Reflecting on Comedy: Miriam Katz’s Comic-Art Project (Take 2)


Miriam Katz is an art curator who has taken on the task of bringing comedy into the serious and overly academic artworld.  On March 19th 2011, she was the curator of a “showcase of experimental comedy” at MOMA P.S. 1.  As Martha Schwender of the The Village Voice points out in an article entitled “Have you Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?” Katz included comic performers such as Jon Glaser, David Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel in her art show.

Echoing Miriam Katz, Martha Schwender demurs on what happens when “comedians are being presented as artists?”  Will there be a collision?

What I found interesting about her article’s presentation of Katz’s project was its insistence on the link between trauma, comedy, and thoughtful reflection.

Schwender, citing Katz, notes that “comedy is much less safe than art.”  Literally and figuratively.  Apparently, there are more starving comedians than starving artists. Art has become too smug with itself and now “comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become to academic or safe.”  The world of comedy is a dangerous space and those who live in it take more risks that are typical of those who dwell in the artworld.

But here is the problem.   Comedy is unreflective and forgetful.  Citing Katz, Schwender writes: “Laugher obliterates the memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, its so awesome!”

This, Katz argues, is problematic.  Comedians are “hungry for critical feedback.”

In other words, comedians want us to think about comedy and share our thoughts with them.

At the end of this piece, Schwender, echoing Katz, gives her own reflection on comedy.  She notes that when comedians do well on stage they say that they “kill.”  This, I would add, is similar to the Borscht Belt expression of ‘knocking them dead.”  Or “blowing them away.”

What do they mean by such language?  Does the comedian have a violent and antagonistic relationship with her audience?

Schwender doesn’t give a direct answer.  Instead, she demonstrates that comedy is not all lightness and fun; death and mortality are themes in contemporary comedy: “(Andy) Kaufman talked about faking his own death…Zadie Smith..uses her own hapless father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

But does comedy really triumph over reality?  Is comedy redemptive?  Schwender seems to suggest as much here.  It takes us through the darkness and leads us to light.

Schwender ends the piece with a suggestion of hope; namely, a new era of art.  What Dada was to WWII, Katz’s new efforts will be to our current post-traumatic situation: “Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in a similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections.  Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crushed with diamonds.  Now, laughter is taking over.”

But what does this mean?  Is Miriam Katz awakening us to a messianic-kind of Dadaist comic-epoch which has found its birth in 2011, in Manhattan?   And how do we “reflect” on this post-traumatic comic moment?  Do we find redemption in it? Does comedy, dark comedy of the Andy Kaufmann variety, offer redemption or catharsis?

In search of an answer, I went to hear from Katz herself.  I found an interview with Katz in BOMBLOG.  The interview took place recently and focuses on her new podcast project.  Since her exhibition, Katz created a website with monthly podcasts of comedians reflecting on their work:

The website is called Breakdowns.  The name is apropos as it hints at an emotional breakdown and a reflective breakdown of the (comic) breakdown.  But, and here is the question, is reflection on comedic-slash-traumatic comedy redemptive?  Must all comedy, worth anything, be thought of in this way?

In her interview with Sam Korman in BOMBLOG, we get a better picture of her understanding of the relationship of comedy-slash-trauma and reflection.

Blogging on February 15th, Korman leads the way to the question of comedy and redemption when he associates Katz’s art project (and his own interview) with going into the depths of darkness by way of the comedian but, in the end, finding “our way back…redeemed.”  He suggests that his interview and her comic-art project are a mythic type of journey into and out of darkness.

When first asked why “comedy is so important,” Katz gives an answer that speaks to trauma and reflection.  She notes that comedy gives people relief, is critical and fun, and allows for “difficult truths to emerge.”

Her challenge to the artworld is to be critical “in a joyous way” instead of being too serious and academic.  And comedy makes this joyous type of criticism possible (which sounds much like what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Gay Science”).

But, toward the middle and end of the interview, Katz shifts and gives us a picture of comedy that is not redemptive.  First of all, she notes the position of the comedian to the audience is not a mutual catharsis.   Rather, “structurally we (the audience) are arbitrary.  The comic just wants the sounds coming from our bodies.”  All she wants is the audience to have a “bit more agency or influence.”  The little freedom she wants for “us” inheres in our “critical” response to comedy.  The act itself, however, harbors no agency.  Its just bodies responding in space to humor.

Korman is not satisfied with this kind of answer, so, later in the interview, he tries to bring in another philosophical angle.   He demurs that when one laughs at oneself, one becomes a listener.  This relation would be redemptive.

In response, Katz notes that this would be equivalent to standing outside of oneself and looking at oneself from a birds-eye-view: “That’s so weird and cool: making yourself laugh.  It forces you to ask, who’s that?”

For Katz, this seems to be a moment of ambivalence and self-alienation; not a moment of self-recognition.  It is traumatic.

What’s of more interest to her, it seems, is the relationship between the audience and the comedian: not what it means, but what happens.

(As Walter Benjamin once wrote in his Kafka essay, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  This attention, I would add, is to what happens-as-it-happens.)

Katz ends the interview with a paradoxical reflection.  When you laugh there is relief (and I would add that this is cathartic and redemptive); however, she contradicts this when she says: “there’s also no escape.  It forces you to admit things about your limitations and about what you really want.”

The fact that we cannot “escape” ourselves and that we are forced to admit things about ourselves and our desires is a shameful moment.  On the contrary, there is no relief.

Comedy, in other words, forces us to be uncomfortable.  It exposes us to our mortality and our desires (whether frustrated, failed, sick, or what have you).

But this isn’t the comedy we see on The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, or Saturday Night Live; no, it’s the disturbing kind of comedy we find in comedians like Andy Kaufmann and Lenny Bruce.  The comedy she is talking about is the variety that makes us chuckle while feeling uneasy in our skins.

And this is what we see in this Andy Kaufmann video, which I posted in yesterday’s blog:

Bringing a critical understanding of comedy can help us to understand what comedy does to us, but it can’t redeem us.  Nonetheless, it can spur us to act.  The schlemiel faces us, in a Levinasian sense (which I mentioned in the previous blog entry) with the “demand of the hour.”  Our choice to act, to decide, follows in the wake of our comic exposure to ourselves, the other, and to the hour (our situation).

This, I would argue, is the agency that Miriam Katz is trying to find for her comic audience.  Our freedom follows the comic breakdown.

Freedom and critical reflection are in the wake of the schlemiel’s oblique prophesy.

What do Louis CK, Andy Kaufmann, Emmanuel Levinas, and The Miriam Katz Project have in Common?

Today, I was incredibly delighted to see a post by the Jewish arts and culture website Tablet on my facebook page with the following tagline and question:

Art historian Miriam Katz thinks of comedians as spiritual guides, and she wants to bring stand-up into the serious world of galleries and museums:


What do you think — can comedy be intellectualized?

As I scanned the tagline, the question, the image, and the post, I was overwhelmed.  I was really excited to see that something I am deeply concerned with in my blog is being echoed “out there” in the virtual sphere and “in reality.”

The “schlemiel as prophet,” as a “spiritual guide,” seems to be catching on.

But it’s confusing. What does this mean?  I could see that the question after the tagline and the responses to it in the facebook thread bore confusion over this question.

What the thread opined on was whether or not a comic could be a spiritual guide. As one can imagine, some thought this idea to be absurd while others did not.  The general response, however, was that this is a question that has yet to be thought through in a thoroughgoing manner.

The image, propped between the tagline and question, also evokes questions as to what the comedian can communicate to us.  To be honest, I found the Louis CK image to be more telling than the question.

What astonishes me about the Louis CK image and the caption is that, taken together, they suggest that the face is linked to comic-spiritual guidance.  This suggestion or allusion hits at something deep: it hits at the relationship of prophesy to comedy and the face.

For me, this is profound because Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher I esteem above nearly all the philosophers of the 20th century, argued that the face is prophetic.  And this prophesy pertains to suffering.    The face, for Levinas, traumatizes and inspires “me” to be-for-the-other.  It takes me outside of myself before I can even think about whether or not I want to help the other.

For Levinas, one is always-already and yet-to-be for the other.  The face tells me, in a prophetic manner, “Thou shalt not Kill.”  Levinas calls my relationship to the other the one-for-the-other.  Which means, I am for the other before I am for myself.  And this is magnified by the other’s suffering which “I” struggle with only because I am always-already affected by it.

Perhaps this struggle bespeaks the bittersweet comedy of being-for-the-other?

The subtitle of the piece bespeaks this in an oblique way: “choose the face that best describes your pain.”

The irony of this image is that none of them describe my pain; rather, they strike me with the pain of the other.  They concern me and I cannot simply choose one over the other.  They all beckon me to ethical concern.   My choice is, so to speak, too late.

After looking at this image and thinking these things, I thought immediately of Andy Kaufmann.

To my surprise, I clicked on the Tablet link associated with the image and found this article by Jessica Weisberg on the art curator Miriam Katz entitled “Andy Kaufmann Isn’t Funny.”  At this point, you can only imagine, I was besides myself.  Astonished.

I decided, nearly two years ago, that I would write the final chapter of my book (a work in progress) on him.  To my mind, he is one of the best illustrations of the schlemiel-as-prophet.

There is a demand in his comedy; namely, the demand of the other.  His pain on stage, while funny to many, solicits the viewer.  As Levinas might say, it traumatizes and inspires her to think about her laughter and about what to do in response to the schlemiel.  (In my book and in a later blog, I will return to this scene on the David Letterman show.):

Notice how the audience doesn’t know whether he is joking or really suffering.  This ambiguity is the basis of the prophetic-comic demand that he makes to the audience.   He does this, quite simply, through his face and his gestures.

I am overjoyed to see that I am not the only one who has been struck by the prophetic demand of Kaufmann’s comedy.  And I applaud Miriam Katz for the work she has done on Andy Kaufmann.

Here’s is a brief overview of the scene she is a part of in NYC. This article comes from The Village Voice.

In my next blog entry, I hope to further address this article and the merits of her artistic project, which, like mine, is to show the world “out there” that there’s more to the schlemiel than entertainment value.

After Purim, Whither Prophesy? The Legacy of the “Hidden Tradition” (And a New Schlemiel-Anniversary)

In the blog entry entitled “The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 1),” I cited a passage from the Talmudic tractate Baba Batra (12b). The Midrashic passage made the claim that prophesy passed on from the prophets to children and fools. What I didn’t note is the date that prophesy ended: it ended on Purim. Yesterday. This means that today is the anniversary of the first day after the end-of-prophesy.

But what begins after the end of prophesy?

The answer to this question is not so simple. The Midrash from Baba Batra says that after prophesy ends it passes on to fools and children, but Talmud Yoma 39a says that end of prophesy is the beginning of the Oral Tradition.

Here is the passage:

Why is Esther compared to the dawn? To teach you that just like the dawn is the end of the night, so to is Esther likened to the end of all Miracles. But what about Hanukkah? We are talking about miracles mentioned in the prophets. (My translation)

Here, miracles are linked to prophesy. And the reason why Hanukkah is not included within the purview of prophesy is because the Book of Esther is the last recorded prophetic book in the cannon of the written Torah (the book of Prophets – Neveim). The miracles of Hanukkah, which happened chronologically after Purim, are not a part of that cannon and prophetic lineage.

In one of his reflections on Purim, the 18h century Hasidic Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev, who the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem regarded as one of the most important Hasidic mystics, addresses the future of prophesy after Purim.

In this reflection, he begins by citing the line which says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received”(Esther 9:26) the Torah on Purim. In a Midrash from Tractate Shabbath 88a, we learn that this passage marks a distinction between the acceptance of the Torah through Moses and its acceptance and fulfillment during Purim.

Upon receiving the Torah in Exodus 24:7, the Jews said “we will do and we will understand”(Na’sah v’nishma). In contrast, the Book of Esther says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received it.” The obvious question is why is the acceptance of the Torah on Purim different? The answer some Rabbis give is that this reception, on Purim, is out of love while the first reception of the Torah was out of fear.

To illustrate, one of the Midrashim in Shabbath 88a details how God turned the mountain over the Jewish people “like a tub” and said if you do not accept it “here will be your grave.”

Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev reads “fulfilled and received” differently:

Mordechai was the last of the prophets as it says in the Talmud (Yoma 29a). We find that until Mordehcai the light of the Written Torah shined. From Mordechai on, prophesy stopped and the light of the Oral Torah began to shine. From Mordechai on begins the Knesseth G’dolah and the canonization of the prayer book. And this is the meaning of “they fulfilled and received” (the Torah): they received and accepted amongst themselves the Oral Torah from Mordechai onwards. Prophesy had ended and the oral tradition began because, in truth, all the time that there was prophesy, that prophesy was written down. When prophesy ended, it was no longer written down and the light of the Oral Torah took precedence. (D’roosh Purim; my translation)

What I find so fascinating about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s reading is that he, a mystic, would not mention anything about the “other” new beginning of prophesy; namely, that it is now taken on by children and fools. Moreover, many Hasidim see Purim as a holiday which is all about “turning the world over,” a holiday where foolishness is deemed, to some extent, prophetic. Nonetheless, he bears no mention of this other post-prophetic beginning.

By doing this, he is, in effect, teaching us that this tradition of passing prophesy on to fools and children is either not important or it is a “hidden tradition.” It is, to some extent, esoteric.

The term “hidden tradition” is an expression used by Hannah Arendt to describe the history of pariahs and schlemiels which, for her, starts with Heinrich Heine, in Germany (not in Eastern Europe, with the Hasidim or with Yiddish folklore and literature and not in the pre-modern period). I’d argue that Arendt could have gone back much further so as to understand the beginning of this “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel; namely, to the passage from Baba Batra I cited in “The Prophet as Schlemiel (Take 1).”

The question of what begins after the end of prophesy seems to have two answers that lead us in two different directions. The first answer, the one cited in Talmud Yoma and reiterated by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, is that after prophesy ends the oral tradition (the Talmud) begins. Now, Revelation (not prophesy, which is based on Revelation) is confined to learning and, as it says in the Talmud, the “four cubits of Halacha”(Jewish law). The other answer is that after prophesy ends a new type of prophesy arises, one that is given to fools, children, and, as I noted in previous blogs, the man-child, the schlemiel.

Perhaps we can offer a third answer and say that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was hinting at this other answer? After all, what is an Oral tradition? If the Hasidim took the Kabbalah to be the Oral tradition, why wouldn’t they include, within that category, the prophesy of fools, children, and schlemiels? Don’t Hasidim record them in many of their stories? Is the schlemiel – in real life – and in its fictional life participating in this hidden tradition? Are Hasidic stories on the schlemiel parts of this hidden tradition? Were they meant to be esoteric?

The answers to these questions are thought-provoking since schlemiels were well-known to all Hasidim and to all non-Hasidim in Eastern Europe. They weren’t esoteric. However, their legacy, their secret, so to speak, is. It is a “hidden tradition” of sorts.

What new tradition begins today, then, the end of Purim? What new tradition should we celebrate on this anniversary?

On the Schlemiel Theory blog, let’s do something foolish. Let’s follow the Midrash in Talmud Yoma and declare the day after Purim to be the end of one kind of prophesy and the beginning of another! This can be the anniversary of the schlemiel’s birth into the Jewish prophetic tradition – the prophetic tradition of exile and the oblique, comic prophet. Today can be the anniversary of the “hidden tradition.”

Happy schlemiel-anniversary!

Here, in America Everyday is Purim!

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi begins a section entitled “America is for Children” with the following claim: “Purim is for children, so is America.”

This claim can be found in Ezrahi’s commentary on Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son.  To be sure, her text is inspired by the following words of the main character (and schlemiel of the hour) – Motl:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.  He earns money every single day.  “Columbus, who can compare with you!

What does Aleichem mean when he has Motl, a schlemiel say that Purim in America is only one day in Europe but everyday in America?  And how does that relate to the next line: “he earns money every single day?”   What does making money have to do with Purim being everyday in America?  Lastly, what does it mean that Motl turns to an American holiday and says: “Columbus, who can compare with you!”

Ezrahi’s answers are worthy of discussion, especially here, in a blog dedicated to the schlemiel.  They broach a discussion on how the American and European schlemiel differ.  It also spurs a discussion of the difference between Israeli and American Jewishness. Ezrahi says, basically, that the American schlemiel leaves the European one behind – in the dust so to speak.  The American supercedes the European schlemiel.  In America, Purim is everyday.  It is the land of dreams.  In Israel if you will it, as Herzl says, its not a dream.

In this interpretative contrast between Israel and America, knowledge of the interpreter’s place makes s difference: Ezrahi is an American ex-patriot.  She has been living in Israel and teaching in Hebrew University for some time now.  Her latest work, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, pivots on the tension between Israel and America, Homecoming and Diaspora.  She writes, literally, from Israel. And this makes a difference insofar as America, to an Israeli like Ezrahi, looks like a foolish, amnesiac land.

Israel is intimately tied to the history of the Jewish people.  In Israel, Ezrahi says, memory and history is “recovered.”  While in America, reality, the present moment, experience itself is being “rediscovered.”   In America, there is endless forgetfulness.

While the land of Israel (ha’aretz) is the basis for Israeli literature, history, archeology, and politics is the land of Israel, the diasporic Jewish literature of America has no basis in history or a land.

For Ezahi, Israeli literature is consequential.  It is about a real land and real people.  Jewish-American literature is not.  Its based on the schlemiel and swims in virtual reality.

For American Jews, “the text (and not Israel) is, as George Steiner once wrote, “the homeland.”  It is, as Ezrahi says, a “substitute” for the land.  It is a “fictional sovereignty.”  In this land, the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams,” (as Heinrich Heine would say) is the king.  In this land, the land of the free, Purim is every day.

But things have changed.  After the land of Israel was established “fictional sovereignty” becomes a “diasporic privilege.”  It is, in other words, not a necessity.  Life in America – inside and outside of fiction – is the disaporic privilege of the few who ignore the land and the “recovery” of Judaism.  The schlemiel is a diasporic privilege. Israelis don’t have time for it.  They are in reality, not dreams (like us).

To be sure, the life of the postmodern American Jew is dwelling in the pages of fiction.  The key character and the author of these texts is the schlemiel.

But there is more to the story.  This is high culture of diasporic privilege, the low culture also celebrates the Schlemiel.  Diasporic privilege – that is the privilege of the schlemiel – is all around America.

According to Ezrahi, the schlemiel is an American “cultural icon.”

But how did he become a cultural icon?  How did this all happen?  And what does it mean?

Ezrahi’s interpretation of Aleichem’s Motl says it all.  To be sure, we can learn everything we need to know about why America is different from Israel by understanding Aleichem’s words on Purim.

According to Ezahi, the main task of the schlemiel in its  Yiddish-European model incarnation was to “turn things over” (ha’hefuch).  To revise the past – turn it over – through language.  Words.  One creates one’s own Diasporic homeland.

The power of the schlemiel is the power of language.  It is the “substitute” for power and for a homeland.

She calls the schlemiel’s wordcraft “the alechemy of words.”

According to Ezrahi, Aleichem’s schlemiel Motl revises history!  His father dies (which she reads as Europe dying) and he refuses mourning by way of speaking to much.  But more importantly, by going to America and substituting America for Europe.

For Aleichem, as for Modernist writers, language becomes everything.  For Ezrahi, his obsession with words is a denial of history and past trauma.  And this is Motl.  The schlemiel loves playing with language.  But, there is more, you don’t have to be a fictional character or author to play with language and create a “substitute sovereigny”(to substitute for one’s lack of a land and real power).  All you have to be is an American and you’re a schlemiel.  (Presto!)

In America Purim is everyday:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.

And why?

Ezrahi argues that the next line tells us: “He (Motl, the schlemiel) earns money every single day!”

For Ezrahi, this means that Purim is everyday.  Because, in America, one can remain a child (like Motl) and just work a simple job, or, as we hear all the time, the American schlemiel can live the dream.

Even though one is a child, at the very least, every day one can (in America) move from thing to thing.  The American-Jew (and the American, in general) does need any grounding in a land or history.  Living the dream is equivalent to Purim every day.  Moving from thing to thing.  Endless discovery, opportunity, and hope are the name of the American-schlemiel-game.

“Though Motl doesn’t grow, he moves, ultimately acting out his capacious dreams in New York’s streets…The child as a site of a Purim sensibility and as a miniature shlemiel…But no less significant, though seldom remarked, is that it is followed by its antithesis: the embrace of an alternative reality, of America as a space of unlimited possibility.”

Motl, in this American moment, “renounces” what Erazhi calls the “Purim privilege as superfluous.”  And he, the new American schlemiel, embraces “virtual reality.”

For Ezrahi, America is Purim.  Continuous optimism is provided by an endless procession of “simulcura.”  Where does it all come from?  It comes from out of the heartland (and producer) of dreams: Hollywood.

One can be American-Schlemiel if one makes a sacrifice. (Or perhaps this sacrifice has already been made to establish a new (yet virtual) diasporic foundation?)  This, according to Ezrahi, is Motl’s teaching.

In the moment of his ‘yes-saying’ to everything, to America, there is an exchange, that is, a sacrifice: “We can trace the process by which the world of the Shtetl is replaced by the world for America: “Vashti” is exchanged for “Harry” and Purim for Columbus, the coinage of Russian poverty for American capitalism and Yiddish for English.”

This portrayal of Motl as the archetype of the American schlemiel is thought-provoking.  Is Ezrahi right?  Is America caught in the grip of schlemiel dreams?  And should American’s come to terms with their “diasporic privilege?”  If Purim is everyday in America, how is this possible?

What few scholars who have read and commented on about Ezrahi’s book note is that she is portraying Exile (embodied in America) in a negative light.  Even though Purim is everyday in America, it is based on a denial of mourning.  America is, for Ezrahi, amnesia.

The schlemiel is too busy having fun, discovering America, to mourn.  And this is, for Ezrahi, the problem.

As one can guess, Ezrahi says that Israel, on the other hand, has mourned the Holocaust.  It’s fiction and its Jewish life is not based on an alternate reality; Israel is based on the land and on real history not on dreams.  As Ezrahi writes: Israel “is real.”

This would imply that my Purim is emblematized in Motl’s sacrifice and optimism.  My Purim is everyday!

And, worst of all, if I were to agree with Ezarhi’s reading, I would have to say that my life is based on forgetfulness and ahistorical. In my American, schlemiel optimism, I live on dreams.  I don’t live on the land.

Is this something I can accept as an American Jew?

I don’t agree with Ezrahi’s claim that the schlemiel’s optimism is based on the inability of American’s Jews to remember a Europe that they have made “virtual” (Ezrahi calls I.B. Singer’s work, Fiddler on the Roof, etc “the virtual ghetto”).

But I do agree , to some extent, with her argument that the schlemiel is an American “child” (of sorts) who is “moving through space and things.”  But what exactly does it mean to “move through space and things?”

Is the American schlemiel (or the schlemiel in general) a phenomenologist?  As Husserl (and Wiliam Carlos Williams) said, is he going “to the things themselves.”

Ezrahi cites Walter Benjamin to claim that in America the schlemiel is dazzled by things in space.  For Ezrahi, this fascination with things seems to be a distraction from the real thing; the thing that matters for Jews: the land (ha’aretz).

But is this right?  We are far from the prophetic schlemiel.  There are no “demands of the hour” in Ezrahi’s America.  There are no “demands of the hour” on Purim, either.   Only someone who can hear real – not simulated – demands to their Jewishness, is consequential.  For Ezrahi, ha’aretz issues these demands on Jewish identity.  They are the demands of history and the hour.

Without a land, the American schlemiel is, for Ezrahi, inconsequential.  Israelis have a real sovereignty – American Jews do not.  Their sovereignty is imaginary.  Just like Jewish-American identity, which is constantly trying on new Purim clothes.  Changing in and out of ‘things.’

All American Jews are schlemiels who are dancing the Chameleon with Woody Allen’s Zelig: Zelig, the schlemiel with a million faces.  He has no real land.  Zelig sovereignty is inconsequential.  His, like the  optimism of any American Jew, is based on not mourning Europe.

But is this description or, rather, this Zelig challenge right?

I am not ashamed.  I don’t think I have a “diasporic privilege’.  True, I don’t have to worry about ha’aretz every day because I don’t live there. But this doesn’t mean I don’t care and that I have simply left my Jewish identity (tied to ha’aretz) un-recovered.  

Moreover, I don’t think that my Jewish-American existence, my American dreaming, is based on my inability to mourn or my optimism.  

I love America, where every day its Purim!  In America, we’re all children!

My advice to this suggestion: ha’hafook – do what we all can do on Purim: “turn it over!”  Turn over the notion that American is a substitute for Israel.  Turn over the notion that all American’s are schlemiels because they – and not Israelis – are caught up in virtual-Jewish-reality.

One need not worry if, by turning it over, they are being unethical and not mourning or remembering Jewish history and trauma.  Turning over these ideas can help us to understand what is at stake at this hour.  The oblique prophet, the Schlemiel, especially on Purim,shows the way.

Happy Purim!  Don’t renounce your Purim privilege!  There are still things to “turn over.”   After all, its the “demand of the hour!”  Literally!

The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 2)

In yesterday’s blog, we learned from the Talmud Baba Batra that once the last prophet died, prophesy was given over to children, fools, and, as I explained, schlemiels.

To understand what this meant, I cited Martin Buber’s reading of the prophet.

The prophet addresses persons who hear him, who should hear him. He knows himself sent to them in order to place before them the stern alternatives of the hour. Even when he writes his message or has it written, whether it is already spoken or is still to be spoken, it is always intended for particular men, to induce them, as directly as if they were hearers, to recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly

(“Prophesy, Apocalyptic, and the Historical Hour”)

Following Buber’s lead, I argued that “if children and fools have the keys to prophesy, we should understand this to mean that their words, gestures, and actions – and not just the words, gestures, and actions of Buber’s prophet – are ‘always intended for particular men, to induce them…to recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly.’

Even though both the prophetic schlemiel and Buber’s prophet look to “induce” human beings to “recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly,” the prophetic schlemiel and Buber’s prophet are far from having much in common.

They are not simply different; they seem to be opposites.

I noted yesterday that one of the major differences between them had to do with the way they communicate with ‘the people’: a schlemiel communicates obliquely, while the prophet communicates directly.

Moreover, for Buber the prophet is filled with a pathos which is focused on “the demand of the hour.” The prophet is focused and vigilant.

In contrast, the schlemiel isn’t filled with such a pathos and lacks such a focus: the schlemiel is innocent, naïve, and often distracted.

To understand the prophetic schlemiel, we must further pronounce this contrast.

By doing so, we will be able to understand that it is we, the readers, viewers, and interpreters of the schlemiel, who, in seeing his comic relationship with a world that is against him/her, apprehend the “demand of the hour.”

The schlemiel’s lack of pathos, focus, and distraction shares prophesy with us. Their absence gives us a sense of astonishment. Now, if the schlemiel is a prophet, we would have to say that if it weren’t for the schlemiel, we wouldn’t be able to, as Buber writes, recognize “our” situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly.

But how could we recognize the “situations demand for decision” and “act accordingly” through the schlemiel? How can a schlemiel help us to apprehend our demanding situation? That is, how could it help us to apprehend “the demand of the hour?” If the schlemiel makes no direct impassioned plea, how could this be?

Through a schlemiel prophet, as opposed to Buber’s prophet, this demand is heard but oftentimes it is unclear. And since the demand is unclear (or complicated), our “decision” to “act accordingly” is also indefinite. This is the situation we face, after the end of prophesy. If the Talmud is right, then perhaps Buber needs to be reread. Perhaps its time that we revise his definition of prophesy to include the new harbingers of prophesy: children, fools, and schlemiels.

To do this, we need to clearly understand what he means by prophesy.

To my mind, Abraham Joshua Heschel provides us with a way of understanding what Buber means. Moreover, Heschel can help us to figure out what the prophet is and does.

Abraham Joshua Heschel has a lot in common with Buber. He argues that the “nature of man’s response to the divine corresponds to the content apprehension of the divine.” Buber would say that this “content apprehension” is the apprehension of the “demand.”

Heschel calls it the apprehension of divine “pathos.” He also names the prophet’s response: “his response is one of sympathy.”

Divine pathos and prophetic sympathy constitute the alpha and omega of the prophet’s life:

To the prophet the pathos was the predominant and staggering aspect of the divine. Even if in the first place the people’s practical compliance with the divine demand was the purpose of his mission, the inner personal identification with the divine pathos was…the central feature of his life.

Like Walt Whitman or Allan Ginsburg, who, oftentimes repeat things over and over in their poetry so as to create a liturgical or meditative effect, Heschel reiterates pathos and sympathy as if they were the only things that have meaning:

The divine pathos is reflected in his attitude, hopes, and prayers. He was dominated by an intimate concern for the divine concern. Sympathy, then, is the essential mode in which the prophet responds to the divine situation.

And as the passage goes on, Heschel becomes more passionate. He dramatizes the essence of this “overwhelming” encounter with God’s pathos, which should ultimately result in the “courage to act against the world.”

The pathos of God is upon him. It moves him. It breaks out in him like a storm in his soul overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, his feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.

Heschel equates courage with prophetic vigilance. The prophet is awake to suffering and evil while the world is asleep. His words awaken us:

Like a scream in the night is the prophets word. The world is at east and asleep, while the prophet is hit by a blast from heaven. No one seems to hear the distress in the world; no one seems to care when the poor is suppressed.

In the following passage, Heschel dramatizes prophetic hypersensitivity:

A single crime – to us it is slight, but to the prophet – a disaster. The prophet’s scream which sounds hysterical to us is like a subdued sigh to him. Exaggeration to us is understatement to him.

At this point, and in response to these passages, we need to ask some simple questions:

1) Does the schlemiel, like the prophet, need “courage” to act against the world?

2) Or does the schlemiel naturally act against the world unbeknownst to himself?

3) Does the schlemiel respond like the prophet responds to reality?

4) Does the schlemiel have pathos?

5) Or is it the reader who does?

6) Is the Schlemiel Vigilant awake while other people are asleep?

7) Is he traumatized by “a single crime” and see it as a “disaster?”

8) Does the schlemiel scream for justice?

9) Are his words “like a scream”?

Let’s try to answer these questions.

First of all, the schlemiel doesn’t need courage to act against the world. Because if a schlemiel doesn’t, to begin with, understand the world or recognize it’s evil, it doesn’t need courage to “act against it.”

S/he is absent-minded and unbeknownst to him/herself s/he acts against the world simply by misunderstanding it.

In response, the world, in most schlemiel stories, novels, plays, and films, laughs at him.

True, the Jewish fool is driven by a passion – but it is the passion of distraction.

The only way the Schlemiel’s words can prophetically scream at us, because the schlemiel can’t, is if they are read against the world. And this requires us, as readers, to relive this tension between the schlemiel and the world.

This requires us to relive and interpret the schlemiel’s gestures, words, and actions.

For in doing so, we may be able to experience the “demand of the hour.”

That way we can, perhaps, act. It all depends on how we read this character. This reading, assuming it is possible, is what we will call prophesy. It is given to us as a gift, so to speak, by the schlemiel.

This reading should bring us close enough to ‘the demand of the hour,’ to know better what our options are.

More to the point, we can say that the schlemiel shares this demand with us. However, it is only shared if we read the schlemiel’s oblique words, gestures, and actions against the world. And the more we pronounce this tension, the more the demand will be pronounced. This reading, this possibility, can expose us to the “demand of the hour.”

How we act in relation to “the hour” is another question.

Each hour may be the last. And each situation is different. What is prophetically demanded or required in relation to that hour is unique, unrepeatable, and unpredictable.

By closely reading the schlemiel, prophesy and the hour can be shared. Or as Derrida would say in his essay on Paul Celan entitled “Shibboleth,” the hour (what Derrida, reading Celan’s poems calls the date) is or can be partage (shared).

The schlemiel comically shares the demand of the hour, obliquely. The laugh that laughs at the laugh, the subtitle of this blog (which comes out of Samuel Beckett) participates in this sharing. It is a type of interpretation or reliving that laughs at the laugh that laughs at the schlemiel. This laughter is – so to speak – the laughter of the hour. (We will return to this idea in the very near future.)

In my next blog entry (or the one after, as tomorrow is Purim!), I will provide an example of such sharing and such laughter.

So sayeth the schlemiel, the lord of dreams!

The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 1)

R. Johanan said: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children. How given to fools? — The case of Mar son of R. Ashi will illustrate. He was one day standing in the manor of Mahuza4  when he heard a certain lunatic exclaim: The man who is to be elected head of the Academy in Matha Mehasia5  signs his name Tabiumi. He said to himself: Who among the Rabbis signs his name Tabiumi? I do. This seems to show that my lucky time has come. So he quickly went to Matha Mehasia. When he arrived, he found that the Rabbis had voted to appoint R. Aha of Difti as their head…


How has prophecy been given to children? A case in point is that of the daughter of R. Hisda. She was sitting on her father’s lap, and in front of him were sitting Raba and Rami b. Hama. He said to her: Which of them would you like? She replied: Both. Whereupon Raba said: And let me be the second.9  (Baba Batra 12B)

The Talmud passage cited above says that after the age of the prophets ended prophesy was passed on to children and fools.   Why children and fools?  One way of approaching this, a way which, I think, was taken up by some of the first Hasidic teachers and the first Yiddish writers on the schlemiel, was to see children and fools as being more simple and close to God and/or truth than adults.  Since adults live according to strict laws of custom, logic, and what Jacques Derrida would call “the proper,” they miss a truth or reality that supercedes reason and custom.

Against the claims made by Islamic and Jewish philosophers like Al-Farabi and Moses Maimonides, the Talmud shows that prophesy need not be based solely on reason.  For Maimonides, Moses was the greatest prophet because, he, unlike Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and others before him, didn’t relate to God through dreams or the Imagination.  Rather, Moses spoke to God, face-to-face; that is, in ways that are not mediated by the imagination or dreams.  Maimonides – like Al-Farabi – held that prophesy, for it to be true, must come through a perfected individual.  By that, he meant a person who has perfected his intellect.

Maimonides and Al-Farabi would most likely argue that the words of children and fools have nothing prophetic to them whatsoever because they are tainted by the imagination and dreams.  If anything, it would be the interpreter who has the upper hand since the interpreter can (for both Al-Farabi and Maimonides) discover the rational content of prophetic symbols.

Nonetheless, the Talmud says that children and fools have the keys to prophesy not Rabbis.


Children and fools are more receptive and are able to receive what, in Kabbalah, would be called a shefa (a divine influx).  The problem, however, is that children and fools will have a hard time translating such mystical or prophetic experiences into a shared language.  Perhaps this is why modern writers like Faulkner, Doestoevsky, Appelfeld, Grossman, Rushdie et al were so interested in writing from a child or fool’s perspective.

But they did this for one major reason: namely, they did it for us, for the reader to relive, translate, and perhaps even to mimic (we will return to this in another blog) what these fools are saying into a demand (and not simply a meaning) that impacts us, so to speak, in a mystical and prophetic manner.

But what is the point of this “impact”?   And what is the demand that is issued by a Schlemiel?  To be sure, schlemiels are usually very humble and undemanding characters.  Motl and Gimpel, for instance, don’t make any demands on anyone.

Prophesy, as Martin Buber understood it, has much to do with turning to and responding to God (with Teshuva).  The prophet screams out to his people from the midst of a crisis and draws them into it so that they can feel a “demand of the hour.”

Buber writes:

The prophet addresses persons who hear him, who should hear him.  He knows himself sent to them in order to place before them the stern alternatives of the hour.  Even when he writes his message or has it written, whether it is already spoken or is still to be spoken, it is always intended for particular men, to induce them, as directly as if they were hearers, to recognized their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly

(“Prophesy, Apocalyptic, and the Historical Hour”)

I would argue that if children and fools have the keys to prophesy, we should understand this to mean that their words, gestures, and actions are “always intended for particular men, to induce them…to recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly.”

There is a problem, however.  Although, the schlemiel speaks to the heart, it is also possible that the message may be unclear and mystical.  As Gershom Scholem points out, the prophet often speaks directly to the heart, the mystic, however, is more complex. The message of the mystic must be interpreted.

Drawing on Scholem, I would suggest that a schlemiel is a mystical/prophetic type whose words and gestures may often speak to the heart yet, at times, they require interpretation.

By interpreting the words of the schlemiel, by mimicking or reliving them, we can be “induced” to “recognize” the “situation’s demand” and not simply their rational content.   The schlemiel gives us a sense of this immanent demand of the hour – of something that must be addressed, now.

Many modern and postmodern writers echo the Talmud’s claims about prophesy since they find the words of fools, children, and schlemiels can teach us about the “demand” of what is and what is to come.  The character’s simple (yet ironic) vision of things, although it misses the way things should “properly” be understood, can, when interpreted, disclose something odd, wonderful, and even horrifying about existence and time.

Many of my favorite novelists who use children or fools’ voices give me a sense of an ominous past, a fragile present, and a pressing future.

It is not for no reason, then, that the first major Hasidic tales by Rabbi Nachman popularized the Schlemiel as a simpleton.  Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, points out that Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiels were, in fact, the first literary schlemiels and had a major impact on Yiddish writers who took the Schlemiel as their main character in nearly all of their stories, plays, and novels.

But the demands of Rabbi Nachman and the Yiddishist writers differ greatly.

The schlemiel’s prophetic aspect had much to do with simple faith in God and in what is to come.  The demand, in Rabbi Nachaman’s short stories on the Schlemiel, is the demand of faith.  This, of course, is a joke for the majority of people who, as Rabbi Nachman understood, didn’t understand (or care to understand) the meaning of simple faith and love of God.   They had no interest in harkening to its demand or as Buber would say “the demand of the hour.”

For modern man, the demand of the hour is either not felt or it comes from somewhere else (not from God).

The irony of all this talk about demands being issued by a Jewish fool is that such a demand comes through an apprehension of the schlemiel’s absent-mindedness.  It is through a juxtaposition of absent-mindedness to the way things really “are” that we can feel the “impact” and the “demand” of the hour. 


For instance, when I.B. Singer’s Gimpel trusts everyone and they endlessly betray him by lying to him, this demand comes to the fore.

As I will show in future blogs, this demand may be felt in the most jarring ways, but, unlike Buber, I’m not so sure we can say that we will know how to “act accordingly” to the demand after we recognize it.

For instance, in Robert Walser’s stories or in Kafka’s stories, we hear a demand spoken to us through a number of different schlemiels.  But, as readers, as interpreters, we often don’t know what to do in response to these demands.

Moreover, its hard to figure out what exactly is demanded by way of these schlemiels.  If anything, sometimes the mimicking, interpreting, and reliving of a schlemiel’s odd life and observations can lead to a kind of paralysis.  S/he may be wrong, but is, for instance, the society or chorus that laughs at him any better?  Is it they who should change? Or is it we who should change? How about the schlemiel?  Perhaps it the case that we should act like the schlemiel?  But that would be ridiculous and irresponsible.  Right?  Perhaps s/he should remain the same and we should demand justice for this character?

It all Started with a Dream or Schlemiel Origins (Take 2): My Dad’s American Dream(s)

Like many a schlemiel, I have inherited my father’s story.  I have inherited his dreams and his failures.  His story is a major part of my own.  But it’s a long story with lots of twists and turns.  And one blog entry will certainly not do justice to it.  So, rest assured, I will turn back to this story in future blog entries.  As I hope to show, over a few blogs, the impetus for any consequential schlemiel story is not foolishness; it’s the clash between dreams and reality.  But, while it begins in trauma, it doesn’t end in trauma.  Which is not to say that the schlemiel’s story has gone beyond it; in fact, the schlemiel’s story, while humorous (depending on what you regard as humor), is not redemptive.

The schlemiel’s story is on-the-way to redemption, to something better, to something else.

(Note: do keep in mind that this blog is named Schlemiel Theory and that the secret of Schlemiel theory is Schlemiel practice.  Regardless, I would be dishonest if I were to say that my theoretical insights into this character had nothing to do with my relationship to my father who, as I hope to show, possessed many Schlemiel-like qualities.  He was my first schlemiel-teacher.  And while I will do my utmost to be ‘objective’, I must admit at the offset that his schlemiel-teachings, so to speak, bleed into my work.)

Ok, so here it goes:

Growing up, regardless of how much I tried to deny it, I looked at myself in terms of my father’s dreams.  And I measured them against his successes and failures.  The tension between his dreams and reality introduced me into the dynamic schlemiel-universe where the forces of dreams and actions interact, exchange, and transform reality (for the better or for the worse).

As with any Schlemiel, it all starts with a dream.  And that dream was not a Jewish dream; it was an American dream.

My dad was a boy-genius who dreamed the post-WWII dreams of America.  He grew up walking the streets of Manhattan, marveling at its skyscrapers and urban life.  He lived on the Upper West Side in a nine room flat (89th and West End Avenue) until he went to high school.  Then, he and his family moved to the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West.   They were moving up on the social ladder.

They had a chauffer and a chef.  They had a view that said one thing to my immigrant grandparents: We made it!  In America dreams do come true!

My father was the son of an extremely successful Leather merchant who came over from Europe to make a living.  Menachem Menkis, who I am named after, grew up above a synagogue in a small town in the mountains.   His father was the Rabbi.  And when Menkis (the name he went by) was old enough, he left for school in Vienna and for a stint in WWI.

My grandfather was a Corporal for the Austrian military.  He led a Jewish-Polish platoon and, for his service, was given many medals and honors.  He was proud of his achievements; he certainly didn’t think of himself as a schlemiel.  For as any German or Austrian knew, a schlemiel is not something you want to be.  A successful and committed soldier is, as I will show in another blog, not a schlemiel.

But this was only one success.

Menkis learned the leather business in Austria and, before coming to America, he did a lot of business in Odessa. Upon coming to America, he met my grandmother Rose (who was, at that time, his secretary).  They married, had several children, and moved their way up.

My father was the youngest son.

(Be forewarned, this may sound a little like Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral; but that’s for another post. Roth has a fair share of Schlemiels in his novels and he did, in fact, write about a Leather family and the small town I grew up in: Gloversville, NY.)

My dad, who my grandfather named Marshall (all of his children save for one had Germanic names), was a child prodigy.  He spent most of his days, after school, in the New York Public Library.  He worked hard and constantly studied.  When I was growing up, he used to tell me that he memorized the dictionary and could give me any definition (on the spot).  His obsession with New York Times crosswords and his incessant correction of my speech constantly reminded me of his grammatical passion.

He went on to become the Valedictorian of Brooklyn Science. And, after being offered fellowships to Harvard, Yale, MIT, etc he decided to go to Columbia University.  He wanted to stay in Manhattan.

He studied economics, politics, and engineering at Columbia and went on to be the  Valedictorian.   His Valedictorian speech bore his passion: to get the man on the moon.  The sciences were the way for America and my father believed he was at the crest of its wave. This was his first big dream.  And America gave him the opportunity to “live it.”

His brilliance won him the NASA Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University.  My father accepted the scholarship and went on to doctoral study in engineering and physics.  During Vietnam, he worked for the American military and designed weapons and war games.   After his service was filled, he went on to work for Lockeed-Martin while working on his doctoral thesis.

But when his father decided to retire, my father left his doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University for the Leather Business.  His dream changed.

He was offered one fourth of a multi-million dollar making leather business.  He would have to share it with his three brothers.   When he accepted, strangely enough, his brother Jack died.

Now, it was my father, his oldest brother Irwin, and his older brother Myron (Mike).

Then my grandfather passed away.

That’s when it all went downhill and that’s when my father’s dreams started crashing on the shores of reality.

My father was kicked out of the family business.  He always claimed that they had doctored the will so that they could split all of the money and assets 50/50.  (And this lead to a lifetime of dramatic law suits, which I will recount in another blog.)

I was born into this world; a world that had spun out of control.  My father was on his own.  His oldest brother cursed him.  And, as I learned, he also cursed me and my mother.  We were all damned.   We were forbidden to see his side of the family from then on.  (My grandmother, who I didn’t meet until she was on her deathbed, was forced to go along with it all.)  It didn’t (and it doesn’t) make any sense.

Against all the odds, my father managed to build his own leather business.  He had a factory in Gloversville, New York and in Buenos Aires, Argentina.   That worked…for a little while.  But then Argentina went down the tubes.

I remember, when I was six years old, when the bottom fell out.  My father grew morbid and then manic.  My grandfather (father’s mother) sent my father off to Elmhurst Hospital, which at that time, was one of the worst in the city. My father would always bring this up as he was traumatized by what he saw.  As a child, he used to recall to me the madness on the ward.  He described things to me that were shocking and inappropriate for a child’s ears.  As a child who grew up in wealthy Manhattan and in the Ivy League, my father had never seen this side of life.  It lingered with him.

My father’s mania, coupled with events that were real, such as real crime, and real threats, was a mixture of reality and fantasy.

As a child, I wasn’t sure which was which.  He always managed to use reality as evidence.  But I knew something was wrong.

As time moved on, he grew interested in Kabbalah and described the world and all events through it.  His Kabbalah was a mixture of science, physics, mathematics, and prophesy.

I was his main audience.  He would educate me.  I was to carry on his dreams and visions.  He would take me along on his Schlemiel journeys across America.  (I’ll divulge some of the details of that itinerary at another time.)   My mother was at a loss at what to do.

It took me years to figure out that what my father really was and what he wanted to teach me was how to live on air.   A schlemiel lives on dreams.  A schlemiel doesn’t see reality.  But is this so bad?  Who needs to dream when reality can become your dream?  And what happens when that dream is made out of reality?  And what happens when odd or twisted dreams actually change reality?  (To be continued…)

Personal Accounts of the Schlemiel (Take 1) – Schlemiel, the Son of Schlemiel

Aristotle starts off his most cited book, The Metaphysics, with the classic line “All men by nature desire to know.”  Oedipus also desired to know, but when he found out that he killed his father and married his mother, he cursed this desire.  The philosopher doesn’t seem to have a problem with knowledge, but Sophocles, who wrote the play Oedipus Rex, does.

The reason: knowledge of origins is beneficial to a philosopher; tragic for a believer in myth and religion.

I suppose that the knowledge of the schlemiel falls somewhere inbetween.  First of all, its good to know, in the most academic sense, “what” the schlemiel is; on the other hand, and contrary to popular wisdom about comedy, the path to understanding the schlemiel must inevitably lead through an encounter with troubling things.

Ok, so I’m going to take a brief moment to look into my personal desire to know the  schlemiel.  Perhaps it is informed by the Socratic desire to “know oneself?”

Hopefully, in the end, I won’t be like Oedipus and poke my eyes out from shame when I find out why I am a schlemiel or why I desire to know the schlemiel.

I loved watching schlemiels on TV, reading about them in books, and seeing them in this or that film.

But the schlemiel was not merely something I found in books, films, or plays.  It was part and parcel of my life.   Like a schlemiel who has a hard time catching up with what’s going on, it took me a while to find this out. The schlemiel wasn’t far from home.

The people around me: my father, mother, my father’s best friend, and my family (the half that we could visit and know and the half that wouldn’t speak to us because of a family feud over money).  My life circumstances: full of childhood trauma, my father’s madness, and an awkwardness fitting into a small town as a Jew.  These realities made the schlemiel tangible; they gave this character life and vitality.

I was in the world, but not of it.

But I was not simply a “lord of dreams” (a word used by Heinrich Heine, the famous Jewish-German poet to describe the Schlemiel).  I lived in the world of small-town America.  When a baseball was fired in my direction, I caught it.  For the son of a New York intellectual who had little to no interest in sports (save for the Yankees), I did well.  I was accepted.  However, there were other times I was not.  And this hurt.  It reminded me that something was odd.

It was in the space between being accepted and not being accepted that I started to feel like a schlemiel.  I was and was not in control of myself and my world.  And I knew it – but only obliquely.  My father, however, didn’t.  He was always a star.

I was – from time to time – the odd one out but so were people around me, only, they didn’t know it.  I did and I didn’t know.  Growing up, I couldn’t put my finger on it.

My existential position as an American Jew growing up in a small town with parents from New York City proved to me that an American schlemiel is not simply a “lord of dreams” or a being that is unable to control themselves or the world; furthermore, an American schlemiel is not simply a character who lives in denial of history and is obsessed with the present as the Disaporic moment of creativity and change.

The schlemiel, this schlemiel, needs to understand himself in terms of what set him off into imagining and acting in a world that was ironically out-of -joint.   This schlemiel is somewhere between a man and a child, somewhere between the world and worldlessness.  And this movement back and forth has taught me that the schlemiel is not simply a concept; it is a way of relating: to myself, my Jewishness, and my world.

Given that the schlemiel’s life is marred (or blessed, depending on your point of view) by some form of absent-mindedness, its fair to say that a schlemiel moment can be found either in remembering the past, almost living in the present, or falsely anticipating the future.  The schlemiel, this schlemiel, is a creature of time, trauma, memory, and thought.

As I mentioned in the first blog, the schlemiel is on a growth curve.


Me, Schlemiel: man-child

Like many a schlemiel, I have inherited my father’s story.

I am Matthew Menachem Feuer: Schlemiel ben Schlemiel: Schlemiel, “the Son of a Schlemiel.”  What will my fate be?  Will I, like Oedipus, go mad if I find out?

Perhaps what makes a schlemiel so appealing is that she doesn’t know the whole story.

So what happens when a schlemiel does what Freud would call interminable self-analysis?  Does the failure to complete this knowledge lead to me schlemiel-hood?

That said, I’ll state it flatly, so there can be no mistake:

My father’s schlemiel story is a major part of my own. I’ll share some of it in the next blog.

The past is (to some extent) prologue…

Who is the Schlemiel?

So let’s set the record straight!  I’ve been getting all of these phone calls, emails, text messages demanding that I divulge (Tweet) the secret of the schlemiel.

The who?  The what?  The Schlemiel, stupid?   Oh…he’s a Jewish fool.

If you were to ask a person on the street what a Jewish fool is, you’d get a lot of different identifications.  More or less names of movie star schlemiels: Woody Allen, Larry David, Seth Rogen, Groucho Marx, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Brad Pitt (oh, sorry, he’s not a schlemiel).  But these identifications will get us nowhere unless we decipher some common traits.  But perhaps these are local to Hollywood and not New York or Newark Schlemiels (think of Phillip Roth).  But aren’t the first schlemiels from Yiddish shtetls?

So, what’s Jewish about the schlemiel’s foolishness?  Let’s start by saying that the schlemiel’s foolishness is particular to Jews and yet it also has a few traits that are common to all of the wonderful folkloric fools and idiots we see walking through the pages of culture.

First of all, a schlemiel is inseparable from the transition from childhood to manhood.

A schlemiel is caught up in a growth curve.

S/he is somewhere between a child and a man.  S/he is timid and humble.  S/he seems to be on the fringe of manhood.  But can’t make the step.  And when s/he tries, s/he fails miserably (not from her perspective, but from ours).  S/he is the basis for our seeing the tension between good and evil.  The schlemiel shows us the margin between man and the social.

A schlemiel is naïve, trusting, and yet, here is the rub, s/he is the butt of a sick joke.

Like the Jewish God, the schlemiel seems to be “in the world, but not of it.”  The schlemiel has a strange kind of transcendence.  Its comic existence is naïve, good, yet, a travesty.  Something is right with the Jewish fool and yet something is also profoundly wrong.  But what’s wrong may or may not have to do with the character.

This mixed reality has great resonance for me.

Here’s one example.  Sholom Aliechem’s character, Motl.   In Motl: The Cantor’s Son, Motl is a schlemiel.  And from him we can learn about what kind of blindness is befitting this character.

His novel on Motl begins with Motl playing with a cow.  He imitates the sounds of the cow.  This act is the epitome of innocence and timidity.  He mimics life, but he can’t understand pain and suffering.  He is attached, like many children, to the endless play and glimmer of things-in-flux.  He, a simpleton, learns from everything by playing with it, riffing on it, fiddling with it, imitating it.

The schlemiel’s actions bespeak infancy.  (As Augustine says, infancy is associated with a state that is prior to language.  The schlemiel’s sounding off with the Cow bespeaks its close times to infancy and the mother.  His speech is not yet logic; it is play.  As Jean-Francois Lyotard says in the Inhuman, our language and thought are “indebted” to childhood, to infancy.  Motl’s deeds bespeak our debt; but we can’t pay it off as we are torn by reality and evil.  As readers, we notice that Motl doesn’t see the evil in the world.  In fact, it is the world that doesn’t recognize this debt.  And this knowledge puts the reader in a difficult place).

Motl’s innocence appears to us through the lens of juxtaposition.    As readers, we notice that he is hit with the suffering and eventual death of his father, a Cantor (a Jewish singer).  He sees his mother crying all the time at their woes and Motl’s now being an orphan.  The problem, however, is that Motl can’t understand what is happening to him while it happens.

For us, his innocence is laughable but it is truly sad.  He can’t understand suffering; we can.  However, this is not tragic: for his optimism and hope, while “stupid,” teaches us something about goodness and its bifurcation from the good.

We look at him and we yearn for goodness.   We also understand how hard it is to understand how a child, through suffering, becomes a man.  But, in a way, we don’t want him to change.

Motl is a man-child.  He can’t change because he can’t truly understand himself and his condition.  Reflecting on this, we see a rift within ourselves, a Jewish paradigm so to speak, is dwelling within Motl’s goodness and its failure to come to terms with suffering.

So, what happened to Motl?  Did he live on?  Where?

David Grossman, in his novel See: Under Love (in the first book, Momik) suggests that Motl died in Europe during the Holocaust.  Grossman’s message: We can no longer cling to man’s innocence after the Holocaust.  The schlemiel, at least in Israel, is dead.

Can we be so sure, though?   And who are “we?”

By “we” Grossman means Israelis.  Not Jewish-Americans.

The schlemiel came to the USA before the Holocaust started and it remained and retained its innocence after the Holocaust.   But what does this mean?

To answer this question, I simply looked at myself and I looked to other schlemiel theories.  After reading Motl, I thought that I must be schlemiel.  So, I figured, if I’m a schlemiel I need to understand who or what this character is, trace it roots, see how my life contradicts or demonstrates what these schlemiel theories evince.

What did I find?

I found schlemiels differed from region to region.

In his book Jewish Self-Hatred, Sander Gilman focuses on the German variety of the schlemiel.  He defines a schlemiel in terms of the Enlightenment.  Unlike Kant’s autonomous subject who has control over himself and the world, the schlemiel is a “character who has no control over the world or himself.”   Yes, he is a man-child.  And this means that he is unable to take responsibility for himself/herself because he doesn’t think or act in the proper (Enlghtened) manner.

The schlemiel lacks freedom, reason, and autonomy and, for this reason, is an outsider.  The schlemiel is not in the world and, for Gilman, was created for the sole purpose of pointing out to German-Jews looking to fit in to the German world what NOT to be.

That didn’t jibe with me.

I didn’t look negatively at the schlemiel.  My American upbringing, I thought, may have to do with this.  I saw schlemiels all over the place in my family, my community, my Jewish world.  And, hey, they were getting away with it!


The American schlemiel, in contrast to the German one, is praised for his dreaming.  Sidrah Ezrahi calls him a “cultural icon.”  But, for her, this also has a negative valance.  Even though the American schlemiel is a cultural icon, it is ultimately a figure of forgetfulness and Diaspora.  Ezrahi argues that the American schlemiel is naïve in the sense that it is constantly surprised.  Like Motl.

But this surprise is premised on forgetfulness; namely of Jewish history and the Holocaust as the end, so to speak, of Motl and the schlemiel.

Ezrahi is an American ex-patriot, writing about the schlemiel from the land that the schlemiel of old used to dream of: Israel.

Ok, so I’m not an Israeli and I don’t seem to have this perspective on this character.

Am I an American schlemiel?  Is he my icon?  And what does this mean? Am I nourished by “constant surprise” – the bread and butter of the Diasporic?  Do I do this as a substitute for “real power” – that is, a land of my own.  Ezrahi says that the schlemiel’s power – his/her incessant use and play with language (the schlemiel as creative comic dynamo) – is a substitute for a lack of power.

Must I “realize” that, as a schlemiel, I really am powerless, and that language and humor are just covering up my “lack?”

Hey, this schlemiel stuff is no longer funny!

Ok, that’s the first taste of schlemiel theory in this blog.  But what does it all mean to ME?  (That’s for blog number two!)