Yesterday I was taking a stroll in Central Park when – out of nowhere – a group of young French tourists came up to me and asked if they could take a photo with me. I asked them why and they told me that I “looked like a New Yorker.” What does a New Yorker look like, I wondered. The first thought that came to me was that – in the wake of so many films by Woody Allen and so many episodes of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and so much more media – the image of the male schlemiel has become prominent in the mind of many people around the world (especially in France which loves Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen) as the image of the New Yorker. One could argue that the “body of Jewish comedy” (something I have written on) is deeply informed by the stereoypical image of the New York Jew (as schlemiel).
While some people may wince at the idea of the Jewish body as a caricature and stereotype, the fact of the mater is that Larry David, Seth Rogen, etc and many others still, to this day, draw on it in order to disarm negativity about Jews and others. We can’t get away from stereotypes in America, but that is something that these artists worked through. Even so, New York does and remains, to this day, a city that is identified with Jews. This has negative and positive implications. It can tap into something anti-Semitic or its inversion. The idea of a New York Jew is based in fact. After all, New York houses the largest Jewish population of any city in the USA and outside of Israel. It has been the home of Jews since the 19th century (and even before). Jewish art, culture, and commerce have flourished in New York. Take a visit to the Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue to see for yourselves the rich history of Jews in this city in all of these aforementioned fields.
I am proud to say that I come from a few generations of New York Jews. And, strangely enough, the photo was taken not far from where my father lived part of his childhood: on Central Park West. I’ll admit that I embrace and have – since I was a child – emulated the image of the New York Jew. I always wondered what a New York Jew was so when I would visit (I was raised in Upstate New York) New York City to see my relatives I’d always get a good look and pay close attention to their bodies and gestures.
Like Michael Wyschogrod argues in his book The Body of Faith, Judaism is embodied. While in the past Judaism was thought of in terms of ideas or beliefs, Wyschogrod argues that this led to the abstraction of Judaism and of God. He suggests that Judaism (and God – Hashem in Hebrew) is to be found not in this or that idea or distinction but amongst Jews. What I find so novel about the schlemiel is that its a comical registration of Judaism and that registration has a location in New York. Contrast that to the relationship of the Jewish body to Jerusalem which is embodied in the Temple, the pilgrimages, the priesthood, etc etc.
Judaism is a religion that is grounded in people and places.
With that in mind, I said yes. Take my photo. I’m a Jew from New York. And I embrace the schlemiel. I am a Schlemiel in the Park.