The Schlemiel as “Essentially….Existential”

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There are many kinds of Jewish fools and the schlemiel is only one type in the tradition of Jewish humor. However, it is the most popular comic character of all. So whenever someone asks me to define a schlemiel, the easy answer – like the answer Rabbi Hillel gave when he was asked to sum up the entire Torah in one sentence – can be found in a popular joke about a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik. It goes like this: A schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnick sit down for a bowl of soup. The schlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup. The schlemiel assures him that nothing will go wrong as it may have in the past. The schlimazel lets him go. But right about when he is going to give the schlimazel the soup, he trips up and spills the soup on the schlimazel’s lap.   As the schlimazel screams out, the nudnick asks him what kind of soup was spilled on his lap. In this scenario, the schlemiel is the disseminator of bad luck, the shlimazel receives the bad luck, and the nudnick amplifies the bad luck.

Regarding this joke, Ruth Wisse argues that the “schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in it’s confrontation with reality”(14). Wisse’s reading of the joke is peculiar. Since she uses the words “essential” and “existential” (terms that are often kept apart by existentialists who follow the lead of Jean Paul Sartre) in a similar way, she is saying that the “nature” of the schlemiel’s misfortunate “encounter with reality” is “essentially existential.” In other words, bad luck is “essentially” built into the very way the schlemiel “existentially” relates to reality. It is ontological, existential, and, it is Jewish.   Wherever the schlemiel goes, he seems, by virtue of his very relations to existence, to create bad luck for others. But, at the very least, he has good intentions. Regardless, if we take this joke as a paradigm, we would have to say that the schlemiel will always, so to speak, spill soup on some schlimazel (who happens to be in his path) because that’s the way the schlemiel relates to the world.

But is this really the case? Is the schlemiel to be understood, quite simply, as a character who has good intentions yet, in the end, will always be the disseminator of bad luck? And in what way is his comedy “essentially existential”?   Does this concept tell us about Jews in general or Jews in particular?

Although Ruth Wisse explains this classic joke in this way, her argument about the schlemiel in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero gives us a different perspective. To be sure, Wisse notes that this is an American joke not a European one. Does this imply that the European schlemiel is different? Indeed, it does.   To be sure, the American schlemiel is different from it’s European predecessor in many ways. And, I would argue, the American schlemiel has many other variants that don’t fit squarely into this joke or even the European model of the schlemiel (at least, as we shall see, the German-Jewish variant). Indeed, this joke, an American joke, like Hillel’s explanation of Judaism on one leg, does shed some light on the existential nature of the comic character; but it doesn’t do the American or the European schlemiel justice. They seem to be ontologically different. Their “essential existentiality” differs.

Expanding on Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel based on this Jewish-American joke, I’d like to argue that the claim that the schlemiel is an “essentially existential” character and this joke, which evinces an American version of the schlemiel, gives us a lead as to how we can go about understanding this comic character. By looking at this character in terms of it’s existentiality and its geographical and temporal location, we can have a better understanding of what this character means or can mean to us, here, in America.

We are, by virtue of time and place, more familiar with the American schlemiel than the European one. And this joke does shed a little light on the schlemiels we know and love, the popular one’s, which range from Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Barbara Streisand to Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman. All of them, to some extent, seem to spill the soup on somebody (and themselves).   (But what about the less popular schlemiels, the literary schlemiels that fall under the radar; the schlemiels we find in I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, or Bruce Jay Friedman? Is it wise to make a distinction? Are the literary schlemiels more existential than the popular ones? And if so, how?)

Drawing on the schlemiel’s popularity for American Jews, Sidrah Ezrahi claims that in America the schlemiel is a “cultural icon.” But, more importantly, she argues that the schlemiel is at the core of something larger; namely, the Jewish-American, diasporic imagination. Using the well-worn term “diaspora,” she suggests that Jewish-American identity is in some way existentially connected to this comic character. (Strangely enough, the only scholars who have written on Booking Passage have missed this key detail.)

What makes Ezrahi’s reading so thought-provoking is that it’s existential-ontological meaning is based on a historical and geographical distinction between Israel and America. Taking Philip Roth’s Portnoy as her cue, Ezrahi argues that American Jews are essentially schlemiels while Israelis are essentially not. The basis for Israeli identity is history and land; while for American-Jews the basis of Jewish-American identity is virtual. The validity of this distinction needs to be tested and it’s meaning understood. We need not accept her reading and, to be sure, we can learn a lot from it since she is the only person in “schlemiel theory” who has defined American Jews as schlemiels by way of an interpretation that, in many ways, draws from existentialism and phenomenology. To be sure, Ezrahi takes up where Wisse leaves off with her claim that schlemiels are “essentially existential.”

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