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

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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).

BELOW

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,

awakening.

 

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?

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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

 

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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.

I.

It…

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

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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”

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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!