Menashe Skulnik – The “Pure Schlemiel” of Yiddish America

Image by Drew Friedman

There is yet to be a genealogy of the schlemiel in America. Schlemiel Theory has – over the years – been hard at work gathering the threads. An account of the schlemiel in America would be incomplete without mentioning Menashe Skulnik. He was one of the great comedic stars of Yiddish theater in the early and mid 20th century. Skulnik appeared in films and on the radio as well as on TV, in the Goldbergs (short lived show in the post-WWWII era). He was likened by the New York Evening Journal to Charlie Chaplin. Strangely enough, while Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and others saw Chaplin as a schlemiel character, Skulnik did not. Like a schlemiel contrarian, he argued that Chaplin wasn’t the real schlemiel – the “pure” one – he was!

In an interview, he said, “I play a schlemiel, a dope. Sometimes they call me the Yiddish Charlie Chaplin, and I don’t like this. Chaplin’s dope is a little bit of a wiseguy. He’s got a little larceny in him. I am a pure schlemiel, with no string attached.”

Skulnik was dubbed the “East Side’s Chaplin” by the New York Evening Journal in 1935.

Like many an American Jewish artist, he transitioned from Yiddish to Yinglish.

The legacy of the schlemiel is something that needs to be gauged since the schlemiel – over the span of the 20th century – became one of Hollywood and Television’s most popular characters. Its amazing how its Yiddish origins got lost in translation but that’s what happens in America where this Yiddish comic character (Skulnik’s demonstration of the “pure schlemiel,” not Chaplin’s imitation of it) became an American one. Whether via the avatars of Woody Allen, Larry David, or Seth Rogen the character has lived on but has, over time, lost its Yiddish accent and….purity.

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