As the crisis in the Ukraine has grown, I – like millions of other people – have become very interested in the meaning of Volodmir Zelensky’s journey to becoming the hero of the West in the drama of war. What interests me most, as a scholar of the schlemiel and a schlemiel theorist, is the trajectory of his performance and identity: in terms of the relationship of Jewishness to his schlemiel character in “Servant of the People,” to his actually becoming not only a leader but also a symbol of the heroic in the West. Why is it that the schlemiel and his/her transformation has – of late – become the focus of the West’s greatest challenge?
To be sure, the transformation of the schlemiel into “the everyman” – in American culture – is a theme that has been addressed by Daniel Itzkovitz in his work on the “new schlemiel.” For Itzkovitz, the new schlemiel instead of challenging the status quo, becomes the status quo and in the process loses his Jewishness. He, like others, would like the schlemiel to be more edgy. Not a hero. For in becoming a hero, the schlemiel transforms. To be sure, this is a formula that Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow have use in some of their films like Knocked Up (2007).
In many of Apatow and Rogen’s films, the Schlemiel’s Jewish body is a central figure. We also see this in the depiction of Zohan, by Adam Sandler and in the Costanza character in Seinfeld. A.O. Scott of the New York Times, sees these characters as advocating for a “perpetual adolescence” which is, for him, bad for America as it keeps American adulthood at bay.
How is Jewishness depicted in America and to a Western audience through the body and why is it of any relevance to American identity or Western identity?
In terms of politics, Daniel Boyarin – in his book Unheroic Conduct – has argued that the Jewish body is “soft” – eydl – and is closer to the Yeshiva Bochur one would find in Poland or the Ukraine. He contrasts this body to that of the Zionists and their “muscle Jews.” One is Jewish, says Boyarin, the other isn’t. A Jew can’t become a muscle Jew. It’s a contradiction for Boyarin. And it is also a contradiction for Paul Breines, in his book Tough Jews. Not surprisingly, one can deduce from this that Boyarin and Breines aren’t zionists. Indeed, they are anti-zionists and see zionism and the displacement of the schlemiel (Breines) or Eydl Jew (Boyarin) as an affront to Jewishness. The soft Jew – that we find in IB Singer’s Gimpel (Breines) – is lost and so is the moral sensibility.
As Breines puts it in his criticism of Ken Follet’s transformation of the post-Holocaust Schlemiel, Dickstein, in The Triple, and his own personal transformation, this is a contradictory body image/fantasy which has political import:
My own particular revision required Isaac Beshevis Singer. For me to accept and eventually embrace Nat Dickstein, he had to become Isaac Beshevis Singer, and my need for a Singerized Dickestein only mirrored the ideological necessity with the novel itself. For if Dickstein is to have any moral stature at all, he must have the body of a schlemiel. of a victim. Only such a body – those “narrow shoulders…shallow chest, and knobby elbows and knees” – can imbue Dickstein’s killings with some sort of moral action. For that body crystalizes the history of hapless Jewish suffering. Only such a body could vindicate Dickstein’s actions, transfiguring him from a killer who is merely skilled into one who is moral as well. (16)
The schlemiel, in his view, can be used – after the Holocaust – to make “killing” moral. This, for Breines is a Western / American fantasy that uses the Jewish body to justify political violence. It is also, in his view, a Jewish American fantasy.
When I recently came across Benjamin Balthaser’s essay, “From Schlemiel to Super Hero: Volodmir Zelensky and the Price of Western Inclusion,” I was happy to see that – since Breins and Boyarin – someone has taken up this thread about the schlemiel. His reading has, however, given me a lot of questions about the political fantasies at work in the appropriation of the schlemiel to the hero narrative that is being projected by “the West” on Volodimir Zelensky. I want to carefully go over this essay and unpack it so as to understand and make clear what it says and what questions is invokes.
Balthaser, in the very first sentence of the essays, argues that Jews have “once again” been “conscripted” into the “West’s fantasies of itself”: “As Russia invades Ukraine, Jews find themselves yet again conscripted into the West’s fantasies of itself.”
His interesting thesis is that “those in power” are using Jewish memory and Jewish “otherness” to vindicate its violent actions:
On March 1, reports came that Babi Yar, a major memorial of Judeocide in Europe, had been destroyed by Russian missiles. But while Russia’s bombs had hit a nearby communications tower, they did not in fact hit the Babi Yar memorial. The story’s prominent media coverage and its emotional charge are emblematic of how this war mobilizes Jewish memory. For his part, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly invoked the need for “de-Nazification” as a pretext for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One may debate the Azov Battalion’s and fascism’s role in producing the conditions for this conflict and in the historical formation of Ukrainian nationalism more generally. However, it remains clear that Putin wishes to press strong cultural memories of the German blitzkrieg into service as legitimization for his own illegal invasion. Despite some Jewish Studies scholars such as Enzo Traverso and Marc Dollinger who persuasively argue that the formation of a Jewish state and the assimilation of Ashkenazi Jews in the United States have ended the phase of Jewish marginality, the ongoing perceptions of Jews’ “otherness” apparently remains politically useful to those in power.
According to Balthaser, they seize on the narrative of the schlemiel’s transformation, in the figure (and “perhaps the body” – of Zelensky in order to “project Jewish history”
Nowhere is this projection of Jewish history more salient than in the person—or perhaps the body—of President Volodimir Zelensky himself. Elected in a popular landslide as a political outsider, his promises to clean up endemic corruption in Ukraine and to end the war between Russian-speaking separatists and Ukrainian nationalists in Donbas region garnered him wide popular support. It has been noted how much the scripts of Servant of the People, the satiric TV political comedy Zelensky wrote and starred in, prefigure his actual life: Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a bumbling, underpaid schoolteacher who attempts in vain to get his mother to iron his shirt, is elected president after he makes an anti-corruption rant that goes viral after being surreptitiously recorded and shared by a tech-savvy student. Vasyl’s transformation from schlemiel to a serious man, as he accepts his duties as president, seems to mirror Zelensky’s own transformation in the Western media from feckless actor to war-hero.
He argues that Zelensky went on to be a threshold figure in his country when he went from being a TV star (playing a schlemiel) to a leader of the Ukraine who had to deal – in some fashion – with the complicated anti-semitic past and right wing nationalism of the Ukrainians:
Despite Zelensky’s media makeover, it needs to be pointed out that Zelensky did not become “serious” only after the invasion of Ukraine. His grasp on the complexities of Ukrainian nationalism and on Ukraine’s middle-man position between NATO and Russia, as well as his own perhaps analogous role as a Jew within these opposing polarities, were apparent from the beginning. Zelensky’s position as a Jewish liberal in a state historically articulated through exclusionary ethno-nationalisms was perhaps most clearly framed in his nuanced praise and critique of the Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi sympathizer, Stepan Bandera. In a 2019 speech, Zelensky, who lost family in the Holocaust, lauded Bandera as an “undisputed hero” for “some Ukrainians” as a man who “defined Ukrainian freedom.” But he went on to say “it’s not quite right” that so many “streets and bridges” in Kiev are named after him, going further to ask if there weren’t other heroes who could unite Ukrainians. Showing his bent toward comedy and populism, Zelensky suggested the Ukrainian football star, Andriy Shevchenko, as a possible replacement. This form of nuanced liberalism found its geopolitical equivalent in his critique of the ongoing war in the Donbas. While visiting the site of a separatist ambush last year, Zelensky praised the courage and sacrifice of the dead Ukrainian soldiers, while eschewing the need for revenge. “He questioned the wisdom of sacrificing soldiers in defense of these muddy dugouts,” a Time reporter recorded with surprise. Revenge only means, Zelensky continued, that for some, “their sons would not be coming home.”
Baltheser notes that the world had seen him, before this crisis, as a schlemiel leader who was “in over his head.” However, the Russian incursion changed all that. At which point, the transformation from schlemiel to hero was complete. He was no longer a failed, self-deprecating leader:
For U.S. media, Zelensky’s attempt to responsibly thread the needle between Ukrainian sovereignty and a complicated, multi-ethnic nation met with unbridled scorn. In a widely reprinted guest column in the New York Times, Zelensky was described in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion as “in over his head.” Zelensky’s attempts to defuse the crisis that now engulfs his country were not understood as the quality of a responsible statesman, but rather “dispiritingly mediocre,” more of a “showman” and a “performer” than a serious national leader. Yet weeks later, Zelensky’s transformation from schlemiel to martial hero seemed complete. From the New York Times to MSN to the Washington Post, Zelensky was reborn not only as a war-time leader, but as a man who could “unite the world” as a “symbol of bravery”; his line, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” is read as action-hero bravado rather than self-deprecating comedic satire.
After noting this, Balthaser lays out his lens on Zelensky in terms of what “Americans” want – in a psycho-sexual (fantasy) sense – the Jew to become for them:
Comparisons between Zelenksy, Putin, and Trump only underscore how much the question of manliness is at stake in leadership: Zelensky is undoubtedly a courageous person in an impossible situation doing the best he can, but to suggest that his actions are a replacement, or should be read as a replacement, for the masculine power of Trump and Putinsuggests how much Zelensky’s gender, and not just his politics, is the question at hand. It is one thing to be a leader in a time of crisis; yet Americans seem to want a virile ubermensch who can stand before the bombs as a knight errant. That Zelensky has also become a global sex symbol merely adds a layer of the absurd to the already incredulous.
The problem, now, as Balthaser points out, is that since Zelensky is no longer a schlemiel but a hero, he is no longer in the “interstices of society” – like other “worldless” schlemiel-slash-pariahs (think of Hannah Arendt’s read of Charlie Chaplin):
As Time Magazine framed it in a rather revealing metaphor, Zelensky has been remade from “Charlie Chaplin
” to “Winston Churchill.” The comparison is not only revealing insofar as Churchill was a flaming antisemite and Western chauvinist, but Chaplin, who played Jewish characters and was often derided by the right in antisemitic terms, was often thought to be Jewish himself and may have actually had Jewish roots. Regardless of Chaplin’s actual identity, as Hannah Arendt argued, his most famous and identifying role as “The Tramp” carried with it the entire history of Yiddish theater and a Jewish sensibility of the pariah, existing between borders of identity and in the interstices of orderly society. One might say, Zelensky has been baptized by fire.
Following this, Balthaser turns to the Israelis. How do they see Zelensky? He tells us – citing an article in the Forwards – a “modern Maccabee”:
Jewish-American and Israeli media have also noted the Jewish dimension of Zelensky’s transformation. Yet, rather than engage with subtlety and nuance, they have transformed him less into a literal Anglo-Saxon, and instead into a muscle-Jew, a figure of Jewish martial vigor and strength. In an article in the Forward, Zelensky was praised as a “modern Maccabee,” referring not only to ancient Judean zealots, but to the Zionist cultural myth of the “New Jew” who triumphs over Jewish enemies real and imagined with military prowess and masculine courage.
At this point, Balthaser brings in Daniel Boyarin, who – as I have noted above -sees the Zionist and the muscle Jew as betraying the “soft Jew.”
As Jewish Studies scholar, Daniel Boyarin, narrates in his seminal Unheroic Conduct, there has been, half constructed and half real, a stark binary between Jewish and Christian ideals of manhood. As Boyarin historicizes from medieval Europe to the present, the Ashkenazi Jewish ideal of “Edelkayt” has long offered the gentle, timid, and studious male of the Yeshiva as a Jewish model for masculinity, one that has been secularized into the figure of the “mentsh.” This ideal Jewish manhood was explicitly contrasted with both Roman and later Christian values of masculinity that interpret “activity, domination, and aggressiveness as ‘manly.’” From Freud’s narrative of a Jewish father who allowed his yarmulke to be knocked off by an aggressive and antisemitic Christian, to Passover haggadot that depict the “righteous son” to be a scholar and the “wicked child” to be dressed in Roman robes with sword, the “soft man” often quite self-consciously was celebrated against the “knight in shining armor” of Christian myth. Of course, Boyarin is at pains to point out that there have been Jewish warriors, but that dominant diasporic Ashkanzi culture not only frowned upon such activity, it invented “soft masculinity” as a counter-tradition. The bookish, non-violent, “sweet and delicate” Jewish man was seen as both responsible and sexually desirable. “As it developed historically,” Boyarin concludes, “diaspora Jewish culture had little interest in Samson, and its Moses was a scholar. . . even the Maccabees were deprived of their status as military heroes.” As Boyarin himself states, he thinks of his own “sissy” lack of adherence to dominant masculine ideals as not so much “girlish” as positively “Jewish.”
Jewish ideals of masculinity have changed a great deal since the mid 20th century, as Zionism has risen in cultural and political ascendency. This is not to say Zionism is the only cultural model among Jews. The zealous praise of Zelensky as a “Maccabee” suggests that there may be some anxiety among Jewish nationalists that such a manly, Christianized ideal is not necessarily widely shared: one does not need to make propaganda to convince people the sky is blue. Yet this cultural celebration of Zelensky’s newfound manliness fits within a Zionist cultural framework that understands masculinity as part of the redemption of the Jewish people into their new state. Zionism, as an historical project, was, as Boyarin chronicles, not just a solution to the Jewish national question, but was also intended to redeem the “soft man” of the diaspora and transform him from his “state of effeminate degeneracy into the status of. . . a mock Aryan male.”
Balthaser reads this “association” in terms of something going on not just with the Jewish pysche but the western psyche. In this paragraph, he gives it words that translate Boyarin’s framework for understanding Jewishness into a western (not a Jewish) narrative that has influenced – as Boyarin argues – Zionist colonialism and masculinity (both of which are alien to, in his view, Jewishness):
But the chain of associations from diasporic effeminacy and the transformation of Zelensky’s initial image in the West as a schlemiel into that of a Maccabee carries an often deliberate reference to both the Holocaust and the strong, virile Jewish state as its cultural redeemer. One can argue that Zelensky has been transformed discursively from a Jewish “sissy” into gentile knighthood.
He argues that the US has – to play on the title of Dara Horn’s latest book – used “dead Jews” (in the Holocaust) to legitimate American imperialism:
For victims of the Nazi Judeocide, the U.S. supported success of Israel served to burnish both the U.S.’s own story about itself, as the liberator of oppressed of Europe, as well as to prove that martial vigor had a legitimate and legitimating role to play in the world. As the bellicose Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech after his nomination, his father knew only three words in English when U.S. soldiers rescued him from a Nazi concentration camp: “God Bless America.” “That’s who we are,” Blinken asserted, “That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.” America’s legitimation as Jewish liberator was solidified by the almost unanimous support for Israel’s triumph in the Six Day War. Not only was it seen as a final Jewish victory over the Holocaust, the lightening battle was offered as lasting proof that the IDF could do what the U.S. marines in Vietnam could not: win swiftly over its enemies in the clean, clear light of the Arabian desert. As Melanie McCalester and Amy Kaplan note, the 1967 victory was not only a victory of East versus West, but an incorporation of Israel—and the New (military) Jew—as the elite commandos in a clash of civilizations. Saving Jews, and remaking them into proper gentile men, one could say, has been a vision of Jewish life not only among Zionist radicals, but also among American Jewish and non-Jewish imperialists alike.
Balthaser’s distaste for Israel’s “fascist movements” and different imperialisms – and also for the war in the Ukraine – comes out, here. This war is using Zelensky’s Jewish transformation into the “modern Maccabee,” to further imperialisms and the narrative of “defeating fascism” to legitimate imperialism:
From Charlottesville, Victor Orban, the Azov Battalion to Putin’s own Russian Orthodox nationalism, “Jewishness” has become yet again a means to narrate the collapse of liberalism and its normative inclusion of minorities into its framework. Putin himself trades on the long memory outside of the U.S. of Soviet resistance to the Nazism, as well as to Cold War anti-communism and imperialism. Yet as seen through a glass darkly, it is clear that for Putin, as for Cold War imperialists, the story of the defeat of fascism has been just another way to legitimate his own form of extra-territorial domination. U.S. support for the state of Israel, with its own fascist movements, can be no more seen as antifascist, or pro-Jewish, than Putin’s own claims to be a bulwark against Western chauvinism or the far-right.
In one of his his boldest claims in the essay, he argues that the West “narrates itself into the 20th century” through the use of the schlemiel and the Holocaust narrative. In doing so it “erase(s) actual Jewish complexity.”
This conscription of Jewish masculinity and the Holocaust into stories of U.S. imperialism, Zionism, and Russian military aggression, however unfortunate, thus must also be seen as a key way the West, broadly conceived, narrates itself well into the 21st century. While many Jews from the U.S. to Israel embrace these narratives, it should be remembered that these are narratives that also erase actual Jewish complexity. As my Ukrainian-Jewish-American friend and colleague Maggie Levantovskaya posted on Twitter, relationships to Ukraine for the many American Jews, including myself, who can trace their ancestry there, are complicated: there were, as she said, Jews who wanted to flee Ukraine; Jews who lost their family there; Jews who remained there and feel it is their country; and Jews who married Ukrainians, who are now Jewish American Ukrainians. There are also, including in my own family, Jews who associate Ukrainian nationalism with fascism and who regard President Zelensky with a speculative wonder.
This “erasure of complexity” is the main problematic that, apparently, the schlemiel as schlemiel can disclose. We see things in terms of a hero/enemy binary and can’t see the complexity of Eastern Europe and the schlemiel’s complex relationship with Jewishness (which puts him somewhere between a schlemiel and a hero):
Zelensky’s own relationship to masculinity and to Jewishness are complicated. For instance, in one of his sketch comedy acts before becoming president, he imitated playing a Jewish folk song with his penis. This comedic and satirical act can be read much like the way Jews are asked to relate to Jewish history: with what part of phallic military life will it be played? Even as I write, Zelensky has survived three assassination attempts and I wonder if he will be alive when this piece is published. It is a chilling and awful thought to have Ukraine’s first Jewish president deposed or even murdered at the barrel of a gun. While I have no idea what Zelensky himself feels about his newfound role as savior of West and America’s thirst trap; it is entirely possible he will lean into it as a means, conscious or unconscious, to save his country and his family. Yet his reinvention from untermensch to Maccabee means that he has never really been seen, nor could he be seen, any more than the complexity of Jewish life in Slavic countries can be seen for all the contradictions it inhabits.
Balthaser ends his essays with a meditation on Western blindness, fantasy, and anxiety. The West can’t see itself because they can only see their fantasy of Jews and Jewishness:
But the misrecognition of Jews and Jewish history, aided or not aided by Jews themselves, means as always, that people in power or who want power, never see themselves, or the people they wish to conscript into their plans. In this way, Zelensky is yet another Jewish mirror of the West’s anxieties and fantasies.
This evening, in fact, we see an interesting fantasy being played out against Israel via the “New Macabee,” Zelensky. Senator Adam Kinginger, noted the call Zelensky had with Israel today, and delivered a threat to Israel if they didn’t give Zelensky what he wants:
Now, for Kinzinger, Zelensky has more power than Israel itself (!), and this assertion, Kingzinger claims, is now backed by American power. If Israel does not supply him with weapons, they will not receive any more “future aid.” It’s an interesting moment in Jewish American / Israeli history where – via Kinzinger – there seems to be a narrative displacement that is thought-provoking.
What I find interesting about Balthaser’s reflections are the questions they evoke. Is there ample proof that the West “narrates itself into the 20th century” through the use of the schlemiel and the Holocaust narrative? In doing so, is the “erasure” of “actual Jewish complexity” at stake? Must we, in turn, speak out against this appropriation and point out that the read on Zelensky – as a “Jewish leader” – and the invocation of the Holocaust (today, in fact, Zelensky argued that the Ukraine faces a Holocaust, and this upset some people at the Knesset who saw him as making an unethical and hyperbolic analogy)? Should we – like Briens and Balthaser – read Western fantasies of “tough” post-Holocaust Jews as fundamental to covering over western and Israeli aggression (what Balthaser calls fascism)?
This reading is influenced, without a doubt, by a strain of anti-Zionism (as a variety of anti-imperialism, for Boyarin anti-colonialism). According to this reading, the schlemiel (and Jewishness) is sacrificed by the West, by America, by Israel, and its fantasies in the name of political aims that increase power by legitimating violence and war. These kinds of readings are supported by left leaning outlets like Jewish Currents, Mondoweiss, and journalists like Max Blumenthal and Aaron Mate who argue that we can’t see the complexity of the situation in the Ukraine, American imperialism, etc because of such fantasies. They make it their task to undo these fantasies and complicate the narratives about the Ukraine, Israel, America, etc and their moral missions.
It’s interesting how the schlemiel has come into this discourse by way of Boyarin, Breins, and now Balthaser. It shows how the left can use the schlemiel to understand the west and its desire to fantasize about and use Jewishness and the Holocaust for its purposes.
One doesn’t have to agree with this reading, but one must deal with the fact that Zelensky has, indeed, gone from a schlemiel to a hero in the West. The meaning of this transformation may be regarded in many different ways, but, as we can see from Balthaser’s reading it takes on more of a political meaning that an aesthetic or cultural meaning. This is in the spirit of Ruth Wisse, who, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argued that the schlemiel “challenges the political and the philosophical status quo.” For her, the schlemiel’s victory is “ironic” and emerges not out of power but out of powerlessness and weakness. Her thesis has major implications.
But unlike Balthaser, she sees Israel in a much different way and sees Jewish power – in the wake of the Holocaust – as a good thing. Wisse and Balthaser also have different readings on the relationship of the schlemiel to Israel. That’s another discussion that can benefit from a reading of Sidrah DeKoven’s Ezrahi’s reflections on the post-Holocaust schlemiel in Booking Passage.
I am happy to see this essay because it shows how the schlemiel is not simply a character one finds in film and TV, on Netlfix, or Hulu (in Hollywood or streaming). The schlemiel is not simply, as Ezrahi says, an “American icon”; it is a figure that has entered the political. What that means can be found in the questions that the representation of Zelensky – and his transformation from schlemiel to the “new Maccabee” – evokes. Kinzinger ups the ante by saying that the fate of the Jewish State and its relationship to American depends on whether it obeys Zelensky’s orders.