She Made Herself Smaller: On Israel, the Schlemiel & Tzimtzum in JS Foer’s “Here I Am”

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Anyone who has attempted to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am knows that it is an arduous task.   To finish it and understand the novel, one has to connect a lot of threads.  The book explores the family dynamics of the Bloch family and situates it within multiple contexts that span the Holocaust, a war in Israel, and Jewish American family life in the age of social networking and virtual reality.  At the center of the novel is Jacob Bloch, a schlemiel character who, because of his inability to properly understand and communicate with his wife, Julia, loses touch with her.   As Harold Bloom would say, Jacob’s understanding of what has happened to his relationship is belated.    And this realization comes to him – more often than not – not from himself but from other people around him.    His failure, arguably, has not only to do with his lack of understanding of his wife and himself, but it also has a lot to do with a confused or indifferent understanding of the meaning and place of Jewishness in his family.   Jacob takes a passive role and for that reason he pays a major price.  Each generation, it seems, is farther away from the source, which can be traced back to Jacob’s great-grandfather, a Rabbi from Eastern Europe, and his grandfather, Isaac, who passes away in the midst of the novel.    The funeral brings up questions about what it means to be Jewish.

But before the encounter with losing Jewishness through the death of a beloved family member occurs, these questions start arising when Jacob and Julia discuss how they will share the bad news of their break-up to their family.   This discussion leads Jacob to reflect on something his son, Sam – who is “supposed to be” Bar Mitzvahed and isn’t because of Jacob’s negligence – asks him about God.     This prompts Jacob to reflect on the meaning of Tzimtzum.   The discovery of this concept fits within the context of his absent mindedness and in the midst of a war that irrupts over an earthquake in Israel which Jacob is unable to properly digest.  His relationship with his wife and son – as well as his belated reflection on Tzimtzum – is situated within this context.

The narrator tells us that when the Bloch family receives the news of Israel’s tragedy, they over-react and repress the feelings that emerge in its wake.  And this, in some way, reflects the dysfunctionality of the post-Holocaust American Jewish family, which has much to do with an inability to communicate with itself in an affective manner.  They are, as it were, too shocked to know what to do.  They are anxious and unable to act, which leads, consequently, to repression and denial.  And this – suggests he narrator – is a pattern in post-Holocaust American Jewish history:

News that reached America was scattershot, unreliable, and alarming.  The Bloch’s did what they did best: balanced overreaction with repression.  If in their hearts they believe they were safe, they overworried, talked and talked, whipped themselves, and one another, into forms of anguish….It was a game whose unreal danger was to be talked up and savored, so long as the outcome was fixed.  But if there was an inkling of any real danger, if the shit started to thicken – as it was soon to do – they dug until the blades of their shovels threw sparks.  It’ll be fine, it’s nothing.  (312)

Tamir, Jacob’s Israeli cousin (who is on a visit while this goes down), ignores what is going on.  He doesn’t even talk about it: “to Jacob’s amazement, he still wanted to sightsee.”  Like Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, Jacob sees in the Israeli a dark mirror: “It was so easy for Jacob to see in Tamir what he couldn’t see in himself:  a refusal to acknowledge reality. He sightsaw so he wouldn’t have to look”(312).  Jacob, meanwhile, watched the TV report with a glazed look in his eye.   In the midst of this, Julia “shakes her hand in front of Jacob’s face” to remind him that the greater crisis, the one that he is ignoring and repressing, is the demise of their marriage:  “I realize they Middle East is collapsing, and that the entire world will get sucked into the vortex, but this is actually more important now”(313).

Following this, he discusses who in the family they should tell first.  Julia suggests that they gather them all together and tell them. That way they can all “cry together”(313).  In response, Jacob suggests that they tell Sam first because he will “have the strongest reaction” and will also be “the most able to process it”(313).    In response, Julia asks a question that beckons for a response: “What if I cry?” she asked. But Jacob fails to act on what is suggested by the question.  The narrator characterizes how he thinks the right thought but distracts himself with other thoughts (about Israel, the kids, etc) thereby leaving her alone, once again:

The question embodied Jacob, made him want to touch her – grasp her shoulder, press his palm to her cheek, feel the ridges and the valleys of her fingertips align –  but he didn’t know if that was acceptable anymore.  His stillness throughout the conversation didn’t feel standoffish, but it did create a space around her.  What if she cried?  They would all cry. They’d wail.  It would be horrible.  The kids’ lives would be ruined.  Tens of thousands of people would die. (314).

This missed encounter engenders a memory of Sam who, on a visit to his religious grandfather Isaac – who passes away and prompts Jacob to reflect, later in the novel on the meaning of Jewishness – asked Jacob if “God is everywhere?”   The question “came out of nowhere” and, in his surprise, Jacob answered that “that’s what people who believe in God tend to think, yes.”  In saying this, Jacob excludes himself from belief in God.  This doesn’t stop Sam from asking questions:

“So here’s what I can’t figure out,” he said, watching the early moon follow them as they drove.  “If God is everywhere, where did He put the world when He made it?”(314)

Jacob  is unable to answer the question.

That night, after putting Sam to bed, Jacob does some research and discovers the notion of tzimtum.  It answers this question:

Sam’s question had inspired volumes of thought over thousands of years, and that the most prevalent response was the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum. Basically, God was everywhere, and as Sam surmised, when He wanted to create the world, there was nowhere to put it.  So He made Himself smaller. Some referred to an act of contraction, others a concealment.  Creation demanded self-erasure, and to Jacob, it was the most extreme humility, the purest generosity.  (314)

Reflecting  on this, Jacob discovers that tzimtzum can be used to read Julia’s question: What if I cry?  But it is too late:

Sitting with her now, rehearsing the horrible conversation, Jacob wondered if maybe, all those years, he had misunderstood the spaces surrounding Juila: her quiet, her steps back.   Maybe they weren’t buffers of defense, but of the most extreme humility, the purest generosity. What if she wasn’t withdrawing, but beckoning?  Or both at the same time? Withdrawing and beckoning?  And more to the point: making a world for their children, even for Jacob. (314)

For the reader, it is obvious that this question is rhetorical. It is not a mere musing.  But Jacob, even after thinking it, utters the opposite to her:  “‘You won’t cry,’ he told her trying to enter the space”(315).  The passage goes on and when she says “you’re probably right,” he thinks he has done something right but in truth he has failed.  He missed an opportunity to give her love.  She was beckoning him to touch and console her.

What happens following this is telling.  He misinterprets the tzimtzum as an opportunity for himself to shine  and emote rather than love Julia.    Jacob tells her that “even if you don’t see me crying.  I’ll be crying”(316).   The emphasis, in other words, is on himself.  This turns into a “feeling,” namely, that Julia “believed she had a stronger emotional connection with the children, that being a mother, or a woman, or simply herself, crated a bond that a father, a man, or Jacob was incapable of.  She’d subtly suggest it all the time”(316).    This feeling is none other than the feeling of jealousy.  His response to the love she gives is competitive.  He wants to show her that he can also cry and love the children in a way that is even better.

Foer’s version of the schlemiel shows us that the blindspot has to do with the inability to love the other.  And even though he, for a moment, understands the true meaning of the tzimtzum, he doesn’t follow through.  He turns it back onto himself as if Julia is sacrificing herself so that he can love the kids but not her.  It’s as if God withdraws from the world but doesn’t beckon man to love him back.    It’s as if God withdraws in order for humankind – in utter jealousy – to compete with God and leave God behind.  Smallness has deeper meaning.  But the irony is that this God is not a paternal figure.  God is a maternal figure.   She made herself smaller in order to beckon man.  She didn’t simply withdraw.  And this, perhaps, gives the reader a window into Jacob’s problem with God and Jewishness.  It has a lot to do with his inability to act on the love that is communicated by the other’s withdrawal and smallness which is, if anything, a beckoning to return instead of a call to pull away.

Perhaps, Foer suggests, this blindspot can also be applied to Israel whose God seems to be withdrawn but is actually beckoning the Jewish people to return.  All of this, as the novel suggests, comes to the fore as Israel and Jacob Bloch’s relationship with his wife teeters on the brink of total destruction.  It all depends – as this allegorical figure suggests – on how we read tzimtzum.     How do we respond when she – the God of Israel and our beloved – makes herself small?  What is the schlemiel’s answer?  What is the reader’s answer?   If one overlooks Jacob’s (mis)understanding of tzimtzum, one will not be able to answer this question let alone understand the central motif of this large and difficult novel.  Exegesis, after all, must ask these questions if it is to understand the hidden meaning of the text and apply it to real life.  By paying close attention to how Foer’s schlemiel, Jacob Bloch interprets the tzimtzum and how it relates to his life and its problems, perhaps this can happen.

The Comical Scientist: On Michele Besso, Albert Einstein, and the Schlemiel

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As a term, the word “schlemiel” (“der schlemihl”) had both negative and positive valances in the 19th, and 20th centuries depending on whether  one was in Central or in Eastern Europe and on the intent of the author.   While  many Zionists and Jewish Enlighteners (Maskilim) in Germany and other German speaking countries often used the term in a negative sense,  they sometimes used it in a positive sense.  For instance, while Hannah Arendt notes that Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833) has a negative sense of the term, she argues, with respect to Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) – who occasioned Varnhagen’s Salon in Berlin – that the schlemiel had a positive meaning – since he read it as a figure of the modern poet and the pariah.    In Eastern Europe, the use of the term by storied Yiddish writers like I.L. Peretz and Shalom Aleichem were also divergent.  While it was often used in a biting satirical sense, the term – as used by Aleichem, Heine, and many folklorists – was also used in an endearing sense.    This can also be seen in its everyday usage.  One fascinating and telling instances of this usage, which I have come across, can be found in Albert Einstein’s description of one of his closest friends and colleagues, Michele Besso.

Einstein met Besso when he studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich from 1896-1900.  There they became very good friends and confidants. They frequently corresponded with each other from 1903 to 1955.   In his exceptional biography on Einstein (Einstein: His Life and Universe), Walter Isaacson notes that Einstein was having a hard time finding work after leaving Zurich.  In a letter to his friend (who he later married in 1903 and divorced in 1919) Mileva Maric, Einstein claimed that the reason he couldn’t find a job in German speaking countries was because of anti-Semitism.   This led him, according to Isaacson, to find work in Italy and enlist the help of Besso, a Sephardic Jew.  Their closeness is illustrated in a letter that Einstein wrote to Besso in which he insists that “nobody else is so close to me, nobody knows me so well, nobody is so kindly disposed to me as you are.”

Isaacson notes that while “Besso had a delightful intellect,” he “lacked focus, drive, and diligence.”   Like Einstein, he also had problems in high school.  And, to be sure, Einstein saw him as a kind of twin or double.  He described Besso as an “awful weakling…who cannot rouse himself to any action or scientific creation, but who has an extraordinarily fine mind whose working, though disorderly, I watch with great delight.”   To illustrate this comical kind of disorder, Isaacson retells a schlemiel tale of how, before Einstein caught up with him, Besso had “been asked by his boss to inspect a power station, and he decided to leave the night before to make sure that he arrived on time. But he missed the train, then failed to get there the next day, and finally arrived on the third day.”  Einstein recalls how “to his horror (he) realizes that he has forgotten what he’s supposed to do.”  So what did he do?  “He sent a postcard back to the office asking them to resent his instructions.  It was the boss’s assessment that Besso was ‘completely useless and almost unbalanced.”

Echoing these reflections, Einstein, in a letter to Maric, called Besso an “awful schlemiel.”  But one should not be distracted by the term “awful,” since Einstein means it in the most endearing sense.  He doesn’t correct or chastise his friend for being a schlemiel, as some Jewish German Enlighteners might.  Rather, he loves him and his company.  He enjoys the time he spent speaking and listening to him.   Einstein’s conversations with his dear friend often dipped into science.  Isaacson goes so far as to suggest a link between the discovery of the Theory of Telativity and a conversation that they had.  He points out how, four years before the discovery, the two had spent “almost four hours talking about science, including the properties of the mysterious ether and the ‘definition of absolute rest.’”   To Maric, Einstein noted that Besso is “interested in our research.”  Although he “often misses the big picture by worrying about petty considerations” he had connections that are useful.

Einstein’s long standing relationship with Besso and his characterization of him as a schlemiel demonstrate not only a more endearing usage of the term by a German Jew, but also an important idea.  Even though a schlemiel may be seen as useless to some (as we see in the story above about Besso missing his train, etc), he may actually be much more useful than any of us could ever imagine.  In fact, Besso – a comic scientist of sorts – may even have taken part in the birth of one of the most important ideas of the 20th century.    Einstein, in his brilliance, knew this and threw his lot in with the schlemiel.  In many ways, Einstein’s close relationship with Besso shows us that he was in many ways a schlemiel himself.   His delight in Besso is not contempt; in fact, it shows some kind of affinity.  (To be sure, it would be wrong to think of a schlemiel as lacking in intelligence.  On that note, take a look at Saul Bellow’s Herzog character.)  Perhaps this is one of Einstein’s best kept secrets.  Perhaps it was an open secret.   After all, Einstein, saw himself as a dreamer and had a penchant for the comical.  It all depends on how you read the schlemiel.

 

 

Rabbis and Schlemiels: On Reading Diaspora, Jewishness, and Survival

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Joseph Chaim Brenner’s writings on Zionism in the early 20th century are of great interest to scholars of early Zionist ideology.  As I have noted elsewhere, Brenner took a strong stance against the schlemiel character.    In his essay entitled “Self-Criticism” he takes the Yiddish writer Mendel Mocher Sforim and the schlemiel character to task.  He points out that even though the schlemiel characters in The Tales and Adventures of Benjamin the Third survive, this survival is incomplete:

The skeptics and rebels who have just recently appeared in literature say: What? The Jews have survived? Yes, it is true they have survived. But, my friends, survival alone is not yet a virtue. Certainly, it is better for any man, any people, any organism to be than not to be….but existence in itself is no evidence of an estimable character.

Echoing Heinrich Heine, who says that Jews, during the week, are like dogs, Brenner argues that “we survive like dogs and ants” and not like human beings.   “True self-criticism,” according to Brenner, will yield the insight that always being on the run from the Nations is a half-life.    While the schlemiel is a dreamer, her form of survival is not dignified.

In saying this, Brenner is not simply challenging the schlemiel.  Drawing on Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin’s book, The Powers of Diaspora, one can argue that Brenner is challenging the Rabbis of the Second Temple period and the diasporic Judaism they advocated.  Both of them see the strategy of survival employed by the Rabbis – which includes appeasement, hiding, and obfuscation – as the best (and the most Jewish) strategy Jews can take today.  For them, the appeal to Masada instead of Yavne (where the first Yeshiva was based) is more Roman and masculinist than Jewish.  The “foundation of the rabbinic value system is the obverse of ‘manly’ Roman values on the Masada foundation myth of Jewish heroism,” which Josephus gave life to in his famous account (52).  For the Boyarins this difference is fundamental:

The Babylonian Talmud’s Rabbi Yohanan prefers life and the possibility to serve God through the study of Torah over everything else.  He is willing to abase himself, pretend to be dead (as the story goes, he pretended to be dead in order to avoid being killed by the Romans) – a virtual parody of the Masada suicide? – make peace with the Romans over/against the Jewish zealots, even to sacrifice Jerusalem, in order that Jewish life and Torah might continue.  Where the Josephan zealots proved themselves “real men” by preferring death at their own hands to slavery, the Rabbis prefer slavery to death.  (52)

Survival, according to the reading of the Rabbinic tradition by the Boyarins, is directly related to a policy of appeasement.  To support this claim, they cite the Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3, 3c which reports the following about Rabbi Hiyya:

How does Rabbi Hiyya the Great explain the verse: “You shall buy food from them for money and eat”? – If you feed him, you have bought and broken him, for if he is harsh with you, buy/break him with food, and if (that does) not (work), then defeat him with money.

They say: That is how Rabbi Yonatan behaved.  When he saw a powerful personage come into his city, he used to send him expensive things.  What did he think?  If he comes to judge an orphan or a widow, we will find him propitious towards them.  (55)

Commenting on this, the Boyarins argue that Rabbi Hiyya developed a “whole political philosophy of Jewish-gentile interaction” from this verse which comes from Deuteronomy 2:6-8 (55).   This verse makes specific reference to the previous verse 2:4-6 which is in reference to the “descendants of Esau,” Jacob’s brother (who, as we learn from the Hebrew Bible, wanted to kill his brother out of spite for stealing his birthright).  The Rabbis, elsewhere, recognize these descendants as the Edomites (who are the Romans):

And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsman, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you be careful not to provoke them.

The Boyarins explain that “an alternative to provoking them is also offered by the verse, which Rabbi Hiyya understands in a way that takes it out of its immediate biblical historical context and gives it new cultural power”(55).  In other words, the Boyarins are arguing that Rabbi Hiyya is creating a cultural principle to deal with the Romans and all possible enemies:

He reads it as a suggestion to use gifts to turn the rulers’ hearts favorably to they Jewish subjects.  This is derived from the verse by typically clever midrashic punning, in addition to the mobilization of the foundational inter-text: the story of the original Jacob and Esau.  (55)

The Boyarins, using quotation marks, point out how there is, in Rabbi Hiyya’s reading of the passage from the Hebrew Bible (and perhaps even the passage itself), “an obvious allusion to the situation within which the weak ‘feminine’ Jacob bought the favor of the ‘virile’, dominant  Esau by giving him food….we will be observing how various ‘dishonest’ practices, deceptions, are valorized by the rabbinic and other colonial peoples in direct opposition to the ‘manly’ arts of violent resistance”(55).

Drawing on JC Scott’s book Domination and the Arts of Resistance, they argue that this valorization is something shared with other colonized peoples:

We must also tactfully disguise and hide, as necessary, our true aims and intentions from our social adversaries.  To recommend it is not to encourage falsehood but only to be tactical in order to survive. (55)

As one can see, the Boyarins have a much different reading on survival than Brenner and the early Zionists.  One can surmise that they would see the survival of the Jewish people in the diasporic mode – as one can see with the schlemiel character in many different instances – draws on a more ancient tradition of diasporic survival, which is found in the rabbinic writings.   Brenner’s “self-criticism,” in their view, would be a criticism based on a masculinist Roman way of thinking (which they associate with colonialism) as opposed to a Jewish way of thinking which works by appeasement and obfuscation rather than through power and strength.   Instead of leaving the schlemiel behind, as Brenner suggests, they would likely – as they would with their turn to the rabbis of the Talmud – valorize the character.    There are questions, however.   How is one to deal with the claim that the schlemiel character is “feminized”?  And is the biological survival of the Jewish people the right frame to use when reading this character or when reading the Rabbis?  Is the schlemiel character born out of a survival tactic?

Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel character comes out of and responds to the “weakness” of Jews in diaspora.  Its comic victories, so to speak, are ironic.  As the title of her book makes explicit, he is the “modern hero.”   However, in her later writings she rejects this position and sees Zionism as superseding the diasporic character. Wisse takes on a position more in turn with Brenner’s “self-criticism.”    While she originally saw the schlemiel’s cunning as a mark of “Jewishness,” Wisse sees Zionism as its most important feature, today. Why should Jews remain powerless and take on the tactics that the Boyarins refer to when they no longer need to do so?   The Boyarins obviously disagree with Wisse and see the turn away from the Rabbis and their diasporic strategies as a form of betrayal.  Moreover, they would likely see the rejection of the schlemiel as a masculine form of critique.   The only difference, however, is that while the Rabbis of the Talmud period were truly a subaltern culture that had to survive by virtue of its wits, Jews of North America are not.  The need for appeasement is no longer necessary.

Nonetheless, writers like Michael Chabon, Gary Shteyngart, Shalom Auslander, and many others, see the schlemiel character and its diasporic antics in terms of its cultural meaning.  The character – today – doesn’t relate to survival so much as American-Jewish identity (American first, Jewish second).   Survival is not a frame of reference and neither is the dialectic between power and powerlessness.  In America, schlemiel humor, with its penchant for self-mockery and self-deprecation, has become iconic.    One wonders, given this situation, what it would mean for a Jew to be, as Brenner once said, self-critical.  American Jews don’t see their kind of existence in terms of merely surviving or surviving as “dogs or ants.”  That said, the tension between the schlemiel and the Israeli sabra may no longer hold; unless, that is, the power of self-mockery and self-deprecation loses its iconic status, anti-Semitism rises, and American Jews return to the survival mode.   The schlemiel, if that happens, can offer an “ironic victory.”   And if this arises, once again, one will have to ask whether Brenner’s self-criticism or the Boyarins recovery of the rabbinic approach of appeasement and trickery is more appealing.   Until that happens, the schlemiel lives on in an America where survival is simply not an issue.  It lives on in what some thinkers would call a post-diasporic mode of existence.    Larry David’s schlemiel – and so many others – seem to dwell in this comic space of existence.

 

 

An American Prayer: On the Performance of Race & Class in a Don Rickles Comedy Routine

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After learning that Don Rickles had passed away, I spent a few hours watching videos of his comedic routines.  One of the most striking acts I found was a clip from his “Las Vegas Special” in 1975.   During this act, he does something unexpected: he brings three movie stars and an African American from the audience together on stage to perform a public prayer that, because it plays on Native American stereotypes that manages to bring a diverse group of Americans together, comes across as an American prayer.   It may be comedic and offensive, but it is, nonetheless, an attempt to create unity out of a disunity – in terms of class, race, and religion – that Rickles, through his insulting humor, brings to the surface.

Rickles begins his routine by calling up three Oscar nominated actors: Elliot Gould, James Caan, and Michael Caine.  (Only Caine, a non-American actor, received Oscars; six in fact.)  As one can expect, Rickles insults each one of them.  In doing so, he brings them down a notch.  He reduces their status as a class above the rest of Americans by way of his humor.  Caan’s clothes are cheap, Caine is English, Gould is a little slow.   But what makes this act so fascinating the inclusion of an African American audience member named Mitch Mitchells who Rickles calls up after making a joke about blacks.

What is so fascinating about including him in the act is that it shows us that Rickles, an American Jew, has some tension with African Americans.  (In the early 70s, relations between Jewish Americans and the African American community was much more strained than today.)  But he is not alone.  Most of the audience also laughs nervously when Rickles makes jokes about how big and powerful he is.  (When he tells In comparison to him, Rickles’s comes across as a schlemiel.  In the spirit of the schlemiel, he switches – on two occasions – to the mode of self-deprecation.  But he then uses this to his benefit when he drops the note that he, as a Jew, and the African-American audience member, Mitch Mitchells, have a lot in common in the sense that they are different from Gould, Caan, and Caine.  They aren’t “white.”  They are the underdogs in a WASP culture.  This sets up a tension of sorts between race and class.

But Rickels manages to suture all of the gaps between them through asking Gould, Caan, Caine, and Mitchells to perform a prayer, which is, more or less, a stereotypical improvisation of a Native American prayer.   Rickles adds a simulated “peace pipe” to the routine and makes sounds and gestures that are supposed to be signs of smoke coming from the pipe (there is an overlapping with taking a drag from it, however, which set up a ridiculous kind of sinage).   Rickles initiates the prayer and has each of the actor follow his lead. After they make their prayer, they all bow down, in unison to the ground (it comes across more as an Islamic form of prayer than a Native American form).  And this creates a kind of collective sense of submission to something higher.    But since it is all done in jest, it comes across in a way that is nuanced.

The last person to pray is Mitch Mitchells. Before he prays, Rickels gives him a few comical quips. He takes the mike away from him and gives it back. And when Mitch Mitchells imitates the smoking pipe – in a very creative manner, even more so that any of the famous actors – Rickles gives him one of his looks and makes an offhand comment.  Nonetheless, when he performs, Rickles shows the audience, in response to Mitchell’s improvised prayer, that it is the most pleasing one.  He does this before they all bow down and perform prayer.    In this moment, not only the tension between Jewish Americans and African Americans is temporarily suspended, but also the tension between the Hollywood elite and the everyman.

What is most amazing about this act is not that they are brought together through prayer, but that they are brought together through the comical performance of a prayer.  Rickles acts as the Rabbi, so to speak, and brings everyone together. But he does this through an American medium and through American stereotypes.  He uses them against themselves, emphasizing division while at the same time, brining everyone together through sharing the performance of an (improvised) American prayer.

While most people who enjoy Rickles’ humor focus on the insults, what many people might miss is how these insults are used.  In this comic routine, we can see how the insult – much like monotheistic religion – has a humbling effect.   It brings everyone down to earth and challenges their ego.  The irony is that this comic routine literally gave not only this a comic figuration but it also accomplished something astounding.  Through an improvised American prayer, it used insult to bring everyone together and share a unique act of (comically) performing a prayer which, in the end, they all share since they all bow down together.   The lesson is that if most of us in America can’t take prayer seriously, perhaps we can take it comically.  Perhaps Rickles is showing Americans that comedy can mark out our differences while, at the same times, performing our (fragile) union.    In truth, after the prayer is done, the stereotypes will likely remain but the hope in the act is that , by the end of the act, they have lost much of their power.    Perhaps that’s the best way to understand the unique power of insult that is employed by (Rabbi) Don Rickles in his improvised American prayer.

 

You Look Ridiculous: Don Rickles, Jewish American Anxiety, and Insult Comedy

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Don Rickles was the master of insult comedy.  But what was coupled with that insult was a kind of anxiety that turned a new page for Jewish American comedy.  It showed another side of being a Jew in America.   It registered a different stance of American Jews toward the America, one that was less self-deprecating and more assertive.  Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, points out that it is a “rare performer who can make it insult comedy”(162).  And, for Lawrence, there were only three great Jewish comedians who fit that bill: “Fat Jack Leonard,” Don Rickles, and Rodney Dangerfield.   Dangerfield was, like Rickles, full of insults and incredibly anxious.  But while Dangerfield “turned his anxieties inward, Don Rickels turned them outward, attacking those who caused him grief, pushing into the territory of insult humor explored earlier by Fat Jack Leonard”(223).

While “Rodney Dangerfield was the American Jewish psyche blaming itself for its troubles, Rickles was the American Jewish people blaming everyone else.  He was the Jewish hostility to anti-Semitism finally allowed to speak and doing so with a barely controlled anger and a barking outrage”(223).   Instead of talking to his audience, like most stand-up comedians do, “Rickles changed the nature of the dialogue.  He was working in strip joints, and the tough audience liked it when he began to yell at them.”   Rickles didn’t hold back from insulting everyone.  No matter how great the stars were, he insulted them.  Here he is insulting Frank Sinatra on The Johnny Carson Show (1:30 seconds in).

But the kind of insult that rose Rickles to fame, according to Epstein, was his ethnic humor and his personal insults.   No ethnicity was free of being insulted.

Rickles got away with these kinds of jokes, according to Epstein, because his audience “knew he was kidding and meant no harm, the words themselves cut deeply”(224).   This was unique because “most Jewish comedians would not follow Rickles footsteps.” They prefer, instead, being “neurotics, satirists, or observers”(224).  Only Richard Belzer, argues Epstein, tried to take on Rickles’ legacy. But, argues Epstein, he failed and his ethnic jokes came across as offensive.

Phil Berger, in his book The Last Laugh, points out that Don, unlike many other stand-up comics, did incredibly well on TV (167).  While “TV-minded comics took no chances,” Rickles did.  Rickles gave rage and insult a public forum on TV.  He touched an American nerve while, at the same time, showing a new kind of Jewishness that was brash and fun, a kind of Jewishness that looked back at the person instead of looking away.  He showed that self-deprecation and neurosis were not the only Jewish comic mode.  He showed us that the comedian should not just be fearless when it comes to taboo words and ideas, she must also be fearless when it comes to facing the other with a sense of humor.

We need this today, especially, in a world that has been inundated with politically correct ways of speaking and acting.  Rickles taught us that we need to look this in the face and insult it – yet, in such way that we can all laugh at how we “look” or show ourselves in the world.   His way of deflating the ego – whether it was the ego of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, or an audience member – though insulting, was always humbling.

Don Rickles passing will be felt by many.  His insults raised the bar for American comedy and touched on something profoundly American.  He was able to take ethnic comedy and insult comedy and give it a human face.  He taught us that American comedy should always aim at the face, yet, in such a way as to break it open and expose how ridiculous it is that we “pass” ourselves off the way we do in the world.  The anxiety that comes with passing is a distinctly American anxiety, and it is certainly a Jewish American one.

But when Jews are kvetching together, passing can be laid aside.  To be sure, there is something distinctly Jewish about his kvetching and complaining.  One can see this when he is kvetching with Larry King.   But this kvetching is comedic; it’s not mean-spirited.  The anxiety that exists between these two famous Jews is a familiar one.   The insults are delightful.   I’ll end on that note because, for Jews, kvetching makes life, and all its ridiculousness, easier.  There’s always something to complain about in this world.  But to look it in the face, to look you in the face and say, “you look ridiculous,” is something else.  Rest in Peace, Don.