Sarah Silverman’s Personal God

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The term “personal God” is used in reference to the personal relationship between God and man that we often find in the Bible (Torah).  God walks with Noah, communicates with the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and speaks “face-to-face” with Moses (not literally face to face because, as it says in the Bible (Torah) “no man can see me and live”).   In these moments of relation, God would sometimes take the prophet by surprise and visit at unexpected times; other times, we see people like Abraham, Moses, of Job (to take only three examples) arguing or pleaing with God.  We also see, from time to time, the call for the Jews in the Bible to pray in hope of a response from the “personal God.”

The notion of a personal God is the opposite of a notion of an “impersonal” God.  This is the God that the Medieval Jewish Philosopher Yehuda HaLevi – and the famed mathematician and author of the classic Pensees, Blaise Pascal – associated with the “God of Aristotle.”  This “impersonal” God can only be contemplated. And by contemplating “Him,” the “cause of causes” one will, eventually, gain true wisdom and happiness.  Nonetheless, the impersonal God cannot “save” or “redeem anything” – the impersonal God has no “personal” relationship with humanity.  And the “impersonal” God cannot be the God of history and cannot act in history.

When, as an undergraduate in university, I first came across the term “personal God” the first thought that came to my head was a God I could hang out with and talk to “personally.”  Immediately after having this thought, I recall how ridiculous it seemed to me.  The term didn’t seem to work.  After spending more time studying Torah, the Talmud, Kabbalah, the Midrash, and Jewish mysticism, I learned that the term didn’t account for the fact that, in Judaism at least, God is in the world but not of the world.  The “personal” aspect, I learned, is not to be understood as a God one can just hang out with.  To be sure, as the Midrash, the Talmud, and books like the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) explain, God’s “personal” relationship to humanity was severed after the destruction of the Second Temple and the attendant “Diaspora.”  In fact, the meaning of exile can be found in the distance from God’s “presence” in history and in the life of the Jewish people.

The Guide to the Perplexed, written by Moses Maimonides (the RAMBAM) in the 12th century, would take major account with the use of a term like “personal” God.  To be sure, the book does all it can to de-anthropomorphize the representation of God in the Bible (Torah), the Prophets, the Psalms, etc.  It does this, quite simply, because such antropomorphisms would subject God to the whim of our imaginations.  Nonetheless, Maimonides still held that God communicated with the patriarachs, the prophets, and the Jewish people.   The question, for him (and for us), is how do we characterize God’s relationship to man?

To be sure, Yiddish literature has characters like Tevye who are constantly speaking (as it were) to God.  Though he doesn’t reply, this doesn’t stop Tevye from talking.  And Jewish comedians from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen love playing on the notion of a personal God.   Here’s a classic moment with Mel Brooks doing exactly this:

Woody Allen also stages a hilarious conversation between Abraham and God over the “binding of Isaac.”  In this conversation, God scolds Abraham for “taking him seriously.”  His call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was, in Allen’s version, a “joke.”

Following a long line of comics and writers who have played on the “personal” God relation, Sarah Silverman has also included the personal God in her comic routine.  However, this inclusion is really personal.  She doesn’t simply speak to God, who is represented as a middle aged African-American gentleman, she sleeps with him.

In the clip, entitled the “morning after,” God tries to work out what happened the night before and how it led to this.  Regardless, Silverman asks him to leave.  But before he leaves, he notes that she won’t get back to him (that she probably won’t “call” on him in the future – an obvious pun on the call to a personal god).

The clip obviously led to some controversy, but this didn’t keep Silverman from coming back to it; but not in her show so much as in the “Afterword” to her book The Bedwetter.  To be sure, Silverman personally communicates with God and gives him the opportunity to write the “Afterword.”  To be sure, God includes Sarah’s personal plea to “Him” to write the Afterword.  Here is an excerpt:

Dear God, I know I have denied your existence my entire life, and have only spoken you name at crucial moments of jokes and orgasms, but I really need you now.  I need you so much, in fact, that I want to accept you right now as my lord and savior, and renounce any negative things I’ve said about those who worship you.  Please make this book be finished.  I’ll be honest: I find of blew it off….I know I don’t deserve your help, but I’m asking anyway. (234)

But, then, she tells us that while writing this letter she was stoned.  And she needs God’s personal help because the high she is experiencing is too much for her to handle:

Holy crap, I am realizing…I am incredibly stoned. I ate half a brownie just to ease my anxiety, but I think I went to far.  This is way too intense.  I’m really scared. I don’t want to be alone right now.

Following this citation from her letter, God says “at this point, she began to sob, and since I am not completely heartless, I agreed to help her with her book.”  What follows this is God’s mundane, personal nature. To be sure, he sounds just like one of us.  He watches TV, porn, has TiVo, iTunes, etc.  Here are a few of his personal confessions:

I follow Top Chef.  I’m totally interested, it’s edge-of-your seat stuff, but I forget to TiVo it, I probably won’t bother buying it on iTunes. For me, it’s pretty much out-of-sight-out-of-mind-ish…Wait, one more thing.  I saw a video on YouPorn where two men managed to position themselves in such a manner that they could both penetrate the woman’s vagina simultaneously.  Regardless of what they think, let me just tell you were I stand on it: Let’s not touch balls in a situation where we’re working up to a cum. But that’s just me.  I’m not gay. (235).

God also says he is “proud” of Cancer and HIV and notes: “I don’t say that to provoke anyone, either.  It’s just that at a basic scientific level, both of these inventions are really cool”(234).

Silverman ends God’s Afterword with God giving praise for Silverman’s work to get Obama in office:

And she was, for the record, the deciding factor in Barack Obama’s victorious campaign for president of the United States.  That alone makes her existence a net gain for the universe. 

The final image of God we are left with is him sitting next to President Obama with a “raging boner”: “I’m sitting five feet from Obama right now, and to be perfectly frank, I have a raging boner”(237).

As you can see, Silverman reduces the notion of a “personal god” to an absurdity.  But instead of reading this as a stupid, heretical gesture as some have, I suggest we look at it as a practice that actually resonates with Maimonides’s wariness of anthropomorphisms.  Moreover, it can actually spur us to think about how god could be “personal.”  How does God relate to the world and to me?  And how, in fact, can we imagine a personal god today in a world which is thoroughly secular and “everyday?”  These are all good questions that, I think, are spurred by Silverman’s comical representations of God.

But what makes me smile is to know that, within the Jewish tradition, there is a space to imagine and re-imagine (comically and seriously) what kind of relationship the Jewish people have with God.   Violating the prohibition of representing God with this or that image is allayed, I think, by Silverman’s comical approach.  To see it as blasphemous would be to miss the fact that, ultimately, there is a desire to relate to a personal God in her work and this, ultimately, is one of the most Jewish things about her work. Her desire to relate to a personal God challenges the sense of Jewishness that is based on this or that physical trait or habit.

Regardless of how much she parodies this desire, it is still there. And even though the image of God with a “raging boner” – because he is sitting next to President Obama – is the last image of God we are left with and seems to be “too personal.”  It still discloses her desire for a “personal god.” Perhaps this is the real punch line.

(Note: Imagining this personal relationship may, in fact, bring her closer to Yehuda HaLevi than to Moses Maimonides – which we don’t have enough space to discuss here.)

Another Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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For the longest time, the claim that someone is a “Self-Hating Jew” has given vent to a lot of attacks on comedians, filmmakers, writers, etc.  It often comes up when something is said by this or that Jew which isn’t, as the saying goes, “good for the Jews.”  And it is often used against people who are radical critics of Israel.  Instead of calling people who claim that this or that person is a self-hating Jew a name, I just want to point out that, although many people may deplore it, it comes from a place of concern.  And that concern 1) emerges out of centuries of oppression and anti-Semitism against Jews (which culminates in the Holocaust) and 2) with the sense that Jews have of themselves as a people which, in spite of all the negativity against them, are proud of their Jewishness.

It would be amiss to think that Jews alone have such a concept and make such accusations.  For instance, the African-American community also has a notion of selling out one’s relation to “blackness.”   A person who leaves it behind is described and defined, most recently, by the MSNBC host, Toure and Eric Dyson, an sociology professor at Georgetown University Michael Eric Dyson in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now.  (To be sure there are countless books on this topic.)    By mentioning this, I don’t wish to excuse the act of accusing this or that person of being a Self-Hating Jew so much as to show its relation to suffering, history, and ethnicity.

In Sander Gilman’s book, the Jews who he includes under the title of (possible) Self-Hating Jews include figures such as Karl Marx, Ludwig Borne, and Heinrich Heine who had a (or some) negative attitude toward their Jewishness (or Jewishness in General) and saw it as a barrier to their assimilation or to progress.  However, most recently Paul Reitter has written a book entitled On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred which traces the origin and genesis of the concept of Jewish Self-Hatred.  He argues that it didn’t begin after the Enlightenment so much as after WWI.  Reitter argues that Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing popularized the term but did so as to actually work through Jewish self-loathing.  However, though this book changes the perspective we may have on the meaning of Jewish Self-Hatred, it also creates a whole new problem for understanding the meaning of the term as used by Sander Gilman and others.  I suggest looking Amos Bitzan’s exceptional review of the book, which explains this problem in more detail.

Reitter and Gilman’s take on Jewish Self-Hatred can help us to better understand what is at stake in understanding Sarah Silverman’s edginess with respect to the claim that she might be a self-hating Jew.  I began and ended my last note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness with a discussion of the Jewish “trait” as it relates to what Sander Gilman and others have called “Jewish Self-Hatred.”  The point I was trying to make is that Silverman is playing with the notion.  And this makes her work, as it pertains to Jews, edgy.  I am certainly not accusing her of being a self-hating Jew.  Rather, I’m pointing out how she evokes herself as a possible target of such an accusation while, at the same time, allaying such suspicions.   Let’s call this moving back and forth from target to non-target her comic strategy.   And her act of employing it may work to diffuse or expose this complex phenomenon.

We see this in the chapter entitled “Jew,” from her quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter.  As I noted in the last entry on this topic,  Silverman begins the chapter by acting ‘as if’ (hence the irony) the editor’s call to have her write on her Jewishness was an embarrassment.  She then goes on to note how she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  Here, she plays on the trait.  However, later in the chapter, she confesses that she cannot not think of herself as Jew; her traits betray her Jewishness:

Growing up, the only way I really sensed I was a Jew was by dint of the fact that everyone around me was not.  My dark features and name both scream “Jew” like an air-raid siren.   Most people in New Hampshire have names like Lisa Bedard (pronounced Beh-daahhd) or Cheryl Dubois (Boo-boyz).  I was the only one with hairy arms and “gorilla legs.” (220).

She then goes on to note that when she was in Third Grade, one boy, Matt Italia, threw “pennies and nickels at her feet” as she “stepped on to the bus.”  In jest Silverman notes that it “wasn’t as bad as it sounds” since she made “52 cents!”  But she doesn’t see Matt’s affront as anti-Semitic; rather, she thinks that Matt and others “were just trying to wrap their heads around the differences between people.  Matt didn’t hate me when he threw change at my feet any more than he loved me when we were boyfriend and girlfriend”(220).

Some people may read this and argue that, in this serious reflection (minus any irony), Silverman doesn’t want to call anti-Semitism by its real name. Regardless, Silverman does admit that she cannot escape her Jewishness.  But it is not the object of hatred so much as a childish confusion over what it means to be different.

In the next section, entitled “Seriously, Though, New Hampshire was not Especially Jewish,” Silverman goes on to talk about yet another way she had a sense that she was Jewish; namely, her difference from Christians.  She notes that she went to Church with her friends on Sundays after “Saturday-night sleepovers” and that sometimes her friends would come to temple.  But, regarding the temple and the church, she notes:

Both places of worship seemed to be these bizarre forums where authority figures told fucked-up ghost stories between spurts of loving encouragement. (221)

Her assessment of religion indicates that, for her, Jewishness (her traits, differences, etc) means more to her than Judaism.  To this end, she notes that, when she was sent to a “local convent” – while her mother went to school to get a degree – she was treated differently than she was in her Jewish home.  There, Silverman learned that she would be punished if she didn’t finish her PBJ sandwich; at home, there was no such pressure. That difference, for her, constitutes some sense of her Jewishness.

The following section, entitled “Unlike Jesus Christ, I am Embraced, Rather Than Murdered, by Jews, for Flapping my Yapper,” employs her strategy of flipping back and forth between making herself a target of Jewish Self-Hatred and effacing it.  The very title bespeaks the claim; namely, that Jews killed Jesus.  This is a claim she plays with in her Jesus is Magic (2005) film.

Silverman turns from Jews and Jesus to speaking explicitly about her Jewishness. She validates it by noting that her sister Susan – who visited Israel, went to seminary, and became a Rabbi – loves Judaism.  And Silverman jokingly notes that the proof of her sister’s love can be found in the fact that her sister added an extra Jewish name (her husband’s) to her own. She became Susan Silverman Abramowitz.

After noting her sister’s turn to Judaism, Silverman notes that she hasn’t pursued Judaism but “the faith has sort of pursued me”(224). But I wouldn’t say Judaism has pursued her so much as Jewisness. She notes that she has now “been deemed ‘good for the Jews’ and from that there seems to be no going back; the Jews have spoken”(224).  By stating this, Silverman is making it clear that she doesn’t think there is any reason why she should be called “self-hating” – after all, she has been “deemed ‘good for the Jews.’”

But here’s the punch line.  Immediately after saying this, she states (ironically):

I could do anything now and I’ll still be considered good for them.  I could, for example, accept Jesus as my lord and savior.  I could deny the Holocaust.  I mean, when you think about it, the proof isn’t exactly overwhelming – what, a couple of trendy arm tattoos and some survivor testimonials filmed by Steven Spielberg?  Um, Steven Speilberg? The guy who made E.T.?

Here, she works out her strategy which is to play around with the Jewish Self-Hatred card.  The punch line, in this statement, is that Silverman uses her charm (she knows about E.T. after all) to get the joke past the gates of Jewish Self-Hatred.

All of these seemingly self-hating jokes, Silverman tells us, are similar to those told by fat people to put people around them at ease about their “differentness”:

The smart fat kid will be the first to make a fat joke as a protection from whatever insults the other kids might hurl at him, and, as a smart Jew, I did likewise.  Joking about my differentness seemed to put the people around me at ease.  Even though I actually knew almost nothing about being a Jew other than that I was one.  (226)

This claim casts another light on her strategy.  Silverman jokes about Jews appeal to allaying fears of others (regarding her “differentness”) and to playing with the claims of Jewish Self-Hatred.

I’ll close with the last section of her “Jew” chapter since this section ends on the note of the trait, which reminds us that Silverman’s Jewishness is still caught up in allying the possible negativity her name, physical traits, etc may evoke. The essence of that negativity would be her Jewishness.

In this section, Silverman turns to the Jewish name change and notes that Winona Ryder changed her name from Winona Horowitz.   She says that the name change was a “sneaky Jewish move” and adds, perhaps pridefully, that she didn’t change her name (231).   Silverman admits that her name may create some “limitations” on the work she would get in Hollywood, New York, etc.  And she can see that there is some bias.

However, Silverman then turns it all around and shows us that the thought she had about not changing her name had nothing to do with pride; rather, she kept her name because the name Silverman sounds less “ethnic and more graceful than Horowitz.”   Following this, she says that she can’t imagine Jon Stewart as Jon Leibowitz. Why?  Because it sounds “too Jewish.”

These statements, of course, may evoke the claim of Jewish Self-Hatred. And she knows it. For this reason, she employs her comic strategy in the last paragraph of the section to allay it all. But the punch line returns us to the Jewish trait and the problem of Jewish Self-Hatred:

Whether I like it or not, I am, at least from the world’s point of view, Jewish.  And yes, I admit I draw on my Jewishness when comically advantageous, though nothing I have even done, or plan to do, will be about advancing any kind of Jewish agenda….Because I have accepted being identified as Jewish, I’ll also have to accept the responsibilities, limitations, and consequences.  If I ever want to get away from that, it’ll be an uphill battle that will require, among other things, a larynx transplant and some major hair removal.  (232)

In the end, it is the physical ethnic trait that identifies Silverman as “Jewish.”  That seems to be the punch line.  Her Jewishness, perhaps to the chagrin of those who make accusations of her being a self-hating Jew, doesn’t seem to be based on pride so much as difference.  And her comic strategy, it seems, plays on these accusations as well as her sense of Jewish difference.  Silverman knows she is targeted, and like many comedians she evokes and plays with this comic targeting in several of her (Jewishly oriented) routines.

Sarah Silverman, Hannah Arendt, and “The Old/New Lord of Dreams”

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Last night, before I went to sleep, I noticed that Sarah Silverman had Tweeted something that had schlemiel written all over it.

Why?

In Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Jew as Pariah: The Hidden Tradition,” Arendt argues that Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel initiates the “hidden tradition” of the Pariah.  Heinrich Heine, argues Arendt, was the first notable Modern German-Jewish poet to popularize the schlemiel in Germany.   According to Arendt, this happens in his Hebrew Melodies poems where we learn of the “lord of dreams” which is another name for the poet who is attached to nature and the world of dreams (which it fosters) but not fully to the world (not to “life life”).

Strangely enough, Arendt sees the model for this in Heine’s description of the Jewish Sabbbath and – in particular – in relation to the song “lecha dodi.”  Through the song, sung to welcome the Sabbath, the Jews are transformed:

In his poem, Princess Sabbath, the first of his Hebrew Melodies, Heinrich Heine depicts for us the national background from which he sprang and which inspired his verses. He portrays his people as a fairy prince turned by witchcraft into a dog. A figure of ridicule throughout the week, every Friday night he suddenly regains his mortal shape, and freed from the preoccupations of his canine existence (von huendischen Gedanken), goes forth like a prince to welcome the sabbath bride and to greet her with the traditional hymeneal, Lecha Dodi.

Arendt tells us that this is the only “positive” aspect of Judaism that Heine can find and, to be sure, he uses it for poetic purposes:

This poem, we are informed by Heine, was especially composed for the purpose by the people’s poet-the poet who, by a stroke of fortune, escapes the grueling weekly transformation of his people and who continually leads the sabbath-like existence which is to Heine the only positive mark of Jewish life.

Out of this figure, Heine creates the schemiel (spelled shlemihl in the German).  The transformation of the Jew from a dog to a prince foreshadows the task of the “lord of dreams” since the transformation is a way of telling the world to go to hell.  And for Heine, this is accomplished by the schlemiel poet.

As Arendt notes, by way of her schlemiel genealogy, the schlemiel has no “heroic deeds” to boast of; rather, his greatest trait is his “noble heart.”  To explain what this means, Arendt notes the schlemiel-poet’s “innocence.”  And, in her translation, the secret of the schlemiel’s innocence is not Phoebus Apollo but Rabbi Faibusch (the last name is a comic play on the Greek Phoebus):

Innocence is the hall-mark of the schlemihl. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets-its “lords of dreams”-are born. No heroes they and no stalwarts, they are content to seek their protection in the special tutelage of an ancient Greek deity. For did not Apollo, that “inerrable godhead of delight,” proclaim himself once for all the lord of schlemihls on the day when-as the legend has it-he pursued the beauteous Daphne only to receive for his pains a crown of laurels? To be sure, times have changed since then, and the transformation of the ancient Olympian has been described by Heine himself in his poem The God Apollo. This tells of a nun who falls in love with that great divinity and gives herself up to the search for him who can play the lyre so beautifully and charm hearts so wondrously. In the end, however, after wandering far and wide, she discovers that the Apollo of her dreams exists in the world of reality as Rabbi Faibusch (a Yiddish distortion of Phoebus), cantor in a synagogue at Amsterdam, holder of the humblest office among the humblest of peoples.

The schlemiel, Arendt tells us, is “the peoples poet”; he is not the poet of the nouveau rich and the parvenu.  On the contrary, he, like the people, are outsiders in a fake society ruled by lies and posturing.  Moreover, the schlemiel stands with the people and with nature, not with culture:

It is but natural that the pariah, who receives so little from the world of men that even fame (which the world has been known to bestow on even the most abandoned of her children) is accounted to him a mere sign of schlemihldom, should look with an air of innocent amusement, and smile to himself at the spectacle of human beings trying to compete with the divine realities of nature. The bare fact that the sun shines on all alike affords him daily proof that all men are essentially equal. In the presence of such universal things as the sun, music, trees, and children-things which Rahel Varnhagen called “the true realities” just because they are cherished most by those who have no place in the political and social world-the petty dispensations of men which create and maintain inequality must needs appear ridiculous.

Arendt’s rhetoric makes it clear that the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams” stands on the side of the “true realities” because they are politically excluded.  In other words, they have no choice but to dream because they have no place in the world which, with all of its inequalities, appears “ridiculous.”

Can we say the same of Sarah Silverman?  In her tweet, she says that she is “crazy busy with dream life.” That’s where her real work is: in the dream world and in producing dreams.  She has “very little time for life life.”  She seems to be telling us that she is the old/new Lord of Dreams.

But here’s the catch.  Arendt believed the Schlemiel would no longer be necessary once the Jews were allowed to live in a world as equals.  At the point, Jews would no longer have to dream.  And Sidra Ezrahi, in Booking Passage, has argued that, while in exile, the schlemiel was appealing because it provided Jews (who were the losers of history) with a “substitute sovereignty.”  But now, after the establishment of Israel, that no longer seems necessary as real sovereignty is within reach.  However, Ezrahi notes that, though things have changed, American artists and writers still insist on what she calls the “trope of diaspora.” In lieu of this, she sees America as fertile soil since it is the “land of dreams.”  And in this virtual world, which comes straight out of Hollywood, the Lords, so to speak, are the “Lords of Dreams.”

What can we take out from this?

Perhaps Sarah Silverman gives evidence that supports Ezrahi’s argument about America and schlemiels.  If that is the case, what does it imply?  Isn’t it the case that the Lord of Dreams passes back and forth between the world of dreams and the world of reality?  Isn’t the schlemiel, the poet of the people who, like the schlemiel, feel like they are in the middle?

If this is the case, perhaps we can say that Arendt was wrong when she said that Superman replaced Charlie Chaplin (the last in her line of schlemiel-pariahs in the “hidden tradition”).  In my book and here, on this blog, I am venturing this possibility.

But we need to ask ourselves, whether or not Sarah Silverman is the schlemiel-poet-of-the-people and whether we can still say that she, like Heine’s Lord of Dreams, speaks from the angle of nature and the people.  Perhaps she speaks from a land of dreams that has no relation to the political or to a utopian dream that nature and culture merge.  Perhaps her work is to dream and nothing more nor less than that.

Perhaps she is just a woman-child, who lives somewhere in-between dreams and reality:

 

 

 

A Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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Sander Gilman’s book, The Jew’s Body, points out how, since Jews became modern, they were often identified with negative stereotypes based on different body parts such as the nose, the ears, lips, and even the feet.  Jews were also identified with negative psychological traits.  What interests me most about Gilman’s work is not how non-Jews looked at Jews in these ways so much as how Jews have looked at themselves by way of these bodily and psychological stereotypes.   The discomfort some Jews have had with others Jews has to do with the fact that, for them, these Jews would look or act “too Jewish.”  When it is extreme and expresses itself as a form of repulsion, it may be called Jewish Self-Hatred.

Over the last two decades there has been a move by some “New Jew” comedians, artists, and writers to play around with the fine line between humor and “Jewish Self-Hatred.”

An interesting case for seeing how this works itself out today can be found in the comedy of Sarah Silverman.  Oftentimes, she plays on the discomfort she feels about her own Jewishness and the Jewishness of others.

What does Jewishness mean to Sarah Silverman?  There are many different places where Silverman puts her Jewishness at the forefront of her routines.  And if anyone wants to get a sense of this he or she should look at each of these routines and ask a number of important questions.  I can’t touch on all of them in one blog entry, nor do I want to, but I’d like to take a look at least two instances.  And, in future blog entries I will return to this topic and look into more. These reflections are preliminary at best.

Let’s start with Silverman’s cover for Heeb Magazine in which she appears naked beneath a sheet with a hole in it.  The image blandishes an insider joke which involves the urban myth that some Hasidim have sex with their wives through a hole in a sheet.

Playing on this urban myth, and making herself the pornographic target of the Hasid, Silverman is shown naked behind a white sheet with a deviant “bad girl” look on her face.  This suggests much for those who like Louis CK, think of Hasidim, comically, in terms of sexual transgression.  The point of these jokes or images is obviously to go against the grain of what one would think a religious person would do.  Silverman, like Louis CK, is playing up this stereotype for comic affect. This type of image puts Silverman in an adversarial-comic-relation to the Hasidic other and gives us some sense of her Jewishness (which is “modern,” which can poke fun at a “pre-modern” Jewishness).  But, to be sure, the adversarial aspect of this image is effaced by her charm and innocence.   And that’s the trick. The clash between rudeness and innocence is what gives her comedy its “New Jew edginess.”

But it would be amiss to leave out the fact that, historically, Jews in Germany of the 19th and 20th century (before the Holocaust) found Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) of the Hasidic variety to be repulsive, dirty, and smelly.  Gilman and others have written extensively on this topic and one wonders how this historical relation between modern German-Jews and their neighbors in Eastern Europe passes on to American Jews.  Silverman, obviously, doesn’t go as far as they did; but she does find an otherness in them that she, like Woody Allen and others, plays on.  Nonetheless, she does so for a reason: she plays on the otherness of their practice to demarcate a boundary between her Jewishness and sexuality and theirs.

Silverman also tests her “edge” on Jewish Bubbies (grandfather (in Yiddish)  = Zadie; grandmother – Bubbie ) in Florida – as she did in her viral video which promoted President Obama: “The Great Schlep.”

She begins the video by saying, in a way that plays on anti-Semitism, that (at :35) “if Barack Obama doesn’t get elected President, I’m going to blame the Jews.”  After saying this, we se see an image of a Jewish nose in the right corner of the screen.  The nose is the punch line.

But to make her reading acceptable, she notes the Jewish grandmothers have a lot in common with African-Americans.  Silverman sits between the two on a couch (a very “homely” gesture of American everydayness) and makes the comparisons.  Each of them plays on stereotypes to get a comic affect: some comparisons are harmless; others are not.  They both wear track suits, like Cadillacs, etc.  But, after saying that both the African-American gentleman and the Jewish Bubbie have many friends who are dead, the African-American gentleman leaves the couch.   This joke, she realizes, was shameful.  And this is the point: at one and the same time, the joke-comparison brings up a social-racial issue and then admits to a feeling of guilt.  It’s as if Silverman is defining her Jewishness not just in terms of her being kind-yet-rude but also in terms of her being ashamed and being a supporter of Barack Obama.

More important, however, is the subtext: namely, that Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida don’t get along with African-Americans and need to be convinced if they are to vote for Barack Obama.   But, as the video ends, it is the grand-children who must convince their bubbies in Florida.  And they must, ultimately, do so by way of threats, not reasoning.  (And this implies that the Jewish grandparents are likely to be very stubborn and settled in their ways.)  The threat: If the grandparents don’t vote, they will not be visited this year.

The joke is on them, really.  Silverman’s video is not about the bubbies so much as about the grandchildren who are watching the video; it is their Jewishness, a comic-edgy Jewishness, that she wishes to cultivate and turn toward a political end. But this Jewishness is based on cultivating an awareness of traits and in fostering an attitude which is progressive and political.

I’d like to end this blog-post with a brief reflection on the chapter entitled “Jew” in Silverman’s quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.  It brings Silverman’s acute awareness of Jewish traits and her own Jewishness to the forefront.

In a chapter entitled “Jew,” Silverman addresses her Jewishness in her characteristic charming-yet-rude quasi-naïve style.  To begin with, her chapter title takes on the negative practice of calling someone a “Jew.”  The one word, with its anti-Semitic history, tells all.   But she plays on this edge by saying she doesn’t know what it means to be Jewish:

I don’t remember if I mentioned this to you before, but I am Jewish.  If my publisher had a sense of decency, they would have printed that disclaimer prominently on the book cover.  Otherwise, how would you necessarily know?  I mean I can’t think of anything about me that really says “Jew!!” (217)

After noting this, she goes immediately to her physical traits and notes that she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  She points out how, in a visit to Iceland, she “blended in with the Gentile population seamlessly.”  And then, in an allusion to anti-Semitism, she writes “although there was an incident…”   But, as we learn, the incident had nothing to do with her being a Jew so much as her black hair which an “intoxicated Icelandic shepherd mistook” for a scouring pad.

To be sure, Silverman says it flatly (and, of course, ironically): she doesn’t like to be faced with her Jewishness and worries that it will bother the reader:

It’s just not fun to be reading and thoroughly enjoying a book and then you get close to the end and discover that the thing was written by a member of an ethnicity that disgusts you.  I write this chapter somewhat begrudgingly. (217)

But, in the end, she does write and admits not so much to her mission so much as to a Jewish trait she can’t stand:

To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend, or advance the cause of the Jewish people.  Nevertheless, my Jew editor convinced me to write a chapter on Jewishness by using one of our culture’s greatest tools of persuasion: relentless nagging. (218)

Although this is obviously a joke, one cannot walk away from it without asking why it works.  It works because Silverman is banking much of her Jewish comedy on identifying this or that physical trait or habit with Jewishness and mocking it.  Silverman’s discomfort with her own Jewishness makes it “edgy.”  But it also breaches questions as to what Jewishness is. Do we share the same understandings of Jewishness with Silverman and is that why some of us may find her Jewish dis-comfort laughable?  Or do some of us, when reading this, sigh?   Is she making fun of people who feel uncomfortable when Jews talk about Jewishness, is she laughing at herself, or is she half-serious?  Most importantly, why does Jewishness have to reside in this or that Jewish “trait”?  Is Jewish comedy attached to the trait whether it wants to be or not?

A Heated Discussion Over the Schlemiel in Brooklyn

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Like any scholar, I love a good discussion.  I especially love difficult ones.   The best discussions put my arguments and assumptions to the test and, sometimes, alter them.  However, at some point, what at first seems like a good discussion may become a shouting match.  Such angry talk may become a “conversation stopper,” but I always make sure to ask myself what I can learn from these moments of passion.  Regarding such conversation, a recent discussion of the schlemiel I gave was especially interesting because, at some point, the academic became much more mundane and everyday.  The talk I originally planned dovetailed.  And I like this as I often find many academic discussions to be sterile. I often walk away from them the same person.

I grew up with friends who challenged each other on a daily basis, but these moments weren’t academic.  They were thoroughly mundane and through them I learned how to stand up for what I believed in or, at the very least, to test what I believed in.  These challenges helped to me to grow as a human being and left me with questions that I felt deeply and knew I had to work through.  Most of these questions had to do with my identity and breached the issue as to what it means to be Jewish, American, white, and male in small-town America.  The challenges which issued these questions altered how I looked at myself and the world around me.  They were physical and psychological; they were not intellectual or academic (although they became academic questions, their root was the everyday challenges I faced growing up).  So when I find spaces where academic challenges merge with everyday challenges and where these challenges come at me from different – unexpected – angles, I can’t help but smile: I know that I will, hopefully, experience a moment of possible growth and change.  On the other hand, I know that such challenges may also teach one nothing and may only create unnecessary difficulties or even stunt one’s growth.

The challenge I recently faced came up last Thursday night; it was over the meaning of the word and concept of the “schlemiel.”  I gave a talk in Brooklyn entitled I entitled “The Life and Death of the Schlemiel: Why does the Schlemiel Matter?”  As anyone can see from this blog (and from my articles), the “schlemiel” means a lot to me; but as I learned it means even more for people much older than I who grew up (oftentimes in households where Yiddish was one of the spoken languages or references) with the term: some used it to harm others while others were harmed by it; some associated it with humility, others with idiocy.  I knew these possible responses very well from my studies of this character but I had yet to experience the challenges posed by people who, throughout their life, intimately experienced its meaning.

In the talk, I wanted to pose the question of whether the schlemiel was still alive, why peple would want to eliminate this comic character, and, if it still exists, what kind of schlemiel “should.”  After seeing my abstract, the organizer of the evening wanted me to address the Holy Fool in more depth and relate it to my original topic. Here is the edited abstract:

Is the schlemiel a “holy fool” or just a Jewish fool?  Does s/he still exist today and, if yes, should it continue to do so ? Can the schlemiel offer hope to dark times or is simply entertaining?  Dr. Feuer –  a “schlemiel theorist” – will define & explain the meaning of the schlemiel.  To this end, he will contrast the Eastern European Schlemiel to the  Western European Schlemiel, trace its tensions with Zionism, discuss its passage from Europe to America before and after the Holocaust, its new variations in the United States in the post-WWII , and its legacy in film, literature, and TV over the last few decades. This will include a discussion of rabbis, writers, filmmakers, & actors, that span Rabbi Nachman of Breslav,  Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, Phillip Roth, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, and Seth Rogen.  After discussing the schlemiels meaning and history, philosophical and ethical questions will be posed as to whether or not the schlemiel should persist or vanish into the dust bin of history.  What’s at stake in this question?  Is the schlemiel just a secular fool and if not wherein lies its holiness?

As you can see, I wanted to 1) define the schlemiel in terms of two predominant traditions – one from Eastern Europe and the other from Western Europe; 2) trace the history of the character and outline its high points and its low points; and 3) to ask whether the Holy Fool could make a “come back” in today’s increasingly secular Jewish-American environment.

I planned on starting off by telling a few traditional schlemiel jokes and then, after doing this, introduce the cover of the May 2009 New York Magazine which had a picture of Larry David looking down at a pale Woody Allen (the look saying something along the lines of “you’re all washed up”).  Below the photo is the caption: “The Last of the Schlemiels.”  The subtitle had the obvious function of stating an irony; namely, that not only Woody who is washed up, so are you Larry David.  You are both the “last of the schlemiels.”  The statement is a bold assertion or rather ‘death sentence’.  The point of bringing this up was to ask whether these schlemiel jokes or the schlemiel himself had any place today in our American society.  As I looked to show, this statement may have relevance for some but it is not true: schlemiels live on.  But, more importantly, I wanted to show what had become of the schlemiel and how had first called for its death and why.

This would bring me into the topic of comparing and contrasting a German-Jewish view of the schlemiel to an Eastern European view.  The former desired the end of the schlemiel while the latter associated the schlemiel with piety, honesty, and even, for some, the holy fool.

For me, this distinction lives on today; but it is the negative imputations against the schlemiel (which draws on the German-Jewish tradition) which had a long after-life. On the other hand, schlemiels often played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Woody Allen, or Seth Rogen have a charm to them that challenges this view.  Nonetheless, they are far from being “holy fools” or share any resemblance with Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiels.

But before I could even address these contemporary schlemiels or the life and death of the schlemiel, I was met with a major challenge that issued from the distinction between Eastern European and German-Jewish Schlemiels.   Some people in the audience immediately took to one interpretation or the other and a heated argument took place.

I did my best to mediate between the two and explain what the other parties could not accept.  This was a great challenge as one of the people arguing insisted over and over again that there is nothing good that can be said about the schlemiel: she insisted that no one should be a schlemiel.

In response to this, I explained the meaning of the schlemiel in terms of its critique of society.  I explained that if I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool was constantly being lied to it wasn’t his fault that he trusted everyone so much as the fact that everyone lied to him. The point of the schlemiel was to situate us between hope and skepticism (or cynicism). And as Ruth Wisse notes at the very end of her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the schlemiel cannot exist in a society that is wholly cynical or optimistic.  This led me to a discussion of Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine and his extreme emphasis on cynicism.  I asked where, in this film, we could find a schlemiel and about how this kind of film contrasts with Allen’s earlier films which had schlemiels.

This prompted audience members to think about the relationship of the schlemiel to the cynical times we are currently living in America and about how important the schlemiel is as a figure of critique.  But, still, there was a lot of anger in the audience about the schlemiel.  One person, in particular, couldn’t let go of her negative reading of the character and saw nothing redeeming about it.  This prompted other audience members to yell at her and associate her with a certain Jewish-ethnic perspective.  This heated talk led to a lot problems and kept me from continuing my lecture.

After I ended the talk, I wondered whether I did the right thing and whether I met the challenges that emerged out of a discussion of the schlemiel.  I talked with a few friends about this as well as the organizer. Some explained that this is what happens in Brooklyn: people are often very stubborn about their views, love to argue, and are oftentimes rude about it all.  Others explained that the reason there was so much contention was because many people in the room were called schlemiels when they were growing up or, otherwise, called people schlemiels.  Still others explained that some people, had entrenched views about the schlemiel which were based on what Jewish tradition they came out from in Eastern or Western Europe.

All of these explanations makes sense, but what I left this heated discussion with was something else; namely, a task.  I realized, by way of these challenges, that if I’m going to argue for a positive and critical reading of the schlemiel that I will be challenged by people who have deeply ingrained views of this character.  Its hard for me – a “little pisher” – to make such claims as I wasn’t raised in Brooklyn by parents who used this term regularly in a negative manner.  Nonetheless, I have the knowledge and awareness of this characters wider meaning and possible meaning which can challenge deeply ingrained views.  I can offer a new/old reading which can make the schlemiel relevant – once again – and spur people to ask themselves why Woody Allen and Larry David are not only not the “last of the schlemiels” but that there are other schlemiels.  And, more importantly, we need to ask ourselves what schlemiels should live on.  I believe some are not worth our time while other schlemiels are.  And I’m willing to take on the challenge of explaining why.  This, for me, is not simply an academic challenge; defending my reading of the schlemiel, is also a life challenge.  The schlemiel means that much to me, an American-Jew who, though he hasn’t been raised in Brooklyn by parents who speak Yiddish, has every right to defend my reading of this character. For me the schlemiel is not something I don’t want to be so much as a character who can spur me – and others – to stand in the uncomfortable space between hope and skepticism.

A Personal Note on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: From Riches to Rags

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In America, we have always been told that one can go from rags to riches but we have not been shown the opposite is also true.  As a child, I learned both stories and lived with the thin line between the two.  Woody Allen’s film, Blue Jasmine, reminded me of this traumatic experience which, for me and my family, was a reality long before Madoff.

In my last blog entry, I held back from expressing my personal reaction to Woody Allen’s film.  To be sure, the film had deep resonance for me since I grew up in a family that lived in the shadow of lies, greed, financial ruin, and corruption.  I had firsthand experience of what its like to go from rags to riches and riches to rags.

To be sure, one of the major reasons I started my blog on the schlemiel comes in the wake of all this madness.  And seeing Woody Allen’s film reminded me that my father’s story (which is my story) is one that recurs.

My father grew up in Manhattan.  His parents, both immigrants from Europe, climbed up the social ladder and moved from a nine bedroom flat in the Upper West Side to Central Park West.  My grandfather, who I am named after, built one of the largest deerskin companies in the world and made Gloversville, New York his base of operation.

My father, the youngest of his family, had the best of it all.   Along with the rest of his family, he lived a life of wealth and affluence.  He was full of hope and his father encouraged him to excel in academia.  He had no intentions of putting my dad in the family business as my father’s older brothers were more interested in that.

My father graduated the top of his class at Brooklyn Science and was the Valedictorian at Columbia University.  He took the NASA fellowship at Johns Hopkins University and went on to work on major projects with the American military and in the military-industrial complex.

When my dad learned that his father was going to retire and wanted to give his children his large leather corporation, my father, strangely enough, dropped his career and his future to start a new life in Upstate New York.  He would be the first in his family to move there and work.

What happened thereafter was a disaster. My father got in a major fight with his brothers who, after my grandfather died, apparently altered the will (this is the story I grew up with).  My father taught himself the leather business and spent his lifetime in various lawsuits against his brothers.

While my father had periods that he did well financially, he never made his “first million.”  And, unfortunately, my father’s inability to adjust to the business world led to his first nervous breakdown and subsequent psychosis (which, over the years, increased).

Growing up, my father always reminded me of his hopes and dreams and how they were ruined by lies and greed. His brothers turned on him.  I was reminded of this on a daily basis.  It drove him mad.

And all I could think about all this was how he went from Central Park West, a Valedictorian at Columbia University, and a great future as an Engineer to mental illness and economic depravity.

Today, he cannot work.  We do our best to help him out.

All of this came back to me as I watched Blue Jasmine.   I remembered how, as a child, I learned to hate money and the corruption that goes along with it.  My father’s best friend, David Kaplan, a leather businessman would tell me, on a weekly basis, of the corruption in the leather industry.  He would tell me of the contemptible things my uncles would do and my father would verify these things.

Like the children in Allen’s film, I felt exposed to a kind of evil that I could not understand.  I would repeat what my father and his friend told me about corruption, but I didn’t get it. For this reason, my last blog focused on the children and their reaction to all this.  I identified with them while, at the same time, I identified with Jasmine.  Her story was much like my father’s: she went from riches to rags as a result of lies, bad money, and corruption.  Her story ended with her in the streets alone and delirious.

Fortunately, my father, though he went through horrible times and occasioned many mental institutions, is still alive.  He is a survivor.  And I know, personally, what he survived.  And I’m happy to say that unlike Jasmine in Allen’s film, he had children who loved him and helped him through it all.  My mother, who ended up divorcing him, was always there for him (even after the divorce).

Money and lies touch us all in America, albeit in different ways.  As a child I was constantly reminded of this, but I also learned that no matter how horrible it can get, there is hope.   Without our love and support, in the aftermath of greed and lies, my father would probably have had the same ending as Jasmine.   But, still, his history remains a part of my life.  And that will not go away, just as Jasmine’s story is our story too.

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”

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Last night I had the opportunity of seeing Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine.  Since I have great interest in the work of Woody Allen and two of the characters he has cast in the film (Andrew Dice Clay and Louis CK), I took an immediate interest in the film and was eager to see it.  I have blogged and written on all of them and I was curious to see how or whether any comic elements could be found in the film that was, as many reviewers pointed out, not comical at all.

Much has been written on this film already.   Reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post (amongst many others) already dot the landscape.

Regarding these reviews, nearly all of them note how Allen, in the making of this film, was very influenced by Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  And they all noted the obvious relation to the Bernie Madoff fallout.  Regarding the reviews, I will briefly defer to the words of the critic David Denby who, in my view, does a fine job laying the plot and themes of the film out.  What interests me most, in his review, is how he reads the comical element.  Denby notes that Jasmine, played by Kate Blanchett,

is a snob and a liar, and, at times, delusional (she talks to herself), but, like Blanche DuBois, she’s mesmerizing. You can’t get enough of her, and Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche on Broadway only a few years ago, gives the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career. The actress, like her character, is out on a limb much of the time, but there’s humor in Blanchett’s work, and a touch of self-mockery as well as an eloquent sadness. When she drops her voice to its smoky lower register, we know that she’s teasing the tragic mode. That edge of self-parody keeps us close to her, and we need that closeness, because we’re in for a rough ride.

Without this comic element of self-parody, we would despise her.  But, as Denby points out, the harsh element is constant throughout.  This, Denby avers, has much to do with Allen’s outlook on life, as reflected in this film:

Allen, who’s now seventy-seven, has become flintier as he has got older. His men and women tell one another off; the social clashes among people from different ways of life can be harsh and unforgiving.

In other words, with age Allen wants to knit a closer relationship between comedy and suffering.  In effect, Allen’s film shows us how, in his view, class-difference, in our era, taints comedy:

Allen, in his own way, is commenting on our increasingly unequal society: the formerly rich woman and the working-class characters don’t begin to get one another’s jokes and references; they don’t understand one another’s needs—they don’t even see them.

Nonetheless, Denby wants to point out how the comic element survives, albeit in a way that is admixed with the tragic.   Allen now uses the comic element to produce a “miraculous” identification between the audience and Jasmine.

The miracle is that we feel for Jasmine—or, at least, our responses to her are divided between laughter and sympathy. When she takes a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, and the patients can’t decide when to schedule their next appointment, her irritation at their fumbling is both funny and recognizable.

What I like about Denby’s reading of the film is how he phrases our odd identification with Jasmine.  Our laughter at her way of handling her new work and life take off the edge. And we, for a few moments, see her as something other than a snob.  We can understand how ridiculous her situation is and we identify with her through laughter and tears, which keep each other in check.

Unlike Denby, I would say that, though I identified with Jasmine in this “miraculous” fashion, this identification was momentary and was often overshadowed by the other element which taints all of our identifications in the film; namely, the effect and dynamic of dishonesty and cynicism.

I was very troubled by this overwhelming presence as I stand behind the comic task of the schlemiel which is to maintain the tension between skepticism and hope.  The schlemiel, though foolish, stands on the side of trust and honesty. We see this in many classical schlemiels: from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav and Sholem Aleichem’s simpletons to I.B. Singer’s Gimpels and Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer types.  Although these characters are weathered by reality and lies, the element of trust remains.  It doesn’t triumph so much as remain in the balance.  When this tension collapses, we are in trouble.  It implies that what is best in humanity has been effaced.

At the end of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that in an era in which there is too much optimism or too much skepticism, the schlemiel cannot exist.

Allen’s film illustrates this principle-of-sorts.  To be sure, his film speaks to the cynicism that has grown post-Madoff.  And this overshadows much of the trust and hope we see in the film.  However, the fact of the matter is that although Andrew Dice Clay’s character is ruined by the games of the rich, his ex-wife (Jasmine’s sister, Ginger – played by Sally Hawkins) manages to start a new life.

She plays something of an innocent and hopeful schlemiel character.   Although Blanchett is obviously the focus of the entire film, it is Ginger who, at the very end of the film, retains some element of hope and trust.  She wants nothing to do with the cynicism that goes along with big-money and corruption.

Nonetheless, the best illustration of what is at stake in this film (and with the schlemiel) can be found in Blanchett’s relationship with Ginger’s children.  Although they openly disclose what they have heard from their parents about Jasmine and her husband’s lies and corruption, they don’t understand it.  In a key scene where Jasmine tells it all, they look back at her in astonishment not knowing what she is actually saying.   Her language is not theirs.

In truth, all of the adult characters are tainted by cynicism.  The children are, too.  But they don’t know it.  And, at the very least, I think it is important to note this.  The comic element survives best in them.  They retain the element of a schlemiel in a society which has become inundated with post-Madoff cynicism.

Though the film ends with Blanchett walking the streets alone, homeless, and delirious, this still leaves us with a horrible feeling we cannot forget that while most of us have been ruined by cynicism there are some who aren’t.  Children, in this film, are the schlemiels.  We need to ask ourselves what this implies.

The more we lie to each other, the more our humanity is lost.  Cynicism is the greatest threat to the schlemiel and to our humanity.  I applaud Woody Allen for bringing this out in Blue Jasmine.

He illustrates what Irving Howe, citing Saul Bellow, saw about Sholem Aleichem’s comedy; namely, that what makes Jewish humor relevant is the fact that it oscillates between laughter and tears.  And, as I have pointed out, this oscillation is based on the violation of trust.  Without trust, we can only cry.

Paraphrasing Denby, I would say that the miracle is not simply our feeling for Blanchett; it is the fact that the children don’t totally understand how dishonest people can be.  It’s the last remnant we have.  And, as I would argue, their lack of understanding, like that of any schlemiel, may give us time….time to change our ways and learn to trust one another once again.   Perhaps this is a foolish hope, but, in truth, it is the hope of a schlemiel.

It is our last remnant of humanity in a post-Madoff age.