Laughter through Tears or Tears through Laughter: Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem – Take 3

Irving Howe initiated his letters to Ruth Wisse about Sholem Aleichem by staking his main claim that, based on his own experience of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, he must go against the grain and state that they, like all stories of the Schlemiel (from Chelm to Hershel Ostropolier), have “their undercurrents of darkness.”  Throughout Howe’s letter, […]

Laughter Through Tears or Tears Through Laughter? Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s Humor – Take 1

Do we laugh through tears or do we cry through laughter?  The answer to this question or perhaps the question itself are, for Irving Howe, the crux of Jewish identity.  For Howe, the few Jews who really “scrutinize” themselves, the Jews who “dare to know” (so to speak), will come to this very question.  Howe […]

A Note on Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: Silent Film, Comic Gestures, and Fate

In Jean-Claude Carriere’s book, The Secret Language of Film he points out how films were “born silent” and continue to “love silence.” But he makes a major distinction. He argues that, in its beginnings, silent film “wildly gesticulated.” But “over the past sixty years” since its inception, we have something different; namely, the “present inscrutability […]

The Wisdom and Stupidity of the Child in Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” – Take One

When people ask me if one can find any characters like the schlemiel in other traditions, I immediately think of Robert Walser.   Indeed, I can think of no better example of the schlemiel than in his fiction.   I can also think of no better person to write such fiction since he, too, was a schlemiel, […]

I.B. Singer on the Schlemiel (a.k.a. “Little Man”)

In a 1968 Paris Review interview with Harold Flender, I.B. Singer, the Nobel Prize winning Yiddish writer, was asked about the schlemiel.  However, the name schlemiel wasn’t used in Flender’s question.  Rather, Flender uses the word “little man.”   His question to Singer and Singer’s response are telling as they suggest a break in the tradition […]

The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading, and Distraction (Take 1)

One of the definitive gestures of the schlemiel is distraction.  Nearly all of schlemiels we see in Yiddish literature are, in some way, shape, or form, distracted from the world they are living in or something that, for us, would seem obvious.  They are “absent-minded.” One prime example of this kind of distraction would be […]