Schlemiels Can’t Do Camp


At the end of my last blog post, I suggested the possibility of Jewish Camp.  But is that possible?  Aren’t the two mutually exclusive?  This is what Susan Sontag suggests when she argues that Jews and Homosexuals are the creators of two modern sensibilities that are at odds with each other: a moral and an aesthetic Camp sensibility.  And as I noted in my last post, Sontag thinks that one necessarily “neutralizes” the other: “Camp is solvent of morality.  It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness”(“Notes on Camp,” 290).   Camp is all aesthetics, in other words, it is interested in play not moral seriousness.

Although the clash between ethics and aesthetics is nothing new – Plato, Kierkegaard, and Emmanuel Levinas all insist on the distinction – Sontag is introducing a nuanced reading of it, here.   Sontag’s distinction between a gay Camp sensibility and a Jewish moral sensibility (in modernity) suggests that Camp takes up the threads of aristoratic taste:

Aristocracy is a position vis-a-vis culture (as well as vis-a-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste.  But since no aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-selected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.  (290)

With this history in mind, I’d like to introduce a challenge and ask a question.

The schlemiel is a moral-aesthetic figure that, on the one hand, partakes in the moral sensibility Sontag thinks Jews used to legitimate their place in American and European culture; and, on the other hand, it also partakes in the aesthetic sensibility. But the key difference is that the schlemiel does not take its historical cure from “the history of snob taste.”  On the contrary, the schlemiel’s history is rooted in historical trauma and takes its lead – as Ruth Wisse argues – from Jewish “weakness” in the face of history.  Wise argues that it appeals to self-deprecation as a way of humoring this weakness.   It is not, by any means, aesthetic taste that one sees articulated in the schlemiel.  If anything, we see the failure and self-deprecation in the schlemiel character.  She doesn’t take on an aristocratic Camp sensibility.  It’s comedy doesn’t evince a dominant, playful sensibility.

Think, for instance, of Woody Allen or Larry David.  If anything, they deliberately put forth characters whose comedy is informed not by bad taste so much as a comedy of errors that belies a character who is, ultimately, good natured and moral.   Larry David’s portrayal of Bernie Sanders is a good example.


In the parody, the moral sensibility is mocked.  But it is central throughout.  Aesthetic play, as Sontag would say, isn’t the key feature.

That prompts the question: Can a Schlemiel do Camp?

One interesting possibility has come up recently, as I noted in my last post, with Transparent.

In an essay on the show for the Los Angeles Review of Books entitled “Transparent: A Guide to the Perplexed,” Jonathan  Freedman doesn’t mentioned camp once.  He sees it, rather, in terms of Diasporic Jewish identity which is constantly changing and morphing.

Lech lecha: you must wander, you must change. Both of these imperatives are deeply — one might even say constitutively — Jewish. The first manifests itself in the historical experience of Jews as an exilic or diasporic people. To be a bit tendentious about it, the Promised Land has long served as much as a promise as a land; at the time of Christ, the heyday of the Second Temple, for example, more Jews lived in the Nile Delta than in Biblical Palestine; and the phrase at the end of the Passover ceremony, “Next year in Jerusalem,” has resonated and continues to resonate as much in Minsk or Berlin or Los Angeles as it does in, well, Jerusalem. The diasporic heritage has been key to the cultural and economic success of Jews qua model minority — as traders or middlemen, as makers and remakers of the cultures of the lands into which we have passed: without us, could Donald Trump even have conceived of the word “schlonged”? But it also means that we diasporic Jews are really home nowhere, as reflected in the rootlessness of the Pfefferman family, where the family mansion passes from Mort to his daughter so that Tammy can redecorate it out of existence….As a wandering people, Jews have of course had to change as they moved from country to country, ghetto to citizenship, religious to assimilated, ghetto Jew to sabra, frum to modern, which raises and practically identifies the Jew with the perpetual questioning of identity that is a hallmark of modernity.

Freedman also points out how the identification of Jews with the feminine is noting new.  It has a history and even James Joyce subscribes to it:

The understanding of the male Jew as a woman — as a proto-transsexual — had radiated throughout culture. A somewhat unhinged but brilliant converted Jew, cultural critic Otto Weininger, spoke of the male Jew’s essentially female nature in 1901. In 1922, James Joyce’s Jewish half-protagonist in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is called “a finished example of the new womanly man.” Radiating out from such figures were identifications of Jewish men as women by medical professionals, chiefly in the cutting-edge medical research in 1920s and 1930s Germany.

It seems, for him, that the main focus of the show has to do with dealing with modernity in terms of identity issues and change.  Freedman seems to be telling us that the legacy of the effeminate Jew, it seems, is a part of that identity complex.

What is missing, however, in Freedman’s masterful account of the show, is a discussion of the moral sensibility.  How does it figure in this show?  Can it not be argued that Morton (Maura) Pfefferman character is playing a schlemiel?  After all, Joyce casts Bloom as a schlemiel and, to be sure, David Biale is correct in argue that most of the schlemiels we see in film are “sexual schlemiels.”  What is the moral undercurrent?  What does it mean for a schlemiel to grapple with sexual identity?  And how is this – as in many schlemiel tales, shows, and films – situated within the context of the family, the community?

This isn’t camp. And, based on this, one can argue that a schlemiel can’t do camp.  The schlemiel exposes a different sensibility that exists between a moral and aesthetic sensibility.  But this is not Camp aesthetics, as Sontag would understand it.  There is an aesthetics, a moral-asethetics, in this show.  There is moral conflict.  How do we articulate it? And what does it tell us about forces in American culture that Sontag may not have understood?  How can a reading of the schlemiel help us to understand a third kind of sensibility one that isn’t about the “aristocracy of taste” but about a struggle with modernity that is…shared…in common.  The schlemiel’s comic approach to transgender – at least in this show – may help us to understand how modern American Jews turn more to a moral-aesthetic sensibility to deal with the conflicts of modernity than to something solely aesthetic or solely moral.


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