The desire for change and a new life is fundamentally human. And oftentimes the desire to start a new life is based on the fact that one is beset by bad luck. To be sure, this is a theme which many Jews are familiar. Bad luck seems to follow Jews around. And, as a result, Jews have been forced – for centuries – to move from town to town or country to country. But, despite this negative reality, the Talmud tells us that if one changes one’s place one changes one’s mazel (luck).
Schlemiels are often beset with bad luck. And most of them go on journeys in search of a new land and a new life. To get out of their predicament, they often dream of starting anew. We see this in the classics of Yiddish literature such as The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Mendel the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem, and I.B. Singer’s Gimpel stories. We see the schlemiel’s journey for a new life in Kafka’s Amerika. And we also it in Jewish American literature, such as A New Life by Bernard Malamud, Stern by Bruce Jay Freidman, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, and every novel by Gary Shteyngart.
We also see the schlemiel’s desire for change in movies like Annie Hall, where Woody Allen ventures to California (albeit with great skepticism), Whatever Works, where Larry David consents to live with a young woman, or Greenberg – where Ben Stiller plays a schlemiel character who goes to California in search of a new life.
In just about all of the above-mentioned stories and movies, the schlemiel’s hopes for a new life are shown to be deluded or misguided. And as we observe the process of their fictional journey, we experience the juxtaposition of hope and failure. The affect, especially in Freidman and Auslander’s novels, can be unsettling. But the process can also suggest some kind of balance between being naïve and being realistic.
The question, for all of these novelists and filmmakers, is fundamentally human and particularly Jewish: how do we realistically address bad luck and our desire for change? Can we simply believe that our desire for a new life is realistic? Will moving to another place change our luck or is that a misguided hope? Is it better to just be reminded of how bad things are by virtue of a character who is out-of-touch or naïve about reality?
We see a fascinating analogue of this in the real life experiences of a living schlemiel named Walter Benjamin. Near the end of his life Walter Benjamin met up with Hannah Arendt in Paris. Both of them fled Germany but in leaving they looked for a new life. But, of the two, Benjamin was the schlemiel. Regardless of the fact that he looked to live a new life (and he was offered to leave Europe for America or for Israel by good friends of his), he still had bad luck. And he knew it. His life, in other words, didn’t change much: it seemed to be one bad thing after another.
Hannah Arendt, in her introductory essay to his work, entitled the first section “The Hunchback.” She recalls that Benjamin failed to become successful in his lifetime. He always had failure at his back. Since he was a child, the “hunchback,” a figure of bad luck, was with him: “The hunchback was an early acquaintance of his, who had first met him when, still a child, he found the poem in a children’s book, and he never forgot”(6, Illuminations). Arendt quotes the poem:
When I go down to the cellar
There to draw some wine,
A little hunchback is there
Grabs that jug of mine
When I go into the kitchen,
There my soup to make,
A little hunchback who’s in there
My little pot did break.
Arendt goes on to argue that Benjamin was obsessed with childhood figures that threatened failure and death: “His mother, like millions of other mothers in Germany, used to say, ‘Mr. Bungle sends his regards’ whenever one of the countless little catastrophes of childhood had taken place.”
According to Arendt, the “child knew of course what this strange bungling was about.” It was about falling and failure:
It was he who had tripped you up when you fell and knocked the thing out of your hand when it went to pieces. And after the child came the grown-up man who knew what the children was ignorant of, namely, that it was not he who had provoked the “little one” by looking at him…but the hunchback who looked at him and that bungling was a misfortune. (6)
Arendt is right regarding the constant misfortune that Benjamin experienced. But while her reading is telling, Arendt misses something fundamental; namely, Benjamin didn’t simply have bad luck (“the hunchback looked at him”); rather, he was a schlemiel. He “bungled” and discovered, as a man, that his bungling – which was with him since he was a child -was congenital. It was a part of his existential makeup. He was a man-child. So, regardless of his desire for a new life, Benjamin knew, in the back of his head, that he would likely “bungle.”
Regardless, near the end of his life he looked at this foolishness as his only salvation. For, as Kafka knew, “only the fool can help.” So, even if the fool is misguided in thinking that a change of place will foster a new life, in the end it gives him, as Irving Howe might say, a “margin of hope.” Commentary, Benjamin also argued, redeemed Kafka from total failure, but not completely; since the text he was commenting on was “unknown.” In reality, both foolishness and commentary (another foolish endeavor, if it isn’t based on a real text) gave Benjamin a very small margin since all he did was tainted, in some way, by failure. It seems he wanted to believe, like a schlemiel, in the good, but what he couldn’t forget was failure. His foolish desire for a new life, in other words, was tainted by the memory of failure.