Reflections on “My Schlemiel Universe”

bar mitzvah 2

Last year, Chad Derrick and I screened the film Shlemiel at the Le Mood festival of Jewish Art, Culture, and Learning in Montreal.  I was blown away by the festival.  I had never seen such a gathering of wonderful cutting edge Jewish artists and art lovers as at this event.  It took place on one day with several concurrent sessions each hour which stretched from 11am until 8pm.  At night there was Jewish-themed entertainment and comedy.  Underpinning all of this was the warmth of the Montreal Jewish community, which I feel is without parallel in North America.

When we screened our film, I was amazed by the reception and the feedback.  People were genuinely excited to see it. They thought I was courageous to allow the ups and downs of my Jewish life to be displayed on the screen.   Many of them understood my struggle with Jewish identity and how that was related to my complicated past with a father who was psychotic.

This year I wanted to build on what I did last time; but instead of telling the story from the filmmaker’s perspective, I wanted to tell it from mine.  To this end, I gave a talk entitled “My Schlemiel Universe: From Woody Allen to Sarah Silverman to Me.”  The talk started off with the most basic question: What is a schlemiel?  Responding this question, I provided a number of different perspectives from Hannah Arendt, Sander Gilman, and Ruth Wisse.  Then I gave my own reading of the schlemiel which moves from “fictional” schlemiels to “living” schlemiels.

Ruth Wisse argues that the shlimazel is a character whose comedy is “situational” while the schlemiel’s comedy is “existential.”  Bad things happen to the shlimazel by way of this or that odd circumstance or situation.  Nothing in his/her “nature” would warrant such bad luck.  In contrast the schlemiel creates bad luck by virtue of his very existence.

In my talk, I looked to show how I played both a shlimazel and a schlemiel by virtue of the odd situations I was thrown into, on the one hand, and an odd Jewish-American existence in upstate New York,on the other.  The point of my talk was to provide an autobiographical account of my own schlemielkeit.

Philip Roth has Portnoy do this with his analyst in Portnoy’s Complaint.  But Roth doesn’t do this with his own life.  This would be too dangerous.  Rather, as Sanford Pinsker points out, his novels show a progression away from this character and “existence.”  Roth, in other words, wanted to pave his way out of schlemieldom.  And this is something many post-Holocaust writes wanted.  However, writers like Saul Bellow, Howard Jacobson, Steve Stern, and Gary Shteyngart don’t.   They are interested in looking at the schlemiel’s existential and historical plight.  And in doing so, they are able to articulate the plight of being in-between being Jewish and American, being Jewish and English, or Jewish and Russian.  This existence prompts stories that are fraught with a kind of humor that is “haunted” by strife and anxiety.

But, unlike some schlemiel writers and many a Jewish cultural critic from the 20th century, I, like these writers, feel the subject is worthy of discussion.  And it is worthy of being rethought in terms of the traumas that still afflict us today.  In terms of my own life, I can look to the schlemiel as a way of understanding how, as a child and as an adult, I have grappled with living in-between being an American and a Jew as well as being in-between being like all the other kids in my town and being the son of a brilliant, psychotic father.    And this is only scratching the surface.

That said, I think the schlemiel lives on; but not just in fiction.  Moreover, the “existential” part of the schlemiel is not something that is restricted to fiction.  No, on the contrary, it is something that is alive and well – even today, after the founding of Israel and even post-assimilation.  Unfortunately, not many of us know what this means.  My point: if we did, many of us could engage in a reflection on the comic-existential dimensions of our own lives.

Why, after all, do we have to turn to Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, or Larry David, when we can simply look in the mirror?  What we will find is that we play, so to speak, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote at the same time.  Sancho Panza, as the story goes, followed around a fool named Don Quixote.  But he wasn’t a fool.  We was a rationalist and a skeptic. But that’s the trick.  We live through that relationship in terms of how we reflect on ourselves.

Although some would scoff at the suggestion, because they are so “rational” and “normal” and “adjusted,” this suggestion is something that the best writers and artists in the field of Jewish-American literature, poetry, and film have – in my view – done.  But they have done this with fiction.

How would this look in reality?  And would it lead to what Freud would call the “interminable analysis?

I thank Le Mood Montreal for allowing me to share my interminable-schlemiel-self-analysis and explore these questions (of this – wink, wink – Jewish-American schlemiel).  Thank you for allowing me to educate the next generation of schlemiels.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on “My Schlemiel Universe”

  1. Great piece. Happy to know you find the festival enriching. I love your reference to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and the fact we play both; it’s so true and, in many ways, at the heart of our accomplishments and failures as humans. Thanks!

    • Thanks Gabriel! I’m glad you noticed what I was doing with Quixote and Panza! That’s the novelty I’ve been working on vis-à-vis my presntation and with much of my schlemiel project. I’m glad you liked it!

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