Philosophy is a Literary Art: A Note on Harold Bloom’s Literary Reading of Plato


Although I have always enjoyed discussing Plato’s dialogues in classes I’ve taught over the years, what I loved most about them was their dramaturgy.  Socrates is, to be sure, a character in Plato’s dialogues.   Plato portrayed Homer respectfully yet, at the same time, as an opponent.  The irony of his dramatic dialogues, according to Harold Bloom, is that they demonstrate, through the “character” of Socrates, the opposite of what Plato says.  Bloom calls Plato a “strong poet,” not a philosopher.   Socrates, Plato’s literary creation, belongs to the history of literature:

Plato, never a warrior, took Socrates as his heroic father, and gave Socrates immortality as a literary character, yet the Homeric irony in this is that Plato achieved a poetic immortality as a dialogical dramatist and mythmaker.  (Where Shall Wisdom to be Found?, 58)

Homer and not Socrates was Plato’s real teacher!   This ironic reading is an inversion of the stated meaning in Plato’s Republic about Homer.   The secret of the text is that it lies.  And it is the reader who is duped.   Philosophy is not greater, for Plato, than poetry.  Bloom illustrates this further by describing, detail for detail, the likeness between Socrates, Odysseus, and Achilles:

When Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar, he influenced the actual Socrates, the Eros who Daytime, wise woman of the Symposium, called poor, filthy, barefoot.  Socrates is not exactly a Platonic Form, visually speaking, though Plato found in him the Form-of-Forms.  Both a mortal and a daemon, Socrates is half a good, like Achilles, and a resourceful deceiver, as cunning as Odysseus. (59).

Socrates, the literary character, “half a god” is the literary creation of a “strong poet” since “Plato’s shrewdness is that of strong poets throughout the ages: creatively misinterpret the dominant poetic forerunner, to clear imaginative space for yourself” (59).  Bloom argues that Plato’s writings on Socrates “set the pattern,” which Bloom translates into the fact that “philosophy is a literary art” (59).  Philosophy as literature, Bloom goes on to say, is “conversation sharpened and refined.”

No other philosopher, argues Bloom, has “been so major a literary artist” as Plato.   Socrates, as an exemplary literary figure (in Bloom’s terms),” incarnates the art of Eros.”  Bloom suggests that standard of the philosopher as fiction writer would be attained through a Socrates-like character that is an incarnation of Eros, a hero.

On this note, one wonders what Bloom would say of philosophical literary characters who aren’t heroes so much as anti-hero’s or schlemiels.  Think, for instance, of Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, one of his most celebrated and exemplary characters.   In Herzog, Moses Herzog is portrayed as a cuckold.  He can’t stand up and be a “man” against a character who steals his wife behind his back; his best friend Valentine Gershbach.  Moses Herzog isn’t Odysseus.  He isn’t cunning in the least.  He is a dreamer.  He’s an academic and a lover of ideas.   And like Gimpel the Fool, most likely his schlemiel prototype, Moses Herzog trusts people.  He has a good heart; as we see in his name “Hertz” (“heart”) Zug (“speech” or as another theorist translates it “song”).

In a 1991 interview with The Paris Review, Harold Bloom is asked about Saul Bellow.  Bloom lashes out at Bellow and puts Philip Roth up as the better of the two Jewish American writers. But, as anyone who closely reads Bloom knows, the act of artistic jealousy is an aspect of the “strong poet.”  There are strong readers and strong writers.  Both, as Bloom conveys with his admiring and yet jealous wink, are revisionary and bold.

I’ll leave the reader with Bloom’s words because, as one can see for oneself, Bellow and his character might even be his precursor – and that would mean that the schlemiel may be the precursor for the Jewish poet/philosopher. And if that were the case what would it mean for Jewish philosophy, through the schlemiel, to be a “literary act” ?  Saul Bellow would have created that figure in the comings and goings of his exemplary schlemiel, Moses Herzog.  Bloom doesn’t like that (perhaps because Bellow’s schlemiel character, Moses Herzog, hits too close to Bloom’s Jewish-Aemrican home).

I’ll end with Bloom’s jealousy and the fact that Bellow may actually inform his own ideas and writing!  And if that is the case, perhaps Bloom is also the creator of a schlemiel character in his attempt to act as if he’s a philosopher in a Homeric sense; maybe the sense that goes along with Bloom sounds more like Kafka while it acts like Odysseus:

He’s (Saul Bellow’s) an enormous pleasure but he does not make things difficult enough for himself or for us. Like many others, I would commend him for the almost Dickensian exuberance of his minor male characters who have carried every one of his books. The central protagonist, always being some version of himself, even in Henderson, is invariably an absurd failure, and the women, as we all know, are absurdities; they are third-rate pipe dreams. The narrative line is of no interest. His secular opinions are worthy of Allan Bloom, who seems to derive from them. And I’m not an admirer of the “other Bloom,” as is well known. In general, Bellow seems to me an immensely wasted talent though he certainly would not appreciate my saying so. I would oppose to him a most extraordinary talent—Philip Roth. It does seem to me that Philip Roth goes from strength to strength and is at the moment startlingly unappreciated. 


Gong(ed): Chuck Barris (Charles Hirsch) Has Left the Stage


Like many people growing up in America, I recall watching many reruns of the Gong Show.  Neither the contestants nor the judges drew me before the tube to watch, however. And I didn’t like seeing one act after another which was, to be sure, an absurd failure from the start.   It was Chuck Barris.  On the one hand – because I lived in Upstate New York and most of the fellow Jews I knew were either relatives or the few people who were Jewish in my school and tiny Jewish community – the few Jews I saw were on Television.  Looking back to my childhood, I recall identifying with him.  He looked like a Jew.  But did he act like one? Was the world he shared with me one I wanted to share with him?  Who would want to share a world that was inundated with absurd and yet entertaining odd acts and failures?

Absurdity and cheap thrills aside, what I loved most about Chuck Barris was his spontaneous kind of humor.  I loved how, out of nowhere, he would hear the musical cue, and then break out into a dance with “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.”   More often than not, he would pull down his hat and, with Gene, dance up a storm.  This was the cue for everyone else to join in and dance like a fool.  His Yiddishkeit, it seemed, was channeled into these sudden dance numbers.  The world of rules was momentarily suspended.  Dance for no reason save for that it’s now time to dance.  And while you dance, you can sustain a blow or two from this or that hurling object.  It didn’t matter.

But there was another, more disturbing, part of his act which, I suppose, I chose to forgot: the awkward and humiliating part.  In one essay I came across today, the author claimed that Barris invented the “Reality Genre of Humiliation as TV Entertainment.”  Although he doesn’t explain why this is the case, I took a look at a few videos and what I liked least came back to haunt me.  The other side of his act, the one that took up the rest of the show, was his endless humiliation of contestants and judges.  With the gong, of course, came humiliation.  And all parties were involved.  But one always knew that someone would be laughed at.   Every act was another target.  And when one laughs, as Henri Bergson, Charles Baudeliare, and Thomas Hobbes once argued, one has a feeling of power.  But this kind of power, experienced at the expense of foolish acts and judges, was a little nauseating.  I didn’t enjoy it.  It felt wrong.

Here is an act which, because it is erotic and evokes rude hecklers in the audience, is awkward and, in so many ways, is wrong.  The response to it, as one can expect, should be humiliation. But it’s not.  No one, in fact, is humiliated.  Chuck tells the “rude kids” to get off the stage but he does so with a wink.  We can accept this, in other words, as normal fun.    And this act, in that gesture moving them off the stage, is (or rather was) our world. This was good old fun, American style.  But was it mine?

Now that he’s gone and as I reflect on the fact that he is gone for good, that mixture of identification and awkwardness, which I felt when I watched his show, it all comes back.   And it makes me wonder.  What I felt awkward about wasn’t so much what I saw, but about what I should do in response to it: should I accept this odd comical world and share it with them?   This was a world unto itself, a reality if you will.  But it didn’t seem to be mine. My only connection to the world of the Gong Show was Chuck Barris.     It was a partial identification.

What Chuck Barris did give me is a sense of how there can be existential decisions that have to do with American entertainment.  My Jewishness, at one point of my life, found a mixed identification with Chuck – that is, Charles Hirsch.  And, for some reason, my view of not just what it meant to be Jewish but also my view of America as comical world was mixed into my reception of The Gong Show. In this America schlemiels – with their odd acts – were the targets.  But, ultimately, every American who stepped on that stage was “gonged.” Failure was pronounced with a bang, not a whimper.  But we can laugh about how rotten these acts are because we knew that when the cue came, we got to dance. And Barris could, momentarily, suspect the nausea I felt about having to decide.  But now I remember what that dance displaced.

Thanks for that memory, Chuck Hirsch.  Rest in Peace.

Women Can Be Schlemiels? Reflecting on Contemporary Schlemiels of the “Opposite Sex”


An important and often neglected subject of schlemiel theory is the female schlemiel who, since she hasn’t been discussed as much as the male schlemiel, needs a discourse.  The already existing discourse on her has found its beginnings not in the work of Ruth Wisse or Sanford Pinsker (the two most important schlemiel theorists in schlemiel theory in the twentieth century) but in the work of David Biale: Eros and the Jews.   His reading suggests that Philp Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and most of Woody Allen’s early films – all the way up to Annie Hall (1976) – provide us with a definition of the female schlemiel.  As Biale suggests, she is defined by the schlemiel of the “opposite sex.”    But before he arrives at this definition, he defines Woody Allen’s “sexual schlemiel.”  He is impotent but Biale argues that this is not any mere impotence.  And, as he suggests, we read this in relation to the female schlemiel who is “mirror image” of the male schlemiel.

Woody Allen’s male schlemiels are “not, however, merely impotent; they are also highly erotic.  Jews have the libidinal energy to win over gentile women from their desiccated WASP culture, but they can never consummate their conquests – the hormones are willing, but the psyche is ambivalent”(206).   Although the “hypersexual” Jew was a stock anti-Semitic image, Biale argues that Woody Allen’s sexual schlemiel “neutralized” it.  Biale goes on to decipher the intention of this neutralization: “the Jew does not corrupt gentile America by his hypersexuality so much as he de-eroticizes it with his comic fumbling”(207).

This argument about the sexual schlemiel’s neutralization of the anti-Semitic stereotype lays the groundwork for Biale’s definition of the female schlemiel:

In some of Allen’s movies the Jew’s sexual ambivalence infects the gentile women and turns them into mirror image of himself: even gentile women become “Jewish.”  The hidden agenda is to identify America with Jewish culture by generalizing Jewish sexuality and creating a safe, unthreatening space for the schlemiel as American anti-hero. (207)

This reading of the female schlemiel suggests that whoever she is paired with the schlemiel becomes “Jewish” because she is the “mirror image” of the male schlemiel (who has already crafted a space in America for Jewishness).    Jewishness becomes synonymous with being an American.  Biale’s reading suggests that it is gendered.   It seems as if a woman is to become a sexual schlemiel she is just an imitation of the male schlemiel.  Is that true?

In another section of the book, Biale suggests another take on the female schlemiel.  He notes how Eric Jong, in her second novel, Any Woman’s Blues, creates a female sexual schlemiel character, named Lela Sand, who is a lot like Roth’s Alexander Portnoy.  But she is a little more sexually active than Portnoy, who spends most of his sexual time alone, masturbating.  Leila has sex with many WASP men, celebrates her conquests, but, as Biale notes, she is “confused and frustrated sexually.”  The only child she has is not with a gentile, however; it is with a Jewish man.  She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants:

Leila Sand has no more resolved her sexoholism by the end of the novel than does Portnoy at the end of his complaint or than do Allen’s characters after nearly two decades of films.  Jong’s answer to the male stereotypes is a female version of the same syndrome.  (225-226)

In Biale’s reading, there is no such thing as a healthy female sexual schlemiel.  After all, she is a “female version of the same syndrome.”  All have  “big libidos and little egos.”  Biale’s clinical take on the sexual schlemiel suggests that it is a sick character.   No matter how sexually hyper they are or how impotent, the female schlemiel can only “mirror” the male, sexual schlemiel.    Biale’s negative valuation of the female schlemiel should be reflected on in light of new films that feature a female schlemiel character.

On the one hand, there is Noah Baumbach, who has cast Gretta Gerwig as a female schlemiel.  In Greenberg (2010), we have a schlemiel couple played by Ben Stiller and Gretta Gerwig.  But, before they met each other, they were both schlemiels.  When they come together we see this become a “possible” schlemiel romance:

In Mistress America (2015) and in Frances Ha (2013) she plays out different variations of the female schlemiel:

It seems that Gretta Gerwig, through her acting and Baumbach, through his writing, has turned it into something iconic and ironic.  Instead of being something stereotypical, they seem to be giving us something more existential and visceral.  Gerwig’s awkwardness is  painful and comic; its complex. But make no mistake she is a female schlemiel.  But Gerwig isn’t Jewish.

How do we read Gerwig in comparison to another female schlemiel, but who is Jewish?  How do we read Gerwig against Amy Shumer?  Are they both drawing on a stereotype of the female schlemiel which has, as Biale would say, become American?   Is Shumer doing something more stereotypical? What is the difference? Are both of them doomed to be a “mirror image” of male schlemiel?  Are Gretta Gerwig and Amy Shumer haunted by the ghost of Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer (from Annie Hall)?

I’ll leave you with a trailer from a new film that will be released in the summer: Snatched (2017).  She plays the schlemiel daughter of a Jewish mother played by Godie Hawn.  They both go on a journey.   It has much in common with another film Barbara Streisand did with Seth Rogen, who also go on a journey together: The Guilt Trip (2012). They both seem to mirror each other.  Perhaps Amy Schumer is the other side of the female schlemiel coin?  On the other hand, she seems like a paradigmatic example of a female sexual schlemiel.  She is sexually frustrated in most her performances.

But would you agree with David Biale’s observation that a female schlemiel like Amy Schumer is a “female version of the same syndrome”? Or is the clinical frame the wrong one?  What frame fits for the female schlemiel? Is she more than a male schlemiel’s mirror? I’ll let Amy Schumer speak for herself.  You can decide whether her Jewish identity is defined by having a big libido and a little ego, if some other psychological ailment is at hand, or if there is a better way to see her.

While Schumer’s comic journey may follow a similar pattern and although she never fails to fumble, in the film she does save her mother from death and becomes an ironic kind of female schlemiel hero (one we find in many Judd Apatow films starring a male schlemiel, Seth Rogen; A.O. Scott sees Rogen as caught up in what he calls “perpetual adolescence”).

But the comical heroism is not her’s alone.  It is shared.  Two female schlemiels save each other from the jaws of disaster.  The mother/daughter bond between schlemiels surpasses the comical-erotic aspects of a female “sexual schlemiel.” Perhaps this kind of female schlemiel can displace what Biale might call a “sexual schlemiel syndrome.” We have not even begun to scratch the surface.   There is much research yet to be done on this topic which may smash the (male) mirror image that Biale suggests is always before the female schlemiel.

Was Job a Schlemiel? On Pynchon’s “V” & Wiesel’s Revision of the “Book of Job”


Near the middle of V, the main character of Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, Benny Profane, enters into a dialogue with a character named Mafia.  Profane, throughout the novel, is dubbed a schlemiel by the narrator (Pynchon spells it “schlemihl”).  And as the novel unfolds we see how that is the case.  Mafia is astonished that he is “half-Jewish and half-Italian”(241).  Playing on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, she tells him that he has “an amusing role.   Like Shylock, non a vero, ha ha”(241).  After having her fun, Mafia gets serious and says that Profane has an “aristocracy of the soul” and that he “may be the descendent of kings”(242).  In reality, the novel tells the reader that Profane is a child of humble origins.  He was born during the Depression and lived a difficult life.  In response to her query, Profane posits a genealogy.  Rather than being a descendent of kings, “I am a descendent of schlemihls, Job founded my line”(242).   What does Job – who is noted for his horrible suffering, argument with God, and resignation  – have to do with a comic character who is often prone to endless fumbling  constant bad luck?

The end of the Book of Job has been called a fairy tale ending.  After all the suffering Job goes through, after his quarrel with God, and after his refusal of comfort, it doesn’t seem to fit.  But in terms of the schlemiel, the Book of Job reads like many schlemiel stories that end comically rather than tragically. Although the schlemiel stumbles and falls by the work of his own hand, in many tales and stories he still gets away with the shirt on his back.  But is this what Pynchon is getting at when he has Profane insist that Job founded his line?   Is this enough to call the Book of Job a schlemiel narrative?  Was it the ending that defines the story arc of the schlemiel, which includes suffering and even rebellion but ends comically?

In his reading of Job, Eli Wiesel posits an alternate ending which suggests something other than a schlemiel narrative.  Wiesel argues that Job, “the fighter,” has “turned into a lamb”(247, Messengers of God).   The “true ending” of the story has been lost (247).    The true ending would be different because, in it, Job would not repent and would not humiliate himself, that he would succumb to his grief as an “uncompromising and whole man”(247).  Wiesel doesn’t stop there.  He writes his own ending:

I was offended by his surrender in the text. Job’s resignation as a man was an insult to man.  He should not have given in so easily.  He should have continued to protest, to refuse the handouts.  He should have said to God: Very well, I forgive You, I forgive You to the extent of my sorrow, my anguish. But what about my dead children, do they forgive You?  What right have I to speak on their behalf?  Do I have the moral, the human right to accept an ending, a solution to the story, in which they have played roles that You imposed on them, not because of them, but because of me?  By not accepting Your inequities, do I knot become Your accomplice?  Not it is my turn to choose between You and my children.  I refuse to repudiate them.  I demand that justice be down to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue…Yes, that is what he should have said.  Only he did not.  He agreed to go back to living as before.  Therein lay God’s true victory: He forced Job to welcome happiness.  (248)

Wiesel could end his words here. However, he does otherwise.  Following this, Wiesel inverts his proposed ending and argues that Job, “by repenting sins he did not commit, by justifying sorrow he did not deserve, he communicates to us that he did not believe in his own confessions; they were decoys”(248).  In other words, it seems “as if” Job is choosing resignation, but in reality he hasn’t.   He still sought for justice: “Thanks to him, we know that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion”(248).   Job is the personification of “man’s eternal quest for justice and truth” because he “pretends to abdicate before he even engaged in his battle”(248).

This reading of Job is thought-provoking and unexpected.  It speaks, in some way, to Ruth Wisse’s reading of Gimpel – I.B. Singer’s emblematic schlemiel character in his story, “Gimpel the Fool.”  Wisse argues that he knows full well that, in trusting people, that they will lie to him and even betray him. But Gimpel acts “as if” he doesn’t know because he wants to preserve the good.   Put another way, Gimpel, in his capacity as a schlemiel, is seeking truth and justice.  He does so by playing the fool.

While we don’t know if Pynchon read Wiesel’s essay on Job, this reading has resonance with his own schlemiel character.  Although Profane suffers by virtue of being dealt a bad hand, by virtue of his own foibles, and because he happens to always “be in the way of things,” he acts as if he has chosen a life of resignation when, in fact, he doesn’t stop trying to re-engage with the world that seems to have cast him aside.  For Pynchon as for many others, there is a goodness in this persistent desire to re-engage with a world that, based on what the reader can see, has done him wrong. The schlemiel may stumble through this world and, along the way, he may mess up one opportunity after another; but in acting as if it is alright and by continuing to move on, his desire to find truth and justice is disclosed (albeit in the most ironic and human manner).  Although the suffering of Job is much much worse than the suffering of Benny Profane or Gimpel (and he can certainly be called a schlimazel), these characters may be seen, given the reading of Wiesel, as the “descendants of Job.”*

*Take note that Wiesel is more interested in Job’s response to God – that is, in his freedom.  He pays less attention to Job as victim/schlimazel.  And that is a major point that distinguishes the schlemiel from the schlimazel. The latter is, as Ruth Wisse notes, a victim of circumstance.  In contrast, the schlemiel is more of a free agent who brings things on by his own doing; or alternatively, who acts “as if” he is a fool.  While the schlemiel and the schlimazel sometimes overlap – which is something both Ruth Wisse and Sanford Pinsker agree on – they are not the same.  This reading is making a possible case for such an overlap.  Nonetheless, as I note above, Gimpel and Profane’s suffering is miles apart from Job’s.  The relation of tragedy to comedy as well as the relation of being a victim to being a comic agent is the point of convergence and overlap.

Here (in America) Purim Comes Every Day: Sholem Aleichem’s Insider Joke


Motl the Cantor’s Son is Sholem Aleichem’s last novel.  Though unfinished,it  is substantial. It tells the story of Motl – the orphan of a Cantor who died back in Europe (in fact, on the same day as the Baal Shem Tov was said to have tied – the second day of Shavuot) – and his family’s journey to America.   Motl is the child narrator and, as Sidrah DeKoven-Ezrahi argues, he is a schlemiel.  While his perspective is steeped in the religious life of Eastern Europe, he thinks constantly of moving to America.  And once he goes on the journey he can’t stop imagining what it will be like.  His imagination is comical.  Nearly every thought he gives over has a punch line.  His wild imaginings of America are full of punch lines:

I don’t care what I become in America – just let me get there.  (I’m so eager to get there!) I promise myself that in America I’ll learn how to do three things – swim, write, and smoke cigars.  I can do all those things right now, but not as well as they can in America.  I know I could be an expert swimmer, but at home we had nowhere to swim.  In our pond it was impossible…In America, they say, there’s an ocean. There, if you lie down in the water on a tube, the water will cary you as far as the eye can see. (249)

What makes Motl’s account so interesting is that, through him, Sholem Aleichem suggests that this text – Motl’s story – is more like an image, a drawing, than a text.  Since he draws (writes) in a slow manner, he is able to show us things about America and his journey that we, American readers,  may miss because we are, as Motl imagines, always in a hurry.  For this reason, his writing becomes image (it is itself and other than itself, as the thinker and literary critics Maurice Blanchot would say):

I can write too, though no one has taught me.  I copy the letters from the prayer book. The letters I copy are hard to recognize.  I don’t really write – I draw.  I’d love to write fast, but I don’t know how.  In America, they say, they wrote fast.  Everything is done quickly, in a hurry.  Americans have no time.  (249)

When Motl arrives in America with his family, they are all in a hurry to catch up with Americans and make a living.  Motl is not melancholic about how his imaginings don’t totally match with reality.  He is excited.

But what happens to Motl’s Jewishness when he comes to America?  How does he draw out the new state of affairs?

In one scene, the Jewish holiday of Purim comes up indirectly, by way of a description of his friend Hershl.  One of the most brilliant aspects of this passage is that it outlines the doubleness of being a Jew in America.  It provides the Jewish reader with an “insider joke” since only a Jew would know what these names, which emerge out of the Jewish tradition and Jewish life, mean.  (Vashti is the name of a character in the Purim story and Hershl is a Yiddish name; and calling Hershl, a male, by the name, Vashti, there is yet another doubleness.)   As the Motl “drawing” shows us, Americans don’t know these names and practices; but “we” do:

Even my friend Hershl earns money, the one with the birthmark on his forehead who we call Vashti.  Here he isn’t called Hershl or Vashti but Harry, and he’s going to school.  The outer half of each day after school he spend at a pushcart on Rivington Street….There isn’t much work for Vashti, or Harry to do.  He just has to keep an eye on people to see they don’t filch anything …But he himself will sample the sweets.  Vast has no secrets from me.  He admitted that he once snacked on so many raisins, he had a bellyache for three days afterward.  He doesn’t get paid for his work aside from tips, a cent or two…At home (in Eastern Europe) Vashti never laid eyes on a kopek even in his dreams, except for distributing chalk-mones, Purim sweets.  (318)

The punch line involves the difference between Purim in the “old country” and Purim in America: “But Purim comes only once a year.  Here Purim comes every day, and every day he earns money”(318).

In America Purim – as it has in Jewish tradition – has a new meaning which has little to do with the old one save for the sweets that one used to get, once a year, when exchanging presents.  Aleichem is telling his readers that in America, Jewish time and space are altered. Names are forgotten. And all jokes that he shares with his readers are insider jokes since, after all, he knew that the Judaism of Eastern Europe would not find a strong anchor in America.

After saying that every day in America is Purim, we hear the voice of Motl’s friend Pinni who praises Columbus – not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob…or God: “Columbus! You are worth your weight in gold!” In the wake of his celebratory exclamation honoring Columbus, he buys candy from “Vashti”and gives him a “tip”(318).  In America, the wealth is spread widely.  Even so, the reader is left with a Purim Shpiel (play) of sorts.   After all, we know that Vashti gets a tip, while, to everyone else, Harry does.  Sweetness and forgetfulness go hand-in-hand.   As Paul Celan says in one poem about forgetfulness it was “all sweetness and light.” But, at the very least, a reader, with some knowledge of Judaism, can remember that Harry is really Hershl and Hershl, he’s Vashti.  Motl, in this story, remembers.  But he was the last remnant of a generation that was, as we all know, to perish during the Holocaust.

Happy Purim!

The Schlemiel as Prophet, or Ezekiel as “Little Man”? On James Kugel’s Translation of Ezekiel


How can a schlemiel be a prophetic figure?  One could argue, by way of the Talmud (Baba Batra 12B) that after prophesy ended it went to fools.  But how could one argue that a prophet is a schlemiel which is  – as is suggested in an interview with I.B. Singer and in many other places in literature, film, television, and schlemiel theory –  best described as the “little man.”   In his book, The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction Sanford Pinscher argues that we can read I.B. Singer’s schlemiel’s in terms of the prophetic: he reads schlemiel in the Hebrew, in terms of two words, shelah (sent) and m’el (from God). He draws this reading from The Jewish Encyclopedia, which, apparently, is the only source that makes this powerful claim (58-58).

Pinsker’s novel move is to take note that the Encyclopedia and many others (writers, artists, etc) only focus on one possible meaning: that being “sent (shelah) from God (m’el) which suggests that the Prophet is a symbol of Exile from God, a God-less state.  On the other hand, “it is the more likely translation for the phrase “sent from God” – in the sense of the Biblical Messenger” (58).  Pinsker’s reading suggests that the schlemiel is a Prophetic figure who conveys – like Samuel, Isaiah, Eliyahu, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – the message of God.

The implication: like the prophet, the schlemiel is sent to communicate some message from God.  But Pinsker doesn’t argue that one meaning – the more spiritual one – is more essential than the other.  Instead, Pinsker takes both senses as possible and argues that there is an “ambivalence”(58).  He applies this to Singer’s most important schlemiels: Gimpel of “Gimpel the Fool” and Yasha of The Magician of Lublin.   He sees both characters as ambiguous schlemiels – they could be either prophets, with some connection to God (being His “messenger”), or none at all (being sent away from God, into exile).  This is what the reader must come to terms with. This would suggest a crisis of faith.  But Pisnker doesn’t spell that out.  He leaves it to the reader to figure it out, perhaps as Maimonides did for his student Joseph in The Guide to the Perplexed.  But that would be granting too much.

Pinsker’s reading of the schlemiel as a prophetic or exilic figure has yet to be given its due.  It needs further development if it is to become a major point of query in schlemiel theory.  What, one needs to ask, is the message of the schlemiel prophet and prophets?  Is it singular? Or does it vary from story to story?

Both trajectories need to be thought in relation to the other.  But to do that, they must both be clarified.  While the exiled schlemiel has been given much more coverage, the prophetic schlemiel has not been addressed at all save by Pinsker in his important book.  What I’d like to do, along that trajectory, is to give more thought to the prophetic aspect of the schlemiel and to a prophet who is like a schlemiel and a figure of Exile.

I would like to suggest that Ezekiel could be read as embodying both ambiguous aspects of the schlemiel.  James Kugel’s translation of Ezekiel 2:1-3:3 suggests that this is a possibility not simply for fiction but for the Bible as well: in Ezekiel.   According to Kugel, one should translate the term “ben-adam” as “little man.”  In doing so, Kugel suggests a relationship between God and Ezekiel which can be seen as being the relationship of a prophetic schlemiel to God.  He is a man-child before God.  From a Freudian perspective of the schlemiel of schlemiel theory, this can be read as a kind of infantilizing before God’s greatness. It is beautiful and, at the same time, shameful.   Ezekiel regresses in a way that is tragic but also comic.   Ezekiel’s mortality is presented, in Kugel’s translation as comical and as tragic. I am going to cite the passage – in full – to give the reader a sense of this childlike “littleness.” Kugel’s translation is markedly different from the JPS Translation in translation and in tone:

He said to me: “Little man, stand up on your feet so I can speak to you.  Then a spirit entered me while He was talking and stood me up on my feet, and I heard someone speaking to me, saying to me: Little man! I am sending you to the people of Israel, to the rebellious ones who have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have Disobeyed Me all along, to this very day. In fact, the sons – those to whom I am sending you – are impudent…As for you, little man, do not be afraid of their words, and to not lose your courage, for they are a rebellious house…And you little man, listen now to what I am telling you….”  As I watched, a hand was stretched out to me holding a written scroll.  He opened it in front of me; it was written on both the front side and the back, and written on it were written words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

 Then He said to me: “Little man, eat what is given to you; eat the scroll, and then go, speak to the House of Israel.” So, I opened my mouth, and He gave me the scroll to eat.  He said to me: “Little man, eat the scroll that I give to you and fill your stomach with it.” So, I ate it; and in my mouth, it turned as sweet as honey (Ezek. 2:1-3:3)

One thought I’d like to end with is that “the little man” deals with a transfer of affect – from visual bitterness to a tactile experience of sweetness  Like a baby, Ezekiel has to swallow a scroll which, to the eye, looks sad and bitter because, on it, are “written words of lamentation and morning and woe.”  But when he swallows it, the visual is displaced by the tactile.. the bitter tastes sweet.  Parsing the term “little man,” we can say that the schlemiel may have swallowed something bitter (the text of mourning, tragedy, and suffering); but the bitterness of this death and suffering – things that the melancholic and the mourner, each differently, knows well –  become sweet in the act of accepting God’s wishes.

Alternatively, the way this mode of acceptance is accomplished, via Kugel’s translation, is not only tactile; it is also comical.  The mortal, the man – Ezekiel, the prophet – must become a “little man” and, like a baby taking medicine, the prophet must swallow the scroll.   (This reading suggests that there is something more than “internalizing” the text; which is how Maimonides and many contemporaries read this passage of Ezekiel.)   Perhaps this becoming small is another aspect of the ambiguity.  Ezekiel is not simply sent.  In being sent, he becomes little, he becomes small.  And this is something that happens will all schlemiels.  It’s a comedy of scale.  Every schlemiel feels some form of comical humiliation, after all.  (Think of Woody Allen,  Jerry Lewis, or Larry David’s characters. Think of Shalom Auslander or Kafka.)  Nonetheless, he seems to live in a Godless world.  In one sense, it can be said to be prophetic.   Ezekiel is the odd one out.  Perhaps becoming small is a part of the prophetic message that is being sent.  Perhaps it is the message.


To be continued…..





Sessions as Gump, the Americanized Schlemiel


SNL has been making great use out of the schlemiel character.   Larry David’s portrayal of Bernie Sanders as a schlemiel was wildly popular and just recently, Kate McKinnon has portrayed Jeff Sessions as a variation of the Forrest Gump character.  While David’s interpretation of Sanders is more steeped in the Jewish-American version of the schlemiel (with his use of New York dialects and mannerisms), McKinnon’s take on Sessions is – like Forrest Gump – fully Americanized.

In his book, Coming Out Jewish, Jon Stratton cites Ruth Wisse who argues that the schlemiel is not a character of Anglo-American culture: “Natural as his emergence within Jewish culture may have been, the loser-as-winner was not an indigenous American folk-type, and there is much in his make-up that still goes against the American grain”(302).  Expanding on this, Stratton adds that the “high water mark in the Americanization of the schlemiel has been the very popular film Forrest Gump (1994)”(302).

While Gump is “intellectually sub-normal” and yet manages to come out shining, he is missing something fundamental to a schlemiel: what Stratton calls a “subaltern community.”  Without that, argues Stratton, the schlemiel “becomes most straightforwardly loser”(302).    What is lost and reworked is the “ambivalence of the Yiddish schlemiel.” The new tension is between what, “by all expectations,” he should be – namely, a “loser” – and what he becomes “an overwhelming success.”  While this is not what Stratton calls a “Yiddish moment,” it is a “Jewish-American moment.”   Nonetheless, it lacks the “ambivalence of feeling of a subordinate group.”

Stratton contrasts Gump to George in Seinfeld.  George, in contrast to Gump, is the “luckless character” but the “inability to take control of one’s destiny because of the power and oppression of the dominant group is reworked as lucklessness”(303).

The Americanization of the schlemiel – at least in this instance of SNL’s reworking of Gump – makes him into an “intellectually sub-normal” loser who also, because he is in office, a success.   His revealing secrets to people who sit with him demonstrates this innocent kind of Gumpian stupidity.   To be sure, the portrayal of Sessions – in no way – speaks to any “ambivalence of feeling of a subordinate group.”  It speaks to a prevalent (depending on how you parse that word) American view of Sessions, Trump, et al that is not ambivalent in any sense.

As I pointed out with Larry David’s portrayal of Bernie, not all American schlemiels are the same.   Woody Allen’s schlemiel is not in any way close to Seth Rogen or, for that matter, Larry David’s schlemiel is much different from Marc Maron’s version.   Despite these differences, the question about how they are Americanized remains.  Unlike George, we know these characters are explicitly Jewish.  But does this make a difference? Do American Jews still feel an “ambivalence of feeling,” as Stratton would say, or is that find of ambivalence a thing of the past since American Jews are in the post-assimilation stage?   Perhaps something more existential is at work and, as Ruth Wisse would say, the schlemiel’s comedy has to do with his character not his circumstances.  What, one wonders, is Jewish about this character when that existentiality appears to be American…and not Jewish?  Perhaps something Jewish remains. Perhaps that may only be – as Walter Benjamin argued with Kafka – a gesture.  But when it comes to Gump or the SNL version of Gump as Sessions, nothing Jewish remains.  Larry David’s take on Bernie (shoulder shrug)…that’s another story.

Shem, Japheth, and Stoom: On James Joyce’s Reading of Japheth


The Midrash tells us that the relationship between Shem and Japheth – two sons of Noah whose birth is recounted in Genesis 6:32 -is symbolic.   In that verse, we learn that although Japheth is first born, it is Shem who is born circumcised (Genesis Rabba 26:3).  In Genesis 9:27, Noah awakes from his sleep, ashamed that his “nakedness” is exposed to his children, curses Ham and blesses Shem and Japheth.   The blessing is that God “enlarge Japheth” and that he shall dwell in “the tents of Shem.”   The Midrash sees the two in terms of Jews and the Greeks.  That would mean that although Japheth is “enlarged” he shall dwell in the small “tents of Shem.”  This is a paradox of sorts and it even has a messianic ring to it.   Rashi – the medieval commentator – notes that the second temple was built by “Cyrus,” a descendent of Japheth.  But the “shechina”(God’s holy presence) didn’t dwell in it.  The presence only dwelt in the temple built by Solomon (a descendent of Shem).   The difference between them, in other words, is not merely architectural.   What is odd about Rashi’s explanation is that he only takes note of the difference between them.  He doesn’t explain the meaning of Shem dwelling in the tents of Japheth.

Rashi notes, however, on Genesis 25:23, in relation to a verse about how Esau and Jacob are battling in Rebecca’s womb – “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate peoples shall issue from your body: One people shall be mightier than the other; and the older shall serve the younger” – that Shem (“a messenger” of God) told her this.   When they are born, Jacob is described as a “simple man” who is a “man of the tents.”  And as Rashi notes, these tents are a reference to Shem.    Where does Japheth dwell?  Does he, like Esau, dwell in the field?  The Talmud (Megilla 1:7) suggests that Japheth dwells in beauty.  And the most beautiful thing he possesses is the Greek language.   Josephus explains that Japheth is blessed with and dwells is a “land of beauty.”  Yehuda HaLevi, in contrast, argues, in the Kuzari, that the beauty of Japheth is Greek philosophy.  In the Kuzari, the two – Judaism and Greek philosophy – are categorically different.   How, given all of these readings, will Japheth – Greek philosophy, beauty, the “land of beauty,” etc – dwell in the tents of Shem?  How can one fit inside the other?  How can a Greek philosopher, for instance, learn in a Yeshiva?  And this prompts the bigger question: How can a non-Jew dwell in the tent of a Jew?

Clive Hart, in his critical essays on James Joyce’s Ulysses, suggests that James Joyce’s mention of Japheth in the masterpiece of modernism is worthy of deep reflection.  In the scene, which is at the beginning of the novel, Stephen Daedelus – who Joyce associates with Telemachus, the son of Odysseus – is not simply made to feel impotent by virtue of his “futile impotence” to find his father (12).   His impotence is self inflected.  He is a self-deprecating character.  The dialogue between Daedelus and Mulligan, that mentions Japheth, brings this out.  Stephen’s theory of Hamlet, “proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his father.”  Mulligan laughs, and adds the diagnosis: “O, shade of Kinch the elder! Japheth in search of a father!”

But, adds Hart, Daedalus is not, like Japheth, in search of his father, Noah.  He has “willingly and even contemptuously chosen exile for himself”(12).  As we see in the novel, he is a different kind of Japheth.  It has been argued that the difference between Bloom (the Jewish character, who is associated with Shem) and Daedalus (who is associated with Japheth) is a difference not simply between two religions but also between two different kinds of aesthetics.   I would suggest that this aesthetics – between Shem and Japheth – be understood in terms of the schlemiel.  For, as Sanford Pinsker has pointed out, Bloom is Joyce’s attempt at a schlemiel character.    The difference between them is between a Greek kind of tragic seriousness and a Jewish kind of comedy. Both are grounded on two different kinds of exile: one tragic the other comic; one self-imposed, the other not.

Even thogh Daedelus, through his self-imposed exile, is looking to dwell in the tents of his brother, Shem, it is Bloom – who doesn’t chose his exile, because he is a Jew – that often follows Daedelus around and bears witness to his changes.   Bloom, in many scenes, helps Deadelus up when he falls down.   Even though he wanders like a schlemiel through the streets of Dublin and from thing to thing that pass through his consciousness, he puts all on hold to help his brother who seems to be – at one turn after another – breaking down.

Joyce’s narrator asks the reader to think about the narration of Stephen Daedalus. His narration is “salient” while Bloom’s “seems” to be less so (only because the standards of beauty are the domain of Japheth and the Greeks, not the Jews and Shem).   Joyce offers us a key to understanding the relationship of Shem (the schlemiel, Bloom) to Japheth along these lines:

Which event or person emerged as the salient point of his narration? 

Stephen Daedelus, professor and author.  

What limitations of activity and inhibitions of conjugal rights were perceived by listener and narrator concerning themselves during the course of this intermittent and increasingly more laconic narrative.

How, asks the narrator, did he become the “salient point of his own narrative”?

By various reiterated feminine interrogation concerning the masculine destination whither, the place where, the time at which, the duration for which, the object with which in the case of temporary absences, projected, or effected. (871, Ulysses)

The “feminine interrogation” about where the “masculine destination” is going and how long he, Daedalus, goes away seems to have an effect on the body not only of Daedalus but, more importantly, the reader and the narrator.  To the question, “In what posture?” we see that the narrator, in telling the story, has become a “manchild of the womb”:

Narrator: reclined laterally, left, with right and left legs flexed, the index finger and thumb on the right hand resting on the bridge of the nose, in the attitude depicted on a snapshot photograph made by Percy Upjohn, the childhood weary, the manchild in the womb. (870)

This narrator, in telling the story, is both Bloom and Deadalus.   The name “manchild,”as one commentator notes, is synonymous with the word “Stoom” (Stephen and Bloom) .  He has become like the schlemiel.  He travels with “Sinbad the sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Winbad the Whaler and Nimbad the Nailer….”(871).

And through this journey, he becomes “Stoom.”

Substituting Stephen for Bloom, Stoom would have passed successfully through the preparatory, junior, middle, and senior grades of the intermediate and through the matriculation, first arts, second arts, and arts degree course of the royal university.

And for this moment, before he sinks into the dark,  Japheth can dwell in the tent of Shem: “Jewgreek is Jewgreek. Extremes meet.”

By circling around Bloom, as if Bloom were the sun and not the moon (which reflects light and doesn’t shine a light of its own; a powerful symbol of the feminine and Malchut – “kingdom” – in Kabbalah), Daedalus learns what it’s like to be the everyman.  He comes down from his heights and becomes a new person, Stoom, a “manchild of the womb.”  He isn’t in search of Noah – as was Japheth – he is in search of his brother and in coming close to him, by dwelling with him, he momentarily becomes the schlemiel.  And then he, like Gimpel, who wanders away at the end of his story, departs.

Unlike Judah HaLevi who keeps them apart, Joyce suggests that Japheth can become Shem.     He can become “Stoom.”   But this can only happen if Japheth, the philosopher, exiles himself and asks Shem to bear witness.  And for that to happen, Japheth must become small; otherwise, Japheth cannot dwell in the tents of Shem.  His expansion – the expansion of modern aesthetics, perhaps, as Joyce suggests – is based on contraction.