“Mourning Becomes the Schlemiel” – a Guest Post by Jeffrey Bernstein


I. Psychoanalysis has taught us that comedy—in particular, the joke—is a discourse through which serious issues can be articulated in a manner that can be tolerated by an intended recipient. It has not (to my knowledge) said anything about the relationship between comedy and sadness—in particular, mourning.  Aristotle tells us that tragedy allows for a moment of catharsis—be it intellectual or emotional—in which the audience is able to resonate with the dramatic events being seen.  Can comedy or comedic situations fulfill a similar function?  Can it teach us, or model for us, anything having to do with, e.g., sorrow?  Is the insight of the Kotzker Rebbe to the effect that there is no heart so whole as that of a broken heart relegated to the discourse of lamentation alone?  These fragmentary reflections are a first attempt at exploring this question.  The schlemiel, as a figure of derision, is a particularly apt test case for this insofar as s/he is never simply the fool that s/he appears to be.  Were the schlemiel simply a fool—if we did not learn something from the schlemiel’s all-too-obvious bumbling mistakes—we would have no interest in him/her as a literary type.  There is enough simple foolishness in the world without authors, filmmakers, and playwrights, adding to it.

II.  My hypothesis is that the schlemiel does teach us something about mourning—at least as it is construed in psychoanalysis. For Freud (as he states “Mourning and Melancholia” [1917]), mourning is a response to loss.  While he speaks of mourning mostly in terms of the actual death of a loved one, this is only the most extreme example of situations confronting us all the time.  For we lose loved ones in life as well.  We similarly lose fantasies and ideas that we take for granted as being true or reflecting actual states of affairs.  Whether the situation involves the death of a family member, divorce from a spouse, the breaking apart of a friendship, betrayal of trust, or the collapse of a personal, societal, cultural, or political construal of reality, we are confronted by a choice:  do we attempt to hold on to the past as if it were simply present, or do we come to terms with the fact that we no longer inhabit the same world that we did (and, consequently, what do we do in light of this fact)?  This is true even in cases where the loss is ‘reversed’ (as in the case of apologies, “mending fences,” or gestures of reparation)—i.e., we now no longer inhabit a world where such a reversal is not needed.  For Freud, the attempt to hold on to the past in order to “keep it alive” in simple presence constitutes melancholia—the pathological deformation of mourning; one cannot literally keep alive that which is dead.  Mourning occurs when the personal or collective investments in the lost person or idea are shifted to something else—i.e., mourning entails a divestment of time and energy from the “dead object.”  For Melanie Klein, this divestment takes the form of a taking-in of that object and making it a part of one’s psychic life.  Klein holds that the internalization of the lost object is one way in which the person or ideal stays alive for the mourner—i.e., by becoming a “good internal object” for that person. Hans Loewald makes explicit what (regarding mourning) is underemphasized in Freud and Klein:  mourning is a process occurring throughout life, constituting a developmental achievement when it happens well, and is not relegated simply to the literal cessation of life.  There is nothing inevitably triumphant or redemptive in this achievement; it simply means that one is able to get on with life.  The schlemiel is a figure that is so open to loss that s/he finds it at every turn.  Paraphrasing Rosenzweig, there is nothing about loss that is alien or foreign to the schlemiel.  And yet, s/he persists.  For me, this renders the schlemiel a figure worthy of consideration here.

 III.  My choice of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” (written in 1953 and translated that same year by Saul Bellow) warrants some comment.  That Gimpel always speaks in the first person allows for one to see that he both is and is not the fool that he claims to be.  Insofar as Singer has Gimpel narrate his experience retrospectively, he shows that Gimpel is a fool first and a wise man second.  We might ask ourselves whether human beings in general are schlemiels first and (in the manner of Hegel’s Owl of Minerva) philosophers second.  Whether this bespeaks an intimate connection between philosophy and farce (as Marx might have it) is another question altogether.  But there is a less lofty reason for choosing Gimpel as the privileged example.  Like it or not, Singer has become (after the fact) the major sustainer of Yiddish tales in the English-speaking world.  If we read e.g., Aleichem, Peretz, Ansky, Bialik, Bergelson, or Abrahmovitsch, we inevitably do so in comparison with (and in the light of) the visibility and influence granted to Singer’s work: “Gimpel the Fool” (as translated by Bellow) has become something of an archetype for how we see the schlemiel.  This may or may not be a situation to mourn (i.e., Singer may indeed not be the greatest of the modern Yiddish authors), but it is our situation.

IV. One final mention before beginning to reading Singer’s story: Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi poses a criticism of Singer that has bearing on these reflections.  She argues effectively that Singer’s characters hide out in a Jewish world no longer in existence.  For Ezrahi, Singer’s continual imaginings of Shtetl culture shows that he avoids dealing with the one event that annihilated said culture—the Shoah.  For this reason, she holds that his writing has a disconcerting anachronistic character which fails to accept the loss of the culture which Singer’s characters inhabit.  On this reading, Singer’s writing more accurately reflects the position of the melancholic than the mourner.   This is surely not the place to attempt a defense (if one were warranted) of Singer’s oeuvre.  Neither is it the place to continue the battle over how to characterize the Shoah.  I would simply raise the question as to whether the Shoah is something that can be mourned.  For present purposes, I answer in the negative because the enormity of the Shoah cannot (in the words of Adorno) be made fully conscious; ultimately, one can only mourn what one can think and confront.  Irrespective of whether humankind will ever be able to responsibly confront genocide, it manifestly cannot at present.  However, whether the Shtetl life and culture about which Singer writes can be mourned (and is in fact mourned in “Gimpel”) is a question that is quite relevant here.  For my part, I believe that it can.

V. “Gimpel the Fool” is divided into four sections which we can characterize as (1) Introducing Gimpel and the town of Frampol, (2) Gimpel’s struggles, (3) Elka’s death, and (4) mourning. The main thrust of the story is Gimpel’s trials and ordeals (with the town of his birth) and how he comes to terms with them.  The first four sentences (the ‘prologue’) of Part One let us know immediately how deceptively non-simple Singer’s tale is:  “I am Gimpel the fool.  I don’t think of myself as a fool.  On the contrary.  But that’s what folks call me.”  Questions abound:  Is Gimpel a fool?  If so, is he a fool because he thinks he’s wise?  Or is he actually wise?  He is wise enough, in any case, to know that everyone else considers him a fool.  But would a simple fool have the distance from his community, break with their judgment, and consider himself wise?  Moreover, could a simple fool narrate his own history?  Perhaps these questions miss the focus of Singer’s story; perhaps the important aspect of these questions concerns what they suggest about the men and women of Frampol; perhaps the problem lies with them.  Gimpel expounds:  “What did my foolishness consist of?  I was easy to take in.”  Gimpel’s “flaw” appears to lie in his being too trusting.  He is, thus, the butt of a seemingly endless procession of jokes, tricks, and swindles.  But this “flaw” is only problematic if one accepts the premise that he shouldn’t be the way he is.  But what if Singer’s point is, instead, to indict the people of Frampol?  What if Gimpel’s being a “fool” is simply the result of their collective sickness?  Perhaps Frampol is a town of bullies and thieves.  If so, Gimpel’s “flaw” is less one of trusting any individual of Frampol and more one of attempting to find in Frampol an ideal of human life that is irretrievably lost.

Gimpel seems to have an awareness of this possibility when the townspeople of Frampol force him to marry Elka.  Despite the fact that he surmises her to be unchaste—despite the fact that he “wanted to go off to another town” in order to escape from the town’s prodding (and this desire for escape foreshadows a prominent aspect of Part Four)—he decides that he will marry her.   Whenever he acts in a manner that confirms the town’s perception of him as a fool, he provides a defensive rationalization for it—i.e., “What was I to do?”, “How was I supposed to know?”  In this case, his rationalization is (perhaps) wiser than he knows:  “But when you’re married the husband’s the master, and if that’s all right with her it’s agreeable to me too.  Besides, you can’t pass through life unscathed, nor expect to” (my emphasis).  While he attempts to justify the imperfection (foolishness?) of the marriage to himself, he also utters a truth that will allow him later to mourn his situation.  Put differently, the conditions for the possibility of mourning lie in the recognition of pain, sorrow, and disappointment.  While he here considers it as it relates to Elka, he will later see it as it relates to Frampol.  But this presumes that Singer’s point (as I mentioned earlier) is to indict Frampol—is this true?  Gimpel again seems to indicate this through yet another defensive rationalization.  Right after the marriage ceremony, Gimpel sees two men bringing him a baby’s crib saying “Don’t rack you’re brains about it.  It’s all right, it will come in handy.”  Upon realizing that he was about to become the butt of the biggest marital joke of all, Gimpel says, “I’ll see what comes of it.  A whole town can’t go altogether crazy” (my emphasis). Given that Gimpel’s account is in the first-person retrospective voice, the tacit answer he supplies to readers is either “Yes it can” or “Yes it did.”

VI. Part 2 highlights the struggles that Gimpel has with Elka.  First, Elka gives birth to a child the father of whom is not Gimpel.  Then, upon Gimpel’s confronting her with this, she lies to him about who the real father is.  Finally, Gimpel discovers that Elka is sleeping with another man at Gimpel’s home and in his bed.  Moreover, Gimpel’s interactions with Elka are distinctively one-sided—she berates him.  In response, Gimpel comically (or, at any rate, symptomatically) becomes more attracted to her (at the level of action) but also shows his ability to view the negative as affirmative (at the level of description):  “I didn’t dislike Elka . . . She swore at me and cursed, and I couldn’t get enough of her. What strength she had!  One of her looks could rob you of the power of speech.  And her orations!  Pitch and sulphur, that’s what they were full of, and yet somehow also full of charm.  I adored her every word.  She gave me bloody wounds, though.”  He is surely foolish to enjoy her berating—although we also know, by virtue of psychoanalysis, that the relation between pain and pleasure is (as it were) an intimate one—but his capacity to alchemically transform the negative into the affirmative will help him (after Elka’s death) to finally make her his own.  If we ask why Gimpel puts up with this aggravation, his answer is straightforward:  “I’m the type that bears it and says nothing.  What’s one to do?  Shoulders are from God, and burdens too.”  In bestowing this transformative ability to Gimpel, Singer compels readers to wonder what it would mean for someone to simply reject these burdens?  Would such a person be rejecting God as well?  Or, in a more psychoanalytic register, would such a person be acting in a manner complicit with Frampol’s sickness?

The point is not that there is only a binary opposition between Gimpel’s patience (which is frustrating but somehow morally/religiously good) and Frampol’s judgment/behavior (which is realistic yet sick).  I believe that Singer shows a dialectic at work in Gimpel’s internal struggle; for Gimpel, the question is how one reconciles oneself to a society that lives in a wrong manner—the answer being (in the words of Adorno) that a wrong life cannot be lived rightly.  The first three parts of Singer’s story show Gimpel’s attempt to live in accordance with Frampol’s wrongness—this even to the extent of subordinating his own desires and wishes to those of the community.  Finally, however, upon discovering another man in his bed with Elka, Gimpel’s anger becomes uncontrollable:  “‘Enough of being a donkey,’ I said to myself, ‘Gimpel isn’t going to be a sucker all his life.  There’s a limit even to the foolishness of a fool like Gimpel.’”  Insofar as he recognizes his being taken advantage of, Gimpel shows again that he is not a simple fool.  But if his foolishness has a limit, we still might wonder whether his wisdom has the same limit; for his recognition of his foolishness is itself wisdom.  Gimpel’s self-criticism is a moment of transcendence with respect to simple foolishness.

Gimpel has had enough.  He speaks to the rabbi of Frampol, and the latter tells him to divorce Elka immediately.  In instructing Gimpel thus, what are we to make of the rabbi’s imperative?  From the standpoint of everyday life, it makes sense to divorce a spouse who is so unfaithful.  Does it make sense for Gimpel in Frampol?  The rabbi, in calling for a break, is in some sense calling for Gimpel to mourn a lost cause.  But (in keeping with the dialectic I am pursuing here) if Gimpel does divorce Elka, is he not simply living in accordance with Frampol’s conventions?  The rabbi’s imperative, while incomplete, foreshadows the mourning that Gimpel undertakes in Part Four.  At this point, Gimpel decides not to act out of the ethos characteristic of Frampol:  “I wanted to be angry, but that’s my misfortune exactly, I don’t have it in me to be really angry.”  In the end, he doesn’t go through with the divorce.

VII.   Part Three opens with the discovery that Elka has given birth to another child—also not Gimpel’s.  Again the men and women of Frampol make Gimpel the butt of their ridicule.  And again Gimpel evinces his “foolishness”:  “All Frampol refreshed its spirits because of my trouble and grief.  However, I resolved that I would always believe what I was told.  What’s the good of not believing?  Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in.”  Is Singer simply advocating blind and foolish faith for the purposes of religious belief?  Rather, I believe that Gimpel is suggesting that the cynicism that arises from sorrow and pain leads to a more general loss of value that is needed for life to continue.  If we hold (again with Adorno) that despair is simply the reverse side of naïve hope, then the rejection of such hope—the destructive revolt against it—would actually be a perverse or symptomatic manifestation of it.  If we wish to reimagine Gimpel’s claim, it might run as:  “Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow its life itself you won’t take stock in.”  Gimpel’s seemingly foolish acceptance would then amount to a nuanced acknowledgement of the complexities of living.

And sure enough, although Gimpel strangely does not spend time recounting it, we find out that long periods of his life are filled with happiness and success:  “To make a long story short, I lived twenty years with my wife.  She bore me six children, four daughters, and two sons . . . I have forgotten to say that by this time I had a bakery of my own and in Frampol was considered to be something of a rich man.”  One need not go back to Plato’s Republic to consider the imperviousness of discussing the Good; there are no thematic sections in Barnes & Noble dedicated to How My Life Has Always Been Successful And/Or Happy—only to how we might become so (implying that we presently are not).  So it should not surprise us that the twenty years of plenty for Gimpel warrants merely a statement of its fact.  No sooner does Gimpel finish telling us this than he lets us know that eventually Elka develops breast cancer and dies.  It is clear, at this point, that Singer intends to invoke the classical situation of mourning (i.e., the death situation).  To add insult to injury, however, Elka gives Gimpel a deathbed confession which renders Gimpel incredulous:  “‘Woe, Gimpel . . . It was ugly how I deceived you all these years.  I want to go clean to my Maker, and so I have to tell you that the children are not yours.’  If I had been clotted on the head with a piece of wood it couldn’t have bewildered me more.”  Again readers are confronted with the question as to whether Gimpel is simply a fool or something else.  Who believes that they would let such marital deception go unanswered for twenty years?  On the other hand, who indeed believes that they are incapable of self-deception and rationalization in matters of the heart?   Returning to the overall theme of mourning (as I described it at the beginning), this question applies not just to marital situations; it is equally applicable to friendship, political ideals, work-related desires, etc.  Who has not discovered a once-held perception to be a painful deception?  If we were to slip into despair at this point, we might invert Berkeley’s famous dictum (about the metaphysical primacy of perception):  “To be is to be deceived or to be a deceiver.”  And this is precisely the tone adopted by Gimpel in the final lines of Part Three:  “I imagined that, dead as she was, she was saying, ‘I deceived Gimpel.  That was the meaning of my brief life.’”  Such a statement could easily apply to the entire town of Frampol as well.

VIII.  Part 4 begins when “the period of mourning” traditional to Judaism ends, thus reversing the actual progression of (the last section) from despair to mourning.   It is at this point in the story where Gimpel’s struggle transforms from one with external reality to one internal to Gimpel himself; and a sign of this internalization of his struggle is that he begins to dream.  The “Spirit of Evil” visits Gimpel in his first dream after the shiva period and confronts Gimpel with his being deceived.  Had he simply reminded Gimpel of his deception at the hands of Frampol, he would have been uttering a descriptive truth—but he does not:  “The whole world is deceiving you . . . and you ought to deceive the world in your turn.”  The “Spirit of Evil” thus recommends that Gimpel sink to the level of Frampol and renounce any attempt to exceed or transcend the town’s sickness:  “There [will be] no [judgment in] the world to come . . . They’ve sold you a bill of goods and talked you into believing you carried a cat within your belly.  What nonsense! . . . There is no God either.”  The distress that Gimpel feels—being given voice in the form of a destructive internal object—leads him to believe that the proper response to such deception would be to fill the dough in his bakery with urine and sell it to the people of Frampol as revenge.

No sooner does he begin to undertake this vengeful action then (surprise!) he has another dream.  This time, it is Elka who speaks to him:  “You fool!  Because I was false is everything false too?  I never deceived anyone but myself.”  Clearly the real Elka did not (have had the capacity to) speak to Gimpel in this way.  By preserving Elka’s berating voice, but substituting a good message (i.e., one uncomplicit in Frampol’s sickness), Gimpel has created (as Klein might say) a good internal object out of Elka.  This is precisely the move that renders mourning possible.  Gimpel has gone from reacting to the external world as persecutory to internalizing major aspects of that world and making use of them.  In this case, he re-writes Elka’s persona in a manner which pulls him out of his cynicism and despair.  Is this a triumph for Gimpel?  Is it a sign that Gimpel has successfully transcended his past?  Saying this would be, I think, going too far.  It is (in Loewald’s sense) a developmental achievement.  The real Elka did not help Gimpel, but he has taken her in and re-imagined her in such a way that she ultimately comes to his rescue.  What is Gimpel’s achievement?  He is able to persist in the work of mourning and in the process of living.  He immediately destroys the impure dough in the bakery so that he will neither inflict his distress on Frampol nor allow Frampol to inflict its sickness on him.

Having taken Elka in as a good internal object, Gimpel is now able to attain distance from Frampol.  The first thing he does upon destroying the impure dough is to pack his bags and leave to go “Into the world.”  I said before that this leave-taking (the mark of successful mourning) was foreshadowed by the rabbi’s earlier imperative that Gimpel divorce Elka.  How, in fact, are they different?  At stake in this question is nothing less than a response to Ezrahi’s claim that Singer dwells in anachronism and avoids dealing with the Shoah.  Singer has given us a story steeped in a culture that no longer exists only to end it by having Gimpel leave for “the world.”  Is this not precisely a holding-on to a dead culture until the psychic and emotional inconvenience is so great that one must escape to a different world?  Is this not symptomatic of a failure to deal with the Shoah as the catalyst for the death of Shtetl life and culture?  Is this not precisely what Freud calls melancholy?

If Gimpel were simply to have divorced Frampol, he might in fact have shown a failure to work through what he has learned from his experiences there.  Frampol (like any place) is imperfect—but is it not still part of the world?  What can it mean to leave Frampol?  At the very least, it means to leave the illusion that one can simply reconcile oneself to it (either positively through rationalization or negatively by divorce).  To leave Frampol for the world means to leave the ideal of community for the reality of community.  The reality of Shtetl life and culture in Singer’s time was over.  Re-imagining it (in all of its imperfection) while taking leave of it for “the world” is Singer’s way of mourning the loss of it.  Taking leave of Frampol thus entails realizing the radical imperfection of the world without also having to negate the entirety of the world’s value and meaning.  This stance is a result of mourning.  Does it bring back the dead?  Not at all.  But it does allow one to go on living.  Moreover, it shows that one has learned something along the way (what Loewald might call a “deepening” of oneself).  Ezrahi is surely correct in intimating that this is an achievement not granted to the victims of Auschwitz.  But although writers can write about or for the victims, sadly, they cannot write to the victims.  Mourning is our problem, not theirs.

What does Gimpel encounter on his subsequent journey?  “I wandered over the land, and good people did not neglect me . . . I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies.  Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night.”  Gimpel encounters the reality of life—that it is horrible and good.  In the words of Fred Rogers, he finds the helpers.  He similarly encounters deception, but in realizing that “there were really no lies”, he shows his ability to distinguish lies from truth (an ability that his prior defensive rationalizations never accorded him).  And he suggests that the lies and falsehoods (much as Freud speaks of wishes and fears) may indeed be the stuff of dreams.  The world, as Gimpel finds it, is now a complex one—it breaks his heart, but it also allows for him to re-imagine it.  And he finds that the capacity to internalize and re-imagine—i.e., to mourn—is perhaps more real than “the real world.”  Does this mean that Gimpel retreats simply into imaginative construction?  Not at all:  “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world . . . Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception.  God be praised:  there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”  Gimpel maintains his hope and ideal—and this is the highest expression of the dialectic between his foolishness and his wisdom.   There are moments when we can only entertain ideals in the contrary-to-fact subjunctive voice.  We nonetheless maintain them.  If there is a message that Gimpel bequeaths to us it is, I believe, this:  we are all fools, but we are not so simple.  The schlemiel’s foolishness, in showing us what mourning looks like, is (paraphrasing Leo Strauss) graced with existential grace.

Jeffrey A. Bernstein is Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross.  He works in the areas of Spinoza, German Philosophy, and Jewish Thought.  



A New York Intellectual’s Jewish Question: Alfred Kazin’s Reflections on Jewishness and Writing


Alfred Kazin is known as one of the “New York Intellectuals.”  This group of pre and post War Jewish American thinkers – most of which were the children of immigrants – included brilliant budding minds such Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Leslie Fiedler, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, and Irving Kristol.   While they were all staunchly anti-Stalinist, most of them made it their task to bring Marxist or socialist thinking into the American context via literary criticism, journalism, and political theory.    What many scholars overlook, however, is their engagment with Judaism and Jewishness.

Howe, Bellow, Fiedler, and Kazin looked – in the most personal aspect of their work – to recover their Jewishness.  They didn’t praise the virtues of assimilation.  Each in their own way, saw something unique in Jewishness that they wanted to preserve.     Kazin’s case, in contrast to Bellow, Howe, and Fiedler, is very interesting because he left behind him meticulously detailed and incredibly reflective journals that stretch back to 1938 and end in the early 1990s – when he was diagnosed with cancer.  (Kazin was born in 1915 –  in a Jewish section of Brooklyn called Brownsville and died in Manhattan in 1998.)

His unique struggle is worth recounting because it demonstrates how important the past was for one of the most notable the New York Intellectuals. (Like Bellow and Howe, Kazin was obsessed with Jewishness and the meaning of what they inherited from their Jewish immigrant parents.)  I can only briefly touch on it here.

Most of the New York Intellectuals see their present in terms of their past.   While they may – at certain points in their careers – seem progressive, they are not willing to do away with – as many progressives would suggest in moving forward –  this memory of Jewishness.  Why? Because they think this memory contains the mystery of their Jewishness.   They see in this memory, as well, a kind of resistance to American culture or European culture.  For them, this resistance is definitive.  On the outside, Kazin tells us in one entry (which we will discuss below) they may seem like every other American; but beneath their American garments they are Jewish.   They retain their dialect.  The refuse to give it up.  For Kazin, this is remnant of what he calls “Jewish life.”

In the wake of the Holocaust, in 1946, Kazin begins an entry by looking back at his roots in Brownsville, New York.  Now that he is a recognized intellectual on the American scene (at the age of 31), he feels alienated from his home.  In this entry, he puts home into quotation marks and he shows a strong desire to figure out what happened to what Irving Howe called “The World of Our Fathers.”

Every time I go “home” on a Friday night to Brownsville, it all feels like a foreign country.   The old immigrant Jews remaining, my parents – all these old Jews are my parents! – may look like the inhabitants of the country where I live, but have stubbornly, slyly kept some rich difference in their speech.  Under the plastic aprons, the “Yenkee” dresses and suits, the Woolworth tchotchkes in the kitchen, the old, deeply resistant Jewish life goes on and on.

 Only their bodies are in America.  Their inner lives are still in the caverns of Russian memory and grief.  (51)

This read on immigrant Jewish life also resonates on the pages of Bernard Malamud’s novels and short stories.  It is stubborn.  But what is most astonishing  – for Kazin – is the shock he figures in the image of his dying mother.  She has the last word, it seems:

As always, Mama and Papa are stuck fast, unable to change, getting old.  They break my heart.   Mama, stooped from a lifetime bent over a sewing machine, looks a wreck, still weeps over Asya (a woman he was to marry, but which was broke up due to an affair he had).  Stares at me as if she no longer knew me.  “What happened? How could it have happened? What did you do, what did you do?” (A Lifetime in Every Burning Moment, from the journals of Alfred Kazin, 51)

While Mama was an orthodox Jew, his father was a “good socialist…for whom solidarity with the union is sacred”(51).

Kazin’s life is different.  He is a writer: “Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have”(53).  One would think that this transcends his Jewishness; after all, many writers would see writing as secular and as transcending religion.  But Kazin brings an experience he had with the famous photographer Henri Carrier-Bresson (who was the photographer for a piece that he wrote for an essay about the Brooklyn Bridge in Harpers Bazaar).   What they differed on – fundamentally – was their view of New York City.

Carrier-Bresson is an aristocratic radical – laughs, “I was official photographer for the Resistance” – is gently disdainful of the new mass housing projects crowing the view of the Lower East Side from the bridge….”It breathes!” Cartier says happily about the central promenade.  “See how it breathes!” With his devastating clarity and my zeal for these leftover streets, we bring home the Brooklyn Bridge sill anchored in the Iron Age, the “Swamp” district of leather factories, old gold assayers’ shops, dealers in perfumes and wines….But Paris is his world, New York is mine.  (53)

The contrast is brought out in a moment in Brownsville when Cassier-Bresson goes to snap a shot in Brownsville, home of a large Jewish community:

“The glories” are not much on evidence when Carier-Bresson insists that I show him Brownville, at the far end of Brooklyn.  Brownville, the road every other road in my life has had to cross…We walk about most of the morning and early afternoon in the cold…..Henri stops to snap some cute little boys, and a woman comes rushing out of the yard – a demented face, eyes rolling out of her head like a violently beating heart, screaming that she knows what we is doing, all right, couldn’t fool her.  “Are those your kids? I ask.  “Yah.” “Is your husband around?” Grins.  “I’se married to everybody.”  (54)

In this moment an African American community – which has moved into Brownsville – since he moved away, has overlapped with the Jewish community.  For Kazin, this is the New York Cartier-Bresson can’t understand.  He is too aristocratic.  He is Parisian.  Place is definitive of culture and character.

Kazin plays on this and points out that not all things French are far away from him and his Jewishness.  It is Blaise Pascal’s words on the Jews – which he “scribbled in his ‘night of vision’ and had “sewn into his coat” – that speak to Kazin thinks of Jewisheness, and, by extension a kind of blackness that he saw in Brownsville.  In these words, Kazin finds a “perfect transparency” about Jewishness which brings Kazin to his knees, literally, in a kind of Jewish religiosity:

In a style that already astonished me by its perfect transparency, he brought me to my knees – this in the universe of death that was the war world of the Jews:

 Advantages of the Jewish People: In this search the Jewish people at once attracts my attention by the number of wonderful and singular facts about them.

 I first see that they are a people wholly composed of brethren.   Being thus of all one flesh and members one of another, they constitute a powerful state of one family. This is unique. 

 This family, or people, is the most ancient within human knowledge, a fact which seems to me to inspire a peculiar veneration for it…if God had from all time revealed Himself to men, it is to these we must turn for knowledge of their tradition.  (58)

He calls this insight by Pascal the “gift of life” because “Pascal combined the greatest possible intelligence with the most acute need of God”(58).   In contrast to Pascal, Kazin slights Simone Weil – in her denunciation of Jewishenss and her rejection of the tradition – as deeply troubling.  Yet, at the same time, he admires her leaving – so to speak – the house of reigion:

Weil could not say, like many other a Jewish prophet, “Zeal for they house has consumed me.”  The Jews are not her house.  Neither was the world itself.  But zeal for divinity she absolutely believed in certainly consumed her.  In the ghastly trial of humanity that was Hitler’s war, she to would have been obliterated if her posthumously published notebooks had not revealed her, in all her excess, as a genius of spiritual life.  Representing noting and no one but herself, she was no more with the church than she was with the Jews. (61)

It is this contrast, between being a Jew and being, like Simone Weil, free of all religion that , that informs his central conflict with Jewishness.   At the end of his journals and near the very end of his life, Kazin (in 1995), returns to his reflection on Weil:

Simone Weil said that the only real question to be asked of another is “What are you going through?” And another even more fiercely independent Jew: “the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation.”  No, it doth not.  I know this as a critic of other people’s books, a tiresome moralist even tot myself of other people’s habits and choices, as a spectator; wandering New York all my life in constant amazement of people walking briskly alone talking to themselves, glowering as they sit fiercely alone on park benches, fiercely adopting attitudes as they talk to make a point, then just as surely drooping away from the make believe height as soon as the others are gone.  (340)

In the end, this lonesomeness is the defining trait of the writer and distinguishes him from the scientist.  It is language that is his servant and master, not God.  However, as we can see above, he reads this through the lens of reverence and suggests a rift between literature and science that echoes the rift between faith and reason (Jerusalem and Athens) that we see in Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard:

Science, seeking confirmation, proof, objective testing and proof, cannot avail itself of human loneliness, but literature can.  And this with language that is always failing and stumbling, breaking the writer’s heart with its mere approximateness ot thing in his mind.  Besides, language is always asserting its primitive authority, is a halting servant but can be a terrible master.   Science progresses over time, literature never.    (340)

What is fascinating about this statement is that the same thing can be said of his Jewishness and of Brownsville.  His place in New York, like the literature he loves, never progresses.  It is always “falling and stumbling” like a schlemiel.   And in back of his language one can hear his Jewish mother crying out in astonishment.   In the end, Kazin is alone with his words and yet…he knows he is a member of a Jewish family.   The Jewish question can be read in the tension between his Jewishness, his family, and his lonely passion for literature which he sees, in his last reflections, in the streets of New York.  In this he’s like a Jewish Walt Whitman.  He is  a schlemiel at heart whose home is somewhere between Brownsville and Manhattan, on the one hand, and between Weil and Pascal or Kazin and Bresson-Cartier, on the other.


The World is Messed Up and Jerry Lewis is Dead


I was doing my thing today, minding my own business.  I was thinking, writing, driving kids to swimming pools, hanging out with friends, enjoying the sun and sipping down a few Perronis, when i learned that Jerry Lewis died.

I was in shock.

I have written articles on Jerry here, here, and here.  But words aren’t enough to express what I feel.  I had to go “live.”   Bye Jerry we will miss you! You were the ultimate American schlemiel!  Without you, what would American comedy be?





On the Baal Teshuva Schlemiel in I.B. Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin” (Part II)


Under exile, Jews are constantly in flight.   Hannah Arendt argues that Charlie Chaplin’s schlemiel exemplifies this flight.  He is the innocent “suspect” who is always on the run.    He marks a major change in the schlemiel character since Heinrich Heine’s “lord of dreams.”

The impudence of Chaplin’s suspect is of the same kind as charms us so much in Heine’s schlemiel; but no longer is it carefree and unperturbed, no longer the divine effrontery of the poet who consorts with heavenly things and can therefore afford to thumb noses at earthly society.   On the contrary, it is a worried, careworn impudence – the kind of family to generations of Jews, the effrontery of the poor “little Yid” who does not recognize the class order of the world because he sees in it neither order nor justice for himself.   (“The Jew as Pariah,” 288)

But one thing that she misses about this flight is that, at some point, something changes for the schlemiel.  He gets lucky.  His fate changes by virtue of some sudden decision.

Although Chaplin’s schlemiel is on the run and finds his way out, somehow, by the seat of his pants, the fact of the matter is that the “worried, careworn impudence” of Chaplin’s schlemiel, is much different from the downtrodden state we find in I.B. Singer’s Yasha in The Magician of Lublin.   Unlike Chaplin’s schlemiel, Yasha – an acrobat, magician, and performer – goes deep into the abyss.   He attempts to steal from a miser in order to get funds for a woman he is in love with (a woman who wants him to leave his Judaism behind and convert).   Yasha is willing to give it all up for her.

When he tries to steal, he fails miserably and ends up fleeing the authorities.  This is not the kind of schlemiel you find in many Chaplin films.  He isn’t charming.  The reader feels no sympathy for him.  However, the sympathy starts coming back after he stumbles into a synagogue – in his flight from the authorities.   He becomes a pitiable schlemiel in these moments and it is his return to Judaism that transforms him into a religious schlemiel.  It comes out of his flight from a possible tragic fate:

Yasha stepped up onto the sidewalk and saw a courtyard of a synagogue.  The gate stood open.  An elderly Jew entered, prayer-shawl bag under his arm.  Tasha darted inside.  -Here they will not search! (459)

Singer associates the synagogue with waste and Yasha’s own wasting away. It is an organic rejoinder.  Yasha degenerates and out of this waste he becomes a different person.  He becomes small and humble before he can grow – toward God:

In the yard stood crates filled with loose pages torn from holy books.   The smell of urine was overpowering.  Yasha opened the door at what appeared to be both study and poorhouse.  The light of single memorial candle flickering near the cantor’s lectern showed him rows of men lying on benches, some barefoot, some wearing battered old shoes, some covered in rags, some half-naked.  The air stank of tallow, dust, and wax.  – No, they will not search here,he repeated to himself.  He moved to an empty bench and sat down.  He sat there in a daze and rested his damaged foot.  (460)

The beadle comes and wakes all of the sleeping poor to wake up and be a part of a prayer quorum (of ten people).   He rises with them and its as if he has fallen to their level and is one of them.  Can he be saved by God?

Singer describes the prayer service in meticulous detail.   It is during these moments that he repents and realizes all the wrong he has done:

He sat there like one who had a severe blow on his head and knew that his senses were addled.  He was awake to something within him slept the deep sleep of midnight.  He rested and examined his left foot.  Pain coursed through it, stabbing thrusts…..Yasha reminded himself of Magda (his magic partner).  What would he tell her when he came home.  In the years that they were together, he had often been rule to her, but he knew somehow that this time she would be hurt more than ever before….He stared off somewhere in the direction father cornice of the Holy Ark, recognizing the tablet with the Ten Commandments.  He recalled that only last night…he had told Herman he was a magician, not a thief.  But soon afterwards, he had gone off to commit a burglary.  He felt dull and confused, unable any longer to understand his own actions.  The men put on their prayer shawls and their phylacteries, they affixed the thongs and cloaked their heads, and he watched them with astonishment as if he, Yasha, were a gentile who had never witnessed this before.  (462)

When Yasha is offered to put a prayer shawl and phylacteries on he, at first, refuses, but when he puts them on his memory flows back, he feels shame, and a new beginning opens up for him:

He begun to put on the prayer shawl.  He looked for a spot where the embroidery was supposed to be, or a stripe which indicated the section that must be worn over the head….He was filled with adolescent shame and fear.  They were laughing at him…He sought for clarification in the prayer book, but the print blurred before his eyes. Fiery sparks began to sway before him.  I just hope I don’t faint, he cautioned himself.   He felt nausea.  He began to plead with God: Father in Heaven, take pity on me! Everything else, but not this! He shook off faintness….The sparks continued to dip before his eyes, rising and falling in a seesaw motion.  Some were red, some green, some blue….He was overcome with regret and humility.   Only  now did he realize what he had attempted an now Heaven had thwarted him.  It came over him like a revelation.  (464)

Yasha becomes smaller and realizes that he was shortsighted in his wild adventures.  He took advantage of people:

He stood there with bent knees and was aghast at the extent of the depredations and, what was perhaps worse, his lack of insight. He had fretted and worried and ignored the very essence of the problem.  He had reduced others to dirt and  did not see – pretended not to see – how he himself kept sinking deeper and deeper in the mud.  Only a thread restrained him from sining deeper into the mud.  (466)

And this thread is connected to God.  Now Yasha realizes that he – like Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s characters in the “Wise One and the Simpleton” had ridiculed those of faith because he was too wise, complex, and worldly; now he sees things from the perspective of simplicity and faith.  He embraces his Judaism:

They ridiculed the faithful who attributed everything to God, yet they themselves attributed all sorts of wisdom and powers to an unseeing nature that was unaware of its own existence.  From within the phylacteries Yasha sensed a radiance that reached into his brain, unraveled all the ants.  All the prayers were the same: There as a God Who sees, Who hears, Who takes pity on man, Who contains his wrath, Who forgives sin, Who wants men to repent….I must be a Jew! he said to himself.  A Jew like all the others! (467)

At this moment, his Judaism, his faith, underpins his schlemiel existentially.   As the novel advances toward the end, he returns to Lublin. But before returning to Esther, he builds a private room to isolate himself from the world.  He repents for a long time there until he is ready to return to the world.   At the end of the novel, Esther calls him to leave his room and to join her in a Jewish life.  He leaves.  In completing his journey as a Baal Teshuva schlemiel, Yasha returns to Eshter who is the symbol of God’s feminine presence.  In the end, his good fortune consists in the fact that he stumbled into a synagogue and retuned to the life he had left behind for a life of magic and a desire for fame.  Like Rabbi Nachman’s tale of the simpleton, Singer crafted a novel of return whose main character –  a figure of the Jewish people – is a troubled schlemiel who, in the end, returns to God and his people.     Perhaps this is Singer’s way of saying that – despite this or that use of the schlemiel – the core of the schlemiel character is it’s deep-rooted desire to be good and return.  It is a Jewish desire to return that – for Singer – animates this character which has taken on a variety of secular animations in Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, etc.     It’s roots, Singer seems to be telling us, are Jewish and are religious.  And the passing from one realm to the other – from the secular to the religious – marks his journey.









On Yasha and the Spiritual Journey of the Baal Teshuva Schlemiel in I.B. Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin” (Part I)


A Baal Teshuva literally means a “master of return.”  It is the name for a person who seemingly, out of nowhere (perhaps because he wasn’t raised in Judaism, or had broken away from it, or had no knowledge of it) decides to “return” to God and Judaism (or being Jewish).  When I first came across Sanford Pinsker’s argument – in his book, The Schlemiel as Metaphor – that Yasha, the main character of I.B Singer’s The Magician of Lublin, was a schlemiel of faith I paused.  It is one of only two readings I have ever seen of I.B. Singer’s fiction that sees his characters in terms of faith.  While Ruth Wisse see’s Gimpel as the figure of faith (in a diminished sense of secular faith – the belief in goodness), Pinsker takes Yasha as an exemplary schlemiel of faith.

The difference between their two readings – and both schlemiels of faith – is telling because Wisse sees Singer as making the claim that, in the wake of the Holocaust, Gimpel is a schlemiel who preserves the good in a world that is evil (in the story nearly every character lies to him and takes advantage of his trust and goodness).   Gimpel doesn’t struggle with faith.  We (readers) do.  He is the embodiment of the faith.  According to Wisse, he lives “as if” good exists.   By putting those words in scare quotes, Wisse suggests a tension between hope and skepticism.  Why?  Because we want to believe in goodness while, at the same time, known that it may very well not exist.  After the Holocaust evil is palpable and goodness doesn’t seem to rein.  It is fragile.   This is what the schlemiel of faith embodies for Wisse, today (or when she wrote these words, in 1972).

In contrast to Wisse, Pinsker suggests that the schlemiel of faith is caught up in a struggle of faith.   I want to build on his work and suggest a new reading of Pinsker’s figure for this struggle – in the work of I.B. Singer – Yasha.  It requires a geographical trace to understand his journey – the circular journey of a schlemiel of faith – from Lublin to Warsaw and back.  He, like a Baal Teshuva, returns.  But the paradox is that it is a to a Lublin he never knew or perhaps had forgotten.   Perhaps the key to the schlemiel’s faith is this process and struggle and return: of memory and of Jewishness.

He is married to a religious woman in Lublin named Esther.  But Yasha isn’t religious.   Esther loves him and he her, but not her religion.  He is surrounded by religious Jews in Lublin, but he is indifferent to it all.   Yasha lives a different life.  He is a magician and an acrobat.  While he comes home for the High Holy Days, he spends all of his time on the road.   He travels with a magicians assistant – a young Polish girl named Magda, the daughter of Peasants – who he has an affair.  Yasha also has relations with a woman in a city who has become a widower and in Warsaw he falls in love with a widower, noble woman named Emilia.  She poses the greatest challenge to his Judaism because she is Catholic and wants him to convert.

Emilia also loves expensive things and this drives him to commit a crime which fails.   The scene is amazing and marks the pinnacle of his loss of Judaism (because it is a violation of the ten commandments to steal and kill).    I’ll quote the scene to show the altered state he enters when he does this.  His leap into crime, the total antithesis of Judaism, initiates the journey of the Baal Teshuva schlemiel.  Singer turns it into a profound schlemiel moment (a sublime, ecstatic moment, if you will):

I mustn’t fail, he urged himself.  Since I’ve taken the plunge, I must see it through.  He cocked his ears and listened.  Somewhere in the adjoining rooms Kazimierz Zaruski and his deaf servant slept.  He heard no sound.  What would I do if they were to awaken? he asked himself, but he could not supply the answer.   He put his hand on the safe and felt the cool metal.  Quickly we located the keyhole.  He traced it with his forefinger to determine it’s type and contour.  Then, he reached into his pocket for his skeleton key which he had just had in his hand, but it wasn’t there.  Undoubtedly he’d tucked it away in another pocket.  He began to search his pockets, but the key had vanished.  Where could I have put it?  The bad luck is starting already!….The important thing is not to panic! he cautioned himself.  Just imagine that you are doing a performance….Demons? he whispered to half in jest, half in earnest.  He began to feel warm. (An Isaac Beshvis Singer Reader, 453)

In schlemiel-like fashion, one thing he does after another leads to a chain reaction of bad luck and thoughts..  His thought is that the key may be under the landowners pillow – which he is sleeping on, drives him mad:

Suddenly, the thought came to him: a safe must have a key, and undoubtedly the old man kept it under his pillow.  He might wake.  And what assurance did Yasha have that the key was really there?  There were many possible places for the key in the apartment.   But now Yasha was sure that the key lay under Zaruski’s pillow.  (453)

What astonishes me most about this passage is that it suggests that Singer’s novel may be an homage to Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s celebrated story, “The Simpleton and the Wise One.”   The wise one, in that story, is obsessed with certainty.   Much like Yasha, his thoughts of perfection (and his obsession with perfect reasoning) drive him mad.  Ruth Wisse calls the simpleton in that story a schlemiel because he lives a simple life not a life plagued by skepticism, exactitude, and intellectual shrewdness.  The simpleton – because he stays in his small town, never ventures out, makes shoes (some ok, most not) – gives thanks for everything, even his poverty.

In Rabbi Nachman’s story, the two characters remain apart, while in Singer’s story, one becomes the other.   In Singer’s story, the main character – after slipping into a possible crime, and failing to consummate it – goes from being the chakham (maskil, Jewish intellectual) to a simpleton of faith.    While in Rabbi Nachman’s story we see a dialectical tension, in Singer’s story we see a transformation.   We witness it through the vision of a crime.

When he – in a dreamlike fashion – enters the bedroom of the apartment owner (an old man), everything seems suspended as this is when the idea becomes a reality: he must find the key under the pillow, take it, and unlock the safe.  What happens is  more or less a dark primal scene, which is described in profound, poetic, and concrete material detail:

He walked in and found himself in the bedroom.  It was darker here than in the other room, for he could not determine exactly where the window was located, could only conjecture, and then his eyes began to adjust.   From the murky whirls there began to evolve the contour of a bed, bedding, a head upon a pillow  – a naked head with sockets instead of eyes, like that of a  skeleton.  Yasha froze.  Was the old man breathing?  He could not hear his breath.  Was he awake?  Had he just at that moment expired? Was he, possibly, feigning death?  Perhaps he lay there ready to rise and attack him? Old men were often extremely powerful.  And the old man suddenly snored…Yasha stood there a moment, prepared to bolt at the first sound.  I couldn’t kill him! I am no murderer.  (454)

While he could, at that moment, just leave.  Something draws him close to the old man and he breaks the barrier.  He is tempted and enters into great danger when he touches the old man in search of the key under his pillow:

He ran his hand over the pillow, touched the old man’s face unintentionally.  He pulled back his hand as if it had been burned.   The missed uttered a sign as though he had only been shamming sleep.  Yasha paused.  he was prepared to attack, ready to grasp Zaruski by the throat and throttle him.  But no, that man was asleep, a thing piping sound came through his nostrils.  Apparently, he was dreaming.  Now Yasha could see better. He slipped his hand beneath the pillow convinced that he would touch the hey – but there was no key…There was only one course for him.  Escape! something inside him conclude.  Everything has gone wrong!…Maybe you should just choke the old bastard! some presence, partly within and partly outside him, suggested, a puritan of him which di not have the final say, but was in the habit of offering bad advice and perpetrating cruel jokes upon him when he need all his faculties

Well, its a lost cause.  I’m going now, he muttered. He rose to his feet and backed out through the half-opened door.  How light it was here in comparison to the bedroom! He could see every object. (454)

Yahsa tries one last time – after leaving the possibility of murdering the old apartment owner – to break into the safe.  By using utensils – which he now spots, because he has better vision – he tries to open the vault.  Mind you, he is seen and he sees himself as a master musician who can, like Houdini, break through any lock.

But he fails, for the first time, miserably. But this failure is the basis for Yasha (the magian, the chakham’s) transformation:

Failure! A fiasco! For the first time in his life! It had been a terrible night.  He was overcome by fear.  He knew, deep inside him, that the misfortune would not be confined to this night alone.  The enemy which for years had lurked in ambush within him, whom Yasha had had, each time, to repel with force and cunning, with charms and such incantations as each individual must learn for himself, had now gained the upper hand.  Yasha felt its presence – a dybbuk, a state, an implacable adversary who would disrupt him while he was juggling, push him from the tightrope, make him impotent.  Trembling, he opened the balcony door. His perspiring body shivered.  It was as if winter had suddenly arrived. (456)

As in a Rabbi Nachman story of the beggar, we see a weakened Yasha limp over the balcony and fall on the pavement, twisting his foot, and then breaking away as he fears he is being chased. He slips into a room and he discovers that it is a synagogue (“shul”).  It is early morning and the Jews have come to the dawn quorum (minyan) which is called the “Naitz” minyan.

What happens inside of this shul marks the second part of the schlemiel’s journey back to Jewishness.  I’ll be discussing that in the next post.

….to be continued