Laughter through Tears or Tears through Laughter: Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem – Take 3


Irving Howe initiated his letters to Ruth Wisse about Sholem Aleichem by staking his main claim that, based on his own experience of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, he must go against the grain and state that they, like all stories of the Schlemiel (from Chelm to Hershel Ostropolier), have “their undercurrents of darkness.”  Throughout Howe’s letter, we find a repeated emphasis on how odd he now feels when he reads Aleichem: “And now, in reading Sholem Aleichem, I find myself growing nervous, anxious, even as I keep on laughing.”   This troubled laughter reverberates throughout the letter.

Although she agrees in many ways, Ruth Wisse is suspicious of Howe’s way of speaking.  And despite the fact that she can understand its source and agrees with it – to some extent – she puts forth a different tone and a different emphasis.  As the epistolary correspondence moves on, this becomes more and more apparent.

Wisse initiates her epistolary response to Howe by noting that what he is saying was also said by the Yiddish critic and early admirer or Sholem Aleichem, Ba’al Makshoves.  According to him, Wisse tells us, Aleichem “conjures up the collective anxiety and then dispels it magically, laughing the danger away.”   Reflecting on this, Wisse argues that Aleichem’s contemporaries may have “taken the uncertainties for granted” and “enjoyed the relief he alone provided.” But she agrees with Howe and reflects that “nowadays his name has become such a byword for folksy good humor, innocent ‘laughter through tears,’ that we are surprised to rediscover the undertone of threat in his work.”

She concedes that it might be their shared “modernist bias” that makes them frown upon contemporary kitsch representations of Aleichem’s work; nonetheless, she does note that Aleichem was aware of the “fatal weakness of the culture.”  It comes through in the “narrator’s sense of his own shared culpability in having brought it (the culture) low.”

In other words, he is a “self-conscious” modern artist and, like Howe and Wisse, he has a modernist bias.  And unlike “Tevye, Sholem Aleichem encouraged his children’s Russification.”  But, and here is the difference, Aleichem knew he was “confined to a Jewish fate” and was the “product of ‘tradition.’”  He also left for American and made and remade himself like many other Jews fleeing a slowly dying Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Although she acknowledges the modernist bias and the “ferocity” we see in Aleichem, Wisse wants to take some of the sting out of Howe’s reading. And she does this by  lending more emphasis on Aleichem as the artist who, she believes, can do the Jewish people some good.  Making reference to an Aleichem story entitled “Station Baranovitch,” Wisse notes how the narrator and the author share a similar task; the task of the story teller:

The fate of Kivke (the place in the story) and the Jewish community are ultimately in the hands of the gifted story teller whose untimely departure at Baranovitch constitutes the story’s only fatal event.  The artist can transform reality at will – a potent charm in desperate times – but his magic is subject to temporal claims.

Like her brother, David Roskies (who in his book A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling, looks into the power of the Magid, “storyteller,” to bridge the past and the present), Wisse wants us to pay closer attention to the storyteller.  Nonetheless history does matter for Wisse as much as it does for Howe.  But history is balanced against the powers of the story teller: as we see in Wisse’s words above, the storyteller’s “magic is subject to temporal claims.”

In response to Wisse’s counter-balancing of the story-teller and his magic to the horrors of history, which he addresses, Howe takes note once again of the kitschy view he is trying to think through with his emphasis on the undercurrent of horror in Aleichem.  He justifies his challenge in view of this:

To see Sholem Aleichem in this way seems a necessary corrective to the view, now prevalent in Jewish life, that softens him into a toothless entertainer, a jolly gleeman of the shtetl, a fiddler cozy on his roof.

The words “toothless entertainer,” “jolly gleeman of the shtetl,” etc are meant to cajole and insult those who fall for kitsch and masscult.  He goes on to say that Aleichem is a “self-conscious” artist and not a “folk writer.”  The problem with this claim, however, is that Wisse (like her brother Roskies) believes that Aleichem, although a self-conscious writer, was still drawing deeply on the folk tradition of the Magid (story-teller).  In response, Howe notes that he came out of this culture -where the storyteller and the audience were intimate – but that he was not bound by it.  Nonetheless, Howe himself is perplexed as his thesis – influenced by Saul Bellow – about comedy and horror being interchangeable is being challenged by Wisse who is looking for more balance between the powers of the story teller and the challenge of history.

The word Howe uses to distinguish his reading of Aleichem from the older type of Magid – and to “balance” the Jewish tradition with the modern artist – is “quizzical” (a word which, as we shall see, Wisse plays on):

Sholem Aleichem stands as both firm guardian of the Jewish past and a quizzical skeptical Jew prepared (as the story of the Tevye stories makes clear) to encounter and maybe accept the novelty and surprise of modern Jewish life.  It’s just this balance, so delicate and precarious, that I find so enchanting in his work.

In “the end,” says Howe, what we also hear in Aleichem’s folkloristic tales is a “quizzical voice.”  Howe goes on to say of this voice that it “tells of madness…but so long as we can hear that voice, we know the world is not yet entirely mad.”  Indeed, Howe sees quizzical voice as offering a kind of salvation for modern readers such as himself who see the world as mad.

But this mad, quizzical voice is not funny.  And its salvational aspect is, because it is mad, still troubling.  Nonetheless, Howe agrees that the traditional and the modern should be balanced by way of balancing the folk voice (the voice of the Jewish tradition) with the “quizzical” voice.

In response, Wisse next letter pushes Howe to think more about the meaning of balance so as to take the edge off of his modernist obsession with the “quizzical” and the uncanny.   She notes that of the three greatest Yiddish writers – Mendele, I.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem – all tried to find a “balance” between tradition and modernist writing but each of them tilted too much in the direction of towards the skeptical: “The strain of this divided existence, and the resentment, shows in their work.”  However, Aleichem is “different”; he achieves balance:

Sholem Aleichem is different.  Though he too felt the impending break in the ‘golden chain’ of Jewish tradition, and felt the cracks within his own life, he makes it his artistic business to close the gap.

Wisse goes so far as to say that “wherever there is a danger of dissolution,” the stories “work their magic in simulating or creating a terra firma.”   In other words, we need to pay attention to the crisis but, more importantly, we need to see how Aleichem addresses it and “balances” out tradition.  As Roskies, Wisse’s brother might say, Aleichem provides a “bridge” and that, for Wisse, is more important that the “quizzical” voice that Howe hears in Aleichem’s work.

To be sure, by Terra Firma Wisse even goes so far as to agree with the Yiddish critic Borukh Rivkin that Aleichem gave the Jews of Eastern Europe a “fictional territory to compensate for their lack of a national soil.” Wisse’s reading, here, is echoed by Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination.  In her book Ezrahi sees this move, for her embodied in the post-Holocaust American translation project of Howe, Bellow, and Feidler, as the creation of a “virtual shtetl” – and, after the founding of Israel, this substitute land (think of George Steiner’s “text as homeland”) comes into question.

In addition to finding the necessary “balance” in terms of rescuing tradition from dissolution, Wisse claims, in response to Howe, that even though Tevye is not the Vilna Gaon, he is “the original stand-up comic, playing to an appreciative audience of one: his impresario, Sholem Aleichem, who then passes on this discovered talent to his readers.”

In other words, Wisse looks to underscore the ameliorative aspects of Jewish humor which are a response to history.  She does this by pointing out that Aleichem not only balances out tradition but he does so in the spirit of the “original stand up comic,” which he created.

And this speaks to Wisse’s recent book No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, since Wisse looks for a humor that balances tradition instead of destroying it by way of extreme/excessive sarcasm.

As I have tried to show in this blog entry, Wisse also thinks that extreme skepticism (the “quizzical” tone that Howe speaks of with Aleichem) can also pose a threat.  That’s why she introduces the notion of “balance” into the epistolary exchange with Howe.

(In the next blog entries that address this epistolary exchange, I’d like to bring out this subtle contrast between Howe and Wisse so as to show how the schlemiel can be read in terms of the tension between tradition and modernity.  If an author looks at the schlemiel in too skeptical or quizzical a light, the Jewish tradition may be compromised. Nonetheless, Wisse does agree that skepticism must be there.  As I noted above, for Wisse it seems to be a matter of emphasis.  She would agree that there is a strange, dark “undercurrent” with the schlemiel, but how much of an undercurrent?  How does it relate to – or balance out with – the comic element?  Is that what makes for Jewishness?  Or does radical skepticism and irrevernace, as we see in writers like Sholom Auslander or even Phillip Roth, mark Jewishness as “quizzical?”)

Laughter Through Tears or Tears Through Laughter? Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s Humor – Take 2


In their epistolary introduction on Sholem Aleichem,  Irving Howe sets the tone for his declaration of Jewishness by noting that he has an “uneasy feeling” that he has discovered a Sholem Aleichem that has “seldom been encountered.”  Howe says what no-one wants to hear; namely, that Sholem Aleichem “turns out to be imagining, beneath the scrim of his playfulness and at the center of his humor, a world of uncertainty, shifting perception, anxiety, even terror”(vii).

Howe uncovers and shares something shocking about Aleichem.  He then akes the newly perplexed reader by the hand.  After disclosing what has been repressed about Aleichem, he compassionately notes: “Let no innocent reader be alarmed: the stories are just as funny as everyone has said.  But they now seem to me funny in a way that almost no one has said.”

Reading this sentence, I could not help but think of how Martin Heidegger, the celebrated German philosopher, speaks in his talk “What is metaphysics?”  Here Howe acts like Heidegger when he performs, like and unlike Heidegger, what Heidegger would call the “nihilation of the Nothing.”  What happens for Howe, as a reader of Aleichem, is that the world he, the reader, lives in – the world of Sholem Aleichem – is “now” different.  It has been nihilated by suffering and unspeakable horror (which Howe assocaites with the scars of Pogroms, violence, anti-Semitism, and an existential experience of everything become strange, unfamiliar…all of a sudden). In this moment of nihilation, the fictional world of Aleichem’s schlemiels is funny, but it is no longer the same.

Aleichem’s “Kasrilevke” – his Chelm full of Schlemiels – is nihilated by the nothing.  Howe tells us, however, that the world of Sholem Aleichem’s stories is still funny.  In other words, Kasrilevke (Aleichem’s Chelm) remains funny, but it is other: the world of Sholem Aleichem’s stories is “funny” but “in a way that almost no one has said.”

If we listen closely to this line, we can see that Howe’s line sounds stupefied at its uniqueness.  But, in truth, it is so only because, in his reading experience of Aleichem, he has lost his belief in Aleichem’s laughter through tears (his “folksy” Chelm) and is fascinated with witnessing a terror that, he argues, permeates Aleichem’s fictional world.

But though it is “other,” Aleichem’s world remains comic; in other words, one has not totally lost one’s kitschy relation to the world of Sholem Aleichem by this shocking realization.  One is still, so to speak, Jewish if one identifies with folksy humor and schlemiels.  But this identification is of the masses while Irving Howe’s identification is with those who scrutinized themselves.   These special readers find that Aleichem shows us what we don’t want too see: the suffering that ruptures our history.  As Howe wants to remind us, Jewish history, like Aleichem’s stories, is full of rupture.  In other words, Chelm and Kasrikevke, the fictional worlds of schlemiels, are still funny and familiar yet they are also…. “now” unfamiliar.

Howe reiterates this existential astonishment after noting that the Yiddish Critic S. Niger, which he and Eliezer Greenberg “anthologized in our Voices from the Yiddish, thought that Aleichem was a “writer of tenderness and cleverness, with a profound grasp of Jewish life.”  Howe says that, at this moment something has changed.  This is not “the Sholem Aleichem I now see.”

Howe’s movements from this to the next sentence are astonishing.  After reading this, Howe asks Wisse: “Is my view a distortion, the kind induced by modernist bias and training?”  Following this he acknowledges that he may be overreaching in his claims for Aleichem’s Jewish humor: “I am aware of that danger and try to check my self, but still…”

Strangely enough, Howe incriminates himself and his obsession with crying through laughter.  He must report what he sees in Aleichem despite the fact that it goes against the grain of the community and despite the fact that he fears Wisse will accuse him of a “modernist bias.”

Howe goes on to insist that what we find in Aleichem is not “merely a folk voice” but a “self-conscious disciplined artist.”  Aleichem is not a “folksy tickler.”  And in addtion to him being a “self-conscious disciplined artist,” Aleichem, like “all great humorists, he attaches himself to the disorder which lies beneath the apparent order of the universe, to the madness beneath the apparent sanity.  In many of the stories one hears the timbre of the problematic.”

Speaking directly to Wisse’s work on the schlemiel, Howe claims that, based on his experience of the nihilation of the kitschy, folikish aspect of Sholem Aleichem’s stories/world, he can now state the generalization that the “Chelm stories, Herschel Ostropolier stories, the Hasidic tales, even sometimes the folk songs, all have their undercurrents of darkness.”


Will Wisse agree with this crying through laughter which challenges the schlemiel’s laughter through tears?   Will she agree with Howe’s reading of the schlemiel?  In the next blog, we will address this question and look into how she addresses it.  This will help us to better understand the similarities and differences between them regarding the schlemiel and Jewishness itself.

Laughter Through Tears or Tears Through Laughter? Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s Humor – Take 1


Do we laugh through tears or do we cry through laughter?  The answer to this question or perhaps the question itself are, for Irving Howe, the crux of Jewish identity.  For Howe, the few Jews who really “scrutinize” themselves, the Jews who “dare to know” (so to speak), will come to this very question.  Howe has taken this risk and his experience of this question concerning Jewish humor serves as an example of his Jewishness.  This performance of Jewish identity – which comes out through his question concerning Jewish humor – is what Howe is showing us.   Howe is demonstrating a Jewishness that is based on pondering the question of what Jewish humor and with it Jewish identity is.

Either one laughs in order to dispel one’s sadness or one laughs and inevitably runs into sadness.   For Howe, laughter cannot dispel tears.  This declaration is, to be sure, Howe’s conversion experience. And he didn’t learn it from Saul Bellow, as he stated in his introduction to Jewish American Stories; rather, he learned it from an artist who is Saul Bellow’s Moses: Sholem Aleichem.

The relation of Bellow to Sholem Aleichem is a missing link for understanding not just Howe’s approach to Judaism, which ponders the question as to whether one laughs through tears or cries through laughter, but Howe’s Judaism, which he inherits.

Howe takes part in the legacy of a schlemiel tradition.  He is, in a way, educating the next generation of (troubled) schlemiels.

As I pointed out in the last blog-entry, Irving Howe, in his introduction to Jewish American Stories, and in this epistolary exchange, identifies with Saul Bellow’s reading of Jewishness.  And, as I pointed out, Bellow’s reading of Jewish identity is made in terms of Jewish humor.

Let us recall that Bellow finds that the uniqueness of Jewish humor is found in the fact that “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not so easy to determine the relation between the two.”  Howe so deeply identifies with Bellow’s claim about the intermingling of laughter and trembling in the Jewish humor that he repeats it in his shared introduction to another book published.  This new book, a collection of  Sholem Aleichem’s stories, was published three years after Jewish American Stories.  The 1979 collection of Shalom Aleichem stories is entitled The Best of Sholem Aleichem Stories.

In that introduction, Howe once again nods to Bellow and notes that Jewish humor “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation between the two.” The fact that Howe repeats this definition – not simply of Jewish humor, but, for Howe, Jewishness- is significant: he shares this “declaration” of his Jewishness with Ruth Wisse, a scholar of the schlemiel.

Given that he is testing his view of the schlemiel against hers, what Wisse says in response to Howe is even more telling.  Her similarities with Howe are important, but her differences are more interesting.  Her schlemiel and his differ.

The difference between their views of Jewish humor is instructive for those of us, today, who are concerned with the meaning of Jewish identity.  Their shared introduction to The Best Stories of Sholem Aleichem teaches us – by way of prompting us in a Talmudic manner – to interpret their relationship.  To prompt their readers to make a more literary reading of their introduction to Aleichem, they structured it as an epistolary exchange.

Let’s take note of this and read their dialogue closely.

I’d like to carefully go through this exchange of letters so as to show where Wisse agrees with Howe. After doing this, we can she where and how she tactfully disagrees.  The subtle differences between them are important and foreshadow Wisse’s recent book and much talked about book on Jewish Humor: No Joke.  ( I will address this book in a separate blog entry, but for now I’d like to draw out the precursor to that work which, I think, can be found in her dialogue with Howe.)

Ruth Wisse’s 1979 reading of Aleichem is of especial interest to a “schlemiel theorist” like me since Wisse is one of the foremost authorities on the schlemiel.  Her reading of Aleichem and Howe’s reading are not simply founded on their similar yet different readings of Jewish humor but also their readings of Jeiwshness.    For both, the famed Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem is an important starting point.  As a historian of Jewish literature, Howe believes that without Sholem Aleichem their could be no be Saul Bellow.  Bellow inherits crying through laughter not laughter through tears from Sholoem Aleichem.

First of all, although the introduction begins with (and is initiated by) Howe’s reflections on Aleichem’s perplexing humor, it ends with Wisse’s resolution.  Her resoluation balances between Howe’s “quizzical” view of Aleichem’s humor and Wisse’s own “quizzical” yet joyful view of his humor.   In the end, it is not just a matter of emphasis; in fact, their views of humor also articulate two kinds of Jewishness.  And the differences between these articulations are instructive and far reaching.

What concerns Howe most about Aleichem is the darker side of his work.  To be sure, one of the reasons he put Sholem Aleichem’s Best Stories together with Ruth Wisse was to show this neglected aspect of Aleichem’s humor.   Until then, many Americans who romanticized Aleichem (and, for Howe, Fiddler on the Roof didn’t help) associated Jewishness with joy and “laughter through tears.”

For Howe, this view, which I will call the “kitschy” view, is wrong.

The view of Aleichem (and the schlemiel) as simply a popular fun loving artist is, for Howe, too kitschy; and, as a result, it forgets history and rupture.  To be sure, Howe doesn’t desire a kitschy kind of laughter through tears.  He’s not interested in a Broadway or a Hollywood Production of Fiddler on the Roof (1964).

He seeks to be true to who he, by virtue of history, is: a Jew.  And his commitment to this kind of troubled laughter demonstrates his commitment to Judaism.  This commitment puts his kitschy identification with Jewishness into question. But the kitschy view of humor is not annihilated.  Alechem’s humorous world is, so to speak, “nihilated.”

Howe wants to show us (demonstrate for us) that his commitment to troubled laughter, in the face of such nihilation, is based on the approach to Judaism of his progenitor, Sholem Aleichem.  In other words, Howe’s Jewishness can be found in the troubled laughter we hear in Aleichem’s books.  He wants to share this insight and demonstrate how a commitment to Jewishness must challenge the popular, kischy view, that laughs through tears.

Howe seeks to set the record straight.  In the introduction he shares with Ruth Wisse, Howe tells us that Aleichem, like Bellow after him insist that to be Jewish we must admit that we cry through laughter.   This is tantamount to, as Howe says, “declaring” one’s Jewishness.

Wisse responds to Howe’s declaration with her own.

Irving Howe, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel – Take 2


From my own experiences and those of many of my friends, I have learned that many American Jews are perplexed about what it means to be Jewish while others, unfortunately, have become indifferent.  Those who are perplexed can turn to many different things for a resolution: some people try to understand their Judaism by turning to religion, some turn toward nationalism (Israel, Zionism, etc), some turn against Zionism, some turn to politics and justice, some turn to philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas or Martin Buber, some turn to Buddhism (Ju-Bus),  some turn to battles over sexuality and gender, some turn to music, and others turn to environmentalism,

Irving Howe’s search for the meaning of Jewishness differs from these.  His search was inseparable from his interest in the relationship of Jewish history to modernity and to Yiddish and Jewish American Literature.  It is also inseparable from his understanding of Jewish humor.  As I pointed out in the last blog entry on Howe, he went through many different readings of Jewishness and concluded that Jewishness is a “vague thing.”  Nonetheless, this doesn’t keep him from closely researching it and finding resonance in Jewish American literature.  What concerned him most was the future of Jewish American literature and Jewishness.   Relating to this, he thought that with the loss of the Jewish immigrant experience, which he believed were inseparable from places like New York and Chicago, Jewishness would also be lost.  As I pointed out in the blog entry, Howe believed that Jewish-American literature had no future because people no longer had a “felt” relationship to Jewish tradition or Yiddish.

Howe’s sense of Jewishness is, to be sure, found in his relationship with this loss of tradition and the transition from having a tradition to draw on to having no tradition.  But there is more to the story.  Of all the thinkers and writers that Howe mentions in relation to Jewishness (which include Osip Mandelstam, Saul Bellow, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Phillip Rahv), he finds his greatest affinity with the Nobel Prize winning author, Saul Bellow’s tragic-comic reading of Jewishness.  His own sense of Jewishness, which amounts to a big, sad, question mark, draws on what he says about Bellow in his introduction to Jewish American Stories and on what he says in a shared introduction to The Best of Sholom Aleichem (an introduction he shares, by way of letters (!), with Ruth Wisse).   Moreover, what he says about Jewishness vis-à-vis Bellow is nothing more nor less than his reading of the schlemiel.

Regarding Bellow’s understanding of Jewishness, Howe cites Bellow, in his introduction to Jewish American Stories, as saying:

In Jewish stories laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two.  At times laughter seems to restore the equilibrium of sanity; at times the figures of the story or parable, appear to invite or encourage trembling with the secret aim of overcoming it by means of laughter.

Immediately following this, Howe does something unusual.  He cites himself and gives his reading of Jewishness in terms of the perplexity of post-assimilation:

They (Jews) had achieved ‘a normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself? To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.

Howe identifies himself with “those (Jews) who have any taste for self-scrutiny.”  And he also identifies with Bellow.  To be sure, later in the introduction, he confirms his identification with Bellow when he writes: “For what I want to assert is that the dominant American Jewish style is the one brought to a pitch by Saul Bellow and imitated and modified by a good many others.”  And, I would add, by himself.

Taken together, Howe is telling us that his “self-scrutiny” about what it means to be a Jew can be found in Bellow’s reflection on Jewish humor and its relationship to suffering and “trembling.”  Indeed, the exchange between the comic and the horrific is of great interest to Howe.   And this has a lot to do with what he thinks is Jewish, today.

His reading of Sholom Aleichem – as espoused in his introduction to The Best Sholom Aleichem Stories – is permeated by such a comic-horrific “feeling.”   With respect to the schlemiel, this reading is brought to its breaking point by way of his dialogue (in the shared introduction to that book) with the noted scholar of the Schlemiel, Ruth Wisse.

In the next blog entry, I will turn to this dialogue so as to tease out what is at stake when one reads the schlemiel in terms of an exchange between laughter and horror.  The stakes involve the relationship of literature and reflection to history.  As I have pointed out above, for Howe, this is his way of relating to Jewishness and it differs from those who seek to understand what it means to be Jewish by way of religion, Zionism, post-Zionism, etc.  And, unlike these other ways of seeking Jewishness, it underscores the importance of the schlemiel for understanding what it means to be Jewish.

Shlemiel, the Day After: Post-Screening Reflections


Last night the screening of Shlemiel at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center went very well.  What I love most about sharing the film are the Q & A sessions that follow the screening.  This time I was fortunate to be showing the film to a group of artists and art critics whose insights into the film were insightful and novel.  These emerged out of questions pertaining to where I am now and where I am going.

Every time I see the film, I see myself going through a process and I can’t help but smirk to see how my dreams, like a schlemiel, didn’t match up with reality.  I dreamed big and the film maker did a fine job of showing how my father also did.  From the very start, I could see that I was casting my net out and believed that my band, Men With Babies, would be successful.  What the film shows is how it failed to make it to the NXNE (North by North East Music) Festival.  Nonetheless, after the film was made, it screened at NXNE and my band was invited to play. (And the band’s future – albeit in a new incarnation – is still yet to be determined.)  The film also shows how I dreamed big about religious experience and how that also faltered.   This had to do with the fact that I came to Judaism through a Hasidic group that had major Messianic aspirations.  Moreover, my father also had the Messianic on his mind (as a part of his psychosis).  And, as I pointed out in my last post, I opened myself up to his insights and they bled into my own search for what it meant to be an American Jew.

To be sure, I thought of the Messianic in terms of my own music.  But I didn’t cast all my chips down with the Hasidic vision of the Messianic.  The film shows that part; but it doesn’t show how I was influenced by the Messianic aspirations of avant-garde art and poetry.  I was interested in breaking boundaries like Antonin Artaud, the Living Theater, or Jerzy Growtowski.

To my mind, these movements, words, and gestures looked to break open boundaries and expose us to something we have never seen, something to come, something Messianic.

I also saw this in the mad writing that came out of Thomas Pynchon and other experimental writers.  I heard this madness in much of Paul Celan’s later poetry.  And as a person who has studied philosophy and teaches philosophy, I found a philosophical root for this in the Messianic as understood by the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.  All of this amounted to an avant-garde type of secular messianism (or as John Caputo might say – in the name of Derrida – a “messianism without messianism”) and a revolutionary kind of practice.

When I was a teenager, I foolishly looked to art as Nietzsche, in the preface of The Gay Science), did: I thought I could – by my own efforts – transform my bodily and psychological pain and trauma into joy. But, unlike Nietzsche, I learned when I was an undergraduate that if this were to possibly happen, I could not do this alone.   I truly believed, like Emmanuel Levinas, that it depended on the other.

The “schlemiel-problem” in all of this doesn’t lie with this insight; it inheres in the word “believe.”  To be sure, I believed too much in the interaction of myself and the audience and this led to a crash course.  But, at the very least, I learned that if I were to crash it would be before the other and not by myself.

The questions from the audience prompted me to think about how much my dreams didn’t fit with reality.  I now realize that I couldn’t, like the avant-garde artists I loved, go at it alone.  I still believe that a secular messianic happens and can happen between the actor, writer, artist and the audience – it happens between people.  And that I, of course, must initiate an encounter or respond to an encounter.  I know that, because the actor, writer, and artists must take risks that they are, and have to be, to some extent hopeful and, yes, foolish.  Artists, like schlemiels, must dream.  And those dreams – if they are to be affective – must be shared.  And this, one must admit, is foolish because it is uncertain.  Nonetheless, one must take one’s (foolish) chances.

The schlemiel fails best because he or she still goes on and is, in many ways, blind to failure and to the scope of his or her dreams or perceptions.

I can testify to that as can many a schlemiel-artist.   I am a schlemiel who is aware of his propensity to dream big; but that won’t stop me from being a schlemiel.  Unlike others, I don’t think the schlemiel is something that can or even should be eliminated through a conscious rejection of ‘dreams’ in favor of ‘reality’ or the ‘world’ or the feminine for the masculine, or humor for seriousness.  No.  One can and must dream and take risks and this is a part of the human condition.  No matter how hard a Jew tries not to be comic and to shoot far over their mark and avoid the blind spots, one will always miss something.  And this makes sense.

This doesn’t simply mean that we should, as Beckett said, “fail better.”  It means that we should always try to make for a fit between ourselves and the world but with a comic awareness that that fit will always, comically, be off.

And this speaks to my own Jewishness.  I may have tried to reject one part of it, but I have at the same time embraced another part.  I am not afraid to say that me relationship to the world, as a Jew, is still mediated by the schlemiel.  My relationship to Jewishness also bears its mark.

I thank the artists and art critics at the Isabella Freedman Artists Retreat for helping me to rethink where I have, as Paul Celan might say, come from and where I am going to.  In the end, this schlemiel has come out of a mess and is now going (awkwardly) towards you, the other, but with different eyes.  And yet, I know, that even with these new eyes there will always be a blind spot which may keep me from seeing what or who is in front of me.

Who is that in the mirror?  It’s me and its not me….

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


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!

Irving Howe, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel – Take 1


Irving Howe is most well known for being one of the “New York Intellectuals.”  He was born in the Bronx in 1920 to immigrant parents.  His name at birth was Irving Horenstein.  Like many children of immigrants, he went to City College in New York and there he met other “New York intellectuals” such as Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell.  Howe was interested in radical politics and literature.  He had written in both fields and had gained acclaim in each.

But as Leon Wieseltier claimed in his 1993 New York Times piece entitled “Remembering Irving Howe,” “What kept his eyes and his heart open, however, was not poltics.  It was literature.  He loved nothing more.”  Wieseltier points out that Howe’s approach to literature was eclectic.  He turned to literature to “learn about life, but the life about which he most wished to learn was the hard and lumpy common one.”  Nonetheless, Howe “despises proletarian art, and the ways in which populism and mass politics tortured the writer.”  On the other hand, he also couldn’t stand “art’s high priests.”  Given this kind of taste, Wieseltier tells us that “Irving’s greatest thrill was high art that felt democratic.”

After noting this, Wieseltier moves to Howe’s taste for Yiddish and his efforts to save a dying language by way of criticism, edited editions, and writing.  What is so interesting about this move is that Wieseltier leaves a gap between Howe’s love for “high art that felt democratic” and Howe’s love for a dying language.  Wieseltier, nonetheless, does give us a clue since he briefly focuses on Howe’s sense of what constitutes Jewishness.   I see this as a clue because Howe’s interest in Yiddish literature and Jewish American literature was primarily driven by his own personal sense of what Jewishness is or better yet was.  Jewishness, to be sure, pained Howe because he saw it as dying with post-WWII America.

As Wieseltier notes:

for decades Irving threw himself into the task of rescue, editing and introducing and writing about what he made famous as the “world of our fathers.”  He was without nostalgia, but he was not without grief.  I cannot count the the number of breakfasts at Leo’s on East 86th Street that were take up with the disappearance of that world, with the decline of secular Jewishness.

In his introduction to Jewish American Stories, which he edited and published in 1977, Howe delves into the meaning of Jewishness by way of Jewish-American literature.  Given Wieseltier’s words, we can truly see that this compilation looks to rescue that ‘world of our fathers” by showing that Howe is not alone in his efforts.  To be sure, Howe draws out a host of authors which includes Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, I.B. Singer, Stanley Elkin, etc.  For him, these writers write in the wake of immigrant Jewishness.   They are writers who live in the period of assimilation and post assimilation.  What, he wonders, will be the “foundation” for Jewishness after Jewish life has migrated from the city to the suburbs and beyond.  How long will this “foundation” show in the work of later Jewish-American writers?

Taking the perspective of a historical materialist, Howe initially situates Jewishness in different places.  Writing of “some writers in this book, like Gilbert Rogin, Paul Goodman, and Daniel Fuchs,” Howe notes that “what comes through, as pathos, comedy, or both, is the continued power of origins, the ineradicable stamp of New York or Chicago slums, even upon grandsons and granddaughters who  may never have lived in or seen them” (6).

Out of this general reflection, Howe tries to derive some particulars about Judaism:

But is that not an essential aspect of Jewish experience? – the way that past grips and forms us, and will not allow us to escape even when we desperately want to.  Or the way we come to feel the anxiety of loss, a depression of abandonment, even when we do escape. (6)

The last point is autobiographical.  Howe does see a link between his Jewishness and his geographical roots.  Citing Eudora Welty essay entitled “Place in Fiction,” Howe drives the relation of place to Jewish identity to its limit by saying that all literature is related to place:

“The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place.  Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened?  Who’s here?  Who’s coming?’ and that is the heart’s field.”

For “many Jewish writers,” notes Howe, “‘the heart’s field’ will forever be those gray packed streets, turbulent and smelly, which they have kept from childhood, holding them in memory long after the actuality has been transformed or erased”(7).

But Howe knew that although this emphasis on locale was important, it was not sufficient for explaining the uniqueness of Jewish-American literature – and Jewishness – in a post-assimilation American context.  Another element he looks to is the family.  He argues that while we see the individual stressed by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Hemmingway, and Fitzgerald, we see the family (or struggles with the family) emphasized in Jewish-American literature.

After passionately arguing for the relevance of location and family, Howe testifies to the fact that, ultimately, Jewishness “suggests a certain vagueness.”  To be sure, he puts the word “Jewishness” in scare quotes and notes that “when one speaks of “Jewishness,” it is to invoke a spectrum of styles and symbols, a range of cultural memories, no longer as ordered or weighty as once they were yet still able to affect experience”(10).

And this fact is what astonishes Howe.  It also troubles him as he doesn’t know how long the awareness of Jewishness will last and have an impact on American Jews.  He notes that American Jews, in the 70s, did think of themselves as distinct and argues that there is a “persuasion remains that ‘we’ (whoever we may be, however defined or bound) must live with a sense of our differentness and perhaps draw some sustenance from it.”  Without this sense of “differentness,” without the “assumption that there is something distinctive in ‘Jewishness’, the standard for many to affirm or others to violate, the (Jewish) story would verge on incoherence”(10).

But this is a vague standard.  And Howe struggles to clarify it.  To this end, he cites himself, Osip Mandelstam, Harold Rosenberg, Saul Bellow, Issac Rosenfeld, and Phillip Rahv.  Each of these citations points out a unique aspect of Judaism.  Mandelstam says that the slightest hint of Judaism fills up an entire house and one’s life; Bellow points out that Jewishness is found in the intimate relation of laughter to trembling; Rosenberg notes that Jewishness is found in the possibility of linking a Jew with the “collective and individual experience of earlier Jews’; Rosenfeld notes that Jewishness is rooted in cultural and historical marginality; and Rahv notes that for a Jewish-American writer like Bernard Malamud, as opposed to Dostoevsky, suffering is not idealized; rather, “suffering is not what you are looking for but what you are likely to get.”

Howe, in contrast to them, notes that, for many post-assimilation Jewish writers, Jewishness has to do with endless self-questioning (even when things are ‘normal’): “They had achieved a ‘normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself?  To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.”

Although Howe considers all of these views to be important and although he does think that Jewishness has to do with questioning who one is and why one would “declare” oneself a Jew, today, he laments the loss of a sense of tradition in today’s Jewish-American writers (that is, for him, in the 1970s). A “lapsed sense of tradition” won’t help or doesn’t help.  What he sees today are remnants of Jewishness which are not anchored in any historical memory or “felt” experience.  And this makes him worry since that historical sense and experience are related to a historical origin which, as we saw above, is linked to certain locales and experiences that are fading.

Howe ends his introduction in a pessimistic manner.  While he feels that “there remains, to be sure the problem of ‘Jewishness’, and the rewards and difficulties this definiton may bring us,” he notes that it “does not yield a thick enough sediment of felt life to enable a new outburst of writing about American Jews.”  Today, since the “felt life” is missing, much Jewish writing is a “matter of will or nerves, and not enough of shared experience.”

This claim, made in the late 1970s, finds interesting resonance in the schlemiel of today.  Did this character’s popularity emerge out of “will or nerves” and not “shared experience” or does the schlemiel and its popularity come from another source of experience?  I want to end this blog entry with this question and return to it.  It gives a lot of food for thought since there are Jewish American writers today like Shalom Auslander, Nathan Englander, and Gary Shteyngart (to name just a few) who draw on the schlemiel in their work and find this character to be vital.  In addition, we see this Jewish character is and has been prevalent in films, TV shows, and stand-up comedy as well.  But does its “Jewishness” remain?

Questions for Reflection: Is the fact of its popularity and its appeal to Jewishness a remnant of a dead past?  What experience does it draw on? And has the schlemiel become, as Daniel Itzkovitz has argued in an essay entitled “They are all Jews” the “everyman”?  If Itzkovitz is correct, was Howe right?  Has Jewishness passed into Americana?  Or is this only the case for Hollywood but not for the world of Jewish-American literature?  If there is a tradition of the schlemiel, what makes it Jewish?  And where does it live on?