On Harsh Realism, Ethical Hope, and the Meaning(s) of Jewishness in Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part II


The schlemiel is a moral figure. In Yiddish literature, there are many examples of the schlemiel’s generosity and kindness to others. However, even though the schlemiel is kind he or she is often laughed at. Think, for example, of the famous schlemiel joke about the schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik. The schlemiel is the one who wants to feed the schlimazal but, right when he is about to give him soup, he spills it on him. And in the schlemiel classic, I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” the main character, Gimpel, is a very kind character. He trusts people. And even though they repeatedly betray him, he keeps on trusting them. Although this blindness to their betrayal (Ruth Wisse, however, does not think it is blind) may seem foolish and comical, it underscores the importance of the schlemiel’s goodness.

Unlike any Jewish-American writer at his time, Bellow, in his novel Herzog, was the first to give an extensive genealogy of a schlemiel’s moral character.   To this end, Bellow includes a large section on Herzog’s mother, father, and brothers. This section follows in the wake of a section on his childhood friend, Nachman.   As I pointed out in the last blog entry, Nachman is a troubled man who cannot come to terms with his father, a Rabbi, and his upbringing. He intentionally forgets it all and when he sees Herzog he is painfully reminded of it. For this reason, he “runs away.” By way of Herzog, Bellow suggests that the reason why he is so reactionary is because he didn’t grow up with a family that was good to the downtrodden. His father is more bitter and cynical than caring and optimistic.

Although Nachman runs away from his past and Herzog’s memory, he does remember that Herzog may be “blind” (to how bad things are) but he is “good.” Nachman remembers the schlemiel’s moral quality and he does this by way of remembering how good Herzog’s mother was to him and how kind his mother and father were to his “Uncle Ravitch,” a “drunkard”(134).   It’s because of these deeds that Nachman says that he “prays” for “her” and for “Moses.” In other words, goodness is contagious and can pierce through even Nachman’s trenchant cynicism and alienation.

After saying this to Herzog, Nachman gets on a bus and leaves him. They never speak again. And Herzog is left with their memories, which oppress him: “But I, with my memory – all the dead and the mad are in my custody, and I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten. I bind others to my feelings”(134).

Herzog learned this practice of binding “others” to his feelings from his parents. He suggests this when he reflects on “Uncle Ravitch” and how his parents helped the drunkard:

He drank his pay – a shicker. No one judged himself more harshly. When he came out of the saloon he stood wavering in the street, directing traffic, falling among horses and trucks and slush. The police were tired of throwing him in the drunk tank. They brought him home, to Herzog’s hallway, and pushed him in. Ravitch, late at night, sang on the freezing states in a sobbing voice.


            “Alein, alien, alien, alein

            Elend vie a shtein

            Mit die tzen finger – alein”(135)


            (“Alone, alone, alone, alone

            Solitary as a stone

            With my ten fingers – alone”)


After hearing this song, the narrator tells us that “Jonah Herzog,” Moses Herzog’s father, “got out of bed and turned on the light in the kitchen, listening”(135). All of his children, including Moses, watch the father as he listens to the song and moves to act. Herzog’s mother urges the father to help the drunkard:

Mother Herzog spoke from her room, “Yonah – help him in.” (135)

The narrator details all of the movements and hesitations that go on before he helps “Uncle Ravitch.” And the children witness this. It has a great affect on them, especially Moses Herzog, the schlemiel:

It amused the boys to hear how their father coaxed drunken Ravitch to get on his feet. It was family theater. “Nu, landtsman.” Can you walk? It’s freezing. Now, get your crooked feet on the step – schneller, schneller.” He laughed with his bare breath…The boys pressed together in the cold, smiling. (136)

Following this, the narrator points out how, in Russia, “father Herzog had been a gentleman” and wealthy.   Now he was reduced to poverty and taking care of a drunkard in the middle of the night.   None of that mattered in this moment.

The narrator goes on to tell us how Yonah Herzog’s life became the life of what Hannah Arendt – in her essay “The Jew as Pariah” – would call the “schlemiel as suspect.” To support his family, he would run alcohol in an age of prohibition:

He sold a bottle here and there and waited for his main chance. American rum-runners would buy the stuff from you at the border (of Canada), any amount, spot cash, if you could get it there. Meanwhile he smoked cigarettes on the cold platform of streetcars. The Revenue was trying to catch up with him. Spotters were after him. On the roads to the border were hijackers. (138)

Herzog recalls his childhood poverty and the dirtiness and crime around him. At the same time, he recalls how, in the midst of all this, he and his brothers prayed and his parents persisted despite the circumstances. And with all this, they still felt it was necessary to help out others such as “Uncle Ravitch.”

The chapter ends with the children bearing witness to Zipporah, Yonah Herzog’s successful sister, berating him – in from of Moses Herzog and his family – about working with criminal types:

“You think you can make a fortune out of swindlers, thieves, and gangsters. You? You’re a gentle creature. I don’t know why you didn’t stay in Yeshiva. You wanted to be a gilded little gentleman…You can never keep up with these teamsters and butchers. Can you shoot a man?” (145)

To be sure, there are many schlemiel jokes about how the Jew can’t be violent (or, rather, doesn’t know how to). The schlemiel is a humanist. But this is the question. The sister keeps on asking Yonah whether he can be violent. Yonah’s wife goes along with his sister.

Herzog admits that he is “no weakling” but, says the narrator, “all his violence went into the drama of his life, into family strife, and sentiment”(146). He can not hurt others in order to survive.

This all comes to a head when Moses Herzog recalls how his father, one night, came home beaten up:

We were all there. It was a gloomy March…It was like a cavern. We were like cave dwellers. “Sara!” he said. “Children!” He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters…Then he turned his pockets inside out – empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him – a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes he was a king to us. (147)

The reduction and humiliation of Moses Herzog’s father have a deep impression on him of the kind of evil that exists in the world. But at the very end of the chapter, Herzog notes that his father’s suffering, after the Holocaust, is not exceptional:

What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog’s claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. (148)

Given the long sections on Nachman, the reader can see that Herzog is now faced with a choice between being or not being a cynic.   And this is where Bellow gives his reading of Jewishness and its relationship to comedy and suffering the stage:

Personalities are good only for comic relief. But I am still a slave to Papa’s pain. The way Father Herzog spoke of himself! That could make one laugh. His I had such dignity. (149)

Irving Howe was very attracted to Bellow’s reading of humor. In the midst of suffering (tears), there is laughter and a sense of self remains…despite all of the humiliation.   Moses Herzog recalls the “two figures” of his father: one beaten and humiliated and the other self-mocking and dignified. He acknowledges the dead and the suffering and at the same time remembers how…there is still hope.

And that is what informs the schlemiel’s genealogy. His hope, suggests Bellow, is not born in a vacuum but out of Jewish history and in response to violence and needless suffering. The moral quality stands out against this backdrop. And the schlemiel carries all of this with him in all of his interactions.

Without comic relief, Herzog would become a cynical and self-destructive Nachman.

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