Remembering Weakness: Ruth Wisse’s Introduction to the Schlemiel


Looking back on things from the past from a position of strength, Jews may often see those things that remind them of weakness as a bad memory that is better left to the dustbin of history.  However, sometimes these things which appear as weakness may actually be signs of strength or something else that is worth salvaging.  After the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, and the fact that Jews are now in the phase of post-assimilation, the status of the schlemiel should be a concern.   It should because the schlemiel can be seen, from either a Zionist or a modern position (bent on progress and assimilation), as a bad memory because it can be read as a sign of weakness.  While the attempt to frame the schlemiel in these terms may prove beneficial to some, perhaps the binary of weakness and strength may not be the right way to frame the schlemiel.  Perhaps we need a different framework or else a different way of reading the schlemiel’s “weakness” in the post-Holocaust and post-assimilation era that we are living in today.

In her introduction to The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse reflects on the status of the schlemiel after the Holocaust.  She notes, immediately, that the act of “reading death back into everything” that existed before the Holocaust would be problematic since this consigns all great Jewish cultural and artistic achievements to the dustbin of history.   Making her case for the culture that existed before the Holocaust and its cultural productions, Wisse notes:

Before the destruction there was a civilization of considerable resiliency whose continuing ability to experience frustration without yielding to desperation or defeatism may be reason enough for winning our interest, particularly at this time (the early 70s, when she published this book).

Writing on this pre-Holocaust culture, Wisse notes that it had a “very high threshold” of pain and that, to be sure, the Eastern Europeans had an “excessively high” one.  But this threshold had a purpose: it was to “absorb severe shock without abandoning the image of man to which is pledged itself, and without losing its desire for life”(x).  However, as she notes, this led to a lot of bitterness in Yiddish humor and it contains more “harshness than merriment.”  Nonetheless, the creation of “techniques” (many literary) worked to “preserve sanity and health…even in America.”  The schlemiel, according to this argument, would be the product of such a historical technique aimed at “preserving sanity and health” – on the one hand – and “the image of man” on the other.   In other words, against all odds, the schlemiel shows us what is best in man when the world shows the worst in man.  Jews could have rejected, in other words, this “image” (which seems to allude to man as made in the image of God) and become bitter and angry, but they didn’t. And this is a great feat.

However, what Wisse points out in her very first description of the schlemiel is its “weakness.”

He stands in the age-old company of fools, embodying the most outstanding folly of his culture: weakness. (x)

Following this, Wisse makes several distinctions which show that the schlemiel’s folly belonged to “his” culture.  For example, while Feste is “vulnerable and wily; the schlemiel is vulnerable and inept.”  Moreover, in contrast to the holy fools of Doestoevsky and other writers, “the schlemiel is neither saintly nor pure, but only weak.”  To be sure, this feature of weakness, in Wisse’s view, makes the schlemiel Jewish (in an Eastern European way).

And the purpose of the writer is to “trick” us into thinking that the schlemiel’s weakness is his strength (x).  Poking humor at this (and making a rhetorical Jewish shrug of the shoulders), Wisse notes that the only way a weakling can survive is, “how else,” through a “story.”   This shrug is the trick and, for her, it is a way of adapting from a position of weakness.

What amazes her is that the schlemiel, even after the Holocaust, became the “unlikely hero” in American culture “during the relative calm of the 1950s.”  (We see this for instance, in the popularity of I.B. Singer, Bernard Malalud, and in a few of Saul Bellow’s novels and shorts stories from that era such as “Herzog” or his translation of “Gimpel the Fool” for Partisan Review.)

But the purpose of her book, she relates, is not so much to disclose why this is the case so much as to show the “roots” of this character. The last words of her introduction note that the schlemiel was born in “Krotoshin” which is another way of saying that it was born out of a response to its weakness.

What I find so interesting about this claim, is the fact that Wisse introduces the schlemiel in terms of a trick that was used to retain the commitment to the “image of man” and to “sanity.”  Perhaps this is more than a trick, however.  And perhaps the weakness is a strength yet of another sort.

Later in her book, Wisse shows evidence that it is something more.  But it isn’t explicit. What I’d like to suggest is that even today – in 2013 – and not in the 50s – the schlemiel works because it appeals to a new way of viewing weakness by way of humor.  This new way looks to balance an existential weakness with the power and grace of literature, art, and humor.  I find this more in the realm of literature than I do in stand-up comedy.  For instance, I think that while Woody Allen looks, in his later films, to leave the weakness and vulnerability we see in Annie Hall behind, writes like Howard Jacobson and Gary Shteyngart do not.  They see vulnerability and weakness in different terms and don’t look to “trick” you into thinking it is a strength.  They show you how, in fact, it is. There is no trick involved.  Since, today, we can see the schlemiel as opening up a dimension of experience that may be closed to us as readers.  Their comedy can help us to explore a weakness that the Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the French thinker and literary critic Maurice Blanchot (Levinas and Blanchot were friends) see as part-and-parcel of our relation to the other.  In addition, the Jewish-immigrant fiction of Gary Shteyngart shows us how, in traveling from one world to another, the schlemiel can be a guide for all the subtleties that we, most of us not immigrants (and post-assimilated) may not understand.

That said, we shouldn’t throw the schlemiel and his ironic inversion of weakness into the dustbin of history.  Schlemielintheory would like to make the case that we should, like Wisse, save it, but for a variety of new reasons that speak to where we are and who we are, today.   This will require us to rethink the old and new ways of understanding weakness and how it relates to the schlemiel’s variety of comedy.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Weakness: Ruth Wisse’s Introduction to the Schlemiel

  1. I agree that the schlemiel models an alternative (and appealing) ideal of strength (though I think his cousin the mentsh offers a better one). But you probably know that Wisse’s appraisal of the schlemiel has modified somewhat as her right wing (and Zionist) politics have become more pronounced – Wisse definitely has less of a soft-spot for the schlemiel nowadays. In a special commencement address to Jewish graduates of West Point in 2010, Wisse remarked that “we now know what happened to the people who created those [schlemiel] jokes. They were slaughtered in the millions. What we call the Holocaust targeted precisely the population that created schlemiel comedy. We learned from that episode that sweetness was no laughing matter and that joking—which momentarily releases tension—offered no defense against real belligerents. The schlemiel who initially made us laugh also taught us to raise our guard.”: See
    Michael Oil

    • Hi Michael. Yes, I am aware of her talk at West Point. Funny you mention it. I was with good friends of Wisse over the weekend and we discussed that talk. I am aware of her turn as it relates to Israel. However, her earlier work has some interesting gaps that I’d like to address. Thanks for pointing this out. This speech is important evidence of her shift and I remember when it first came up.

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