A Schlemiel Surprise: A Review of Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young”

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Comedy is full of surprises. But that’s not always the case. More often than not, we get the same types of stock characters who do what…they always do.   However, sometimes a stock comic character may surprise us.   And since Hollywood is full of actors who play the same types of comic roles, the same can be said for the actors who become more banal with each performance.   One such comic character, which has been cycled and recycled by Hollywood for nearly a century, is the schlemiel and one of the most popular comic actors to play him/her is Ben Stiller.   Stiller has received a reputation as a schlemiel by way of the Ben Stiller Show (1992) and films like The Royal Tannenbaums (2001), Zoolander (2001), Meet the Fockers (2004), and Tropic Thunder (2008). In the wake of these schlemiel performances, it was Noah Baumbach who looked to cast Stiller as a different kind of schlemiel in his film Greenberg (2010). However, that film was not a pleasant surprise. In fact, it received harsh criticism which found Baumbach guilty of sacrificing comedy for bleakness. And in the process, the schlemiel became a complete schlimazel.

In response to this negative reception, Baumbach has decided to give the schlemiel and Stiller another chance in his recently released film, While We’re Young (2015). And, unlike Greenberg, this film has a few (not many) pleasant surprises.   But, as far as the subject of the middling schlemiel goes, it has a lot in common with Greenberg. The banal fact of aging should prompt us to ask what is being suggested when filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Judd Apatow – This is Forty (2012) – actors like Seth RogenNeighbors (2014) and Woody AllenAnnie Hall (1976) and Anything Else (2001) – and writers like Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) and Saul Bellow (Herzog) use age – or the aging Jewish body – to anchor the schlemiel in reality.

Noah Baumbach is particularly interested in casting Ben Stiller as the middling schlemiel and he shows us two entirely different approaches to how we view the schlemiel and its meaning.   To be sure, Greenberg is a character who makes us feel pity for the aging schlemiel since, in that film, he is without a job, a home, or any clear direction. In addition, he has major relationship problems with a female schlemiel in the film named Florence (who is played by Gretta Gerwig).   Nothing seems to be going right with him and age is used to distance the character from the viewer and seal his sad solitary fate. Ian Parker and Richard Brody have only negative things to say of Greenberg. And of all the critics at The New Yorker, only David Denby claims that, at the very least, Greenberg “learns something along the way.”   Although Greenberg’s aging is sad to behold, its negative effects are surprising since, through Baumbach’s script, direction, and cinematography, he goes from being a character touched by bad luck to one destroyed by it.

While Greenberg uses the aging schlemiel and surprises us with its negativity, While We’re Young also uses the aging schlemiel but it surprises us with its mitigated negativity.   Baumbach uses this mitigated negativity to help us distinguish between two different generations of people and their hopes. The schlemiel – played by Stiller – belongs to Generation X while the ironic and shrewd hipster – who dupes him – belongs to the millennials.

This it seems is the surprise.  But there are many more that give the film meaning and scope.

Ben Stiller plays a character named Josh who is married to Cornelia, who is played by Naomi Watts. She is the daughter of a successful filmmaker, Leslie (played by Charles Grodin). Stiller plays the double to Leslie. He is the schlemiel filmmaker who has been working on a documentary film for ten years. Like Woody Allen’s character Cliff Stern, of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Josh can’t finish a film which is – like all documentaries – based on life. The metaphor speaks to the schlemiel character who, as always, has a hard time making progress and becoming an “adult.”   But the contrasts don’t end here. Josh has another double.

Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darbie (Amanda Seyfried) – a young hipster couple – after he finishes teaching his “continuing education” class (he is a failed schlemiel academic, too). Jamie acts as if he is enthused with Josh’s work, Josh is surprised, and, out of spontaneous joy, he decides to surprise his wife by introducing Jamie and Darbie (who just happen to be eating at the same Chinese restaurant for dinner).

The surprises don’t stop there.

The more the two couples hang out, the more surprises there are. As this happens, we see Cornelia and Josh gradually separate from friends their age, Marina and Fletcher (played by Maria Dizzia and former Beastie Boy, Adam Horowitz). The more they hang out with Jamie and Darbie, the more Josh and Cornelia find the lifestyle of Marina and Fletcher to be banal and typical of aging people. At one point, Josh says that what makes life with the hipster couple so great is the fact that it is so “surprising” and that these surprises are the source of a new kind of life (a better life). Cornelia goes along with him and, in doing so, alienates herself and Josh from their old friends.

But once this happens, they stumble across an unexpected surprise that turns everything on its head.

When Josh learns that Jamie has approached his father in law to help him in his film and that one apparently spontaneous experience was staged for the sake of filming a scene, Josh connects the dots and is surprised to learn that he has been duped. Since the very beginning, Jamie lied to Josh in order to make him feel as if he was special. This was all for the sake of meeting and working with Josh’s father in law and become famous. Unlike Josh, Jamie makes his film over a few months (not ten years) by way of lying and tricking people while he films them. He is shrewd and this, to be sure, is what Cornelia’s father slights Josh for not being. The lesson: only a shrewd realist – and not a schlemiel purist – will make it in the film industry.

To be sure, the negative experience (surprise) of being duped is common to schlemiel fiction. I recently wrote on this vis-à-vis Saul Bellow’s, Herzog.   However, as I noted over there, just because a schlemiel learns he or she is duped doesn’t mean that he or she will stop being a schlemiel. They may just move on.

And this is what happens in While We’re Young. But there is a major difference. In Herzog or in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the surprised schlemiel characters go away alone (Herzog goes back to the Berkshires from Chicago and Alvy Singer goes back to New York from LA).   In While We’re Young, Josh goes back to Cornelia and they both decide, at the end of the movie, to adopt a baby from Haiti. The last scene they are in transit to see the baby they are adopting and start, as Bernard Malamud said of his schlemiel S. Levin, a new life.

Regarding the surprise, the viewer also leaves the film learning something new. Baumbach uses the negative surprise to show how, in contrast to the hipsters, Generation X’ers like Josh and Cornelia are more moral. They have a sense of history and see film as a vehicle for justice. To be sure, Josh’s film – which took ten years to make – looked to document economic injustice and genocide. But, as Josh’s father-in-law says, “it’s too long…and boring.” People today are more interested in exciting documentaries and films and less interested in having an academic understanding of injustice. That’s the message which is articulated through the schlemiel’s failure to succeed.

However, the important thing to remember is that it is surprise that got him into this mess with Jamie and surprise which gets him out of it. Although it is negative, it gives this film weight. But, more importantly, this surprise gives the schlemiel’s middling age (and belatedness) a weight and moral purpose that it lacks in Seth Rogen’s latest film and in Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel and memoir.   (And unlike Woody Allen’s Anything Else, Baumbach doesn’t want to part with the schlemiel’s sense of astonishment.)

It shows us that the schlemiel is a moral figure, which is something we learn from Yiddish and Jewish American writers like Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, and Saul Bellow. But what Baumbach shows us, today, is that the schlemiel’s failure can be used in a historical sense which can remind us what is at stake today in a world that is becoming more and more amoral. If wit and shrewd irony replace humility and hope (which are traits of the schlemiel), then we are in trouble. And, more importantly, if the surprised and astonished aspect of the schlemiel is exchanged for this kind of irony, one wonders how morality can be wed to comedy in the near future. Since sarcasm and satire, though effective, are often shrewd (and sometimes cruel), they make no room for the schlemiel.   These comic modalities privilege cold intelligence and political heft rather than the heart, innocence, and trust.

I’m glad Baumbach has refined the schlemiel in this way since, given all of the films on the schlemiel that are in vogue today, most of what we see are caricatures. Josh is not. His failures should mean something to us. And the fact that he and his wife can share a life, despite these failures, and decide to raise a child, is noteworthy. Unlike Saul Bellow’s Herzog, who wants to raise his child but can’t (because of a nasty divorce), and Alvy Singer who goes home alone, Josh and Cordelia can. And that…is a pleasant surprise since it suggests a relationship between the schlemiel, continuity, and fecundity.*

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*Cynthia Ozick, in her essay “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” associates “continuity” with morality in art and Emmanuel Levinas, in Totality and Infinity, associates “fecundity” with ethics.

Martin Buber and “Bogus Grandeur” – A Note on Saul Bellow’s Literary Treatment of Buber in “Herzog”

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A book – or at least an essay or two – should be written on the treatment of Martin Buber in Jewish-American fiction. Perhaps I will write it (or them). His book I and Thou gained a lot of attention in America when it was first translated. And although it was praised by many in the Jewish-American community (and outside of it), there were several critics, thinkers, and writers who found it to be flawed. The most interesting critiques, to my mind, are not to be found in books of philosophy or on the pages of this or that academic journal; they are to be found in fiction.

With respect to Jewish-American fiction, I am very interested in the treatment of Buber by Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. Since he names the main character (parodistically) Morris Bober, Malamud provides a deeply engaging treatment of Buber. What we get, with Bober, is a failure of the I-Thou. Malamud shows how, as a schlemiel, Bober is duped countless times by Frank Alpine. Alpine is a straggler who Bober trusts and treats as a thou but Alpine, to be sure, doesn’t return the favor. He lies to Bober and deceives him. This prompts Alpine to, eventually, realize his wrongs, repent, and even convert to Judaism (at the end of the novel).   Nonetheless, there is no parity in their relationship (while both are alive). There are attempts to communicate and enter the I-Thou relationship, but they all fall flat and show it to be something unreal or impossible when it comes to the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the 1950s. As his novel demonstrates, Malamud thinks of the I-Thou as unrealistic, delusional, and even harmful. The attempt is there, but reality contradicts Bober’s attempts to give the other (“you”) an attempt to be on the same level. In the end, there is a fundamental asymmetry that Malamud finds incompatible with what Buber would call the I-Thou.  (This asymmetry, in fact, is closer to Emmanuel Levinas than Buber.)

Saul Bellow’s schlemiel, Herzog, also evokes Buber. But Herzog does so in relation to a friend who betrays him by sleeping with his wife. And that friend’s name is Valentine Gersbach. Bellow’s situation of Buber vis-à-vis Gersbach is worth noting in a careful manner since it discloses’ how Buber, for Bellow, is antithetical to what he values most in the schlemiel character.

Gersbach, for Herzog, is an important, though ambiguous, figure. When Herzog finds the responses of his psychoanalyst – Edvig – to his marriage crisis (which is also a conversion crisis – his second wife converts from Judaism to Catholicism), “unsatisfactory,” because they lack emotion, he turns to Gersbach:

When he needed a feeling reaction, Herzog had to get it from Valentine Gersbach. Accordingly, he took his troubles to him. (58)

But when he rings Gersbach’s door, Phoebe, Gersbach’s wife answers the door. She is, it seems, the anti-thesis of her husband:

She was looking very gaunt, dry, pale, strained. (58)

And the reason for this is because “Phoebe knew her husband was sleeping with Madeline. And Phoebe had only one business in life, one aim, to keep her husband and protect her child”(58). How, one wonders, can the reader identify with Gersbach after reading this?   And, building on this, one wonders how Herzog could turn to him for support. The man, though “feeling,” seems like a real creep.

The narrator acknowledges Herzog’s foolishness for going to see Valentine; after all, Valentine was sleeping with his wife.  Phoebe, Valentine’s wife, answers the door:

Answering the bell, she opened the door on foolish, feeling, suffering Herzog. He had come to see his friend. (58)

But…how could this man be “his friend?”

The narrator suggests that the difference between Herzog and Phoebe is that he could live with irony but she could not, and that drains the life out of her:

Phoebe was not strong; her energy was limited; she must have been past the point of irony. And as for pity, what would she have pitied him for? Non – adultery – that was too common to be taken seriously by either of them. (58)

The problem, as the narrator comically suggests, is that Phoebe has become indifferent to her husband’s adultery and that she doesn’t want to draw on the frission of irony. Herzog, it seems, does. The narrator notes that she “might have” pitied Herzog’s “suffering” and “absent mindedness,” but the fact is that she doesn’t. And the reason that the narrator provides us with has to do with her limited emotional resources, on the one hand, and Herzog’s encouragement of Valentine to becoming a high minded “cultural figure.” And this is where Buber comes into the picture:

But she probably had only enough feeling for the conduct of her own life, and no more. Moses was sure that she blamed him for aggravating Valentine’s ambitions – Gersbach the public figure, Gersbach the poet, the television intellectual, lecturing at the Hadassah on Martin Buber. (58)

The narrator focuses on Buber as a figure of deception. While Gersbach praises Buber and speaks with major flourishes, he treats his wife and best friend like objects.   The narrator puts Gersbach on a pedestal so as to give the reader a painful sense of the trick he plays on Herzog and how Herzog foolishly takes the bait:

Dealing with Valentine was like dealing with a king. He had a thick grip. He might have held a scepter. He was a king, an emotional king, and the depth of his heart was his kingdom. He appropriated all the emotions about him, as if by divine or spiritual right. He could do more with them, and therefore he simply took them over. He was a big man, too big for anything but the truth. (Again, the truth!) Herzog had a weakness for grandeur, and even bogus grandeur (was it ever entirely bogus?). (61)

In the last pages of this chapter, the narrator is Herzog and he talks about how Gersbach, his wife Madeline (who fooled around with each other), and Edvig, his psychoanalyst, used religion to dupe everyone. He does this in a letter to his psychoanalyst:

Somehow I got into a religious competition.   You and Madeline and Valentine Gersbach all talking religion to me – so I tried it out. To see how it would feel to act with humility. As though such idiotic passivity or masochistic crawling or cowardice were humility, or obedience, not terrible decadence. Loathsome! (64)

But it was Gersbach who pushed the Buber on Herzog and insisted that he learn it as one would learn the Bible – in search of “truth.”

He brought me books (by Martin Buber). He commanded me to study them. I sat reading I and Thou, Between God and Man, The Prophetic Faith in nervous fever. Then we discussed them. (64)

Herzog explains Buber to his psychoanalyst. And, near the end of the letter, Herzog, by way of a parody of Buber, admits that he was duped by Gersbach’s use of high mindedness and empathy to get what he wanted:

I’m sure you know the views of Buber. It is wrong to turn a man (a subject) into a thing (an object). By means of spiritual dialogue, the I-It relationship becomes an I-Thou relationship. God comes and goes in man’s soul. And men come and go in each other’s souls. Sometimes they come and go in each other’s beds, too. You have to dialogue with a man. You have intercourse with his wife. You hold the poor fellow’s hand. You look into his eyes. You give him consolation. All the while, you rearrange his life….You deprive him of his daughter (after the two separate, Gersbach and Madeline take Herzog’s child). And somehow it is all mysteriously translated into religious depth. And finally your suffering is greater than his, too, because you are the greater sinner. (64)

The point Bellow is trying to make is that Herzog was taken in by the “bogus grandeur” of not just Gersbach…but Buber as well.   But, more importantly, Bellow is showing us how the schlemiel can be employed in a literary kind of critique of Buber’s philosophy and the religious way-of-life his books seem to suggest.

Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog: A Literary Treatment of the Traveling Schlemiel (Part II)

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Since he is in constant motion, Saul Bellow’s schlemiel, Moses Herzog can’t hold on to things. He moves from place to place, from memory to memory, and from slow motion to speed. His narrative can turn on a dime.

Things move through him, too:

With me, money is not a medium. It passes through me – taxes, insurance, mortgage, child support, rent, legal fees. (31)

After mentioning these flows, he notes that his cab is stuck in traffic, in the “garment district,” the hub of business in NYC.

But in this sedentary state, he is overwhelmed by movement coming from outside of him, in: “electric machines” that “thundered in the lofts.” Their power makes the “whole street quiver.”   And the “street was plunged, drowned in the waves of thunder.”

His world, inside and out, is a series of flows or what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “lines of flight” – these lines “describes a smooth space.”

A line that delimits nothing, the describes no contour, that no longer goes form one point to another but instead passes between points, that is always declining from the horizontal and the vertical and deviating from the diagonal, that is constantly changing direction, a mutant line of this kind that is without outside or inside, form or background, beginning or end that is as alive as a continuous variation – such a line is truly an abstract line, and describes a smooth space. (A Thousand Plateaus, 489)

Smooth Spaces are urban, like the NYC that Herzog travels through and like the money that “passes through” him. And, in these movements, Deleuze and Guittari would say that the city and Herzog, in their alternating movements, are “reconstructing” a smooth space.

Even the most striated city gives rise to smooth space: to live in the city as a nomad, or as a cave dweller.   Movements, speed and slowness, are sometimes enough to reconstruct a smooth space. (500)

But just because one is in a smooth space doesn’t mean, for them, that one is liberated. In fact, one might, like Herzog, get stuck.

Of course, smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that smooth space will suffice to save us. (500)

The final warning, here, opens up a discussion which can to be found in Bellow’s novel. Can traveling through space be salvic? Will it “suffice to save us?” Here, Deleuze and Guittari would suggest that we remain skeptical about this possibility. However, everything they write about the nomadic line and smooth space seems to suggest something hopeful and full of life. Their practices create a kind of optimism about traveling through space which is almost…as they suggest salvational.

Can the nomad, or a Jewish schlemiel like Herzog, be saved through diaspora? This is something George Stiener seems to be suggesting in his famous essay, on diasporic text as his “homeland.”   Nonetheless, Deleuze and Guattari suggest we don’t believe in such “smooth spaces.” There may be “obstacles.” And, to be sure, we see such obstacles tossed in front of Herzog throughout his journeys from space to space, letter to letter, and city to city. Besides an exposure to noise, the thundering streets of New York promise many different things for the schlemiel.

Regardless, Herzog, like the cab, must move on. Herzog will have to leave the street he is in just like he will have to leave the station. But as the narrator tells us, Herzog can’t think about what he has left behind too much as Herzog believed the “acute memories are probably symptoms of disaster. To him, perpetual thought of death was a sin. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead”(32).

At the same time as he moves forward, he can, in the midst of Grand Central Station, feel “it all slipping away from him in the subterranean road of engines, voices, and feet and in the galleries with lights like drops of fat in yellow broth and the strong suffocating fragrance of underground New York”(33).

His life seems to be slipping away from him into this…smooth space…It seems liberating…but it’s not.  Or is it? In New York…anything is possible.

Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog: A Literary Treatment of the Traveling Schlemiel (Part I)

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There are many portrayals of the schlemiel in literature, film, TV, and theater. But what Saul Bellow did with his portrayal of Moses Herzog – in his book Herzog – was to give the schlemiel a unique American face and literary treatment.   To understand the meaning of the novel, one must, to be sure, make a close reading of Herzog so as to assemble a picture of the schlemiel.   To do this, one must, with the narrator and Herzog, be a traveler of sorts.

Since Herzog’s thoughts go back and forth between the past and the present, between one world and another, and from one letter and another (he writes countless letters he never sends but carries along with him), one must read (travel) between the lines (memories, letters, and worlds) if one is to gather the pieces of the schlemiel puzzle.

First of all, the metaphor of traveling fast and trying to keep up with everything as it passes is central to the novel. Herzog’s motion prompts his mind to be here and…elsewhere. The schlemiel is, in this sense, excited, restless, out of place, and (un)timely:

In the cab through the hot streets of where brick and brownstone buildings were crowded, Herzog held the strap and his large brown eyes were fixed on the sights of New York. The square shapes were vivid, not inert, they have him a sense of fateful motion, almost of intimacy. Somehow he felt himself part of it all – in the rooms, the stores, cellars – and at the same time he sensed the danger of these multiple excitements. But he’d be all right. He was overstimulated. He had to calm down these overstrained galloping nerves, put out this murky fire inside. He yearned for the Atlantic….He knew he would think better, clearer thoughts after bathing in the sea. His mother had believed in the good effects of bathing. But she had died so young. (27)

After reflecting on his mother’s early death, he reflects on his own death and, in doing so, we see that he isn’t a Heideggarian subject. His death is not his own; in a Levinasian sense, he lives for the other. Herzog sees his death in terms of his children:

He could not allow himself to die yet. The children needed him. His duty was to live. (27)

Reflecting on this, which, as we have seen, emerged out of traveling through New York and reflecting on this mother, Herzog lists his priorities:

To be sane, and to live, and to look after his kids.(27)

Even though, at the beginning of the novel, he notes that he is going mad and that it’s ok (“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”), we see, here, that there is more than madness on his mind. There is responsibility and being a good father to his kids.

In fact, the narrator tells us that “this” confluence of life, sanity, and responsibility, “was why he was running from the city now, overheated, eyes smarting.”

All of his flights from one place to another are a part of his schlemiel character:

Although he didn’t know what lay ahead except the confining train that would impose rest on him (you can’t run in a train) through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusets…his reasoning was sound. Seashores are good for madmen – provided they’re not to man. He was ready. (ibid)

…ready to move. But then we learn that he is not in a train but in a cab in New York City. And this makes him want to write letters, which give him yet another form of transport:

But all at once, the seat of the cab heating in the sun, he was aware that his angry spirit had stolen forward again, and that he was about to write letters. (ibid)

According to the narrator, the letter is about how uncomfortable he is about stuck in one place, at a meeting. He becomes self-conscious and, like a schlemiel, he tells us how he spills soup over everyone: “I try to look right an proper but my face turns dead with boredom, my fantasy spills soup and gravy on everybody, and I want to scream out or fade away”(ibid).

To take his mind off of being a sedentary schlemiel, Herzog thinks about himself in a comical manner. But then his mind drifts back to the bad state of the world when he thinks about how mad post-WWII America is. This realism juxtaposes with his schlemiel-like optimism:

Think what America could mean to the world. Then see what it is. What a breed it might have produced. But look at us – at you, at me. Read the paper, if you can bear it. (28)

But before he can settle in to this cynical view of things, he is distracted by places he sees in Manhattan which evoke childhood memories. He remembers his aunt Tennie and her husband, Pontritter, who she divorced. But he is less interested in Pontritter (Pon) who is a WASP – “he was burly, masterful, there was a certain peevish power and intelligence in his dark face…Powerful, isolated” – than he is in the divorce lawyer, Simkin.

What he remembers about Simkin is his humanity. Simkin cares for Tennie since he says that her “feelings are hurt.” Recalling Simkin, Herzog remembers how, although Simkin had a head that “was shaggy and aggressive,” when he spoke with Herzog he took on a “diffident, almost meek tone”(29). What attracts Herzog is the fact that, with Simkin, he can see the effect of his humility. That it is real. And this is a place that, unlike meetings or places that were sedentary, Herzog can be or stay.

The narrator tells us why Simkin respected Herzog. But this respect is mixed with pity. Nonetheless, Simkin is smart enough to see that the schlemiel tries to “keep his dignity,” that is, his humanity, and that is worthy of respect:

Though Simkin was a clever lawyer, very rich, he respected Herzog. He had a weakness for confused high-minded people, for people with moral impulses like Moses. Hopeless! Very likely he looked at Moses and saw a grieving childish man, trying to keep his dignity. (29)

The juxtaposition of Simkin’s voice – with his secretary as opposed to Herzog – demonstrates humanity and its effacement. With Herzog, Simkin’s voice is “very small, meek, almost faint,” but when he answers his secretary it “expands” and is “loud” and “stern.”   Simkin is Herzog’s “reality instructor.” Herzog “brings” such instructors “our” (30). But reality is not a lesson that Herzog is crazy about since it is so cruel and deceptive.

Bellow is telling us, via Herzog, that kindness and humanity is not to be found in business, American style; it is not worldly. It is other-worldly. And this, it seems, is what prompts Herzog to want to always be elsewhere.   Regardless, he sticks around this or that place because he wants to spread humility and goodness.

He sticks around because he is moral, but he also leaves because he is moral.

When he snaps out of this memory, he is in a cab in the midst of a Manhattan (a world) that is mad and even poisonous. He is stuck in it. And he wants to get out and be somewhere else…by the seashore “where he could breath.” But he’s not there, he’s in the city, in the real (violent) world:

Crashing, stamping pile-driving below, and higher, structural steel, interminably and hungrily going up into the cooler, more delicate blue…But down in the street where buses were spurting the poisonous exhaust of the cheap fuel, and the cars crammed together, it was stifling, grinding the racket of machinery and the desperately purposeful crowds – horrible! He had to get out the seashore where he could breath. He ought to have booked a flight. But he had enough of planes…(32)

….to be continued….

“In the Tragic-Comedy of Life, O How We Need the Holy fool!” – A Guest Post by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

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I never heard laughter as loud as I did (on the other side of intimacy) that Kol Nidrai on the bima in front of 1500 congregants, as when I launched into the final words of the infamous Buddy Hackett yarn about the retired rabbi caught at a Catskills Hotel by his congregants as his order of a baked pig arrives, allowing him fulfill his life-long dream of eating trayf— “This place is amazing,” retorts the rabbi. “You order a baked apple and look whatchya get!”

I have wondered (not too often) after a decade serving as rabbi in an affluent traditional-egalitarian, Conservative Jewish community in Westchester, New York, that after all the Talmud torah opportunities I afforded my congregants, why it is that time and time again, the Torah they recalled most vividly were jokes like this. It always struck me how congregants were drawn to teachings and lectures I would give on the great assimilated American Jewish writers, like Phillip Roth, or a panel discussion of a Coen brothers’ film, and yet how challenging, if not downright unappealing for this flock to delve into mystical treasures of the tradition seen through a contemporary lens.

I have learned an immense amount from the Shlemiel par excellence of this very blog as he envisioned and then solicited my essay as a contribution to his forthcoming collection on Levinas and humor—a real game changer! Perhaps, in the catharsis of laughter, every one of those thousands in the pews was able to reconcile their heartfelt dissonance in confronting their ideality of kashruth and their reality of a trayf lifestyle, or their ideality of fostering a “community of commitment” and the reality of enabling a “lifestyle enclave”. When I invited the Chancellor elect of JTSA to come and share this vision of shedding the “lifestyle enclave” and embracing a “community of commitment” what sounds from the hundreds filling the sanctuary then could be heard? Laughter, as Levinas alludes, is a moment of catharsis that opens to a deeper othering of self, allowing for a vulnerability to the other normally not present. There is something profoundly humanizing about this experience.

Shakespeare not only invented the human, according to Bloom, but he also makes us appreciate how the comic is inextricably linked to the tragic. I find myself relearning this lesson as I peruse much of the recent spate of OTD literature— at once comic and tragic. Comic— insofar as readers become voyeurs into a world most of us laugh at as outsiders and would likely never chose to enter as insiders. Tragic— because of its portrayal of heartfelt pain in “leaving the path” from which there is no return. In the ultra-orthodox world, this ultimatum works. After all, if there is only one line along which everyone’s convictions must fall into alignment with, then there are those on and those off that line.

But growing up in a nominally Conservative household, I experienced the best of heterodoxy first hand. My parents kept a kosher home with three sets of dishes as they migrated from shul to shul about every five years—continually in search of their emesdichkeyt, their authentic path of Limmud, Torah and Tefillah. From the world of heterodoxy to orthodoxy, what I find so tragic about much of OTD literature is the lack of holy fools inside of those communities who can model what it means to straddle worlds and cross boundaries. The holy fool is more than the pleasantry of a badkhan at a wedding, but a necessary carnivalesque elixir to nomian reification! What the holy fool teaches us is that there really is only one path—as Elliot Wolfson calls it—the path of no-path. Upon taking leave of our local community Jewish day school, my wife was understandably distraught, but I lamented the state of heterodoxy is alarmingly similar to what the Kotzker rebbe decried in his day: “I’d rather have shtarker mitnaggedim than pareve Hasidim!”

The other tragedy intertwined within the holy fool is now being rediscovered in the teachings of Reb Nahman of Bratzlav—outside the Bratzlav communities. After Zvi Mark’s magisterial study of the holy fool in his Mysticism and madness: The religious thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (2009) as a necessary component to Reb Nahman’s mystical quest, it is no longer feasible to merely see his journey as one of a tormented master. Madness is the signature of the holy fool and that shtut d’qedushah is what allows for a more expansive elevation of consciousness after falling into yeridat ha’mohkin. Sure the NA-NAH-NAHMAN Breslovers have that holy foolishness about them in their ecstatic dancing, but it is in Marks’ critical edition of Bratzlav Sippurai Ma’asiyot Kol sipure Rabi Naḥman mi-Braslav : ha-maʻaśiyot, ha-sipurim ha-sodiyim, ha-ḥalomot ṿeha-ḥezyonot : liḳuṭ ha-nusaḥim mi-kitve yad nedirim umi-mikhlol ha-sifrut ha-Braslavit be-tosefet pirḳe mavo ṿe-heḳshere ha-sipurim (2014) as well as numerous anthologies on the stories published by secular presses like Yediʻot aḥaronot who are interested in publishing eclectic anthologies like Roee Horen’s Ha-ḥayim Ke-Gaʻaguʻa: Ḳeriʼot Ḥadashot Be-Sipure Ha-Maʻaśiyot Shel R. Naḥman Mi-Breslev : Asupat Maʼamarim (2010) where the transgressive line between artist and academic, between the tragic and the comic is blurred. The perennial need for the holy fool remains as urgent as ever—especially in Israel, after the latest election performances! It is that seventh beggar who never appears that is the beggar with no feet. Yet it is precisely this beggar, the holiest of fools, who can show us the way to dance the path of no-path.

In a world gone mad, only a fool could think there is a future, never mind a Torah of the future!?! But that is precisely what Reb Nahman bequeathed as a holy fool to this generation. Ours is the time described in Reb Nahman’s tiny tale of the king and his viceroy who must mark their foreheads while eating the tainted grain; for in a world gone mad only the holy fool is sane. Such a Torah of the future, as I have been learning from my planetary gnostic rebbe, Miles Krassen, is one of the many fruits of the supernal overflow, one of many that makes this planet flourish. In his tall tale, “Losing the Princess”, Reb Nahman recounts the only way to free the lost princess is for the viceroy to veer off the derekh, to find a path from the side, an um-wege. Tragic-comic poets like Paul Celan see that all poetry after Auschwitz is about finding the um-wege—it is precisely from that different vantage point where I encounter the other and see myself differently.

Now in all seriousness, one of the first proposals I made to my new community in San Francisco was an urgent need to revisit the minor mystical ritual of Yom Kippur(im) Katan and transform it into Yom K’Purim Katan. Transforming that solemn fast day before each new month into a time to reconnect with the holy fool within, dressing up and distributing food and good cheer is the comedy of the hour—just because! Perhaps it is because my new synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, in San Francisco is only blocks away from the holy beggars who once lived in the House of Love and Prayer and the Dharma Bums who frequented City Lights Bookstore that this community is really willing to grab onto the Torah concealed in all the laughter and holy foolishness that I continue to share freely.

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Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. (University of Toronto) currently serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is in demand in many educational forums, from lay learning to federations, seminaries and colleges across North America, Europe and Israel where he is a passionate and challenging teacher of Jewish Mysticism, Philosophy & Hebrew poetry. Aubrey’s work is published widely in popular and academic forums, including his latest book dedicated to the spiritual renaissance of Hebrew culture in Israel called, Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013). Aubrey serves as a consultant and contributor of kavvanot and Israeli prayerful poetry to the Conservative Mahzor and Siddur Lev Shalem. Ordained by JTSA, Aubrey has also completed training courses in kashrut supervision (Rav haMakhshir), Jewish Spirituality (IJS), and Jewish Entrepreneurial Leadership (Kellogg School of Business). In his rabbinic work in diverse communal settings, Aubrey has created award winning programming like Blessing for the Animals and Phat Phriday that draw on the depths of traditional forms in creative ways to promote vibrancy and continuity in-reach and out-reach.

Self-Mockery, Rage, and Writing: On Gary Shteyngart’s “Little Failure”

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When it comes to Jewish humor, self-mockery is not new. Sanford Pinsker argues that Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Rabbi and Torah commentator, used self-mockery to epitomize the comedic state of exile (in general) and the schlemiel (in particular).   Self-mockery is found in the classic joke about the schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik. One spills the soup (the schlemiel), the other is spilled on (the schlimazel), and the third person asks the schlimazel what kind of soup it is (nudnik).   Self-mockery has been a way for Jews over the centuries to laugh at bad luck and live on with a sense of…self.   Although it might be diminished, it survives. Wit is the power of Jewish humor against powerlessness.

But there is a fine line between self-mockery and self-hatred. And when it moves into the other realm it becomes more sad than funny.

Woody Allen is able to traverse the fine line in many of his movies and in his prose.

For instance, in “The Selections from the Allen Notebooks,” Allen plays on the existential version of the notebook or journal as a space of despair, sickness, and self-hatred:

I believe my consumption has grown worse. Also my asthma. The wheezing comes and goes, and I get dizzy more and more frequently. I have taken to violent choking and fainting. My room is damp and I have perpetual chills and palpitations of the heart. I noticed, too, that I am out of napkins. Will it never stop?

The punch line releases us from the possibility of self-hatred and becomes self-mockery. Gary Shteyngart, in his memoir Little Failure, also tries to tread the same territory as Woody Allen.   However, he comes closer to the first lines of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (“I am a sick, angry man…”) than Allen.

To be sure, Shteyngart associates the essence of writing – and his project – with a tension between joy and self-hatred. But of the two, he admits that without self-hatred and hatred he could not write. It makes writing not only “possible” but “necessary.”

I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary. I hate myself, I hate people around me, but what I crave is the fulfillment of some ideal. (149)

Following this, he lists several ideals that fail: “my family – Papa hits me; my religion – children hit me”(148). And this leads him to feel rage and informs his main inspiration in America:

But America/Atlanta is full of power and force and rage, a power of force and rage I can fuel myself with until I find myself zooming for the starts with Flyboy and Saturn and Iadara and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. (148)

The punchline of this joke is that anger and rage are everywhere in “America/Atlanta” (whether it is the rage of the dispossessed or conservative defense ministers).   But the implication is that Shteyngart is parting from Woody Allen’s use of self-mockery. He is not – like many a schlemiel (from Motl to Gimpel or Moses Herzog) a humble and dreamy “little failure” – he is an angry one.   Shteyngart’s rage makes him verge on not just self-hatred but also on hatred of others. And, as he notes, it makes his writing “possible” and “necessary.”

When read against the failures of this or that ideal, I can see that there is more going on here than shoulder shrugging. His failures make him feel rage against all of the ideals he was raised with. Although he mocks them (and nearly all of them deal with Jewishness), what we have here is a deep questioning of Jewishness that is based on his negative experiences with it.

At the end of his book, Shteyngart recounts a trip back to Russia with his parents to visit the grave of his grandfather. He recalls a picture of his father (who is enamored with Jewishness and Israel) and mother. He recalls saying Kaddish and even includes the Hebrew. But he has a much different relationship to the Hebrew and his grandfather than does his father.

I can read the prayer, but I cannot understand it. The words coming out of my mouth are gibberesh to me. And they can only be gibberish to my father’s ear as well. (349)

None of this is funny. In fact, its very sad, angry, and solemn.

Shteyngart’s words suggest that Hebrew and Jewishness are, like many other things, failed ideals that he is leaving behind for other ideals. Like a schlemiel, he trips over the words; but, in the end, the fall is fatal not funny:

I chant the gibberish backwards and forwards, tripping over the words, mangling them, making them sound more Russian, more American, more holy. We haven’t found my grandfather’s name, Isaac, amidst the acres of marble covered with Ivans and Nikolais and Alexanders. (349)

The last words of the memoir are in Russian. His Kaddish ends in a foreign language. Unlike his father, he is a realist and sees that there is no point in returning to or trying to find Jewishness for the sake of one’s identity. He mourns it as he mourns his failure of the ideals his father and mother set forth for him. He becomes, for lack of a better word, post-Jewish. His holy tongue is “more Russian, more American.” It’s not Hebrew.

Given what Shteyngart says about writing, one can surmise that what “fuels” the last words of his memoir are hatred and anger.   But this seems to pass the fine line between self-mockery and self-hatred. What we are left with is nothing funny. And with this gesture he seems to go from being a little failure who, like many a schlemiel, remains bound to Jewishness (for better or for worse) to an adult who has left it behind for the language of exile.

The other possibility is that this is another kind of Jewishness, but it’s not funny. It seems that, for Shteyngart, the post-modern Jew must be a realist who mourns Jewishness rather than recover it. And the fuel for this gesture is…as he says…rage.   And despite all of the comical recountings of his “little failures,” we can say that they are really a façade for his mournful and angry realism.  What surprises me most is that I have not found one book review which noticed this. If they did, perhaps his book wouldn’t sell copies.

With this in mind, I’ll leave you with the promotional video for the film which, given this reading, seems to be…besides the point.