Reflections of a Jewish-American Dreamer on “Shlemiel” – a Documentary

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Words cannot express the honor and gratitude I have for Chad Derrick who decided a few years ago to film my life and my Jewish-American story.  He patiently followed me around with a camera for a few years and listened to my story.  He edited hundreds of hours of film to distill it to its essential moments.  It is a wonderful work of cinema verite style that, without a doubt, does justice to at least one part of my life and struggles with being an American-Jew.

I’m really excited to be showing the film Shlemiel (directed by Chad Derrick) in the United States.  It has been shown in Toronto and in Montreal, but it has not been shown in the country I was born and raised in.   And this is significant since this country, so to speak, nurtured this schlemiel.  Living in the Adirondack’s in a small rural Jewish community, with a father who dreamed big and crashed hard, I learned to dream.  It was here that I learned how, as I say at the beginning of the film, “a schlemiel is a dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.”

On my way to The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut – where I will be making the first screening of the documentary to an American audience – I have decided to stop off in my hometown Gloversville, New York and to reflect on who I am and what this film discloses about my journey – the journey of a wayward, dreaming Jewish-American schlemiel.

A lot of my story is rooted in this area.  As you can see from the trailer in this post, the documentary is interested in how and why I became a religious Jew and how and why I decided to create a band – named with Men With Babies – as a way of communicating and celebrating this new found Jewishness.  I say “new found” as I was not raised as a religious Jew.  I was born in a hospital up the road from where I grew up, which was named after a wealthy Jew in the area by the name of Nathan Littauer.  I did have a Brit Milah (a circumcision) with a Rabbi and Mohel (who does the circumcision).  And I was given a Hebrew name: Menachem Menkah (it was the name of my grandfather, father’s side, who died before I was born).  But that, together with several years after school, at the Lucius Littauer Jewish Community Hebrew school (until I was thirteen), and my bar-Mitzvah were the only Jewishness I had.  And it didn’t last.  I didn’t go by my Hebrew name and all of my Hebrew learning was not related to my life.  (My parents never told me what it meant to be Jewish. We just did it as a matter of course.)

All of my friends knew me as “Matt” or “Feuer” (mispronounced as ‘fewer’ rather than the Germanic pronunciation Foyer – which means ‘fire’).  No matter what I did, and no matter how well I performed in sports, school, or at parties, I always thought of myself as “less than” (fewer) I could be.  And that came from my sense of being an American, not a Jew.

Like many Americans from the area, I was raised on little league baseball games, football, ice cream socials, clam bakes, keg parties, hunting, fishing, and the wind that blows down from the Adirondack mountains every day into the valley where I live.  Like many people in my town, I was raised to be kind and fun-loving.  I spent a lot of time on the Sacandaga Lake and, as a teenager I used to ride a “three-wheeler” through the Adirondacks.

My American side conflicted with my Jewish side and the difference between the two often prompted me to question who I was.  To begin with, both of my parents were from New York City and were, from my perspective, out of place in upstate New York.  My father didn’t fish, hunt, or participate in coaching a sport team.  He was an intellectual and a businessman.  And my mother tried hard to adapt, and though she cried many times for having to leave the city, she did succeed in being much like the other soccer moms in the area.  But my mother’s efforts were not enough.  And my father’s preoccupations led me away from my family and my tradition.   They led me to find a group of friends who, like me, were trying to figure out what it meant to be an American.

But, to be sure, what really drove me to my friends was not simply my father’s non-interest in doing what my friend’s fathers did.  My father’s life was complicated by lots of trauma, family feuding over the leather business, and mania.  (As you can see from these two hyperlinks, I have written about this topic in the blog, already.)  From what I have already written, you can see that my father was a person with big dreams who had real possibilities that were given to him and taken away.  His brilliance was too much for this small town and, unfortunately, I was often embarrassed when I found out, through my friends or other people, that rumors were going around town that my father had been put in a metal hospital or jail, or that he was going around town saying or doing crazy things.

What I haven’t mentioned about my father’s story is the fact that, while in high school, when he had many manic episodes, he took an interest in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.  He bought a full-volume set of The Zohar and made several trips to New York City to visit with Rabbi Rabbi Berg and his newfangled Kabbalah Center (which today attracts many Hollywood stars).  My father’s mania had a real source which was based on hateful things that were done to him by his own family, making money and spending it all, and by virtue of a genetic condition. But the interest in Kabbalah didn’t help.  To be sure, it made his psychosis more intense.

While this was going on, I kept one eye open on religion and the other on my friends.  To be sure, the more trouble my father got in and the more mystical he became, the more I was driven to my friends and to a desire to leave the house.  And when the opportunity came to leave came, I took it up with a passion.  In truth, the real problem was no longer simply my father, I started despising my home town.  I felt people were to narrow minded.  This came to me while reading books in my backroom (I had to hide this from my friends) and by way of following the Grateful Dead.  Seeing them in concert for the first time, in the early 90s, changed my perspective on a lot of things.

I started becoming more spiritual.  And, after a few shows on the east and west coast, I decided to read some of Rabbi Berg’s books and, for the first time, I listened closely to my father’s psychosis and traveled with him on several of his manic episodes.  Reading literature and philosophy, I thought that it would be better to let my father be and to experience him as I would experience a novel.  In a way, I felt like a Sancho Panza and he felt like a Don Quixote.  And so much of what he was doing was Jewish – a strange continent for an American-Jew who had opted to be an American first.  As I went along with him, I started drifting away from my town and my life.  I wanted a mystical experience.  I dreamt of it.  And I felt Kabbalah, as lived by my father, could lead the way.

My father was so full of life and insight.  Everything he did was by virtue of chance.  I felt as if I was living a Paul Auster novel and my father was the main character.  His playing with chance led him to Washington, DC where he acted ‘as if’ he was going to save the country and talk to the President.  On the way to the White House, we stopped off at the Washington Hilton.  He went down to the lobby and saw Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.  He opened the book, read an aphorism that dealt with going beyond dichotomy, and charged into the hotel restaurant.  He ordered a table as if he was a dignitary.  We sat down and father asked for menus.  Before he could look at the menu, Dan Rather passed by and father yelled out “Dan!” Rather turned to my father, said, “Yes, how can I help you?” And from there my father had a discussion about world affairs and his solutions for at least ten minutes.  At the moment when my father presented a wild idea, Rather was turned off and left the table. My father felt something “was wrong,” and left immediately thereafter.

When we went upstairs, he said he had to make a phone call to the doctor that delivered me (a Dr. Woolsey).  He acted as if he had him on the phone, he turned to me, and said “Dr. Woolsey just told me the truth…You are not my son.  You are my brother’s son.  You are an imposter.”  This talk, which I had never heard before, threw me off guard.  I was confused.  And in the midst of this, my father stormed out of the room.  I followed after him.  He said we must leave DC.  We are being followed.    What ensued was a wild imaginary goose-chase. My father swerved in and out of traffic as we sped off to New York City (where my mother, at that time, was visiting).  As he swerved, he read license plates and did letter-number combinations.  He translated these into messages about what was going on and what we should do.

In the midst of this madness, he said that we must pull over into a rest-stop.  We went inside, and my father told me, “There he is!” “Who,” I asked.  “Just come with me,” he said.  We went over to a man in overalls and my father stared him directly in his eyes.  He asked him, “What do you do for a living?” And the man replied, “I am a ‘tree-whacker.”  My father rejoined: “You cut down trees, correct?” “Yes,” said the man. After saying this my father said, “There, you see, he was trying to cut us down. Its code.”

All of this relates to a sad story that goes back to when I was a ten-year-old boy.  My father had, for years, thought that he was being stalked by his brother’s mafia men since my father had a real law suit against them.  His brothers were scared and bought off many lawyers, apparently.  In any case, my father’s first manic episode came after a new car he had bought, in celebration of the case actually hitting the courts, came up.

The car had a tape deck. And I wanted to hear Grease (the musical). But my father said I couldn’t until we left NYC for Gloversville.  On the way, I put the tape in and immediately thereafter the car set on fire.  We pulled over.  And the car went up in flames on the side of the New York State Thruway. This led to much paranoia and speculation.  It also led to my father’s madness and gave me my first experience of my father’s madness as a child.  It also led me to meet with a mafia boss who confirmed that a ‘hit’ was made on my family (mind you, I was ten) and that he would, from then on, protect us.  I’d like to share more but I’ll save that for another blog.

Needless to say, these experiences all formed a backdrop for my “return” to Judaism.  After my father’s breakdown in DC, I no longer felt I could go to him to learn about mysticism or Judaism.  It was a wake up call of sorts to find things out for myself.  And I did.

But I took a big detour by way of my studies in Comparative Literature and Philosophy.  I took a big detour by way of trying to live a life in total denial of God, a life of pure experience informed by art, literature, and relationships.  All of this led to my own breakdown of sorts.  It also led me back to this, my hometown.

I felt like I had to return to my roots: my American roots and my Jewish roots.  And that led to a process in which I went to Yeshiva, became religious, married, and had two wonderful little children.  Shlemiel documents this transition, but it also shows how, over the last five years, my life has changed.  My struggle to figure out what it means to be an American-Jew, I feel, is ongoing.  It has brought me back to my home town, it brought me into a music project, and it has brought me into this, my schlemiel project.

Today, as I write this, I realize that I was right to say that a schlemiel is a “dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.”  I have no problem saying that I have played the schlemiel. And though it may be a derogatory term for some people I know, it need not be.  It was the German-Jewish tradition that found fault in the schlemiel and were embarrassed by the schlemiel (depicting him as a backwards, Eastern-European shtetl type). They were interested in reality not dreams. But the Eastern European schlemiel is a different story; in him we find a tension between hope and skepticism; in him we find something sad about history and life and yet also something very optimistic and good.

I’ll admit that my dreams don’t match up with reality and they haven’t for a while. But the key to all of this doesn’t have to do with my way of thinking.  No.  It has to do with the my specific history and with my grappling with Jewish-American identity.  In this struggle, I cannot help being the schlemiel.  My dream of being a Jew is interrupted by my American dream.  And these dreams are caught up with unredeemed fragments of history and reality.  Hopefully, someday they will find a better match, but until then I remain – sincerely yours – a schlemiel.  My dreams still don’t match up with reality.

But I can still dream.  Here’s a clip from a film produced by Samuel Goldwyn, my uncle, who once passed through Gloversville as he traveled to Hollywood.  He, a Jewish-American like me, also had a dream.  And it started here, in Gloversville. Thank you Chad Derrick, for making this dream a filmic reality!

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