The Mazsihisz Magyar Zsido Museum is not far from where I am staying in Budapest. (I am giving a Graduate Seminar on the Schlemiel here.) It claims to be one of the first Jewish Museums in Europe. One of the things I came across there was an embroidery of the four sons from the Hagaddah. Since the schlemiel is called – in Yiddish and Hasidic literature – a Tam (Simpleton), I have always been interested in how it is depicted in Hagaddahs.
I also saw this image of the simpleton in the Haggada (below) at the museum – which has been used by Daniel Boyarin in his book, Unheroic Conduct.
What I find interesting about all this is that the simpleton is usually a young boy who emerges from the woods with a stick. He seems to he a Shepard or a walker in the country. A Jewish peasant of sorts. His walking stick reminds me of something you’d find in a Lord of the Rings depiction.
He is naive and trusting.
To be sure, one finds similar figurations of the simpleton in German and French medieval folklore. Rabbi Nachman of Bresla v’s tale, The Tam and the Chacham (wiseperson) shows how important this figure is to thr Hasidic tradition. Simplicity is close to godliness as it is imbued with trust.
Today’s simpleton vis-à-vis the schlemiel character lacks that woodsy, folksy aspect and just appears as a person who doesn’t know how to act or be in this or that social situation. Think of the George Costanza character in Seinfeld.
Things have certainly changed since the emergence of the simpleton character, who has a Mystical air to him and is presented as the perfect vessel for holiness because he is so unjudgmental and trusting.
I arrived in Budapest last Thursday and on Friday I started my Graduate Seminar on “The Schlemiel in European Literature and Culture” at the Ashkenazium Program (which includes several notable Jewish Studies, Philosophy, and Literature scholars on its faculty such as Elliot Wolfson, Paul Franks, Shaul Magid, Peter Trawny, Susan Handelman, etc.) To give an idea of what I am teaching and the scope, here is my reading list for the six days of my seminar:
Day 1: Folklore, Genealogies, Definitions – an Intro to Schlemiel Theory and this Seminar
We will be reading full books, short stories, and scholarly essays that trace the trajectory of the schlemiel from Europe to America. As one can see, the readings on Day 5 and 6 I am using two historical benchmarks: the Holocaust and the transport of the Schlemiel to an American context. (A third benchmark, which doesn’t appear in the outline, is the advent of Zionism and the founding of the Jewish State. Both will be discussed in the final classes in tandem with the American innovation of the schlemiel).
Being in Budapest and lecturing on the schlemiel here have brought up a lot of things for me as a scholar of the schlemiel and the creator of the largest blog/website on the schlemiel in the world. As Ruth Wisse, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, and others have pointed out, the Holocaust destroyed not just a people but an entire culture. It destroyed a large part of the audience that adored the schlemiel and saw themselves through novels, short stories, and plays that evoked this character.
On this, the following is noted by the USHM – US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Before World War II, approximately 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest, making it the center of Hungarian Jewish cultural life. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Budapest was a safe haven for Jewish refugees. Before the war some 5,000 refugees, primarily from Germany and Austria, arrived in Budapest. With the beginning of deportations of Jews from Slovakia in March 1942, as many as 8,000 Slovak Jewish refugees also settled in Budapest.
Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany. Despite discriminatory legislation against the Jews and widespread antisemitism, the Jewish community of Budapest was relatively secure until the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. With the occupation, the Germans ordered the establishment of a Jewish council in Budapest and severely restricted Jewish life. Apartments occupied by Jews were confiscated. Hundreds of Jews were rounded up and interned in the Kistarcsa transit camp View This Term in the Glossary (originally established by Hungarian authorities), 15 miles northeast of Budapest.
Between April and July 1944, the Germans and Hungarians deported Jews from the Hungarian provinces. By the end of July, the Jews in Budapest were virtually the only Jews remaining in Hungary. They were not immediately ghettoized. Instead, in June 1944, Hungarian authorities ordered the Jews into over 2,000 designated buildings scattered throughout the city. The buildings were marked with Stars of David. About 25,000 Jews from the suburbs of Budapest were rounded up and transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Hungarian authorities suspended the deportations in July 1944, sparing the remaining Jews of Budapest, at least temporarily.
On November 8, 1944, the Hungarians concentrated more than 70,000 Jews—men, women, and children—in the Ujlaki brickyards in Obuda, and from there forced them to march on foot to camps in Austria. Thousands were shot and thousands more died as a result of starvation or exposure to the bitter cold. The prisoners who survived the death march reached Austria in late December 1944. There, the Germans took them to various concentration camps, especially Dachau in southern Germany and Mauthausen in northern Austria, and to Vienna, where they were employed in the construction of fortifications around the city.
In November 1944, the Arrow Cross ordered the remaining Jews in Budapest into a closed ghetto. Jews who did not have protective papers issued by a neutral power were to move to the ghetto by early December. Between December 1944 and the end of January 1945, the Arrow Cross took as many as 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, shot them along the banks of the Danube, and threw their bodies into the river.
Soviet forces liberated Budapest on February 13, 1945. More than 100,000 Jews remained in the city at liberation.
The strangeness of being here was redoubled when I first arrived at the hotel I am staying at: The Hotel Astoria. When I first looked around the hotel and took photos, I had this intuition that since the hotel was centrally located it may have been used by the Nazis as a base of operations. Lo and behold, I was correct.
When I read and write notes on the schlemiel, in a hotel room that may have been used by Nazis to plan the destruction of Jews, I get a keen sense of the tragic irony of history. After the Holocaust, some writers and scholars – especially from Israel – argued that the schlemiel was a figure of powerlessness. We need to turn to different characters, one more powerful and heroic rather than to the schlemiel anti-hero who, during the Holocaust failed to act (see Nathan Englander’s, “The Tummlers,” for instance).
Be that as it may, the schlemiel character lived on and survived in America to become, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi notes, a “cultural icon.” What people don’t know – who love schlemiels played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Amy Shumer, etc – is about where this character came from and its tragic-comic history. It has survived the Holocaust, but its audience has changed and they no longer speak Yiddish as a common vernacular.
For this reason, I have made it my task to teach the history of the schlemiel – here, in Budapest – and discuss its meaning and trajectory. This character survived. We need to ask why and how that is the case. What is so special about this character that it could survive? This city reminds me that the Nazis were not out to kill Judaism; they wanted to kill the Jewish people. They knew that without a people, there can be no culture or literature or Judaism. We lived on – and so did my family, some of which came from Austro-Hungary – and it will be us who will give and who give life to the schlemiel….after the Holocaust.
More importantly, I would argue that the schlemiel’s survival is the survival of goodness in a world that the Nazis tried to reshape in their twisted image. We need to recall that character to better understand how comedy must win out over tragedy and the deep dark pit of nihilism that showed it’s ugly faced and killed thousands of my people in this city and was organized in this hotel, where I, at this very moment, write these words.