I.B. Singer on the Schlemiel (a.k.a. “Little Man”)


In a 1968 Paris Review interview with Harold Flender, I.B. Singer, the Nobel Prize winning Yiddish writer, was asked about the schlemiel.  However, the name schlemiel wasn’t used in Flender’s question.  Rather, Flender uses the word “little man.”   His question to Singer and Singer’s response are telling as they suggest a break in the tradition and something different about I.B. Singer’s schlemiel:

Flender: The hero of most Western writing is the Superman, the Promethean character.  The hero of Yiddish fiction, Jewish writing, seems to be the little man.  He’s a poor but proud man always struggling.  And your classic example of the little man would be Gimpel the Fool.  How do you account for the fact that in so much Yiddish fiction the hero is the little man?

In response to Flender’s question, Singer begins by noting that the Yiddish writer was not “really brought up on ideas of heroes” and that there are “very few heroes in the Jewish ghettos.”   Singer’s initial response is echoes throughout Daniel Boyarin’s book Unheroic Conduct, which provides much evidence that Jews associated knights, duelists, and heroes with “Goyishe Nachas” (non-Jewish joy); in apposition to this, says Boyarin, is the Jewish ideal of humility (“Yiddishe Nachas”).  For Boyarin, the person who embodies this ideal is, literally, the little man (Boyarin sometimes uses images from Passover Haggadoth to illustrate how important the “little man” was to Jews in the Middle Ages).  For Boyarin, this tradition was challenged by Jews in the west who looked to be more heroic.  In contrast, in the Eastern part of Europe, where Singer and Yiddish literature emerge, the ideal lives on.

Although Singer is aware of this tradition of the “little man” in Jewish history and Yiddish literature, he understands it differently from Boyarin (who sees it in a positive light and, in fact, calls for a return to such smallness in his book).  We see this in his response to Flender:

In my own case, I don’t think I write in the tradition of the Yiddish writers’ “little man,” because their little man is actually a victim – a man who is a victim to anti-Semitism, the economic situation, and so on.  My characters, though they are not big men in the sense that they play a big part in the world, still they are not little, because in their own fashion they are men of character, men of thinking, men of great suffering.

Reading this, one might be astounded because Gimpel seems to be a victim of sorts in the sense that the community perpetually lies to him and he seems takes the bait.  Ruth Wisse, writing of Gimpel, argues that he does in fact have some understanding of these tricks but he goes on, still.  And, for Wisse, this has much to do with the survival of morality in the wake of the Holocaust.  Regardless of what one may think, however, Gimpel is still a “little man.” Singer shrugs his shoulders and admits to this, yet with a difference which is brought up by virtue of a comparison with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye:

It is true that Gimpel the Fool is a little man, but he’s not the same kind of little man as Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye.  Tevye is a little man with little desires, and with little prejudice.  All he needed was to make a living.  If Tevye could have made a living, he wouldn’t have been driven to leave his village….In my case, most of my heroes could not be satisfied with just a few rubles or with the permission to live in Russia or somewhere else.  Their tragedies are different.

Singer’s answer suggests that, for him, his “little men” are different because they are after something different, something more complex than Aleichem’s “little men.”  And the reason he offers for this difference is because their tragedies differ.  This, it seems, is another way of saying that his “little men” are different because they come after a tragedy much greater than the pogroms suffered by many of Aleichem’s little men.  Simply finding a new land like Russia, Israel, or America is not enough for them (while it is, for many of Aleichem’s characters, sufficient).

Singer thinks this tradition of the “little man” changes with Gimpel and, to point out this difference, he goes so far as to say that we should refer to Gimpel as a “fool” and not a “little man.”

Gimpel was not a little man.  He was a fool, but he wasn’t little.  The tradition of the little man is something which I avoid in my writing.

What Singer is getting at is something that Ruth Wisse picked up on in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.  Like Singer, she understood that the schlemiel is a “modern hero” in the sense that he is not a little man; rather, he has a kind of moral dignity.  However, unlike Singer, she doesn’t see a bifurcation between Aleichem and Singer in terms of the schlemiel.  She acknowledges the post-Holocaust schlemiel in Singer but she also sees a moral dignity in Aleichem’s characters who balance out hope and skepticism.

Regardless of Wisse’s reading, I think she would agree with Singer that the schlemiel has changed after the Holocaust.  What we need to ask is how the difference between the schlemiel as “little man” (victim) versus the schlemiel as “fool” articulates itself in Jewish-American fiction.   Singer is suggesting to us that if the schlemiel is to matter, today, it cannot simply be the same “little man” we see in the tradition of Yiddish literature.   And, more importantly, it can’t be because it now speaks American-English and slang not Yiddish.

“Gimpel the Fool” was the first English translation of I.B. Singer’s Yiddish stories. And it was translated, for The Partisan Review, by another Nobel Prize winning writer: Saul Bellow.  One need not wonder, however, what was lost in this translation.  Singer tells us: the little man was lost.  It died in Europe with the end of European Jewish life.  In America and after the Holocaust, Gimpel becomes a “fool” and this implies that now the stakes are even higher.  Singer seems to be suggesting that now the schlemiel can go from being a little man to a bigger one; the schlemiel grows in stature but this stature is moral.  Singer seems to be suggesting that the greatness of the schlemiel is proportionate to the suffering it indirectly addresses.  S/he is not a hero in the typical sense; s/he is a hero in the moral sense. (And on this note, I think, in contrast to Singer, that Aleichem’s characters are heroic.)

Given what we have learned from Singer, the only question we need to ask ourselves is whether or how any schlemiel we see has anything “big” to teach us. If it doesn’t, then it is an empty shell.  Perhaps this is what we often find in Hollywood, but, fortunately, I’ll be the first to say that the schlemiel Singer makes reference to lives on in the pages of many Jewish-American writers, in some stand-up comedians, and in a few films (as this blog has made evident).

But, in the end, even Singer would likely admit that if the schlemiel is simply a fool and not also a little man, he will not live on.   Perhaps, like a “little man,” and following an ancient tradition, he would comically shrug his shoulders and say (in a Yiddish-American way): Genug shoyn! (Enough already!)

Lost in Translation: On the Americanization of Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke


In Isidore Goldstick’s 1948 translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Inside Kasrilevke there is a lot of American slang.  Instead of being resentful, I found it to be rather fun imagining the driver of a tram in Kasrilevke speaking to his conductor Yossel in the following manner about tobacco or rather “tabacky”:

Let’s have some tabacky, Yossel,’ the conductor was addressed by the driver, the fellow with the whip and tattered coat.

‘It won’t kill you to smoke some tumblings, Reb Kasriel,’ the conductor cut him short. ‘Good tobacco is liable to give you a headache.’

‘Never mind your wisecracks; better hand over that tabacky,’ Kasriel the driver insisted.

This dialogue over the “tabacky” is something of a caricature and, to be sure, it Americanizes the schlemiel.   And this raises a lot of interesting questions about how the schlemiel translates, in text and on stage, into an American idiom.

But while I find this question intriguing, a critic like Cynthia Ozick finds the translation from one language to another to be devastating.  In a review essay on the Hillel Halkin translation of Tevye The Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, Cynthia Ozick, while praising Halkin’s feat, notes that Halkin’s translation sounds to American and not Yiddish.  Ozick points out that Halkin has a “facile and supple ear” which can “transmute Sholem Aleichem’s easy idiomatic language into familiar slang.”

But, for Ozick, that’s the problem. Its too familiar. What “Halkin lacks, I am afraid is for what is apropos. American street talk is preposterous in the mouths of people in a forest outside Yehupetz on the way to Boiberik – and the more skillfully and lavishly these relaxed Americanisms are deployed, the more preposterous they seem.”

To illustrate, Ozick cites several examples.  I’ll take note of a few:

‘He looks at me like the dumb bunny that he is,” ‘I blew in this morning,’ ‘It drives me up the wall, ‘holy suffering catfish!’

To show the abyss between one translation and the other and to point out what has been lost from one culture to another, Ozick cites a line of Aleichem and Halkin’s translation.

The line in Yiddish is:  “Vu zitst er, der tane dayner, vos iz zayn gesheft un vos far a droshe hot er dedarshnt?”

She translates it literally as, “Where does he sit, that tane of yours, how does he get his living, and what kind of droshe has he preached.”  Ozick leaves the words “tane” and “droshe” in explain what has been lost.  The word “tane” refers to the “tannaim” “classical scholastics…whose hermeneutics appear in the Mishna, a collection of sixty-three tractates of the law and ethics that constitute the foundation of the Talmud.” And the word “droshe” refers to a “commentary, often formidably allusive, prepared by a serious student of homiletics.”

Compare this to Halkin’s translation:  “And just where does he live, this Mr. Important of yours?  What’s his act and what makes him such a big deal?”

Between the two translations, we can clearly see that what has been lost are the main idioms of a culture that was familiar with the Talmud and with rabbinic commentary.  While Ozick is right to point this loss out, she offers no solution.  She simply diagnoses the problem.

To be sure, the fact of the matter is that the majority of American Jews don’t know what a “tane” or a “droshe” are.  These words and the culture that knew what they meant have been destroyed by the Holocaust.  What remains, it seems, is the gesture.  And, I might add, this gesture is often comical.

If the schlemiel comes through these kinds of translation, what we have, it seems, is a Mark Twain-kind-of-Jew who has a name like Yossel but speaks like he’s from Appalachia.

Growing up in upstate New York, I am familiar with euphemisms like “tabacky.”  And reading this expression in a Sholem Aleichem collection did bring a smile to my face.  It is familiar.  On the other hand, Ozick’s reading of such kinds of translations, however, are more like an act of mourning and a wake-up call to what has been lost in translation.

Taken together, I found that I had a new understanding of why the order of laughter and tears is so important for Irving Howe.  But, and here’s the rub, he was closer to that loss than I am.  Where do I figure in this literary reflection if I am much farther from the loss than they were?

How do I, a lover of the Yiddish and the American schlemiel, relate to what was lost in translation?

“I’m Only Half a Man” – Howard Stern and the Schlemiel – Take 1


A few friends of mine have, for the longest time, told me that I should write on Howard Stern as a schlemiel.  It’s been on the back of my mind for a while and I do listen to his show from time to time, but I’ve always been a little ambivalent as to how he could be seen as a schlemiel.  After all, schlemiel’s are usually very humble and are not as rude as he.  But then again, we have the Borsht Belt Comedians, Lenny Bruce, Larry David, and, of course, Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (of Portnoy’s Complaint) all of who are considered by this or that scholar to be schlemiels.  That said, I finally had an opportunity to do some in-depth listening to Howard on Satellite Radio as I recently drove across one part of America.  And, lo and behold, I found evidence of the schlemiel on several levels.  Most importantly by way of what Ruth Wisse, in reference to Sholem Aleichem, calls “indirection” and through an identity that is, in many ways, parallel to Phillip Roth’s Portnoy.

I tuned in to Howard’s news part of the program in which Robin Quivers reads a news item and Howard gives commentary.  The first thing I heard was  a report by Robin about how the second in command in Al-Queda, Said al-Shehri was killed by a drone.     Instead of speaking about drones, Howard launches into a reflection about how much he loves films where commandos go in and kill terrorists.  Then he praises the commandos in the American military and says he wishes he could be one of them.  Responding to this, Robin says why don’t you or why didn’t you join the military?  Howard answers: “I can’t.  I’m only ‘half-a-man.’”  He repeats a few times with something of a shoulder shrug and moves on.  To be sure, the claim that the Schlemiel is a mouse and not a man is an American one.  In his essay for the collection Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities edited by Norman Kleeblatt, Maurice Berger writes of how this “half-man” stereotype made its way through TV and film in the 20th century.  But he concludes that the stereotype had nearly disappeared in the 90s and that things had been changing.

Moreover, Phillip Roth’s main character of Portnoy’s Complaint, also sees himself as “half a man,” but, still, he goes on attempting sexual acts to prove he is a man.  As I point out in one of my blogs on Roth and Portnoy, Portnoy is ultimately defeated by a female Sabra.  She emasculates him and reminds him that he is an American Jew, not an Israeli; he is “half-a-man.”  However, as Portnoy shows us, where he wins is with his words and wit.  But, as Roth claims in his interviews, his books which followed Portnoy’s Complaint were efforts to leave the “half-a-man” schlemiel behind to be a man.  (The illicit sexual forays in a book like Sabbath’s Theater – to give only on of several examples – should give one ample evidence of this.)

But the schlemiel as half-a-man lingers on after the 90s.  To be sure, the Schlemiel as half-a-man is also posed by Woody Allen by way of Jason Biggs in the 2003 film Anything Else.

We see a good example of it in this series of scenes.

As you can see, Jason Biggs is the one who says that, in the face of men, Jews have wit.  But it is Allen who turns the car around and does damage to the car of the two aggressive men.  To be sure, Allen, like Stern is also obsessed with being thought of as half-a-man.

But, this is only one part of the schlemiel-complex, so to speak.  More interesting is how Stern deals with the “heavy news” items; he changes the subject to something he’s more interested in: Sharknoado (2013).

Stern loves the name and the B film concept and the absurdity of sharks flying through the air attacking people.  He can’t get it off his mind.   He plays a piece called Tardnado which is a parody of this film that was sent by one of his fans.  As one can imagine, with a title like this, the audio includes screaming people who are mentally challenged who fly at people.

When the “important” news items come up, Stern sometimes launches into his interest in Sharknado.  Other times, he’ll pick out something that is a seemingly arbitrary aspect of the new event and talk about it thereby deflating whatever media-hype it may have.

I’ll make note of a few examples:

When Robin notes that Stevie Wonder has refused to play in Florida, Howard says”mmm hmm” and takes a call from Ralph who talks with him about Sharknado.  They talk about how ridiculous the premise is and enjoy this for a minute or two.  This indirection shows us that film is of more interest to him than Wonder’s boycott.

In response to hearing Robin’s news on Al Sharpton’s National Action tour in the name of Trayvon Martin, Howard also moves by way of indirection and discusses Sharpton’s new girlfriend with Robin.  After doing this, he passes on to how Al looked better when he had more weight.  In other words, aesthetics in the media eye is of more interest to Howard than politics.

After saying this, Howard talks about the heat and air-conditioning and moves on to talking about his mother and her complaints.  He does a few comic imitations of her to drive it home.

This act of imitating his mother has great resonances with Portnoy who basically does the same thing throughout the text.  This routine of struggling with the mother was, according to Donald Weber, one of the main feature of Borscht Belt and post-Borsht Belt schlemiel-comedians.  Weber, like Berger, thinks it has changed with Marc Maron whose comedy is not based on such resentment.  However, as we can see here, it carries on into Howard’s performance.

Most importantly, Howard’s obsession with his mother, Sharknado, or about this or that detail, seem to work to distract him from the world and the political.  And his admission that he is “half-a-man” seem to give us a reason for this need to distract himself.  However, this is, as I have been stating, what seems to be the case. What makes Stern so interesting is that we all know he is living a normal life with a high profile model.  And even though he often jokes about his sexual performance, the audience sees him as a man-of-sorts.

But this is what gets the listener. The overlapping of the distracted schlemiel and the real Howard Stern who has the power to spur millions of his listeners to this or that political action creates a fascinating figure.

The end of this segment, when seen in contrast to what was said before, discloses this figure.

When asked to discuss what he thought of the Rolling Stone cover with Dzhokar Tsarnaev, Stern doesn’t work by way of any indirection.  He comments on the message it communicates to the people and not to academics.   He doesn’t want to see him made into a rock star.  And he takes on the position of the victims to explain his point: “If I had my kid killed or my legs blown off by that kid, I certainly wouldn’t want to see him on the cover of Rolling Stone.”

What I find interesting about Stern is that he moves in and out of the Schlemiel persona.  And he does so for certain reasons.  It seems this above comment on the Rolling Stone cover was his “superman” moment since it is couched in the midst of his self-deprecation (“I am half-a-man”) and his numerous indirections (about Sharknado, Al Sharpton’s girlfriend and how Sharpton appears on camera, and imitations of his mother kvetching).

Regardless of whether or not you agree with what Stern chooses to emphasize, I think I learned and you have seen how, at least in this instance, he plays the schlemiel and what this may imply.

I hope to, in the near future, come back to Howard’s Schlemiel persona.  My friends were right.  Stern does play the schlemiel.  And, as I’ve shown, this performance, when it is at its best, traverses the edge of the political.

“Let’s Have the Music” – Reflections on Sholem Aleichem’s Inside Kasrilevke – Take 1


In a “Five Books” interview, the Jewish-American writer Allegra Goodman was asked what five books in Jewish fiction she would suggest people read.  Each book, for Goodman, would provide readers with one sense of the Jewish experience.  One of the books she chose was Sholem Aleichem’s Inside Kasrilevke (the contents of which are the stories of this fictional town (Kasrilevke) which is, arguably, Sholem Aleichem’s version of Chelm).  Like Irving Howe, she notes that the Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof is a “cartoon version of his work.”  What she finds so important about Inside Kasrilevke is that it is “very funny, laugh out loud funny.”  Goodman likens the stories to “comedy routines” and notes that this book is her “comic ideal.”

Taking Allegra Goodman’s suggestion to heart, I think it makes a lot of sense to focus on these comic routines. But in doing so, I’m interested not so much in a comic ideal as in how the narrator of this collection of stories relates to schlemiels and other stock comic characters in the stories.   In this and in other blog entries on Inside Kasrilevke, I will be making a series of different readings which look into comic relationships and comic rhythms so as to understand how Aleichem, in this collection of stories, presents the schlemiel.

Right off the bat, Aleichem, the “author,” explains why he is writing this book in the “Author’s Foreword.” The picture he presents gives us a sense of someone is an insider and an outsider of the town.  For this reason he, like Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, can report on what happens in the town.

Like a writer of his times (and not, as Howe would say, a folkish “oral story teller”), he notes that “of recent years” many people have been writing books “about cities and lands.”  Playing on a Jewish stereotype (and echoing something we see years late played on in Woody Allen’s film Zelig) he “says to himself”: “We imitate other peoples in everything: they print newspapers – so do we; they have Christmas trees – so do we; they celebrate New Year’s – so do we.” So, just like they publish “guides” to big cities, he asks (with a shrug of sorts): “why shouldn’t we get out “A Guide to Kasrilevke?”

After pointing out how he has much in common writers in pursuing such a project, Aleichem notes how much he owes to this town of fools.  He tells us that he is a native who has left and has recently returned to honor the dead; namely, to visit his parents grave.  While he was visiting their graves, it occurred to him how much he wants to show his “gratitude” for the “hospitality” of his “friends” in Kasrilevke By writing this book, he felt he would be doing this.  I want to underscore this element, here, because Aleichem is noting, in the very beginning, that his book is a response to hospitality.  This implies that his representations, no matter how comic or even negative, are kind-hearted and articulate a way of returning kindness for kindness.

What is so fascinating about the final paragraph of the “Author’s Foreword,” is that it works by way of what Ruth Wisse would call “indirection.”  After stating his personal gratitude and the personal cause of this book, the narrator states that he, “of course” doesn’t have “personal motives” for the book. Rather, he writes it in response to “considerations of public service” meaning that he wrote the book in order to “guide strangers visiting Kasrilekve.”  This, he tells us, will help them to know where to get a train, where to go, eat, and have fun.  But at the end of the paragraph he states something that would contradict his present project, what Irving Howe would see as “troubling.”  He notes that “Kasrilevke is no longer the town it used to be.  The great progress of the world has made inroads into Kasrilevke and turned it topsy-turvy.  It has become a different-place.”

This final, sour note gives us a sense of how, in Aleichem, the comic is as Irving Howe would say, citing Saul Bellow: “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation between the two.” But, in relation to Howe’s claim, I would also like to emphasize, as does Howe and Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi, how important place is for Aleichem and how place relates to comedy. After all, the book is all about this place, perhaps the changing place of Jews in Eastern Europe.  Through fiction, Aleichem gives honor to the place and the people.  This, he claims, is not simply personal; it is a “public service.”

Even though Aleichem ends on this somber note of how “it has become a different place,” he changes rhythm and words by “indirection.”  And I want to underscore rhythm because there is a comical music going on at the outset and how this comic music is connected to place.  It addresses what the place has become (which is sad) by way of comedy.  (Laughter and tears, in other words, are intimately related to and emerge out of a place, a world.)

As a comic rejoinder to this sad meditation on place in the “Author’s Foreword,” the narrator points out how, immediately on arrival, he is accosted by a bunch of hotel porters and a sea of yellow: “At the station I was set upon by a horde of yellow porters with yellow whiskers, yellow coats, and bits of yellow tin stuck on their yellow, threadbare caps.”

The cacophony of yellow, so to speak, is coupled by a cacophony of voices calling on the narrator to come to his hotel/place: “Mister! Grand Hotel!” “Hotel Francia, mister!” “Hey, mister, Portugalia” “Mister! Turkalia!”  He tries to avoid this cacophony by moving to another place, but there too he is once again occasioned by a mob.

They are not “civil” and take his bag away from him just to get him to their hotel.  He fights with one to get back what is most important to him: his manuscripts.  Right after he seizes his back, he rushes for the “tramway.”  But when he gets there, he occasions more cacophony this time between passengers, the rider, and the manager.  All of the “noise” is comic and sheer slapstick.  And once it does move, it gets in an accident.

The movements in this text teach us that, for Aleichem, the schlemiel is not simply in the character as in a comic exchange and rhythm: that occur in terms of an erratic movement from place to place, stopping and starting, while comically gesticulating. All the while, there is a blindness and a timing in each movement.  Each thing collides, changes direction, moves no, stops, and repeats this process.  Each event prompts one to move, so to speak, from one vehicle or hotel to another.

But each of these movements, while erratic, is endearing.  In the midst of all this, the narrator is scrambling.  In fact, by the time he gets to the hotel, he has a hard time retaining his cool.  When the hotel manager tells him that he can either be in a room that is infested by bed bugs or a room penetrated by the music of a cantor practicing for the Sabbath or a bunch of Yiddish actors, the narrator is startled.

And for good reason… Given what we have learned from the “author’s forward” we don’t see evidence of hospitality so much as rudeness, he don’t see civility so much as chaos.  More importantly, since we know that he was a native of the town and is now on a visit, we see that he may be lying or have forgotten what really goes on in this town.  Its as if he led us on.

Its confusing for the reader and its confusing for the author, it seems, to know how to relate what is happening to him on the tram and the hotel to what he has said before.

He is startled (and we are startled) by a city that is full of many erratic rhythms.  And, it seems, the narrator is the shlimazel while the town, and all its rhythms, is the schlemiel.  This comes out when, after being told about choosing between music and bedbugs in another room (without music) the narrator chooses the music:

“If that’s the case,” I said, “let’s have the music.”

Indeed, in Karilevke, in a town full of schlemiels and permeated by schlemiel rhythms, that seems to be the only option.   And perhaps Aleichem is telling us that to understand the schlemiel, we must first relate to its comic musicality.

Perhaps we hear a similar in Woody Allen’s Zelig but in Allen’s film there isn’t an ambivalent sense of place; there is constant movement and change which echoes what we said in the beginning of this entry; namely, that Jews do what others do and become what they become.  For Allen, as opposed to Aleichem, this music of change, which happens in America, is purely comic. While there are tears, laughter, and music for Aleichem over Kasrilevke, there are no tears for Allen; in relation to America, there is only laughter and music.  Here you can dance the Zelig-dance (“The Chameleon”) without any remorse:

Emmanuel Levinas, Don Quixote, and the Hunger of the Other Man


Like many Jews over the centuries, I am fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Now that I’m in middle of the fast, I’m having a hard time distracting myself from my hunger.  In the midst of being enthralled with my hunger, an academic memory came to my rescue.   I remember how the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in apposition to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, argued that it’s not about my death and suffering (as Heidegger would say (in translation) my “being-towards-death”), it’s about the death and the suffering of the other.  Echoing this, I thought: perhaps Levinas is right, it’s not about my hunger; it’s about the hunger of the other.

Strangely enough, Levinas writes about the “hunger of the other man” in relation to Don Quixote (a comic figure which has appeared quite often in Schlemiel in Theory).  In 1975 and 1976, Levinas gave a course at the Sorbonne. His course notes are included in the book God, Death, and Time (translated by Bettina Bergo).   On his February 13th 1976 lecture, Levinas addresses Don Quixote and the “hunger of the other man.”  This talk, to my mind, gives us at least one angle to understand Levinas’s approach to humor.

Let me sketch it out.

Before making his reading of Don Quixote, Levinas prefaces with a meditation on the relation of thought to the world. He writes: “thought contains the world or is correlative with it”(167).  He notes that by “correlative” he means that it comes “prior to” the world.  In this spirit, Levinas argues that thought “disqualifies” anything that would be “disproportionate to the world.”  He provides two adjectives to describe things that would be disqualified: “all thought said to be ‘romantic’ or ‘theological’ in its inception.”

“Disqualified” thought, argues Levinas, is not equated with the world (which thought contains); it is equated with what is to come.  It is, for this reason, equated with “a question” and “hope.”  Levinas goes on to say that “God” is also included as something which is “disproportionate” with thought and the world.   To be sure, God, hope, and the question are deemed to be “outside” thought and, for that reason, outside the world.

Writing of this, Levinas wonders how much we can be “affected by what is not equal to the world, how one can affected by what can be neither apprehended nor comprehended”(167).  In other words, how much can we be affected by that which is disqualified by thought?

Following this question, Levinas launches into a discussion about the disenchantment of the world.  He addresses this, like Martin Heidegger or the sociologist Max Weber, from the angle of technology.  Unlike them, Levinas sees the disenchantment fostered by technology as good.  Here, however, he notes that although it is good, technology “does not shelter us from all mystification”(168).  Now “there remains the obsession with ideology, by which men delude each other and are deluded.”  And, says Levinas, even “sober knowledge…is not exempt from ideology.”

Everything, even knowledge, is still threatened by mystification.  Levinas finds the source in what he calls “amphibology”: “technology cannot shelter us from the amphibology that lies within all appearing, that is, from the possible appearance coiled at the bottom of all the appearing being.”

Benjamin Hutchens explains that amphibology is the “confusion between what something is and the concept that enables what it is to be known.”  This, says Hutchens, leads to a “kind of ambiguity.”  John Llewelyn cites Martin Heidegger’s notion of Being – in his claim that “language is the house of Being” – as an example of “amphibology.”  Being is ambiguous and this ambiguity troubles Levinas as he sees it as the source of what he calls “bewitchment.”  And, as Llewlyn suggests, this ambiguity goes along with the ambiguity of language.  Perhaps this implies (and may even be a jab at deconstruction) that one can easily become enchanted with the play of words and language and this may distract us from the other.

What Levinas seems to be saying here is that what threatens the project of demystification most is the embrace of ambiguity as such and this kind of ambiguity is associated with how things show themselves or appear.  Levinas notes that the basis of “man’s persistent fear of allowing himself to be bewitched” is “amphibology.”

And, strangely enough, the writer who best illustrates amphibology and the attending fear of being “bewitched” (and “allowing” oneself to be bewitched) is Cervantes in his book Don Quixote.  In fact, Levinas says that “bewitchment” is the book’s “principle theme.”  Levinas finds this to be most pronounced in chapter 46.  Hinting at his own phenomenology of the face, Levinas calls Don Quixote the “Knight with a Sad Face” and points out that “he lets himself be bewitched, loses his understanding, and assures everyone that the world and he himself are the victims of bewitchment.”

Bewitchment, it seems, is another word for foolishness.  And Don Quixote, the “Knight of the Sad Face,” lets himself become a fool.  Levinas hints as such when he cites Don Quixote’s urgent claim to his side-kick Sancho Panza: “’Sancho my son,’ he said, ‘now you realized the truth of what I have many a time told you, that everything in this castle is done by means of enchantment.”    Levinas stresses the point that Sancho Panza is clear minded and is “stronger” that Don Quixote for this very reason: “Sancho alone maintains a lucidity and appears stronger than his master.”

In other words, the person who watches the schlemiel or the fool is more “lucid” and “stronger” than him/her.  To give this reading more textual support, Levinas cites a passage in which Sancho Panza is astonished by the “gullibility” of Don Quixote.  Yet, at the same time, he can see the “shapes” that Don Quixote conjures up.  Levinas notes that “these ‘distinguished shapes’ that Sancho doubts are a priest, a barber, and a whole group that had decided to take Don Quixote back to his country, where he could be cured.”

After noting this, Levinas concludes: “thus the adventure of Don Quixote is the passion of the bewitchment of the world as the passion of the Knight himself.”  At this point, Levinas knew he had to relate his reading of Don Quixote to the beginning of his lecture: to thought, the outside, amphibology, and bewitchment.

To this end, Levinas goes right to work and claims that “we must understand that the whole of Descartes’s Evil Genius is present in these pages.” To be sure, Levinas is asking us to read philosophy by way of Don Quixote!  Continuing on this thread, and indirectly explaining amphibology, Levinas argues that in this passage from Don Quixote “enchantment functions in the form of an imprisonment within a labyrinth of uncertainties, lacking any connection between faces, which are only masks or appearances.”

Playing on Descartes notion of the cogito (mind), Levinas argues that, in the midst of his bewitched experiences, Don Quixote “experiences, in a way, the cogito on which a certitude is founded.”(169).  Citing Don Quixote, Levinas allows for Don Quixote to merge with Rene Descartes: “I know and feel that I am enchanted, and that is not enough to ease my conscience…I allowed myself to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer of those in need and distress…”

The last line of this passage from Don Quixote is crucial for Levinas.  It separates Don Quixote from the Rene Descartes we hear in the opening lines, and this line brings the reader face-to-face with what Levinas calls the “hunger of the other man.”   To be sure, we can see from these lines that Don Quixote is ashamed.  He sees himself as allowing “to lie in this cage, defrauding multitudes of the aid I might offer to those in need and distress.”

I put the stress on the word “allowing” only because Levinas does.  But one doesn’t simply choose to be or not to be bewitched.  Levinas believes that this passage could not be written if Don Quixote was not, in some way, disenchanted by the “hunger of the other man.”  Levinas calls this interruption of bewitchment “transcendence.”  It comes from “outside” thought and disturbs it.   And he calls the process of disturbing this bewitchment “secularization.”

To be sure, Levinas is suggesting that the only thing that can truly “secularize” or “demythologize” reality and clear away the bewitchment of ideology (which is the project of the Enlightenment) is the “hunger of the other man.” This hunger is what, Levinas claims, awoke Don Quixote from his “bewitched” slumber.

What interests me most, as a schlemiel theorist, is what this kind of reading implies for the schlemiel.   How does it fit?  After all, Mendel Mocher Sforim, the father of Yiddish literature, wrote Benjamin III with Don Quixote in mind.  In that book, we have schlemiels who are, like Don Quixote, caught up in dreams. But can we say that these schlemiels are caught up in the same problems?  And if we take Levinas’s position are we taking the position of the clear-thinking Sancho Panza toward Don Quixote?  In other words, would Levinas think of the schlemiel in the same way he would think of Don Quixote? Does humor put the accent on the bifurcation between being “bewitched” and being “responsible” for the hunger of the “other man?”

I don’t know about you but I’m hungry for an answer!

(To be continued….)

A Brief Note: Louis CK is Not a Schlemiel


I just want to make a note on my last few posts about Louis CK.  I took a detour from my readings of Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse on the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem to look into Louis CK’s relation to what I called the “Jewish Thing.”   Although he is cast in the Louie episode as a humiliated failure and in something of a schlemiel-type-of-role, the truth is that much of his humor is very aggressive. And, as my last blog entry pointed out, at times it traverses the fine line between Jewish jokes and anti-Semitic jokes.

In the final analysis, I don’t see him as playing the schlemiel.  In the Louie clip I wrote on, Louis CK is lined up – by a Carnegie-Deli-Comic-Now-Film Mogul – with Seinfeld as a competitor. But he doesn’t ultimately fit the bill.    And what we learn is that while, in that clip, he may play a down on his luck underdog type, he is not of the deeper schlemiel tradition.

What we need to think about is whether and how rude-comedians who make fun of the other are or are not a part of the schlemiel tradition.  Donald Weber and Albert Goodman, for instance, think they are. Borsht Belt comedy, for instance, is rude.   But how rude is rude? And what is a rude schlemiel?   Is that a contradiction?

I have explored this –to some extent – in my reading of Phillip Roth’s character Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint.  He is a very rude character, but, at the same time, he shows us a new kind of schlemiel who is in a battle with the Sabra.  Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi has written some fine chapters on this topic in Booking Passage (namely, her chapter “Grapes of Roth”).

In truth, the schlemiel tradition shows us how the majority of Sholem Aleichem’s, I.L. Petetz, or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s schlemiels are down to earth; they are not rude and do not pick fun at the other.  The next generation of schlemiels, who also intrigued people like Irving Howe, that come out of Saul Bellow and I.B. Singer (like Moses Herzog of Bellow’s novel Herzog or Gimpel of his story “Gimpel the Fool”) are not rude either.   Paul Celan’s Klein and Gross may be repetitive, but they are not rude.  Charlie Chaplin, Hannah Arendt’s favorite schlemiel, was also not rude or vulgar. And Woody Allen’s classic schlemiel Alvy Singer is far from being mean-spirited in his humor.

But what about Lenny Bruce – a comic that Weber includes in his musings? What about Groucho Marx? Sarah Silverman? Larry David?  How do they all fit? Do they fit?

(See here for another approach I have made to aggressiveness and the schlemiel – by way of Walter Benjamin.)

But there is more to the story of the schlemiel.  His job is not “toilet talk” or to be as vulgar as possible.  As Ruth Wisse claims, this character is closely bound to Jewishness and to the tension between skepticism and hope.  It speaks from a Jewish angle.  For Howe and Bellow, the schlemiel traverses laughter and tears and causes troubled laughter.  But that troubled laughter pertains, as Howe well-knew, to the crises within the Jewish tradition and Jewish history.

The laughter we hear in the “Hasidic Cum Tissues,” however, is not troubled so much as troubling.  It is not evoked by a schlemiel so much as someone who is outside the Jewish tradition looking in and looking with great anger and negativity.  Louis CK may, strangely enough, find himself closer to Mel Gibson hence his drunken tweet about Jews that I mentioned in an earlier blog entry.  Hence, his drunk rant with a difference…

I’d like to look more into this matter.  And I suggest that these last few blog posts on Louis CK be seen in contrast to my posts on schlemiels, schlemiel theorists, and schlemiel theory.

Thanks for reading! And stay tuned to schlemiel-in-theory.

(And a special thanks goes out to Mark Kirschbaum for his comments and criticisms on this and on my Louis CK posts!)







On Louis CK’s ‘Hasidic Cum Tissues’ Routine


A facebook friend recently cued me in to a website that collected things Louis CK has said about Jews.   Included in the archived videos are a few clips: a clip where Louis CK plays on many different dialects and how speech indicates different kinds of sick lifestyles (the Jewish dialect amongst them), a video on rape where he goes so far as to say, in an aside, that Jews should be raped and follows “did I say that?”; it also includes a clip on Jewish girls (which was removed from Youtube), the “Goodbye Jews” clip that I discussed in the last blog entry on Louis CK, and a clip entitled “Hasidic Cum Tissues” (which was also removed from Youtube).

Regarding this clip, the webpage cites Louis CK as saying:

And the weird detail she told me is that [the Hasidic clients of the dominatrix] always had to take their sperm home with them in a tissue, because that was in their religion that they couldn’t leave their bodily fluids behind. So somehow God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth, and he’s like “Well as long as you take your cum home, it’s fine.” 

I was really curious about this video clip as its title and the claim were so bizarre.  I wanted to hear it and take note not just of this but of other parts of the clip that would show me Louis CK’s ways of relating to Jewish things.   (Moreover, I am familiar with Jewish customs (minhagim) and laws (halacha) and I had never heard of such a thing as “cum tissues” let alone heard of Hasidim who needed to make sure all semen was put in tissues.)

From the Louis CK page, we learn that the clip was removed by Youtube.  Nonetheless, I wondered if it may have been renamed.  It was.  And it was simply filed under the Opie and Anthony Show.   As their Wiki page points out, Opie (Greg “Opie” Hughes) and Anthony (Cumia) had a show since 1995 and that went on to 2002.  They had a hiatus and went onto XM Satellite Radio in 2006.  The show, over the years, has been host to many comedians including Louis CK.  The energy in and around the show is anxious and highly charged – much like The Howard Stern Show.  The language is heavy and very vulgar. And like Stern, they often disregard political correctness and speak what is on their minds.  And sometimes that can get very risky.

This clip in particular is very vulgar and you may not want to hear or see my reading of it as the clip that I address portrays some Hasidic Jews in a very negative even anti-Semitic fashion.  I found many details that were not mentioned by the person who runs the website or anyone on the web for that matter.  I have noted them below. Read and listen at your own risk.

In this clip – show #19 -they had Louis CK as a guest.  29:27 in Louis CK begins telling a joke about a Dominatrix, Hasidim, and “cum tissues.”  His friend’s wife was a Dominatrix and she had Hasidim as clients.

After much banter about this Dominatrix and his friend, he returns (at 31:17) to the joke and brings in the Hasidim and the tissues.  He describes the relationship of the Hasidim to the Dominatrix and points out that they were rude to her before the transaction.  In an attempt to explain why they are rude, Louis CK  notes than anybody “outside” their community is deemed “an outsider.”  Furthermore,  “that’s the way the culture is….its a closed society…I’m trying to be nice about it…Fucking Jews!”(Nervous laughter.)

After saying this, Opie and Anthony come to the rescue and say that while he is right about the Hasidim being a closed society, it woukd be wrong to say that all Hasidim are the same.  Yet, they say Hasidim are “mysterious.”  Louis CK then comes in and talks about some “good” Hasidim he has met at B & H Photo in Manhattan.  He imitates one of the Hasidim who works behind the counter and notes that some can be rude, there, while others “can be nice.”

Returning to the story, and bringing to bear on us how Louis CK and the Dominatrix share a negative attitude towards “them,” he notes that “these Jews were rude to her….Going to the dominatrix to have their dicks whipped is not in the Talmud.”

Louis CK points out, without wincing, that “when she was beating them, she said they were the only clients she ever hit with spite.” Finding her spite (and her beating of the Hasidim) to be justifiable, he notes that the Hasidim had “crossed the line.”  In other words, they deserved a cruel beating.

After justifying her cruel (as opposed to “kind,” normal) whipping, Louis CK notes that she said that she “used to crucify them….and inside, when she was hitting them, she thought ‘You Fucking Jew!’”

“And then the weird detail she told me came when she told me that they had to put their sperm in a tissue…they had to take their sperm home with them.”  CK, an anthropologist from Mars, explains that they cannot leave any fluids lying around.  He goes on to state what he says as Jewish blindness and hypocrisy: “somehow, God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth…and everything will be alright if you take your cum home.”  Following Louis CK’s  judgment, they all jokingly play out the reasons why God would want them to do this.  And Louis CK finishes the foray by saying that all be well if the Hasid can put the “cum tissue in the cigar box under his wife’s shawl.”

Opie then gets going and talks about how he heard of a “tranny” who would make the Hasidim shower because they smelled so bad.  All of the anti-Semitic stuff starts coming here and then a phone-call comes in that is directed at these Hasidim.

The caller who is apparently a cop confirms this claim. And even calls them “filthy, filthy animals.”  Then he says not all of them “…a couple of them.”

What is so disturbing about all of this is not simply the negative anti-Semitic descriptions, but the fact that the topic is simply passed by.  After the cop hangs up, they simply talk about other things.

They feel no need to reflect on what they said about the “dirty Hasidim.”  There is no need to reflect on how odd it is that Louis CK thought of their cruel (as opposed to kind) “beating” as justified.  Here we need to ask ourselves if Louis CK (and the whole crew) went too far.

And although they are laughing, are we?  What would it mean if we were to laugh along with all of them about those “dirty Jews?”  Is this routine about “Hasidic Cum Tissues” funny or just disturbing?