A Kvetching Schlemiel: On Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” – Take One

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You don’t see many schlemiels in Yiddish Literature or Jewish-American literature that spend most of their time kvetching or complaining.   Schlemiels are better known for being dreamers, not complainers.   They live on air (luftmensches); not hot air so much as the air of dreams.  However, it does happen from time to time that one occasions a kvetching schlemiel.   Saul Bellow’s Herzog (from the novel of the same name) kvetches from time to time and so does Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (from the novel of the same name).   We also see a few kvetching schlemiels in contemporary literature.  Kugel, the main character of Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy lets out an occasional kvetch about his horrible situation.

And Larry David, in Curb Your Enthusiasm or in his lead role for Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, turns kvetching into an art form that, for all its repetition, has crafted a popular kind of modern-American schlemiel type.

But all of this kvetching, as is the kvetching of the other schlemiels mentioned above, is lightened by way of comedy.  And if we look deeper into the source of this kvetching we find a trail of bad luck.  But, as Ruth Wisse points out the schlemiel usually creates bad luck but is unaffected by it.  These schlemiels, however, are.  They are, as it were, schlemiels and shlimazels at the same time.

One kvetch that has recently caught my eye is the kvetching of the narrator and main character of Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.”  Edelshtein, the main character, has the kvetch of an immigrant.  He has left Europe and Yiddish behind for America.  And he can’t stop thinking about what has been lost.  His being caught up in what was and how it fails to relate to what is creates a comic rift which also has, for all its kvetching, a sad note.

Ozick’s descriptions of Edelshtein reflect a kind of comic kvetching that hits on many different levels.  Edelshtein’s anger is really “envy.” It is comical, yet painful because he feels that he knows history and that American Jews do not.  He doesn’t think, for this reason, that they should be considered Jews.

Spawned in America, pogroms a rumor, mamalashon a stranger, history a vacuum.  Also many of them were still young, and had black eyes, black hair, and red beards…He was certain he did not envy them, but he read them like a sickness.  They were reviewed, praised, and meanwhile they were considered Jews, and knew nothing.  (129, Jewish American Stories ed. Irving Howe)

Edelshtein looks around New York City and sees a childhood acquaintance from Kiev named Alexei Kirilov.  He wonders what ever happened to him.   How had history swallowed him up?  Did he die in the massacre of Babi Yar or did he flee to Russia?

This memory and question plies him, but what is he left with from the past?  Edelshtein, like many Yiddishists, turns to language.  But he realizes that the language he so loved is dead.  And he is a schlemiel by virtue of being stuck with a language that no one speaks anymore:

And the language was lost, murdered.  The language – a museum.  Of what other language can it be said that it died in a sudden definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil…Yiddish, a littleness, a tiny light – oh little holy light! – dead, vanished. Perished. Sent into darkness.  (130)

The murder or “sudden death” of this language was, the narrator tells us, Edelshtein’s “subject” – the one “he lectured on for a living”(130).  He constantly recalls it to people in Jewish community centers, synagogues, etc. But while he tells Yiddish jokes to make people laugh he knows – and they know – that the language is dead and that his humor is really meaningless:

But both Edelshtein and his audiences found the jokes worthless.  Old jokes.  They were not the right kind. They wanted jokes about weddings – spiral staircases, doves flying out of cages, bashful medical students – and he gave them funerals.  To speak Yiddish was to preside over a funeral….Those for whom his tongue was no riddle were specters. (131)

He lives in memory of a dead past; he draws life from it.  But his memory is not caught up in Europe alone; he remembers, most clearly, his experiences at the American home of Baumzweig.  Unlike Baumzweig, who was also a Yiddish writer, he had no children.  He had no one to pass on his past too; however, he does watch how Baumzweig’s children speak to him – using English to respond to their Yiddish.  The parents couldn’t adequately pass the tradition on. And this has an effect on him and gives him a sense of the “new generation.”  There was a generation gap.

But then it became plain that they could not imagine the lives of their children.  Nor could the children imagine their lives.  The parents were too helpless to explain, the sons were too impatient to explain.  So they had given each other up to a common muteness.  In that apartment Josh and Mickey had grown up answering in English the Yiddish of their parents.  Mutes.  Mutations.  What right had these boys to spit out the Yiddish that had bred them? (132)

In the midst of all this kvetching, Baumzweig reminds him of the schlemiel and that, though he never had children, Edelshtein has a son, himself

She told Edelshtein he too had a child, also a son.  “Yourself, yourself,” she said.  “You remember yourself when you were a little boy, and that little boy is the one you love, him you trust, him you bless, him you bring up in hope to a good manhood.” (133)

This memory is a kind of counter-memory to his present resentments.  It also prompts the question as to whether he actually did bring his “son” up to a “good manhood.”  Does his son remain a child, and he, a schlemiel?  Or was his “little light” a language that is dead?  Is his son dead if the language is dead?

We also can see his mind wander back to the child in Kiev who, regardless of his kvetching about the end of Yiddish, remains close to his heart.  The question of his “son” and its “maturity” as well as this memory of a child whose fate his unknown  – juxtaposed to the present memory of the death of Yiddish – makes him into a kvetching schlemiel of sorts.

…to be continued….

2 thoughts on “A Kvetching Schlemiel: On Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” – Take One

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