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.

2 thoughts on “A Heated Discussion Over the Schlemiel in Brooklyn

  1. This made me think of what I think I know of the arguments about folk music in the 60’s (& 50’s?). And those arguments continue. Man, people get heated up about music. (btw- I’m a musician). So, I’m considering the schlemiel as a folk character. Not a character from folklore–or a literary or cinematic representation of him/(her?)–but as sort of a genre of personality. Like blues is a “genre” of folk music, schlemiel as a genre of folk character. (Again, I don’t mean a folklore character, but rather the living-breathing character(s) that they represent.) When is the blues not the blues? When is the schlemiel not the schlemiel? I throw my hands up while wanting to discuss more. Will the schlemiel, by his very nature, disappoint any strict definition of him?

    Was Dylan’s “going electric” a schlemiel move? Dylan as schlemiel is a thought I’ve been enjoying. (from “Day of the Locusts” — “The man standin’ next to me, his head was exploding / I was prayin’ the pieces wouldn’t fall on me”!)

    • I think I understand what you are saying, Andy. In fact, the point you raise is very interesting. I’d translate it in terms of whether or not there is a continuity between living schlemiels and fictional ones. People in academia would tend to separate the two. For this reason, a scholar like Sander Gilman would entitle a chapter in one of his books “living schlemiels” (believe it or not, there is only one scholarly piece written on the living schlemiels topic in English). Otherwise, comedians like Andy Kaufaman and even Sasha Baron Cohen try to efface that line between the living and the fictional schlemiel. And that’s much more interesting in my book.

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