As Ruth Wisse points out, the origin of the “literary schlemiel” can be found in Rabbi Nachman’s stories. Of these stories, “The Wise Man and the Simpleton” is the best example of what I would call a schlemiel-of-faith. In this story, the simpleton is the schlemiel not because he is a dreamer or absent-minded but because he believes in God when all evidence seems to prove the opposite. This trait, argues Wisse, is secularized in the work of Yiddish writers. Trust remains a central feature of the schlemiel in Yiddish literature, but it is not related to God so much as a trust in human goodness or in a better future. Given this reading, I find it interesting that some scholars would argue that Yiddish writers looked to someday leave the schlemiel wholly behind. This would imply that this element of trust and hope would also be left from the dustbin of history. To be sure, I use the word history because these types of readings are what I would call historicist.
Leah Garrett’s exceptional essay, “The Jewish Don Quixote,” is an example of how the historicization of the schlemiel – though insightful and in many ways correct – has its share of pitfalls. In her essay she compares and contrasts Cervantes’ Don Quixote from Mendele Mocher Seforim’s The Travels of Benjamin the Third. Her essay suggests that while both Cervantes and Seforim’s characters “denied reality,” they did so for different reasons. The main difference between these denials was that Cervantes’ characters were not forced to do so while Seforim’s were: his characters should be read against the historical backdrop of anti-Semitism. In her reading, Seforim, as the writer/narrator, saw this book as a way of suggesting to his readers that they should have hope: that one day – when Jews were regarded as equals and anti-Semitism was diminished -Jews would no longer have to “deny reality” and be schlemiels.
However, I would like to take issue with the fact that, according to Garrett’s reading, there seems to be no redeeming qualities for either of these characters. Moreover, this historical-political reading leaves out the role of faith and hope in the existential life of the Jew. (Although she acknowledges the only hope is for the end of political inequality, the hope is on the part of the writer not the character.) By not addressing these issues, she suggests that both religion and schlemiel-literature work in the same fashion: to deny a harsh reality by way of dreams, faith, and trust in the other. This, I would aver, is missing something important about the schlemiel that, I hope, should remain even after Jews are considered political “equals.”
Sforim, the pen-name of Shalom Jacob Abramovich, was recognized by all the great Yiddish writers (from Peretz to Aleichem and Singer) as Der Zeide (the grandfather) of Yiddish literature. He was the first Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) author to write in Yiddish rather than Hebrew. And this was novel since he had, earlier in his career (along with many other members of the Haskalah), thought of Yiddish as a mongrelized language that kept Jews from becoming fully modern. But he put this to the side because he wanted to reach a larger group of people. He looked to show how deluded Eastern European Jews in the Pale of Settlement had become by virtue of being denied political equality. In The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, Seforim, without a doubt, used Cervantes as a model. The characters of his novel, Senderl and Benjamin parallel Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.
Garrett is correct to note that this parallel and the nature of the Seforim’s project. Seforim, like many Haskalah writers that followed in his wake, was looking to educate the masses. But he knew that the Jews couldn’t just do it all themselves since reality – and not simply their delusions – got in the way. Garrett points out how this problem is demonstrated – in the novel – by way of the differences between two languages: Yiddish and Polish. This difference was real and presented problems that were non-existence for the Quixote character:
Where in Don Quixote it is the fantastic and the real, in The Travels of Benjamin the Third it is the Jewish and the anti-Semitic. The difference between the two realms is manifested by their languages.
Citing Seforim’s novel, in the original Yiddish, Garrett demonstrates how, in one scene where Senderl meets up with a Pole, we see this “real” difference has anti-Semitic tones:
Sendrel rose, walked over to the peasant, and said as politely as he could: “Dobry dyen! Kozhi no tshelovitshe kudi dorogi Eretz-Yisro’eyl?” “Shtsho?” asked the peasant, eyeing him bewilderedly. “Yaki Yisro’eyl? Nye batshil ya Yisro’eyl.”
“Nye, Nye,” interrupted Benjamin impatiently from where he sat. “He thinks you’re asking about a person named Israel, not about the land” . . . The peasant spat, told them both to go to the Devil, and drove away muttering: “Eres-Srul, Eres-Srul!” (334)
Commenting on this passage, Garrett notes the difference between Cervantes and Seforim’s novels is a difference between fantasy and real social mobility:
The two languages, and their aesthetic systems, can not and do not speak to one another. Yet, whereas for the peasant the problems with communication are annoying and at times comedic, for the Jew, they are dangerous and are a literal barrier to Jewish mobility. Thus, where Don Quixote’s abnormal chivalric speech is made fun of, and often even lightheartedly encouraged, Benjamin’s abnormal talk puts him in danger. To exit the shtetl and enter the broader realm is to risk death because one’s speech is a foreign language in the surrounding milieu.
The most important point made by Garrett concerns how the delusions of Benjamin and Senderl – as opposed to Don Quixote – were received by the people in the novel:
Unlike Don Quixote, whom few take seriously, nearly everyone believes in Benjamin’s delusions of grandeur. In fact, the mere act of having set out on the road has made Benjamin a hero. He is even suspected at times of being the Messiah.
This delusion, in other words, is collective. It is rooted in the historical condition of Jews in the Pale of Settlement. Their belief that Benjamin – a schlemiel – might be the Messiah is a “denial of reality” which, Garrett argues, is motivated by extreme anti-Semitism.
Garrett’s argument – regarding the denial of reality by virtue of historical circumstances – was first put forth by the Jewish, Haskalah historian Simon Dubnow. Dubnow made this argument with respect to the Hasidim, the Kabballah (Jewish mysticism), and the popularity of the Messianic idea in Eastern Europe. It has also been rehearsed by academics who see the schlemiel and his world as a “substitute” kind of sovereignty for historical and political powerlessness.
While these readings about the “denial of reality” make sense, they also leave out the fact that many Yiddish writers didn’t look to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The case in point is The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third. Although the emancipation and Enlightenment of the Jews mattered to Seforim, what mattered more was the trust that Benjamin and Senderl had for each other and what they were doing. This trust is connected to the fact that they were simpletons. And this trust, in some way, is a derivative of their faith.
Although Seforim situates his reflection on faith in the midst of Benjamin’s fantasies about a pond that he believes is a mythic river, the fact of the matter is that faith still matters to him. It is not something one can excise without destroying Jewishness; however, one also sees that this faith, for Sforim, must be counterbalanced by a pinch of skepticism:
“Faith! You must have faith, Senderl! Faith is second nature to the Jew! Having faith, our Father Jacob crossed the Jordan with nothing more than a staff; it is on faith alone, as you can see for yourself, that our fellow Jews open such huge stores. Everything about you is based surely on faith, and even many a great structure is reared, from basement to topmost story, on nothing but faith!”
Following this reflection, Benjamin and Senderl are duped by two men who convince them to go with them and not through the pond. The two schlemiels end up before a military council. They are set for conscription, but in the end they are rejected and let go. What sticks out in all of this is not that they ended up there because they denied reality; rather, they ended up in this situation because they trusted people (apparently Jews) who ended up being con-artists. Their faith is the problem but it is also their only solution to their travails. It shows us what is best in humanity while also showing that it is taken advantage of by people who eschew all trust in the name of their personal interests.
Is Seforim – in showing how these two are duped -saying that Jews should be more realistic and should no longer trust others if they are to enter into the modern world?
I think the answer to this question is no. This is something I.B. Singer – years later in his story “Gimpel the Fool”- was trying to point out. The schlemiel may be deluded but if you get rid of this trusting element, what is left of Jewishness and the remnant of faith? What I would like to suggest is that Seforim was looking to balance out the foolish optimism and hope of these schlemiels with reality. He was looking to balance out hope and skepticism. This is not so much a negation of the negation of reality as a suspension of this total negation. Ultimately, the hard part for Yiddish writers who were to follow in his wake was to retain the remnant of hope and trust and this could only be done if there was a partial negation of the delusions that followed from out of history.
In other words, in the wake of anti-Semitism, in the world we live in today, we need to ask how we look back at these efforts. The delusions of the Jewish people may have emerged out of extreme anti-Semitism. The “negations of reality” were real. But what remains of them today? And can we call trust in the other a negation of reality?
We can, if and only if, we believe that reality is full of lies and deception. That would, of course, destroy the social fabric of reality. And Jews, as Sforim says, sees faith and trust as the basis of every “great structure” from the “basement” to the “topmost story.” Without it, there would be no building/society. However, it is also the very same things that could destroy the Jews. In other words, the schlemiel – and the Jew who follows him on his “adventures”- lives between hope/trust and skepticism. This is something that, in my view, will trump historicism; something that will stand the test of time even after anti-Semitism is seemingly gone as it is in America.
In the end, Walter Benjamin was right about the Jewish people: Jews will always have an eye toward justice. And even though, given the bleak state of reality and history, justice contradicts present reality we still trust that it is “to come.” A Jewish State, in this view, is not enough (although for many Israeli and Jewish-American writers who left the schlemiel behind, it is). Perhaps we are schlemiels for believing in a justice-to-come, but this is, so to speak, built into our temporal relationship to the future. As Jacques Derrida would argue, no historical event or political situation could efface this trusting relationship: it is existential. So if we weren’t to trust in what it is to come, we would also be denying reality. Unless that is, we believe that only catastrophe is to come. And if we thought that, we would all be cynics. But we can’t deny that this is also possible – after all, its a lesson of history. Regardless, Seforim, I think, would agree that the possibility of justice is based on a trait that is at the core of the schlemiel and being a Jew: a simple faith which is wounded by historical skepticism.