Men in Cars (Barack Obama & Jerry Seinfeld)

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obama car

You can see them here kibbitzing, President Barack Obama and comedian Jerry Seinfeld are two incredibly powerful men, one more so than the other, and one very rich, driving around in a very cool car, a 1963 Corvette. They then sit down together to talk in what looks like the White House canteen. Both men demonstrate a liquid intelligence, a complete and fluid facility with language and physical gesture, exposing different kinds of excellence as they talk about people and power and craft in this neat little portrait of powerful men in sharp suits and pressed shirts. Elegant human beings, they are not like the rest of us. Even Obama’s wristwatch is cool.

In the concluding scene of the main body of the segment, the two men pretend to try to drive out and leave the White House grounds, but to no avail, not on their own, the Secret Service won’t…

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Reading, Madness, and Forgetting: A Wandering Thought on Don Quixote and Paul Celan


At the outset of a reflection on Don Quixote, Carlos Fuentes cites Michel Foucault’s claim that Don Quixote is a “symbol of the modern divorce between the word and object”(This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life, 203).   The subject of Quixote’s movement (pilgrimage) is the “search for similarities” and “Foucault observes how Don Quixote rapidly recruits the weakest analogies: for him, everything is a latent sign that must be awakened to speak and to demonstrate the identity of words and objects.” Despite the fact that there is a gap, there is still a task. Fuentes argues that the “orphan of the universe” must “achieve unity without sacrificing diversity” and “fill the abyss between words and things through the divorce between analogy and difference.” This, it seems, is an impossible task. But what captures Fuentes’ attention – and seems to offer the greatest modern resolution – is the thematic of movement and displacement (a theme that was of great interest to Franz Kafka as well). It is the main theme of Cervantes and the modern novel:

The modern novel, a perpetual invitation to leave oneself and see oneself and the world as unfinished problem, implies a kind of displacement similar to that of Don Quixote, although we may venture to say that no other novel – not even the most experimental – has been able to propose radical displacements as radical as those of Cervantes.

The “novel is the art of displacement.” It is a displacement of “genres” and “authorities.” But it is the recipients of the “verbal fact,” the readers, that grant the “novel an open destiny, forever unfinished.” The biggest displacement speaks to these readers. It is– which Walter Benjamin also points out in his essay “The Storyteller” – “from the normal residual tradition of oral, tavern oriented storytelling to the full Cervantine awareness that the novel is to be read by a reader and printed at a printing press.”

Don Quixote is a reader. He is “mad about books” and “transforms his reading into madness and, possessed by both, wishes to take things he reads about and turns them into reality.”   He sees “giants where there are windmills” and “armies where there are only sheep” because “the things he has read have told him to see them that way. His reading is his madness.” His authority is to be found in language, not reality. And, as readers, we share this madness. By simply reading, we displace and are displaced.

Although Cervantes, building on Foucault, sees this as a foray into modern uncertainty and equates it with a kind of wandering anxiety, it is also comical. Moreover, what Fuentes doesn’t note is the fact that readers only read modern novels because they desire displacement and movement.   We may be “orphans of the universe,” but we like to move.

However, what might be forgotten is the relationship between the word, the eye, movement, and authority. Although we may like to move, the reader needs to come to terms with the fact that one is led by the text. And where Don Quixote goes, we go as well. This displacement may not always be pleasant. What we need to do is reflect on the implications.

Paul Celan captures this sense of being led and displaced in a poem entitled “Below.” And he links it to a social exchange between the “slow eyes” (“langsamen Augen”) of the reader, the writer, and the poem (“Gast-Gesprach”). The poem tells us that, as a result of this (social) exchange of reading, we are “led home into oblivion” of “forgetfulness” (vergessen).


Led home into oblivion

the sociable talk of our slow eyes.


Led home, syllable after syllable, shared

out among the dayblind dice, for which

the playing hand reaches out, large,



And the too much of my speaking:

heaped up around the little

crystal dressed in the style of your silence.

This poem and its displacements evoke several questions. Is the poem written for all the eyes that see and all the mouths that speak? And whose hand throws the dice? Is it my reading? Or is it your writing?

To be sure, this poem may speaks to every social situation. Perhaps, when we listen or read, our “slow eyes” lead us “home into oblivion” or, better “forgetfulness” because we are displaced from our position.   Perhaps the “dayblind dice” are thrown whenever there is a reading or a conversation.

The forgetfulness (“vergessen”) we experience can be read in a comic sense as a kind of absent-mindedness.   But, on the other hand, it can be read in a tragic sense because it suggests that when we listen we are separate and are…not really communicating.   Perhaps Celan is suggesting that reading may be the problem.   This spurs a few questions: When we read or when we speak, how do we remember? If reading spurs us to be “led home to forgetfulness,” how do we leave home in order to remember?

Perhaps this is a problem shared with Don Quixote. If Quixote is constantly forgetting, by virtue of this or that displacement, what does he need and what does the reader need? Do we need to simply revel in this displacement of reality, this madness?

Kafka in his parable, “The Truth of Sancho Panza,” suggests that what Quixote forgot about was not reality; it was Sancho Panza.   In other words, the madness of reading may displace the friend. The irony is that this madness can only be confronted if we think about what happens when we read and why we would desire to read. Perhaps reading stages a battle with forgetfulness and the meaning of relation (or relationship)?  Regardless, displacement spurs forgetfulness and, at the same time, can prompt memory. It call also recall us, as Emmanuel Levinas might say, to the other.  (And, on this note, his reading of Don Quixote is similar to Kafka’s.)  The lesson: modern literature and poetry – whether by Cervantes, Kafka, or Celan – can touch on the experience of memory, displacement, and relation.

Verbing in Yinglish: If One Can Now Be Schlonged, Can One Also Be Schlemieled?


Last week, Donald Trump’s use of the Yiddish word “schlong” prompted countless articles and news pieces on the meaning of the word.   The Washington Post put out several interesting and even comical articles on the topic. On December 22, three pieces were published. Philip Bump of The Washington Post exclaimed that Trump “ruined Christmas” since there were more Google searches for the word “schlong” than there were for words like “stocking,” “tinsel,” or “gift wrap.”   And Dana Milbank, playing on this wave of discussion, wrote an opinion piece entitled “Oy Vey! Enough of Trump.” In the article, he employs a bevy of Yiddish slang terms to express his opinion of Trump, Lindsay Graham, and the Republican political field.   Like many editorialists, he sees Trump as a clown who must be challenged by a more serious candidate.

But of the three articles written on the word, Justin Moyer’s “Donald Trump’s ‘schlonged’: A linguistic investigation,” was the most informative.   Moyer cites an email to The Washington Post by Harvard linguist Steven Pinker which clears everything up:

Many goyim are confused by the large number of Yiddish terms beginning with ‘schl’ or ‘schm’ (schlemiel, schlemazzle, schmeggegge, schlub, schlock, schlep, schmutz, schnook), and use them incorrectly or interchangeably,” he wrote. “And headline writers often ransack the language for onomatopoeic synonyms for ‘defeat’ such as drub, whomp, thump, wallop, whack, trounce, clobber, smash, trample, and Obama’s own favorite, shellac (which in fact sounds a bit like schlong). So an alternative explanation is that Trump reached for what he thought was a Yinglish word for ‘beat’ and inadvertently coined an obscene one.

In other words, Trump seemingly created a word mixing English and Yiddish (“Yinglish”) which turned a noun (“schlong”) into a verb.  Moyer notes a few other uses of the noun as a verb. And citing the Oxford University Press blog essay, entitled “Do you Salad or Sandwich? The Verbing of English,” he notes how the transformation of nouns into verbs is not atypical.

“This conversion of nouns to verbs is known as ‘verbing’ and it has been around for as long as the English language itself,” Oxford University Press noted in 2013. “Ancient verbs such as rain and thunder and more recent conversions such as access, chair, debut, highlight and impact were all originally used only as nouns before they became verbs.”

Perhaps anticipating Trump’s use of “schlonged,” the Press also noted: “Verbing exists essentially to make what we say shorter and snappier. It can also give a more dynamic sense to ideas.”

With all of this talk about nouns being transformed into verbs, I wonder whether a schlemiel can be “verbed.” In other words, can a person be schlemieled?

To be schlemieled would suggest that through this or that act or circumstance, one can become a schlemiel.   While this may work with a shlimazel, who is the subject of bad luck, it may not be possible for the schlemiel.

Ruth Wisse, in her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that the schlemiel is not a character born out of this or that circumstance. The schlemiel is, in her words, existential. As I have noted elsewhere, by way of the famous joke about the schlemiel, the shlimazel, and the nudik, the schlemiel spills the soup, the shlimazel gets spilled on, and the nudnik asks the shlimazel what kind of soup was spilled.   Regarding this joke and in an effort to define the schlemiel Wisse tells us that the “schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the shlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in it’s confrontation with reality”(14).

For Wisse, the schlemiel’s comedic way of being is existential in the sense of being ontological: one can’t become a schlemiel (by virtue of this or that comedic situation); one is a schlemiel.  And if the schlemiel were to be “verbed” in Yinglish, it would suggest something contrary to her definition. Nonetheless, this wouldn’t keep Trump or anyone in the political field from calling another candidate a schlemiel and using the term as an insult.

Regardless of how it is used, we should keep in mind that while the schlemiel has historically been in two extremely divergent ways.   It has been used by some as an insult, but it has also been used in ways that are endearing and even moral.   (See for instance, the use of the schlemiel by writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer or the depiction of the schlemiel in the majority of films by Woody Allen, Judd Apatow, or Seth Rogen; alternatively, a thinker like Hannah Arendt has used both kinds of meanings or the battle between cultural and political Zionists over the meaning and use of this term.) But since our culture is more apt to the insult and because this is the political season, this other definition will most likely be overlooked.   Who knows? Perhaps the schlemiel will make the news. And if it does, Schlemiel Theory will be there.

I’ll end with Larry David’s portrayal of Bernie Sanders as a schlemiel.  This performance, however, is not meant to be an insult.  It’s endearing and funny.


Seeing Things Differently: Vision, Judgment, and Being(Re)Born in Kafka’s America



Kafka never went to America. But he, like many Europeans, imagined what it would be like to emigrate there and how different it was from Europe.   These imagined differences are not only cultural. For Kafka, they are also physical, spatial, and temporal.   And through close attention to these differences, which come out in his detailed descriptions of characters, gestures, and spatial orientations, Kafka provides the reader with an experience of language and being that is original.   But, as Kafka – a lover of parable who well understood the Midrashic task of addressing the textual gap – knew, this experience can only be arrived at through a kind of reading that is attentive to each and every difference. Kafka suggests that in coming to America, Karl Rossmann, the main character of Amerika, must efface who he was and be, so to speak, born again.   But this need not be something that is experienced by Rossmann alone; it can also be experienced by the reader if she is attentive to the nuances of Kafka’s imagined America. Although the reader may resist it, she must, like a child, allow herself to be surprised by the text.   And that takes effort which appeals not just to how we read but also to how we see and judge what we see.  In fact, Kafka equates this rebirth with a change in how we see things on the street (so to speak).

At the outset of the novel, Kafka tells us that Karl is only 17 years old. He is incredibly naïve and distracted. And unlike many an immigrant to America, he doesn’t seem to have a deep desire He doesn’t quite know why he is there, who he is supposed to see, or where he is going.  It is we the readers who are (or should be) surprised by Rossmann’s lack of understanding and awkwardness.   Rossmann happens to stumble across his uncle (the “senator”) who, we learn, came to the ship to pick him up.

Rossman, unlike many an immigrant, doesn’t have to worry about immediately being thrown into poverty and the unknown upon arrival. His uncle is wealthy and successful.   But he is much different from Karl and Karl needs, so to speak, to catch up. His uncle brings him to his home in New York City. And Karl must accustom himself to a new circumstances, new spaces, and new speeds:

In his uncle’s house Karl soon become accustomed to his new circumstances. His uncle always obliged him even in trifling maters, and Karl therefore did not have to wait to learn from those bad experiences that so often embitter the early days of one’s life abroad. (35)

This gives Karl a little time to think about America:

For one could not hope for pity here in this country, and the things that Karl had read about America in that regard were quite true; here it was only those who were fortunate who truly seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides. (35)

In America, it is luck rather than fate which is primary.   One’s circumstances can change at any moment. (This is an observation that Siegfried Kracauer made in his distinction between German film and American comic film and the audiences that consumed them.)  But what initially fascinates Rossmann (and the narrator) are not circumstances so much as the new urban space and the perceptions it offered. The space is what fascinates.

A narrow balcony ran along the full length of his room. In his native city it would surely have been the highest lookout, yet here it offered little more than the view of a single street that ran in a straight line between two rows of veritably truncated buildings and therefore seemed to flee into the distance, where the outlines of a cathedral loomed monstrously out of the great haze. In the morning and in the evening and at night in his dreams, this street was filled with constantly bustling traffic, which seen from above seemed like a continually self-replenishing mixture of distorted figures and of the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, constantly scattered by new arrivals…avidly refracted by the mass objects that made such a physical impression on one’s dazzled eye that is seemed as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force. (36)

While Karl is fascinated with this endless destruction of vision (“as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force”), the uncle advises him not look at things in this manner. Look, but in a different way.

While he should take at a look at everything and always examine matters carefully, he should not let anything beguile him. (36)

Karl’s uncle wants him to distance himself from his perceptions and immediate judgments. He wants him to look closely but not too close. That way, he can be reborn as an American.

Indeed, the first days of a European in America could certainly be likened to a birth, he said, and then he added – so Karl would not have any unnecessary fear – that even though one adapted more quickly here than if one were entering the world of man from the hereafter, one should also keep in mind that one’s first judgment was always quite shaky and that maybe one should not allow it to upset all future judgments that one would need to make if one wanted to go on living in this country. (36)

These words can be applied to Karl’s experiences throughout the novel and can be used as a criteria of sorts. They can also be applied to the reader. In the novel, Karl and the reader are faced with many unexpected situations. The question – regarding each of these situations – is about how Karl (or the reader) sees the situation and how that affects his (or the reader’s) understanding and evaluation of the text.   However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the judgments of the reader may differ from those of Rossmann if they are to be effective.   We need to pay attention to these differences since, as the uncle suggests, Rossmann’s “first days” in America “could certainly be likened to a birth.”   The reader also needs to pay close attention to the situations, circumstances, and spaces that prompt Rossmann to make such judgments.

Karl’s uncle is troubled by people who “stood about on their balconies for days on end gazing down at the street like lost sheep.   It could only lead to confusing! All that solitary idleness, that wasteful staring out on a bustling New York day”(36). And when he sees Karl staring out at the traffic from his balcony – startled by the destruction of perception – he grimaces “with irritation.” Karl learns a lesson from his uncles’ face:

Karl soon noticed this grimace and consequently, insofar as possible, denied himself the pleasure of standing on the balcony. (37)

But, as readers, we know that, for Karl, such staring is not pleasurable; unless, that is, the destruction of perception is pleasurable. But – if anything is to be done and if any judgment is to be made, as Karl’s uncle suggests – one can’t look too long from the urban balcony (with this in mind, think of Facebook). It’s all a matter of how you look at things. In Kafka’s America, distraction, vision, and judgment are always at stake.



Son of Saul (Art At Auschwitz)

Check out this important reflection on a new post-Holocaust film (in particular) and the reception of post-holocaust film – today (in general).

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son of saul

Who cares about the Holocaust anymore? Who goes to see a Holocaust movie and what does one want from it? These were my thoughts going in to see Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul this afternoon. For some time now, so many critical flags have been thrown down regarding the Holocaust, art and film about the Holocaust, allegedly mystifying claims made about the inability to represent much less “comprehend” the Holocaust, the politics of Holocaust memory, and so on. It would be obvious to say that the star of Hannah Arendt has defined much of the discourse in critical-left academic circles. That kitsch has saturated so much, if not all of the genre since Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List adds fuel to the critical fire. Jewish power today is now something actively resented by so many people, that one barely knows how to bring up the Holocaust in polite company.



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“Is Franz Here?” Kafka’s Revision and Personalization of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s Schlemiel Narrative


Kafka read the Hasidic masters by way of Martin Buber’s translations. And of the Hasidic masters he read, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was, without a doubt, the most literary.   As Ruth Wisse and David Roskies point out, he made the Hasidic story (or parable) into something literary rather than something merely anecdotal.   To be sure, they both argue that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav had a major influence on Yiddish literature (especially in his figuration of the schlemiel.) He turned storytelling into a more religious activity and used it as a medium to address modern struggles and philosophical (and not just religious) questions.

Unlike any other writer, Rodger Kaminetz has looked into the relationship of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav to Franz Kafka. But Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka is more than an academic investigation; it is a rendering of Kaminetz’s personal relationship to these writers and his own spiritual journey. One would think that these two writers – one secular and assimilated, the other a Hasidic Rebbe – have nothing in common with each other. But Kaminetz shows, in a deeply personal way, that there are many common points of interest with respect to the tensions between despair and faith.

Like Kaminetz, I am interested in the relationship of Kafka and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. However, I am most interested in how they share a deep interest in the schlemiel.   For both Kafka and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, simplicity is a key trait of many of their characters.   And it is a key trait of the schlemiel.   Rabbi Nachman’s most important story on the schlemiel – which casts him as a simpleton – is “The Sophisticate and the Simpleton” (the “Hakham and the Tam”).   In this story the schlemiel is figured as a second rate cobbler who’s life is transformed when he is asked to visit the king. While he accepts the offer, the “sophisticate” finds every reason to doubt the same offer that is made to him. He insists that “the king doesn’t exist,” and even convinces the master (and several others) that if they haven’t experienced the king why would they continue to believe that he exists?

Kafka, no doubt, read this story and created his own version. He also went so far as to personalize it by putting himself in the shoes of the schlemiel.

On July 29th, 1917 Kafka titles his entry: “Court jester. Essay on court gestures.” Before writing a parable, Kafka notes that the “great days of the court jesters are probably gone never to return. Everything points in another direction, it cannot be denied.” However, Kafka preserves the spirit of the jester and the kind in a parable. He describes “our King” in terms that are contrary to the way royalty is described. Kafka’s King is – like Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s (in another narrative) – “humble” and poorly dressed:

Our King made no display of pomp; anyone who did not know him from his pictures would never have recognized him as the King. His clothes were badly made, not in our shop, however, of a skimpy material, his coat forever unbuttoned, flapping and wrinkled, his hat crumpled, heavy boots.

Kafka describes his body as having a “strong face with a large, straight, masculine nose, a short mustache, dark somewhat too sharp eyes, a powerful, well shaped neck.” But the “movements of his arms” are “careless.” (I have noted, in another place, how, for Kafka, movement taps into a deeper level of reflection for Kafka.) Taken together, these movements and the attire of the King, suggest a kind of Midrashic reading of God’s presence (the shechina) which is “in the dust” and in “exile” with the Jews.

At the end of the parable, Kafka sees himself in relation to the King who calls on him by his first name.   The schlemiel, apparently, can help the king:

Once he stopped in passing in the doorway of our shop, put his right hand up against the lintel of the door, and asked, “Is Franz here?” He knew everyone by name. I came out of my dark corner and made my way through the journeymen. “Come along,” he said, after briefly glancing at me. “He’s moving into the castle,” he said to the master.

Kafka’s parable is a revision and personalization of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s schlemiel narrative. The implication is clear.   The schlemiel, for Kafka, is a kind of court jester. But he is not a fool – as many a court jester is – he is a simpleton and a cobbler. His job is to make garments. And, as the Zohar and Hasiduth often relate, a garment is a metaphor for a way of apprehending God and is posited as a medium through which one “clothes” holiness.

Although the schlemiel may be second-rate cobbler, the King wants him to live in the castle. In Kafka’s parable, he calls on “Franz” to “come along” and be – like a jester – closest to the humble king.   The interesting thing is that this figuration of the King is much different from the one we see with respect to Abraham – who is also called on. That call inspires “fear and trembling.” This call does not.   After all, in this parable the only sacrifice “Franz” has to make is to leave his fellow “journeymen” behind.

But in Rabbi Nachman’s narrative there is a greater sacrifice and this prompts a question with respect to Kafka’s parable. In his story, the “sophisticate” is left behind because he can’t believe that he would be called on by an actual king. Its all make believe. The simpleton doesn’t think that way.   With this in mind, does Kafka also renounce the sophisticate? Kaminetz struggles with this in his book since he sees Kafka’s “irony” as getting in the way of his faith. But in this parable there is no irony.

In this parable, Kafka’s personal god has a family resemblance to Rabbi Nachman’s.   It is the god of the schlemiel. And at any moment, the humble King can walk into the shop and call on the cobbler to come near.   But he can’t be called on unless he cobbles together garments (narratives) with the utmost humility. In this sense, not only the subject but also the writer is a simpleton. But this call can only be heard if the author renounces the sophisticated ironist.   The irony of this renunciation is that – in the end – this act seems to be comedic.

Since Kafka is so touched by modernity, isn’t he acting “as if” he is a simpleton? As Ruth Wisse suggests, the secular schlemiel acts “as if” the good exists in order to redeem what is best about humanity.  Did Kafka do this? Or did he sincerely think that by becoming a schlemiel he would be called on and drawn near to the humble king? Perhaps Kafka was taking his chances with the schlemiel and its relationship to God by revising and personalizing Rabbi Nachman’s parable?

I’ll let the question stand….as Kafka himself phrased it:

Is Franz here?

“The Top Seven Schlemiels of 2015”


I was recently asked to give a list of who I consider the “Top The Seven Schlemiels of the Year” for Queen Mob’s Teahouse’s “Review of 2015.”  Should you be interested, here it is:

Top Seven Schlemiels of 2015

  1. Larry David has for several years been the most celebrated and recognized schlemiel in visual culture. New York Magazine sees him as the next in the schlemiel-line after Woody Allen. This year he entered himself into the fray with his caricature of Democratic Presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders. David’s imitation on SNL reminds us that what makes the schlemiel unique – for many Americans – is a kind of Jewishness that emerges out of New York City (and the Borsht Belt) that has its roots in the immigrant experience.
  2. Ever since Knocked Up, Seth Rogen has become one of many new comedians who have taken up the torch of the schlemiel.   His film Neighbors was an important moment in this trajectory. But his performance in The Interview this year was also memorable.   Like his other films – and in many a Judd Apatow film – we see a moral moment toward the end of the film that seems to redeem all of his absent-mindedness.
  3. Ben Stiller’s performance in While We’re Young was also memorable and shows us how – as Noah Baumbach does in several of his films – a schlemiel ages and becomes more cognizant of how he or she has been duped. But this time, the schlemiel is duped by a millennial. Gretta Gerwig, in her film Mistress America (another Noah Baumbach film), also plays a schlemiel and ties for third.   Her blindspots are endearing but they are ultimately unsettling. Once again, we see Baumbach’s attempt to render a sad, aging kind of schlemiel. This, of course, is the counter to the schlemiels we see played in many Apatow’s films but also to many schlemiels we see on this or that comedic TV series.
  4. Speaking of schlemiels on TV, schlemiel number four goes to Amy Poehler for her performance in Parks and Recreation.   What Poehler gives us is a schlemiel who is defined by awkwardness. This schlemiel is a lot different from Baumbach’s in the sense that although she may be shamed by this or that situation her shame lacks any tragic element. She is, in truth, rather endearing and is extremely popular these days. We see this kind of awkward charm with nearly all characters on Parks and Recreation. They are, in some way or other, modeled on the recent emergence of the “awkward schlemiel.”
  5. Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson gets the five spot. In contrast to the more cunning and mischievous Ilana Glazer, she plays a schlemiel character who is often defined by her absent mindedness, belatedness, and lack of awareness when it comes to daily life in New York City. She is endearing in many ways. But she also reminds us that there is a growing culture in America of schlemiels who can buy coffee, live in apartments, and fill empty days with any number of distractions.   Unlike the classical schlemiel that we see in Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, or Mendel Mocher Sforim, there is a lack of abject poverty and an overabundance of silly humor. This silliness somehow makes the viewer feel that he or she is not alone in feeling that he or she is going nowhere economically or socially. Like many who watch Broad City, Abbi doesn’t really have any anxiety about it. She has other things to worry about.
  6. Eli Batalion Of Yid Life Crisis – a Youtube series, which also, just this year, was released as a film – gets the six-spot. Of all the schlemiels, he and Jamie Elman – who plays the chochem (intelligent character who is skeptical about nearly everything) and the nudnik (a person who tends to aggravate situations) – by way of their conversational humor, give us something closer to the traditional schlemiel. Most importantly, they give us the original tone and language of the schlemiel since they speak in Yiddish. (And we – who, by and large, have no knowledge of Yiddish whatsoever – get the English subtitles.)    Although Yiddish is almost a dead language (in the sense that the majority of Jews do not know it, speak it, or live through it), they give it life by way of their humor. His schlemiel character can help us to better understand and appreciate contemporary schlemiels in literature, film, TV, and stand-up comedy.
  7. Last, but certainly not least, is the stand-up comedian David Heti.     His schlemiel humor is powerful since it tests the limits of contemporary humor by saying things that may be deemed offensive.   This is sorely needed today since – with the omnipresence of politics on and off campus, Facebook, Twitter, etc – we are tending, more and more, to take ourselves too seriously. His comedy album, It Was Ok (2015) is very entertaining and insightful. It shows us how comedy – Jewish and not so Jewish – can also lead us back to the unhappy source of all humor.   At the end of many of his jokes, there is often an awkward silence in the room. But this is because his jokes touch on this source of humor and, in many ways, bring us not just back to his own particular history and existence, but also to our own. He is, like many a schlemiel, the odd one out. But his oddity reminds us of something we all know today: that sometimes things don’t always go as we expect them, and in a world where failure is the norm sudden victories are (or is it, “were?” after all, so many of his jokes are in the past tense)…“ok.”   Sometimes sadness has its comical moments.  And, as Walter Benjamin well knew (and as Slavoj Zizek, in his wake knows), melancholy can be the source of insight and reflection.  And it is for this reason that I think sometimes the last schlemiel of all – like many a schlemiel – may actually be the most important. You decide.

Happy New Year from Schlemiel Theory!  Larry David for President!



Isn’t that Awkward? On What’s Missing in Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”


There are (and have been) countless television shows which make it obvious to the viewer that a character – in this or that situation – has done something awkward. Think, for instance, of Parks and Recreation, Workaholics,  Curb Your Enthusiasm, or The Office. Saturday Night Live makes it a staple, and just about every Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen film follows suit.   The point of such staged awkward situations is to show how – despite our identification with this or that comic character who says the wrong thing, does the wrong thing, or misses the cue – the social context predominates over every situation.

In American life, social cues have become all important.   While this indicates that Hollywood writers want Americans to be more socially conscious of what they say and do, it also suggests something more problematic; namely, the fact that what is or is not socially acceptable is already interpreted. The camera shots at faces of onlookers – in the wake of this or that faux pas – indicate to the viewer that something awkward has just happened and that we, as intelligent, socially aware viewers, should take on a position of superiority.   Although the excluded comic character is endearing, the process of exclusion – though comical – is the focus.

In contrast to television sit-coms, we are fortunate to have a literature which gives the reader the option of freely deciding what is or is not awkward and an opportunity to think about what that decision means. Franz Kafka’s novel, Amerika is a case in point.   His main character Karl Rossmann offers the reader such an option and gives the reader a moment to think about what is at stake with the presence or the absence of awkwardness.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t know how to read literature anymore and when we are faced with such an opportunity, we pass it by. I would suggest that today, more than ever, we need to take such an opportunity up. We need to question this preponderance of awkwardness and its implications. Is awkwardness something that should be seen as moral or ethical? Is our laughter at the awkward a form of social exclusion? Or is awkwardness a more somber kind of experience or mood?

The first chapter of Amerika comes from a story that Kafka worked, reworked, and published while he was alive: “The Stoker.” What is so fascinating about this chapter is the fact that, as a reader, I cannot but be surprised to notice Kafka’s decision to leave his character undeveloped and unmotivated. Moreover, I am also astonished by the fact that the narrator also seems to be lacking a clear understanding of things while, at the same time, acting as if he does. In other words, Kafka wrote this text in order for the reader to ask serious questions not only about the character but about the narration.

The first thing that should strike the reader is the fact that when Karl Rossmann arrives on the shores of America and should be excited to leave he remembers that he has forgot his umbrella.   His absent mindedness predominates and he goes on a wild search for his umbrella.   On his search, he stumbles across “the Stoker.” The Stoker treats Rossmann like a friend, shares his woes with him, and enlists him in his cause which is against a “Romanian” named Schubal (the Stoker is German). Rossmann gladly accepts the charge and wants to help this hospitable stranger. While the situation is unusual, we still partially identify with the kindness of these characters and Rossmann’s willingness. However, the identification is partial because it is ridiculous. How could Rossmann be so trusting or naïve? And shouldn’t he be more concerned or excited about arriving in America instead of defending someone he never met?

Awkwardness can happen between two people, but, for it to be really effective, it requires the presence of more than two.   The scene in which Rossmann appears in front of the ship’s crew members to defend the Stoker is awkward.

When Karl enters the scene, he doesn’t even get to make any case. All he says is, “Yes, I know, I know…You’re quite right, I never had the slightest doubt about it”(19).   About what? The context is missing and the men are “indifferent,” they don’t seem to feel that there is anything like a trial going on. Before he can fill in any blanks, he is immediately asked a question: “So what’s your name?”

Right when he’s about to answer the question, a knock comes at the door. It’s Schubal.

The narrator is more responsive than Karl. She makes the situation more awkward because she takes this ridiculous situation and its possible consequences seriously while Karl does not. It is obvious that Karl Rossmann is blind to so many things, but the narrator makes it seem possible that he could have acted differently:

Why had Karl not foreseen something so easily foreseen, namely, that Schubal would finally be obliged to come, if not of his own initiative then on a summons from the captain? Why hadn’t he devised a precise battle plan as he walked over with the stoker instead of mercilessly unprepared simply because there was a door there? Could the stoker still speak, say yes and no, as he would be required to do in the cross examination that would take place only if everything turned out for the best. The stoker stood there, legs apart, knees slightly bowed, head raised slightly, and the air went in and out of his open mouth as if he had no lungs left inside to handle his breathing. (21)

The reduction of the whole scene to the Stoker breathing “as if he had no lungs left” indicates the gross lack of intelligence in this scene. The fact of the matter is that Karl is just moving around with the Stoker and standing in the midst of what he imagines is a trial but, in reality, is just a bunch of people in a room.

To make things more awkward, while the narrator notes that “Still, Karl felt stronger and more alert than he had perhaps ever felt at home,” s/he is anxious and asks a series of questions:

Would they change their mind about him? Set him down between them and praise him? And then, only once, take a look into these eyes, eyes that were so devoted to them? What uncertain questions and what an inappropriate moment to be asking them! (21)

The obvious irony is that the narrator feels awkward, not the character.

And although Karl feels “stronger and more alert,” Schubal makes the case and speaks in a clear, articulate manner. The narrator, not Karl, gets frustrated and attempts to criticize the words of Schubal but the attentive reader can see that such criticisms are desperate.   The narrator – breaking narrative convention – wants her character to “get moving” and get involved:

All this was very clear and indeed that is how Schubal had presented it, quite against his will, but one had to tell the story to the gentlemen in a different way, even more explicitly. They had to be given a jolt. So get moving, Karl, and at least take advantage of the time before the witnesses enter and inundate everything. (22)

Immediately after the narrator’s wishful thinking on behalf of her character, something happens which displaces the whole “trial.” The captain speaks to “Mr. Jakob,” the “man with the bamboo stick,” and who is also called “the senator” and seems to be a part of the crew. Mr. Jakob turns to Karl and asks, once again, “So what’s your name?” After Karl tells him, everyone in the crew is “astonished”(23). It seems as if something awkward is about to happen.

Mr. Jakob repeats the word “But” twice and says “But then I am indeed your uncle Jacob, and you are my beloved nephew. Just what I expected all along”(23).   At this moment, the entire scene changes and all the narrator’s expectations are dashed. Karl realizes that he “does have an uncle Jakob in America.” The fact that he realizes this is also astonishing. Doesn’t he have a relative who is supposed to be meeting him when he arrives? Shouldn’t he know his name?

The most awkward thing of all is the Uncle’s retelling of Karl Rossmann’s story. It seems as if Karl is unable to say it himself. He is spoken for. Moreover, it is an awkward story because it gives too many details of things that need not be said in public. Recalling Karl’s sexual encounter which, apparently, is the reason why his parents sent him away, the narrator recounts why Karl was innocent but uses too much detail acting as if he was there when all this happened:

“Karl, oh my Karl,” she cried, as if she could see him and was confirming that she now had possession of him, whereas he could see nothing and felt uncomfortable under the many warm bedclothes that she had evidently heaped up especially for him. Then she lay down beside him and wanted him to tell her secrets, but he had none to tell, and she became annoyed, whether jokingly or in earnest, shook him, listened to his heart, offered him her breast so that he too could listen but did not induce Karl to do so, pressed her naked belly against his body…it felt as if she were a part of him. (27)

Karl, strangely enough, doesn’t feel awkward at all. And neither does the narrator.   The fascinating thing for the modern reader is to experience the lack of awkwardness.   It confronts the reader with a question: aren’t there times when a person should feel awkward – in this case both the narrator and the character, Karl Rossmann?

The question, it seems, is rhetorical. The answer to this question and our desire to see such awkwardness indicate one of two things and this, I think, is what Kafka was after.   The sense of guilt or shame that comes with awkwardness are a valuable thing because they alert us to something important about being human. The mood of awkwardness goes hand in hand with the desire we have, as readers, to speak out and tell the Uncle to stop or to tell the narrator to say something. Their silence is, in a way, dehumanizing.   It may all seem comical, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes awkwardness is not – as it is in so many TV shows and films – a formula for getting higher ratings or ticket sales. And it should not be used to affirm a regime of social control.

Rather, awkwardness, as articulated in Kafka’s Amerika – by virtue of its absence – provides the reader with a sense of humanity and of the power literature has to evoke morality. But this can only be discovered if we become more critical readers. Without questioning narrators and characters, we lose out on a great opportunity to learn how awkwardness truly matters.    And without doing this, our awkwardness is scripted and decided on – for us – by this or that TV show.   Reading Kafka in a critical manner, you, the reader can take the initiative by deciding on the meaning of awkwardness for humanity.   As Walter Benjamin once said to Gerschom Scholem in a letter written near his death, Kafka was “certain” about only one thing; “that a fool can help.”  The “question, however, is whether a fool can do humanity any good.”  That is the awkward question that may be missing from Kafka’s Amerika only because we must ask it.


On Innocence, Forgetfulness, and Reading in Kafka’s “Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared”


Kafka was fascinated with the meaning of innocence and guilt.   His characters are often portrayed as both innocent and guilty.   But the confluence of the two appeals not so much to a theological theme so much as to the reader’s relationship with Kafka’s characters. It seems as if Kafka created a situation where the reader is prompted to judge the main character’s actions: is the character’s innocence good or bad? And must I, as a reader, fight against the cynical tendency I or my culture has to judge innocence as stupidity or a failure to act and think properly? And this prompts a deeper literary question: What is the purpose of comedy? Do we learn, from such innocent characters, what not to be? Or do we, rather, gain insight into who we are? When it comes to comedy, is action or reflection primary? What is the basis for such a decision? And should that decision be based on an evaluation of the consequences?

Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, the main character of his novel Amerika: The Missing Person (and his short story “The Stoker”) provides the reader with an opportunity to address these questions. They all emerge when the reader is prompted to assess Karl Rossmann’s innocence and forgetfulness in terms of his character and situation.

At the outset of the novel, we learn that Karl Rossmann is “entering” New York Harbor on a “slow-moving” ship.   We also learn that he is “17 years old” and that his parents “sent him to America” because a “servant girl had seduced him” and “borne a child by him.” These circumstances suggest that Rossmann’s journey to America is not something he thought deeply about; it is circumstantial. And he did so because his parents sent him away from a situation in which he, apparently, did nothing wrong. Apparently, he is innocent.

But the reader cannot but wonder about what really happened and about what it means that his “parents” sent him away. Is Karl Rossmann really innocent? Or did he do something to the “servant girl?” In addition, the fact that his parents sent him away suggests that he is still a child – even though he is at an age of maturity. All of these factors alter our identification with Rossmann. Should we identify with a character that is so questionable?

Looking at the “Statue of Liberty,” Rossmann says two words “So high.” His observation is disjointed because the words that follow it suggest that he doesn’t say it as a person who has high hopes for a new life. Apparently, he didn’t think too much about leaving Europe:

“So high,” he said to himself, and although he still had not thoughts of leaving, he found himself being pushed gradually toward the rail by an ever-swelling throng of porters. (3)

Rossmann’s life, it seems, is accidental. He gets “pushed” from one place to another.   He doesn’t seem to know or care about where he is going. Rossmann is simply an innocent 17 year old who is going along with the current.

When asked by an excited passenger if he is ready to “get off” the ship, Rossmann acts as if he’s excited: “Oh, I’m ready all right,” said Karl with a laugh, and in his exuberance, sturdy lad that he was, he lifted his trunk up on his shoulders.” But in his “exuberant” attempt to act as if he is a man with a purpose, Rossmann realizes that he had “forgotten his umbrella below deck.”   In other words, Rossmann makes a schlemiel move.   His forgetfulness prompts him to interrupt his act.   And lose his direction. Now Kafka creates a divided consciousness: Rossmann leaves his trunk behind in order to get his umbrella down below.

Rossmann’s descent “down below” to get his umbrella throws him into a labyrinth in which he gets lost. He can no longer act as if he knows where he is going:

Downstairs he was disappointed to find a passageway that would have certainly shortened his path blocked off for the first time…and was obliged to make his way laboriously through numerous small rooms, corridors that constantly turned off, many short stairs in rapid succession and an empty room with an abandoned desk…he had quite lost his way. (4)

Now, Rossmann panics and “in his uncertainty” he starts “knocking at random on a little door before which he had halted.” The theme of being stuck before doors and unable to more is a constant in Kafka’s work. And, oftentimes, the person who is stuck is innocent.   However, in many of these cases where Kafka’s characters get stuck, the reader is prompted to ask whether or not this should have happened. Although Rossmann is innocent, perhaps he shouldn’t have shown any concern from his umbrella and just moved on – acting as if he had somewhere to go.

Nonetheless, sometimes surprises can be life-altering and luck can subvert proper decision making. The person who answers the door is the “Stoker.”

“It’s open,” cried a voice within and, sighing with general relief, Karl stepped into the cabin. “Why do you have to bang on the door like a madman?” a huge man asked, almost without looking at Karl. (4)

By letting him in, the Stoker alters Rossmann’s life. He gives Rossmann new possibilities.   The possibilities suggest something religious. Rossmann says he “lost his way.”   The Stoker is hospitable and invites Rossmann in to his home/cabin.   As readers, we can see that this character, despite that fact that he is friendly, is over-talkative and has no problem bringing a complete stranger into his life. Rossmann, however, has no problem with this:

“Lie down on the bed, that’ll give you more room,” said the man. Karl crawled in as best he could, laughing loudly at his initially futile attempt to swing himself ont to eh bed. No sooner was he lying down on than he cried: “Oh, my goodness, I forgot about my trunk.” (5)

What is astonishing is how much Rossmann, in his innocence, trusts this stranger and takes to him as if the Stoker will help him in some way. Rossmann’s forgetfulness – coupled with his trust – adds to his schlemiel character:

Perhaps I should stick with this man – thought Karl – for where else could I find a better friend just now? (5)

Besides his trust, the Stoken jokingly complements Rossmann who says that he “believes” that his trunk is still on deck with the man he trusted: “‘Blessed are those who believe,’ said the man.”   The blessing indicates that Rossman’s trust has something religious about it.

But while it is the case that in a Sholem Aleichem story, the innocent character is endearing (think, for instance, of Aleichem’s Motl or Tevye), here, this is not so much the case.   Aleichem’s schlemiel is different from Kafka’s because Kafka’s Rossmann prompts the reader to think more critically about the people he is meeting along the way and the decisions he makes.

Like many a schlemiel, Rossmann’s absent-mindedness can get him in trouble. However, Kafka creates reasons for the reader to be suspicious of Rossmann and though his innocence and trust may be endearing they can also be read as stupid and even infantile. This is what Heinz Politzer claims in his book, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox.

That aside, what the Stoker does is give Rossmann an opportunity to defend him to the Captain of the ship (since the Stoker is in a difficult situation by virtue of a woman he fooled around with and a Hungarian – the Stoker is German – who has a problem with him).   This opportunity puts the schlemiel in the position of a defense attorney.   There is a question and a problem here which Kafka is testing: Can a schlemiel, who has no knowledge of the situation save for what he learned at that moment, profess the innocence of a man who is most likely not innocent?

This question and the problem make it difficult for the reader to identify with Rossmann’s innocence – in particular – and innocence in general. Kafka has, in effect, used literature to pose deep questions about the meaning of the schlemiel and innocence. While Aleichem preserves our belief in the schlemiel and in the power of innocence, Kafka, with these characters and situations, puts it into question.   Kafka, it seems, was weighing these questions and knew that, for him (just like for a Midrashist or Talmudist), the meaning of innocence depends on how or whether the reader identifies with a character and his actions.

Innocence, for Kafka, is a spiritual pre-requisite. However, as he well knew it may go nowhere.   Even if a character is able to pass the gate or make a friend, his innocence does not preserve him from a tragic-comic conclusion. Rossmann’s laughter indicates this double-edged aspect of innocence. Sometimes acting “as if” something is true or good may only lead to problems. However, as Kafka well knew, the alternative is bitterness and cynicism.  Kafka laid out these possibilities in this novel and gave them to the reader.


….to be continued.

Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting


In comedy there are no sacred cows. And when it comes to mythology, comedy doesn’t hesitate to smash this or that myth.   Jewish comedy is well known for its iconoclasm. And perhaps this has a root in Judaism’s resistance to mythology and idolatry as well as its prohibition of images. It may also have to do with Judaism’s interest in textual interpretation which shows that this or that story poses questions or is linked to another narrative (something we often see in Midrash).   Both Franz Kafka and Woody Allen are, without a doubt, Jewish iconoclasts.  They parody myth by way of their own revisions, but they differ in terms of the insights that they offer to the reader.   While Kafka gives the reader deeper insights into faith, self-doubt, existence, and consciousness with his parodic revisions of myth, Allen gives his readers or viewers a sense of how a New Yorker has better things to do than get caught up in this or that ridiculous myth.   In these comedic revisions, Woody Allen is out to sell a way of life not prompt deep reflection.

In a piece entitled, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Allen takes aim at several different kinds of mythological creatures, fantastic places, and myth itself. Like any joke, he starts with a serious reflection, but ends with an ironic punch line:

A wise man in India bet a magician that he could not fool him, whereupon the magician tapped the wise man on the head and changed him into a dove. The dove flew out the window to Madagascar and had his luggage forwarded.

…The magician said that in order to learn the trick one must journey to the four corners of the earth, but that one should go in the off-season, as three corners are usually booked. (178, The Insanity Defense)

In another mythological rewrite, Allen takes aim at an imaginary place called “Quelm,” (which sounds like, Chelm, a place populated by schlemiels).   It is “so distant from Earth that a man traveling the speed of light would take a million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip”(178).

In each punch line, Allen looks to ground the listener in the here and now of the New York Jewish attitude toward the hardships of life and getting by:

In addition to these obstacles on Quelm, there is no oxygen to support life as we know it, and what creatures do exist find it hard to ear a living without holding down two jobs. (179)

While Allen’s iconoclasm is funny and grounds us in the here and now, it can be construed in a negative manner since it doesn’t take myth as a basis of reflection. It rejects it wholeheartedly. The problem with iconoclasm is that when it is not done with a proper sense of humility, it could possibly come across (to some) as self-serving or even dishonest. Citing Aristotle, Leo Strauss argues that “irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).

But, as I note elsewhere, Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle, Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Reflecting on this, one can argue that even though Woody Allen isn’t using irony like Kafka (in order to tap into this or that depth while effacing a myth), he is also making a “proper” use of irony since the punch line dissimulates the superiority of myth.   His punch lines convey the humility of the New York everyman who is just trying to survive. The “speaker” in these pieces is the “ironic man” and his “noble dissimulation” conveys his only virtue which is to be a New Yorker.   But let’s not fool ourselves: each punch line is a sales pitch for a way of life which lives in the wake of myth and perhaps even philosophy. After all, both are interested in origins. (As Aristotle also notes in “The Metaphysics,” philosophy and myth start with wonder.)

I’ll leave the reader with a Woody Allen joke that takes both myth and philosophy as its target. Allen’s joke suggests that, in the world of the New Yorker, the philosopher (as much as the myth-lover) doesn’t exist:

Legend has it…that many billions of years ago the environment was not quite so horrible – or ate least no worse than Pittsburgh – and that human life existed.   These humans – resembling men in every way except for a large head of lettuce where the nose normally is – were to a man philosophers.   As philosophers they relied heavily on logic and felt that if life existed, somebody must have caused it, and they went looking for a dark-haired man with a tattoo who was wearing a Navy pea jacket.

When nothing materialized, they abandoned philosophy and went into the mail-order business, but post rates went up and they perished. (179)