Seeking Alms at the Circus: The Schlemiel and the Old Beggar

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In Yiddish literature and in many a Hasidic tale, schlemiels are often portrayed as being poor and humble.  However, we don’t often see a schlemiel as a beggar.  Although they are poor, they make people laugh.  And their dreams and imaginings often distract them from the poverty around them.  After all, schlemiels – although they may be poor or ragged – are usually figures of hope.   Beggars, in contrast, are often very solemn characters who are portrayed as being devoid of hope or dreams.   And when we see beggars in this or that Hasidic or Yiddish tale, the authors of these tales make sure to separate the two.

However, the last part of Meir Abehsera’s parable presents us with something different.  From the narrator, we learn that the “whistler” (the schlemiel) had, in old age, become a beggar.  In other words, Abehsera gives us a schlemiel which is hidden within the beggar:

An old man is walking on a deserted road.  His worn out clothes are evidence that he is a beggar.  The rooftops of the town toward which he is heading appear on the horizon.  From a pocket, he removes an immaculate handkerchief and covers his mouth. As he walks steadfastly toward the town, his shoulders hunched, his face buried in the handkerchief, he is periodically seized with violent fits of coughing.  The beggar is none other than the legendary whistler, whose age and waning strength now prevent the practice of his former craft.  Instead, he has totally given himself over to the task of collecting funds for the needy.  (121)

As we can see from the narrator’s description of the beggar, there are certain things – without which – one can no longer be a schlemiel; namely, his “age” and “waning strength.”  A schlemiel, for the narrator, is identified with the whistler – who we encountered in the beginning of this parable.  We first see the schlemiel as a character who, in the middle of the night, awakes a town with his whistling.  As I have noted, this moment has a life-changing effect on the writer.  Here, however, the schlemiel becomes a beggar.  He lacks the energy to disrupt; but he turns himself to the same end that the whistler did: redemption.

As the narrator tells us, this is a noble – though difficult – path to travel on. And the schlemiel-become-beggar sees his new task as a “blessing” since he “paves the giver’s road”:

It’s a vexing occupation, but the old man does not complain; he actually views his present appointment as an unmitigated blessing.  In begging for charity, he knows he paves the giver’s road, bestowing life upon him, both in the here and the hereafter.   He saves the miser from certain death, and forces die-hard thinkers to face the deed.  (121)

However, the narrator creates a situation where the schlemiel may have an opportunity to emerge from body of the beggar.  This situation involves the beggar’s entrance into a circus.  We are immediately reminded of the powerful noise that once blew through the schlemiel/whistler by way of the narrator’s description of the beggar’s encounter with the circus:

Inside the gate he is greeted by the explosive sounds of a fairground.  Calliope music blasts from the loudspeakers mounted over the entranceways to rides and gates.  There is a skeeball, a batting cage, a rifle range, and a roller coaster, whose clacking wheels can barely be heard beneath the squeals of passengers. (121)

Abehsera’s knowing very well of the Kabbalistic way of contrasting the Sitra d’Kedusha (“The Side of the Holy”) with the Sitra Achra (“the Other Side”) is playing one kind of wind against another.  To be sure, the whistling the schlemiel is on the Side of Holiness and it battles with the noise of the other side.  But, at this point of the parable, that is not yet explicit.  In yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how the writer – inspired by the memory of the schlemiel – spoke out against the “bad wind” of the Maggid who looked to frighten his congregants.  Here, it is more than just wind that is at stake; it is the noise that is produced by wind that is at issue.  This noise has spiritual meaning.

To be sure, there is a lot at stake.  The entire community – and not one individual – is the source of this noise.  Included amongst the throng of people is a Rabbi, a Talmudist, many “young yeshiva students,” and the rabbis wife. The description of the scene is joyful.  Everyone is having fun. And the wind that blows through them is the wind of laughter:

The beggar wends his way through the thrown. A Talmudist is tossing baseballs at kewpie dolls. The Chief of Police, bare-chested, muscles bulging, is bench-pressing barbells before dazzled young yeshiva boys.   The rabbi’s wife, holding a plucked chicken high in the air, breathes fire, and in a single blast, roasts the bird whole.  Every face glows red…from excessive laughter.  Happiness sizzles in the early evening air like streaks of summer lightening.  (123)

In the midst of all this joy and laughter, the “beggar feels uneasy.  He lifts his eyes skyward in prayer.”  The irony of all this is that a schlemiel would take great joy in the fact that people around him are laughing; but the twist is that he is no longer a schlemiel: he is now a beggar.  And in this scene, he sees himself as having no way of gaining charity.  He is, after all, a somber figure in the midst of all this joy.

In his prayer, he asks for strength and that God should “place kindness in their hearts, that they may give with an open hand, and thereby be redeemed.”  The beggar’s prayers are answered and he leaves with a “heavy sack of coins.”  However, he is still troubled by what he saw and heard at the circus; and we see this in his dream.

The narrator tells us that in his dream he is visited by another “old beggar” who tells him about how it has all come down to this: a circus full of noise which includes everyone, even the leaders of the Jewish community, the Rabbi, etc.  In his account, we can hear the separation of “true joy” and “false joy”; “true laughter” and “false laughter.”  The old beggar notes how, in the beginning, all of the poor were taken care of and of how this care for the poor was an expression of the learning that the Jewish community did.  But all of that came to an abrupt end.  And the wealthy no longer cared for the poor; they ignored the poor.  And people didn’t talk to each other.  Joy was replaced by seriousness: “seriousness became such a plague that dozens died from it every year.”  The death caused by seriousness was so great that the “town council met for a special session.”

In response to all of the death caused by seriousness, the town council decided that “happiness was the answer, and that a grand amusement park would provide the cure.”  They went right to work building the park and it “was an instant success.”  The “plague of seriousness” ended.

But now a new problem arises. The old beggar points out that “an abominable, overpowering stench” issued from the village.  The old beggar could do nothing to stop this smell and he ended up dying in the forest outside the town.  After finishing this account, he hands the ball over to our old beggar and tells him what is at stake. And in doing so, he makes distinctions between true and false joy, etc.  The old beggar in the dream brings together all of the pieces that were, as I pointed out in the outset of these blog entries on Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man, tied to remembrance and redemption. And out of this, our beggar learns (or rather, remembers) his original task – the task of the schlemiel:

You surely noticed how artificial was the joy of these people….With their silly behavior, they hope to demonstrate that they are in the swim, that they can outdo us.  Our bursts of joy, as you know, are upsurges of remembrance.  I don’t have to tell you that their false joy is the result of a deficient memory….Your mission, therefore, my dear colleague, consists of breaking these people with true laughter, until they regain their true identity…You break them with joy and you will affect the entire planet. (125)

This task shows us that, ultimately, the schlemiel concealed within the old beggar has the last word.  And it also discloses Abehsera’s conviction that there is such a thing as “true laughter” and “true joy” and that this laughter and joy will help people to “regain their true identity.”  This task is redemptive and affects the “entire planet.”  And it cannot be done without a battle.  To be sure, we hear this in the command to “break them with joy.” The ironic twist that Abehsera is communicating is that by breaking them one fixes them.

In the next two blog entries, I hope to follow out this thread to the end.  The point of these close readings is to understand how central and important the schlemiel is for Abehrsera’s project.  To be sure, without the schlemiel man (that is, the best man can be) – for Abehsera – is not “possible.”  For Abehsera, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel and the “possible man.”  What he relays to his readers is a joy and laughter that can break “us” out of our “false joy.”  And, in effect, he asks us to also become relays and to take part in a joy that will “affect the entire planet.”   But being a relay is not by any means an easy task when the world is, as Abehsera suggests, caught up in the circus….

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