As the author of Schlemiel Theory, I am always looking for new sightings of the schlemiel in North America and around the world. There is so much work yet to be done on women schlemiels, indie schlemiels, comic book schlemiels, tv schlemiels, Netflix schlemiels, Israeli schlemiels, the gen x vs. the millenial schlemiel, etc. People have no idea how deep the schlemiel character runs through modernity and it is one of the main tasks of this blog to disclose this character and its deeper meanings to the world.
On that note, it gave me great joy to see that a Film company called Schlemiel Films exists and that is has made the news. To be sure, all of the major film companies, from MGM to Warner Bros, and independent film companies have produced films that include schlemiel characters and comedic scripts that are driven by this comic character. However, this is the first time I have ever seen a film company that has taken on the name of the schlemiel and made it explicit that they are, in some way, deeply interested in the greatest icon of American and Jewish comedy since the inception of the film industry.
As per the press release at Deadline, BuzzFeed Studios signed to executive produce their debut film, “The End of Us.”
Here is the summary:
In The End of Us, it’s the night of March 10, 2020 — the beginning of the global pandemic which we are currently in. We follow out-of-work actor Nick (Coleman) and his type-A girlfriend Leah (Vingiano) as they are in the middle of a break-up. However, the split is poorly timed. The following morning, California issues its stay-at-home order for Covid-19 and the exes must continue living together. (This is all too familiar.) As the quarantine drags on, Leah begins a secret courtship with her charming coworker Tim (Derrick DeBlasis), while Nick realizes he’s made a terrible mistake and decides to use the lockdown as an opportunity to win Leah back. The film also stars Gadiel Del Orbe and Kate Peterman.
“When the world was entering lockdown in 2020, we were inspired by Ben’s story of his break up with his long-term girlfriend in the middle of a global pandemic,” said filmmakers Loevner, Kanter, and producer Claudia Restrepo in a joint statement. “As we set out to make an authentic, lighthearted illustration of how young people were dealing with life in quarantine, we decided to make this film with the most talented people we know, who happened to be all our former colleagues at BuzzFeed.”
The characters in this film have played in other BuzzFeed shorts.
Schlemiel Theory wishes Henry and Steven good luck in their new endeavor and is looking forward to speaking with them in the near future. Stay tuned!
As a Jew raised in Upstate New York, St. Patricks Day meant a lot of drinking games, parties, and merrymaking. There is nothing Jewish about these activities. Nonetheless, writers like James Joyce made the main character of his epic novel, Ulysses, an Irish Jew. Bloom, the main character, demonstrates the flow of consciousness. In a fascinating scene in the novel, Joyce has Bloom follow a blind man through the streets of Dublin and Bloom’s descriptions of the way a blind man relates to Dublin, via touch, makes for a fascinating scene of tactile consciousness.
“Mr Bloom walked behind the eyeless feet, a flatcut suit of herringbone tweed. Poor young fellow! How on earth did he know the van was there? Must have felt it. See things in their foreheads perhaps. Kind of sense of volume. Weight. Would he feel it if something was removed? Feel a gap. Queer idea of Dublin he must have, tapping his way round by the stones. Could he walk in a beeline if he hadn’t that cane?”
This passage gives birth to a question which preoccupies the novel. How does Bloom, an Irish Jew, bodily relate to things around him and how is this different from the Irishman? The Irish Jew can do things that neither a Jew nor an Irishman can do. He is a modern figure because he integrates abstract thought and aesthetic perception. He is ragtag and relentless, in an Irish sense, but he is also endlessly distracted by the possible meanings of things and their relationships, like a Jew. He is feminine and masculine.
Published in the same year as Ulysses, but across the Atlantic, in New York City, the Abbie’s Irish Rose (1922) – which was, at the time, the longest running play on Broadway written by Anne Nichols – tells a different story of Jews and Irish. The main character of this play, which was played, originally to Yiddish audiences and in Yiddish, dramatized the desire to assimilate. The marriage of a Jew to an Irish girl is the American symbol of an integration and assimilation. The process of the play is the working out of ethnic differences, but it is more a trajectory away from Jewishness and more towards American-ness. There are winners and losers in this journey.
The ethnic comedy embodied in this production dramatizes the difficulty of assimilation, of becoming American. The insults are central to their relationship and the struggles they face in living an American life. Sacrifices of identity – in this scenario – are found throughout the conflictual drama.
Here’s a summary of the play/movie/radio production:
Abie’s Irish Rose presents a Jewish family living in prosperous circumstances in New York. The father, a widower, is in business as a merchant, in which his son and only child helps him. The boy has philandered with young women, who to his father’s great disgust have always been Gentiles, for he is obsessed with a passion that his daughter-in-law shall be an orthodox Jew. When the play opens the son, who has been courting a young Irish Catholic girl, has already married her secretly before a Protestant minister, and concerned about how to soften the blow for his father securing a favorable reception for his bride, while concealing her faith and race. To accomplish this he introduces her to his father as a Jewish girl in whom he is interested and conceals the fact they are married. The girl somewhat reluctantly agrees to the plan; the father takes the bait, becomes infatuated with the girl, insists that they must marry. He assumes they will because it’s the father’s idea. He calls in a rabbi, and prepares for the wedding according to the Jewish rite.Meanwhile the girl’s father, also a widower who lives in California and is as intense in his own religious antagonism as the Jew, has been called to New York, supposing that his daughter is to marry an Irishman and a Catholic. Accompanied by a priest, he arrives at the house at the moment when the marriage is being celebrated, so too late to prevent it, and the two fathers, each infuriated by the proposed union of his child to a heretic, fall into unseemly and grotesque antics. The priest and the rabbi become friendly, exchange trite sentiments about religion, and agree that the match is good. Apparently out of abundant caution, the priest celebrates the marriage for a third time, while the girl’s father is inveigled away. The second act closes with each father, still outraged, seeking to find some way by which the union, thus trebly insured, may be dissolved.The last act takes place about a year later, the young couple having meanwhile been abjured by each father, and left to their own resources. They have had twins, a boy and a girl, but their fathers know no more than that a child has been born. At Christmas each, led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks’ home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the insistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his orthodoxy.
Ultimately, an Irish Jew would, for this generation, seem impossible or more figural of something to come. It is only with Philip Roth’s Swede, in American Pastoral or with Aharon Appelfeld’s, The Retreat, that you see a fusion of the Jew and non-Jew, to such an extent that one swallows the other, and that the Jew nearly forgets what it means to be Jewish. The post-assimilation phase doesn’t have this drama. The Jew and non-Jew in Hollywood films – whether staring schlemiels like Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, or Larry David – put intermarriage or dating between Jews and non-Jews at the center of their plot.
In some senses, Hollywood took over what started in Broadway with Abby’s Irish Rose but gave it, as we see in many Judd Apatow films (like Knocked Up), a happy ending. In the age of post-assimilation, its no longer an issue. It’s a theme. In contrast to Joyce, the theme is not the fusion of Jerusalem and Athens or modern consciousness. It’s identity differences and comical reconciliation. These characters are out of touch with their Jewishness or with the meaning of consciousness and modernity. Those themes are two sophisticated for the melting pot.
With that, I’ll raise my beer and say L’chaim to all the Leprechauns.
Today is the birthday of Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levich). Like Philip Roth and many other great Jewish writers and actors, he was born and grew up in Newark, NJ. Lewis passed away on August 20th 2017.
While there are many arguments about who popularized the schlemiel in America (Hannah Arendt argues that it was Charlie Chaplin; Daniel Itzkovtz and many others argue it was Woody Allen, who in winning multiple Oscars for Annie Hall (1977) made it clear that the schlemiel was an American icon; Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi sees Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpel the Fool” in Partisan Review, in the 60s, as pivotal). Be that as it may, there is a lot to be said for Jerry Lewis as an iconic schlemiel. While his Jewishness was not at the forefront of his comic characters (as it was for schlemiel’s played by Woody Allen, etc) the schlemiel character-form was. We can learn a lot from Lewis’s use of the body, speech, and gesture in his articulations of the schlemiel. He broke boundaries in an endearing and physical manner.
Schlemiel Theory has written several articles on Lewis that delve into the nuances he introduced into American schlemiel comedy.
We are living in interesting times. In our times, it seems that comedians are in a hard place. Why? Because comedians are the vanguard of free speech. For most Jewish Studies scholars, Lenny Bruce, was hands down, the cutting edge of comedy in general and Jewish comedy in particular in modern post-assimilation America. He breaks all the rules in the name of free speech. He, the king of comedy, is the archetype of American democracy and a new kind of “edgy” Jewishness.
So when free speech is on the line, as it is today, comedians are in the cross hairs. So what do they do?
On that note, it’s so interesting to watch what is happening to some of the greatest Jewish American schlemiel comedians today; American icons: Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.
Seth Rogen is creating a special ashtray for his weed company. He is on instagram sharing the real proiftability of his pottery making: ash trays for weed. And all the varieties. It’s called, “Houseplant”
And while Seth is becoming a weed smoking creative type, Rogen wants to share what he has created rather than jokes. He’s busy doing something else, something cool and organic.
Meanwhile, Sara Silverman is also not telling any jokes. She’s talking about what it means to be Jewish in a small town in New Hampshire, one of the only Jews in her high school.
Silverman is confessing her Jewishness. She feels alone in her Jewish pain and wants “allies” who aren’t just the Christian American Right who supports Jews going back to Israel because the Jews are a stepping stone to their own redemption, as the evengelical church, etc.
Be that as it may, Silverman is more interested in looking into her Jewishness in a world that is focused on the next moves of BLM, equity, reparations, etc. These are not laughing matters.
The message is the same from both of them. The position of Jewish comedy is to look more into the “Jewish” or more into the organic hipster-ish life (making pottery, weed ashreuas, etc) than into the “comedy.”
Apparently, there is nothing to laugh about right now. This is a rare time when the schlemiel needs to introspect and reflect.
All of this has the air of I.B. Singer’s The Magician of Lublin. Hence, Seth Rogen’s attempt to emulate a schlemiel form of introspection most recently in An American Pickle (2020).
Rogen and Silverman suggest this soul searching trajectory for the schlemiel. That’s what we see on this day of Jewish life in America, March 11, 2021.