Leslie Fiedler on Little People and Jews

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When I first came across Robert Crumb’s depiction of Jewish grandparents in the first issue of his Snoid Comics project, I was surprised by the juxtaposition he posed between the big grand-daughter and the small Jewish grand-parents.  It didn’t seem possible that such a big Jewish American woman could come from such small grand parents.  Are Jews from the “old country” small and American Jews (their granddaughter is born in America, apparently) big?   After seeing this comic strip, I wanted to look more into the association of Jews with smallness.  (I have been researching big and small in several different entries which look to philosophy, comedy, literature, theology, and film for answers.)

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Ultimately, the association of Jews with smallness is nothing new.   Many Yiddish stories (from Mendel Mocher Sforim, to I.L. Peretz and Shalom Aleichem) cast Jews as a small people.  One of Kafka’s greatest short stories, “Josephine the Mouse Singer,” in an obvious allusion to Jews, makes the main character and her “people” into mice.  Everything they say or do is small.   Even her singing – which affects an entire people – is depicted as “piping.”  The narrator of the story, a mouse, laments this smallness, and argues that they are and remain small in the sense that they are “childish” and yet “old.”   There seems to be no way for him and his people to escape smallness.  It is, as it were, biological.  After all, no matter what they do they are and remain mice.     But what does this mean?  What is the meaning of the relationship of Jews to smallness?  And, in contrast to Kafka, what does Crumb mean when he juxtaposes small “old country” Jews to their big American grand daughter?  Does America make Jews (biologically, psychically, culturally, etc) bigger?  Or is Crumb wrong?  Do all Jews (American Jews included) or should Jews be depicted in terms of smallness?   Or is that an insult?

In his book Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, the literary and cultural critic, Leslie Fiedler (who was not without his critics) suggests that we think about Jewishness in terms of small people.   In his chapter “Dwarfs: Changing the Image,” Fiedler notes that the “even in the most grotesque paintings of Dwarfs and dogs, it is the Dwarf who has the last laugh, since the beast almost always remains anonymous, while his companion is known”(82).   In other words, small people can lose their anonymity and gain fame.  Fiedler names several different books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias which mention particular dwarfs as if they were legends of history.  He picks out one book which stands above the others: “surely no other category of anomalous humans is well documented enough to make possible such a tour de force of cataloguing as Walter de la Mare brings out in his Memoirs of a Midget”(82).   Fiedler points out how de la Mare names sixteen famous small people that appear written on the main character’s birthday cake.  The list starts with “Lady Morgan” and ends with “Mrs. Anne Gibson.”     What Fiedler finds problematic about this list is that there are no Jews on it.  For this reason, he adds a Jewish small person to this list, Lia Graf:

Finally, taking advantage of the more than half a century that has passed since the publication of Memoirs of a Midget in 1922, I am nominating to fill the last blank on the cake Lia Graf, originally called Schwartz, who was in June 1933 “a plump, well-proportioned brunette” twenty-seven inches tall.  (84)

Lia Graf’s moment of fame came in 1933 when she was put on the “lap of J.P. Morgan while he was testifying before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee”(85).    Before that, she appeared at the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

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Fiedler takes note of how short her career was.   Although this appearance made her famous, she had “for whatever the reason, left the United States in 1935, despite the fact that Hitler was by then in control of her native land and she was half Jewish.  Not only as a Jew but as a Dwarf, Lia Graff was doomed.  In 1937, after all Freak shows were banned in Germany, she was arrested as a useless person”(86).  And she was tragically “transported to Auschwitz” in 1944 (86).

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Reflecting on her existence and her tragic story, Fiedler finds something unique and generalizable about the life of small people:

Yet the fact that an event like Lia’s death could occur even once casts new light on the situation of Dwarfs everywhere and always: the vulnerability implicit in their special status and high visibility.   (86)

He can understand, based on this state of being, why they would want to “normalize” themselves “to escape sterotyping which (at least in the minds of the most sensitive among them) has distorted their lives, predetermining their behavior in the actual world as well as their image in the eyes of normal”(86).    Citing Irving Goffman’s book, Stigma, Fiedler takes note of how Goffman uses the dwarf as an example of how, regardless of one’s education, experience, and wisdom, one will always be stigmatized by smallness and be associated with “fools ever since the royal courts of the Middle Ages”(87).

Small people, for this reason, sought for a much wider cultural recognition as an “oppressed minority”(87) and not be treated as “less than human.”   But there is a problem.  As Fiedler points out, in the late 70s, when he wrote this book, he found that “old terrors die hard, particularly when they are disguised as fables and jokes; and it seems improbable that anything can be radically altered until new myths have been created to replace the old”(87).    He points out how new organizations have developed such as Little People of America (LPA) to address this issue and normalize smallness.

Why has it taken so long to gain recognition?

Fiedler sees this lack of recognition as quite significant and contrasts this failure to the successes of other minority groups:

I detect a certain note of defeatism in the most ebullient press releases of the much-longer-established LPA….Individual Dwarfs may have been highly visible in the bad old days of their oppression, but as an organized group they fade into invisibility beside other stigmatized minorities like blacks, Indians, and Jews, or afflicted ones like heart disease victims, cancer cases, and sufferers of muscular dystrophy. (88)

As a result, they are thrown back into themselves and are hyper-self-conscious: “Dwarfs fall, in fact, in their own self-consciousness, somewhere between two categories; since despite a literary tradition which regards them as an “ancient people” exiled among aliens, they tend to see themselves as patients needing help from chemotherapy or hormones”(88).     Who would have heard this small group, Fiedler asks rhetorically, “above the voices of millions of students demanding peace and parity, more millions of blacks clamoring for political power, or the cries of the largest oppressed group of all, women”?(89)

At the very least, argues Fiedler, “little people will always be remembered as the first Freaks who attempted to demythologize themselves – or rather to re-mythologize themselves as an oppressed and stigmatized minority rather than collection of deviants from an desirable norm”(89).   And this, for Fiedler, sounds a lot like the Jewish people who “after millennia of ghettoization…have dared to dream of forging themselves into the ‘most cohesive class of people since the unification of Jews’”(89).

Fiedler declares his revelation of how small people and Jews have so much in common: “Jew and Dwarf!  How often that conjunction has occurred to me as I, a Jewish non-Dwarf, have pursed their history”(89).   He tells the ironic story of how Josef Boruwlaski, a small person and a gentile, saw Jews in Eastern Poland, and called them “poor people” who lived in “sorry villages.”  And, “despite the disconcerting anecdote,” Fiedler thinks it is apt for the Jews to be described by a small person in this way:

Looking back over their five thousand years of recorded history, it seems to me that the Dwarfs are, in a real sense, the Jews of the Freaks: the most favored, the most successful, the most conspicuous and articulate; but buy the same token, the most feared and reviled, not only in gossip and popular press, but in enduring works of art, the Great Books and Great paintings of the West.  They have been, in short, a “Chosen People,” which is to say, a people with no choice; but they have begun, like the Children of Israel, to choose at least to choose. (90)

The final twist, however, is the shared movement from Europe to America.  Fiedler notes that, in the passage, things have changed for both groups who “have prospered in show business in America” and who “take the lead now in organizing for mutual defense, consciousness raising, and social action”(90).  And although, in America, Jews may, like Dwarfs, no longer be seen as “monsters” they “will still be Dwarfs.”   In other words, Fiedler thinks that they will remain small  yet…without the stigma.   He seems to be saying the same for Jews; but, strangely enough, he is not happy with the drive of many small people to call on medical science in order to look like everyone else:

But it is a protest which I really have no right to make – I who have stumbled through a world built to an alien scale only in my earliest childhood and in occasional adult nightmares, from which I awake with the coming of dawn.  (90)

One wonders, when reading these words, what Fiedler is suggesting about Jewish assimilation and not just little people.  He doesn’t want them to change their smallness, it seems.

Although smallness is something he only really knew when he was a child, he also suggests that his Jewishness has an intimate sense of smallness.    He doesn’t know, in other words, if he is really big.  Is Fiedler more like the American woman in Crumb comic – who is much larger than her Eastern European grandparents distance herslef or does she identify more with the European (grand)parents?  Either way, Crumb depicts both as caricatures.   And perhaps that’s the point.  Regardless of how big or small a Jew is in America, s/he will always fail to fit in; but this need not be seen as stigmatizing.  In fact, Crumb seems –throughout his career – to be creating a space for smallness and Freakiness in America.     He is, as Fiedler would say, re-mythologizing smallness and…Jewishness.

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2 thoughts on “Leslie Fiedler on Little People and Jews

  1. I can’t help but compare this internalized dimunition with Tolkien’s representation of his mythologized provincial rural Englishmen as the dimunitive Hobbits of Middle Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s representation of the Jews of Middle Earth as the Dwarves is well documented. It’s important to emphasize though that in Tolkien’s Catholic value-system, smallness implied no disrespect. Tolkien’s Jews/Dwarves are basically the same size as the Hobbits but a different race entirely (formed by a Demiurge!), pushy, excellent craftsmen with a hunger for gold, who “dug too deep,” released dangerous cthonic powers, and were subsequently exiled from their homeland. If this sounds like a more positively spun medieval anti-Semitic trope of the magical Jews it’s because it is. Credit to Tolkien for his redemption of what elsewhere is represented as demonic. (I’m relying on Trachtenberg’s writing on the Magical Jew here.)

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