A nebbish, a schlemiel, and a schnorrer walk into a bar. The schnorrer makes a bee line for the free pretzels while the schlemiel makes his way through the crowd to an empty table, obliviously knocking over chairs and stepping on people’s jackets as he does so. The nebbish, on the other hand, follows along behind the schlemiel, picking the chairs back up and apologizing as he tries to keep up with his friend. The Yiddish stock types all exist in the same world, so they all relate to each other in different ways. But in some ways the nebbish is the most difficult to pin down because he (and I am using masculine pronouns for now, but the image of the nebbish as male is something I will be discussing this afternoon) is only defined in relation to others. If you’re familiar with the musical Chicago, he is Mr. Cellophane: you can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there.
In his now seminal The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten called the nebbish, “an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate. A Sad Sack. A loser.” Elsewhere, as I alluded to above, Rosten described the relationship between the nebbish and the schlemiel as one where the nebbish has to constantly pick up what the schlemiel knocks over. Unlike the schlemiel/schlimazel relationship where the schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel, the nebbish is subservient in the relationship; overlooked, taken for granted, part of the furniture. I do not intend, here this afternoon, to revolutionize or rehabilitate the reputation of the nebbish. But what I would like to propose and discuss are a couple of points: why does the nebbish have the characteristics he does? Who is the contemporary nebbish, and what is his role in society? And, finally, why must the nebbish always be “he?” Can women not be nebbishes?
Let me begin, then, by offering some classic examples of nebbishes so that we may examine a bit more closely what makes a nebbish. Early Woody Allen and Seinfeld’s George Costanza come up frequently in conversations about easily identifiable nebbishes. Woody Allen’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors may be his most nebbishy; not only does he not end up with the girl at the end, but he loses her his much-loathed brother in law. His brother in law is slick and witty and successful and attractive, while Allen’s character toils away over a documentary no one will ever watch and bemoans his constantly being overlooked. George’s function on Seinfeld, especially in the first few seasons is similar. Jerry is the star, the good-looking one. Elaine is the woman. Kramer is insane. But what is George? Who is George? Eventually, I suppose, he is the angry one, but he is also just the “other one.” The one who is there because he needs to be.
If we look at bit more carefully at some of the adjectives Rosten used to define the nebbish he is “innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless.” Traditionally this has played out with his being somewhere between entirely asexual and interested in women (because in addition to being male, he is almost invariably straight) but unable to hang on to one. What is interesting in the case of the nebbish though, is thinking about where and how the stereotype arose. So much of what goes into the Yiddish stock characters, as my colleagues here may mention in greater detail, is the overall stereotyping of European Jewish masculinity. So many of these types involve the Jewish man being shifty, untrustworthy, lascivious, or otherwise outside society’s boundaries. According to etymologist Evan Morris one of the things that separates the schlemiel from the nebbish is that the schlemiel, as a misfit, can be liked or disliked. He can be someone the audience boos. Wile E. Coyote, for example. The nebbish on the other hand must be pitied. He obviously cannot be the hero, but neither can he be the villain. He can only be the one you feel sorry for.
Why, then, does he persist? Do we need pitiable characters in our movies, television, and literature? Pity isn’t generally the goal of anti-Semitic propaganda. It would be pretty poor propaganda anyway if all it did was make the audience feel sorry for the poor Jews. So the longevity and proliferation of the nebbish as a type is probably not as driven by external social expectations and forces as, say, the gonif (who we’re not discussing today, but I kind of wish we were). It seems, therefore, that the impetus to keep the nebbish alive must be coming from within; there must be something inside the Jewish community that responds to that character, or needs him to exist. He is a strange figure to keep alive, however, as to be overlooked and also maintained or upheld would seem to be a contradiction.
Rachel Shukert wrote an article for Tablet magazine in which see sees the Holocaust as the driving force behind the prolonged existence of the nebbish in American Jewish culture, and she sees this as a primarily negative thing. She argued that, “World War II was a transformational event [for Jewish American men], a chance to unimpeachably cement their American identities by fighting for their country. Their children and grandchildren, however—the future Nebbish Generations—would view the war overwhelmingly through the lens of the Holocaust and its primacy in Jewish education, which in its single-minded focus on Auschwitz as the definitive image of the Jewish wartime experience has virtually drowned any narrative of Jewish heroism in the vast sea of Jewish helplessness.” So as far as Shukert is concerned, American Jewish education has created generations of Jews who, in viewing themselves and their people as consummate victims, have gravitated towards the nebbish as the character that most aptly embodies that victimhood. And even better, because he is so innocuous, we feel sorry for him instead of blaming him for his own impotence!
Certainly, Shukert has a point that American Jewish education has been reduced to “The Holocaust and Israel” in a lot of circles, which does place a potentially disproportionate focus on Jew-as-victim. So the evidence would suggest that that has a role in the resurgence of the nebbish character in the post-war years, through Woody Allen and Nathan Zuckerman and even George Costanza as, potentially, a last gasp of that generation’s feelings about their own identity. But that does not explain why the nebbish has been not only retained, but now morphed and changed in the last 10-15 years. If it was simply about Jew-as-victim, why have those future Nebbish Generations, as Shukert calls them, not only kept that narrative alive but also validated it, exalted it, and even gloried in it in some cases? Why does the modern nebbish exist, and what makes him, or her, different?
With all things stereotype, “reclaiming” is generally the easiest answer as to why a particular stock type persists, especially when it seems to do so with the blessing or even active efforts of the group being stereotyped. I disagree with Shukert (and others, I am not trying to make a straw man out of here; her essay is just the one that most clearly articulates some of these issues), however, that it is necessarily the ongoing victim mentality perpetuated by generations of Holocaust-focused Jewish education that has allowed the nebbish to survive and even thrive. I look at the nebbish-as-alter-ego effect as being another reason why we have seen this pitiable figure live on; I call it The Clark Kent Effect. Clark Kent is a classic nebbish; he is mild-mannered, overlooked, and taken advantage of. He pines after Lois Lane while she only has eyes for Superman. Superman is everyone’s favorite, but who pays the bills? Whose grind at the Daily Planet keeps Superman in tights and pomade? Because of characters like Clark Kent there is something still pitiable, but also noble about the nebbish, and there is a sense that perhaps the nebbish has a secret. Perhaps she or he is simply biding their time.
Actor Bob Balaban may be one of the best examples of someone who portrays this contemporary version of the nebbish that I am proposing. With a career stretching back to the 1960s he is one of those actors who, if you don’t recognize his name you would recognize him if you saw him (which in and of itself is a hallmark of the nebbish, no?). Though he always seems to be showing up, both in movies and on TV, in recent years he has become popular as part of Christopher Guest’s cadre of performers in his “mockumentaries” such as Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show. It is in these films that I think Balaban expresses his nebbishood best, and of all the films in this oeuvre A Mighty Wind could be his masterpiece. He plays the woefully uncharismatic son of recently deceased folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom. To honor his father Balaban arranges a grand reunion of the best folk acts from his father’s heyday. Throughout the film he shows he knows nothing about show business, is generally underfoot and asking the wrong questions, is dreadful at addressing either the artists or the audience, and in general is an annoyance to the performers who they’d prefer just went away and let them do their thing.
What is important here, though, is that while he is a nuisance to those in the film, the audience has a different experience of him. We get to see flashbacks to his childhood and to understand some of how he became what he is. We realize that, inept though he may be, he is arranging this concert out of a sincere desire to honor his father’s legacy. And finally (and perhaps most importantly), despite himself, he is a success. The lead-up to the concert is crisis after crisis after crisis he is ill-equipped to handle. But the end result is what everyone hoped and more (after all, we even got the actual Kiss At the End of the Rainbow!) and so we, the audience, get to celebrate the fact that Steinbloom pulled it off, against all odds. He is a nebbish par excellence, but in the end he is also a success. This “winner nebbish” is what I see as the modern take on the Clark Kent nebbish. The nebbish has his own alter ego, in a sense, because the audience knows and sees things that those around him don’t see, which is why we not only continue to pity the nebbish, but also now cheer for him.
Jenny Caplan is currently a Visiting Instructor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University. She is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University, and should be defending her dissertation “All Joking Aside: the role of religion in American Jewish Satire” any moment now. She works primarily on American religion and popular culture, especially as relates to post-War American Judaism.