Between Man and Man-Child: On the Recent Rolling Stone Magazine Feature on Seth Rogen


America has a love/hate relationship with the schlemiel or (as many critics and actors who play schlemiels – such as Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler – call him) the “man-child.”   But, in truth, this America is not one; it is two. When it comes to the schlemiel or “man child,” there are two Americas: the America that watches and demands more films with the man-child and the other America (a much smaller one that consists of film critics, journalists, and occasional scholars who lament the popularity of the “man child”).   For instance, most recently, A.O. Scott, in an article entitled “The End of Adulthood,” lamented about the popularity of films where the man-child (what he calls the “perpetual adolescent”) is the main attraction.   Scott yearns for a time when America will return to adulthood but laments that, because of the feminist movement, the protest movement, cultural upheaval, etc, norms have been effaced and American men don’t know how to relate to women or be adults.   And, the same week Scott wrote his article, another essay called “The Awkward Age,” popped up in The New Yorker. Like Scott’s essay, it suggests that America doesn’t know how to (or want to) grow up.   Both suggest different historical precedents for this failure and suggest a new trend that casts the awkward man-child as a cultural icon.

Just this week Rolling Stone put out a feature article that is also pestered by the existence of the ultimate man, child: Seth Rogen. (The cover image of Rogen with a fly on his nose clearly suggests the man-child itch.) However, the piece, which addresses his latest film, The Interview, doesn’t lament the “end of adulthood.”   Rather, it suggests, in its title and in the article itself, that Rogen is “at a crossroads” between the man-child and the man. Unlike A.O. Scott it suggests that Rogen, “the Stoner King of Hollywood”(see the front of the magazine), may be becoming more mature.   This possibility alone is the fuel that fires this article and it suggests that the author, Josh Eells and the editor saw it as a powerful enough possibility to sell magazines. They are tapping into one of the biggest questions today for Americans who are moving into the workforce or who, like the main characters of just about every Judd Apatow film, would rather smoke bongs with the bros than work. Will we remain schlemiels or become adults? The public doesn’t seem to be pressed by this question, but the Rolling Stone journalist is.

Before we read the first words of the article, we read the author’s question which is framed in terms of becoming a “responsible adult”:

Can a man be a responsible adult and still make a living telling dick jokes?

The first paragraph frames the paradox that plagues the journalist’s mind. He doesn’t know who he is dealing with: responsible adults or stoner man-childs.

It’s not every day you get to sit down with the guys who might be responsible for starting World War III. And it’s definitely not every day that they’re getting backed when you do.

During the interview, we learn that Rogen “absent-mindedly” rolls a tight joint while his partner-in-film making Evan Goldberg smokes bongs. The author, throughout the piece, notes their ages (both 32) to suggest that it is about time for them to put the bongs down and start becoming responsible.

Rogen is, right off the bat, thought of as the man-child who really doesn’t know how to deal with reality:

The loveable man-child who makes dopey movies with his friends…the one who’s probably too stoned to play a video game about a nuclear war, much less incite a real one.

Eells notes how, during a screening of the “special effects,” they played with laser pointers and told jokes while looking at effects. They are what Scott would call “perpetual adolescents.”

“This is where we get to play with lasers,” Rogen says excitedly. “It’s fun to put them in people’s eyes,” says Goldberg, aiming his at the face of Franco on the big screen. He moves southward. “And on their dicks.” “Sometimes me and Evan team up, adds Rogen, their twin lasers dancing around Franco’s balls.”

The antics go on, and Eells records it all. He points how, in real life, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen are bros and merge into each other. They have, since high school, been bros:

Hang around with Rogen and Goldberg long enough and they almost start to blur – one exceedingly funny dude named Sethandevan. They laugh at the same obscure references, their wives are friends, and they literally finish each other’s sentences. Apatow describes that as soul mates.

In other words, the man-child needs company; just like a schlemiel needs a schlimazel and vice versa.   At this point, it doesn’t seem like Rogen is at the crossroads and moving from “man-child to man.”

It isn’t until the end of the article that Eells suggests that Rogen is thinking about or becoming “responsible.” Even though Rogen introduced himself as a “man-child” at the senate hearings, he shows that he is motivated by a moral cause: raising awareness of Alzheimer’s:

“The situation is so dire that it caused me – a lazy, self-involved, generally self-medicated man-child – to start an entire charity.”

Eells also suggests that his parents and sister, who are hard-working and responsible, are, to some extent, getting fed up with his stoner persona. This pressure, apparently, came out in his interview with Eells when he proudly noted that he didn’t smoke pot once in The Interview. But, more importantly, he confesses to the Rolling Stone reporter that in this film he is actually playing a character with a “real job”:

“I think in some ways I relate to this character (in The Interview) more than any other character I have ever played…Because he has a real job! It’s not until you get your shit together that you can step back and say, “I have a career; what am I going to do with it?”

Eells finishes the article by describing Rogen’s life after marriage.  He now seems to be settling down in his home in LA:

At home in L.A. he likes to garden and trim bonsai trees. He smokes brisket in the backyard every now and then, he drives a $24,000 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. As his character in Neighbors puts it: “I think I like old-people shit better than young-people shit now.”

These last lines suggest that, for the author, Rogen is becoming a man, an adult. His adulthood, in contrast to what A.O. Scott might suggest, has just begun. However, as I noted above, there are two Americas. The critic may see Rogen as becoming an adult but it may be the case that his public wants him to remain a “perpetual adolescent.”   The film, Neighbors, suggests that he doesn’t cross over actually so much as remain “in the crossroads.” In addition, Eells neglects to mention that in the film he and Franco remain, to the very end, schlemiels. The problem perhaps is with the terminology. The man vs. man-child contrast is not fitting for Rogen. Framing his work in terms of the schlemiel would be a lot more fruitful.

In a world that is cynical and filled with malice, schlemiels are naïve in their pursuit of the good. (Because of their existential blindness, they cannot see the corrupt world the way most of us “realists” do.)  But they are not naïve because they fail to be adults.  This is the diagnostic mistake.  Something else, something more important to humanity is at stake than maturity. Rogen, hopefully, is figuring this out for himself. (One thing he could do, to this end, is to stop calling himself a man-child.)  If he is going to revise the man-child, he needs to turn to the schlemiel.  The comic character we see in Aleichem’s Motl or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel must be read in terms of what Gimpel or Motl gives the world.  The same goes for his reading of another actor whose schlemiel had a major impact on American society: Charlie Chaplin.  Without these precursors Rogen will be stuck with the man-child option.

The schlemiel’s gift to the world – given by way of comedy – is not “perpetual adolescence.” It is the gift of goodness. And one need not give up the schlemiel to give it; after all, that’s the point.  Once we move away from the old man-child frame of reference used by many cultural critics, including Scott and Eells, perhaps we can better understand why someone like Rogen is so popular in America.   We don’t simply (or only) identify with “the stoner king of Hollywood” or the guy without a “real job.” We identify with something else, something more fundamental to humanity which, ultimately, can pose the greatest threat to war.

Don’t Be a Nebbish-Hipster, Vote for Me: Naftali Bennett’s Recent Political-Promo Video


The nebbish and the schlemiel, unfortunately, often get confused.   For instance, although Gary Shteyngart clearly plays a schlemiel in many of his novels (including the last one), Random House, his publisher, has decided to run a nebbish campaign. They have made a “trailer” that casts Shtyengart – the “little failure” – as a nebbish; and in a recent interview they call him a “hot nebbish.” What saddens me about this move is that Shteyngart’s concession to Random House suggests that he is selling the schlemiel out in the name of advertising his book, more profits, and gaining popularity.   This obviously does a disservice to the comic character that this blog is dedicated to. That said, the nebbish can not only be used for capital gains, as Random House, with Shtyengart’s blessing, has done; it can also be used for political reasons as a recent video promoting the Israeli politician Naftali Bennett demonstrates.

What’s most interesting about the video is that it begins by turning the schlimazel into a nebbish. Instead of the schlemiel spilling the soup on the schlimazel, which is the crux of the popular schlemiel joke, a waitress – who is clearly not a schlemiel – spills coffee on what appears to be an Israeli who looks like a transplanted New York Hipster.   A schlimazel would get upset about the spillage, but the Hipster-nebbish apologizes. One of the most interesting scenes, which echoes a key scene from Woody Allen’s film Anything Else, involves apologizing for getting hit by another car.

In Allen’s film, the apology is not the last word; it leads to Allen, in an uncharacteristic move in his films, taking revenge. In this moment in film history, Allen goes from being a nebbish to a “man.”

In contrast, the Israeli-hipster in Bennett’s caricature never stops apologizing; it is the crux of the joke. The punch line, which comes at the end, is to that the hipster-nebbish is really Bennet. He takes off the mask of the nebbish Hipster (the alien character of the diaspora) and “stops apologizing.”   In effect, he becomes, like Allen in Anything Else, a man (that is, an Israeli).   The message is old and new; it’s built into a Zionist ideology that contrasts diaspora (powerlessness, apologetics, impotence) with homeland (power, responsibility, autonomy).

Following the analogy, Bennett is suggesting that Israelis, who want to take their “country back,” need to stay away from New York hipsterdom and Ha’aretz which is, in this video, associated with appeasement and powerlessness . The connotation is obvious: those who side with left-leaning Jewishness belong in the New York (the Diaspora) and, for all their apologetics, are nebbishes.   In a world where power exerts itself on a daily basis, they are the impotent losers.

To better understand what is at stake in this political use of the nebbish, we need to clearly define the nebbish character.

I recently organized a panel entitled “New Perspectives on the Schnorrer, the Nebbish, and the Schlemiel” for the 2014 Association of Jewish Studies Annual Conference.   The paper on the nebbish, by the scholar Jenny Caplan, made a careful distinction between the schlemiel and the nebbish. I will recount some of what Caplan said so as to show that the hipster-nebbish fits very well into a Zionist framework of Diaspora (powerlessness) and Homecoming (power).

Caplan began her talk by drawing on Leo Rosten’s definition of the nebbish – from his book The Joys of Yiddish – as “an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate. A sad sack. A loser.” Caplan notes that the nebbish, in contrast to the schlemiel, has to “constantly pick up what the schlemiel knocks over.”   While the schlemiel is existential and spills this or that by virtue of his own miscalculations, the nebbish is left walking after the schlemiel picking up the mess.   As Caplan points out, the schlemiel knocks things over while the nebbish picks them up. The “nebbish is subservient to the relationship.”

But there is more to the story and that has to do with the nebbish’s masculinity. As Caplan notes, the nebbish may have emerged out of the “overall stereotyping of European Jewish masculinity.”   But how did it end up re-emerging in America? To better understand the historical origins, Caplan cites Rachel Shukert who, in an article for Tablet, makes a claim for the nebbish’s historical precedent and creates a typology of the nebbish, which includes the hipster and even some schlemiels as nebbishes.

According to Shukert, the origins of powerlessness in America have to do with the feeling of helplessness that came out of a “single minded focus on Aushwitz.” This, claims Shukert crated a new generation of Jews who thought of themselves as hopeless victims.   Caplan disagrees with Shukert and argues for what she calls the “nebbish-as-alter-ego-effect” or the “Clark Kent Effect.”

For Caplan, it is the contrast between powerful and powerlessness that is at the heart of the nebbish stereotype. As Caplan notes with respect to Superman, there can only be something pitiable about Clark Kent (who is a Nebbish) because of Superman.   In other words, without the presentation of power (Superman), his (Clark Kent’s) powerlessness would have no meaning.   We can see what she calls the “Clark Kent Effect” in Bennett’s clip. It works well with contrasts between Israelis (as Supermen) and New York Hipster-Nebbishes (as Clark Kents). Moreover, Bennett does a Clark Kent move by taking off his hipster mask at the end of the clip. The Israeli, in this sense, is Superman and this hipster is the poor loser.

We may pity the hipster nebbish in this short clip, but this pity is ineffectual, politically.   As one variant of Zionist ideology would suggest, Jews need to leave the “impotence” of the nebbish behind and take responsibility for ourselves.   Constant apology, in this ideological sense, is a sign of powerlessness and weakness.   And while Random House can sell more books by way of making Shteyngart into a nebbish (“a little failure”), Bennett can make himself more politically viable by using the hipster-nebbish as a foil to the Israeli superman.   The nebbish sells books and can be used to win votes.

To be sure, this promotional video is a revival of age-old stereotypes that were once used by early Zionists. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the German Zionists (as opposed to the Eastern European ones) conflated the schlemiel with the nebbish. And they did this because they wanted to leave the schlemiel behind. Bennett does this because he wants to leave the nebbish behind. Like the schlemiel for German-Jews, the Nebbish doesn’t belong in Israel.   The nebbish is not the “new Jew.” It is the old Jew, the ghetto bound, diasporic Jew who must always appease the powerful. But the nebbish lives on after the establishment of a Jewish State. And, as this video suggests, it has taken the form of the hipster who lives, as this caricature suggests, by virtue of apology. The nebbish, like a man-child, can’t stand up for himself; and, in Israel, this is the foil for a political ideology that is based on the idea that one cannot appease the bully: one must stand up to them and this is something that hipster-nebbish is incapable of doing.   This is, as Jenny Caplan might say, the “Clark Kent Effect.”   And, as we can see from this video, it can work well in Israel since it appeals to a group of possible voters who see appeasement and apology as a legacy of the diaspora (emblematized and caricatured as the New York Styled hipster) or else the “wrong way” to deal with internal and external foes.  In other words, the nebbish-hipster belongs in New York, not Tel Aviv.  It is this idea that fueled a lot of early Zionism and it looks like its back but this time it has changed its clothes and reads Ha’aretz.

Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part II


After explaining how the Yiddish writers (“the writers of sweetness”) came out of a world that made “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” Howe and Greenberg define the themes of Yiddish literature which correlated with this Eastern European world: “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured”(39).   Howe and Greenberg are quite cognizant that this world died in the Holocaust. However, what one might miss is the fact that, in making their case for Yiddish literature, they write about these themes as if they could be generalized and used as a counter-valence to the Western and American obsession with heroism in the post war years. The value of this counter-valence comes out in their reading of the main character in Yiddish literature: the schlemiel. Read against western literature, it comes across as the anti-hero:

A culture that has been able to resist the temptations of worldly power – or has been blocked at the threshold of those temptations – will naturally favor an image of heroism very different from the one we know in Western literature. (39)

Howe and Greenberg point out how the movement from “hybris to humility,” which we find in the “Aristotelian formula” is not “organic to Yiddish literature.” To be sure, the schlemiel character is, from start to finish, humble. There is no such movement. In a footnote to this claim, Howe and Greenberg point out how this anti-hero and its lack of progress into history and heroism is antithetical to not only Western literature and Aristotle but also to Zionism:

The prevalence of this theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve – or improvise – an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment….Having for so long been exposed to the conditions of powerlessness, Yiddish culture could not quickly accustom itself to the climate of power. (39)

From here, Howe and Greenberg argue that the anti-heroic element can be found in the rejection of “historical aggrandizement.”   Tevye, for them, is the “embodiment of the anti-heroic Jewish hero whose sheer power of survival and comment makes the gesture of traditional heroism seem rather absurd”(40).   Not only his language but also his “ironic shrug” is symbolic of this ahistorical, anti-heroism.

Howe and Greenberg point out, however, how Aleichem had more patience with this anti-heroism while I.L. Peretz had less. Perhaps because Peretz was more fed up with anti-heroism and wanted to enter history, they put this in quotation marks, “modern.” This suggests that both Greenberg and Howe have sympathies with Aleichem’s project which, in their view, challenges the modern view of power and heroism.

The character that Zionist and more “modern” Yiddish writers want to leave behind is the little man, the “kleine mentschele”(40).   It is “he, the long-suffering, persistent, loving ironic” character whom “the Yiddish writers celebrate.” He “lives in the world” while the heroes of Western literature conquer it.

Out of the humble, little man come “a number of significant variations and offshoots.” One of these is the schlemiel, par excellence: “the wise or sainted fool who has often given up the householder’s struggle for dignity (think of Tevye) and thereby acquired the wry perspective of the man on the outside”(40).

Howe and Greenberg evoke I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” as an example of the “wise or sainted fool”(41).   Their description of Gimpel is evocative on different registers that are at once religious and secular. He has a “halo of comic sadness”:

He acquires, with the piling up of his foolishness, a halo of comic sadness, the end, his foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world”(41).

Although Howe and Greenberg note that “Gimpel is the literary grandson of Peretz’s Bontsha Schweig,” they point out how he is a different kind of schlemiel since Singer, as opposed to Peretz, was more interested in preserving the character.   Howe discusses two other examples of the holy fool, schlemiel in this section, but he ends with a meditation on the child as the ultimate heroic anti-hero.

Hand in hand with the anti-heroic Jewish hero, and more at the center of things than the sainted fool, goes the Jewish child, precocious, ingenious, deprived yet infinitely loved. (41)

What’s interesting about his characterization is that he cites Sholem Aleichem’s Motl as an example. This reading is interesting because for Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse, and Sidra Ezrahi, Motl is not simply a child; he is a man-child, a schlemiel. Howe and Greenberg’s effort to give him a different category, as an offshoot of the humble anti-hero, suggest that there is something about Motl that is more powerful than all of the other schlemiel types. And that something is love. In contrast to how Dickens, Graham Greene, and Henry James, who have children who are “unloved and brutalized,” the children in Yiddish literature are loved. To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this love for children in Yiddish literature is part and parcel of the love of “the poor, the weak” and the “insulted” that emerges out of the Yiddish world. However, in their description, there is a moment of universalization:

For whatever the deficiencies of Yiddish culture, the power of love remains; for the child, the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured everywhere. It is the power at the heart of the Yiddish tradition. (42).

The word “everywhere” suggests that Howe and Greenberg find the love for the child, the poor, and the injured, which is particular to Yiddish culture, to be its greatest “power.” Howe and Greenberg suggest that the schlemiel – and the Yiddish culture it emerges out of – can present us with a universal that we can, today, learn from…even though the world that gave birth to it is gone. It presents a different, “sweeter” way to look at the world which, though not heroic in the western sense, is compassionate and can give hope.

But, as I noted, what happens when that world is gone? How does this universal live on if there is no world to nurture it? And doesn’t this relation to power emerge, as Hannah Arendt once said, out of worldlessness (not the world)? Instead of making “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” our world does the opposite. Unless, that is, we were to sink into a poverty and powerlessness much like the world of the Yiddish writers and, out of this, to find compassion and love rather than cynicism. It seems as if Howe envisions a world and an attitude that doesn’t emulate “crisis” and harsh realism so much as a “sweet” kind of realism that is based on love. And his examples of such a world are to be found in the aesthetics it produces. They are his guide and are the remnant of a feeling that could speak truth to power.

Lest we not forget, Howe and Greenberg wrote these words in the 1950s. How would they fare today? Are we, in our frustration with power, heroism, and Empire (as Hardt and Negri would say), looking for the schlemiel? Are we looking for the “writers of sweetness” who can give us characters that emerge out of poverty and remain anti-heroes from start to finish? Are we, today, looking for characters that evince compassion or are we looking for, as Howe would say, history, greatness, and heroism? And if Howe is with Aleichem rather than Peretz, would that suggest that his greatest enemy is…history? Are we looking for the world or for worldlessness? After all, Howe suggests that the schlemiel is not interested in heroism or making history so much as being in solidarity with those who don’t make history but are wounded by it: the poor, the injured, etc.   Or is it the case that the schlemiel is not so much a free choice so much as a choice that is made as a result of being….without history and…worldless?

Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part I


In the 1950s, Irving Howe took it as one of his tasks to introduce Yiddish literature to an American audience. This involved not just a translation project, which he engaged in with Eliezer Greenberg, Saul Bellow, and others, but it also involved writing different introductions to collections and books on Yiddish literature. In the middle of their introduction to A Treasury of Jewish Stories, Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe make the case for Yiddish literature. But unlike the other introductions Howe did, this introduction, written in the 1950s, is special since it argues for Yiddish literature against the then prevailing demand for “intense” literature:

We live in a time when the literature most likely to be valued by serious people is intense, recalcitrant, and extreme; when the novel is periodically combed for images of catastrophe; and the possibilities of life seem available only through ultimates, prophecies, and final judgments. (37)

We are more interested in the true “voice of crisis” since we are “creatures of crisis.” However, Howe and Greenberg suggest that “it would be good if we could also celebrate another kind of literature: the kind that does not confront every moment the harsh finalities of experience, or strip act to its bare motive, or flood us with anguish over the irrevocability of death”(37). This literature, which comes from the “writers of sweetness,” who value those “milder emotions,” is Yiddish literature.

Howe’s characterization of Yiddish writing, against the literature of crisis, is fascinating. It suggests that against the cynicism that comes with modern literature and its obsession with crisis, Yiddish literature offers hope. The “writers of sweetness…do not assume evil to be the last word about man.” And they do not “suppose heroism to be incompatible with humbleness”(37).

These words about heroism and humbleness are the preface to Howe and Greenberg’s introduction not just of Yiddish literature but also of the schlemiel to an American audience. To do this, they make the case for sweetness, which they see as synonymous with the compatibility of heroism and humbleness:

Sweetness is a quality our age suspects. Not many of us are sweet or care to be; and those few who are seem almost ashamed of their gift. (37)

According to Howe and Greenberg, the sweetness they refer to finds its origin in worldlessness:

The East European Jews could be as greedy as anyone else, and as unscrupulous in their pursuit of livelihood; but they were cut off from the world at an all too visible point; they knew that the fleshpots, tempting as they might be, were not for them. Who in the shtetl world was not finally a luftmensch, a trader who deal in air, exchanging nothing for nothing and living off the profits? (38)

Howe and Greenberg characterized this “precarious position” of sweet worldlessness in terms of a “symbolic national gesture” – namely, “the ironic shrug.” Moreover, this precarious position is political; it made a “feeling of fraternity with the poor.”

To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this worldlessness was a virtue since it challenged the status quo and resisted power: “the world of the East European Jews made impossible the power-hunger, the pretensions of aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life”(38).

To emphasize this, they put the following sentence in italics to describe the greatest moral power of Yiddish literature:

The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured – these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature. (38)

Appealing to a rhetoric of identification and commitment, Howe and Greenberg argue that the “writers of sweetness” “wrote from a firm sense of identification, an identification that was simultaneously inheritance and choice; and this was the source of their moral security”(39).   Their identification and commitment was to the “power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, etc.” This identification, claims Howe and Greenberg, has nothing to do with “shtetl nostalgia” and it is not “uniquely Jewish.” However, it is “only that the Jews – with God’s help – have had more occasion than most peoples to look into the matter.”

Howe’s appeal to the particular and the universal are, in this instance, very interesting. His reading of the “writers of sweetness” suggests that Yiddish writers have something to teach an age that has become to cynical and obsessed with heroism. But, at the same time, he suggests that more people can write in these ways and have solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the injured. Anyone can look into the matter and become a “writer of sweetness.” However, the Jews have an advantage since their history, their worldlessness, has forced them to reflect on their state. The “ironic shrug” and the schlemiel are two figures that emerge out of this reflection.

….to be continued…