An Essay on the Saint and the Cynic: Resentment and Jewishness in Amery, Sloterdijk, and Wyschogrod


Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel character is situated between hope and skepticism.   Since Wisse is a scholar of Yiddish folklore and literature and not a philosophy scholar, I have taken it upon myself to look into this distinction from a philosophical perspective.  To this end, one of my current research interests is in how to philosophically address this tension between hope and skepticism in terms of a tension between the saint and the cynic (cynicism rather than skepticism, it seems, might be the better term for what Wisse is teasing out in her research into the schlemiel character).   And because the schlemiel is a Jewish character, I have taken great interest in how Jewish philosophy or scholars interested in Jewishness approach this tension.   The work I have done on the tension between a Nietzschean kind of comedy and that which one finds in a writer like Robert Walser – who, according to Walter Benjamin, had perhaps the greatest influence on Kafka’s fiction – speaks to this tension as well.   The difference between them – drawing on that between the Saint and the Cynic – is between two different senses of humor (one self-deprecating and open to suffering, the other aggressive and satirical).

I recently published an essay in The Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy (Volume 24, No. 3) that addresses the tension between the Saint and the Cynic by way of three significant Continental Thinkers: Jean Amery, Peter Sloterdijk, and Edith Wyschogrod.  It is entitled “The Saint and the Cynic: Resentment and Jewishness in Amery, Sloterdijk, and Wyschogrod.”  You can access the abstract here and the essay here – since this peer reviewed journal is “open access.”   (Also take a look at this incredible issue which is dedicated to the work of Jean Amery.  It includes a group of exceptional essays by top scholars in the field of Jewish philosophy.)

This essay gives an in-depth exploration of this important topic and suggests different theoretical tensions and underpinnings that inform my philosophical reading of the schlemiel character.     The schlemiel should not be seen as some arbitrary character.  In this character, a lot is at stake.  To make that explicit, I suggest that we make use of a rigorous philosophical and theological approach to humor, Jewishness, and the Jewish body.   And, as per my research, I can say that this approach must address the tension between the Saint and Cynic.

George in Oil, or a Schlemiel on Canvas


While most of the schlemiels we come across are in this or that movie, television series, short story, or novel, sometimes the schlemiel takes on graphic form.  Take, for instance, the comic strips of Drew and Josh Friedman or the graphic novels of Ben Katchor (to name only two, there are many more that have yet to be examined in the history of the schlemiel in the comic strip).   To be sure, whether it is Sholem Aleichem, Stanley Elkin, or Larry David, the schlemiel is often animated.  It crosses over into the visual realm.  Its talk and its foibles are ripe for graphic representation that has much in common with the popular medium of animation (which, to be sure, draws extensively on the schlemiel character).  The schlemiel finds a space in literature, film, and comic books.  But we have yet to see the schlemiel enter the greatest medium of high culture: oil painting.

Most recently, I came across an article about how an artist named Morgan Blair has decided to paint scenes from Seinfeld.  As the article notes, the character she is most interested in is George Constanza, the schlemiel of Seinfeld.

What we find in these art pieces is a different kind of focus on the schlemiel’s body (or what I call the “body of Jewish comedy”).   Through brush strokes and color, we can tune in to the mood of the artist and get a sense of the subject that we cannot ordinarily derive from the TV show.

Compare, for instance, this screen shot:


With this painting:


One of the most interesting things I find – moving from one painting of George to the other – is that the gestures range from joy to shame and pass from the schlemiel’s blindness to the realization that she missed something.   Bearing the face and body, as we see in this couch image, and hiding it, as we see below, are the two gestures that are at the forefront of these images.


Yet, in another painting we see a kind of peace on Constanza’s face that we don’t see on the show.  It’s as if the paintings are telling us that the schlemiel is not simply a ball of anxiety and awkwardness but, of all the characters, s/he may be the most settled.  S/he has what I have been calling a simplicity to him and a smallness which are traits of the schlemiel that a cursory look at this or that TV show or film may overlook.  However, literature, comics, and painting do have the potential to stop the movement of the schlemiel so that we can have a better look at him/her.


The Mouse That Roars: On Short People, Caricature & the #TinyTrump Hashtag


Extreme difference in size or scale is a staple of comedy, caricature, folklore, and literature.    The Brothers Grimm, for instance, tell many stories about small people who comically stumble through the world and are thought not just to be small in scale but small minded.  Take, for instance, “The Seven Swabians,” a story about how seven individuals – who have never been outside their small town – go out to see the world. They are frightened to death.  But the punch line comes in the end when we realize that these are not people like you and I; they are small people who see everything in the world as big and frightful.    Gustave Flaubert’s final novel, Bouvard and Pechuchet  – which wasn’t published until after his death – draws on comic tradition and presents two comic characters, one tall and the other small, as embodying the essence of comedy.  Even the poet Paul Celan got in on the act in his only comic story, “Conversation in the Mountains,” whose main characters are Klein (Small) and Gross (Big).  What Grimm, Flaubert, and Celan understand is that scale is the key to comedy.

Charles Baudelaire wrote extensively on caricature.  As Michele Hanoosh points out in Baudelaire and Caricature: From the Comic to the Art of Modernity, Baudelaire proposed an “aesthetic of caricature” and a “caricatural aesthetic” which was “dual and contradictory, grotesque, ironic, violent, farcical, and fleeting”(4).   This kind of caricature not only defines “the painting of modern life” but the “discourse of modernity as well”(4).  The modern city is the space of the comic.  The flanuer is likened to a laugher.  He is both the subject and the object of laughter.   The basis of this laughter and doubleness is historical; it is modernity.   But  what is the most interesting aspect of this kind of modernity is the tension it creates not only between the viewer and himself, but the historical tension it brings out between the popular and the academic (between high and low culture).

As Hanoosh notes, Baudelaire sees caricature, at his time, as a “subversion of academic ideals”(14).  Those who ridicule Rabelais and the caricaturists become, by virtue of the populous that embraces caricature and its vulgar meanings – the objects of ridicule.      While this is the case, Baudelaire also points out – in his essay on laughter – that the “essential” comic is satanic.  It celebrates what is base not what is holy.   It also thrives on ridicule. The example Baudelaire uses draws from an ETA Hoffman story where a little girl’s father (a “magician”) tricks her into seeing a group of soldiers, who she idealized, as dirty animals.  (The father brings her into a tent where they are sleeping and “lifts the flap.” When he exposes his daughter, he ruins her perception and grounds it in baseness.)

Like much else in comedy these days, the object of ridicule is put into question.  Who can ridicule who has become a major question since many groups of people may feel offended about jokes that go outside one group.  In light of this, most comics these days prefer to make fun of themselves.   One of the most interesting challenges to this, however, is the question of scale.  As I have noted elsewhere, small people have been the object of ridicule for centuries.  Organizations – such as the Little People of America – and websites have emerged to support small people around the world.

But smallness need not be thought of in a negative, comical manner.  It has been transvaluated (in a Bloomian or Nietzschean sense) by writers such as Franz Kafka and Robert Walser, comic artists like Robert Crumb and Ben Katchor, and musicians like Randy Newman (although people largely misinterpreted his famous song, “Short People”).

One wonders, however, what to make of many Austin Powers films which cast Dr. Evil and his co-hort “Mini-Me” – that is, scale comedy – as the main feature.   Is this a transvaluation?  It seems to be doing what caricature has been doing for centuries.  Both the big and the small – in terms of scale – come across as ridiculous but charming.  The comedy of scale also goes hand-in-hand with low intelligence and bad decision making.  Mini-me, of course, is the punch line.  He serves to amplify Dr. Evil’s wild stupidity.

Most recently, scale comedy has been used in the political effort against Donald Trump.  In all of these pieces, he appears small and infantile in comparison to President Obama and others.  And this comical difference renders him incapable of being taken seriously by anyone.  This goes hand-in-hand with the jokes that were told about his small hands (that were read as code for a “small penis).  This meme led to a discussion in different places about the uses and abuses of comedy.  The point of these memes is tactical and, of course, political. They aim to reduce or challenge Trump’s power by making him look small or infantile in comparison to the adults and bigger people.

While a rap artist like “Lil Dicky” has transformed this into something positive and lucrative, the expression “little dick” in American culture is by no means a complement.   He takes being a schlemiel-cuckold to another level. But this is all self-deprecating humor.

Even so, whether it is Trump or Lil Dicky, the humor works within the same kind of code: smallness is deplorable and infantile; bigness is optimal.  Expansion, not contraction.  And, as most theorists of comedy point out, the position of the laugher is one of superiority.  Even Baudelaire, who found laughter “satanic” and base, knew that it was elevating.  Comedy aims to take the laugher up, which Henri Bergson saw expressing the free, living intellect; it goes up, while the small guy (the one laughed at) – whose life is mechanical and doesn’t grow but, repeats, stays the same, small, and local – goes down.

The point I am trying to make is that smallness can be used to either ridicule and increase a sense of superiority and bigness; or smallness can overturn ridicule and keep that hierarchical power relationship (between the big and the small) from happening.  But the comedy of scale always seems to live on.  Regardless of one’s position on different kinds of comedy, the fact of the matter is that the comedy of scale clearly has a grip on us and it won’t go away.   The small person is still not taken seriously.  However, she is entertaining and may even, as with Lil Dicky (Woody Allen, Gary Shandling, etc), gain our pity (albeit in a comical manner) and become famous.

The fact of the matter is that the fate of smallness in the public eye is different from the fate of smallness in literature.  What we find in Flaubert, Kafka, Walser, and Celan is not what we find on Buzzfeed or Twitter.  Perhaps that difference informs what Baudelaire called the “aesthetic of caricature” as opposed to the “caricatural aesthetic.”  It may also inform an approach to smallness that finds something much more powerful and humbling in the micros.   It’s all in the (small) details.

The problem is that one kind of smallness can displace the other.  That displacement may have to do with the discourse of power and two types of comedy which, I have argued, are to be found in Nietzsche and Robert Walser.   Today, that comedy of scale is being played out before our very eyes.  But, given what we are seeing these days, Nietzsche is winning the battle.  And maybe that has to do with the fact that we have a comedian in the White House who doesn’t shy away from insulting anyone who stands in his way.  He is taking on what Baudelaire is calling the “caricatural aesthetic” and so has the hashtag #TinyTrump.  We seem to be in a comedic agon of sorts and the “tiny” person seems to have been thrown into the ring.  This is comedy of scale.

In this space, the mouse roars.

Happy Birthday to Schlemiel Theory!


Dear Schlemiel Lovers,

On February 18th, Schlemiel Theory turned four years old!

I am happy to report that Schlemiel Theory is – today – the most popular blog not only on the Schlemiel but also in the genre of Jewish Philosophy and Literature.   With over 6,000 followers, Schlemiel Theory continues to grow and reach people around the globe.

Schlemiel Theory has archived over 500 essays that uniquely address the schlemiel, literature, poetry, philosophy, theology, film, television, and stand-up comedy.   The point of this project is and has always been to become the largest space in the world for Schlemiel Theory.  As the essays show, this character has a lot of potential and can open up many new avenues for thought and reflection.  To be sure, the schlemiel can help us to think about literature, philosophy, theology, and culture in nuanced ways.

In his essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin suggested that what Kafka meant by the “Truth of Sancho Panza” was the fact that he followed Don Quixote.  But Benjamin knew that Kafka’s version of Don Quixote lifted up a paw against its master.  Kafka’s Don Quixote is more Jewish.  As Ruth Wisse and Sidra Ezrahi have noted, the schlemiel (especially in its first major literary figuration – in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third) is a Jewish Don Quixote.  The schlemiel offers something different from – and perhaps even more powerful than – what Quixote offered to modern writers, thinkers, and artists.

And this is the take-away.

Benjamin, Kafka, and Arendt have suggested that we follow the schlemiel.   But they are not alone.  Some of our greatest writers and comedians today have made the same suggestion.  Something is happening here.    Schlemiel Theory is there to flesh it out.

Thank you for your support and your comments.

Like Sancho Panza, Schlemiel Theory is and will remain in hot pursuit of the schlemiel.  Today’s birthday is a reminder of what the blog has done and will continue to do.  Today is a new day for Schlemiel Theory and it promises to be yet another great year with weekly posts by the author of the blog and by different guest posters who hail from the realms of academia, poetry, literature, film, and culture (see here and here for two such posts).


More Schlemiels,


Menachem Feuer



Bodies that Matter: The Schlemiel as Cuckold, the Jewish Philosopher’s Body & Lil Dicky


One of my favorite scenes in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1976) is near the end, when Alvy Singer flies out to Los Angeles from New York City to see Annie Hall.     The plot twists when Alvy Singer meets Tony Lacey (played by Paul Simon), a music star, at his party.   People are flocked around Tony, women love him.  Annie has eyes for him and Alvy Singer knows he has lost.  He leaves and, near the very end of the film, he calls Annie.  He has lost the connection.  He is alone.  And, apparently, he has had a hand in it.  He is exemplary of what David Biale would call a “sexual schlemiel.”    And that is because he is what the Schlemiel Theorist, Sanford Pinsker, would call a “cuckold.”

A cuckold is defined as a man whose “wife is unfaithful.”  It is also used as a verb to describe a husband who has discovered that he has been cheated on by his wife.  The term originally comes from the cuckoo bird which is a fitting figure for the “cuckold” because it lays eggs in other bird’s nests. To be sure, the term has a long history.   Since the 13th century, the term cuckold has been used in folktales, fairytales, and poems (whether in Chaucer or Shakespeare).  It also denotes “failure in the bedroom.”    The cuckold was – in much folklore and in culture -associated with deer horns because stags will often leave their male mates when they were defeated by another male.


While this concept is pointedly masculinist, in Woody Allen’s film the cuckold is seen from a perspective that is masculine and feminine.  And it could also be called Jewish, if by Jewish we mean something other than a stereotype (in a way that speaks to what Daniel Boyarin, in his book Unheroic Conduct, would call, drawing on Nietzsche, the “re-evaluation” of the gender stereotype which can turn “feminization” – “unheroic conduct” – into something positive, not negative, as per Freud).   I would like to suggest that the dialectical relationship that we bear witness to in the final scenes evidences something that is Jewish.  On the one hand, there is a sense of ridicule directed at the main character, who has failed sexually (as the viewer thinks of himself as not being a cuckold); on the other hand, there is a kind of sympathy and identification.  In other words, one has a sadistic and a masochistic reaction to Alvy Singer’s failure.  We, as viewers, can pass between the feminine and the masculine.  His failure, for this reason, has a kind of charm that has to do with his vulnerability which is both repulsive and attractive.

Alvy Singer seems to be better off than the Paul Simon character, Tony Lacey; though Lacey has won over Annie Hall, Lacey lives a shallow, “California,” life.  He lacks the sophistication and complexity of a New York Jew and, at the same time, the simplicity of the schlemiel (all in one).  The vulnerable cuckold-sexual-schlemiel, in other words, is comically redeemed (or as Boyarin would say, re-evaluated) by Allen’s film. And this dialectical relation to the schlemiel has an aspect of Jewishness to it.  This can be better seen through a brief look at the Jewish cuckold’s historicity.

Where does this Woody Allen character come from?  Where is its Jewishness?  Is it something that Allen inherited from the “goyim”?  Or do we find the notion of the cuckold anywhere in Bible, Talmud, or Midrash?  Does it have any psychological or philosophical underpinning?  Is the association of the male Jew with the cuckold anti-Semitic since it feminized the Jewish male?

At the outset of The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction, Sanford Pinsker looks into the origin of the schlemiel character.  One of the things he finds is that the schlemiel character may derive its name from Shelumiel ben Zurishaddai, who is mentioned in Numbers 9:19.  But in that passage, its not clear as to how he could be the ancestor of the schlemiel.   In response to this, Pinsker brings up a commentary from Sanhedrin 82b which suggests that one of Shelumiel’s names may have been Zimri who was killed by Pinchas.  But, in the Numbers 25 passage, the name Zimri is missing.  All we see is an “Israelite”:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-Peor, and the LORD was incensed with Israel. The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the LORD, so that the LORD’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to Israel’s officials, “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.” Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly.

Even though the Talmud suggests that the man who gets speared is Shelmiel ben Zurishaddai, Pinkser takes note over the fact that there is a dispute over what this means.  On the one hand, Nathan Ausbel argues that “there is nothing to associate him with the schlemiel.”  On the other hand, Pinsker brings up Richard Rubenstein who, in his book The Religious Imagination: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Jewish Theology makes a psychoanalytic reading claiming that Zimri takes on the figure of sexuality that is rebelling against an authority figure (Moses) and articulates a “hint of sexual rivalry.”  But, says Pinsker, this doesn’t cut it.

Because Zimri/Shelumiel got unlucky and was caught, he is more like a schlimazel than a schlemiel.   But, according to Pinsker, the most important thing we can learn from the Talmud’s discussion of Zimri is that “Zimri/Shelumiel” had “some hand in his misfortune”(4).  “Zimri/Shelumiel” is not a total victim.  Like the Jewish people, he is in part responsible for his own fate.  This reflection indicates an awareness that a schlemiel is someone who is a free agent of sorts who can, by this or that wrong decision, become misfortunate.   Pinsker argues that sense of freedom is coupled with a sense of fear that men can be cuckolded by women.

With this in mind, Pinsker brings up Rubenstein to argue that what we find in the Talmud has more to do with “their own (the Rabbis) fears of cuckoldry.”   Reading Jacob and Leah of the Bible, for instance, the Rabbis “pictured Lea as cuckolding the patriarchal Jacob while he studied Torah in the Yeshiva, the rabbinical academy of Shem”(4).  While this reflection is interesting, how do we (or can we) draw a line from this reading of the schleimiel – in Jewish culture that stretches back to circa 200 AD – to our own?

Although he doesn’t fully explain why, the reader can clearly see that Pinsker turns to Theodore Reich so as to show how this ancient reflection of the Rabbis takes on form in Medieval and, through Reich’s recounting and interpreting of the story, modern Jewish culture.

In Theodor Reich’s discussion of the schlemiel as a psychological phenomenon, he recounts a medieval story that picks up on the themes of cuckoldry and social reaction – this time, however, making the identification between the protagonist and the figture of the schlemiel very clear indeed: “This man, Shemuliel, returned home after a year absence to find that his wife had given birth to a child.  The rabbi declared that the child was legitimate while the neighbors were very dubious concerning paternity.  The man had to accept the rabbinical decision and become the prototype of the Schlemiel who is involving himself in difficult situations from which he cannot extricate himself.” (5)

In this narrative, the schlemiel has been betrayed by his wife.    She has had a baby while he was away.  (In other words, he also had a hand in this since he was absent.)  The Rabbi saves the child’s life while the “neighbors” were “very dubious concerning paternity.”  Pinsker rightly points out that I.B Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog schlemiels are both cuckolds.   And both suggest that the schlemiel-as-cuckold is a distinctly Jewish character.

Although Reich argued that “the essence of schlemiel hood can be found in the folk literature of many cultures,” there is a distinct difference that makes the schlemiel uniquely Jewish which is the “interaction between the cuckold and the rabbi, and even more important, between the cuckold and the fellow townspeople”(5). Pinsker reads Reich’s schlemiel in these terms. The Rabbi will do what he can to “prove” that the child is ultimately legitimate and justify the “decision on humanitarian grounds, arguing that the future welfare of the child is more important than the present embarrassment of its “father”(5).  The townspeople, on the other hand, “see the schlemiel’s horns for what they are, and thus he becomes the subject of their condescending laughter – although always with the implicit realization that his fate might be theirs”(5).

In other words, the schlemiel’s cuckolded character – as we see in stories like “Gimpel the Fool” or in Bellow’s Herzog (or in Annie Hall) – is a cultural endowment from the past: the relationship of the cuckolded subject to his community and to his Rabbi; but the Rabbi has been replaced by the conscience of the reader.     Although this reading suggests that the schlemiel as a cuckold figure that is saved by the Rabbis but ridiculed by the community is translated into a modern idiom, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the male schlemiel character is “feminized.”    The schlemiel’s wife, whether in “Gimpel the Fool” or in Herzog, takes advantage of him. But they both still love these wives and decide to only see the good. They do not take revenge.  But they do make the case for the schlemiel as a moral figure.

But what about us?  How does the audience read this decision?  (This, I would argue, is what Pinsker misses.)

The audience laughs at this while, at the same time, it finds a way (like the Rabbi) to justify it for the sake of the cuckold’s future.  After all, neither Gimpel nor Herzog become “men” at the end of their stories.  They remained cuckolded, but at the very least, they are not “men” (and men are seen, in these stories, as liars).   The schlemiel, in other words, not only doesn’t play the game but is rather charming for not doing so.  His shoulder shrug – think of Charlie Chaplin or Larry David – is his free pass.

The schlemiel doesn’t have to pass as a “man,” in the sense of a character like Valentine in Herzog.  He may be “cuckolded” but he is not totally ridiculed by his reading public or viewing audience.  Like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, the schlemiel is pitied and identified with; he may have more in common with us than we would like to believe.  Maybe we are all, like him, cuckolded.   Perhaps that is the dirty little secret behind the schlemiel. And perhaps, because the schlemiel’s sexualized body is a comical figure, we can argue that the schlemiel’s body matters.

The Cuckolded Body of Jewish Philosophy

Drawing on Medieval Jewish Philosophy, Susan E. Shapiro gives us another way of thinking about the figure of the cuckold.   In an essay entitled “A Matter of Discipline: Reading for Gender in Jewish Philosophy” Shapiro argues that Moses Maimonides philosophical reading of the relationship of matter to form was not only influenced by Aristotle, but also influenced by Proverb 6:26, which likens the “matter” to a “married harlot.”

Taken on its own, the proverb suggests that the Jewish people is a both married and a harlot.  This implies that God is the cuckold.  But that is not what Maimonides is after.  As Shapiro suggests, Maimonides’ reading, which looks to make use of Aristotle’s distinction of matter to form, sexualizes the matter/form distinction: “Maimonides develops this trope of female desiring male form not only into a tropics of monogamous marriage but into an asymmetrical marriage between matter as unfaithful, indeed, nympho-maniacal harlot wife and form as the faithful, always cuckolded husband”(Judaism After Gender, 162).   For Maimonides, explains Shapiro, the “philosopher’s body” is “feminized”(163). And as a result, the mind (form) is cuckolded.   Form, here God or the mind, must take control of matter.  If it doesn’t, matter will reign and humiliate the husband.

Shapiro reads this from a feminist angle and argues that matter, as woman’s reason, is deemed “weak and fails to have authority over her more powerful, especially sexual passions”(163). It brings out “matter’s corruption.”   The male philosopher, “whose body is thus feminized,” is in “need of masculine disciplining by reason and the commandments”(163).  Without reasoning or the commandments, the Jewish body, that is, the Jewish philosopher’s body is not only a “married harlot” but also a cuckold.   But if we bring God into the equation, He is the one who is truly cuckolded if, in fact, reason is equated with keeping the commandments or, as Shapiro notes, figured in Abraham’s circumcision.   For Maimonides, this is a shameful and tragic predicament because it makes not just reason but God look duped.  This is no laughing matter.  And the only way to stem it is through what Shapiro reads as the philosophical/sexual act of form disciplining matter.   The feminization of the philosopher’s body is – for Shapiro – premised on this presupposition.

The Schlemiel’s Body Matters

In contrast to the feminization of the philosopher’s body, which is an utterly serious affair, we can say that, despite his being cuckolded, the modern schlemiel’s body matters in a comical sense.  It is not situated between the Rabbi and the community, as Reich would say, so much as between a masculinist perspective, that laughs at the cuckold, and a feminist kind of perspective that identifies with and pities the schlemiel and his comic vulnerability.  It is dialectical, not dualistic (as it is with Maimonides view).    For the dialectical reading of the Jewish body (see Daniel Boyarin’s book, Carnal Israel and David Biale’s Eros and the Jews), the body matters; it is not negated (or disciplined) by form, the mind, the spiritual, etc.

Hannah Arendt has argued that the schlemiel entered the world of literature through Heinrich Heine who also addressed Shelumiel ben Zurishaddai.   In his comical reading of the cuckold, the poet identifies with the schlemiel.  But Arendt chooses not to focus so much on the sexualized aspects of the character as in the schlemiel’s naïve and charming aspects: his simplicity and oneness with nature and freedom in contrast to the false negation of Jewish identity posed by the parvenu.     Arendt argues that the schlemiel passes from Heine’s hands to Charlie Chaplin’s.  Moreover, it crosses over into America from Europe.

While Arendt’s description of the schlemiel is of great interest – since it identifies the schlemiel with the immigrant and “the suspect,” thereby giving the schlemiel an American political analogue – she doesn’t addresses the schlemiel’s body.  To be sure, what makes Chaplin’s comedic portrayals of the schlemiel so delightful, can be found in his body language and his gesture.  This is what Walter Benjamin found so special about Chaplin.  Benjamin understood how, in the sense of what he would call “profane illumination,” the schlemiel’s body matters.  And by matters I would suggest that it matters to the viewer who finds a point of identification with the schlemiel’s vulnerability and the fact that, despite his best judgment, he may have been cuckolded.   In the end, his body remains.  And, in contrast to Maimonides, his body is not disciplined (if not only slightly, when or if we laugh at him).

I’ll end with a short read on Lil Dicky’s video, “Ex-boyfriend”(which has over 26 million views).  How does this cuckolded body matter?  After all, he knows he’s the “odd one out,” and so, of course, do we.  And by pitying him and laughing at him (and with him) aren’t we saying that even though he has a “lil dicky,” we still think he’s really – for lack of a better word – “cool.”

Lil Dicky shows us that the image of the schlemiel as cuckold is alive and kicking. But now, it seems, it is getting a new lease on life for the millenials.    After all, Woody Allen’s characters didn’t have the same kind of sexlife and it was much more Upper West Side than this.  One person’s fears about sexuality are abetted by his self-deprecating knowledge and wit while for the other its the rapper’s comic lament that is redemptive.

But that’s for another essay.

Who is Laughing? On “Laughtivism” and its Opponents


When Walter Benjamin wrote Gershom Scholem from Paris, on June 12, 1938 about Kafka, humor, and salvation, Adolf Hitler had already established his first work camp (1933), organized an anti-Jewish boycott (1933), burned “un-German” books (1933), passed the Nuremberg Race Laws (1935), sponsored an anti-Semitic art exhibition in Munich (1937), and annexed Austria (1938).   And only a few months later the Munich Agreement was signed and two months after that was Kristallnacht.   One should read the letter in this historical context.

In this letter, Benjamin shows a marked interest in reading Kafka through comedy.    However, the comedy he turned to was not satire.  It seemed as if Benjamin saw that option as futile since, after all, it hadn’t worked before to stop Hitler and his march to power.  (While Adorno and Brecht were much more interested in the political power of satire to challenge Hitler, Benjamin didn’t seem convinced; as is evident in Benjamin’s letters to Adorno and in Benjamin’s Brecht journals, which shows that Brecht despised Kafka because he wasn’t political enough, was too mystical, and, as Brecht, in his most anti-Semitic moment, claimed, promoted “Jewish fascism.”)

In his letter to Scholem, Benjamin turns to Kafka as a comic figure and argues that “Folly lies at the heart of Kafka’s favorites – from Don Quixote via the assistants to animals”(Correspondence, p. 225).  In brackets, Benjamin elaborates about what being an animal, in a comic sense, entails for Kafka: “(Being an animal presumably meant to him only to have renounced human form and human wisdom owing to a kind of shame – as shame may keep a gentleman who finds himself in a disreputable tavern from wiping his glass clean)”(225).   After noting this shame, Benjamin states what he believes is the underlying meaning of Kafka’s comedy, salvation, and its meaning….for us:

This much Kafka was absolutely sure of: First, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second, that only a fool’s help is real help.  The only uncertain thing is: Can such help still do a human being any good?  It is more likely to help angels who could do without hope”(225).

In other words, while Kafka realizes and is absolutely certain that comedy is the only thing that can help, Benjamin thinks that Kafka also realized that it may not really help a human being.  The paradox, I would argue, has to do with political reality.  At this point in time (June 1938), Benjamin realized that satire couldn’t work but that, at the very least, comedy could help and offer some kind of salvation.   But this is, so to speak, a private matter. The ultimate good would be a new world.  Satire, at that point, had failed.  And the comedy of Kafka’s, which as Brecht and Benjamin would agree, is more private and mystical, seemed to be the last refuge.  In a real sense, there is nothing to laugh about in the world.  World negation – in a gnostic sense, with which he seems to be reading Kafka – appears as his last desperate attempt to find solace in a Europe which was giving in to Hitler and his anti-Semitism.

I think Benjamin’s reflection on the failure of satire and the bleak possibility of comedy to offer salvation gives us some food for thought today.  It articulates a problem that we are currently facing.   Many on the left today believe that Satire will galvanize the Left and be able to defeat Donald Trump.  A recent Salon article by Profressor Sophia McClennin entitled “Hitting Trump Where it Hurts: The Satire Troops Take Up Comedy Arms Against Donald Trump,” argues that there is a real movement against Trump in the comedy world that will (not may) succeed in briging him down.  Whether it is the comedy impersonations of Alec Baldwin or Mellisa McCarthy or the comedic routines of Steven Colbert or John Oliver, what she calls “laughtivism” will win the fight.

McClennin sees this as “our” moment and likens it to what Satire did in Eastern Europe:

Serbian satirical protestor Popovic explained that while humor has often been a part of protest, it is playing a bigger role in 21st-century struggle and that’s because it works: “Humor breaks fear and builds confidence. . . . The best acts of laughtivism force their targets into lose-lose scenarios, undermining the credibility of a regime no matter how they respond. These acts move beyond mere pranks; they help corrode the very mortar that keeps most dictators in place: Fear.”

That’s why we need to follow the lesson of Serbia under Milosevic. History teaches us that for satire to really be powerful, we all have to be in on the joke.

The satire resistance cannot be limited to professionals. It depends on all of us.

At the New York protest in January, Moore reminded people that they, too, can play a role in the satire rebellion: “Everybody here has a sense of humor. Use it! Use it! Participate in the ridicule and the satire for the emperor who has no clothes.”

And that’s one of the strongest signs that satire is a key part of the anti-Trump campaign. Every day an average citizen is mocking Trump and his team. There is even a Twitter parody account for Trump’s bathrobe.

On Twitter, on Facebook, via Instagram and on the White House lawn, the assaults are constant. Satire has literally become the political idiom of resistance.

The last words of the article suggest that this laughter is not aimed at winning new followers so much as galvanizing “us,” the base; it is “our laughter”: Our laughter isn’t just making us stronger; it’s reminding us that fighting for our nation can be fun.”

In contrast to McClennin, Emil Nussbaum of The New Yorker, thinks that while laughter may strengthen the base, it will give more power to the opposition.  Her article, entitled, “How Jokes Won the Election: How do You Fight an Enemy Who’s Just Kidding,” makes the case that we are only fooling “ourselves” if we think that comedy has a chance of winning.  Trump uses comedy to his advantage. When people make fun of him, he gains more power.  He will, as she argues, become more serious now. And while the world not flings jokes at him, his dialectical contrast pronounces a different strategy:

When Vladimir Putin was elected President, in 2000, one of his “first acts was to kill “Kukly,” a sketch puppet show that portrayed him as Little Tsaches, a sinister baby who uses a “magic TV comb” to bewitch a city. Putin threatened to wreck the channel, NTV, unless it removed the puppet. NTV refused. Within months, it was under state control. According to Newsweek, “Putin jokes quickly vanished from Russia’s television screens.”

Soon after Trump was elected, he, too, began complaining about a sketch show: “Saturday Night Live,” which portrayed him as a preening fool, Putin’s puppet. His tweets lost the shape of jokes, unless you count “NOT!” as a kicker. He was no longer the blue bear. Instead, he was reportedly meeting with Rupert Murdoch about who should head the F.C.C. Soon, Trump would be able to shape deals like the A.T. & T. and Time Warner merger, to strike back at those who made fun of him or criticized him, which often amounted to the same thing. Fox would likely be Trump TV.

Last week, at his “First press conference as President-elect, Trump made no jokes. He was fuming over the BuzzFeed dossier and all those lurid allegations worthy of “South Park,” the pee jokes lighting up Twitter. Only when he reminisced about his rallies did he relax, recalling their size, the thrill of the call and response. He almost smiled. But when CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to ask a question about Russia, Trump snapped back, furiously, “Fake news!”—and the incoming White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told Acosta that if he tried that again he’d be thrown out. Now, it seems, is when Trump gets serious. A President pushes buttons in a different sense. As Putin once remarked to a child, “Russia’s borders don’t end anywhere”—before adding, “That’s a joke.”

This kind of reading was, just yesterday, amplified by Slajov Zizek.   In his interview with “Channel Four News,” Zizek argues – 3 minutes in to the recording – that the left also laughed at Hitler for his first few years in office. But, as one can see in light of the events I took note of in the beginning of this essay, that “laughtivism” did nothing to stop him.  Zizek notes that Trump – like Hitler – may bring jobs back to the country and improve the economy.  This will have a positive affect on his populist base.  And this, argues Zizek, does not call for what McClennin calls “laughtivism.”  On the contrary, it will require a serious appeal to policy and ideas.

Zizek sees two audiences that are disparate. The one that laughs – the academic, media, and political elite – and the one that isn’t laughing.  The latter, argues Zizek, is larger and will be impressed with Trump’s accomplishments.  The laughter and non-stop humor will only confirm what they think about the left being “out of touch.”

I was born and raised in a small town in Upstate New York which has, for nearly a decade, had the highest unemployment rate in New York State.  (Before exporting leather to China, it was the largest leather producing city in the USA.)  The people want jobs.   That’s why many of them voted for Trump.   They aren’t laughing at many of these jokes.   They don’t find laughtivism appealing.  With this in mind, I can see how Zizek is on to something when he argues that laughtivism may be a failed strategy and that if it keeps on going in this direction it will hit a wall.  (Likewise, just this morning on NPR, Ryan Holiday – who knows the Trump-Milo-Bannon strategy very well, since he worked with them – argued that they will feed off of being made fun of and being laughed at.)

Kafka and Benjamin knew that comedy is the only thing that can help, so does McClennin.   However, Benjamin differs on the meaning of that help (as does Zizek).    Zizek, in the clip, calls himself a “pessimist” because he doesn’t think humor is the winning strategy (the irony is that he usually appeals to humor as a political tactic; and, in other places, he contrasts “cynicism” to “kynicism,” which is more like an activist kind of humor).   The take away is that while humor, as McClennin argues in her article, had a positive effect and fomented change in the past, it may not be the case over here.  I’ll let the reader think it over and decide.  What we need to do is ask who is laughing and whether, in the end, there will be more people laughing than sighing.

Why Can’t a Schlemiel be a Mensch?


In his book, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Male Daniel Boyarin argues that the Jewish male, throughout the Middle Ages, was more effeminate than masculine.   In contrast to the its masculine gentile counterpart (which Boyarin finds in Rashi’s description of the “knight” and in figurations of the “evil son” in the Passover Haggadah), the Yeshiva Bochur (the Talmud Scholar) is more into learning.  (This dichotomy is not native to the Middle Ages, however; it goes back to the Midrash which speaks extensively about the difference between Jacob, who “dwells in tents”(learns) while Esau is a man of the field (he’s a hunter and is depicted by the Talmud as cunning and masculine.) And, as Boyarin points out through several primary texts, the Yeshiva Bochur is thought to be the ideal husband, a “mensch,” because he will listen to his wife and make a good home (teaching the children Torah and earning a living).    The mensch, to be sure, is a humble man.  He is a simpleton and not a sophisticate.  Boyarin associates this with the feminine and male aspects of the mensch’s gender.

As I have noted elsewhere, the simpleton is, for Ruth Wisse, the original model for the schlemiel character.   And in Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s classic story onto simpleton and the wise man, he makes it a point to represent the simpleton as a mensch of sorts.  Unlike the more American version of the character, he is not a total klutz.  He has his flaws but he’s still a mensch.  He trusts people and cares about his friends.

But in a recent article for the Huffington Post, entitled “Advice for Men on Valentine’s Day: Don’t be a Schlemiel” the author tells us that a schlemiel is the diametrical opposite of a mensch.  The reason for this is, according to the author, because, on Valentine’s Day (and playing on the classical American joke) he will spill the wine:

A schlemiel is a bungler who can’t do anything right. A schlimazel is a person who has no luck. To adapt an old Yiddish saying, when bringing his date a glass of wine at a romantic dinner, a schlemiel trips and spills it. A schlimazel is the person he spills it on.

Think, for instance of a typical Woody Allen or Seth Rogen love scene.
A mensch, for the author, is a “man with a plan,” a “person who makes his date feel special.”    This suggests that the schlemiel, when he goes on a date, has no plan and fails to make his date feel special. But is that condition for the possibility of being a mensch the act or the intention?  For instance, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller all play schlemiels who, in some way, spill the wine on their dates.   But the characters they play are, by and large, mensches.   More often than not, they care about women think and they do what they can to make things work.  Schlemiels usually have good intentions.  But their failures don’t negate their menschlichkeit.   This author suggests that they do.  They have their heart in the right place.  And, like any mensch, they can also make a few mistakes.

Responsiveness, Not their Insight or Depth: The Schlemiel in the Google Age


Schlemiel Theory is the most popular online space for the schlemiel in the world.  No other blog or website features as many essays, guest posts, and interviews on the schlemiel as Schlemiel Theory.   I do my utmost to make sure that they are interesting, fun, informative, and academically sound.  I also seek out great writers, poets, and scholars who also share my love for the schlemiel to guest post.

Schlemiel Theory has an archive of literally hundreds of essays on the schlemiel (more than any published by any scholar of schlemiel theory).  Included in the essays are several unique reflections on Jewish philosophy, literature, comedy, and Jewishness.  The essays put forth wide-ranging discussions on the contemporary schlemiel in America and abroad, the schlemiel in American, Yiddish, and European literature, and the schlemiel that dwells or rather slips through Jewish philosophy.

Schlemiel Theory takes up, regularly, the schlemiel in film, in theater, on the pages of graphic novels, and on television.  I can happily report that Schlemiel Theory’s Facebook page is growing daily as are its Twitter and blog followers.  Today, over six thousand people receive, on a weekly basis, Schlemiel Theory’s posts.

For this I give thanks.

But after socially networking the schlemiel and bringing it to the next digital level, I continue to wonder about how the schlemiel can continue to exist in what Eric Schmitt and Jered Cohen of Google would call the “New Digital Age”?

To ponder this question, I have turned to Eric Schmitt and Jared Cohen of Google.  In their book, The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives they discuss the crisis that will happen over the next ten years.  They note how the Main Stream Media (MSM) will “increasingly find themselves a step behind the reporting of news worldwide”(48, The Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives).   This is where, Schmitt and Cohen argue, a crisis will occur which will transform the entire digital landscape. And this crisis has to do with “reporting.”  They describe reporting in terms of a major breakdown and a challenge that must now – or in the very near future – be met:

These organizations simply cannot move quickly enough in a connected age, no matter how talented their reporters and stringers are, no how many sources they have.  Instead, the world’s breaking news will continually come from platforms like Twitter: open networks that facilitate information-sharing instantly, widely and in accessible packages.  (48)

While desire for immediate connection and “immediate methods of information delivery” is gaining momentum, the MSM is “lagging behind.”  And for this reason, it will lose the “loyalty” of the global audience.  This loyalty will be given to this or that “outlet” based on the “analysis and perspectives these outlets offer” and the “trust they have in these institutions”(48).    These outlets, in other words, must gain the trust and loyalty of these audiences.

But this announces a crisis: “in other words, some people will split their loyalty between new platforms for breaking news and established media organizations for the rest of the story”(48).

It is the demand of the “new global public,” that established organizations adapt or die.   Now “as language barriers break down and the cell towers rise, there will be no end to the number of new voices, potential sources, citizen journalists and amateur photographers looking to contribute”(49).  In the wake of this crisis, “the global audience,” and not just the creators of new media, “benefits as well.”  Through access to all of this media “it will have an exposure to a greater range of issues and perspectives”(49).

But isn’t this proliferation of perspectives nihilistic?  How do we know which outlet is producing the truth?  Does this dissolve the place of truth and reduce everything to belief?  And what happens if this proliferation of media, this crisis, prompts the death of the MSM?

Cohen and Schmidt anticipate this question.

Their answer is telling. The only role that the MSM will have is to “report less and validate more.”  The new role of the MSM is as “aggregator, custodian, and verifier, a credibility filter that sifts through all of this data and highlights what is and is not worth reading, understanding, and trusting”(49).    Nonetheless, Cohen and Schmitt admit that the MSM will be of greater meaning to “the elite – business leaders, policy makers, and intellecutals who rely on the established media”(49).  All the other billions of people could care less.  They only want immedicacy.

Schmitt and Cohen use Twitter as an example of this wild media:

Twitter can no more produce analysis than a monkey can type out a work of Shakespeare (although a heated Twitter exchange between two smart, credible people can come close); the strength of an open, unregulated information-sharing platforms is their responsiveness, not their insight or depth. (49)

How does schlemiel theory fit into this “digital world”?

The only MSM for Schlemiel Theory is the world of academia.   Schlemiel Theory is a part of that world and yet, at the same time, it has created its own portal for the schlemiel.  It is different from anything ever produced in academia.  It not only discusses the schlemiel from an academic perspective, it also keeps the study of the schlemiel alive in the digital (and not just the academic) world. Were it not for this blog, only a handful of academics would discuss the schlemiel.

This blog brings the schlemiel to the world and keeps it real.

Playing on Schmidt and Cohen, I’d say that people look to Schlemiel Theory not just for its “responsiveness” but also for its “insight” and “depth.”  As Schlemiel Theory comes to its fourth year – in eight days it will have its birthday – I feel that it is important to elaborate on how Schlemiel Theory will continue to take the lead and not lag-behind.  It is after all, in the front of the schlemiel line – wherever that is.  With each film or television show that seems to move.

The important thing for me, as the author of this blog, is to say, right here, that I will continue to keep up with the schlemiel that is not just in film or on television, in books or graphic novels, but also on the music scene, on Youtube or Twitter, or on Facebook or on WordPress. With an eye to the past, I will also continue to write essays on the schlemiel in literature, philosophy, and global Jewish culture.  I really enjoy doing this.  It’s fun and entertaining to follow the schlemiel and her ventures throughout the world, like a Jewish American Sancho Panza following Don Quixote.

Schlemiel Theory is academically and culturally engaged in the study of the schlemiel and in its promotion.   And, most importantly, in relation to you, I’ll do my best to make sure that – like many a schlemiel – I don’t lag behind or get too lost.  I’m here, like Kafka’s Abraham, ready and looking for a friend.   And in all of this, I feel closest to Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye who, at the beginning of the novel by his name, says the words  “kontoni” – I am small – with the words “I am not worthy.”  Tevye doesn’t think he is worthy of being put in a book of Sholem Aleichem.  How can such a small person (from a small town in the sticks) be in the book of such a big and popular writer (from the city)?

And it is to you the readers and authors who I can say, “kotonti.”  I am not worthy!  I’m small.  And you are big.  You are the digital world.  I am honored to be not only in a book you can find in this or that library but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the world, the digital world.  Which is not only your world; its ours.  And may there be more schlemiels in it because its hard to keep up in the Google Age when you keep on falling down.

More schlemiels!

Menachem (Menkis) Feuer

Hearing Comics: Audio Renditions of Ben Katchor’s “Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer”


The comic strips, graphic novels, and story-images of Ben Katchor are one of a kind.   Many of his strips manage to touch on something particular to being Jewish and American.  Michael Chabon – the well-known Jewish American novelist  – said that Katchor is the “creator of the last great comic strip.”   Because he often deals with characters that are schlemiels, his work speaks, in countless ways, to the concerns and interests of schlemiel theory.

I have taken special interest in his 1998 graphic novel The Jew of New York, and I have written on it in relation to its portrayal of a Jew who journeys into the Adirondacks and goes “wild.”  But I have been wanting to write on his 1996 book, Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer for quite some time.    Katchor’s main character draws on many different aspects of the schlemiel and his curious wandering mind and stumbling body; always in search of something new, always ready to make a deal, while, at the same time, losing track of time as he traverses through space.  (Think, for instance, of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Sendrl and Benjamin, Aleichem’s Motl and Menachem Mendel, Singer’s Gimpl, or Bellow’s Herzog).  But what makes these strips so amazing is not just the endless flow of urban comic imagery but also the words that seem to come out of nowhere yet always at the right time.  The words have a certain speed to them that is, for lack of a better word, embodied in the character.  (My personal favorites are the scenes over food and before meals, when there is a sense of hunger; it’s as if Knipl is not just moving between scenes or photographs but between meals and conversations.  To be sure, Katchor gives the schlemiel a Bloomian kind of feel.)

I thought about the book recently when I stumbled across a series of audio clips that take segments of the book and perform them (in the fabled American radio-play-style).  The translation of the strip into an audio clip, which was produced by David Isay and his “sound portrait” project,  is a delight.  (In the recordings, one can hear the legendary comical voices of Jerry Stiller, Irwin Corey z’l – the “World’s Foremost Authority” – and Joey Faye, amongst others.)  These recordings add yet another dimension to the strip.   They make the images leap off of the page, fly into our ears, and spark our imaginations.  The schlemiel comes to us, so to speak, in two mediums and since one medium is visible and the other not it gives the listener and reader an opportunity to share in the imagination of the schlemiel.


If you haven’t clicked on the hyperlink to the audio clips above, click here.






Kotonti! A Note on Freud, Humor, and Tevye


At the outset of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, there is a letter – dated 1895 – addressed from Tevye to Sholem Aleichem, the author.    At the top of the page is an expression that is used by Jacob to describe himself: “Kotonti – I am Unworthy.”  The English translation of the word, Kotonti as “I am unworthy” is not literal (although it is consistent with the verse that follows in the Bible).  Kotonti means “I am small.”  To be sure, this gesture of humility – of smallness – underscores not just Tevye’s story but his humor as well.   Let me cite the first two paragraphs of the book to illustrate this gesture:

In honor of my dear, beloved friend Reb Sholem Aleichem, may God grant you health and prosperity together with your wife and children, and may you have great fulfilment whatever you do and wherever you go. Amen Selah!

Kotonti! I am unworthy!  This I tell you in the language of our Father Jacob spoke to God in the portion Vayishlach, when he went to meet Esau.  Bu tit is not entirely appropriate, I get you, Pani, Sholem Aleichem, not to be upset with me, as I am an ordinary man and you certainly know more than I do – who can question that?  After all, living one’s life in a little village, one is ignorant.  Who has time to look into a holy book or learn a verse of Rashi? (3, Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son).

Aleichem’s humor is one of self-deprecation.  He honors the haskalic man, the Jewish intellectual, Sholem Aleichem, who wants to bring the story of the little man to the world.   What is so laughable about Tevye, according to Ruth Wisse, are his mistakes and his excessive use of language in order to impress Aleichem.  Despite the fact that Tevye says he is ignorant, he does try to show that he knows a little something.  Yet, at the same time, he keeps on showing how small he is.

I don’t know what you found so interesting that you would devote your time to an insignificant person like myself, to write me letters and, unbelievably, to put my name in a book, make a big fuss over me, as if I were who knows who.  For that I can certainly say, Kotonti! – I am unworthy! True, I am a good friend of yours, may God grant me a hundredth portion of what I wish for you! You know very well that I served you in bygone years when you were still living in the big dacha – do you remember?  I bought you a cow for fifty rubles that I bargained down from fifty-five.  It was a steal.  So she died on the third day? It wasn’t my fault. Why did the other cow I gave you also died….Even with the best intentions things like this can happen! (3)

What makes this funny, besides the self-deprecation is the fact that, like many a schlemiel, he realizes that, despite his intentions, “things like this happen!”  He seems to have no control over the soup that spills on the schlimazel (who in this little story is the author himself, Sholem Aleichem).   He wants to help him. But unexpected things happen.  Although bad luck is not a laughing matter, here, it is.  What’s going on?

There are a number of different theories about comedy – from Thomas Hobbes to Henri Bergson and Freud – which read humor in terms of power.  We laugh at the one who stumbles and falls because, quite simply, we are in a better position from them.  We are fortunate, they are not.  But this laughter is not at something tragic.  The person who has misfortune – in this or that comedy performance or joke – makes a mistake.  They repeat things that are, as Bergson would say, mechanical and lack elan vital.  But is this the case with Tevye?  And how do we read his humor in terms of his relationship to Aleichem?  Why would Aleichem – who is in the position of the listener, like us – find him funny?  Did he see him as a poor, ignorant man who, because he talked to much or made bad decisions, was laughable?  Would Aleichem find Tevye’s “smallness” a joke since he sees him from the height of power and bigness (after all doesn’t Tevye note this in his self-deprecation)?

I turned to Freud for an answer or, at least, to pose a question: What makes Tevye funny? And when we laugh, what does that say about…us?

His essay on “Humor,” published in 1928, starts off by saying that there are “two ways in which the process at work in humor can take place”(263, Freud: Character and Culture).    Freud looks at humor from two different positions which one can associate with Tevye, Aleichem, and the reader:

Either one person may adopt a humorous attitude, while a second person acts as a spectator, and derives humor from the attitude of the first; or there may be two people concerned, one of whom does not consider himself taking any active share in producing the humorous effect, but is regarded by the other in a humorous light.  (263).

The conceit of Tevye’s introduction is that both positions are at work.  While Aleichem is a spectator to Tevye’s self-deprecation and humor, he is also the author of this tale.   According to Freud, the first kind of humor refers to the subject’s self while the latter to others.  However, the latter is at the expense of the other.   Is Aleichem, like the reader, distinguishing herself from the small, mistake ridden subject?

Freud argues that either way one looks at it, the same release of energy is at work in humor:

Like wit and the comic, humour has a liberating effect.  But it also has something fine and elevating, which is lacking in the other two ways of deriving pleasure from intellectual activity.   Obviously, what is fine about it is the triumph of narcissism, the ego’s assertion of its own invulnerability.   It refuses to be hurt by the arrows of reality or be compelled to suffer.  It insists that it is impervious to wounds dealt to it by the outside world, in fact, that these are merely occasions for affording it pleasure.  This last trait is the fundamental characteristic of humor.  (265)

With this in mind, we can say that Freud would read Tevye and Aleichem as protecting themselves from the “arrows of reality” and “suffering,” albeit for entirely different reasons. Ruth Wisse takes this reading on when she argues that humor is a way of surviving the horrible times that Jews went through (notice the date of the letter in the novel is 1895, a time when Jews were and had experienced waves of violence through pogroms).   There is no mention of these pogroms.  There is only a positive attitude that uses humor to protect the ego from being crushed by anti-Semitism and hate.

What is ironic is the fact of the matter is that by becoming small, by saying I am small, and making the ego small, Tevye’s ego is protected.  He makes himself small in relation to the intellectual.  His simplicity and self-deprecation is his salvation.  But if we look at him from the positoon of Freud’s second person mentioned one should sees another kind of position.  If the joke is on Tevye, than means that we have survived him.  While he is small, we are big. We, like Aleichem, do not dwell in small villages and are not of the working class.   We identify with the artist.

But today, in retrospect of the Holocaust and what happened to millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust, can we, rather, bypass Sholem Aleichem’s position and imagine that we are in the presence of Tevye and his self-deprecation?   Can we laugh at how small we are?  Can we laugh at how ridiculous we are?  Or are we too smart for that?   Do we have choice in the matter?

Wisse, in her reading of Aleichem, makes an interesting observation.  She argues that there is a tension between hope and skepticism in his work.  I would go further and argue that this difference has to do with who we identify with – Tevye or Aleichem – and how we identify.  Are we, because of history, in a skeptical position?  Or can we see the position of self-deprecation and smallness as something that can give us hope in a time that is riddled with skepticism?  Perhaps it is the case that every identification with smallness and self-deprecation will be riddled with skepticism as we, as Holderlin said of Oedipus, have an “eye to many” (we know too much).

I have a third option that one can draw from Tevye himself.

Before we do stand-up, which, to be sure, has a lot to do with simply saying who we are, what we believe in, what we find amusing, and what we worry about or are puzzled over, perhaps we should honor the other and give her blessings.  Perhaps we should take note that our foibles are in the face of someone who is better than we are.  Perhaps we should take note that it is an honor that she is listening to us.   In relation to them, we are small.  But when we take the “second position,” we are large.  Although, in our culture, that happens all the time when we call people names and make fun of them and make ourselves big, it’s not right.

Tevye is right.  To you I say: Kotonti!