A Curious Arc: On the “Partial” Transformation of Gary Shteyngart’s Vladmir – Part II

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In the beginning of an extraordinary piece of fiction entitled “A Heroic Death,” the 19th century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire noted that fools have a curious way of getting themselves in trouble.  For Baudelaire, the reason for this has to do with the fact that fools don’t often think about the consequences of their actions.  They are most likely more interested in a feeling, dream, or imagining that goes hand-in-hand with an intriguing action.  Baudelaire’s observation resonates well with what happens to Vladmir in The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.   Like Baudelaire’s fool, Vladmir dreams a lot about and his situation and, as a result of these dreams, he gets thrown into a crisis.  But unlike many fools who go on in their foolishness despite what happens to them, Vladmir goes through what I call a “partial transformation.”

In yesterday’s blog entry, I cited the passage where the narrator describes the changing dreams of Vladmir.  All of them, taken together, form a “curious arc”:

All in all, Vladmir’s American dreams formed a curious arc.  During adolescence he dreamed of acceptance. In his brief days at college, he dreamed of love.  After college, he dreamed a rather improbable dialectic of love and acceptance.  And now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next? (116)

As one can see, Vladmir’s newest dream about money is what gets him in trouble.  This is foreshadowed by the question at the end of the passage: “What fresh tortures would await him next?”

This passage is the preface to Vladmir’s meeting with Rybakov, his Serbian Bodyguard, and the criminal underlings of Rybakov’s son (“The Groundhog”).  After receiving “gifts” from the “groundhog” (which includes “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex”) and some money from Rybakov, Vladmir’s wants more.  And, as I noted in yesterday’s blog, he goes to Baobab.

The narrator provides a sketch of Baobab which gives the reader the impression that he doesn’t properly think through things; he’s a schlemiel.  Nonetheless, Vladmir, in his desperation for money, which he can use to pay off his credit card debt and the rent he owes to his ex-girlfriend Challah, he takes Baobab’s tip.

The tip requires Vladmir to go down to Miami and pose as the son of a man named Jordi.  The masquerade is meant to fool a college admissions officer into granting Jordi’s son admission into the college; apparently, the son’s grades and intelligence are the problem and Vladmir is the solution.  When Vladmir expresses worry that he may get caught, Baobab assures him:

“The place is so gargantuan the interviewer will never see the kid again.  Trust me, it’s foolproof, and I don’t even think it’s terribly illegal.  Impersonating a high school kid: not exactly the crime of the century, just a lame thing to do.  But for twenty thousand…”(139)

When Vladmir arrives in Florida, he is picked up by Jordi who is driving a “peach Caddy.”  When we first meet Jordi, we see a man of Spanish (Catalan) descent who “neither sounded nor resembled the drug dealer out of central casting, which Vladmir was expecting with some dread”(141).  To be sure, Vladmir feels relieved by this appearance and trusts Jordy who looks like a “middle-aged Jew with a textile business.”  In other words, Vladmir feels “as if” Jordy is a fellow Jew although he is not.   This imagining takes on greater power the more time he spends with Jordi.

Strangely enough, Vladmir finds nothing peculiar when Jordi tells him that plans have changed:  “My secretary screwed up our reservations, the cow,” he said. “Would you mind splitting the room with me”(144).  Jokingly, Jordi says that it will be like a “slumber party.”  In the innocent and trusting manner of a schlemiel, Vladmir gets excited about the “slumber party.”

Following this, Jordi and Vladmir start drinking.  Jordi asks Vladmir to shave off his goatee and to go outside and get a tan (so as to look more like his son).  Vladmir does so and starts seeing himself as other (namely, as a man-child).  While he is out tanning, he remembers his mother and his childhood.  He starts crying.  At this point, he is at the height of vulnerability.  After his crying, tanning, and drinking, he returns to the hotel room to find Jordi sprawled out on the bed “watching a show about a modeling agency, grunting along as the feeble bon mots flew and negligees slithered on the ground”(148).

This scene becomes more and more sexualized and Vladmir, in his innocence, doesn’t “get it.”  After a day of heavy drinking, Vladmir starts feeling the alcohol:

The sun had long since disappeared when Vladmir felt the full giddy nausea of champagne drunkenness and ordered himself to stop.  He sat down hard on his bed near the balcony and felt it sway a little in all directions.  Something was askew, and it wasn’t just the physical universe reeling from booze. (150)

He can’t quite put his finger on it.  But Jordi helps him out when he says, flat out:

“Hey, correct me if I am wrong,” Jordi said, swinging his feet between the two beds, his trunks tight with the outline of his shaft, twisted and constrained by the elastic, “but you fooled around with Baobab before, right?  I mean, you’ve been with other boys.”(151)

The narrator’s description of Vladmir’s vision and astonishment is akin to a primal scene of horror.  This scene, I aver, marks a major turning point in the novel and in Vladmir’s life.  From this point, Vladmir takes a leap and transforms from a schlemiel into a (partial) “man” on the run.

Vladmir followed the single horrific spot of wetness along the inseam of Jordi’s trunks.  “Who, us? He said, Jumping off the bed, so unsure of the fact that he had spoken the he repeated himself. “Who, us?” (151)

The modulation of “Who, us” – repetitively -works on several levels and evinces a loss of identity and meaning.  Following this moment of loss, Vladmir insists that he is not interested; and when Jordi approaches him and grabs him, he punches him in the face.  This punch transforms him and is the very thing that will send him out of the country and back to Eastern Europe.  Before reflecting on it, the narrator recalls a memory Vladmir has of Fran, about how she was going “to make him into a human being, an indigenous citizen of the world”(152).  This reflection prior to his reflection on the punch makes it explicit that the narrator equates this punch with becoming a “human being” a “citizen of the world.”  The irony, however, is that one doesn’t become a “human being” by virtue of being a gentle cosmopolitan so much as by way of being a “man” who defends himself when being raped:

He had never hit a person before in his life, or heard the crunch of knuckle bone ramming cartilage…Vladmir ran. (153)

To emphasize the shift from the life of a schlemiel to the life of a man on the run, the narrator gives detailed descriptions of Vladmir’s passionate flight from Jordi, the drug dealer.  The “fear gland” kicks in and takes over.   And the story starts shifting into the masculine mode.  To enunciate this change and make it explicit, the following chapter (chapter 16) is entitled “Getting in Wrong” and the first words, “Everything had changed,” mark the transformation I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry.

To bring this into relief, the narrator makes something of a reading of the schlemiel equating Vladmir-as-Schlemiel with Vladmir-as-Victim:

Everything had changed. His body had been handled by a man whose intent was to hurt….How meager the insults of his childhood by comparison to what had just happened.  All the miserable years of adolescence, the daily drubbing at the hands of parents and peers, had been no more than a dress rehearsal; all those years, it turned out, young Vladmir had been preparing himself for victimhood.  (155)

Although this seems to be a death-toll for the schlemiel and the beginning of something new, I would like to suggest that what happens here is the shedding of one aspect of this character.  It is, as I will show in the next few blogs, a partial transformation.

What I find so interesting about Shteygart’s project is the fact that, for him, the schlemiel’s masculinity is one of his main concerns.  On the one hand, he finds the passivity and masochistic “victimhood” of the character to be deplorable; yet, on the other hand, and as I will show, he doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Shteyngart is looking to strike a balance between the masculine and the feminine and the basis for making such a balance is contingent on how we interpret the comings and goings of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel.  As a part of this becoming, Shteyngart decided that Vladmir should have a shocking experience that challenges the schlemiel’s more effeminate and dreamy nature.  The question is whether becoming an American – for Shteygart -implies becoming more masculine.

Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t become masculine in America.  The process starts in America, but it takes full form in Eastern Europe.  I hope to bring out the irony of this process and to show how the transformation out of the schlemiel into something more masculine may seem full but is actually partial.

And, more importantly, this transformation is spurred by the fact that Vladmir, a schlemiel, ends up getting himself into trouble by virtue of the “curious arc” of his dreams.  This trouble spurs his transformation and, because his life changes as a result, he shares less with the traditional schlemiel and more with Woody Allen’s most recent schlemiels.  But he differs from them too, for his transformation is ultimately partial.

….to be continued…..

A Curious Arc: On the “Partial” Transformation of Gary Shteyngart’s Vladmir – Part I

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Sometimes schlemiels can go through transformations in the self-same novel, movie, short-story, or comic strip.  We see this, for instance, in several Woody Allen films such as Anything Else (2003), Hollywood Ending (2002), Whatever Works (2009) and Midnight in Paris (2011); we also see this in Judd Apatow’s films Knocked Up (2007) and Super Bad (2007).  However, sometimes a schlemiel may seem to go through a transformation.  In such a scenario, this or that trait of the schlemiel may remain buried only to resurface as a tic, habit, gesture, or memory.   We see this with the main character of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.   The schlemiel who goes through something of a transformation is Vladmir Girshkin, the main character.  But this transition – what I, playing on Shteyngart, call a “curious arc” –  is riddled with remnants of his old-schlemiel-self which bubble up to the surface.

I have written a few blog entries on Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.  In these blog entries, I read Vladmir as the “immigrant-becoming-American schlemiel,” as a partner in a comic duo with another character called Rybakov, and as the son of a Jewish mother.    All of these entries address the question as to why we readers might call Vladmir a schlemiel.  But there are a few other instances I’d like to include before showing how Vladmir moves from being a schlemiel to a schemer of sorts.

Already in the novel, one can see that Vladmir is not a typical schlemiel in the sense that he is very successful with women.  He leaves his Jewish girlfriend “Challah” (as in the bread Jews eat on the Sabbath) for a “high-class” gentile named Fran.  She goes to Columbia University, loves things Russian (read exotic), is a hipster, lives the easy life of a New Yorker who has money to spend on “organic toothbrushes” and vegan cuisine, and has parents who are both professors at CUNY.  Her life is easy and when Vladmir enters it he sees an American life he was never familiar with.  In this, to be sure, we see something of a foreshadowing of his transition in his “upward mobility.”  But this movement is fraught with elements of schlemiel-keit.

To begin with, the group of individuals that Fran hangs out with – as well as her parents – are living in a dream bubble of affluence.  Her father has embarked on a “humor studies” project (we see, after his transformation, that Vladmir finds this to be ridiculous), her mother (unlike his) lives a life that has no economic worries whatsoever, and Fran’s friends have leisure time to spend lots of money on food, drinks, and travel. They also have a taste for Russian things, and, for them, Vladmir is the “real thing.”

Vladmir soaks all of this in and feels as if he has “made it.”  But this is an illusion.  Although he moves in with Fran’s family and doesn’t have to pay for room and board, he still works in the Emma Lazurus Society Immigrant Absorption Agency.  And, more importantly, he runs up a huge bill on his credit card because he takes his new found friends for food and drinks on a daily basis.

When he wakes up to this economic crisis, he scrambles to figure out how he can get money so as to pay off his bills and maintain the image of affluence.  This prompts him to do two things that – unbeknownst to him – will lead to his transition from a schlemiel to a schemer of sorts.

First of all, he contacts Rybakov (“the fan man”) who, earlier in the novel, is shown to be a criminal with a sense of humor. And, as I pointed out in one of my blog posts on the novel, Rybakov wants to become an American citizen and has already made offers to bribe Vladmir for it.  Although Vladmir remembers his parents’ admonitions to stay away from criminals, he caves in as a result of his economic crisis.  Vladmir proceeds to call Rybakov and accepts an invitation to join him on a boat ride (on the SS Breshnev) through the harbor.

On the trip, he meets Rybakov’s Serbian bodyguard, Vladko, who carries guns and is dead serious about everything:

A hatch opened, and from the lower deck there emerged, a preternaturally tall, round chested, pink-eyed, near-naked young man, as substantial as anything Serbian myth ever produced. (114)

Together, they travel through the harbor and meet up with a boat of international criminals.  Before they meet up, the narrator reflects on how Vladmir’s American dreams have changed over time:

All in all, Vladmir’s American dreams formed a curious arc.  During adolescence he dreamed of acceptance. In his brief days at college, he dreamed of love.  After college, he dreamed a rather improbable dialectic of love and acceptance.  And now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next? (116)

This “curious arc” leads him into trouble and it sends him out of his schlemiel-dreams into harsh reality.   Before meeting up with a sketchy group of criminals in the harbor (a meeting arranged by Rybakov), Vladmir starts feeling his “fear gland” kick in.  (He starts realizing, for the first time, that fear and money go together.)  Not knowing what is ahead of him, he is besides-himself when he hears Vladko ask, indifferently, “What gun do I bring?”

Although Rybakov couches everything in comedy, the fact of the matter is that the undercurrent of his comedy is fear.  And this hits Vladmir who “pretends to play along.”  When he meets the criminals, one of things we notice (as we also see with Vladko) is that their bodies, in contrast to Vladmir’s schlemiel-ish body (his mother says he has hips and walks like a Jew, etc), are intimidating (119).  This contrast, I believe, outlines a distinction which is at the forefront of the novel; namely between the more feminine schlemiel character that Vladmir plays, and the more aggressive male character played by these criminals and others.  Vladmir, as the novel goes on, becomes more masculine.

These criminals give Vladmir a gift from Rybakov’s son “Groudhog”:  “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex watch.”   After receiving this gift (which has strings attached; strings that Vladmir doesn’t see), he calculates how much money he can get from all these stolen goods in hope that he can pay off his credit card and the rent money he owes to his previous girlfriend, Challah.  The narrator articulates Vladmir’s naivite:

Bravo! Yes, Vladmir was ready to learn from these people. Maybe he could even introduce them to Fran.  He did a little bow again.  How can I repay your kindness? Indeed.  (121)

Following this, Rybakov has all of the criminals say their “favorite” things about Rybakov.  What ensues is comical, but, as I noted above, it’s undercurrent is fear.  But Vladmir doesn’t get it:  “He had been delighted to just listen to them”(124).

Rybakov also gives him money.

Following this, Vladmir goes back to work and learns that Rybakov has been awarded citizenship.  Inspired by this winning streak, Vladmir starts to dream about getting more money.  He ends up calling his friend Baobab and, knowing that Baobab has his ways of getting money, asks him for a favor.  (Baobab, it must be noted is also a schlemiel; he is the “odd one out” who dresses oddly, follows obscure bands, and often fails with women.)   Baobab tells Valadmir that he has enrolled at CUNY to learn Humor studies with Fran’s father.  Vladmir notes he isn’t funny, but Baobab retorts:

“Real humor is not supposed to be funny,” Baobab said, “It’s supposed to be tragic like the Marx Brothers.  And I’ve found a great professor, Joseph Ruocco. Have you heard of him?  He’s going to be my advisor.  He’s both funny and sad…No, I’m sticking with this Ruocco guy. I’m sticking with reality.”(138)

As we can see from his retort, Baobab doesn’t know that he’s being a schlemiel: he misunderstands the Marx Brothers while truly thinking he is “sticking with reality” vis-à-vis his new career choice.   Regardless, Baobab gives Vladmir a tip which, when followed up, transforms Vladmir from a schlemiel into a schemer and sends him from America to post-Communist Eastern Europe.

I will continue this blog-entry in tomorrow’s blog….

Foolishly Re-turning to Dreams and Places of My Birth

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A birthday is an event, a happening that unfolds in time.  And today is my birthday.  But instead of dwelling on the day or on time, one of the things I always like to do for my birthday is to get in my car and travel to places in the United States where I went through some kind of transformation or rebirth.  (And one of these places is where I was born and raised, for real: Gloversville, New York. Some authors, like Saul Bellow and Ben Katchor, envision it as a “wild” place.)  But there are so many and these places are scattered all over this country.  So I can’t possibly go to all of them; for this reason, I usually stick to driving to different places in New York State (a state where I grew up and where I received my “higher” education).  I foolishly return to these places hoping that some memory or experience of the transformations that went down in this or that area will – once again – come to life.  By simply walking through the streets, breathing the air, hearing sounds, or smelling this or that thing, I imagine that I will be transported, so to speak, back in time.

But, more often than not, nothing happens. And I end up spending a day in this or that “place of (re)birth” aimlessly drifting around.  Instead of a new beginning, I seem to be caught up in a series of movements out into American spaces that are changing at a rapid pace.   But I’m not disappointed.  Like a schlemiel, I just shrug my shoulders and move on.   My expectations don’t meet with reality, and that’s familiar enough.  But that won’t keep me from imagining things that may or may not happen at this or that place.  Even though I may check myself and say myself that “wherever you go, nothing will happen; don’t imagine too much, you will be disappointed,” I still foolishly like to dream that I am going somewhere that something might happen.  After all, something is bound to happen and perhaps I will learn or experience something transformational in this or that place.

Dreaming about places is something I’m good at.   But, in truth, it’s something a lot of Jews are good at, too.  There is something about dreaming about places that is very Jewish; after all, Jews have (and still do) dream of the end of Exile and the Return to Jerusalem (“next year in Jerusalem”) or Israel.   But, on the other hand, Jews in America are good at dreaming about their past, present, and future experiences.  This dreaminess may come out when Jews speak about their experiences.  And this is where the fictional enterprise becomes larger than life and even place.

In truth, when I really think about it, what I care about more than this or that place is this or that story.  In places where I went to, what was most transformational for me was not the place; rather, it was the fact that I bore witness to this or that great story or I myself crafted a great story (or performance) in this or that place.  This or that story – told with the most unexpected nuances – are what kept the dream alive.  The place, oftentimes, was arbitrary.

I grew up with a storyteller.  On a daily basis, my father would tell stories either to me or to his best friend (David Kaplan z’l) about this or that person, place, thing, or event in time.  But, as I realized at an early age, my father didn’t simply animate the thing or experience and make me want to eat, visit, see, hear, or feel this or that thing he talked about; he also made me acutely aware of the language, gesture, and tone he used to animate these things.   His dreams resided in his performances; and I was often his sole audience.  A smile or a look of astonishment from me or those around him was the key to making his dreams come to life.  These were the places he visited.  And though we traveled around the USA, what I remember most is not the place so much as what my father said in this or that place.

And in this, I aver, he was a schlemiel.  The schlemiel animates the place not vice versa.  And he does this by virtue of his dream-like performances of language and gestures.

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi begins her reflections on the schlemiel by way of a reading of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the III.  Although the plot is based on a journey that the two protagonists are going to make outside of their small village, we learn that they don’t make it to any fantastic places outside the Pale of Settlement.  They stay within its boundaries.  And what they take in, more than anything, are their experiences. They shine in the telling and retelling.  Indeed, the novel is more about speech and storytelling than in actually going on.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi agree on this point: language is, during the Exile, a Jews surrogate for power and sovereignty.   Paraphrasing George Steiner, they would say that speech (the text) is the schlemiel’s homeland.

Ezrahi sees this text as the birth of a schlemiel who would, in his travels, end up in America where s/he would do the same thing: live on experiences, things, and stories about them.  In the retelling, everything would be perpetually rediscovered and renewed.  In contrast to this, Ezrahi puts the “desire for place” (homecoming) which is based on a desire to return to Israel.   As I noted above, this desire is very “Jewish” and has lasted for centuries.  It can be argued that it existed prior to the Exile from Jerusalem; in fact, the Torah/Bible tells that story which beings with the promise God makes to Abraham regarding “the land” (ha’aretz).

Ezrahi argues that, with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, this all changes.  Now, the dream is a reality.  (Theodor Herzl once said, in this regard, “will it and it’s not a dream.”)  Israel, says Ezrahi, Is-Real.  She insists that the dream of Israel continue but in terms of re-imagining the relation of the Jewish people to the Land which, with all the things going on right now, is in flux.   The sensibility that does this, by and large, is physically rooted in the land of Israel.

In contrast to this, we have the sensibility of Exile; and the dreamers of Exile are in America.  She calls this country – in the spirit of Hollywood – the “land of dreams.”  And, as I noted above with my father, these dreams are all about finding new experiences and talking about them.  These are the speech (or gestural) “events” that concern American Jews.

On my birthday, I can’t help but reflect on this powerful thesis.  I lived through this allure of experience.  When I think about one of my greatest American experiences, I remember my travels across country: the experiences, the conversations, and the happenings.  And the stories that followed in their wake were the very thing that gave me a sense of life and vitality.  Ezrahi would say that these experiences (and my recounting of them) are an illustration of “Diasporic privilege.”

Until I read her book, I never thought of the enthrallment for experience and its retelling that my father bequeathed to me (as an inheritance of sorts) as a “diasporic privilege.”  Nonetheless, I feel no shame over the fact that I draw life from experience and its retelling.  I don’t derive it from this or that physical place, so much as this or that place in this or that conversation or performance.  This is my world and perhaps this is a world of exile.  Regardless, I think that these are my birthplaces (in the plural).  There is truly something to idea that one can reinvent or rediscover oneself in the telling of this or that experience; and this can only happen when we tell this to someone.  It has a personal dimension.

But the important thing to keep in mind is that there is no guarantee that something may happen; its contingent on many factors.  Nonetheless, one of the important things about the schlemiel can be found in the fact the schlemiel dreams big about the happening.  He hopes that something may happen in time; but when nothing happens, he just moves on to another place.

That’s what Gimpel does at the end of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.”  He constantly puts himself in a situation where people are given the opportunity to be honest to him, but they all lie. And after he exhausts all of the possibilities for trust, he leaves.  He dreams of another place where this will happen.  He goes toward it.  So do I.

And when I find it, that will be my birthplace.  But, ultimately, its not my final birthplace.  As an exiled American-Jew, my birthplace, like my dreams will constantly be in flux.  And, perhaps, as Ezrahi suggests, that would all change if I were to return to my historical roots in Israel and dream of that “real” place.  Perhaps. But, for now, I’m just a visitor.  (And I have been on a few visits.)  Her thesis can only be demonstrated by living there.  But, right now, I’m living here…in the “land of dreams.”

This is where I had my first birthday and this is the place where I have had all my birthdays….This is the place where I dreamed (and dream) of all the places I was born… But in the end, these birth-places that I dream about can only happen between me and you.    Only between you and I can there be an event…that unfolds in time…a birth-day…But, perhaps, nothing will happen…This is the risk I take when I speak or perform before any of you….

As the comedians say, it’s ALL in the timing….

…my last words, regardless of what I say on my birthday, will always risk not being on time…I hope they will arrive, but these are the hopes of a schlemiel who hungers for relationships and birthdays…

THE END

(Applause, Astonishment, or Silence?)

A Note on Jake Marmer’s Poem “Bathhouse of Dreams”

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Jake Marmer’s poem, “Bathhouse of Dreams,” is an improvised poem which is based – in part – on a Mishnah from the tractate Avoda Zarah 3:4:

Proklos, son of Plosphos asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18), ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshippers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say, ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite.’ Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’” Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you wouldn’t commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky*, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. The verse “these are your gods” (Exod. 32:4) is not said about this case. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].

How does this Mishnah relate to the title of Marmer’s poem and the poem itself which addresses a dream-like revision of the Mishnah?   Before we address Marmer’s poem, I’d like to preface my reading with a brief summary of the “Rabbinical” approach to dreams and follow it up with a sketch of Freud’s reading of the dream.  This will help us to understand what is at stake in Marmer’s re-imagining of this Mishnaic scene.

Poets have, for centuries, been interested in dreams.  And dreams, to be sure, have their root in prophesy and religion.  “Pagan” religion and monotheism pay much heed to dreams. As far as Judaism goes, there is an ambivalent attitude toward dreams.  Many of the first prophets in the Jewish tradition communicated with God by way of the dream.  But, according to Moses Maimonides, these prophets are lesser than Moses who communicated with God (so to speak) “face to face.”  Maimonides, in the vein of Ancient Greek and rationalist Islamic philosophy, makes it quite clear in his Guide to the Perplexed that imagination is a deficient mode vis-à-vis the intellect.  And in his view, Moses is the “greatest of all prophets” because, unlike the other prophets who communicated with God via the imagination, his intellect was perfected and his imagination was purified.  And, as Leo Strauss points out in his reading of Maimonides, the imagination, for Moses, had only one purpose at that point and that purpose is political; namely, to communicate to the masses.  Since the majority of people relate better to the imagination than to the intellect, it is the best medium to use for political purposes; however, it is not the highest man can achieve.  Although Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Maimonides on many different points, he agreed with him on the clear distinction between intellect and the imagination.  And Spinoza even found Moses at fault for, in his view, a minimal appeal to the imagination.

Nonetheless, as Sarah Stroumsa points out in her book on Maimonides, Maimoindes didn’t always have a rationalist position on the imagination and dreams.  As she argues, when he was younger he wanted to write a book interpreting images and the imagination which had more resonances with Kabbalah than with the Rationalists.  However, his position changed over time.  Maimonides understood the importance of imagery, the imagination, and dreams in Judaism.  But, as we can see from The Guide to the Perplexed, he ultimately settled with the rationalist reading of dreams and imagery.

On the other hand, poets and Kabbalists give greater weight to dreams. To be sure, exile itself is likened to a dream.  We see this in Psalm 126:

A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song. (126:1-2)

This psalm gives weight to the dreams of exile.  And no amount of rationalism can (or even should) be appealed to so as to eliminate these dreams.  To be sure, the poet understands that dreams are or can be related to perception and desire.  The question, for the Jewish poet and the Rabbi who are concerned with dreams, is how do we interpret the dreams of exile.

Rav Kook reads this Psalm in terms of the “dreams of redemption” which, one day, will disappear.   In his view, this did happen in some way with the founding of the State of Israel.  However, the exile lives on since the “full redemption” has not arrived.   For an American Jew who lives after the founding of the Jewish State, however, the dream seems to live on.

And, as Jake Marmer’s poem on the Mishnah implies, imagining Rabbi Gamliel’s “Bathhouse Dreams” is of great interest to the poet.  The imagination, for the Jewish poet, must be active; it doesn’t simply foster desire for redemption; it also sharpens our vision of the present and relation to the past.  And, in Marmer’s poem, it does so in a comic manner.   This makes it even more appealing to us, today, since one of the most important ways American-Jews have to relate to their Jewishness is by way of humor (as a recent Pew Poll shows).

I’d like to briefly turn to Freud’s theory of the dream to show how this appeal to the dream works on many levels.

If anyone takes the time to understand Freud’s theory of dreams, one will notice that something happens between The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.   In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud looks at dreams through the lens of the “pleasure principle.”  According to this theory, the psyche will go to great lengths to discharge all energy by any means necessary because the buildup of energy within the psyche is “painful.”  And the pleasure principle is, more or less, the principle to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  For this reason, Freud, working on his system of the id, ego, and superego, argues that consciousness censors things that are, according to the superego, detrimental to the health of consciousness.  One such thing would be sexual taboos.  These, Freud argued, must be discharged. And since the conscious mind won’t let it come to the surface, taboos are buried in the unconscious only to be resurrected and discharged in dreams.

But since there is also a “censor” in dreams, these feelings must be hidden in some way. For instance, instead of seeing your sister in your dream (who you may have an incestual desire for) you see a “substitute” who doesn’t look like your sister but feels like her.

This theory of dreams is based on an economy of discharging energy so as to maintain the pleasure principle: in the most Greek sense, happiness/pleasure is the goal.   This theory of dreams changes later on in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Before he wrote this book, he witnessed the dreams of men who were terrorized by experiences they had on the battlefield during WWI.  Their traumatic dreams would repeat over and over again (he calls this a “repetition compulsion”).  And the unconscious seemed to be deriving pleasure from this pain.  And this, for Freud, was troubling; it violated the “pleasure principle.”   His theory didn’t make room for trauma and, as he understood, it had to now; in the wake of his discoveries on the battle field medical tent.

I’d like to posit that Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle has Greek resonances while his later approach to dreams has more of a Jewish resonance.  In the latter theory, the pain of history, the trauma of history, is incorporated into the dream.  It is noted and happiness is not the goal so much as memory.

What I love about Jake Marmer’s poem “Bathhouse of Dreams” is the fact that it draws on Freud’s latter theory, reread the above mentioned Mishnah from Avodah Zarah, and adds a comic dimension to memory that Freud didn’t bring out in his post-pleasure principle theory.

In Marmer’s poem (and its performance), there is an angry (yet comic) tone that the poet takes on as he identifies with Rabbi Gamliel when he responds to the Hellenists’ query as to why he is in the Bathhouse of Aprhodite.     (The “Bathhouse of Dreams” poem starts at 3:55 in the video below.)

The poem starts off with a slightly modified citation from the Mishnah.  But it goes on to put in what is not there; namely, a retort which brings out the insider/outsider status of the Jew in Hellenistic culture: his double consciousness.  And this status is communicated by way of the dream/beard. The music in the piece brings out a dragnet style of sound to the presentation of the Rabbi’s words interspersed by a sequence that seems to be fighting with itself for speech. (Here’s the soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/lawrencebush):

Rabbi, why are you here to wash?

The Beard of my double consciousness answered Rabbi Gamliel….Yeah, my beard of double consciousness answered Galmliel…Every morning I wake up to find another split in my beard, and find another hole in my beard, and find another nest in my beard…

After this interlude, the music becomes more erratic to match the dream/ravings of Gamliel.  The increase in speed has the effect of becoming more and more comic as the jazz piece moves on.  At the end, Galmliel makes a pledge to remain a “perpetual dreamboy.” But this is punctuated by the music dropping out.  In this gap, Marmer inserts the words: “in a locked suitcase.”

The music then returns to the dragnet style melody .

I find this modulation and the last words to be telling.  What we find in these movements and words is an awareness of the “double consciousness” of the Jew which is communicated by way of the imaginary personification of the words Gamliel never said.  These words end with a pledge to become a “perpetual dreamboy” (in other words, a poet-schleimel; a “lord of dreams”) in response to the question (read as an insult) made by the Hellenist.  The response punctuates a series of angry retorts that struggle to the poets mouth (this is conveyed by the music).  But in the end, the position is one of withdrawal, a pledge that is, ultimately, to be found in a “locked suitcase.”  This sounds like a pandora box of sorts. But if it were opened up, what we would have is not war or violence so much as rage, comedy, and dreams.

This closing irony, which is the end of a build up of rage, is Jake Marmer’s way of relating to the past vis-à-vis the Mishnah and the present vis-à-vis his retelling and revising it.

The accent on the present brings out the power of the dream to mark the traumatic affect of double consciousness while, at the same time, showing how humor can be used to modulate this consciousness and rage.   Marmer is teaching us how, for American-Jews today, comedy and rage can go hand in hand with memory and poetic speech(that is, if one is willing to own up to one’s past struggles with society rather than forget about it). Indeed, comedy and rage can be employed in our relating to the Jewish past and the Jewish present (that is, if the relation of Jewish to non-Jewish identity is to remain an issue; if “double consciousness” is to remain an issue as it is for this poet who personifies Rabbi Gamliel).

At the end of the poem, I can feel the power of the dream is not to affect a kind of happiness, as Freud would say in his early work: that the day-dream or dream accomplish happiness in spite of things that cause the psyche pain.  Rather, the power of the dream-poem is to effect a sense of how something has not been worked through; comedy doesn’t eliminate rage or double consciousness.  Rather, comedy shows our weakness and our strength.

This is not a dream realized, as Kook would call for.  And this dream is not something that can be rationalized away. Rather, this poet’s dream imaginatively taps into the past from the angle of the present so as to disclose the difficult place of “double consciousness” that Jews speak from in our post-modern age.

Like Marmer, I understand his position very well.  It is the position of the schlemiel. And, for the poet and audience, it is double.  It is the angle of the Jewish Sancho Panza (the poet and audience) who pays close attention to the dreaming Don Quixote (Rabbi Gamliel and the poet), but with a twist: namely, the twist of historical fate which has and continues to make the Jew aware of his/her double consciousness.

The schlemiel, after all, is the lord of dreams.  And we, the readers of the schlemiel, are not.  Yet, when we see or hear the schlemiel, we can’t help but realize that his consciousness is ours.  We are in and out of reality and history.  We are double.  This is a bitter-sweet comedy of Jewishness. But it remains and will remain as long as the dream of exile remains a reality.

Animating the Text: Jake Marmer’s Talmudic Jazz-Poetics

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When it comes to art and poetry, I am very demanding.  And the reason for this has to do with who I am, where I come from, and what I dream about.   But, ultimately, I’m not so unique.  I feel as if there are many Jewish people out there who, like me, are yearning for a poetry that merges music, performance, and comedy with something that speaks to being Jewish, being American, and being close to something indescribable that seems to be coming at us from different directions.  On my search for this kind of poetry, I have come across the work of few poets who, at one time in my life, spoke to my being Jewish, being American, and so forth.   These poets – my poetic Rabbis, so to speak – are Allen Ginsburg, Charles Bernstein, and Jerome Rothenberg.   What I like about all of them is the fact that they all, in some way, bring their Jewishness to bear on a poetry that is performative, musical, and, at times, comical.   But, as I said, their work appealed to me at one time.  Today, I need something different and this is only because I have changed and so have the times we live in.   Unlike the past, I feel now, more than ever, that I – and others of my generation who wish to make Jewishness more relevant and exciting – need to find a new way to animate the Jewish text.  I believe that it can be animated by a new Jewish poetics and culture which can live in the present, draw on the past, and, using the best means it has at its disposal, open itself to a new future.  By opening the text (as the Zohar says in a different context), the new Jewish poet can lead the way into an exciting new form of Jewish life that is comic, poetic, musical, and performative.  And we can, so to speak, dance to this new Jewish tune.

On this (musical) note, I think I have found a new Jewish poet who I can listen to and join with in the project of creating a new Jewish culture.  His performance-poetry speaks to my comic Jewish –American sensibility in the most innovative and inspiring ways.  His name is Jake Marmer.   His first work of poetry is entitled Jazz Talmud.  It was published in 2011 by Sheepmeadow Press.    And, most recently, he has put together a CD entitled Hermeneutic Stomp which takes the poems from his book and brings them to life by way of Jazz. His CD will be released in New York City on October 14th .

For now, I’d like to go through one of these poems so as to point out how he, drawing on the tradition of the poets I have mentioned above (and a Jewish tradition called the Talmud), animates the text in a comic manner.  Fortunately, we have a video from Youtube that shows Marmer at work with his Jazz group.   Seeing this, after I have discussed the poem, can help to give you (my dear reader) an idea of how the performance of his poetry adds another dimension to his work.

At the end of an essay Marmer wrote for Shema: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, entitled Improvised Poetry: Palimpest of Drafts,  Marmer cites a poem from Jazz Talmud (a poem which also appears in his Hermeneutic Stomp CD) and notes to the reader that his poetry plays on the relationship of the Mishnah to the Gemara.  Here is the poem. It’s entitled the “Mishnah of Loneliness”:

Mishnah of Loneliness

There’re three types of loneliness in the world:

green, red, and purple. So says the house of

Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they say: loneliness

is either black or white; all other types

don’t exist and require a sacrifice of a young

goat: your internal goat.

Says Rava: in all of my years, I have not

known loneliness. All day I’m at the yeshiva

with you nudniks, then I come home to groveling

domestic tractates. One day, I stepped

outside and screamed: Master, I want you

in silence, in absence, in wordless music of

our solitude! Right then I saw a great ladder,

reaching to the Throne up high. The Throne
— was empty — but up and down the steps,

there went lost sounds, scales of unused and

discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations,

choked on ecstasies — a whole decontextualized

orchestra racing like goats through

the fog.

The voice said: this, Rava, is the room of my

absence, music of our solitude. You like it? Go

home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry; eat,

make a bad pun, for that is the meaning of peace.

Writing on this poem, Marmer points out that there is room in what he writes for improvisation and animation:

While the opening and middle sections of the poem are fairly set, the storytelling segment has room to let loose. As I recite it, I’m looking for openings, ideas, associated images, and commentary that I did not think of when I was working on the original draft.

This structure gives him the opportunity to change his poetry (or his way of saying it) while he is in the moment of performance.  And this gives the poetry more life since it is, so to speak, full of gaps and opportunities for play and interaction (with the text, the musicians, and the audience).  Adding to this reflection on the improvisational nature of his poetry, Marmer notes the Jewish dimension by pointing out how he is playing with “Talmudic form”:

In this particular piece, I’m also playing with the historical talmudic form, which combined memorization/repetition (“mishnah”)with discourse/discussion/riffing/tangents (“gemarah”).

Building on his reference to the Talmud to his work, I would suggest that we read the interplay of voices and opinions – in this particular poem – as comical.  To be sure, what I find so interesting about this poem in particular is the fact that it has a very pronounced comic dimension to it which works by way of indirection.  It gives loneliness three colors (none of which are blue). And in the jazz performance, each color also has a different sound.   Playing on the endless Talmudic disputes between two Talmudic schools (Shammai and Hillel), he attributes this reading to the “house of Hillel” (which is usually associated with more lenient and compassionate readings of the law and is associated with the saying that the whole Torah is to “love your brother as yourself”).  In contrast to Hillel’s colorful interpretation of loneliness, he presents Shammai’s reading which is that loneliness can either be one color or another; it can’t be three colors.  And if you appeal to these, a sacrifice will have to be made: “your internal goat.”

This dichotomy between the two Rabbis – and the whole focus on loneliness – is challenged by Rava who says he has never known loneliness.  And the punch line is that he has not known it because he has always been “surrounded by nudnicks” (a nudnick is an irritating person – a person who nags) at Yeshiva.  At this point, the humor really kicks in since Rava prays to God to be left alone.  He can’t take the nudnicks.

He then has a “vision.”  But what he sees is something that the exiled poet, musician, and Rabbi share: words, sounds, and visions that are incomplete.  Marmer animates the words by describing them in a diverse and comic manner: “lost sounds, scales of unused and discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations.”

After hearing this, God, sounding much like Woody Allen’s God in he speech to Abraham in “The Scrolls,” asks Rava if he likes the “whole decontextualized orchestra” (which he calls the “room of my absence, music of our solitude”):  “You like it? Go home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry, eat, make a bad pun for that is the meaning of peace.”

The last words of the poem suggest that God is spurring Rava to leave this serious room “of my absence” and to turn to comedy: to “stuff his ears with sophistry, eat, make a bad pun.”

This is telling and, ultimately, sounds a comic note.

Here is a video of this poem when it is performed.

What I love about the CD is the fact that what you hear on it is different from what you see and hear in this video.  What makes this so appealing to me is the fact that the structure of the piece gives him another opportunity to say it and find new ways of accenting this comic-Talmudic narrative.

More importantly, this poem (and its performance) speaks to me because it outlines what’s Jewish about his poetry: it looks to challenge the loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with so much poetry. It reminds me of the contrast between the style James Joyce uses to describe Leopold Bloom (the Jew) and Stephen Dedalus (the Gentile). The former style is more animated and comic.  And, as any reader of Ulysses knows, Bloom never seems to be lonely since he’s always relating to something.  He seems to be in a constant conversation with memories, people, things around him, and even animals.

When Marmer recites poetry and his band responds to each of his words with this or that note or sequence of notes, the “Mishnah of Loneliness” becomes the Mishnah of peace.  It tells the tale of how we, as Jews, can speak to each other.  And the fellowship that comes out of this comic-musical-poetic conversation is not what Susan Sontag calls the “fellowship of suffering” so much as a “fellowship of comedy, music, and words.”  This poem is a part of a renewed oral tradition which, as I have pointed out, is comic in nature.  And this tradition, I aver, is the other side of the “fellowship of suffering.”  Rather than surrender to sadness, Jews know how to balance it out (and not laugh it away) with a sense of humor. This shines through in Marmer’s poetry.

This poem and all of Marmer’s poems speak to me – especially when they are accompanied by the music of musicians who respond.  They speak to me in a Talmudic sense and in a Jewish sense.  I love that the music responds to each of Marmer’s notes. That, for me, is what animation is all about.  Moreover, such response is also the basis for peace since peace, as any poet knows, is based on some form of conversation.

As an American and as a Jew, as a person who lives in the present but is related to an ancient past and an uncertain future, I think these parts of myself, which I share with my fellow American Jews, need to engage in more dialogue.  And I think Marmer has found a great way of starting this conversation.  Although Marmer is aware that we have had a Talmud for centuries which has shown us how to live our lives, he knows that today what we need more than ever is a Jazz Talmud. That is a step in the right direction.  A Jazz Talmud can start a new conversation, one that speaks to me and to many of my generation who want to reconcile the differing opinions about what’s Jewish, what’s American, and how the two can converse with each other.

Onward ho!

Check out Marmer’s work on his blog: Jake Marmer’s Bop Apocalypse: Poetry, Philosophy, Existential Rants.   Also check out his new CD and, if you’d like, join him at the CD release party on October 14th at the Cornelia Street Café at 8:30pm. 

 

Jews, Leather, and Becoming American: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral…and Mine

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When I first read Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, I was blown away by the plot.  It was based on something very close to my own life-story: the decline of a Jewish family (the Levovs) which coincides with the rise and fall of the leather business in upstate New York. Indeed, Roth’s words on Gloversville, New York – where my father and grandfather worked in the leather business and where I grew up – and its ailing leather industry have deep resonance for me.  If I were to read myself into the plot, I would be in the position of the third-generation, which, for Roth, completely turns against the family tradition and its Jewish-American values.  This story, to be sure, is Roth’s allegory for post-WWII Jewish life in America and its descent into assimilation and madness.  Reading this, I wondered how close Roth’s novel about this leather family and its decline was to my own.  Although the narrative was strangely reminiscent of my own, was it my story?  And how could a story like this give birth to the schlemiel, a comic character?

This last question is my question, not Roth’s.  For, if anything, the novel ends on a tragic and not on a comic note.

Before reading American Pastoral, I often wondered whether the story of how my family ended up in Gloversville in the leather business and what happened to that business – and my family – touched on a larger, yet more tragic story; namely, the story of Jews becoming Americans.   I, like one of the main characters in Roth’s novel, am the last of three generations.  My grandfather Menachem Menkis, who I am named after, died before I was born.  He was raised in the mountains of Hungary in a house whose first floor was a synagogue.  His father, a Rabbi, taught him to stay close to his Jewish heritage.  And when he went off to Vienna to join the army, fight in the war (serving as a corporal over a Jewish platoon), learn a trade, and make a living, he brought this tradition with him.

After fighting in the First World War and learning the leather trade in Vienna, he went on to sell leather in Odessa.  At a certain point, he decided that the leather business would do better in America than in Europe.  With this in mind, he and his family left for the United States on the cusp of Hitler’s coming to power.   In America, he built a large leather corporation which had its home base in Gloversville, New York.  He would travel weekly to Gloversville from his nine-room apartment on 89th and West End Avenue in Manhattan (where my father grew up).

Menkis (the name he went by) made a fortune during World War II and, as the years progressed, he became one of the largest deerskin producers in the world.  His children – my father and his brothers – eventually took the helm of the business when my grandfather, in the late 1960s, decided to retire.

What happened after they took over was tragic. They fought with my father, their youngest brother, and kicked him out of the family fortune and the leather business.  I was not allowed to see my cousins from the Feuer side of the family, and even my grandmother was forbidden to see me.  (Near her death, she broke the rules my uncle set down for her – “talk to them and I’ll cut you off” – and called us to see her in her Central Park West apartment.  I was only 17 years old and her apology for never seeing me was a little late in coming, and…it hurt.)   My father spent his life trying to get back what was taken from him.  He hired many lawyers, received many threats (which included threats to me and my family), and eventually gave up on getting back the millions he was cheated out of.

Meanwhile, the leather business was going down the tubes.  I grew up in the midst of this decline and I watched it all break down (“all” includes my father, my family, and the leather business).  Like the third generation of American Jews in American Pastoral, I wanted nothing to do with the business or with any of the mess that I grew up with.

This brings me to Roth’s novel, his real life models for the story, his description of Gloversville, and the decline of the leather business.

There are two real life models in Roth’s novel that are of interest to me: 1) a legendary Jewish sports star from Gloversville named David Smukler (“Dynamite Dave”) and 2) the real decline of the leather business in Gloversville.

If I were to situate myself into Roth’s novel, Swede, the main character, would be my father.  What would this imply?  Swede embodies Roth’s vision of the totally assimilated Jew.  He is the son of an immigrant leather businessman who has risen above all stereotypes of the Jew to become, in effect, an American.  He is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel.  The narrator’s description of him is, to the say the least, heroic and mythic:

Fifty or sixty kids gathered along the sidelines at practice to watch Swede – in a battered leather helmet and the brown jersey numbered, in orange, 11 – working out with the varsity against the JVs…I haven’t forgotten the Swede, after being smothered by tacklers, climbing slowly to his feet, shaking himself off, casting an upward, remonstrative glance at the darkening fall sky, sighing ruefully, and then trotting undamaged back to the huddle.  When he scored, that was one kind of glory, and when he got tackled and piled on hard, and just stood up and shook it off, that was another kind of glory, even in scrimmage. (19)

Swede is “one with his America.”  And Swede’s Jewishness is not a heavy burden for him, but it does evoke a sense of shame in those who look at him:

The Jewishness that he wore so lightly as one of the tall, blond athletic winners must have spoken to us too – in our idolizing the Swede and his unconscious oneness with America.  I suppose there was a tinge of shame and self-rejection.  Conflicting Jewish desires awakened by the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist that they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphal spectacle of this Swede…Where was the Jew in him? You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there. (20)

The narrator, when looking at him, is confused about Jewishness; yet, somehow, he thinks that Swede is the “resolution” of the dichotomy between being Jewish and being American.  And we see this in the last words: “You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there.”

This ambiguity is based on the fact that Swede, unlike many American Jews, is the embodiment of the American athletic hero.  Although Roth never discusses this in any of his interviews, the model for Swede was most certainly Dave Smukler: the Jewish football star who was born and raised in Gloversville and who, in fact, spent a little time in Roth’s hood – Newark, New Jersey. He, like Swede, was a Jew who also happened to be a star athlete when Jews were represented as schlemiels and nebbishes (in the most negative sense).  Smukler, like Swede, went on to professional football, left sports for the military, and upon his return, takes up the mantle of the leather business.  And while Swede succeeds, the business does not.

And this is where Gloversville and its decline come in.  Swede bears witness to this. Strangely enough, this narrative about Gloversville is one I am very familiar with: it is personal. I heard it, and I still hear it today when I go out to breakfast with my father and his friends who spent their lives in the leather business:

When the first guy left Gloversville, New York, in ’52 or ’53 and went to the Philippines to make gloves, they laughed at him, as though he were going to the moon.  But when he died, around 1978, he had a factory there with four thousand workers and the whole industry had gone essentially from Gloversville to the Philippines.  Up in Gloversville, when the Second World War began, there must have been ninety glove factories, big and small. Today there isn’t a one – all of them out of business or importers from abroad. (27)

With the decline of Gloversville and its industry, we also see a decline in the generations of the Levov family.  Swede’s daughter ends up resenting money and power; she rejects her family and resents her father.

I can understand where Roth is going with this and of how the decline is paralleled with the Jew, Swede, becoming a fully assimilated and proud American.  My father’s story is different insofar as my father wasn’t an athlete so much as an academic and an engineer.  He was the Valedictorian at Bronx Science and at Columbia University.  He was the NASA fellow at Johns Hopkins University and envisioned himself as being on the crest of a new America.

But, like Swede, he gave all of this up for a leather business that, when he arrived in Gloversville, ejected him.  The leather business ruined whatever greatness he had.  And, like Swede, as the business went down, so did he.

In the last blog entry, I discussed Ben Katchor and Saul Bellow’s representations of upstate New York.  The point I was trying to make was that, for them, upstate New York was a space where the Jew went “wild” and lost his Jewish identity.  What Roth adds to this urban legend of upstate New York (and Gloversville) is a wasting away of Jewishness that goes hand in hand with the decline of the leather industry.

But this wasting away really starts when the Jew goes from being a schlemiel to being an American hero, an athlete like Swede.  As the narrator notes above, it was hard to see where the Jewish part in Swede was; he was “one with America.”  But was he “one with America” when he went into decline?  How is losing one’s Jewishness about becoming one with America?  And is the story of going from riches to rags an American story? What does a generation of Jews, born outside of this tradition do?  Are they lost in the American wilderness?

These are general questions that one can draw out of Roth’s novel, but, as you can see, I have personal questions.  Here are a few:

Was I born to be a Jew or born to be wild?  Since I was born in upstate New York to two generations of leather men who went into decline, am I living Roth’s American Pastoral or….my own?

Perhaps the main difference between my American Pastoral and Roth’s is the fact that while Roth has no room for the schlemiel in his American Pastoral (to be sure, Swede is the anti-thesis of Roth’s Portnoy) I do.  After all, although my father was an academic success with big dreams, he has more in common with the schlemiel than with Swede and David Smukler.  And that, perhaps, makes all the difference.  Unlike Swede, he was almost “one with America.”

…to be continued…

Jews Gone Wild: The Adirondacks in the Imagination of Ben Katchor and Saul Bellow

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As a Jew who was born and raised in the Adirondack foothills, I have always been curious as to how my Jewishness was different from my relatives and friends from New York City.  Both of my parents were born and raised in New York City, so this difference, so to speak, hit home.  My father was very cultured and highly educated but, in some ways, I saw him – over the years living in Gloversville New York – become more country-like (and wild).  He became a hybrid of sorts.   I went through a similar process, but in reverse.   I grew up, from his urban perspective, wild.  I ran with the locals and did things that he wouldn’t deem “Jewish.”

Upon leaving Gloversville for university, I spent a lot of time with New Yorkers.  I passionately dove into learning philosophy, literature, and Jewish Studies.  And, in truth, I divorced myself from my rural origins.  (After the death of two of my friends by way of drugs, drinking, and driving wildly – which all happened while I was away in university – I grew to resent these wild origins.)  But years after graduating, I have learned that you can take the boy out of Gloversville but you can’t take Gloversville out of the boy.  Echoing the tension between the urban and the rural, my father has dubbed me a “cosmopolitan hick.”

To be sure, the relationship of the Jew to Upstate New York is always on my mind.  So when I come across fiction that takes Jews in Upstate New York as a topic, I am deeply interested.   But what I have found, thus far, has been very troubling.  The associations many writers and artists have of the Jew in Upstate New York are, to be sure, very negative.  These images are associated with literally going wild.  In the Catskills and New York City one can be a schlemiel (in the most Jewish sense); but in the Adirondacks, the Jew experiences evil, depredation, and loses all vestiges of Jewishness.   The journey of the Jew to Upstate New York is – for some Jewish-American writers and artists – the journey of the American Jew: from Jewishness to something…wild.

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When I first read The Jew of New York – a graphic novel by Ben Katchor – I was astonished by how he represented the Jew who went off into the wilds of Upstate New York.   First of all, we must keep in mind that Ben Katchor was raised in New York and, in many of his comic strips, it is more than obvious that he sees the world through the complex lenses of a New York Jew.  In his graphic novel, he presents his readers/viewers with a narrative and a host of comic strip images of a Jew who went to Upstate New York in the 19th century.  In his narrative, the movement of the Jew – who is named Moishe Ketzelbourd – from New York City to Upstate New York is allegorical; it is the movement of assimilation and it, literally, is about a Jew gone wild.  In fact, in his comic strip, we see the Jew literally become-a-wild animal by virtue of his experiences in Upstate New York.  The main character, like my father, deals in animal skins and furs.  And this dealing brings him, so to speak, closer to the wild of America; so close that he eventually merges with the animal.  At the end of the story, he is brought back to New York City to be shown in a Yiddish theater as an American-Indian-Jew (one of the “lost tribes”); he is the the Jew who-went-Upstate-and-Became-an-Animal.  In the most intense scene in the book, he leaps off the stage and is killed.

Perhaps this allegorical comic strip alerts us to the dangers of capitalism and assimilation in America; but, ultimately, it is a representation of a specific place in New York State which has a mythological location in the urban-imagination.  And in this place the Jew is transformed into something of an animal.

Another interesting story I recently came across – written by Saul Bellow – is entitled “The Old System.”  It tells the story of Dr. Braun, an old veterinarian.  In the beginning of the story we meet a Dr. Braun who is very cynical and broods over the possibility that he might be no different from an animal. However, to counter this frightening thought, he comes to the realization that he can say: “I am.”

The feeling of necessary existence might be the aggressive, instinctive vitality we share with a dog or an ape.  The difference being the power of the mind or spirit to declare I am.

But as he broods more on this, he realizes that he is not pleased with this Cartesian conclusion or even with its existential of Buddhist alternative: that “he is not.”  Something else needs to be addressed, something that can help him to address his fascination with the question of man’s animality.

Drawing the reader into this reality, the narrator shows Dr. Braun not so much as a thinker as a person who is fully immersed in his body.  Cleaning his body is no consolation for the character; the narrator tells us that cleaning his body does not bring “order” to the world or answer Dr. Braun’s questions. This suggests that his joy lies elsewhere; in a body that is not “clean.” What could this be?

As he makes his breakfast, Dr. Braun thinks more and more about the meaning of civility, progress, and science (as James Joyces’s “anti-hero” Leopold Bloom does when we first meet him in Ulysses).  He wonders: has science and progress – in making us more abstract – detached us from something more organic, something wild.

As he thinks about this, he stumbles across memories of youth that he had buried away.  As we learn, he had another life.  He grew up as a Jew in Upstate New York. Dr. Braun is raised in Albany New York by his Godmother – Aunt Rose.  She, like Upstate New York, is described as “hard.” Her hardness is the “hardness of reckoning, hardness of tactics, hardness of dealing and speech.”   The narrator relates this hardness to what he dubs the “comic ugliness” of Upstate New York which grows by the “will of a demon spirit.”

She was building the kingdom with the labor of Uncle Braun and the strength of her obedient songs.  They had their shop, their real estate. They had a hideous synagogue of such red brick as seemed to grow in upstate New York by the will of a demon spirit charged with the ugliness of America in that epoch, which saw to it that a particular comic ugliness should influence the soul of man.  In Schenectady, in Troy, in Gloversville, Mechanicville, as far west as Buffalo. There was a sour paper mustiness in this synagogue.  (305, Jewish Stories ed. Irving Howe)

As the story goes on, we see this ugliness show its darker (less comical) side.  But it doesn’t do so in Albany; rather, it is in the wilds of the Adirondacks that we bear witness to Braun’s primal scene (wherein he goes from being a Jew to an animal of sorts).   Dr. Braun’s first sexual experience (at the age of seven) happens in a cabin in the Adirondacks.   At the cabin, we meet his cousins from the Adirondacks.  His cousin “Mutt” is a Jew-gone-wild:

Braun slept in the attic with his Cousin Mutt.  Mutt danced in his undershirt in the mourning, naked beneath, and sang an obscene song:

‘I stuck my nose up a nanny goat’s ass and the smell was enough to blind me’

He was leaping on bare feet, and his thing bounded from thigh to thigh.  Going into saloons to collect empty bottles, he had learned this.

Mutt’s sister – and Braun’s other cousin – is “fat Tina.”  Braun is essentially drawn into a sexual encounter with her.  Like Mutt, Tina is a Jew who has been made wild by Upstate New York.  She has thrown all civility to the winds.  And the narrator describes all the details of their sexual encounter putting a large emphasis on a physical animality:

She lifted her dress and petticoat to cool him and with her body. The belly and thighs swelled before him.  Braun felt too small and frail for this ecstasy…she rested her legs upon him, spread them wider, wider.  He saw the barborous and coaly hear.  He saw the red within.  She parted the folds with her fingers..  Parting, her dark nostrils opened, the eyes looked white in her head. (306)

Following this, we see Braun become wild with “her sexual odor” and later, “when he was playing in the yard,” he sees his cousin Isaac with his fiancée in the trees “embracing sweetly.”  The narrator tells us that Braun “tried to go with them,” which may imply that he tried to join in the sexual gestures.  But he is “sent away.”   When, like an animal, Braun goes back toward Isaac, he is turned “roughly” away.  In response,

little Braun then tried to kill his cousin.  He wanted with all his heart to club Isaac with a piece of wood. He was still struck by the incomparable happiness, the luxury of pure murderousness.  Rushing toward Isaac, who took him by the back of the neck, twisted his head, held him under the pump. (307)

What I find most startling about this and Katchor’s descriptions about what happens to Jews in Upstate New York is the fact that this area is associated with the end of Jewishness and the beginning of an American-life which is outlined by wildness, hardness, and barbarism.  These visions of Upstate New York both include a character who becomes murderous in his animality.  And as Bellow’s narrator tells us, he really enjoys his sexuality and violence.  To be sure, this is what troubles Dr. Braun most about his existence.  Deep down inside, he feels, as an American-Jew, that he feels closer to animality than to Jewishness.  And this feeling was fostered by his experiences in the Adirondacks.

I can’t say the same for myself, however.  To be sure, I’m astonished at how much the life of a Jew growing up in the Adirondacks has become such a charged figure (even a mythical figure) of Bellow and Katchor’s imaginations.  But, at the same time, I can understand what drives these representations as I did experience something of a wild, post-Jewish life growing up – a life in which I was surrounded by people who would take pride in being called a dog.    I was (almost) one of them…the meaning of this almost, however, has much more to do with the schlemiel…

….to be continued

The Schlemiel Who Tried to Get a Job – On Robert Walser’s “The Job Application”

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While writing on Franz Kafka, the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin was interested in finding common ground between Jewish and non-Jewish comic characters.  We see this project in his notes and in his essay on Kafka’s work.  To be sure, the essay starts with a reflection on a Russian fool named Shuvalkin; but it also includes reflection on Jewish fools vis-à-vis the messianic.  Kafka’s characters, as Benjamin understood them, may have some relation to the Messianic in the sense that, in their foolishness, they are the unredeemed figures of Exile.  They are incomplete and are waiting, so to speak, to be redeemed from their sad state.  What brings all of these characters together – in a state of exile – is not so much their pathetic character as a kind of innocence and blindness. This naïve state, for readers like Benjamin, gives us a sense of the best humanity has to offer in bad times.  (For Benjamin, such naïve foolishness, and not the powers of reason, idealism, progress, humanism, or heroism, is what is best in man.  After all, as Benjamin said to his friend and scholar Gershom Scholem, regarding Kafka, “only a fool can help.”)  It is the small things – things that we often miss – which, for Benjamin, hold the most meaning and hope.  And, in a world dominated by reason, humanism, and progress, it is the innocent loser who lives closest to the smallest things.  It is this character who, strangely enough, is closest to redemption.

One would think that Robert Walser, a writer Kafka and Benjamin read lovingly, would appear in Walter Benjamin’s notes or on his essay on Kafka.  But he doesn’t.  I find this omission to be very odd.   Reading Walser, I find all of the qualities that Benjamin found of interest in his essay on Kafka; namely, as I mentioned above, innocence, blindness, and the importance of small things.  To be sure, Walser is the master of these elements.

Susan Sontag, in an essay and introduction to Walser, notes that Walser is “one of the most important writers of this century” and, referencing the often melancholic writer and playwright Samuel Beckett, calls him “a good humored sweet Beckett.”   But the most important aspect of his writing, for Sontag, is found in the little things:

Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small – as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.

He was, like Melville’s Bartelby, a “non-doer.”  But, as Sontag notes, for such a non-doer we wrote a lot.  But what does an “acute feeling for the interminable” and being a “non-doer” amount to?  For Sontag, it amounts to an “awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.”

Reading this, and contrasting it to what Benjamin thought about Kafka and the messianic, I would suggest that we read what Sontag calls “an awareness of the creatureliness of life” and the “fellowship of the sadness” against the comic.  To be sure, as I mentioned above, Sontag called Walser a “good humored Beckett” and suggests such a balance of the comic and the melancholic. But she drops in the end for melancholy.  What I’d like to suggest is that Walser – from time to time – puts out characters that resonate with the Eastern European tradition of the schlemiel: they simpletons who pronounce the tension between hope and skepticism.  And by doing so, they put the possibility of the messianic into quotation marks yet without extinguishing it.  This doesn’t bring about melancholy so much as a wounded kind of hope that is invested in the simpleton.  When reading Walser, I can’t help but hear these resonances.

The “Job Application,” a wonderful short piece by Walser, gives a good sense of what I mean by my current presumption.  Walser’s story is about a young man who wants a job.  But there is a problem.  He doesn’t understand how one should “properly” write a job application. And this has much to do with his character which is humble and innocent.

In other words, he is unable to see and understand what sacrifices one must make when applying for and working in a 9 to 5 job.  We see this in the first lines:

I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable poison, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free.

The schlemiel has been dubbed by Hannah Arendt – vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine – as a “lord of dreams.”  With this in mind, I can’t help but think of the schlemiel when I read Wenzel’s characterization of himself as “dreamy child” who wants a “small place in the shade.”  Wenzel repeats the fact that he is a simpleton – much like the schlemiel – when he states how:

Large and difficult task I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I don’t like to strain my intelligence overmuch.  I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp.

His simplicity is the last quality (the most meaningful one) he wants to outline in his “job application.”  And what makes this feature most interesting is the fact that after stating it he believes that the business to which he is applying will, unlike the “world in which we live,” accept him:

My mind clear but refuses to grasp things that are many, or too many by far, shunning them.  I am sincere and honest, and I am aware this signifies little in the world in which we live, so I shall be waiting…

He naively waits for them to accept him and it seems Wenzl believes that his honesty will win them over.  But as in many a schlemiel story (such as I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son), honesty and trust do not win out although the characters, to the very end, believe they will.

Here we have a clear tension between hope and skepticism, which characterizes so many schlemiel stories; and, like them, it is the simpleton who pronounces this tension.  His interest in the little things such as trust and humility are naïve, but they are, as Walter Benjamin would say, the only things that help.  Ultimately, Benjamin clung to these simple things more than he clung to Marxism or the hope for a youth revolution (which, as I pointed out before in this blog, he wrote of in his review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot).

In the end of the day, the schlemiel tries to get a job.  But he does so for one simple reason: to show that what is at stake with the schlemiel is something the messianic.  But instead of clinging to Marxist hope, the author – like Walter Benjamin – clings to the man-child, the schlemiel.  Somehow, he believes that simplicity, honesty, and the lord of dreams – here, Wenzel – will win out in the end.   Like Wenzel, he hopes that one day the employer will “hire” the “lord of dreams” as an employee.

This is obviously a foolish (and impossible) hope.  But, finishing the line I mentioned above in reference to Walter Benjamin’s letter to Gershom Scholem, perhaps we can say that the fool may be the only one who can help; but the question is whether or not he can do humanity any good.   This kind of question is the one that would be asked by Sancho Panza of Don Quixote.  Benjamin’s letter teaches us that the same question could be asked on the eve of the Holocaust, but can we still ask it, today, after the Holocaust and countless horrors of the 20th century?  Does it still ring true?  Or are today’s readers of Walser devoid of any hope and united in what Sontag calls a “fellowship of sadness?”

Dogs, Cats, and Schlemiels: A Brief Note on James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom

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Although I am in the midst of a few different reading projects, I recently decided to take a look at James Joyces’ Ulysses.   I haven’t read the book for a while and it’s been on my mind.  To be sure, his representation of Leopold Bloom is of great interest to me as it is the representation of a Jew by one of the best writers of the 20th century and because Bloom may very well be a schlemiel.

What interests me most about Joyce’s representation of Bloom is the contrast between two styles of writing that Joyce uses when writing about Stephen Dedalus and Bloom.  The contrast tells us a lot about how Joyce approached Jerusalem and Ithaca/Athens.   Joyce is at home and more familiar in the language and culture of Athens and Ithaca than he is in the language and culture of the Jew.

To bring this contrast out, I selected two animals that correspond to these characters.  In relation to Daedeulus, Joyce writes of a dog and in relation to Bloom he writes of a cat.  The Jew is close to the cat and the feminine while the gentile is close to the dog and the masculine. This contrast was certainly on Joyce’s mind.  And it comes out in his prose style.  When he writes about dogs these are the dogs of war and masculinity.  History, heroism, and war can be heard echoing in these lines;

Then from the starving cagework city a horde of jerkined dwarfs, my people, with flayers’ knives, running, scaling, hacking in green blubbery whalemeat. Famine, plague, and slaughters. Their blood is in me, thei lusts my waves….The dog’s bark ran towards him, stopped, ran back.  Dog of my enemy.  I just simply stood pale, silent, bayed about. (56)

In contrast, when Joyce introduces Bloom to his readers, Bloom is attending cats and a woman.  He attends to the feminine.  It has been noted by a few Joyce scholars that he – like many writers in Europe – read the book Sex and Character by the “self-hating” German-Jewish thinker Otto Weininger.  He depicted the thoughts of Jews as “woman-like,” distracted, and hetoronomous (totally anti-Kantian and unable to be self-reliant).   Like Weininger, Joyce describes the thoughts of Bloom as feminine, wandering, and fragmented.  Bloom has no historical or intellectual basis for his reflections.  As Weininger would say, Bloom, like many Jews and women has “no essence” or foundation for his thoughts and actions.

Notice how much more the prose flows and fragments in Joyce’s representation of Bloom as he caters to his cat and his female acquaintance.  His mind isn’t on war, history, or honor.  His mind is on the movements of the cat and it moves from detail to detail:

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right.  She didn’t like her plate full.  Right.  He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire….The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high. 

-Mkgnao!

-O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again ….Prr. Scratch my head. Prr. (65)

Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss on her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.

As he prepares breakfast, his mind wanders more and more and becomes more fragmented.  This contrasts greatly from the prose and style of the above-mentioned section of Ulysses.  It moves more like a cat than a dog, so to speak.  His focus on detail is based on his immersion in experience – on things he has around him, be careful not to disturb anyone, and things he has to get – rather than on thought and history:

Stamps: stickyback pictures.  Daresay lots of officers are in the swim too.  Course they do.  The seated legend in the crown of his hat told him mutely: Plasto’s high grade ha.  He peedped quicly inside the leather headband. White slip of paper.  Quite safe. On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there.  In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have.  Creaky wardrobe.  No use disturbing her.  She turned over sleepily that time.  He pulled the halldoor to after him very quietly, more…looked shut.  All right till I come back anyhow. (67)

Perhaps, for Joyce, what makes Bloom a schlemiel (a man-child) is the fact that, unlike his gentile friends, Bloom is a caring person who, in his attention to detail and getting everything right, is constantly distracted.  The question on my mind, upon rereading these passages, is how Joyce relates Bloom’s distraction to the historical awareness of Daedelus.  He famously says, in this novel, that “history is a nightmare from which we must awaken.”  And, in addition, Joyce puts an accent on the awareness of death which may be on the mind of the gentiles but is not the mind of a Jew like Bloom.

Bloom is caught up in life and Joyce suggests that Bloom lacks an awareness of death, evil, history, and heroism.  He is too distracted.  Nonetheless, as we can see from the above passage, this is not because he is cruel but because he is loving and caring for his cat and his lady-friend.  After all, he wants to make a good breakfast and doesn’t want to wake her.

But he doesn’t understand the “bigger things” like history, death, heroism, etc.  Joyce was astounded by the fact that Jews didn’t know how to live in the world.  And this astonishment comes out in the contrast between those who follow cats and those who are in the midst of barking dogs.  This simple distinction – which is based on the distinction between masculine and feminine – makes Bloom into a cat-man of sorts.  A man who leans toward experience and the effeminate.

I saw this motif recur in Gary Shteyngart’s novel, too. As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, it was Vladmir’s Jewish mother who pointed out that his Jewish feet and “homosexual” hips may be the reason why he can’t be a success in society.  The irony of course is that Vladmir’s job is to help immigrants assimilate when he himself can’t.

But Shteyngart sees this inability of this “unlikely hero” as endearing.  We may feel the same with Bloom, but the contrast in Joyce is based more on figures who are not, by any means, comic like the figure of Vladmir’s mother (who is laughable).

And perhaps that difference makes all the difference.   For Joyce this may be a difference between dogs and cats, the masculine and the feminine, Jew and non-Jew.  Perhaps it’s the “schlemiel difference”… The question, however, is how we understand it.  Shteyngart, it seems, understands it differently from Joyce.  But, regardless of these differences, they both would agree on one thing about the schlemiel and that one thing is distraction.

(To be continued….)

Jewish Mothers – Schlemiel Children

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Growing up, I was always surprised by the representations of Jewish mothers I would see in films, TV shows, and books.  I was, in particular, floored when I first read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint when I was an undergrad.  I read my father’s autographed copy of the novel and knew, well before reading it, that it was an important book for another generation (the baby boomers); and I wondered if it would speak to me.  But something about the representation of Portnoy’s mother didn’t resonate.

Perhaps I was surprised by the representation of Portnoy’s mother because I was raised in upstate New York by a mother whose Long Island upbringing didn’t include all of the urban, immigrant, or post-immigrant fears that many Jewish mothers are “supposed” to have.  I did in fact have some very aggressive New Yorkers in my family, but they seemed tame in comparison to Philip Roth’s fictional mother.  Portnoy’s animosity toward his mother and her “guilt trips” is extreme, to say the least.  In this moment, when Portnoy is speaking with his therapist, he let’s loose his animosity:

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! I have read Freud of Leonardo, Doctor, and pardon the hubris, but my fantasies exactly: this big smothering bird beating frantic wings about my face and mouth so that I cannot even get my breath. What do we want, me and Ronald and Leonardo? To be left alone! If only for half an hour at a time! Stop already hocking us to be good! (121)

Portnoy’s mother is a nag and, for Roth, Portnoy becomes a schlemiel by virtue of his mother’s over-weaning.  As Donald Weber says of the Borsht Belt Comedians, this generation’s comedy did much to blame mother’s for the inability to “fit in.”  For Roth, this was a sexual issue and a social issue that he, in his later novels, looks to overcome.

To be sure, Roth’s later work wants to leave the schlemiel and the nagging mother behind.  But, to my surprise, the nagging Jewish mother stereotype doesn’t die away.  In fact, I noticed that it resurfaced in recent film Guilt Trip (2012) and in Gary Shteyngart’s novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

But in both works, the Jewish mother re-emerges in an odd way.  In Guilt Trip, the mother (played by Barbara Streisand) comes across as the schlemiel.   Her son, played by Seth Rogen, is also a bit aggravated at his mother’s nagging, but he is not by any means a Portnoy.  And while we may be turned off by Portnoy’s nagging mother, we are endeared by the absent-mindedness of Streisand, the schlemiel-mother.

The mother in Shteyngart’s novel is different and, in contrast to Rogen’s character, Vladmir, is without a doubt dwarfed by his mother.  But the difference between them is based on an entirely different premise than in Roth’s novel.  It doesn’t lead Vladmir to become a “sexual schlemiel” like Portnoy; on the contrary, his sexuality is not the issue.  Rather, his economic and social status is the issue.  Vladmir’s mother is an immigrant who has become a raging financial success and she hounds him to climb the socio-economic ladder.

His mother is loud and aggressive, while he is sensitive, weak, and introspective. And the day we first meet her is on Vladmir’s birthday:

“DEAREST VOLODECHKA!” Mother shouted.  “Happy birthday…! Happy new beginning…! Your father and I wish you a brilliant future….! Much success…!  You’re a talented young man…! Economy’s improving….!  We gave you all our love as a child…! Everything you had, to the very last….! (12)

Like Portnoy, Vladmir is frustrated, but I wouldn’t say he is angry: “Vladmir turned down the volume on the headset.  He knew what was coming, and, indeed, seven exclamation marks down the road, Mother broke down and stated wailing God’s name in the possessive”(13).    He listens as his mother goes off on him and actually admires her for her theatrical performance.

However, the narrator notes that this admiration is bitter-sweet; as we learn, Vladmir suffered as a child under his mother’s admonitions to be the best:

Vladmir…suffered under his mother’s accusative wails as B-plus report cards were ceremonially burned in the fireplace; as china was sent flying for chess-club prizes not won; as he once caught her in her study sobbing at three in the morning, cradling a photo of the three-year-old Vladmir playing with a toy abacus, so bright-eyed, so enterprising, so full of hope. (14)

We also learn that she laments that he has “hips of a homosexual” and, later in the novel, we also learn that she finds his walk to be “too Jewish”(45).  In other words, his body (and not just his economic and academic failures) also bears the mark of his failure to integrate.

The phone conversation that ensues against this background outlines the anger that his mother feels because he is not a success.  But, in the end, she notes that he is not a “complete loss”:

His mother made an effort to laugh and told him how insane it would be not to have a birthday barbeque.  “You’re only twenty-fine once,” she said. “And you are not a – How you say? A complete loss”(15). Since he’s not a “homo” and he has a “Jewish girl. Little Challah-Bread” he’s not a complete loss.

Here, the important thing for his mother is that he, at the very least, stay with a Jewish woman.   But he cannot look “too Jewish” or like a homosexual as that would keep him from being accepted and rewarded by society.

These sketches of Vladmir’s Jewish mother show her to be laughable but not to be a person worthy of anger and ridicule.  As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Vladmir is treated like a child by Rybokov and here, too, he seems to be in the position of a child. But this childishness is not something today’s readers will find reprehensible; in fact, many may in fact identify with Vladmir’s childishness and his plight.  Unlike his mother who resents it, readers will most likely identify with his innocence.  And, in our bad economy, we can understand his economic failure and his lack of ambition.

Portnoy’s mother “smothers” him and won’t let him be, and as we can see Vladmir’s mother is also overbearing.  However, Vladmir doesn’t resent her, he humors her and loves her.  Both Portnoy and Vladmir are schlemiels, but Portnoy takes his aggression out on his mother (who he blames for his becoming a sexual schlemiel) while Vladmir takes no aggression out on his mother and blames her for nothing.  He is, more or less, a passive schlemiel.  And the innocence of the latter is more endearing of interest to us that the aggression and anger of Portnoy.  Their failures are read differently by both authors.

In many ways, although I never had a mother like Portnoy’s or Vladmir, I can understand how their exaggerations may have some truth.  But of the two, I find that Shteyngart’s approach to Vladmir’s mother is much more to my liking that Roth’s approach to Portnoy’s mother.  Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that I find something admirable in the way the narrator and Vladmir relate to the mother.  They humor her.  This, to my mind, is the best approach.  And, besides, who, after all, should be to blame for being a schlemiel.  While it was a stigma for Roth, for Shteygart being a schlemiel has its advantages.   Being a failure, in other words, has its fringe benefits.

But, for Shteyngart, being a schlemiel, it seems, is more than simply being a failure. For this author, the best traits of the schlemiel can be found in his loving, reflective, and innocent nature.  Much of this difference in attitude has to do, I think, with our differing attitude on what it means to be a man and a success.  Although many people in Shteyngart’s novel want Vladmir to be a man and a success, we don’t.  What matters most to us isn’t his success or his manhood; rather, what matters is the fact that he loves his mother and all those around him no matter how much they may be disappointed with him.

And on this note, I guess I’m lucky.  My Jewish mother, unlike the mother of these fictional Jewish mothers, never gave me any guilt trips.  And even if she did, I think I , like Vladmir, would still love her.