What happens to the Schlemiel after the Holocaust?
This is a very complicated question. In one entry, I discussed the end of the schlemiel by way of the story of Menachem Kipinis, a reporter who acted as if he was reporting on the town of Chelm (a real town in Poland, and a fictional town in Jewish folklore). Chelm, as I explained there, is a town of schlemiels. As the story about Kipinis goes, he, the schlemiel reporter, along with all of the living Jewish members of Chelm, found their end in concentration camps. I suggested, there, that I was here to continue reporting on the schlemiel whose existence now transcends the boundaries of the real or fictional town.
In another entry on the post-Holocaust schlemiel, I noted that, for Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, the schlemiel lives on in America, but not in Israel, because America has not properly mourned the Holocaust and the end of European Jewry. It lives on in America as a cultural icon; it lives on in a culture dominated by Simulcura. Here, in America, after the Holocaust, the schlemiel finds its home in Hollywood. One need only think of Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Larry David, Seth Rogen, etc to get a sense of what she is getting at.
For Ezrahi, the schlemiel takes part in what she calls “Diasporic privilege.” This privilege is not restricted to the domain of Hollywood and popular culture; in fact, it is found in high, literary, culture. Regarding this, Ezrahi notes that the schlemiel is bound to a textual homeland not to a real land such as Israel. It is a figure of endless discovery not, as in Israel, a figure of historical recovery. It’s trope is the trope of Diaspora not Homecoming.
In today’s blog, I’d like to suggest another route for the post-Holocaust schlemiel; one mapped out by Nathan Englander in his short story “The Tumblers.” This route takes us into a scenario where the schlemiel lives on, but as damaged by history.
Ezrahi is correct when she claims that, with books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Compalint (and after 1967), American Jews can no longer think of themselves without thinking of Israel. Jewish identity has changed radically, she says. We are no longer, simply, schlemiels. In fact, the American schlemiel battles, as we see in Portnoy’s Complaint, with the Sabra (I will return to this in another blog entry).
However, Ezrahi is not correct on all accounts. There is a post-Holocaust schlemiel in America, one she doesn’t recognize, one that has yet to be researched. As I would like to suggest, Englander, someone who has not survived the Holocaust and is far from its origin, recognizes that an American-Jew can’t look to the schlemiel as his predecessors did. If at all, the schlemiel takes on a new shade.
Englander’s story appears in the book For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
“The Tumblers” takes place in Chelm at the beginning of the Holocaust:
“Who would have thought that a war of such proportion would bother to turn its fury against the fools of Chelm?”
First off, we learn of the main character, Mendl, who descends from the legendary “Gronam the Ox.” He inherits Chelm and he carries on this legacy which, as the story goes on, changes.
Before the big changes happen, we learn that “Gronam’s logic was still employed when the invaders built the walls around the corner of the city, creating the Ghetto of Chelm”(28).
This schlemiel logic was used to make light of the difficult things: “they called their aches “mother’s milk,” the darkness became “freedom”; filth they referred to as “hope”(28). This is the logic of the faithful simpelton (the tam) – who as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – in his stories – taught is the schlemiel.
However, there is a limit to their substitutions and that limit is death: “It was only death that they could not rename, for they had nothing to put in its place. This is when they become sad and felt their hunger and when some began to lose their faith in God”(28).
At this moment, the narrator tells us that “This is when the Mahmir Rebbe, the most pious of them all, sent Mendel outside the walls”(28).
Mendel, although a schlemiel, goes out to learn what is going on. We witness how Mendel filters much of what he knows through the mind of a schlemiel. He struggles with what he sees; none of it makes sense. When he meets up with an orphan friend named Yocheved, she tells him of how she and he will run away to a farm and eat duck. Like any schlemiel, he dreams his hunger away.
However, he loses his innocence and much of his dream logic when he sees Yocheved killed by a bullet. The description of her death, as seen through his eyes, is a measure of his incomprehension and his new, liminal sense of existence. As the narrator points out, Yocheved would not have died had she not been startled by the beating of her uncle. Her death, both real and represented, is mixed with aesthetics, shock, and religious confusion.
The bullet left a ruby hole that resembled a charm an immodest gril might wear. Yocheved touched a finger to her throat and turned her gaze toward the sky, wondering from where such a strange gift had come. Only Mendel looked back at the sound of the shot: the other had learned the lessons of Sodom. (35)
Mendel is damaged by this memory. He has seen death. But he moves on and doesn’t give up hope.
His Rabbi tells him and his group of Hasidim to shave off their beards and to dress like they are secular people. They all manage to escape and stumble upon a circus train by way of passages built by way of schlemiel logic.
This leads them to the next game they must play. They are taken to be acrobats by the other circus performs in a train. They take them for such performers because of their thin, Jewish bodies. Now, to survive, they must act “as if” they are acrobats.
The rest of the ride to their first performance, Mendel learns how to do a few acts from the other performers on the train and he relays them to his fellow schlemiels.
They learn them as best they can, but when the moment of truth comes, and they have to perform before an audience of high officials, they fail.
However, their failure saves them, since the audience takes them to be acting “as if” they are Jews who “tumble” all over each other.
What bothers Mendel most about all of this is that the world they are performing for – the world the circus performers are performing for – is “efficient” and “orderly” in a violent sense. In Chelm, where the order was loose and playful, there was no such violence.
Moreover, Mendel realizes that to be ordered, as a performer, one must act as if he or she is something when he or she is not. He notices that the art of the circus performers is based on a forced kind of duplicity.
At the end of the story, he puts his hands up. Unlike other schlemiels, the narrator notes that Mendel’s hands are not soft and humble, they are “cracked and bloodless, gnarled and intrusive”(54). These are the hands of a post-Holocaust schlemiel.
Englander ends his story by reminding us that Mendel’s hands, the hands of this accidental entertainer, are different from the hands that have died in the Holocaust:
But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks of boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies. (55)
As a reader, we now know that we cannot think of the schlemiel without thinking of the Holocaust. This is the novelty that Englander wants us to come to terms with. This isn’t a Hollywood Schlemiel and it isn’t a schlemiel whose homeland is the text, as Ezrahi claims with so many other schlemiels.
Rather, Englander teaches us that we American-Jews who live in the shadow of the Holocaust can no longer think of the schlemiel in the same way; regardless, he knows that the schlemiel, Mendel, lives on. But, as Englander shows us through his creative fiction, he lives on in shame.
His irony – the irony of the schlemiel – is no longer fictional; it is historical.