“The Alpha-Pussy” – On Marc Maron’s Reframing of the American Schlemiel


The events of last week with Harvey Weinstein have prompted many powerful articles (good, in terms of prompting awareness of violent sexual actions that were an “open secret” in Hollywood, and really bad, in terms of prompting anti-Semitic remarks and insane conspiracy theories).   After reading Mark Oppenheimer’s controversial Op-Ed piece for Tablet, entitled “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein,” I was shocked to see that Oppenheimer – an editor at Tablet and the person beyond the (Un)orthodox Podcast – threw Philip Roth’s main schlemiel character, Alexander Portnoy into a toxic relationship with Harvey Weinstein.

Oppenheimer not only suggested a seamless relationship between Roth’s fictional caricature and a real pervert, he also suggested that these two are representative figures of baby-boomer Jewish-American urban life.  Little did Oppenheimer know (and he later apologized for it), but this association gave fuel to the anti-Semitic fire which associates Jews with perversion.

(To be sure, the Nazis drew a lot of their anti-Semetic ire out of this horrible stereotype of the male Jew as a threat to “their” women.  Hitler incorporated this fear into his Nuremberg Laws which forbid young German women from working under Jewish men.  Sadly, Oppenheimer’s article was praised and retweeted by the alt-right ideologue Richard Spenser as a “powerful essay”.)

This association has leveled a devastating blow against what David Biale – in his book, Eros and the Jews – would call the “sexual schlemiel.”   It also levels a devastating blow against the schlemiel’s anti-thesis, embodied in the comedy of Lenny Bruce.   As Biale argues, the “sexual schlemiel” is a character with a “big libido and a small ego.”   What is most interesting, however, is that although Biale mentions Roth at the outset (as the anti-thesis of the Sabra, who acts on his or her sexual desires and is powerful), he spends most of his time discussing Woody Allen.

Allen’s schlemiel chraacters, in comparison to Roth’s Portnoy, are tame.  Portnoy is a sexually aggressive schlemiel.  He has violent fantasies that – while comical – suggest that he is going to take “revenge” on the goyim. This idea overshadows the comedy of Portnoy’s powerlessness.  He could never accomplish this. But the thought that comes out –  in the wake of Roth’s other books and his own words – is that Roth leaves the schlemiel character for the characters who act on their fantasies (as in his novel Sabbath’s Theater).

In the wake of the link made by Oppenheimer, the sexual schlemiel has been challenged. Now fantasy about sex with “goyim” has been transformed into violence.   Although there was historically a divide between Jews and non-Jews that was sexualized by Jewish American writers and comedians in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, any mention of sexual desire for “shiksas” (which is something Lenny Bruce also explicitly talked about), is now taboo because it is food for the anti-Semitic fire and, in the wake of Weinstein, is shown to be misogynist.

Even so, the fact of the matter is that what we often see with the  schlemiel who doesn’t get to consummate his desire is that someone else does.  He is often the “cuckold.”  To be sure, the viewer or reader – whether of this or that Lil Dicky video, Seth Rogen film, or Woody Allen film – can’t imagine these characters becoming alpha-males and acting on their desires.  Moreover, they aren’t anywhere as “perverted” or vindictive as Roth’s character.  It would now – in the wake of this – be a mistake to put them into the same category. For this reason, it would be optimal to revise Biale’s category and differentiate between an aggressive and a passive sexual schlemiel.   For instance, compare Roth’s Portnoy to Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern character (of the same era).  Both are sexual schlemiels, but one is much more aggressive and perverted than the other.

Thinking about this issue, I came across a line from a recent Netflix special by the stand-up comedian Marc Maron (famous for his WTF podcast).   In truth, Maron often casts himself as a schlemiel character.    What is unique about his recent special is that he seems to have reframed the discussion of the “sexual schlemiel” by calling himself an “alpha pussy” (see 20 seconds in to this trailer).

“I’m not the most courageous guy.  I’m an alpha pussy.  There’s the classic alpha male, meat head, rage filled…Raahhhh.  And then there is the alpha pussy who makes fun of that guy.”      As Ruth Wisse once noted, the schlemiel character always wins an “ironic victory.”  And s/he does so through the power of her words, through language.  The “alpha pussy” displaces the sexual schlemiel by returning this power to language because – in Maron’s formulation of the character and in the context of his show – he is making fun of unintelligent Trump supporters and alpha males in general.  This gives the schlemiel a resentful political role and de-emphasizes the sexual fantasy aspect of the character.

Maron’s failure to be an alpha male is turned into a kind of power.  By calling himself an “alpha pussy” he gives the schlemiel a kind of linguistic or intellectual power (defined by wit). The irony is that Roth’s Portnoy is also a kind of “alpha pussy” who is constantly using language to take revenge on the alpha males and females.   The difference, however, is that Maron’s stand-up character is not a misogynist while Roth’s Portnoy is.  He tries – at the end of the novel – to defeat a Sabra woman and make her sleep with him and fails.  But this kind of situation is not to be found in Maron’s comedy.   If anything, what we find in this special called “Too Real” is an endless reflection on how he is aging, forgetting things, etc and is one step closer to death every day.  His schlemiel comedy is that of self-deprecation.

While Roth’s schlemiel character is called self-depricating by the Sabra in his novel Portnoy’s Complaint, Maron’s schlemiel character is much more self-deprecating.   Because he constantly reflects on his aging and on his distaste for alpha-males, Maron’s “alpha pussy” shows us that he is not obsessed with sex.  He is far from perverted.  He is too old for that.   To be sure, we will likely be seeing less of the sexual schlemiel of the Portnoy variety.  Maron’s “pussy schlemiel” or else the Cuckold schlemiel we find in Rogen, Lil Dicky, and Ben Stiller, in contrast, will live on.  This – most likely – has to do with the rise of feminism in American society which sees any form of male sexual fantasy (big libidos and small egos) as a possible prompt to real violence.

Sexual failure, however, in the sexual schlemiel variety we see in Louis CK  (which is coupled with middle age, heavy self-loathing, and powerlessness) presents a borderline case.   Louis CK doesn’t hide his perversions.   But in this scenario, it seems really too late and pathetic for any sexual fantasy he presents to come true or affect anyone in real life.   Only time will tell.   Between Marc Maron’s aging schlemiel and Louis CK’s, which schlemiel will survive?  Will sexual schlemiels become a thing of the past or will they only become more pathetic and self-deprecating (as we see in Louis CK) or passive (as we see in Seth Rogen or Lil Dicky)?  Or will female schlemiels – like Gretta Gerwig or Amy Shumer (because they are not male or misogynist and take sexual failure as a central motif) – become the new sexual schlemiels?

A Priest and a Schlemiel Get on the Slowpoke Express: On Sholem Aleichem’s “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah”

A post on the archive which winks at today’s Jewish holiday –

Schlemiel Theory


In the United States and Europe, the advent of the train and long distance travel prompted many artists, storytellers, and thinkers to turn the train into a metaphor.   Sometimes the images are exciting and feed utopian visions and cause happiness, other times they feed sadness at the loss of what was and cynicism. Think for instance of Freud who, in Civilization and its Discontents, writes the following:

If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting…

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The Sad Fate of a Hasidic Schlemiel: On “Menashe” (2017)


Most films I have seen on Hasidim – save for the film Ushpizin (2004) – are utterly serious and often tragic.  Think, for instance, of The Jazz Singer (1927, 1980), The Chosen (1981) or Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (1999).

We rarely see comic films on or about Hasidim.  (Woody Allen’s little quips in Bananas (1971) or Annie Hall (1977) are mere asides; while his film Fading Gigolo (2013) does address Hasidim, it does so only tangentially.)  Menashe (2017) is different.  It is a tragic-comic film (spoken all in Yiddish, with English subtitles) that takes a Hasid named Menashe and his relationship with his son, his community, and his job as its subject.  Menasche is cast as a schlemiel (comic) and a schlimazel (tragic) character.     What interests me most about this schlemiel character is how it casts a new light on the fate of a contemporary schlemiel in the American Hasidic  (real and fictional) community.

There are two main ways of approaching the schlemiel in American cinema and literature which both fit on the same spectrum.  On the one hand, the schlemiel can be cast as a charming (although, for Jewish American writers, ragged and troubled) character – which is something we see stretching from the Yiddish fiction of Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim to the Jewish American fiction of I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, and Jonathan Safran Foer.    We see this as well in cinema and in television (from Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis to Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen).    But in the fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman and Philp Roth or in the cinema of Noah Baumbach and the Coen Brothers we see a schlemiel that is more tragic and pathetic than charming.     The Menasche character exists between these extremes.  And the critique he levels is similar to that of Gimpel in I.B. Singer’s celebrated short story, “Gimpel the Fool.”

Menashe is close to the American everyman.

He has a simple job (he works in a grocery store); and unlike his Hasidic companions, he has a simple understanding of Judaism.  Menashe is more a man of the heart than of the head.    (This film depicts the responses of other characters – save his son and, for a slight moment, the Rabbi – to Menashe and the schlemiel character in a negative light.  This is ironic because Hasidim are often more oriented toward the schlemiel character which his simple understanding of God and the world.)

The plot is heartbreaking.

We meet Menasche in the wake of his wife’s untimely death.  He is left with a child who he loves but, because he can’t – in the community’s eyes – make a good living and because he doesn’t have a wife, he is told – by his Rabbi and his wife’s brother – to give the child over to his brother-in-law to raise.  This breaks his heart.  And it breaks the viewers heart as well.

Menashe has our empathy.

Menashe is a charming character.  His childlike (schlemiel-ish) approach to life, his job, and his son are heart-warming.  Menashe is able to relate to his child in ways that neither his Rabbi nor his brother-in-law or sister-in-law can.

The symbol of the innocence that they share – something an adult schlemiel (father) can share with his child – is a baby chicken.  He buys it for his son when he is given a chance to take care of him (after profuse begging before the Rabbi and to the chagrin of the brother-in-law, who is a successful realtor in Brooklyn as opposed to Menashe, who can barely keep his job in the grocery).   This discloses the comic, endearing aspect of the schlemiel.

When Menashe insists on making a special meal in his place – to mark the one year anniversary of his wife’s death (her Yahrzeit) – everything starts to go wrong.   He starts, so to speak, spilling soup everywhere.

When delivering fish, Menasche accidentally forgets to close the door and spills hundreds of dollars-worth of Gefilte Fish across the streets of Brooklyn.  He is chastised by his boss.  In the wake of this mess, Menashe begs his boss for a little money (a loan) for the Yahrzeit.  He gives him a loan, but he can’t take care of his son if he takes it (he will be working overtime, after-hours, moping floors.)

When, on the day of the Yahrzeit (when he visits his wife’s grave with the Rabbi, his brother-in-law, son, and family) Menasha tries to bake a noodle kugel (noodle dish), he forgets that he left it baking in the oven.  The moment of his discovery of the burning kugel marks the time when things start becoming more…tragic.

When he comes home with the Rabbi and the entourage, his apartment and the apartment house are filled with smoke.  The bird is dead.  Even so, he makes the best out of it.   When everyone complains of frozen taste of the kugel, the Rabbi sheds some light by noting that it tastes ok.

But that doesn’t change a thing.

Menashe loses his child; he cannot have him back until he can find a new wife.  However, since this happens at the end of the film, the viewer has no idea as to what will happen next.  Can the schlemiel find a new wife?  Does the schlemiel want to?

The last scenes of the movie are of Menashe dunking in a ritual bath, a Mikveh, juxtaposed to him working in the grocery.   This symbolizes a new beginning of sorts.  But what is that new beginning?

Is he – and are we – realizing the cruelty of the society around him? Do we empathize – as we do with I.B. Singer’s Gimpel – with the schlemiel and his predicament?

At a few points in the film, we are given hints of Menashe’s falling away from the community.  One day, he sleeps too late.  He forgets to wash his hands in the morning.  He also asks about – at one point – why a person without a family is considered a heretic by his community.  Even so, Menashe doesn’t change the way he dresses and he still prays.

When Menashe studies Torah (the Bible and oral tradition with his son) he makes noises that echo a verse from the Psalms.  He is – like Sholem Aleichem’s Motl – closer to animals than to his community.

Put theoretically, Menashe is a child-like schlemiel who is closer to nature than to culture.  As Hannah Arendt said of the schlemiel (vis-à-vis Heinrich Heine), his freedom comes from critiquing the status-quo and his closeness to nature and innocence.  Menashe, in his humanity, by his very nature and his predicament as child-like defies norms; but he is alone.

While this is all fine and good and while we find his innocence charming, Menashe doesn’t seem to have a place with his community and we are unsure whether he wants one. The only thing that seems to keep him in there is his child.    We want to see them together.  But what makes this so fascinating is that the family (and not monotheism) – as the scholar Michael Wyschogrod in this book, The Body of Faith notes – is truly the basis of Judaism.

The schlemiel, it seems, is pit up against this fundamental structure of Judaism.  While he has already raised a child, if Menashe doesn’t immediately get remarried, his child may not have the nurturing that only a Jewish mother (according to the tradition and the Bible itself) can provide. The child will become – like Sholem Aleichem’s Motl – an orphan of sorts.

But in that novel, Motl the Cantor’s Son, Motl loses his father, not his mother.  Perhaps this is the tragic note.  Without a father but with a mother, the schlemiel’s life is nurtured. Without a mother, however, it is more tragic.  Judaism – without mothers  – cannot survive.

For this reason, Menashe is a tragic-comic character.   Gimpel levels a critique against the community (for the reader) because while he trusts them and believes in their goodness, they lie to him.  Here Menashe is punished by a community because he cannot raise his son in the traditional manner.

The schlemiel prompts the question: will the community change?  Will it accept the innocent character who falls on the margins?  Or does it leave no room for the schlemiel?  The irony is that the first sighting of the schlemiel character – as a literary kind of character – was in the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.  The schlemiel is a figure of simplicity and of hope.  When the community squashes that – even if it is in the name of family – what does that imply?

These are the questions I had and still have after seeing Menashe – a film that spans the schlemiel spectrum and prompts its viewers to consider the sad fate of a Hasidic schlemiel.