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

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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!)

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