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.









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