Schlemiels, Gentle Revolutionaries (In Memory of Bruce Jay Friedman)


In the post-WWII era, the schlemiel played a pivotal role in a cultural revolution in America that most of us didn’t notice. Before WWII, Charlie Chaplin was seen as a schlemiel character by some of the worlds greatest thinkers (such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, etc). They could see the powerful impact he had on people around the world. In The Sun Also Rises, a book written in 1926, Ernest Hemingway clearly recognized the challenge posed by the schlemiel – through the character of Robert Cohn – to an American type of masculinity and heroism. On the other side of WWII and well into the early 70s, John Updike, the famous American novelist, went so far as writing a series of books on a schlemiel character named, Bech.

Looking over the grand sweep of this character, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi correctly dubs the Schlemiel an American cultural icon. Ruth Wisse argued, in the early 70s, that although the schlemiel is a “fool out of step with the actual march of events,” the fact of the matter is that the “impulse of….schlemiel literature…is to use this comical stance as a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophical status quo”(3, Schlemiel as Modern Hero). This challenge – as Wisse illustrates in the opening pages of her opus – is one that comes out of the character’s gentleness. The schlemiel isn’t a fighter and his revolution is a gentle one that went on unbeknownst to many of us. Before we knew it, he became an American cultural icon: from Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to just about any Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen character, the schlemiel has changed the way we look at ourselves as Americans. This comic character – through the perfection of comical failure – has undermined, through a gentle revolution of sorts, the heroic American character.

Bruce Jay Friedman – who passed away yesterday at the age of 90 – was a major part of that revolution. His recent passing – without a doubt – marks the closing of an era of the post-WWII schlemiel and its gentle revolution. When it comes to the popularization of the schlemiel in America, Bruce Jay Friedman shares the stage with post-WWII writers, filmmakers, screenwriters, and comedians like I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, and Larry David. His schlemiel characters are memorable, whether in novels like Stern, A Mothers Kisses or in short stories and screenplays like “A Change of Plan” (which was turned into the screenplay and film Heartbreak Kid, which has two incarnations, 1972, casting Charles Grodin as the schlemiel and 2007, casting Ben Stiller).

Both films show that the schlemiel was just as relevant in 2007 as it was in 1972.

Strangely enough, Bruce Weber’s New York Times obituary of Bruce Jay Friedman makes no mention whatsoever of the schlemiel character for which he is most well-known for in literary circles and in Hollywood.

As one can see from his novels, short stories, and films, Friedman saw the schlemiel – much like Philip Roth – in terms of gender and sexuality. Unlike the schlemiels we find in I.B. Singer or Saul Bellow, for instance, the failures of the schlemiel in most of his works is nearly tragic. He is a sexual schlemiel. But, through all his failures, it is his gentleness that remains after the defeat of his manhood.

On the Schlemiel in Stern

Writing on his most famous novel, Stern, Ruth Wisse sees a schlemiel in the main character, Stern, that epitomizes what many critics call Friedman’s “dark comedy.”

Stern suffers from an ulcer, the localized symbol of all his hurt, and the actual cause of his anxiety and pain. The ulcer is a kind of “heart condition” in that it grows as Stern begins to feel estrangement and to long for accepting love…..Stern is another study of the sick man as the relatively human man, the psychological equivalent of loser as winner, but one that exposes the full horror of this inversion. (87)

In the novel, Stern is “the victim of a symbolic cuckolding.” He is emasculated by a neighbor who has “knocked down” and “seen his wife.” As a gentle Jew, he isn’t capable of pushing his neighbor back and “instead tentatively punches himself in the belly”(88).

Reading Stern through Albert Goldman’s celebrated essays, “Boy-man, Shlemiel” she argues that in Stern, “satire unmasks more than humor does by stripping away more of the trappings of civilization to concentrate on the ape beneath: to this extent Stern is the most ‘unmasked of modern schlemiels. In Stern, Jewishness is just an irrational remnant of a sterile form….family, a Mafia-type arrangement governing through overt or covert blackmail”(88).

Wisse argues that although he is reduced to nothing in the novel and “deflated,” at the end of the novel he shows an “overflowing sympathy which is almost recognized as the manifestation of a great soul”(89).

Instead, “he is cut down to size in the final paragraph where all this emotion is exposed for the theatrical extravagance the author finds it to be”(89). Wisse sees this character as “maimed” yet “interpreted as an example of relative health”(90). This almostness and relativity reflect a tension that Friedman portrays in his fiction. As Wisse argues, the tension of the schlemiel in secular America is between “belief in man and radical frustration”(90).

The dark comedy is not simply with the human capacity of his neighbor to be a bully; its also in Stern’s failure to man up to him and protect his family. While in IB Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” it is clear that the gentle revolution is underway and society is shown to be mendacious, in Stern it seems as if the gentle revolution is waning because both the schlemiel and the bully are pathetic.

Wisse’s observations of Friedman’s work through Stern suggest a pattern in his work. His characters are losers who show us that “unheroic conduct” (to play on Freud’s reading of his father’s failure to fight back during an anti-semitic encounter) characterize a new generation of schlemiels. The revolution of gentleness seems to have failed this next generation.

Nonetheless, the character has not faded away. If anything, many comedians and filmmakers have taken their cue from Friedman’s fiction. Think, for instance, of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010).

Ben Stiller plays a schlemiel character that seems lifted off of the pages of a Bruce Jay Friedman short story or screenplay. The Coen Brothers, likewise, developed a schlemiel character in the spirit of Friedman in their film, A Serious Man (2009)

On the other hand, Judd Apatow has – through Seth Rogen’s characters – created schlemiel characters that are less dark only because he gives them endings that Friedman refused to give them. Take, for instance, the film, Knocked Up (2007)

The characters in this film are all schlemiels; however, in the end, Rogen’s character escapes the circle of schlemiels to become a father and a companion. To be sure, what one sees here is a “gentle revolution” that has been rekindled, if you will, in these redemptive endings.

The Schlemiel, Rodney King Verdict & Gentle Revolutionaries

I have used the expression “gentle revolution” for a reason. It is a name that is embedded in a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman, entitled “Gentle Revolutionaries,” which is apropos to our own times and to this topic. It casts the meaning of a gentle revolution in terms of African-Americans, not Jews, as “gentle revolutionaries” during a time when LA went into its first curfew: the Rodney King riots. But it also raises deeper question about America and is deeply self-reflexive.

I want to evoke this story because it illuminates something deep about Friedman’s schlemiel character that eludes most of us.

In the short story, the main character, Fred Hughes, is on the seat of his pants and flies out to LA from Long Island to help his friend Ben make an “industrial show.” He’s a Hollywood schlemiel, a failure at making it big, but he’s not alone. Its a community of schlemiels that he’s working with:

Since they were doing an industrial show, there was little hope of attracting top flight talent, much less Hollywood stars. They knew they would have to settle for people who were either over the hill or unable to get jobs on TV….Fred felt sorry for the women who showed up for parts in the chorus line. The auditions were held in a personnel director’s office, beneath harsh florescent lights. Since the women had been asked to wear shorts, their legs, however well shaped, came across as being purpled and mottled. In the case of those with blemishes or small scars, the effect was ghastly. (354, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman)

The script and its enactment are in high schlemiel form: “The script, which had a jungle theme, called for an antelope, which Fred had always assumed would be a rubberized prop. But Ben insisted there be a live antelope, and had one brought to the studio each day in a van, along with its trainer”(356). Moreover, the Cyrano, a hotel that Fred stays at, is filled with a community of schlemiels.

Each day, after rehearsals, Fred returned to the Cyrano….Fred quickly fell in with a group of regulars that included Hal, a struggling portrait painter from Trinidad….and there was Jerome, a red-bearded Israeli veteran of the Six-Day War who lived in Los Angeles and traded in diamonds. An attractive man, he claimed to have trouble connecting with women and Fred quickly saw the root of his difficulty. Whenever a woman entered Jake’s, he would drape his arm around Fred’s shoulder and cry out, in a harsh, combat-ready voice: “Hey, girls. Come over here and we will take you out.”(356)

In the midst of this rehearsing for the play, we learn that the Rodney King verdict was announced: “The construction company that was sponsoring Fred’s show sent some security guards to the rehearsal hall, since some of the fires and the looting seemed to be lapping into the studio area”(358). But Fred doesn’t notice them. He thinks that they are actors. Fred – like many a schlemiel – doesn’t understand what violence is or what riots mean and the narrator takes us into this mindset: “His eyes seemed detached from their proper mechanisms and Fred wasn’t sure what it would be like to have this man spraying off rounds. And Fred himself felt in no particular danger”(358).

Fred’s incomprehension teaches us a lot about something that may be of interest to us now: how does a schlemiel approach rioting in America? Fred returns to his hotel to reflect on what’s going on:

From his tiny balcony, he could smell the fires and look out at the destruction. To his everlasting shame, the only loss he felt was that he would not be able to go down to Jake’s and see his friends. Most of them were black, and that’s one of the things he liked about the place – the easy commingling of black and white people. There was no such thing in the tip of Long Island, no such place.

He settled in for hours and hours and watched the local television coverage of the rioting. There was no need to watch as much of it as he did, but he could not stop, afraid he might miss something…..No doubt the King verdict had triggered the riots, but Fred felt that the underlying cause of the carnage was a statistic he’d read some weeks before – that during the eighties some 70 percent of the accumulated wealth had gone to less than 1 percent of the population. The people he watched on the news had nothing to lose. Why shouldn’t they riot. What puzzled him is why they would want to shoot themselves in the foot. Why weren’t they burning houses in the estate section of Beverly Hills? That would effect change overnight. It occurred to him that America, or at least its entrenched powers, had been blessed with gentle revolutionaries. (359)

Fred’s description of them as “gentle revolutionaries” is ironic and, I would argue, says more about himself and the schlemiel revolution he was a part of and its difference from theirs. The sad and ironic thing is that both revolutionaries – Jewish and Black – may have been seen on TV but none of them really transformed America. This isn’t simply a statement; its a question not only about African American rioting during the Rodney King verdict, but also about the meaning of the schlemiel in American culture. While the gentle revolution is one that gets eyeballs on TVs or movie screens. does it really transform America?

This – I would like to believe – is the biggest question that Bruce Jay Friedman’s fiction faces us with and it prompts us at schlemiel theory to think about America and the schlemiel. Maybe all those in America who never made it – and there are many – are all schlemiels. Maybe all those failed revolutionaries who let off a lot of steam and made some great footage are also schlemiels because America won’t let us? I would like to suggest that this story and other stories and plays written by Bruce Jay Friedman offer us an opportunity to think through the schlemiel about…America….about Jews and Blacks…about power.

Rest in Peace, Bruce and thank you for showing us that not all Jews made in Hollywood, but at least they made a few friends.

*To read more posts by Schlemiel Theory on Bruce Jay Friedman, click here, here, here, and here.

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