Living Schlemiels – Stranger than Fiction

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One of the things I have never discussed on this blog is the topic of the “living schlemiel.”  To be sure, the most well-known books on the schlemiel – Ruth Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero and Sanford Pinsker’s The Schlemiel as Metaphor – do not address this topic.  Their concern is the schlemiel in literature, folklore, and, for Pinsker (only with regards to Woody Allen), cinema.  The first time I saw the expression “living schlemiel” was in Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  To be sure, Gilman used this title for a section on his third chapter which includes German-Jewish writers and thinkers of the 18th and 19th century such as Ludwig Borne and Heinrich Heine.  For Gilman, Heine’s poetry, which dubbed the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” (the poet), bled into his life.  And Ludwig Borne’s life also, for Gilman, bore the stamp of the schlemiel.  Although Heine, according to Hannah Arendt, embraced the title of the “schlemiel” and “lord of dreams,” Gilman’s reading suggests that he and Borne did all they could to avoid it.  And that’s the point: Gilman calls them both schlemiels because no matter how much they did to fit into German society – and this included Heine’s baptism and both Heine and Borne’s attempts to satirize their Jewish origins to be accepted as equals – they remained the odd one’s out.

In judging their lives in this fashion, Gilman is teaching us that he, like many German Jews, uses the term in a critical/judgmental sense.  To live the life of the schlemiel, he suggests, is to live a life that is blind to the fact that it is excluded.  It “believes” it and fits into the world when it doesn’t. And this fits well into Gilman’s definition of the schlemiel vis-à-vis literature and theater. Schlemiels are  “fools who believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.”  This is what Gilman is saying about Heine and Borne: they think they were in control of their world and could cajole it to accept them, but it refused their gestures.  In effect, Gilman suggests that they were odd in two senses: as a result of their satire they were excluded from their Jewish communities; and, despite their efforts, they were not accepted into the “world.”

Taking this definition into account, I wondered about how it could be applied to people I knew and not just to this or that intellectual.  And should it be modified?

Thinking about this, I would say that it should be modified to include the fact that, with a living schlemiel, there is a blindness over the reality that he or she is not fitting in; yet, despite it all, they keep on trying.  And here’s the twist: unlike Gilman who would suggest that the “living schlemiel” comes to a bad end, I would suggest that sometimes their foolishness can bear fruit.

I’ll offer a story about people who, I think, may be living schlemiels or at least analogous to living schlemiels.   This may serve as an illustration of how the schlemiel may be alive and living amongst us.  The question, I think, is how to judge them.

I was raised in Upstate New York by parents who were both raised in New York City.  I was one of a small handful of Jews and, in many ways, my parents skill set and education didn’t match up that well with the rural community that they made their new home.  Growing up, I often felt like I was the “odd one out.”

But, after years of travel, higher education, and exposure to the urban way of life, I realized that many people in my town, from an urban perspective, would be considered the odd one’s out.  I’m somewhere in the middle.   Describing my borderline state, my father jokingly calls me a “cosmopolitan hick.”  I think this title is apt and see read it in terms of what advantages it gives me over people who are either fully urban or are down-and-out country bumpkins.  The greatest advantage I have, to my mind, is the fact that I can participate in both groups and for this reason I am better able than many of my friends to comprehend or judge things that are said by one group about another.  I see it from the inside of both, widely different, cultures.  So when someone is said to be the “odd one out” by one group on another, my ears perk up.  However, there are times when no one says anything and I am the sole witness of an event that is of the schlemiel variety.  Let’s call it a schlemiel situation.

I recently went out for an evening with a group of friends to a bar on the Sacandaga Lake, a lake I spent a lot of my youth enjoying.   (To preserve my friend’s identity, I will change their names while noting what happened.)   In this group of friends, the words and deeds of at least two of my friends spurred a schlemiel-situation in which I bore witness to a schlemiel or two and was prompted to make a schlemiel-judgment call.

They traveled over to the bar by way of the boat.  I came in by car and met them there.  When I got to the bar, I heard that they were still on the lake on the way to the bar.  When I got word that they arrived, I went down to the lake to discover that one of my friends was playing guitar the entire way.  What’s unusual about this?  My friend, let’s call him Bob, is full of energy. He passionately gets into everything he does.  However, sometimes this can be grating because he subjects everyone he knows to his learning experience.  He does have experience as a lead singer in a band and he plays guitar, but he doesn’t take well to criticism.

That said, he was very excited to show me that he had learned how to play rhythm in a rockabilly kind of style.  I listened but, like the night before, he still needed to be much more gentle with his strumming if he was to get it right.  His erratic strumming coupled with his singing, which didn’t match up, his innocence, and his intense personality made me think of Bob as a “living schlemiel.”   To be sure, people tell him that his playing is off, but he goes on.  Its funny.  And so is he.  He is the odd one out, but he manages to slip through the cracks. But, as I found out, this has its limits.

Before going into the bar, Bob started talking with some people in a boat coming in to the bar’s dock.  Using a megaphone, he brought them in (acting as if he was an air-traffic control). This made the whole boat laugh and they were, instantly, endeared with him.  This gave him a big boost.

When he came up to the bar, he started working his foolish magic.  And this is when things started getting odd: reality and dream started clashing.  In the bar, Bob met up with a man in his seventies.  He got this gentleman going and he started dancing wildly to the music.  To have fun, I egged Bob on to increase the madness. But, to my chagrin, I bore witness to some mixed feelings in the bar.  The older gentleman started going off and people around the bar looked at him as if he was crazy.  I felt an odd identification and repulsion with the old man who was dancing wildly.  He was the odd one out and though people were giving him dirty looks, I couldn’t help but think them wrong.  He was having a good time and, yes, he appeared to be a schlemiel of sorts.  He believed he was enthralling the audience by going over the top, but he enthralled no one save Bob.

Together, they were whooping it and each encouraged the other.  I pulled back and noticed, immediately, that my friend Bob was eager to sing with the band.  In Upstate New York, it does often happen that people from the audience go on stage and sing.  But there are tell-tale signs when and when not to do this.  Moreover, it’s always good to have a friend in the band you’re joining.  In this situation there were neither signs nor friends. And my friend, Bob, went into it without any concern hoping his joy and charm would win the day.

But what happened was far from what he imagined. The drummer of the band told him to get off stage and the lead singer gave him dirty looks.   And the older man dancing around the bar started turning off a few of the audience members.  Things looked as if they would get ugly.

But they didn’t.  My friend did all he could to mend things.  It worked, but it didn’t get him on stage so much as in their favor.  What gets me, however, is that my friend kept at it as if there never was a negative moment.  And this blindness, though comic, gives him the title of a living schlemiel.

Following this, I went back to his boat and talked with another friend who keyed me into another kind of living schlemiel: one who has God on his mind and odd ways of relating to Him.   We were looking up at the stars when he said to me that he talks with God.  I asked how and he told me that he would ask questions while looking up at the stars. And for each question, God would answer with a shooting star.  I found this innocent and endearing, but coming from an adult this did seem odd. But isn’t faith a strange thing, too.  And, to be sure, Ruth Wisse notes that the first major literary schlemiel was, in fact, a schlemiel of faith.  That schlemiel comes out of the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.  He is the simpleton who, with simple faith, believes in God.  His simplicity is scoffed at by the educated Jewish world, which, at that time, privileged the Jew who learns over the simple Jew.  The former, they believed, was closer to God. But the Baal Shem Tov – and his grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – thought the contrary.  Their stories bear witness to the spiritual doings of the simpleton.  My friend’s story about his communication with God reminded me of this; to be sure, the model for the literary schlemiel is a real one.  This is something Wisse doesn’t discuss as much.  But in this moment, I felt there is a need for more of this kind of reflection on “living schlemiels.”

If I weren’t a “cosmopolitan hick,” I’m not so sure I would look upon what I was seeing in the ways I do.  To be sure, I feel like Sancho Panza did when he followed Don Quixote.  He felt he could learn something from the fool, and so do I.

Some of my friends teach me about the living schlemiel.  But, to be sure, I can also see this from Chad Derrick’s documentary on (a segment of) my life: Shlemiel.  Every time I screen the film to audiences, I see that this is what the filmmaker – who is also my friend – was trying to accomplish.  And, every time I give the Question and Answer session following the film, I am asked if I am a schlemiel (a living schlemiel).  Perhaps I am.

But I am aware of many of the things I am blind too while my friends may not be.   However, then again, I am not.  We may see things that others don’t see, but we are often blind to ourselves.  You may not know this, but you too may be a schlemiel.  And, if we cared, we would be surprised how many living schlemiels are in our midst.   The question is how to judge them and ourselves.  Do we have anything we can learn from “living schlemiels”?

My friends and the older man I saw the other night reminded me that, though people may laugh or scoff at a schlemiel (of the Jewish or non-Jewish variety), there is something about this character – in fiction and in reality – that is good and worthy of our thought and reflection.   This goodness is something that many German-Jews missed (in their rush to judge the schlemiel as an idiot who should, like all things from the ghetto, be left behind).  But it was recognized by the Hasidim, by many of the Yiddish writers, and by some Jewish-American novelists, filmmakers, and artists.  Now that the times have changed, we need to ask ourselves where this goodness can be found and how it can be found.  These are questions not only for schlemiel-in-theory but for the schlemiel-in-reality.  The living schlemiel…..

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