A Note on Weak and Strong Jews: Old and New Frameworks for the Schlemiel

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Following WWII and well into the 80s and 90s – when films like Rambo and Top Gun were blockbusters – America was deeply invested in masculine images. Many of its fantasies were framed in terms of weak and strong. But following 9/11 all of that seemed to change. America became more vulnerable and fluid. And in our time – where gender is being multiplied and masculinity is under attack because of the #metoo movement – distinctions between weak/gentle and tough are falling through the cracks.

This distinction has been used by different scholars in Jewish studies to read the meaning of Jewishness in terms of the Schlemiel or the gentle Jew. The distinction between the weak (schlemiel) Jew and the strong Jew (an imposter who, for a few theorists, should even be called a Jew) has been used for political reasons – above all – to contrast Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States.

Is the power of the Jewish people to be found in words or in action? In being gentle or one of the tough nations? The schlemiel gets tossed into these contrasts/questions because the character is framed – by virtue of them – in terms of being gentle and or tough.

Daniel Boyarin’s 1997 book, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Rise of the Jewish Man, contended that the “new Jew” heralded by the Zionists was an invention that can be traced back to German or Austrian Jews like Freud, Max Nordau, or Theodor Herzl who saw the traditional Jew as weak. Boyarin – seeing the gentle Yeshiva Bocher or Mensch as the figure of Jewishness – sees Zionism as alien to what it means to be Jewish. While Boyarin doesn’t include the schlemiel in his book, it is clear that he would see him as partaking in the essence of Jewishness which is not militant, masculine, or violent.

Boyarin is not the only scholar who is deeply invested in dichotomies between “tough Jews” and “gentle Jews.” The gentle Jew – for Warren Rosenberg in Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture and Paul Breines, in Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry – is figured in the schlemiel character. Rosenberg, writing in the wake of both Boyarin’s book and Breins’ book (published in 1990 by Basic Books), builds on Breines’ claims and argues that although the era of the schlemiel has passed after 1967 and the growth of Jewish and Black Power movements, it should be understood that the image of the “gentle Jew” (embodied in the schlemiel) concealed a “legacy of rage.” The legacy, he argues, can be found in the Bible.

Breines argues – in the anti-Zionist spirit – that the schlemiel character, in the wake of the Holocaust, served as a justification for the tough Israeli response to Palestinians. It gave it ethical heft. He sees this in the main character of Ken Follet’s book, The Triple.

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He writes:

The hero, Nat Dickstein, is in nearly all respects the prototype of the new, tough Jew image I am examining. His itinerary is roughly this: He lost his family to the Nazi Final Solution. He survived Death Camps and made his way to Palestine after the war. By the time of the novel’s main action in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nat Dickstein is a Mossad commander….Dickstein kills, often in hand-to-hand combat, a substantial number of Arab and Soviet operatives. (9)

In Dickstein, Breines sees IB Singer (and his Gimpel character) and Ben Canaan of Leon Uris’s Exodus. The schlemiel character is to be seen, in Nat Dickstein’s body:

Among contemporary images of tough Jews, Dickstein’s body is distinguished by its insignificance, its near frailty; he is approaching his fifties, balding, with a smallish, wiry body….Follet’s hero looks the part, not of a new Jewish warrior, but an earlier, slightly meek Jewish victim. (10).

Breins reads the schlemiel into Nat Dickstein to show a new post-Holocaust hybrid, the weak schlemiel Jew justifying the strong Jew:

Reading the Polish-born, Yiddish American writer into Nat Dickstein is an imaginative and moral strategy. Singer, the writer, had created an unmatched galaxy of Jewish gentleness – in the author photos of dust jackets of his books and in his public lectures and occasional essays on mysticism, vegetarianism, pacifism, and Yiddish as a language peculiarly expressive of today’s frightened humanity. The merger of the images of Singer and Nat Dickerson resulted in the gentle and tough Jew in one, the schlemiel as terminator. (11)

Follet’s book really troubled Breins. Since he identified with the schlemiel (much like Boyarin who identifies with the gentle Jew), he wanted to revise its hero:

My own particular revision required Isaac Beshevis Singer. For me to accept and eventually embrace Nat Dickstein, he had to become Isaac Beshevis Singer, and my need for a Singerized Dickestein only mirrored the ideological necessity with the novel itself. For if Dickstein is to have any moral stature at all, he must have the body of a schlemiel. of a victim. Only such a body – those “narrow shoulders…shallow chest, and knobby elbows and knees” – can imbue Dickstein’s killings with some sort of moral action. For that body crystalizes the history of hapless Jewish suffering. Only such a body could vindicate Dickstein’s actions, transfiguring him from a killer who is merely skilled into one who is moral as well. (16)

For this reason, he has a dilemma. How can he save the schlemiel (the schlemiel’s body) when it is used to vindicate or justify violence? Will he throw the schlemiel to the flames? Wouldn’t that efface the notion of Jewish gentleness?

This question also plagues the discourse of Warren Rosenberg who pits the fiction, writings, and plays of Norman Mailer and David Mamet against Cynthia Ozick and Tony Kushner. Rosenberg suggests that the “legacy of rage,” suppressed by the schlemiel- gentle-Jew image and given vent in Mailer and Mamet needs to be balanced out. The irony is that both Ozick and Kushner turn to comedy. The schlemiel is still here.

It seems that the image of the gentle Jew – of the gentle Jewish body – is deeply embedded.

But in our time the body of the male schlemiel has gone mainstream. Whether it is Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, or Jonah Hill, this body and this dichotomy doesn’t seem to fit. Comparing them to the bodies in Fauda doesn’t fit either. Why is it that the comparison of Jewish American to Israeli bodies is no longer a matter for discourse? Perhaps we should turn to some other framework to understand the schlemiel (something I have been suggesting in this blog).

Today’s America is different. But the schlemiel is still here. How has it – if at all – changed? Today we have more women schlemiels, too. What’s the right frame to use? Does the weak/tough Jewish body still hold?

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