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!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s