Woody Allen’s Zelig character showed American audiences that schlemiels come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The schlemiel is a chamelon. His Jewishness – argues Daniel Itzkovitz – demonstrates the fact that the essence of the schlemiel character is non-essence. The schlemiel is constantly adapting and changing. And this – argues Itzkovitz, drawing on the introduction of Ruth Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero – is a challenge to “the political status quo.”
What is overlooked in this reading is that the Zelig character, in the end of the day, is – in Allen’s version – a bachelor schlemiel. Like Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” in the novel of the same name – perhaps the most powerful version of the American schlemiel in Jewish American literature next to another, hyper-sexual schlemiel, Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy – Allen’s Zelig is a bachelor schlemiel. I would aver that Kafka – the grandad of both Roth and Bellow’s schlemiels – was one of the great creators and lovers of this character (think of the narrator in “Josephine the Mouse Singer”).
The Bachelor schlemiel feels great love, but is all alone. While it is fun to change, its also a little lonely. As we can see in this film, he yearns for his doctor (Mia Farrow) but is always existentially alone. He is, David Biale would say, a “sexual schlemiel” whose “libido is bigger than his ego.”
Whether it is Zelig or Herzog, the bachelor schlemiel is embodied in a character who is small and thin. Allen suggests that the schlemiel is small. Contrast this to the embodiment of the schlemiel by Seth Rogen – who moves from a bachelor schlemiel to a family schlemiel, a dad schlemiel – and we can see a cultural difference between the two schlemiels that is of great interest to anyone trying understand not just the schlemiel but American cultural icons.
Neither Ruth Wisse nor Sanford Pinsker – who have written the most important books on the schlemiel to date – reflect on the body of the schlemiel. It is long over due. And since we are moving more into an age that is dominated by visual culture, the body, and shiny surfaces of social media, embodiment is always a key concern.
I have written on the “dadbod” on this blog and for Berfrois (“The Body of Jewish Comedy”). One of the things I point out and I’d like to revisit in this reflection is that it was not Seth Rogen who made the dadbod of the schlemiel iconic. It was Judd Apatow. Aptow cast Rogen and other actors (like Jonah Hill) as slightly overweight schlemiels. Before these characters are married, they have dadbods. There is – so to speak – a continuum between having a “dadbod” as a Bachelor and carrying it over to marriage and childbearing in a film like Knocked Up (2007).
In this film, Rogen situates Harold Ramis (not Judd Apatow) as his father. This would suggest that the bachelor schlemiel became a kind of slob (Ramis is famous for film that pit the “slobs” against the “snobs”). This is the root of Rogen’s interest in the dadbod. It is also a rite of passage: going from being a bachelor slob schlemiel to being a married schlemiel with a slob’s body. Rogen’s films show us that one can create a schlemiel continuum though the body of the schlemiel.
Today the “dadbody” has been popularized.
David Tate in a recent piece for McSweeny’s – entitled: “21 Days to a Dadbod” – makes a comical “list” – playing on the 21 day diets, muscle building ads, etc) – of what is needed to attain that “dadbod.” What makes this list novel is that it suggests an insider (schlemiel’s) account of how to attain a dadbod. This – in effect -is the advice of a schlemiel. And it speaks to most of us who have children and – at a certain point – just eat and forget about our bodies. In other words, it speaks to married American men with children as the conversation of one schlemiel to another (because we are talking about “dadbods” not mombods). The irony is that it is too late. American men with kids don’t need to do any of the things. The food obsessions are natural for an American schlemiel with a dadbod.
Since this is the case, one can argue that this McSweeny’s piece shows us that the schlemiel is being nourished by lots of “burritos.” Tate’s piece, a lot like Sam Lipsky’s novel, The Ask, or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, is a tale about a sloppy kind of schlemiel who is located in the family; a schlemiel who, at a certain point, just caves in to giving up on having the perfect American life. Fatherhood takes a lot out of you. Who has time for the body. And, after all, having kids ages you fast. All of these schlemiels are in the middle of life.
If these books were to be turned into films, chances are the main schlemiel character whole have a dadbod. Here’s Rogen whose body – in this episode of Naked – is juxtaposed to that of James Franco. The dadbod is front and center. I leave it there, naked. It slips into the family in some families but here – and in several photo-ops by “Fat Jew” (who’s image is at the masthead of this article) the bachelor (bro) dadbod (while still being a bachelor). It’s the body that may never go away because it deserves – as day #13 puts it in Tate’s list – a milkshake for getting up wearily with the kids.
Here is the dadbod, naked. But with the bros, not the family.