Last Sunday (May 3), I spoke at Knesseth Israel Synagogue which is located in my hometown: Gloversville, New York. I talked about the Schlemiel, being an American and a Jew, and my family’s path to and in America.
The following is an article written by Brian Moskowitz, a freelance journalist and copywriter currently based in Toronto. He reported on the event. (For more on Gloversville and the schlemiel see this.)
He’s a schlemiel…And proud of it
Upstate New York native overwhelmed by hometown support
By Brian Moskowitz
As a professor, blogger, musician and schlemiel theorist, Menachem Feuer is the pride of his hometown.
“The schlemiel brings warmth to cold hearts,” the York University professor of Jewish Studies told an esteemed audience of 50 people at Gloversville, New York’s Knesseth Israel Synagogue, on May 3.
Feuer, who currently lives in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Thornhill, Ontario, was invited to speak about his work on the comedic Jewish character that originated in Europe, and to celebrate his accomplishments and deep personal connection to Gloversville. Along with local Jews and non-Jews curious about Judaism and its relationship to comedy, a New York state Supreme Court Justice and a frontrunner for Fulton County Sheriff, were also in attendance.
The self-described “schlemiel from Upstate New York”, explained how the schlemiel uses comedy to triumph over adversity; and how this seemingly awkward character who inevitably “spills the soup” when attempting to serve it, has found new expression in American culture through the films of Woody Allen and the writings of Saul Bellow, among other artists.
“Two of the schlemiel’s main characteristics are his humility and simplicity, and this town has shown me how people are at their best when they stick to these modes of being, despite whatever hardships they may be facing,” said Feuer, alluding to the town’s twenty-five per cent unemployment rate.
“I’ve known Menachem since he was in diapers and it’s wonderful to have one of our own be successful as he is today and come back and share his experiences with us,” said Ron Olinsky, past president and Chair of United Jewish Federation programming at Knesseth Israel.
An avid reader of Feuer’s blog, SchlemielinTheory.com, Olinsky explained that Feuer’s program is the beginning of an effort to highlight the achievements of community members who have moved away from the town’s Jewish community, which has decreased from roughly 250 families to approximately 40.
Feuer’s paternal Austrian zaida, Menkis Feuer, immigrated to Gloversville in 1921 and helped establish the pastoral upstate New York town as the deer skin capital of the world.
Designed by Edgar Tafel, a protégé of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Knesseth Israel Synagogue stands together with the local library built by Andrew Carnegie and the Glove Theater, purchased by Jewish immigrants Louis and J. Myer Schine in 1920, as testaments to the heights of affluence once reached by the former leather goods mecca.
“This place has a very rich culture made up of Italians, Jews, Poles and Germans who did their best to make Gloversville the best it could be,” said Richard Giardino, currently running for Fulton County Sheriff.
The 44-year-old Feuer moved to Toronto in 2000, after marrying Kinneret Dubowitz, a yoga teacher who started a Yoga Alliance certified teacher’s training course for women in Toronto, Israel and the U.S. in 2006. Dubowitz and the couple’s sons were in Montreal where their 11-year-old, Shalom, was participating in the Chidon Hatanach Canada Bible contest.
“He’s one of our own, and it’s wonderful for our community to have somebody who goes out to the world and accomplishes great things,” said New York State Supreme Court Justice, Richard Aulisi.
A long-time friend of Feuer’s father, Aulisi added that he experiences a distinct personal pleasure listening to Feuer’s scholarship and thinks that it is “wonderful” when Gloversville natives return home to share their experiences with the community.
Because of his eclectic mix of literary erudition, Torah learning and appreciation for the Grateful Dead, Feuer became the focus of a 2011 documentary entitled Shlemiel, by filmmaker Chad Derrick. The documentary, currently available for free online at shlemiel.net, explores Feuer’s relationship to Hasidism, his family and his musical aspirations with his band, Men with Babies.
“Sholem Aleichem’s greatest schlemiel character, Motel, had an intimate relationship with the forests and animals of Eastern Europe. These find an American home in the rustic settings of Upstate New York,” said Feuer. “Gloversville is my ‘Yechupetsville’, my Anatevka, my Kasrilevke…and your trusting, encouraging, hopeful schlemielkeit, brings me home,” he told the audience.