Last week, before New Years Eve, I decided to take my chances and Tweet a Question at the biggest Schlemiel Celebrity (other than, say, Larry David or Amy Schumer) in the USA: Seth Rogen. The question I asked Rogen is, to my mind, the ultimate schlemiel question. I framed it in a way so as to make it a trick question: Is Seth Rogen pitiable or endearing? The answer is both. He got it.
His twitter response to my schlemiel question got over 1400 likes.
What is my source for this question?
If you look at the Schlemiels we find in Yiddish literature, from the first major Schlemiel novel by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Tales and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, or to I.L. Peretz or Shalom Aleichem, all of the schlemiels we find are both pitiable and endearing. The same goes for schlemiels in American film and fiction: from Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen and Amy Schumer. That’s the key. We are fascinated with their failure and find it sad and charming.
Writing on the schlemiel in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah,” Hannah Arendt articulates this as a key feature: “Innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born.” These characters are also a critique of society since they touch on this innocence and humility that is part and parcel of the everyman and built into nature in its contrast to society: “Confronted with the natural order of things, in which all is equally good, the fabricated order of society, with its manifold classes and ranks, much appear as comic, hopeless attempt of creation to throw down the gauntlet of its creator”(279, Jewish Writings)
Chaplin’s schlemiels, argues Arendt, are similar in that they are endearing and innocent (“warm and convincing”) but is different from that of Heinrich Heine’s in that “Chaplin’s heroes are not paragons of virtue, but little men with a thousand and one failings, forever clashing with the law. The only point is that the punishment does not always fit the crime, and that for the man who is an any case a suspect there is not relation between the offence he commits and the price he pays”(287).
This is what makes him endearing and pitiable, today. Rogen’s schlemiel characters are always getting hit and live out this gap between the offence and the price he pays. But, for Rogen, that is the charm. We identify with this because, in our complex world, we – in all our failures – also seem to get hit for actions that don’t measure up with the consequences. In this wild world of social media, one’s fate can turn on the time. By being humble and endearing, the schlemiel shows us a way which, though pitiable, is redemptive. As Arendt notes, the ultimate innocence of the comical and pitiable victim is the key to Rogen’s success and our adoration of his pathetic characters.