Howie (“the Rabbi”) Mandel as a Schlimazel in Yidlife Crisis

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How does one make a dead language, like Yiddish, relevant? Yidlife Crisis is a webseries that has brought Yiddish back into a kind-of-vogue by featuring comedy routines in Yiddish (and subtitled in English).   Yidlife Crisis has been written up in the Forwards, Jewcy, and the Huffington Post. And the webseries has, over the last year, become more popular in the Jewish cultural world.

Jamie Elman – a Hollywood actor, writer, and producer from Montreal – plays Chaimie and Eli Batalion – also an actor, writer, and producer from Montreal – plays Laizer. They both write, produce, and act in film shorts that last between 3-5 minutes. They each play comic characters whose caricatured differences provoke non-stop chuckles. Laizer often plays the schlemiel (the tam – simpleton). His character is often beset by blindness whether to this or that thing or to saying or doing too much of this or too little of that.

The excesses and blind spots of Laizer are offset by Chaimie’s claims and insights. Of the two, he is the more intellectual (maskiladic) character. Even so, Chamie also has his blind spots. (The very fact that he constantly engages in debating things is his biggest blindspot.) In every episode, the two of them end up getting in a spat over food, cultural customs, relationships, or religion.   Their comical repartee is buttressed by lots of body gestures and Yiddish. They, so to speak, give the body back to the language in these comical exchanges. They make Yiddish relevant by making it a comical language.

In their first episode, entitled “Breaking the Fast,” Chaimie breaks the Holy rule of not eating on Yom Kippur. And he does so in front of the dumbfounded Laizer while the singing of a traditional cantor – in a lamentation – can be heard in the background.

The first words of the show come from the schlemiel: “I can’t believe you are eating right now.”   Following this, Chaimie reminds Laizer of a philosophical argument they had earlier in which Laizer said that “God doesn’t exist.” Laizer corrects him and says that what he meant was that we couldn’t know if He does.   But then he adds that it’s not God he worries about “it’s my parents.” This admission blows a hole in his argument and shows that he only keeps the holiday out of fear of what his parents will say. This is the first shoulder shrug. But there are more.

Chaimie goes on to ask Laizer – in the next scene – if he believes in all the things the Torah says. He suggests that those beliefs are primitive, of a different time, and are not modern. Chaimie shrugs but then goes on to call Laizer a self-hating Jew who is on the border of being anti-Semitic.   But then Chaimie ends up going off topic, like a schlemiel, and talks about how Jews inbreed like other peoples, have lactose issues, and are intelligent.   Laizer calls him on the association of waste, incest, and intelligence. They move on to the next topic. But…I need not go on. You get it. The schlemiel has his blind spots and the nudnik reminds him; however, that doesn’t keep the schlemiel from spilling the soup. What’s most endearing about this episode is the fact that Chaimie and Laizer stick together even though they disagree with each other. And they do so…in Yiddish. Jewishness – Yiddishkeit, in a cultural sense – keeps them together.   But if it weren’t for the schlemiel, there would be no punch line.

In a recent “Special Episode,” Yidlife Crisis goes to visit Howie Mandel. In the skit, we see the well-known portrayal of the schlemiel –as the one who spills the soup – is given flesh.

In this episode, Chaimie tells, Laizer, the schlemiel to be careful, but he does so in English:

Chaimie: What are the rules?

Laizer: Rule #1: Do not touch Howie’s hands.

Chaimie: Do not touch his hands. Do not touch his body. And…

Laizer: Rule #2: Don’t say anything stupid and…look pretty.

Chaimie: Which you do….

Laizer: How’s my breath? (breathes in Chaime’s face)

Chaimie: Chew all of these (breath mints) immediately.

When they are about to meet Mandel, Laizer sees “free water,” and goes to take a bottle; but Chaimie yells at him and tells him not to touch anything in fear that the schlemiel will ruin everything.   All of this is said in Yiddish.

While they are speaking in Yiddish, Mandel walks in and says “Yiddish…you’re speaking Yiddish?”   Chaime introduces himself in English to Mandel. But, playing the comic foil, Laizer doesn’t say anything. He bows and Mandel is startled by the gesture. He becomes awkward and so does Laizer.   When Mandel asks, “And you are?” Laizer gestures in a very awkard manner with his shoulders bunched up. He can’t reply to the question.

Mandel asks if Chaimie is Laizer’s “caretaker.” Laizer finally pipes up after Chaime prompts him. But he addresses Mandel in the wrong way as “Mr. Howard,” “Mr. Howie,” “Mandel.”   This is punctuated by Laizer sneezing on Mandel and Madel becoming the schlimazel. Of the many swear words Mandel calls him, schlemiel and schlimazel are in the mix.   But instead of being broken up over what happened, as Chaimie seems to be, Laizer says that Howard is a “mentsch.”   What’s most beautiful about this scene is that Chaimie, instead of being angry, goes from a frown to a smile and repeats what Laizer said about Mandel being a mentsch.   This move puts a twist on the classic tale of the schlemiel spilling the soup on the schlimazel. In the end, it’s better to be happy about this or that failure than to be aggrieved.

Chaimie plays along with the schlemiel and, in the end, the viewer can act “as if” the main take away from the scene is that Mandel is a mentsch. Regardless of what just happened, the Yiddish emulation of the mentsch is what remains. And this is what many of the Yidlife Crisis episodes leave me with: despite their disagreements over food, culture, or sex both Chaime and Laizer are good people and we would like to see more of them and their comic routines.   But, ultimately, it is the schlemiel’s naïve foibles in relation to Chaimie, Mandel, and others that give life to a language that once was vernacular.

Mandel, the “Rabbi” of comedy, gives Yiddish his stamp of approval (a haskomah). But he really does this once he is sneezed on.  In such exchanges, Yiddish happens and becomes relevant.  Perhaps Jews – who do comedy with a Yiddish accent – are…still funny.   At the very least, we can all agree that they are mentsches.

It’s Not Working: A Reflection on Maurice Blanchot and Slavoj Zizek’s Melancholic Meditations on the Failure of the Work and…Work

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When things don’t work, we get frustrated. And when we can’t find work, we get even more frustrated. To be sure, work is a fundamental part of our lives.   As for reflecting on the meaning of work, the American pragmatic tradition is interested in what kinds of concepts or words work and which do not. Many pragmatists, like Richard Rorty or William James, understand that we can all live a better and more peaceful life if we create things that “work” in accord with time and change.  For this reason, a thinker like Richard Rorty is “anti-foundationalist.” He doesn’t think that absolutes – which serve as foundations for thought, politics, etc – work anymore. His search is for things that can expand our horizons, make us more tolerant, and more able to co-exist in a world that is becoming smaller and smaller every day. In his scholarship, Rorty often turns to literature since it is constantly exploring contingency and things that are relative to this or that situation or scene rather than absolute and unchanging.   Regardless, he’s looking for what works. Parochialism doesn’t work; literature does.

In contrast, many European thinkers (from Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille to Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and Slavoj Zizek) are more interested in when things no longer work. Because when things fail, we can start thinking or changing the way things “are” or are thought-to-be.   They are interested in the anxiety, madness, shock, trauma, and melancholy (depending on your experience of failure) that ensues in the wake of such failure since it spurs one to think differently.

Maurice Blanchot, in many of his books, discusses the notion of the “work” of art (“l’oeuvre”), purposeful activity or labor (“travail”), and unworking (“desoeuvrement”).       In The Infinite Conversation, Blanchot discusses the relationship of what he calls the “detour” or “turn” away from the work. Instead of advancing forward by way of what works, he sees the “advance” in terms of what doesn’t work and solicits a “crisis”(32).   He calls this turn the “critical turn.”   What makes it critical is the fact that it turns toward what Blanchot calls “worklessness,” the “outside of speech,” “the absence of the work,” and “madness.”

I would even say that every important literary work is important to the extent that it puts more directly and more purely to work the meaning of the turn; a turning that, at the moment when it is about to emerge, makes the work pitch strangely. This is a work in which worklessness, as its always decentered center, holds sway: the absence of work.

-The absence of work that is the other name for madness.

-The absence of work in which discourse ceasing so that, outside speech, outside language, the movement of writing may come, under the attraction of the outside. (32)

Writing on worklessness, Ann Smock points out that instead of calling upon an author or person’s “strength” to work it “calls upon his weakness, the incapacity in him to achieve anything at all; it inspires in him a kind of numbness and stupefication”(13, The Space of Literature).   All s/he knows is that there is a “demand” that rules over her to not work, that is overwhelming and exhausting. In other words, the writer cannot, if they are really a writer in Blanchot’s sense, create anything that works.   A true writer is one who experiences weakness, powerlessness, and the madness that comes in the face of a demand, in effect, to fail.

In his book, Inner Experience, Georges Bataille, echoes Blanchot’s understanding of the failed work and impossibility of working.   But while Blanchot does this in a very harsh and stoic manner, Blanchot does it in a humorous manner. He accepts his failure like a sad clown. He affirms that he – like most of humanity – is a joke. And his laughter at his failure “opens up an abyss”(91).

Laughter intuits the truth which the rupture at the summit lays bare: that our will to arrest being is damned. Laughter slips on the surface, the whole length of slight depressions: rupture opens the abyss. Abyss and depressions are together a same void: the inanity of being which we are. (91)

For Bataille, it is “through an ‘intimate cessation of all intellectual operations’ that the mind is laid bare”(13).   It is through a mystical kind of exercise, which always seeks to break the system or frame down, that one can see things as they really are: as a chaotic, mad mess that un-works all and denounces work-as-such.

Bataille wrote these words in the 1950s. Over half a century later, Zizek writes, in his 2014 book Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept, that the event “undermines every stable scheme”(7). And it is through the experience of this undermining that we can “experience something new.”   But this unworking of the frame is not a joyful event. In fact, Zizek suggests that the melancholic gives us a model for how we should receive the new or, as he says citing Lacan, “the Real” (which Zizek associates with “the repellent forms of life” that we deny).

He cites the film producer Lars Von Trier’s words on this film Melancholia to describe melancholy:

The psychiatrist told him that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under extreme pressure or the threat of catastrophe – they already expect bad things to happen.   This fact offers another example of the split between reality – the so-called universe of established customs and opinions in which we dwell – and the traumatic meaningless brutality of the Real. (19)

Zizek tends toward melancholy since it suggests an attitude that things will never work. This is, so to speak, the preface for an experience of the Real. We see this, Zizek argues, in Von Trier’s film, which eschews fantasy in the name of a melancholic truth:

Justine really is melancholic, deprived of the fantasmatic gaze. This is to say, melancholy is, at is most radical, not the failure of the work of mourning, the persisting attachment to the lost object, but their very opposite: ‘melancholy offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object’. Therein resides the melancholic’s stratagem: the only way to posses an object that we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as already lost. (23)

This is not just Jusine’s strategy, is also Zizek’s since, as goes on to say, it’s goal is to destroy the “frame as such.”   By seeing everything as “already lost,” one can apprehend the Real without, so to speak, a filter (or as he says, a “frame”). We can experience the “event,” which is another way of saying, as Blanchot would put it, “worklessness.”

Zizek likes to tell jokes but, ultimately, he, like Bataille, is a melancholic comic. They aren’t interested in what works so much as using every “strategy” they can to make this or that project fail.   However, as Zizek argues, the belief that something works is already a fantasy.   That suggests that the only thing they are breaking is the illusion of the work or the illusion of work. In the end, perhaps we can say that neither Zizek nor Batialle worked a day in the their life.

Happy labor day!

Praying in a Car, Drifting Through Syracuse: On Hayden Carruth’s Poetic-Landscapes

LEE FRIEDLANDER - CARS - GALERIE THOMAS ZANDER - KOLN - 26FEB 30APRIL 2011_2_www.lylybye.blogspot.com

When one is living a meager existence, poetic and novelistic dystopias may have a passing appeal.   After having lived – or rather dwelled – as an undergraduate in the Binghamton and Syracuse area, I can understand the appeal of a landscape that includes – in a contiguous manner – monuments to a prosperous past, empty factories, residential neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and strip malls. But what interested me most was not so much the buildings as the people who drifted in and out of these areas. Like them, I grew up in a rural New York setting. I was always wondering about how the hard working, everyday American would navigate through this mess.   To my delight, I stumbled across a poet who lived in Syracuse and sought to address these very things: Hayden Carruth.

Reflecting on his poems today (which were originally written in 1983), I feel addressed by a simple question: are we, today, to read the odd orientations of people to the late-capitalist landscape in tragic or comic terms?   But there are other questions that follow in its wake: Have we, today, got used to destitution to such an extent that it doesn’t matter what landscape we travel through just as long as we….travel through it and go elsewhere?

In the opening poem of his book Asphalt Georgics entitled “Names,” we bear witness to Sam. He is caught up in a series of movements and flows. He needs to return a broken coffee machine.

I had said improbable. I

always do, that being

who I am. Nevertheless it

stopped pouring. We could bring

the defective electric per-

collator back to where

we bought it, the K-Mart up in

Seneca Mall. So there

We drove, past Hiawatha Pla-

za, Wegman’s, Bayberry

Mall, with all the other pieces

of the strip strung in be-

 

tween. Friendly and Ponderosa

looked o.k., but Carvel

was dilapidated and Mis-

ter Donut had a hell

 

Of a big jagged hole through both

sides of its glass sign. I

saw the killdeer running that has

her nest next to the high-

way on the gravel strip between

Rite-Aid and Sunoco,

and I heard her cry in the gnash

of heat at my window

Sam is not an ordinary man. He is very reflective and notes a line from an Italian poet about the meaning of “once.” But Sam dismisses this as too academic “Once. Tra la.”   He apologizes for the reflection and doesn’t want to get caught up into the depth it suggests. To be sure, he likes staying on the surface geography, amidst places, names, and spatial games:

The main reason for putting that

in is it was written

by a guy well up in his eight-

ies. He knows. In one sen-

 

tence, the past is nothing and we

are in love with it. Prag-

matically speaking we are

in love with nothing. Shag

 

me some more of these fungoes, boys,

before we quite. His name

is Eugenio, mine is Sam –

I like that name, that game

 

He drifts into thinking about baseball and eating food, about how this has something to do with being American.

 

Too, though utterly valueless,

The animal in us

Just sufficiently domestic-

ated, our venomous

 

American aggressiveness

Confined to balls and bats.

O.k. Back to the beginning

The saturated fats

In the midst of this, he drifts into a space in which everything seems to collapse and become odd. But instead of becoming indifferent himself, he tells us that “I found myself praying. It happens all the time.”   Sam calls himself a “poor deracinated numbskull” since he calls on many different religious symbols…but he does so “without conviction.”

He is, like many Americans, wandering through landscapes (external and internal), playing games, but unable to have deep conviction. Nonetheless, he feels the desire for something holy but Sam doesn’t know what to do with it…in Syracuse, New York.

And what do you do with this

amorphous faith, desire,

wanting, let someone else figure,

why me? I was on fire,

 

so was Poll (his companion) next to me, so was

the whole world. To get through,

get to the K-Mart, probably

was all I asked. So who

cares who I asked? Does it have to

be Somebody? It’s better

not. The asking is what counts. Poll

says the same. She says her

mind is always praying these days….

Sam reflects more and realizes that just “getting through all that hot traffic to the K-Mart is good enough for prayer.”   In other words, his prayers come to him as he and his companion, Poll, travel through the landscape of Syracuse, from one store or place to another. And as they do, they can sense that something is wrong and that the past and the world that they once knew has disappeared.  It takes too much away from their day-to-day practical activities to think about it. And instead of praying a Church or a Synagogue, they pray in a car.

“Our Face is a Mistake” – Celine’s Cynical Reflection on Faces and Masks

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We can learn a lot of from a face. Writers, visual artists, and philosophers have been reading faces for centuries.   But while some see the face as mask, others see it as our presence to the world.   An acute difference can, for instance, be seen in the words on the face by Emmanuel Levinas and Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

Emmanuel Levinas is well known for the weight he gives to the “face” in his philosophy. In an essay entitled “Ethics as First Philosophy,” he writes: “The proximity of the other is the face’s meaning, and it means from the very start in a way that goes beyond those plastic forms which forever try to cover the face like a mask of their presence to perception”(82, Levinas Reader).     In the face of the other “there is the nakedness and destitution of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defencelessness, vulnerability itself”(83).     For Levinas, the face and the person who bears it to the world will always be exposed and vulnerable.

In contrast, Celine, in Journey to the End of the Night, shows us a face that, with more experience, changes, becomes ugly, and less vulnerable. Celine’s narrator introduces this theme through a character named Berbert who “had the greenish look of an apple that would never get ripe”(208). Berbert seems to be a friendly character. One day, he goes to say “good morning” to the doctor-narrator.

Before describing Bebert’s face in depth, the narrator laments that you can’t love grownups:

If you got to love something, you’ll be taking less of a chance with children than with grownups, you’ll at least have the excuse of hoping they won’t turn out as crummy as the rest of us. How are you to know? (209)

Bebert, it seems, is different:

I’ve never been able to forget the infinite little smile of pure affection that danced across his livid face. Enough gaiety to fill the universe. (209)

But this face is the exception, not the rule. After one hits a certain age, says Celine, his or her face changes for the worst. And that happens because the “world isn’t what we expected”:

Few people past twenty preserve any of that affection, the affection of animals.   The world isn’t what we expected. So our looks change!   And turned into a thorough stinker in next to no time! Past twenty it shows in our face! Our face is a mistake! (209)

For Celine, “our face is a mistake,” however Bebert’s is not. It gives Celine some respite from humanity. His ensuing description of Bebert portrays him as a sick, but charming animal. When they are separated by other people, Bebert tries to pop up in front of other people so he and Celine can exchange looks.

We couldn’t see each other anymore. Bebert jumped up and down, sneezing and shouting for joy. His haggard face, his greasy hair, his emaciated monkey legs, the whole of him danced convulsively at the end of his broom. (209)

In contrast, we have Bebert’s aunt. Celine treats her “free of charge,” because, as he sarcastically notes, “nobody paid me.” He helped them not because he was kind, however, but because he was “curious” about the nature of humanity.   With Bebert’s aunt and all of “them” (the people he treats for free) he learns that people hide behind masks, lie, and sought to take advantage of him…because he did them a favor:

People avenge themselves for the favors done them. Bebert’s aunt took advantage of my lofty disinterestedness. In fact she imposed on me outrageously. I let things ride. I let them lie to me. I gave them what they wanted. My patients had me in their clutches. Every day they sniveled more, they had me at their mercy. And while they were at it they showed me all the ugliness they kept hidden behind the doors of their souls and exhibited to no one but me. The fee for witnessing such horrors can never be high enough. They slither through your fingers like slimy snakes. (210)

Bebert may be the exception, his face is not a mistake, but “ours” is. By saying ours, Celine includes himself with these people who appear to be – as Levinas would say – exposed, defenceless, and vulnerable, but are only appearing like this so they can control and manipulate the care-giver.   Their faces are masks.

Celine’s cynical view suggests that very few people can “preserve” vulnerability and a child or animal-like honesty. In contrast, Levinas thinks that, regardless of what happens to us by way of loss, disappointments, etc, the face remains vulnerable and exposed.   The face will continue to solicit me regardless of whether the subject is trying to manipulate me or not. But, for Celine (the character, author, and person), his curiosity about humans (his scientific experiment, so to speak) led him to be much more skeptical about the sick people he treats.   His experience taught him otherwise.

Contrasting Levinas to Celine, we can ask ourselves a few questions. Are the faces we see in the street and in the mirror “mistakes”? Are we mistaken about what they appear to show? Isn’t every encounter with a face a risk? And should we write off most faces if we are deceived by a few? Celine remembers one face as good but sees many as masks of darker intentions. Levinas sees the face as exposed and vulnerable but, unlike Celine, he doesn’t turn the face into a mask. Both of them went trough war, but both of them decided to interpret the face in a different manner.

How Awkward! On Adam Kotsko’s Pauline Reading of Larry David

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As we move more and more into the fluid world of social networking, we see more people inside of academia make claims that are daring and attention-grabbing. One such claim is made at the end of Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness.   After discussing different kinds of awkwardness that we see in popular culture in the first few chapters of his book, Kotsko turns to what he calls “Radical Awkwardness.” While the other chapters show how TV shows like The Office or Seinfeld or films like Knocked Up – which show us how, in the face of awkwardness, people can either give in to or sociopathologically reject the social order – this chapter deals with a kind of awkwardness that one, in Heidegger’s parlance, can “dwell in.”   Kotsko’s claim, in that chapter, is that the best way to approach Larry David – who plays a Jewish character in the show – is by way of a Pauline framework that conceptually posits David as a reluctant convert to Judaism who is apprehensive about being a part of a religion (society) based on “law.”   In the end, however, David decides against conversion.   His awkwardness leads him elsewhere.

Although Kotsko’s reading is intriguing, why not read Larry David in terms of the comic tradition he emerges from; namely the Jewish tradition of the schlemiel? Why not read him by way of a Jewish framework that speaks to the awkward nature of the schlemiel vis-à-vis society? By making a Pauline reading, Kotsko is telling us more about his own interests and concerns than about how to read David’s awkwardness in terms of his predecessors and the current Jewish-American comedic scene. While I can appreciate that David’s awkwardness helps Kotsko to understand questions he has about Paul, I think it might be misleading to read David in this way. Awkwardness should not be subsumed by a Christian reading which pits law against spirit and the Jew (particularist) against the Christian (universalist).   Portraying David as a “convert” to Judaism serves not just to grab attention but to also co-opt his comedy into a paradigm that is not befitting for the schlemiel. At stake is the meaning of Jewishness which need not be read in contradistinction to the reading of Judaism as “law” (a Pauline reading).

Putting this reading aside for a moment, I want to give credit where credit is due. Kotsko’s philosophical reflections on awkwardness open up a new field for thought and humor theory. This is promising. Referring to Heidegger in his last chapter, Kotsko points out how there is a pattern that we see in all of the above-mentioned shows and films which confirms his hypothesis (which is based on Heidegger): “that awkwardness logically precedes every social order and can never be eliminated – no matter what strategy is used, it keeps coming back”(67).    The norm is created or called for as an attempt to stem the flow of awkwardness and the threat it poses to the social fabric.

Kotsko injects a utopian element to his reading of awkwardness by noting how, in the Judd Apatow universe, hope is associated with the “bonds among awkward overgrown adults.”   But why, queries Kotsko, “should we have a social order at all?”   This question is the preface to Kotsko’s reading of “radical awkwardness.”   For Kotsko, the problem with the social order is its drive to prompt this or that “disturbing foreigner” to assimilate.   As Kotsko suggests, assimilation is a social strategy that is and has been used with respect to awkwardness.   It doesn’t, in a Heideggerian sense, let awkwardness be.   He associates this strategy with the norm, and as we learn in this final chapter of his book, “the law.”

Kotsko initially justified his use of Curb Your Enthusiasm as an example of radical awkwardness through its main character, Larry David: “I have done this first of all because Larry’s travails at a New York Jew in Southern California illustrate very well the common-sense answer to the chapters question: the reason we need a cultural norm is that the situation of radical awkwardness is unbearable”(67-68).

In the show, Larry David’s wife in the show, a WASP (White Ango-Saxon Protestant) “acts as an enforcer of social norms.”   David comes in to the space of California and his marriage in a radically awkward manner. He doesn’t fit in. But, lest we not forget, this is also the case with Alvy Singer – a prototypical American schlemiel – in Annie Hall.     Kotsko foregrounds what he calls a “clash of civilizations” that is brought out by David’s inability to properly assimilate into California, upper-class white culture.   But Kotsko’s goal is not simply to show that David brings out a radical awkwardness because he fails to assimilate, so much as making “the case that Larry David has independently discovered something that St. Paul was experimenting with in the first century: how to form a community directly grounded in awkwardness”(68).

The community that Kotsko is referring to is what he later calls a “community of exiles” who “dwell” in “awkwardness.” To call it a discovery of something that St. Paul was experimenting with is interesting, but it fails to take notice that the schlemiel was and has been a key character in a Jewish diasporic narrative and community that stretches back to Yiddish folklore and literature of the 19th century. The schlemiel’s awkwardness is in relation to world of the gentiles and it is shared with a readership that distinguished itself from the machinations of the world.   One wonders what Kotsko would make of Singer’s Chelm or Aleichem’s Kasrilevke.

Kotsko makes the case – by way of Paul – that the community David appeals to is not Jewish so much as a cross-cultural and universalist. Both Jew and gentile can live, awkwardly, and in spite of, the “law,” which he associates with social norms that opt to assimilate all that is awkward and foreign.   On this note, Kotsko points out that “Larry’s stubbornness makes him slow to adapt, admittedly, but it is clear that he faces an uphill battle in adapting to a culture that is exceptionally dense with unspoken rules”(73). Kotsko turns this stubbornness toward a Pauline understanding of law and community.

In contrast, the inability of the schlemiel to adapt is a theme that Saul Bellow discusses in his reading of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl. For Bellow, the resilience of Jewishness is to be found in the schlemiel’s stubbornness and “inability to adapt.”

Kotsko uses the insider/outsider distinction to deepen his Pauline reading of Larry David. Larry David may seem like a cultural insider but he is not. Every time he tries to be a cultural insider he, like a schlemiel, spills the soup.   Insiders, such as his wife, Ted Danson, Ben Stiller, etc give him opportunities to be an insider, like they themselves, but he fails. For Kotsko, Larry David brings out the double standard: “Larry can’t do anything right, while the insiders can do nothing wrong”(74).     Larry David fails the law because “the law directly causes its own violation”(74-75).

Kotsko, making reference to Paul’s missionary program in a key chapter of his writings, points out how Paul’s “mission in life: trying to figure out a way to create communities that crossed the biggest cultural line that he was aware of, that between Jews and Gentiles, with everyone participating as equals”(75).   To this end, he introduces his reading of Paul: “I would propose the chapter in question actually refers to the struggle of a Gentile trying to become a Jew, a situation which he empathizes so strongly that he speaks in the first person on behalf of the Gentile convert”(75).     It is the “Jewish law viewed from the perspective of the convert” that Kotsko sees as essential to Paul’s reading of community. And he takes this as his cue to make a reading of Larry David:

The convert obviously admires the culture he’s trying to join, but at the same time it seems to trip him up constantly. No matter how he tries, no matter how long he is a part of the new community, he will never be able to fulfill the law’s demands as easily and fluently as someone whose been a member since birth. (77)

Based on this passage, Larry is read as the “convert”: “his awkward stubbornness stems from his frustration at being constantly corrected and forced to apologize when he’s done nothing he considers wrong”(77). For this reason, Larry, like Paul’s frustrated convert, will turn to a Christian kind of “awkward community.” Larry: “and so we can perhaps dare to say that St. Paul was speaking to Larry David’s situation as well”(77).

The answer to Larry’s frustrations can be found in Paul. Create a new awkward community. Leave the “Law” behind but keep your cultural identity:

The solution Paul proposes, then, is to stop looking for a solution. No one should be forced to conform to the arbitrary social norms of others, and at the same time, everyone should feel free to maintain their cultural identity.   (78)

In this scenario, one need not “convert” to this or that social norm. One can, as Kotsko suggests, co-exist with others who also have an awkward relationship to the law/social norms. For Kotsko, the “clearest example of a longer term community of awkwardness” is to be found in the sixth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry’s wife decides to divorce him and “the additional plot” of “Cheryl’s insistence that they take in a family of African Americans from New Orleans who have lost their home in a fictionalized version of Hurricane Katrina”(84).

Kotsko points out how the relations between Larry and “the Blacks” are continually awkward but in a way that is not frustrating so much as new and liberating. Larry develops “strong bonds” with them in the process:

Larry and the Blacks become a kind of community of exiles, bound by their shared condition of being awkwardly thrown into a social milieu where they don’t belong, feeling each other to be themselves in an otherwise constraining and judgmental environment. (85).

This bond and the fantasy that ends the season is a premonition of utopia which is “an awkward place.” Since it is a “good place and no place at all,” utopia is awkward. But that “no place,” says Kotsko, is “where we already are”(87).     But, because of the law and “social order,” we are taught to “escape” this awkwardness.

Kotsko’s appeal to the utopian is interesting and has a correlate in the schlemiel.   The schlemiel speaks to a kind of utopian community as well, but it is based on something Jewish and is particular to a Jewish diaspora.   The schlemiel is, as Ruth Wisse points out, a worldless kind of character. It brings Jews together in a kind of awkwardness that is always unsure about how, as the author Sheila Heti puts it in the title of her last novel, a person should be.   The schlemiel – like the Jew –doesn’t fit and shouldn’t adapt.  Its awkwardness is certainly a safeguard against assimilation and its hope is…for justice.

But the fact of the matter is that the American Jew is a creature of assimilation. Larry David embodies the last traces of the schlemiel and its Jewishness since he is and remains in nearly every episode the “odd one out.” There is much truth in Kotsko’s observations about Larry David and the Blacks – they do have a bond based on radical awkwardness. But that reading need not be framed within a Pauline framework.   Larry David, without a doubt, is drawing on the tradition of the schlemiel.  (Ruth Wisse, Sanford Pinsker, and Sidra Ezrahi do a fine job of explaining how this emerged in relation to the situation of Jews in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century and their relationship to Jewishness and modernity.)   His character need not be read in terms of the reluctant convert unless, that is, one wants to reframe the discourse of the schlemiel on a Pauline foundation.