Not Mom, Not Dad: A Schlemiel’s Reflection on his Parents

In classic Yiddish literature, we don’t often learn much about the parents of the schlemiel character (whether in the Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, “Bontshe Shvayg,” or I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”. Shalom Aliechem comes close when he tells us that his Motl character (Motl, the Cantor’s Son) was an orphan and that his father was a religious man. One of his schlemiel characters, Menachem Mendl, is a relative of Tevye. We don’t know much about his parents. In The Travels of Menachem Mendl, we learn more about his journey and his relationship with his wife, to whom he writes letters. The relationship of the schlemiel to his parents, however, is a modern, more post-Freudian development.

Jewish mothers seem to play a more prominent role in the portrayals of the schlemiel by Philip Roth – in Portnoy’s Complaint, where his mother plays a central role in his schlemiel genealogy – and in Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses. The schlemiel family also surfaces on TV in the 70s like Mary Tyler Moore and the Odd Couple.

Woody Allen has a genealogical moment in his films which gives a window into understanding his schlemiel character, as well:

Schlemiel parents also resurface in movies like Guilt Trip, with Seth Rogen (starring Barbara Streisand as the mother) and in Ben Stiller’s Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers (2004).

In both of these films we get to contrast the “normal” family (led by Robert DeNiro) and the abnormal schlemiel family (led by Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand). These films, like the books and TV shows mentioned above, give us an opportunity to understand how a schlemiel can emerge out of unusual parents. It gives us a sense of the schlemiel’s psychology, in a Freudian sense.

To be sure, there are other examples that can be discussed and shows like Arrested Development, Community, Transparent, or Dave demonstrate how the psychology of the schlemiel family context is a central motif in streaming venues like Prime, Netflix, or Hulu.

But what we find is that most of them emerged after psychology became a central motif in American culture. Before that, however, the first major psychological exploration of the schlemiel in a family context can be found in a modernist European novel (and not in Yiddish literature): Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno.

Zeno, the narrator of Confessions, spends some time, on and off, talking about his parents in the first two chapters of the novel. Since the novel is framed by his own attempt at self-analysis, Zeno’s reflections on his mother and father should raise flags for the reader (who has to take on the position of the psychoanalyst).

As I noted in the last entry, the psychoanalytic reading of masochism by Theodor Reik gives us a means of understanding Zeno’s schlemiel-condition. His primal scene with his father, in which he steals cigars and smokes them, while his mother (apparently) knows he did it, while his father does not, shows his schlemielkeit is situated between his parents. In his mind, he shares a secret with his mother and hides it from his father. His secret informs his masochistic enjoyment of smoking and trying to quit. His constant attempt and failure to do so is part and parcel of his schlemiel-slash-masochist condition.

In the following chapter, entitled “The Death of My Father,” the reader is given an intimate portrayal of his relationship with his parents and more clues into the familial nature of his schlemiel identity. The gap between he and his father is wide. But it is only when his father is dying that he grows closer to him. He sees a part of his illness (note: his “illness” and his search for a cure to being a schlemiel is a premise of this novel) in this distance and inability to connect to his father. His father’s perceived “lack of confidence” in him informs his masochistic condition:

We had never been so much together, nor for so long, as when I was mourning for his death. If only I had been nicer to him and mourned for him less, I should not have been so ill. It was so difficult for us to be together, because intellectually we had so little in common. We both looked at each other with a rather pitying smile, which in him had a certain bitterness because of his anxiety about my future. Mine, on the contrary, was all indulgence; I regarded his little weaknesses as of no importance because I attributed them chiefly to age. It was he who first expressed doubts about my strength of will – too soon, I think. I cannot help suspecting…that he lacked confidence in me just because I was his child; which, in itself was quite enough…to diminish my confidence in him. (50)

While he sees his father as someone who sees nothing wrong with himself and sees no reason to change, his whole life is informed by “a strong impulse to become better; this is perhaps my greatest misfortune”(51). His anxiety is wrapped up with this impulse since he afflicts himself for not becoming better and not changing. His father has a different attitude about himself: “He was perfectly satisfied with himself as he was, and I doubt if he ever made any effort to improve himself. He smoked all day long and, after my mother’s death, all night too when he could not sleep”(51).

His father seems to make it worse by saying, outright, that Zeno makes him anxious: “We had so little in common that he confessed to me that I was one of the human beings who have him most cause for anxiety”(51). What is so fascinating about this difference is that it has to do with Zeno’s obsession with health and the body (much like Kafka or Nietzsche, he is in fear of bodily degeneration, which he sees in his father): “He, on the other hand, had succeeded in banishing from his memory all thoughts of that terrible machine. As far as he was concerned the heart did not beat, and he had no need to remind himself of valves and veins and metabolism to explain why he was alive”(51). His obsession with health and the body are a part of his schlemiel-condition only because of his resistance to what he sees in his father.

The other things that bother his father are his son’s “absent-mindedness,” a key feature of the day-dreaming schlemiel character, and Zeno’s tendency to “laugh about serious things”:

He reproached me for two other things – my absent-mindedness and my tendency to laugh at serious things. As regards absent-mindedness, the only difference between us was that he kept a notebook in which he put down everything that he wanted to remember, and looked at it several times during the day. This made him feel that he had conquered his weakness and he was no longer worried by it….As for my supposed contempt for serious things, I think his fault was to take too many things in the world seriously. (52)

Zeno recounts an incident with his father that illustrates this; namely, a conversation he had with his father about going back to a university major he dropped. His father said. “good-naturedly,” that “it is quite clear to me that you are mad”(52). While Zeno claims to know it was said in jest, thus comment really hurts him when, after he gets his certification from a doctor that he really isn’t mad he “carried it off in triumph to my father…I could not even win a smile. In an agonized voice and actually with tears in his eyes, he exclaimed, ‘Ah, then you really are mad!'”(52).

Zeno is upset, thinking that he proved himself to his father (while his father was speaking in jest). He recalls, with anger: “This was all the thanks I got for my exhausting but innocent little comedy. He never forgave me for it, and therefore he would never laugh at it. Go to a doctor as a joke! Have a certificate stamped on purpose, just as a joke? Sheer madness!”(52).

His father takes this with him to the grave, and Zeno holds his sense of shame close to his heart. It is a tragic-comic moment when the son takes the father seriously, is berated, and is seen as playing a prank. Like many a schlemiel, he is innocent. He had no intent of causing his father harm or making him mad, but he does unbeknownst of himself.

Perhaps, after all, being a schlemiel – whether in Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or in this or that Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen film etc – is…or has become a family affair.

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