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.

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