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.