A Note on Weak and Strong Jews: Old and New Frameworks for the Schlemiel

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Following WWII and well into the 80s and 90s – when films like Rambo and Top Gun were blockbusters – America was deeply invested in masculine images. Many of its fantasies were framed in terms of weak and strong. But following 9/11 all of that seemed to change. America became more vulnerable and fluid. And in our time – where gender is being multiplied and masculinity is under attack because of the #metoo movement – distinctions between weak/gentle and tough are falling through the cracks.

This distinction has been used by different scholars in Jewish studies to read the meaning of Jewishness in terms of the Schlemiel or the gentle Jew. The distinction between the weak (schlemiel) Jew and the strong Jew (an imposter who, for a few theorists, should even be called a Jew) has been used for political reasons – above all – to contrast Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States.

Is the power of the Jewish people to be found in words or in action? In being gentle or one of the tough nations? The schlemiel gets tossed into these contrasts/questions because the character is framed – by virtue of them – in terms of being gentle and or tough.

Daniel Boyarin’s 1997 book, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Rise of the Jewish Man, contended that the “new Jew” heralded by the Zionists was an invention that can be traced back to German or Austrian Jews like Freud, Max Nordau, or Theodor Herzl who saw the traditional Jew as weak. Boyarin – seeing the gentle Yeshiva Bocher or Mensch as the figure of Jewishness – sees Zionism as alien to what it means to be Jewish. While Boyarin doesn’t include the schlemiel in his book, it is clear that he would see him as partaking in the essence of Jewishness which is not militant, masculine, or violent.

Boyarin is not the only scholar who is deeply invested in dichotomies between “tough Jews” and “gentle Jews.” The gentle Jew – for Warren Rosenberg in Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture and Paul Breines, in Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry – is figured in the schlemiel character. Rosenberg, writing in the wake of both Boyarin’s book and Breins’ book (published in 1990 by Basic Books), builds on Breines’ claims and argues that although the era of the schlemiel has passed after 1967 and the growth of Jewish and Black Power movements, it should be understood that the image of the “gentle Jew” (embodied in the schlemiel) concealed a “legacy of rage.” The legacy, he argues, can be found in the Bible.

Breines argues – in the anti-Zionist spirit – that the schlemiel character, in the wake of the Holocaust, served as a justification for the tough Israeli response to Palestinians. It gave it ethical heft. He sees this in the main character of Ken Follet’s book, The Triple.

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He writes:

The hero, Nat Dickstein, is in nearly all respects the prototype of the new, tough Jew image I am examining. His itinerary is roughly this: He lost his family to the Nazi Final Solution. He survived Death Camps and made his way to Palestine after the war. By the time of the novel’s main action in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nat Dickstein is a Mossad commander….Dickstein kills, often in hand-to-hand combat, a substantial number of Arab and Soviet operatives. (9)

In Dickstein, Breines sees IB Singer (and his Gimpel character) and Ben Canaan of Leon Uris’s Exodus. The schlemiel character is to be seen, in Nat Dickstein’s body:

Among contemporary images of tough Jews, Dickstein’s body is distinguished by its insignificance, its near frailty; he is approaching his fifties, balding, with a smallish, wiry body….Follet’s hero looks the part, not of a new Jewish warrior, but an earlier, slightly meek Jewish victim. (10).

Breins reads the schlemiel into Nat Dickstein to show a new post-Holocaust hybrid, the weak schlemiel Jew justifying the strong Jew:

Reading the Polish-born, Yiddish American writer into Nat Dickstein is an imaginative and moral strategy. Singer, the writer, had created an unmatched galaxy of Jewish gentleness – in the author photos of dust jackets of his books and in his public lectures and occasional essays on mysticism, vegetarianism, pacifism, and Yiddish as a language peculiarly expressive of today’s frightened humanity. The merger of the images of Singer and Nat Dickerson resulted in the gentle and tough Jew in one, the schlemiel as terminator. (11)

Follet’s book really troubled Breins. Since he identified with the schlemiel (much like Boyarin who identifies with the gentle Jew), he wanted to revise its hero:

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)

For this reason, he has a dilemma. How can he save the schlemiel (the schlemiel’s body) when it is used to vindicate or justify violence? Will he throw the schlemiel to the flames? Wouldn’t that efface the notion of Jewish gentleness?

This question also plagues the discourse of Warren Rosenberg who pits the fiction, writings, and plays of Norman Mailer and David Mamet against Cynthia Ozick and Tony Kushner. Rosenberg suggests that the “legacy of rage,” suppressed by the schlemiel- gentle-Jew image and given vent in Mailer and Mamet needs to be balanced out. The irony is that both Ozick and Kushner turn to comedy. The schlemiel is still here.

It seems that the image of the gentle Jew – of the gentle Jewish body – is deeply embedded.

But in our time the body of the male schlemiel has gone mainstream. Whether it is Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, or Jonah Hill, this body and this dichotomy doesn’t seem to fit. Comparing them to the bodies in Fauda doesn’t fit either. Why is it that the comparison of Jewish American to Israeli bodies is no longer a matter for discourse? Perhaps we should turn to some other framework to understand the schlemiel (something I have been suggesting in this blog).

Today’s America is different. But the schlemiel is still here. How has it – if at all – changed? Today we have more women schlemiels, too. What’s the right frame to use? Does the weak/tough Jewish body still hold?

A Schlemiel Mystic on East Broadway

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Philosophers, mystics, and schlemiels have something in common. They are all, in some way, detached from the world and aloof. In Plato’s Theaetetus, there is a telling tale about a Thracian servant girl who laughs at Thales, the philosopher; who, while gazing at the stars, falls down a well.

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Why, take the case of Thales, Theodorus. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.

He falls into the well because he can’t see what’s in front of him. Socratessees this as a good analogy for “those who pass their lives in philosophy.” There is something charming and laughable about the person who stumbles in the world.

The same can perhaps be said for the mystic and certainly that’s the case for the schlemiel.

This is a motif that Herbert Weiner uses in the second chapter of his book 9 1/2 Mystics. The chapter, entitled, “The Mystic of East Broadway,” portrays “Mr. Setzer” an elderly bachelor – who has an office on East Broadway – a master of Kabbalah, as a tragic-comic schlemiel mystic.

When I first read the chapter, I was astonished by what Werner had done. It made me pause. I’d like to recount this portrayal as it suggests that we look at the person and not just his or her ideas about Kabbalah. The person, he suggests, embodies these ideas in a particular way.

One of the ideas that is found in the Talmud is that one should not study the Kabbalah unless one is married and above the age of forty. While Setzer fulfills one, he doesn’t fulfill another. Like Robert Walser and Franz Kafka (or even Kierkegaard) or any of their schlemiel characters, the bachelor schlemiel takes on a certain kind of comical-mystical aloofness and desperation that is unparalleled. Their separation from the world makes their characters into philosophical or mystical figures. Everything about what they say or do is odd and awkward.

Weiner’s descriptions of “Mr. Setzer” clearly convey this.

That Setzer was not easy to approach became apparent on my first telephone call. A high-pitched voice answered and quickly refused my request for an appointment to discuss arrangements for studying the Zohar….On my third call, however, I received an invitation to his office which was located on East Broadway in lower Manhattan.

Setzer’s “office” turned out to be a basement store which was approached by descending several steps below street level. When I arrived for my apporintment at eleven o’clock at night, I could see through the storefront window a man sitting alone over a pile of books and papers. He appreared to be tall, but it was mostly his extreme thinness and long face that gave the illusion of height….He seemed tired, and his discolvored nose and red-rimmed eyes showed he was suffering from a cold. (24).

Like many a schlemiel, Setzer is imbued with a comical kind of smallness. Everything is off about him. He speaks out of turn and has an odd way of responding to people. It’s a mystical thing, apparently.

He initially refuses Weiner’s desire to learn Zohar with him. Weiner notes, “Disappointed, I asked Setzer why he had first refused to see me and then changed his mind. It was his ‘mystic philosophy’, he replied. ‘When a call comes in once or twice, I ignore it. When it comes in three times, it is possible that they are involved.'”(25).

Who are they?

“They,” I later learned, was Setzer’s designation of the hidden, but ultimately, controlling power of the “other” domain. “They,” however, were evidently not telling Setzer to agree to my request…Only when I was about to leave did he agree to see me again, specifying that I must come only in the evening, after seven o’clock.

The sad thing about Setzer is that he was a scholar in Europe who had published many articles and had speaking engagements. But in NYC, he fails. Jewish Institutions – think of Plato’s Academy and Socrates living on the it’s generosity- couldn’t support his scholarship. After he puts a notice in for a class in the Zohar, the only person who shows up is Weiner. Apparently, it’s a schlemiel’s endeavor to teach the Zohar in NYC.

In the section entailed “A Reluctant Teacher,” we gain insight into his quirks. His frustration as his failure to realize his vision come into their one-on-one Zohar sessions:

More and more…Setzer’s frustration with the fact that his plans remained unfulfilled broke into our studies. Even his satisfaction at the successful elucidation of a subtle passage was touched with bitterness. “Nu,” he would ask, “now you understand, yes? On this point sixteenth-century kabbalists like Ari and Cordovero…struggled and struggled and finally came up with nothing. It took me thirty years to undrsntad it, and now I’ve given it to you in five minutes.” He could not hide a note of regret at parting so easily with knowledge so painfully acquired. (36)

More and more, the Zohar and Kabbalah studies fall to the wayside and regret comes to the forefront:

He began to talk about his fine collection of books; it pained him to think of leaving them to one of the institutions that had been so indifferent to him. He talked faceitiously about taking the books with him, and he seriously considered trying to make a commercial arrangement with some hotel owner: he would exchange the books, which he estimated were worth about three thousand dollars, for three years of room and board. It would be a good risk for the hotel, and they would profit on the arrangement…..Naturally, he was bitter about being ignored. In Europe, he had been literary editor of one of the first Hebrew quarterlies and one of that dedicated circle that helped to bring about a renaissance of the Hebrew language. His name and his articles were known to almost every reader of the Jewish and Hebrew press…Now, almost unknown and unhonored, he had only this meager, borrowed office on East Broadway. (37)

Weiner tries to help out by giving him opportunities to go more public. But when he meets with friends of Weiner, Setzer speaks about his musings about Evil and doesn’t engage the person (46-47).

When he sets up an opportunity to talk to young Rabbis and make a big impression, Setzer also fails to take advantage of the opportunity (49-52). Instead, he reads from a paper he wrote and bores everyone. He doesn’t notice how his audience feels and doesn’t know how to respond to them. He is so deeply engrossed in ideas that he can’t see the world. His failure typifies the failure of the schlemiel.

The last part of the chapter is tragic comic.

Weiner recounts his last meeting with Setzer after this failed event. Setzer shrinks as he approaches the end of life.

He meets him in the hospital. Setzer “was sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to another visitor, when I walked in. He had always been very skinny, but now the hollows of his cheeks seemed to meet in the center of his long face. Everything about him had shrunk, his shoulders, his chest, even his formerly protruding nose. His hand, when I shook it, seemed weightless”(52).

Weiner learns that Setzer has a cancerous growth at 86 years of age, and now doing what he’s always wanted to do in his life: leave for Israel to live out his last days. After leaving the hospital, Weiner goes to help him with his baggage and that is the last he sees of him.

The chapter ends with a piece that Setzer told him to put in to the chapter that would go in this very book. It is called “the prayer of a mystic.”

The piece is about a person who, in being crushed and reduced to smallness, calls out in prayer for revelation:

He feels crushed, desolate, and abandoned – and a prayer of the heart, broken and torn, then bursts from his mouth.

O cause to flow They graciousness to descend upon me, and show me the way which is for me to follow. Enlighten, my God, my eyes, that they may see and understand your wonders and signs; that I may now how to save my soul from the heaviness of this oppression which Thou hast latest upon me….

It’s telling that at the end of a life of a schlemiel mystic is a prayer for a a final revelation as one is finally reduced to the infinitesimal. The aloofness we find with the schlemiel mystic, so to speak, is a part of a long process of becoming small. This is what we find in Kafka’s “Before the Law.” The schlemiel, “the man from the country,” in Kakfa’s parable, becomes smaller and smaller as he waits to “enter the law.” His “becomes childish.”

During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live.

Like Kafka’s “man from the country” or Mr. Setzer, one must be a schlemiel to wait – becoming smaller and smaller – until the end of one’s life…for revelation. But that is the risk of the schlemiel mystic: that in becoming small, in failing, becoming infinitesimal (instead of large, like Walt Whitman’s American poet hero, “containing multitudes”), one may, one in short moment, see the truth in smallness.

Perhaps that, and not simply laughable aloofness, is the aspiration which the philosopher, the mystic, and the schlemiel share?

Lil Dicky, or Dave: A Schlemiel-Rapper with his own Sitcom on hulu

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In 2009, New York Magazine published a special issue on Larry David with a cover that featured Woody Allen and Larry David, entitled “Last of the Schlemiels: Notes on the end of Jewish Humor (may it rest in peace), and the beginning of something Nu.”

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The irony of this article and the cover title is that Larry David and Woody Allen are not – by any means – the last of the schlemiels.   As one can see from this blog, it has been extensively documented as to how the schlemiel is not only alive and well but also extremely popular.

While Allen and David are baby boomers who have followed the lead of others who are also baby boomers – like Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, and other Jewish-American elders like I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, etc, and many actors) – and have made the Schlemiel a staple in American culture, a following generation of Gen Xers like Judd Apatow,  Jeff Schafer, Adam Sandler, Jason Alexander, and Ben Stiller took the torch, and following them there are many millennials who have taken the schlemiel to the current generation – from actors like Gretta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Amy Shumer, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill to writers like Simon Rich, Evan Goldberg, Jesse Eisenberg (who also, of course, plays schlemiel roles but has lately taken to writing).

Now that he has his own TV show on hulu called, Dave and has several videos that have millions of views, I want to add Lil Dicky – David Burd – to this list.

Lil Dicky has expanded the schlemiel genre to include the Schlemiel-as-Rapper.  Through his hard comical work, which plays primarily on his small penis (a stereotype about Jews that he is marketed effectively), obsessive masturbation, pot smoking, desire for success as a rapper, and awkwardness, he has been able to carve out a large space for the schlemiel that touches not just Jews but also large African American audiences.

His video with Chris Brown, for instance, currently has over 600 million views. In this video, he is given the first minute and a half to promote the schlemiel.  The plot is to stop being a schlemiel – ultimately, a want-to-be-rapper without a real sex life – and become…Chris Brown (his schlemiel anti-thesis):

We see a similar theme of sexual failure in his video featuring Brendon Urie were he fails to get hitched with the woman he loves and is humiliated (but bites the bullet).  This video has over 58 million views.

This theme echoes the sexual failure we find in his “Ex-boyfriend” video.

Lil Dicky also makes a video called “Save Dat Money” with Fetty Wrap and Rich Homie Quan which has over 144 million views.  It plays on his attempt to make an “epic rap video” without spending any money.  On the one hand, this plays on an anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews saving money but it also speaks to the “simple guy” who just wants to be a famous rapper but whose body (and schlemiel persona) doesn’t fit the part.

His schlemiel character – like most Schlemiels, even Larry David – has a comical charm that appeals to many in this generation.  He is deemed so popular that he now has his own TV show on Hulu.

As a result, he now has an even bigger platform to put the schlemiel out there.  In contrast to Larry David’s schlemiel, however, this schlemiel is much portrayed as much more of a failure.  David (Lil Dicky) – here, as in his rap videos, is appealing to a different demographic and is playing on, as he had elsewhere, on the size of his penis and his fantasies of success.

Of all the schlemiel characters in the 20th century, the one who focused most on his sexual drive (and drew lots of criticism for this from critics like Irving Howe) was Philip Roth’s Portnoy.  He talks obsessively about masturbation and sex.   Following him, Bruce Jay Friedman and Woody Allen have created some sexual schlemiels as have Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller.

As the scholar David Biale notes, the sexual Schlemiel has a legacy.

But with Lil Dicky the schlemiel aspect comes out less in sex than in the desire to be a rapper.  The comedy is to be found in his body and his awkwardness.  It brings out the gap between Jews and African Americans in the rap industry.  But it also puts Jews back in the position of comic,  diasporic powerlessness.  In Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, this contrast of power and powerlessness is made out of the contrast between an American Jews and an Israeli: Portnoy and an Israeli Sabra woman, Naomi

In that novel, there is a resentment about being powerless. But the big difference here is that there isn’t resentment between Lil Dicky and these rappers (as their is with Portnoy and Naomi).  He really wants to be them, as we see in the videos above and in the TV show that will be the ongoing theme.  It’s his odd desire and awkwardness that makes people laugh.

Comedy – not rap – is his real power.  It’s his charm.   Although he lacks the power, he somehow gets in.  Its the joy of this success that also makes people happy.  It manifest s the desire of many millennials to become rappers or poplar in that culture.  But he always, as we can see, remains on the margin. That’s what makes the schlemiel comedy of today so popular.

Comical difference, desire, and failure are something that this generation gets very well and Dave (“Lil Dicky”) Burd is becoming, for many Millenials, what Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer or Roth’s Portnoy was to baby boomers, or Adam Sandler, Larry David, Ben Stiller’s schlemiels were to Gen Xers.   However, he has a few competitors for that spot, like Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, and Amy Shumer.

But it seems that Seth Rogen’s dream come true with Nikki Minaj is something that Lil Dickey has in spades.

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Perhaps the future of the Schlemiel is to be found in this space.  Be that as it may, the Schlemiel lives on in different parts of American culture, albeit in ways that are less intellectually stimulating and meaningful – or culturally specific –  than we find with Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and I.B. Singer. The survival of the more intellectually interesting schlemiels is there, but it isn’t mainstream in the same way.

Perhaps, the Schlemiel’s of the future will be on Netflix and hulu, on shows like Community or…Dave.

Stay tuned!

Bruce Jay Friedman – Master of the American Schlemiel – Turned 90 Yesterday

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Yesterday, Bruce Jay Friedman turned 90.

He is the author of many important novels, short stories, and screenplays on the American Schlemiel such as Stern (1962), A Mother’s Kisses (1964), “Brasserville Teenager,” The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Stir Crazy (1980), and much else.

One of his children, Drew (who is an amazing caricaturist), wrote this on Facebook yesterday to honor his birthday:

“Happy 90th birthday to our
incredible dad Bruce Jay Friedman.

I just enjoyed a special virtual ZOOM family 90th Birthday party for BJF with his wife Pat, his children and his grandchildren which was touching, fun and funny, and yes, even Milton Berle’s appendage was discussed.”

Schlemiel Theory has written on Bruce Jay Friedman’s work, here, here, here, and here.  Take a look!

There is a lot more work to be done researching and writing on Bruce Jay Friedman’s schlemiels which have, in many ways, shaped the reception of the schlemiel in America.  His short stories and novels have been translated into many Hollywood productions either directly or indirectly.

The schlemiel – and the American Jew – has come a long way since his first major sketch in Stern in the early 60s.  Although masculinity or the urban/rural contrast is not the main contrast for the schlemiel today (save for a great novel like Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy), our different approaches to the male schlemiel today still have resonance (as we see in many Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen films or in many TV shows that feature schlemiel characters; from Community to Big Bang Theory).

Happy Birthday Bruce!  The schlemiel lives on!

 

 

 

A Jeu of a Book: On the Preface to John Updike’s “Bech: A Book”

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Cynthia Ozick argued that hidden inside of John Updike’s Bech trilogy there is a theological reading of Jews. In 1965, Updike, the award-winning American WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) writer – Pulitzer Prizes in 1982 and 1991, National Book Award in 1964, PEN/Malamud Award 1988, etc – addressed what one could call his Jewish question: how does a American writer describe the American Jew by way of fiction? The answer to his question isn’t so simple. Yes, it is through comedy. But is it, as Ozick believed, through a theology that made Jews into the embodiment of Augustine and Pascal’s “carnal Israel?” Or is he just an endearing schlemiel character who has Roth and Singer as his progenitors?

With this question in mind, I started reading the first of Updike’s books on Bech – a Jewish American character, a writer.

Updike begins his narrative with Bech’s voice, addressing John Updike (the author) in a letter that comes in the wake of Updike’s book on Bech…that we readers are about to read:

Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it is me, enough me, purely me. (9)

Bech notes that in some of Updike’s representations of him, he appears as someone else:

At first glance, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinking curly hair), I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; than that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns. (9).

Neither of these characters relate to the “real” Bech. Who does? “My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I.B. Singer”(9). In other words, Bech sees himself as a cross between two specific kinds of schlemiel characters: one Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, a “sexual schlemiel”; the other, Gimpel, the memorable schlemiel of the story that made him an item in the USA in the late fifties (near the time this novel was written).

Bech says that Updike’s mis-readings of his character come from “something Waspish, theological, sacred, and insultingly ironic that derives…from you”(10). Yet, says Bech, “you are right.” About what? His misrepresentations?

He is right about the writer.

Bech launches into a strange reflection on writers and their demise in America:

Envied by Negroes, disbelieved in like angels, we veer between harlotry of the lecture platform and the torture of the writing desk, only to collapse, our five-and-dime Hallowe’en priests’ robes a rustle with economy-class just-set tickets….Our language degenerating in the mouths of broadcasters and pop yellers…I could mutilate myself like sainted Origen, I could like Jeremiah. Thank Jahweh these bordellos in the sky can soon dispose with the excuse of us entirely; already the contexts of a book count as little as the contents of a breakfast cereal box.

But the question not answered is this: is Updike right about the Jew? Has he answered the Jewish question in his fictional portrayal? Is the “real” me Bech is talking about an American Jew or an American writer? Is he a schlemiel or a writer? Can’t they be both, as Heinrich Heine said of the poet? (According to Hannah Arendt, for Heine, the poet is the schlemiel – the “lord of dreams.)

Bech’s Jewishness sinks in when he gets to the point: “I'[m sure that when with that blithe goyish brass, I will never cease to grovel at, you approached me for a “word or two by way of preface,” you were bargaining for a benediction not a curse”(11). What he offers is a criticism:

My blessing. I like some of the things in these accounts very much. The communists are all good people – good people…..Here and there passages seemed over edited, constipated; you prune yourself too hard….I like some of the women you gave me, and a few of the jokes. (11)

But the jeu, not the Jew gets the last word: “I don’t suppose this little jeu of a book will do either of us drastic harm”(12).

The irony of this final statement works on several levels. First of all, what kind of thing is Bech saying about Jews? By calling Updike’s book on him a “little jeu of a book.” he is making an anti-Semitic kind of statement. However, the word “jeu” means game in French. Is this book a “play”on the meaning of the Jew or on the comical meaning of the writer? Is this about Bech’s Jewishness? Or is this about Updike’s Jewish question?

For me these questions are all important, but as an American Jew it is even more interesting. In reading this book, do I expect Updike to show me what American Jewishness (circa 1967) looks and sounds like? Is the the crux of being an American Jew – as a result of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and I.B. Singer, amongst others – for Updike, the award winning American novelist – tied to comedy and the schlemiel? Or is this assertion itself, as Ozick notes, a theological caricature of Jewishness?

To be continued…..

Neil Simon – an American Master of Schlemiel Comedy – Passes

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A few weeks ago I was walking through the streets of New York with a good friend, Jessie Freedman.  He’s a young Off Broadway playwright whose new wave Avant Garde theater has been written up in The New York Times and other places.    When the topic of what or who I was interested in these days came up, I said: Neil Simon.  I recalled how many of his plays were cast not just on Broadway, TV, and on the screen but also in Jewish Community centers around America (my mother acted in a few of them in my local Jewish community in Upstate, NY).   I told Jessie that I have noticed that the schlemiels in Neil Simon’s plays have gone un-noticed and have been poorly discussed.  He agreed.  And then we both agreed to not only go back through his work but to even start a reading group between Toronto and NYC.

Today, after I heard the news that he passed, I was besides myself and realized how needed such a study is today.  It seems to have come too late, but now is a good time to figure out what made his comedy work.  As Variety Magazine notes, he was the “King of Comedy Playwrights.”  And – I would add – he was the king of schlemiel comedy (move over Woody Allen and Larry David).

I’d like to make a few cursory observations about his work.   While he is most known for The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, he was the author of countless plays that are equally laudable such as Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost in Yonkers.   Many of his plays were turned into films and most of them cast the main characters as schlemiels.  To be sure, he saw himself and much of post-WWII American Jewry in this way.  Jewish American men play vulnerable schlemiels in most of these plays.  In Brighton Beach Memoirs – which are a reflection of his own life – we see that the schlemiel, for Simon, was to be seen in the context of the Jewish American family (mainly hailing out of New York).

He also adapted – through screenplay – the schlemiel classic The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which was written by Bruce Jay Friedman.  It casts the schlemiel in a more dark light – as does much of Bruce Jay Friedman’s dark schlemiel comedy (as in his book, Stern or A Mother’s Kisses).

Nearly forty years later, in 2007, the film was redone but cast Ben Stiller as the schlemiel character.  Once again showing how big the schlemiel character has become in Hollywood in particular and America in general.

But there are also moments when Neil Simon sees women as schlemiels as in Lost in Yonkers.   The childlike aspect of Bella – the main character – is endearing.  Like the children she takes care of they all discover things – as it were- for the first time.  This casts a much different, much more positive light on the character and shows that it is not bound to any one gender.

For Simon, the schlemiel character – it seems – gives wonder to American Jewish life and the family.  It shows the beauty of life in America for Jews as they discover how to fit in – in their own way.   It also shows the anxiety of Jews trying to adapt to American culture and the failures by way of the cuckold (an old theme no less, mined by Bruce Jay Friedman, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Amy Shumer, and many others).

But the important thing to note is that for Simon the schlemiel character – by and large – emerges out of a comical family dynamic and is an endearing character.  (Hannah Arendt saw this as one this characters main features – whether in Heine or Chaplin. The same can be said of what we find in the novels of Sholem Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, I.B. Singer et al.)   There is something particular about the schlemiel and its Jewishness for Simon, yet, at the same time, there is something in this character that can appeal to all Americans.   If there is any litmus test for this, his numerous awards, films, TV shows, and performances on and off Broadway show us that his characters were seen again and again by Americans and have – I would argue – become a part of the American sensibility.

Now that he has passed and in the wake of these reflections I realize how important it is to make a deep study of his work.  Schlemiel Theory has its work to do.  Now is the time to figure out why his work has such a deep impact on Jews and on Americans and his legacy to Jewish American theater.  May his memory be for a blessing.

 

 

 

Reading Adorno and Walter Benjamin though Don Quixote and the Schlemiel – New Publication

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Menachem Feuer – the author of Schlemiel Theory (www.schlemielintheory.com) – just published a new essay entitled: “Discovering the Truth of Sancho Panza: The Meaning of Comedy in Adorno and Benjamin’s Divergent Readings of Don Quixote.”  It is a part of a volume for Routledge’s Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy entitled Benjamin, Adorno, and the Experience of Literature.  It includes a variety of in-depth essays by great scholars on the differences between these two thinkers by way of Benjamin and Adorno’s readings of literature.

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Feuer’s essay uses the schlemiel – the “Jewish Don Quixote” – as a central way of distinguishing between the two thinker’s readings of Don Quixote.  According to Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin’s favorite Kafka parable was the “Truth of Sancho Panza.”  Benjamin has written of this parable extensively in his work and especially in his famous essay on Kafka.

The point of Schlemiel Theory is to show – as Feuer has done in this essay – that the schlemiel character is an important figure in Jewish Philosophy and can be used heuristically to understand the role comedy plays in Jewish Philosophy, thought, literature, and culture – a role that has yet to receive its due.

Stay tuned for more publications on the schlemiel by the author of Schlemiel Theory.  They are on the way.

More schlemiel theory!

Notes on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?”

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Comedy opens up our senses.  It helps us to see things differently – with new eyes and ears.  Sometimes, we laugh so hard that there is a revelation that comes – physically – through tears.   In Jewish American comedy, this laughter exposes us to a kind of embodiment.   However, its confusing.  Is this laughter – at things Jewish and by Jewish American comedians – an embodiment of something Jewish, something American, or even something “self-hating” or anti-Semitic?  Where does embodiment fit in Jewish comedy?   Where – in particular – does embodiment fit in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?”

In his book on Jewish Comedy, Jeremy Dauber defines humor in seven different theses.   1) Jewish humor is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism 2) Jewish comedy is a satirical gave at Jewish social and communal norms; 3)  Jewish humor is bookish, witty, intellectual and illusive play; 4) Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented; 5) Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jew; 6) Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself (xiv).  The seventh thesis – which he actually ranks as the fourth – is that “Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body obsessed.”

Instead of placing Sacha Baron Cohen in the chapter that addresses this thesis, Dauber places it at the very end of his first chapter, “What’s so Funny About Anti-Semitism.”   He argues that Cohen has a “transgressive delight in displaying (or purporting to display) a hidden and not so hidden anti-Semitism in famously tolerant America.  He does this primarily by means of one of his characters, the Kazakstan journalist Borat, who attempts, in his interviews, to get his subjects to accede to his rabid anti-Semitism”(48).

The response to the character’s song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” or his character, Bruno’s expression “on the train to Auschwitz” is “basically a testament to the docility and occasional inanity of people caught up in the media spotlight; whether it pulls the cover back on anti-Semitism, as some watching have indicated, may be less plausible, especially given the deeply contrived, if hilarious, circumstances, Cohen creates to let his art flourish”(48).

The greater takeaway for Dauber is the “position of confidence and strength Jews have in the American culture”(48).   He assesses this position by way of taking note of a scene from Larry David where he makes an “assault on the Christian majority: his astonishing protestations of ignorance about that culture.  In one episode, in which he stops a Jews conversation to Christianity by disrupting the prospective converts baptism, he claims he doesn’t know what a baptism is, or what it looks like. David’s character’s cluelessness is a comic foil…but suggests two lessons”(49).

The two lessons are two sides of the coin: one positive, the other negative.  On the one hand, David’s schlemiel-like ignorance is an “apotheosis of Lenny Bruce’s approach – I don’t need to know,” a “kind of fuck you to the ostensible majority power”(49).   On the other hand, it is also a reminder to his viewers “that comedians, that Jews, are different, so essentially so that they can know little about the outside world”(49).  The latter, he calls, a “neurotic” stereotype that feeds into self-hatred.

Dauber argues that this prompts the biggest question of all for American Jews who partake in the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen,  Larry David, or Sarah Silverman (who employ humor that makes Jews look odd, different, inept (like schlemiels, in the worst sense): “Is it the safety and security of the American Jewish community that allows David, Silverman, and Cohen the comfort to  wallow in such neurotic (not to say self-hating) comic behavior?”(49, my emphasis).

Dauber gives “one answer” that is disturbing.  He argues – by way of a comment by Israeli illustrator Amitai Sandy – that Jews are better than even anti-Semites at creating “the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons every published.  No Iranian will beat us on our home turf”(49).    The last words of his chapter – following this claim – are hard to accept: “Black times do call, it seems, for black comedy”(49).  Is it the case that the main point that Sacha Baron Cohen is making is that Jews today are – even though Dauber doesn’t like to use the term but does – self-hating  out of a historical pathology to do so? The word “do”sounds odd.  What does it imply that these dark times “do” call for this?  Is Sasha Baron Cohen’s work an echo of a historical perspective tainted by deep anti-Semitism?    This, for Dauber, is the problem because it is a kind of Jewishness that is not simply self-deprecating (and neurotic, think of Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, etc) but self-destructive.

This question has a specifically American focus for Dauber.  After all, all of these comedians are rooted in Jewish American culture or base most of their comedy on it (like Sacha Baron Cohen).  Moreover, Dauber cites an Israeli who notes this self-hating aspect to point out that there is a blind spot in Jewish American comedy that can’t see anti-Semitism or how the caricature of Jews feeds into this.

While Dauber notes that Cohen is trying to expose the naivite and possible anti-Semitism of Americans, he also – as we see above – rejects that thesis because the circumstances that they are put in are bizarre. There is no real revelation of what Americans are (namely, anti-Semitic at their core).  The trick is to believe that such a disclosure is being made.  But this, Dauber argues, only makes American Jews look bad because it is more than a “fuck you” to American culture; its also an act of self-hate that feeds anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Cohen, it seems, is very aware of this issue.  For this reason, in terms of embodiment, Cohen wants us to ask a question: When we see America, who do we see? It is not “what do we see”?   It is “who” is America.  The schlemiel-like mistranslation of the Israeli is telling.  It seems to counter Dauber’s argument.

When we see America through the eyes of someone who is playing a caricatured Israeli, something else comes through.  What does Cohen’s character, Coloniel Eran Morrad show us?

He doesn’t simply show us that America is gullible – as he does in most of his other work – he also shows us that many of the people who meet this character think of him not as a caricature but as a “real” Israeli.  They trust that Israelis know about terrorism, weapons, and self-defense.   What does it mean that we laugh at this trick?   We – as “insiders” to the joke – laugh at his eyebrows, his make up, and so on because we can see that it is a caricature.  It is a fake embodiment.  They can’t see that.  But is it also, as Dauber would say, a sign of entitlement to show how stupid Americans are?

Cohen’s origins are fascinating because he has Israeli parents and a strong connection to the country.   Would this character and his own identity counter what Dauber is saying?  Or is this also a parody of the Israeli masculine stereotype?  This seems to be more than an insider joke.

Who is America is also the question, who is Israel?  What does an Israeli look like? How do they act?  But is it the case that the “who” may transcend both?

One interesting cultural confluence right now is the fact that Fauda is one of the most popular shows on Netflix.   One sees more faces of Israelis than ever as a result of this show, which has a cast that is mostly Israeli.

How is Jewishness embodied in America or Israel?  And how does humor put a new angle on these kinds of embodiments?  With the question “who is,” we come close to something that is more relational.  In our time, this is at the core of our relations.  Jewish American humor can bring this out, but to do so it will have to pass through stereotypes and caricatures of Jewishness.   The question of who one is, of embodiment, must pass through Larry David, Sarah Silverman, and Sacha Baron Cohen as much as through Fauda.  Comedy can either break the stereotype or reinforce it.   That all depends on “who” we see not just “what” we see.  Embodiment has a face.  Perhaps, through humor, we can see it…or fail to see…who is “facing” us.

A Schlemiel in the Park

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Yesterday I was taking a stroll in Central Park when – out of nowhere – a group of young French tourists came up to me and asked if they could take a photo with me.  I asked them why and they told me that I “looked like a New Yorker.”    What does a New Yorker look like, I wondered.  The first thought that came to me was that – in the wake of so many films by Woody Allen and so many episodes of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and so much more media – the image of the male schlemiel has become prominent in the mind of many people around the world (especially in France which loves Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen) as the image of the New Yorker.    One could argue that the “body of Jewish comedy” (something I have written on) is deeply informed by the stereoypical image of the New York Jew (as schlemiel).

While some people may wince at the idea of the Jewish body as a caricature and stereotype, the fact of the mater is that Larry David, Seth Rogen, etc and many others still, to this day, draw on it in order to disarm negativity about Jews and others.    We can’t get away from stereotypes in America, but that is something that these artists worked through.  Even so, New York does and remains, to this day, a city that is identified with Jews.  This has negative and positive implications.  It can tap into something anti-Semitic or its inversion.   The idea of a New York Jew is based in fact.  After all, New York houses the largest Jewish population of any city in the USA and outside of Israel.  It has been the home of Jews since the 19th century (and even before).    Jewish art, culture, and commerce have flourished in New York.  Take a visit to the Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue to see for yourselves the rich history of Jews in this city in all of these aforementioned fields.

I am proud to say that I come from a  few generations of New York Jews.  And, strangely enough, the photo was taken not far from where my father lived part of his childhood: on Central Park West.  I’ll admit that I embrace and have – since I was a child – emulated the image of the New York Jew.   I always wondered what a New York Jew was so when I would visit (I was raised in Upstate New York) New York City to see my relatives I’d always get a good look and pay close attention to their bodies and gestures.

Like Michael  Wyschogrod argues in his book The Body of Faith, Judaism is embodied.  While in the past Judaism was thought of in terms of ideas or beliefs, Wyschogrod argues that this led to the abstraction of Judaism and of God.   He suggests that Judaism (and God – Hashem in Hebrew) is to be found not in this or that idea or distinction but amongst Jews.    What I find so novel about the schlemiel is that its a comical registration of Judaism and that registration has a location in New York. Contrast that to the relationship of the Jewish body to Jerusalem which is embodied in the Temple, the pilgrimages, the priesthood, etc etc.

Judaism is a religion that is grounded in people and places.

With that in mind, I said yes.  Take my photo.  I’m a Jew from New York.  And I embrace the schlemiel.   I am a Schlemiel in the Park.

 

 

On Hollywood Schlemiel Managers: Adam Sandler’s “Sandy Wexler”

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Without a doubt, Adam Sandler is one of the main four actors and screen writers who, over the last few decades, has popularized a new variety of the American schlemiel. That star-studded list includes Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, and Judd Apatow who – in nearly every film – have starred (or casted actors) as schlemiels. They are – so to speak – the next generation of actors and filmmakers who followed the lead of Woody Allen whose film Annie Hall (1976) made the schlemiel into a national staple (arguably because this film, unlike the others, received a bevy of Oscars). One scholar – Daniel Itzkovitz – makes a fine distinction, however, and calls Sandler (and Stiller) a “new schlemiel” because he has displaced the schlemiel’s Jewish character and made it into an American everyman character. The same can be said for Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow.

While there are “new schlemiels” like Sandler, there is another new variety of schlemiel that casts a shade of darkness over this comic character. We find this by filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and the Coen brothers. The Coen Brothers films Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewelyn Davis (2013) are a case in point. J. Hoberman has taken note and has argued that the latter film draws on the dark comedic schlemiel we find in Bruce Jay Friedman’s novel Stern. While Hoberman’s insight is important, it fails to take note of the implications for Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, et al. The stakes are high. The only filmmaker who has a keen insight into what is at stake with this new (dark) depiction of the “new schlemiel” is Noah Baumbach. He has cast not only Ben Stiller – as in the films Greenberg (2010) or While We Are Young (2014) but also Sandler and Stiller in his Meyerowitz Stories (2017) as schlemiels who have more tragic and sad notes than comical ones. Film critics from The New Yorker – like Richard Brody and Ian Parker- are more interested in this darker shade because they find it more sophisticated and intelligent. However, Brody is clearly more in favor of the darker side when it comes to Gretta Gerwig playing – in Frances Ha (2012) or Mistress America (2015) – or casting the schlemiel, as in her recent film Ladybird (2018). For this reason, one need not be surprised by Richard Brody’s negative take on Adam Sandler’s recent Netflix film, Sandy Wexler (2018). I think that Brody’s reading missed the mark and is something of a red herring. What Sandler is recovering – of the schlemiel – in this film is noteworthy.

Brody’s reading of the Sandler film sees it as a poor imitation of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1984). For Brody, the master depiction of the “schlemiel talent manager” is mastered by Woody Allen.

The difference between the two is clear. It is not merely because Allen’s film came first. It is because -for Brody – Allen’s film is more intellectual and gritty. The comic failures of Allen’s depiction of the schlemiel manager are more sophisticated and meta. The mismatches are more profound.

What Brody doesn’t see in Sandler’s film is what Sandler’s new project portends about the schlemiel and his/her place in Hollywood, not New York. Broadway Danny Rose is a film that is more connected to the American schlemiel’s roots in New York and the Borsht Belt. For Baumbach (and for Brody, it seems), it has closer ties to New York than to Los Angeles and for that it should be commended. The new schlemiel that Itzkovitz is interested in, however, is to be found in Hollywood not New York. For this reason, Baumbach’s Meyerowitz Stories suggestion that we revisit the schlemiel – and in a darker shade – in New York is noteworthy. The only film that Baumbach cast stiller in – as a dark schlemiel in Los Angeles (albeit as a schlemiel traveling from NYC to Los Angeles) – was in Greenberg.

What is lost in all of this darkness and geography is what Stiller is looking to redeem in this character. Sandy Wexler is a charming schlemiel character whose honesty and humility are commendable. He manages – in this film – to help one of his talents by the name of Courtney Clarke (played by Jennifer Hudson) to become a star. He sees talent in people who Hollywood skips over. In other words, the schlemiel talent manager sometimes gets it right and this earns the love of Clarke in this film. But instead of hitching himself to a star, Wexler goes on to help the needy who are in search of stardom.

Jennifer Hudson – in an appearance on Good Morning America – takes note that what she loves about Sandler is the “family vibe” that he brought to the film. I would argue that this insight is important because the charm of his character is not simply the romantic element but the paternal and family element that Sandler brings to this schlemiel character. The schlemiel – as I have said elsewhere – draws its comedy on this family aspect. It is – like the schlimazel and the nudnik – a family member. To be sure, the classic American Jewish joke about the schlemiel situates him amidst a table with a schlimazel and a nudnik. All are hungry but it is the schlemiel that gets the soup.

Although Brody may not like this family element and find it to mainstream, the fact of the matter is that the charm of Shalom Aleichem’s characters – from which many American schlemiel derive their root – is based on the character’s being situated in a family and in relation to others. The schlemiel cares for others – think of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel – however, sometimes, on the way to helping others he or she stumbles and spills the soup. In Sandler’s film, Wexler’s eye for talent shows that while he cares for others he doesn’t always see things right about their talent. But with Jennifer Hudson’s character, he gets it right. Sometimes a broken clock is right one time a day.

This character gives us what Irving Howe once said of the schlemiel – light and sweetness. If we lose this character to the dark reflections on finitude by the Coen Brothers or Noah Baumbach or the criticism of Brody or Hoberman which looks primarily for the dark iterations of the character as noteworthy, we will lose something very special. Adam Sandler should be commended for this; strangely enough, it is Jennifer Hudson who got it right, not Richard Brody.