The Tam (Simpleton) Figure at the Budapest Jewish Museum

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.

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