A Schlemiel Mystic on East Broadway


Philosophers, mystics, and schlemiels have something in common. They are all, in some way, detached from the world and aloof. In Plato’s Theaetetus, there is a telling tale about a Thracian servant girl who laughs at Thales, the philosopher; who, while gazing at the stars, falls down a well.


Why, take the case of Thales, Theodorus. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.

He falls into the well because he can’t see what’s in front of him. Socratessees this as a good analogy for “those who pass their lives in philosophy.” There is something charming and laughable about the person who stumbles in the world.

The same can perhaps be said for the mystic and certainly that’s the case for the schlemiel.

This is a motif that Herbert Weiner uses in the second chapter of his book 9 1/2 Mystics. The chapter, entitled, “The Mystic of East Broadway,” portrays “Mr. Setzer” an elderly bachelor – who has an office on East Broadway – a master of Kabbalah, as a tragic-comic schlemiel mystic.

When I first read the chapter, I was astonished by what Werner had done. It made me pause. I’d like to recount this portrayal as it suggests that we look at the person and not just his or her ideas about Kabbalah. The person, he suggests, embodies these ideas in a particular way.

One of the ideas that is found in the Talmud is that one should not study the Kabbalah unless one is married and above the age of forty. While Setzer fulfills one, he doesn’t fulfill another. Like Robert Walser and Franz Kafka (or even Kierkegaard) or any of their schlemiel characters, the bachelor schlemiel takes on a certain kind of comical-mystical aloofness and desperation that is unparalleled. Their separation from the world makes their characters into philosophical or mystical figures. Everything about what they say or do is odd and awkward.

Weiner’s descriptions of “Mr. Setzer” clearly convey this.

That Setzer was not easy to approach became apparent on my first telephone call. A high-pitched voice answered and quickly refused my request for an appointment to discuss arrangements for studying the Zohar….On my third call, however, I received an invitation to his office which was located on East Broadway in lower Manhattan.

Setzer’s “office” turned out to be a basement store which was approached by descending several steps below street level. When I arrived for my apporintment at eleven o’clock at night, I could see through the storefront window a man sitting alone over a pile of books and papers. He appreared to be tall, but it was mostly his extreme thinness and long face that gave the illusion of height….He seemed tired, and his discolvored nose and red-rimmed eyes showed he was suffering from a cold. (24).

Like many a schlemiel, Setzer is imbued with a comical kind of smallness. Everything is off about him. He speaks out of turn and has an odd way of responding to people. It’s a mystical thing, apparently.

He initially refuses Weiner’s desire to learn Zohar with him. Weiner notes, “Disappointed, I asked Setzer why he had first refused to see me and then changed his mind. It was his ‘mystic philosophy’, he replied. ‘When a call comes in once or twice, I ignore it. When it comes in three times, it is possible that they are involved.'”(25).

Who are they?

“They,” I later learned, was Setzer’s designation of the hidden, but ultimately, controlling power of the “other” domain. “They,” however, were evidently not telling Setzer to agree to my request…Only when I was about to leave did he agree to see me again, specifying that I must come only in the evening, after seven o’clock.

The sad thing about Setzer is that he was a scholar in Europe who had published many articles and had speaking engagements. But in NYC, he fails. Jewish Institutions – think of Plato’s Academy and Socrates living on the it’s generosity- couldn’t support his scholarship. After he puts a notice in for a class in the Zohar, the only person who shows up is Weiner. Apparently, it’s a schlemiel’s endeavor to teach the Zohar in NYC.

In the section entailed “A Reluctant Teacher,” we gain insight into his quirks. His frustration as his failure to realize his vision come into their one-on-one Zohar sessions:

More and more…Setzer’s frustration with the fact that his plans remained unfulfilled broke into our studies. Even his satisfaction at the successful elucidation of a subtle passage was touched with bitterness. “Nu,” he would ask, “now you understand, yes? On this point sixteenth-century kabbalists like Ari and Cordovero…struggled and struggled and finally came up with nothing. It took me thirty years to undrsntad it, and now I’ve given it to you in five minutes.” He could not hide a note of regret at parting so easily with knowledge so painfully acquired. (36)

More and more, the Zohar and Kabbalah studies fall to the wayside and regret comes to the forefront:

He began to talk about his fine collection of books; it pained him to think of leaving them to one of the institutions that had been so indifferent to him. He talked faceitiously about taking the books with him, and he seriously considered trying to make a commercial arrangement with some hotel owner: he would exchange the books, which he estimated were worth about three thousand dollars, for three years of room and board. It would be a good risk for the hotel, and they would profit on the arrangement…..Naturally, he was bitter about being ignored. In Europe, he had been literary editor of one of the first Hebrew quarterlies and one of that dedicated circle that helped to bring about a renaissance of the Hebrew language. His name and his articles were known to almost every reader of the Jewish and Hebrew press…Now, almost unknown and unhonored, he had only this meager, borrowed office on East Broadway. (37)

Weiner tries to help out by giving him opportunities to go more public. But when he meets with friends of Weiner, Setzer speaks about his musings about Evil and doesn’t engage the person (46-47).

When he sets up an opportunity to talk to young Rabbis and make a big impression, Setzer also fails to take advantage of the opportunity (49-52). Instead, he reads from a paper he wrote and bores everyone. He doesn’t notice how his audience feels and doesn’t know how to respond to them. He is so deeply engrossed in ideas that he can’t see the world. His failure typifies the failure of the schlemiel.

The last part of the chapter is tragic comic.

Weiner recounts his last meeting with Setzer after this failed event. Setzer shrinks as he approaches the end of life.

He meets him in the hospital. Setzer “was sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to another visitor, when I walked in. He had always been very skinny, but now the hollows of his cheeks seemed to meet in the center of his long face. Everything about him had shrunk, his shoulders, his chest, even his formerly protruding nose. His hand, when I shook it, seemed weightless”(52).

Weiner learns that Setzer has a cancerous growth at 86 years of age, and now doing what he’s always wanted to do in his life: leave for Israel to live out his last days. After leaving the hospital, Weiner goes to help him with his baggage and that is the last he sees of him.

The chapter ends with a piece that Setzer told him to put in to the chapter that would go in this very book. It is called “the prayer of a mystic.”

The piece is about a person who, in being crushed and reduced to smallness, calls out in prayer for revelation:

He feels crushed, desolate, and abandoned – and a prayer of the heart, broken and torn, then bursts from his mouth.

O cause to flow They graciousness to descend upon me, and show me the way which is for me to follow. Enlighten, my God, my eyes, that they may see and understand your wonders and signs; that I may now how to save my soul from the heaviness of this oppression which Thou hast latest upon me….

It’s telling that at the end of a life of a schlemiel mystic is a prayer for a a final revelation as one is finally reduced to the infinitesimal. The aloofness we find with the schlemiel mystic, so to speak, is a part of a long process of becoming small. This is what we find in Kafka’s “Before the Law.” The schlemiel, “the man from the country,” in Kakfa’s parable, becomes smaller and smaller as he waits to “enter the law.” His “becomes childish.”

During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live.

Like Kafka’s “man from the country” or Mr. Setzer, one must be a schlemiel to wait – becoming smaller and smaller – until the end of one’s life…for revelation. But that is the risk of the schlemiel mystic: that in becoming small, in failing, becoming infinitesimal (instead of large, like Walt Whitman’s American poet hero, “containing multitudes”), one may, one in short moment, see the truth in smallness.

Perhaps that, and not simply laughable aloofness, is the aspiration which the philosopher, the mystic, and the schlemiel share?

4 thoughts on “A Schlemiel Mystic on East Broadway

  1. I really enjoyed this. The intellectual/teacher/storyteller/reflective self.
    Something I thought today – isn’t Mr. Setzer not so much small as unfocused in terms of scale. His sense of scale seems to veer from the cosmic to the microscopic. Lost in the minutiae of the cosmos.
    He lives at scales most people ignore. And so he lives his participation in the world intensely, lost in everything around him, but also shrinking to a small place or size. Expanding and contracting.
    And so THIS leads me to Lewis Caroll!!/ Alice in Wonderland….

    • Excellent points! Yes, he gets involved in the minutiae. He goes from the reading of Kabbalah to a reading of his life. As that happens, he becomes smaller, less recognizable. I like dialectic you are suggesting. That’s the dynamic of the Ari’s Kabbalah: withdrawal and expansion.

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