The Schlemiel, Zionism, and Self-Criticism: On Joseph Hayyim Brenner’s “Self-Criticism”


Before Israel became a state, Zionist thinkers did their utmost to win the minds of Eastern and Western European Jews. As I had pointed out in my last blog entry, the Schlemiel Journal was dedicated to using the schlemiel in this Zionist project. The point I wished to make – by way of Michael Brenner’s insightful chapter on the journal – was that the editors of the journal, in its first year, struggled with how to present the schlemiel. One reading was influenced by an Eastern European reading of the schlemiel (one which had a more positive view of the schlemiel and blended well with Ahad Ha’am’s form of “cultural Zionism”) while the other was influenced more by the German-Jewish Haskalah’s reading of the schlemiel (which was much more negative than it’s Eastern European counterpart).   Although this distinction, by and large, holds, sometimes we find that Zionist writers from Eastern Europe may blend both views. One such case can be found in the work of Joseph Hayyim Brenner.

Brenner was an original Zionist thinker who was deeply influenced by the fiction of Mendle Mocher Sforim (a Yiddish writer who had written several stories that cast schlemiels as main characters).   Sforim is aptly called, by Sholem Aleichem, the “zayde” (grandfather) of Yiddish literature. His book, The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III, was a foundational text for Yiddish literature. The text shows us the travels of Benjamin and Senderl, two schlemiels who dream big of leaving the Pale of Settlement to discover a “new world,” but go nowhere except…within the Pale of Settlement. Yet, they imagine they have gone somewhere. While the characters are endearing, the fact of the matter is that it depicts a bad state of affairs for the Jews and it portrays the Jews through these two schlemiels. They live in dreams, not reality. This, to be sure, is a major Zionist thought about Jews who need to leave their abnormal conditions, find independence, and make, as Theodor Herzl once said, their dream a reality.

In a piece written in Hebrew, in 1914, entitled “Self-Criticism,” Joseph Hayyim Brenner cites and uses some of the comical rhetorical techniques that we find Mendle Mocher Sforim’s work in order to further the Zionist idea. He does this by reflecting on the meaning of survival and asking whether the schlemiel’s way of survival is the right path:

The skeptics and rebels who have just recently appeared in literature say: What? The Jews have survived? Yes, it is true they have survived. But, my friends, survival alone is not yet a virtue. Certainly, it is better for any man, any people, any organism to be than not to be….but existence in itself is no evidence of an estimable character. (307, The Zionist Idea)

This survival, he suggests, doesn’t come from a willingness so much as…luck or groveling. He uses the schlemiel as the model for the old, Diasporic, form of survival and he cites Sforim’s (Mendele’s) schlemiel in this regard. The word he uses for schlemiel, in this context, is luftmensch (a person who lives on air):

The Jews are one of the peoples of antiquity who have survived and remained. How does Mendele put it? “Caravans come and caravans go – but the Luftmenschen of Kislon and Kabtziel go on forever.”

But, says Brenner, “this proves nothing.” He says that it is a “mystery” as to how these schlemiels survive (“it is beyond our ken”). However, Brenner tells us that survival is not how Jews should understand themselves rather; they should look at their “mode of living.” And that mode is that of poverty and subservience.

Brenner sees the Rabbinic traditions that are “transmitted” to the next generation were “better never handed down to us” because they have done nothing to change this condition of subservience. Now, says Brenner, Jews exist as a “mass” and their existence is merely “biological.” “Yes, we may exist as a mass of gypsies, peddlers, traveling salesmen, and bank clerks; in this guise we may survive biologically for years”(308).  We survive, Brenner argues, like “ants” and “dogs.”

This biological type of survival is not enough, argues Brenner. Jews need to work to settle Israel. But to do that Jews need “real national strength.” Instead, Jews have the legacy of schlemiels, of dreamers, not a national legacy:

We have no…workers, no laborers; all we have are pipe dreams of speculation worthy of the heirs of Reb Leib the Melamed (the hero of a Sforim story entitled “The Stampede”).  

Brenner goes farther to argue that the Jews have nothing of their own; everything – their language, creativity, customs, etc – is borrowed (309). And wherever Jews went they did this in order to survive. But like Benjamin and Senderl of Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, Jews may survive; but they aren’t going anywhere. The reminder of the “impasse” that Jews experience, according to Brenner, can be found in Mendele’s schlemiels. And this reminder prompts us to what he calls “true self-criticism”:

We are at an impasse, but the pen is still in hand. Our literature lives with Mendele and with all who have succeeded him, and it continues that way, with true self-criticism for a guide. (311)

Brenner drives this point home when he argues that “literature since Mendele” (meaning his own literature) says: “Our function now is to recognize and admit our meanness since the beginning of history to the present day, all the faults of our character, and then to rise and start all over again”(312).

The reading of the schlemiel that comes out of Brenner suggests that this character should prompt us to confess our faults and move on. The irony of it all is that Brenner misses the fact that schlemiel, though a dreamer, is a saint of sorts for this very reason. It isn’t the schlemiel who is the problem; it is reality.   Sforim shows us that their dreams meet with harsh reality; but that doesn’t mean that they simply need to sober up. It should prompt us to change that reality. But does it mean, as Brenner suggests, that we should leave the schlemiel behind as a representation of all the “meanness” and the “faults of our character”?

This reading of the schlemiel suggests a more German reading of the schlemiel, one than finds no redeeming qualities in this character so much as a rendering of what Jews should leave behind.  “Self-Criticism” was a part of the Zionist project which saw the schlemiel as an obstacle yet knew it had to work through this character which had captured the hearts of so many Jews in the Pale. The “new literature” that Brenner speaks of must leave it behind if the Jews are to have their own state and be a “real people.”   This is the crux of Brenner’s brand of “self-criticism.”

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