What Happens When a Schlemiel Goes to War? On the Comic Battles Between Hanukkah, Christmas, and Thanksgiving


What happens when a Schlemiel goes to war?  Not much.  To be sure, there is a large tradition within Jewish humor about the schlemiel-going-to-war.  In a blog entitled “Ruth Wisse’s Political Schlemiel,” I cited and explained two such jokes.  Ruth Wisse, in fact, begins her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, with a reflection on the “political schlemiel.”   The reason why she starts with this humor has to do with what she thinks is most important regarding this character; namely, the fact that through these jokes about the schlemiel at war we can see that the schlemiel’s purpose was to “challenge the political and philosophical status quo.”  However, Wisse qualifies this by noting that this challenge is ultimately more cultural than political: by not knowing how to fight or why one should fight, the schlemiel is showing us cultural dissonance.  Wisse’s qualification is telling since it indicates that the nature of this challenge, in her mind, may appear political but is actually the result of a cultural difference between Eastern European Jewish culture and Western culture, which celebrates war and masculinity.   In other words, the schlemiel joke is involved in what seems to be a cultural kind of battle.  The cultural challenge, however, has its benefits: it gives Jews a sense of dignity and helps them to win an “ironic victory.”

This is an interesting claim.  And how we read it makes all the difference.  Lawrence Epstein, for instance, sees – in his book The Haunted Smile – Jewish humor as a way of getting accepted into American culture while, at the same time, giving it a backhand.  This, for him, is a cultural kind of revolution which uses comedy as a weapon.  But, in the end, the success of the battle is measured by the fact that Jewish comedy became a major basis for Jews – in his view – being accepted into Jewish culture.   Building on this, I’d say that such comedy goes from challenging the status quo to becoming the status quo.

That said, the theme of Jews at war or as militant is still – it seems – at variance with the cultural norm in America.  And in films where Jews are in battle, Jews are often portrayed as schlemiels.  Although these characters may appear more masculine, as in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008), they are still drawn to peace, their mothers, and the effeminate.  They are not warriors in the Roman, Greek, German, or American (etc) sense.

The main character (Zohan) is an uber-masculine-Israeli who ultimately wants to go to NYC to cut hair.  But he is drawn in to the ultimate mission, which is to battle with the ultimate Palestinian terrorist named “Phantom” – played by John Turturro.

The Zohan engages in a few comic-battles with Phantom.  But, ultimately, he leaves it all for something that most men would never do: cutting hair.  And, while in America, he pursues a peaceful path toward reconciliation with the Palestinians (which is encouraged by his Palestinian-American girlfriend).  His masculinity is curbed as he goes along on his journey and so is his militancy which, Sandler suggests, emerges out of being an Israeli.

In The Hebrew Hammer (2003), we also see this masculine-schlemiel.   In this film, the battle between Hanukkah and Christmas is the theme. And the veneer of masculinity is provided by the Blaxploitation genre which Jonathan Kesselman, the writer and director, exploits to the hilt.   But what happens in the process, as with what happens in the Zohan, is that the battle itself is shown to be ridiculous.

We see this on both sides of the divide. Santa is killed by his son, Damian Claus, played by the comedian Andy Dick.  After the murder of Santa Claus, Damian Claus, looks to eliminate his Jewish competition.  Throughout the film, we see that beneath all of their masculine toughness is a man-child, a schlemiel.   We see this especially with the Hebrew Hammer. He loves his mother and is a good Jewish boy who also likes to daydream.  In the end of the battle (and echoing the actual story of Hanukkah), Hanukkah lives on and the Jews survive possible extinction.  But the task of the battle waged in the the Zohan and the Hebrew Hammer is the same: to comically challenge the notion of war itself.

And just yesterday, I noticed a video on Thanksgiving versus Hanukkah.  And this is apropos of the fact that this year Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fell on the same day (which rarely happens).

In addition to using the battle theme, the genre used in this short was “horror.”  The battle between Jews and Americans in this clip brings out both traditions and, ultimately, does no harm. For a brief moment, however, the question is posed as to the meaning of these traditions. But this is harmless.  In the end, the comic battle is the take away and the premise of sharing a house for the eight days of Hanukkah is the Jewish-American experiment.  And guess what: we all win because we can all drive each other crazy.

This is something we see in today’s animation of “Larry David’s Thanksgiving” with his Jewish family in NYC.  In the end, however, the war is a farce.  This lesson, it seems, has roots in the schlemiel comedy I outlined at the outset of the blog.  Perhaps it would be best if we all, like the original schlemiels-at-war, just played at being soldiers rather than being soldiers.   And perhaps that is what many of the above mentioned film-makers are saying. However, there is a difference: when the first schlemiel jokes about war were written they expressed an opinion from the margins of different military cultures; today, these types of jokes seem to have become the norm.

On this note, I’ll end this blog entry with a parody of Star Wars by Mel Brooks called Spaceballs (1987).  It brings this comedy of war to a universal scale and it brings it, of course, to American audiences. But this battle is no longer between Jews-eager-to-be-accepted and skeptical Americans, but…an American (Star-Wars-Like) battle.


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