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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s