as an angle for understanding them: “the reader follows these animal tales for a fair distance without even noticing that they do not deal with human beings at all. Then, when the animal is identified for the first time — as a mouse or a mole — you are suddenly jolted and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings.”(497-8) As in many of his essays, Benjamin is fascinated with the moment of shock in which human perception is jarred and something comes in through the cracks of consciousness.

In the past, I have looked into the relation of Joyce’s schlemiel character, Bloom, to cats and dogs in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I have also looked into the relationship of the Schlemiel to the Werewolf in the Baal Shem Tov’s stories, Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct, and Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man. Here I’d like to take a look at some more “literary dogs” and their effect on narrators and readers.

I’d like to start with a brief look at Robert Walser, who, arguably, can be seen in some way as a major influence on Kafka’s writing. His encounters with dogs are interesting. As Benjamin has suggested with his reading of Kafka, it is advisable to read Walser’s encounter with dogs as creating a kind of otherness in the narrator.

In this short story, “The Walk,” Walser encounters a dog:

“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”

The dog, unlike himself, doesn’t have a work ethic or a world. The dog is a mirror of sorts or a wish the narrator has. The dog takes him away from himself. Just like children do in many of Walser’s first person narrations of a child’s world.

In A Schoolboy’s Diary, there is a piece called “Two Little Things” in which the narrator loses his sense of himself when he thinks about a dog. He looses his sense of time:

“I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for a rather long time. What a fool I am, an I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have a sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, “How hot is it today! and indeed it was really very warm.” (66).

This is, as the title of the piece suggests, a “little thing.” But with Walser, we know to read for irony. This little thing is really quite big. He doesn’t have an understanding of what happened to him and when he starts moving again all he can notice is the temperature. This is a moment of ecstasis. As Harold Bloom notes in his book on Wallace Stevens, climate is an awareness of the space around us that is beyond us. When he loses a sense of time, through the dog, he enters into a relationship with space.

Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” is a piece that resonates with these two passages. It is about a dog who is very much like the narrator of these two pieces, a cultured dog with a human mind. But what makes this dog – just like the mice in “Josephine the Mouse Singer”or the bug in “The Metamorphosis” – lose his sense of self is a sense of a strange kind of music coming from an encounter he has with other dogs who are like himself yet different:

“They appeared from somewhere, I inwardly greeted them as dogs, and although I was profoundly confused by the sounds that accompanied them, yet they were dogs nevertheless, dogs like you and me; I regarded them by force of habit simply as dogs I had happened to meet on any road, and felt a wish to approach them and exchange greetings; they were quite near too, dogs much older than me, certainly, and not of my wooly, long-haired kind, but yet not so alien in size and shape, indeed quite familiar to me, for I had already seen many such similar dogs; but while I was involved in these reflections the music gradually got the upper hand, literally knocked the breath out of me and wept me far away from these actual dogs, and against my will, while I howled as if some pain were being inflicted upon me, my mind could only attend to nothing but this blast of music which seemed to come from all sides, from the deeps, from everywhere, surrounded the listener, overwhelming him, crushing him, and over his swooning body still blowing fanfares so near that they seemed far away and almost inaudible.” (281, Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, ed Nahum Glazer.)

The song that he hears, as can be seen, takes him outside of himself and exposes him to the space around him. He loses a sense of time and is exposed to space. When the dog-narrator comes to, he feels like a new being, a different being. He regains his sense of sight:

“And then a respite came, for one who was already too exhausted, too annulled, too feeble to listen any longer; a respite came and I beheld again the seven little dogs carrying out their evolutions, making their leaps; I longed to shout to them in spite of their aloofness, to get them to enlighten me, to ask them what they were doing – I was a child and believed I could ask anybody about anything – bur hardly had I begun, hardly did I feel on good an familiar doggish terms with the seven, when the music started again and robbed me of my wits, whirled me a round in its circles as if I myself were one of the musicians instead of being only their victim, cast me tither and hither, no matter how much I begged for mercy, and rescued me finally from its own violence…gave me a little time to get my breath back.” (282)

Kafka takes Walser to the next level by becoming the dog and having the cultured narrator “investigate” the dogs ways which, like music, take this rational dog outside himself. In the midst of his investigations, he comes to some realizations about the dogs:

“Perhaps there were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other….Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too….Because of all the music I had not noticed it before, but they had flung away all shame, the wretched creatures were doing the very thing which is both most ridiculous and indecent in our eyes; they were walking on their hind legs. Fie on them. They were uncovering their nakedness, blatantly making a show of their nakedness” (284-285)

These investigations go on and on and the dog-detective, so to speak, goes back to being more like a Walser character regaining and then losing his composure. Its a back and forth movement – much like the Tzimtzum I wrote on recently on Walser – that both Kafka and Walser share. The movement that goes back and forth between being big and becoming small, between being human and becoming animal. The “investigations of the dog” are based on the question of what it means to be human. Both Walser and Kafka knew that the key is to be found in that movement between the human and animal and the shock that Walter Benjamin writes of is the shock of realizing that one is caught up in that movement. The literary dogs of Walser and Kafka lead us into a literary figuration and experience of that movement which, as Kafka, notes, is like a kind of music that takes one outside oneself, outside time, and into space.

Morning, Night…Smallness Again: Robert Walser’s Tzimtzum Reflection

In a vignette dated May 1920, Kafka’s favorite writer, Robert Walser reflects on smallness by way of moods, one in the morning, the other in the evening, that return to smallness. I would like to argue that it can be read as a fascinating reflection on what Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) calls Tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a narrative or metaphor about how G-d created the universe; namely, by contracting Himself and making room – an open space -for humankind to dwell and receive His goodness and have a relationship with Him (for better or for worse, to du, you).

If one were to imitate G-d (imitatio dei) as many Medieval Theologians suggest is the way one becomes godly, one can say that, in terms of the Tzimtzum, the imitation of G-d suggests a backwards movement in which infinite space is created through G-d’s becoming small. In both senses, godliness can be said to be found in the infintesimal, or in becoming small. One becomes G-d, so to speak, by becoming large and small, simultaneously.

God is to be found in the endless movement of becoming small.

For this and other reasons, Franz Kafka really enjoyed the writing of Robert Walser. In reflections like the one on May 1920 we can see why. Walser situates a mystical reflection on smallness in prose. In a fashion that is deeply other oriented (Levinasian or Buberian), he reflects on you and your mood and your presence. The you can be thought of as a reference to G-d peeking (as the Song of Songs suggest) into our world.

Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors.

He compares this to how “you” are at night:

How different, though, at night – then tiring thoughts come to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind the clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you were firm and strong.

While you, during the day, are like a child and wild, at night one contracts.

In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Mourning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.

The day drives “you” ought into immensity – in lines of flight – the night “pulled you back into modest smallness again.” This is the double movement of tzimtzum, but what is amazing about this reflection is that Walser personalizes it. The last line suggest it is a process of expanding outward and returning to smallness as one is pulled back into modest smallness “again.”

I would argue that what Walser is capturing is the idea that the movement to “modest smallness,” again, is the movement of becoming godly which is given a figure that is deeply embodied in a physical and environmental state of being. Its spirituality is coupled with the day and the night. It is not simply metaphor; it is a personalization and materialization of smallness. However, in his reflection, this movement of smallness is built into existence.

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)

images

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

101097052_3226581150770999_133320646770819072_n

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

download

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.