Alfred Kazin: a Jew, an American, and a NYC Walker

I come from a few generations of New York Jews.

My father went to Brooklyn Tech and Columbia University. He was born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan. My mothers parents moved from the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, to Queens, and then to Long Island.

But we were the first in the family to move to Upstate New York. As a child – born and raised in the Adirondacks (my father was in the leather business, which was started by my grandfather who used to commute from Manhattan) – I was always fascinated with Jews in New York City (NYC).

I would travel back and forth with my parents to visit my grandparents and relatives. Every time I went, I became more and more fascinated. I had, if you will, a romantic relationship with New York City and with the migration of Jews to Long Beach and Long Island (my grandparents had a summer home in Long Beach and both my parents and my grandparents met at the Lido Beach Club in Long Beach. It was a place where Jewish entertainers and comedians came regularly to perform).

New York Jews gave birth to the American Schlemiel and sent it to Hollywood. Sholem Aleichem wrote his last book, Motl the Cantors Son, while he was living in NYC. The book, published after his death, told of the story of the European Schlemiel’s journey to New York City and discovering America (a continuation of the earlier book, The Further Adventures of Menachem-Mendl: New York, Warsaw, Vienna, Yehupetz). Aleichem’s migrating schlemiels were romantics, dreamers, who imagined a new and exciting life in America. Schlemiel characters popped up in Broadway, made a run in the Borsht Belt, and went west to Hollywood to become an American icon.

What I find interesting about post-WWII Jewish American writers from New York City, such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, is that they tended to imagine where I came from in the Adirondacks as a wild place, a place where Jews go wild and abandon their Jewishness. Philip Roth based his main character in American Pastoral, Swede, on David Shmukler, a Jewish Football Player who went to my high school.

Swede was not like other Jews, especially Jews from NYC. For Roth, he doesn’t even seem Jewish or even care about what it means to be Jewish. Swede is a Jew who was fully assimilated. His own offspring end up hating America and see it as a place to hate rather than as a place where dreams (of his immigrant father, who entered the leather business and became a success) come true.

I saw things from a different angle.

Unlike Bellow, Roth, or my parents, I was not a baby boomer. I was living far from my immigrant roots and I didn’t end up like the wild characters they imagined would be born in the Adirondacks. I wanted to know more about Jewishness, not less. I experienced what it was like to live in the American wild, but I didn’t want it.

This brought me to revisit the New York (Jewish) Intellectuals who were the children of immigrants. I have read and continue to think about and study people like Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin because I am curious about their relationship, as New York Jews, with their Jewishness. They lived between two worlds: between Europe (via their immigrant parents and the immigrant millieu they grew up in) and America.

Each of the paths Howe and Kazin chose is telling and gives much food for thought because their attempt to bridge their dreams and hopes with their origins is a struggle which, to my chagrin, has been lost to many Jewish Americans today. Some of my favorite Jewish American authors, today, do grapple with it, such as Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Shalom Auslander. It is my belief that if we go back to these original struggles of Howe and Kazin, we can better understand what may have been lost and why the struggle between a European past and an American future for Jews is worth digging up.

Reading A Walker in City recently, a book originally published in 1947, I was struck by some passages of Kazin about Jewishness that came to him while walking through this city. The motif of walking through this city is a romantic one.

During his excursions and movements through this city, memories and feelings flow back to him, which he considers and carefully weighs. What emotions and feelings compel him most and what do they reveal about who he really is or should be?

The epigraph of the book is from Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings – on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river.

Whitman discovers the beauty of American as he crosses over on the ferry. He experiences a deep oneness with the immigrants, with sights, sounds and smells around him. The ride gives him an epiphany of America that many poets and writers after him took to heart. The ferry ride touched his heart and inspired this poem about what makes America a transcendental country.

Unlike Whitman, Kazin walks through the streets of the city as a child of Jewish Immigrants. He lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When he goes to Manhattan, he sees a much different world that the one he was born and raised in. Near the end of the book, Kazin recounts taking the El Train from Manhattan back to Brownsville. He has an epiphany in Manhattan before boarding the train, but the ephiphany is broken by “the cries of old Jewish women”:

Dusty particles of daylight fell between the tracks of the El; I had never seen anything so right; it was dusk, dusk everywhere in the lower city now all the way to Cooper Square and Bible House and Astor Place, where even the books and prints and sheet music on the stalls were dusty old, and as I went up the black stairs of the El station with the Gold Stripe silk stocking ad teasing my eye from step to step, only the cries of the old Jewish women selling salted pretzels near Union Square broke the spell (98).

These Jewish women “break the spell,” they remind him that he can’t have a Whitmanesque epiphany in Manhattan. Following this, he recounts his Jewish world and wonders about what “broke the spell.” What created the difference that broke up the unity of his vision?

“But why the long ride home at all? Why did they live there and we always in “Brunzvil”? Why were they there, and we always here? Why was it always them and us, Gentiles and us, alrightniks and us?”

From here he recounts the Jewish immigrant vision of Manhattan and the world:

Beyond Brownsville was all “the city,” that other land I could see for a day, but with every next day back on the block, back to the great wall behind the drugstore I relentlessly had to pound with a handball. Beyond the strange world of the Gentiles, all of them with flaxen hair, who hated Jews, especially poor Jews, had ugly names for us I could never read or hear without seeing Pilsudski’s knife cold against our throats. To be a Jew meant that one’s very right to existence was always being brought into question. Everyone knew this….It was what I always heard in the great Kol Nidre sung in the first evening hours of the Day of Atonement, had played on my violin for them Friday evenings in the dining room whenever I felt lost and wanted to show them how very much I loved them, knew them through and through, wouild suffer loyally for them. Jews were Jews; Gentiles were Gentiles. The line between them had been drawn for all time. What had my private walks into the city to do with anything! (99)

Following this, he recalls the day of his Bar Mitzvah and the recitation of the Shema (Hear O Israel) prayer (99-100). What is fascinating about his description is about he felt solitary and apart from his friends when he donned his phylactaries (tefillin) and said the prayer. Its a moment of existential apartness where he sits on the threshold and thinks about who he really is:

But early summer morning in Brownsville: the pigeons rasping in their cages, the kids too young for handball with a regulation black hard ball…the sun so fierce on the iron floor of the fire escape that I had to sit on the windowsill, my bottom prickly on the pebbled stone. Everything in sight looked half-dead…I listlessly picked up my little prayer book, too tired now to even finish the last blessings, and in an agony of surprise, as if I could distinctly hear great seas around me, read aloud to my self…I had never realized that this, this deepness, lay under the gloomy obscurities of Shabbes in our little wooden synagogue on Chester Street; that my miserable melamed with a few dried peas sticking to his underlip and ready to slap my hands at every mistake had known this. When your fathers provoked me! How many fathers I had! (101)

He recalls the Awe of God that he learned from all of these “fathers” and spends time alone with the text and his reflections rather than praying. He recalls the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur prayers, and experiences his unity with his people. “All went through the long catalogue” of sin “in unison, finding its enumeration, as I thought, a kind of purifying ecstasy, for they were summing up the whole earthly life in Brownsville”(102):

Our God, and God of Our Fathers,

Verily, we confess, we have sinned

We have trespassed

We have dealt treacherously

We have stolen

We have spoken slander

We have committed iniquity and have done wickedly

We have acked presumptuously

We have committed violence

We have said falsehood

We have counseled evil


Kazin says that “the voice that spoke in that prayer book seemed to come out of our very bowels. There was something grand and austere in it that confirmed everything I had felt in my bones about being a Jew: the fierce awareness of life to the depths, every day and in every hour: the commitment: the hunger”(102).

This is Kazin’s cosmic epiphany which is particular (to NYC) and universal (in terms of being a Jew and a member of a Jewish people in a long line of tradition).

Reflecting on this, he says that while this is true “there was no gladness in it”(103). He wanted to be a “good Jew” but wondered if there are really Jews “who lived beyond Brownsville?” Strangely enough, this leads him to want to find Hasidim, who find joy in Judaism.

I had read about Chassidim, “the great enthusiasts, dancers, walkers” – poor East European Jews, only poorest, but so full of the Lord that they danced before Him in joy. They were my people! But when you asked around, hoping there had been at least one Chassid somewhere among all your many prayer grandfathers and great grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers – surely there had been at least one….they shrugged their shoulders, said something about old-fashioned customs, mishegoyim, crazy ones, comfortably took another pinch of snuff, first in one nostril, then the nostril, sneezed heartily, and went back to their prayers. (104)

He took this thought of Joy in Judaism with him and hoped to meet “beautiful unmet Chassidim”(104). That joy gave him an orientation. He called it music: “Walking, I always knew how I felt by the music in my head”(104).

However, his book does not tell us about any Hasid he met who changed his life, as we see in a book like 9 1/2 Mystics.

Rather, the Chassidim seem to only exist in his head and in the books he takes with him on the Subway. To be sure, this is what happens to Hasidim through many Yiddish Haskalah writers (like Shalom Aleichem), through Martin Buber, or IB Singer. They all turn these real people into fictional motifs, into joyful thoughts. They were interested in returning and celebrating the joy of Judaism, they were into the idea of the Baal Teshuva who returned through the Hasidim (Kafka also had such an interest). Although they didn’t follow through with that idea, they made it central to their understanding of themselves as Modern Jews.

There is an aesthetic and an experience, here. Kazin is accounting for it in his walk and in his Jewish epiphany. But the threshold he sits on when he is thirteen and a Bar Mitzvah is the threshold between being Jewish and being American. The following passage after this one, demonstrating his walk (so to speak), is how, after he was fourteen, he started to learn more and more about America in his paper delivery route (from the newspapers and the places he went). But, in the end, he returns to that threshold in all his journeys through America. That seems to be the message. He will always be sitting there when he returns from his walks. Its the place where he, like a Baal Teshuva (Teshuva means return in Hebrew), returns.

Schlemiel Apps: Costanza’s iToilet App & Eli Batalion’s “Appiness” (2019)

Schlemiel characters are always caught up in the dialectic of failure and success. The schlemiel, to be sure, must have some kind of aspiration which falls flat. In Shalom Aleichem’s stories, Menachem Mendel is the paradigmatic schlemiel entrepreneur. He does a lot of things that are based on his dreams. In one of his final narrative appearances, he comes to America – the Golden Medina (country) – looking to change his fortune. After all, that’s the place where – for a European of the 19th and early 20th century – even a schlemiel can become successful.

Menachem Mendel is always coming up with new and very inventive ways to make money, but few of them bear fruit. The schlemiel, to be sure, is full of ideas but, like an absent- minded philosopher, but his feet aren’t on the ground; while creative, its hard for his or her ideas to become successful. He’s a luftmensch (a man who lives on “air”). Steve Martin’s schlemiel character, in The Jerk (1979), gets lucky, however. By accident he invents something that makes him an overnight sensation. How he deals with that accidental success is one of the main motifs of the film.

All of this came to mind today when I came across a Forward article today about the Seinfeld Reunion episode in which George Costanza experiences the success of having made an invention – the iToilet (an app that can help one to find a toilet anywhere in the world) – which makes millions. Since its such an idea for an App, one can call this a schlemiel success! However, we learn that he invested the money he made in the iToilet with Bernie Madoff. Like Steve Martin’s character, Costanza ends up with the short end of the success. The hidden rule is that schlemiels aren’t made for success or, rather, long-term success. As Harold Ramis (the maker of Stripes (1981), Caddyshack (1980), Ghostbusters (1984)etc) might say, slobs can’t be snobs, or as Steve Martin might say, poor schlemiels (or temporarily successful ones) can’t be rich jerks.

The irony, here, is that while the schlemiel has a zany idea that takes off, he fails in choosing the right person to invest the money in or the right people to hang around with. But does that make George a schlemiel or a schlimazel. Who knew that Madoff would “make off” with anyone’s money?

In our era, its safe to say that schlemiels, post-Seinfeld, will be making Apps.

Another film which has a schlemiel app developer is Appiness (2019), written by and staring Eli Betalion of Yid Life Crisis. Like many great schlemiel films (or stories), it does a great job of showing the dreams of aspiring young people today who dream of success by creating the ultimate App. It’s the easiest way to make a lot of money, after all, and become an overnight success. But without the right idea and combination of circumstances it can’t just flop. Like we saw, quite often, in The Silicon Valley TV Series (2014-19).

This film deserves a larger screening and is much more funny and true to the schlemiel character than anything you’d find on Silicon Valley. In what some call the “App Age,” where Apps inform most of our lives, we need more schlemiel App films and tv shows to see how our dreams of success have become submerged in tech. Only a schlemiel can show us the humanity of failure in a space that is oversaturated with digital dreamers.

A Brief Note on Schlemiel Pictures and their Debut Film,”The End of Us”

As the author of Schlemiel Theory, I am always looking for new sightings of the schlemiel in North America and around the world. There is so much work yet to be done on women schlemiels, indie schlemiels, comic book schlemiels, tv schlemiels, Netflix schlemiels, Israeli schlemiels, the gen x vs. the millenial schlemiel, etc. People have no idea how deep the schlemiel character runs through modernity and it is one of the main tasks of this blog to disclose this character and its deeper meanings to the world.

On that note, it gave me great joy to see that a Film company called Schlemiel Films exists and that is has made the news. To be sure, all of the major film companies, from MGM to Warner Bros, and independent film companies have produced films that include schlemiel characters and comedic scripts that are driven by this comic character. However, this is the first time I have ever seen a film company that has taken on the name of the schlemiel and made it explicit that they are, in some way, deeply interested in the greatest icon of American and Jewish comedy since the inception of the film industry.

As per the press release at Deadline, BuzzFeed Studios signed to executive produce their debut film, “The End of Us.”

Here is the summary:

In The End of Us, it’s the night of March 10, 2020 — the beginning of the global pandemic which we are currently in. We follow out-of-work actor Nick (Coleman) and his type-A girlfriend Leah (Vingiano) as they are in the middle of a break-up. However, the split is poorly timed. The following morning, California issues its stay-at-home order for Covid-19 and the exes must continue living together. (This is all too familiar.) As the quarantine drags on, Leah begins a secret courtship with her charming coworker Tim (Derrick DeBlasis), while Nick realizes he’s made a terrible mistake and decides to use the lockdown as an opportunity to win Leah back. The film also stars Gadiel Del Orbe and Kate Peterman.

The Directors and Filmmakers of The End of Us,  Henry Loevner and Steven Kanter, had this to say about the film:

“When the world was entering lockdown in 2020, we were inspired by Ben’s story of his break up with his long-term girlfriend in the middle of a global pandemic,” said filmmakers Loevner, Kanter, and producer Claudia Restrepo in a joint statement. “As we set out to make an authentic, lighthearted illustration of how young people were dealing with life in quarantine, we decided to make this film with the most talented people we know, who happened to be all our former colleagues at BuzzFeed.”

The characters in this film have played in other BuzzFeed shorts.

Schlemiel Theory wishes Henry and Steven good luck in their new endeavor and is looking forward to speaking with them in the near future. Stay tuned!

Irish Jews: Between Joyce’s Dublin and Immigrant America

As a Jew raised in Upstate New York, St. Patricks Day meant a lot of drinking games, parties, and merrymaking. There is nothing Jewish about these activities. Nonetheless, writers like James Joyce made the main character of his epic novel, Ulysses, an Irish Jew. Bloom, the main character, demonstrates the flow of consciousness. In a fascinating scene in the novel, Joyce has Bloom follow a blind man through the streets of Dublin and Bloom’s descriptions of the way a blind man relates to Dublin, via touch, makes for a fascinating scene of tactile consciousness.

“Mr Bloom walked behind the eyeless feet, a flatcut suit of herringbone tweed. Poor young fellow! How on earth did he know the van was there? Must have felt it. See things in their foreheads perhaps. Kind of sense of volume. Weight. Would he feel it if something was removed? Feel a gap. Queer idea of Dublin he must have, tapping his way round by the stones. Could he walk in a beeline if he hadn’t that cane?”

This passage gives birth to a question which preoccupies the novel. How does Bloom, an Irish Jew, bodily relate to things around him and how is this different from the Irishman? The Irish Jew can do things that neither a Jew nor an Irishman can do. He is a modern figure because he integrates abstract thought and aesthetic perception. He is ragtag and relentless, in an Irish sense, but he is also endlessly distracted by the possible meanings of things and their relationships, like a Jew. He is feminine and masculine.

Published in the same year as Ulysses, but across the Atlantic, in New York City, the Abbie’s Irish Rose (1922) – which was, at the time, the longest running play on Broadway written by Anne Nichols – tells a different story of Jews and Irish. The main character of this play, which was played, originally to Yiddish audiences and in Yiddish, dramatized the desire to assimilate. The marriage of a Jew to an Irish girl is the American symbol of an integration and assimilation. The process of the play is the working out of ethnic differences, but it is more a trajectory away from Jewishness and more towards American-ness. There are winners and losers in this journey.

The ethnic comedy embodied in this production dramatizes the difficulty of assimilation, of becoming American. The insults are central to their relationship and the struggles they face in living an American life. Sacrifices of identity – in this scenario – are found throughout the conflictual drama.

Here’s a summary of the play/movie/radio production:

Abie’s Irish Rose presents a Jewish family living in prosperous circumstances in New York. The father, a widower, is in business as a merchant, in which his son and only child helps him. The boy has philandered with young women, who to his father’s great disgust have always been Gentiles, for he is obsessed with a passion that his daughter-in-law shall be an orthodox Jew. When the play opens the son, who has been courting a young Irish Catholic girl, has already married her secretly before a Protestant minister, and concerned about how to soften the blow for his father securing a favorable reception for his bride, while concealing her faith and race. To accomplish this he introduces her to his father as a Jewish girl in whom he is interested and conceals the fact they are married. The girl somewhat reluctantly agrees to the plan; the father takes the bait, becomes infatuated with the girl, insists that they must marry. He assumes they will because it’s the father’s idea. He calls in a rabbi, and prepares for the wedding according to the Jewish rite.Meanwhile the girl’s father, also a widower who lives in California and is as intense in his own religious antagonism as the Jew, has been called to New York, supposing that his daughter is to marry an Irishman and a Catholic. Accompanied by a priest, he arrives at the house at the moment when the marriage is being celebrated, so too late to prevent it, and the two fathers, each infuriated by the proposed union of his child to a heretic, fall into unseemly and grotesque antics. The priest and the rabbi become friendly, exchange trite sentiments about religion, and agree that the match is good. Apparently out of abundant caution, the priest celebrates the marriage for a third time, while the girl’s father is inveigled away. The second act closes with each father, still outraged, seeking to find some way by which the union, thus trebly insured, may be dissolved.The last act takes place about a year later, the young couple having meanwhile been abjured by each father, and left to their own resources. They have had twins, a boy and a girl, but their fathers know no more than that a child has been born. At Christmas each, led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks’ home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the insistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his orthodoxy.

Ultimately, an Irish Jew would, for this generation, seem impossible or more figural of something to come. It is only with Philip Roth’s Swede, in American Pastoral or with Aharon Appelfeld’s, The Retreat, that you see a fusion of the Jew and non-Jew, to such an extent that one swallows the other, and that the Jew nearly forgets what it means to be Jewish. The post-assimilation phase doesn’t have this drama. The Jew and non-Jew in Hollywood films – whether staring schlemiels like Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, or Larry David – put intermarriage or dating between Jews and non-Jews at the center of their plot.

In some senses, Hollywood took over what started in Broadway with Abby’s Irish Rose but gave it, as we see in many Judd Apatow films (like Knocked Up), a happy ending. In the age of post-assimilation, its no longer an issue. It’s a theme. In contrast to Joyce, the theme is not the fusion of Jerusalem and Athens or modern consciousness. It’s identity differences and comical reconciliation. These characters are out of touch with their Jewishness or with the meaning of consciousness and modernity. Those themes are two sophisticated for the melting pot.

With that, I’ll raise my beer and say L’chaim to all the Leprechauns.

Happy Birthday to Jerry Lewis, a Legendary American Schlemiel

Today is the birthday of Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levich). Like Philip Roth and many other great Jewish writers and actors, he was born and grew up in Newark, NJ. Lewis passed away on August 20th 2017.

While there are many arguments about who popularized the schlemiel in America (Hannah Arendt argues that it was Charlie Chaplin; Daniel Itzkovtz and many others argue it was Woody Allen, who in winning multiple Oscars for Annie Hall (1977) made it clear that the schlemiel was an American icon; Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi sees Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpel the Fool” in Partisan Review, in the 60s, as pivotal). Be that as it may, there is a lot to be said for Jerry Lewis as an iconic schlemiel. While his Jewishness was not at the forefront of his comic characters (as it was for schlemiel’s played by Woody Allen, etc) the schlemiel character-form was. We can learn a lot from Lewis’s use of the body, speech, and gesture in his articulations of the schlemiel. He broke boundaries in an endearing and physical manner.

Schlemiel Theory has written several articles on Lewis that delve into the nuances he introduced into American schlemiel comedy.

Is Jerry Lewis a Masochistic Comedian or an Unconscious Artist?

Jerry Lewis, Comedy, and Psychoanalysis (Terminable/Interminable)

Jerry Lewis’s Animistic Comedy

The World is Messed Up and Jerry Lewis is Dead

Podcast on the Jerry Lewis film, “Sailor Beware”(1952)

Not Jewish American Comedy, Or Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman are doing something else with their time

We are living in interesting times. In our times, it seems that comedians are in a hard place. Why? Because comedians are the vanguard of free speech. For most Jewish Studies scholars, Lenny Bruce, was hands down, the cutting edge of comedy in general and Jewish comedy in particular in modern post-assimilation America. He breaks all the rules in the name of free speech. He, the king of comedy, is the archetype of American democracy and a new kind of “edgy” Jewishness.

So when free speech is on the line, as it is today, comedians are in the cross hairs. So what do they do?

On that note, it’s so interesting to watch what is happening to some of the greatest Jewish American schlemiel comedians today; American icons: Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.

Seth Rogen is creating a special ashtray for his weed company. He is on instagram sharing the real proiftability of his pottery making: ash trays for weed. And all the varieties. It’s called, “Houseplant”

And while Seth is becoming a weed smoking creative type, Rogen wants to share what he has created rather than jokes. He’s busy doing something else, something cool and organic.

Meanwhile, Sara Silverman is also not telling any jokes. She’s talking about what it means to be Jewish in a small town in New Hampshire, one of the only Jews in her high school.

Silverman is confessing her Jewishness. She feels alone in her Jewish pain and wants “allies” who aren’t just the Christian American Right who supports Jews going back to Israel because the Jews are a stepping stone to their own redemption, as the evengelical church, etc.

Be that as it may, Silverman is more interested in looking into her Jewishness in a world that is focused on the next moves of BLM, equity, reparations, etc. These are not laughing matters.

The message is the same from both of them. The position of Jewish comedy is to look more into the “Jewish” or more into the organic hipster-ish life (making pottery, weed ashreuas, etc) than into the “comedy.”

Apparently, there is nothing to laugh about right now. This is a rare time when the schlemiel needs to introspect and reflect.

All of this has the air of I.B. Singer’s The Magician of Lublin. Hence, Seth Rogen’s attempt to emulate a schlemiel form of introspection most recently in An American Pickle (2020).

Rogen and Silverman suggest this soul searching trajectory for the schlemiel. That’s what we see on this day of Jewish life in America, March 11, 2021.

On Seth Rogen’s Tweeted Response to My and (The) Essential Schlemiel Question

Last week, before New Years Eve, I decided to take my chances and Tweet a Question at the biggest Schlemiel Celebrity (other than, say, Larry David or Amy Schumer) in the USA: Seth Rogen. The question I asked Rogen is, to my mind, the ultimate schlemiel question. I framed it in a way so as to make it a trick question: Is Seth Rogen pitiable or endearing? The answer is both. He got it.

His twitter response to my schlemiel question got over 1400 likes.

What is my source for this question?

If you look at the Schlemiels we find in Yiddish literature, from the first major Schlemiel novel by Mendel Mocher Sforim, Tales and Adventures of Benjamin the Third, or to I.L. Peretz or Shalom Aleichem, all of the schlemiels we find are both pitiable and endearing. The same goes for schlemiels in American film and fiction: from Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen and Amy Schumer. That’s the key. We are fascinated with their failure and find it sad and charming.

Writing on the schlemiel in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah,” Hannah Arendt articulates this as a key feature: “Innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born.” These characters are also a critique of society since they touch on this innocence and humility that is part and parcel of the everyman and built into nature in its contrast to society: “Confronted with the natural order of things, in which all is equally good, the fabricated order of society, with its manifold classes and ranks, much appear as comic, hopeless attempt of creation to throw down the gauntlet of its creator”(279, Jewish Writings)

Chaplin’s schlemiels, argues Arendt, are similar in that they are endearing and innocent (“warm and convincing”) but is different from that of Heinrich Heine’s in that “Chaplin’s heroes are not paragons of virtue, but little men with a thousand and one failings, forever clashing with the law. The only point is that the punishment does not always fit the crime, and that for the man who is an any case a suspect there is not relation between the offence he commits and the price he pays”(287).

This is what makes him endearing and pitiable, today. Rogen’s schlemiel characters are always getting hit and live out this gap between the offence and the price he pays. But, for Rogen, that is the charm. We identify with this because, in our complex world, we – in all our failures – also seem to get hit for actions that don’t measure up with the consequences. In this wild world of social media, one’s fate can turn on the time. By being humble and endearing, the schlemiel shows us a way which, though pitiable, is redemptive. As Arendt notes, the ultimate innocence of the comical and pitiable victim is the key to Rogen’s success and our adoration of his pathetic characters.

Walser and Kafka’s Literary Dogs

Kafka with a Dog

Writing of Kafka’s short stories and parables (which include all kinds of animals from mice and apes to dogs and moles), Walter Benjamin takes note of the reader’s experience as an angle for understanding them: “the reader follows these animal tales for a fair distance without even noticing that they do not deal with human beings at all. Then, when the animal is identified for the first time — as a mouse or a mole — you are suddenly jolted and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings.”(497-8) As in many of his essays, Benjamin is fascinated with the moment of shock in which human perception is jarred and something comes in through the cracks of consciousness.

In the past, I have looked into the relation of Joyce’s schlemiel character, Bloom, to cats and dogs in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I have also looked into the relationship of the Schlemiel to the Werewolf in the Baal Shem Tov’s stories, Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct, and Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man. Here I’d like to take a look at some more “literary dogs” and their effect on narrators and readers.

I’d like to start with a brief look at Robert Walser, who, arguably, can be seen in some way as a major influence on Kafka’s writing. His encounters with dogs are interesting. As Benjamin has suggested with his reading of Kafka, it is advisable to read Walser’s encounter with dogs as creating a kind of otherness in the narrator.

In this short story, “The Walk,” Walser encounters a dog:

“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”

The dog, unlike himself, doesn’t have a work ethic or a world. The dog is a mirror of sorts or a wish the narrator has. The dog takes him away from himself. Just like children do in many of Walser’s first person narrations of a child’s world.

In A Schoolboy’s Diary, there is a piece called “Two Little Things” in which the narrator loses his sense of himself when he thinks about a dog. He looses his sense of time:

“I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for a rather long time. What a fool I am, an I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have a sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, “How hot is it today! and indeed it was really very warm.” (66).

This is, as the title of the piece suggests, a “little thing.” But with Walser, we know to read for irony. This little thing is really quite big. He doesn’t have an understanding of what happened to him and when he starts moving again all he can notice is the temperature. This is a moment of ecstasis. As Harold Bloom notes in his book on Wallace Stevens, climate is an awareness of the space around us that is beyond us. When he loses a sense of time, through the dog, he enters into a relationship with space.

Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” is a piece that resonates with these two passages. It is about a dog who is very much like the narrator of these two pieces, a cultured dog with a human mind. But what makes this dog – just like the mice in “Josephine the Mouse Singer”or the bug in “The Metamorphosis” – lose his sense of self is a sense of a strange kind of music coming from an encounter he has with other dogs who are like himself yet different:

“They appeared from somewhere, I inwardly greeted them as dogs, and although I was profoundly confused by the sounds that accompanied them, yet they were dogs nevertheless, dogs like you and me; I regarded them by force of habit simply as dogs I had happened to meet on any road, and felt a wish to approach them and exchange greetings; they were quite near too, dogs much older than me, certainly, and not of my wooly, long-haired kind, but yet not so alien in size and shape, indeed quite familiar to me, for I had already seen many such similar dogs; but while I was involved in these reflections the music gradually got the upper hand, literally knocked the breath out of me and wept me far away from these actual dogs, and against my will, while I howled as if some pain were being inflicted upon me, my mind could only attend to nothing but this blast of music which seemed to come from all sides, from the deeps, from everywhere, surrounded the listener, overwhelming him, crushing him, and over his swooning body still blowing fanfares so near that they seemed far away and almost inaudible.” (281, Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, ed Nahum Glazer.)

The song that he hears, as can be seen, takes him outside of himself and exposes him to the space around him. He loses a sense of time and is exposed to space. When the dog-narrator comes to, he feels like a new being, a different being. He regains his sense of sight:

“And then a respite came, for one who was already too exhausted, too annulled, too feeble to listen any longer; a respite came and I beheld again the seven little dogs carrying out their evolutions, making their leaps; I longed to shout to them in spite of their aloofness, to get them to enlighten me, to ask them what they were doing – I was a child and believed I could ask anybody about anything – bur hardly had I begun, hardly did I feel on good an familiar doggish terms with the seven, when the music started again and robbed me of my wits, whirled me a round in its circles as if I myself were one of the musicians instead of being only their victim, cast me tither and hither, no matter how much I begged for mercy, and rescued me finally from its own violence…gave me a little time to get my breath back.” (282)

Kafka takes Walser to the next level by becoming the dog and having the cultured narrator “investigate” the dogs ways which, like music, take this rational dog outside himself. In the midst of his investigations, he comes to some realizations about the dogs:

“Perhaps there were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other….Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too….Because of all the music I had not noticed it before, but they had flung away all shame, the wretched creatures were doing the very thing which is both most ridiculous and indecent in our eyes; they were walking on their hind legs. Fie on them. They were uncovering their nakedness, blatantly making a show of their nakedness” (284-285)

These investigations go on and on and the dog-detective, so to speak, goes back to being more like a Walser character regaining and then losing his composure. Its a back and forth movement – much like the Tzimtzum I wrote on recently on Walser – that both Kafka and Walser share. The movement that goes back and forth between being big and becoming small, between being human and becoming animal. The “investigations of the dog” are based on the question of what it means to be human. Both Walser and Kafka knew that the key is to be found in that movement between the human and animal and the shock that Walter Benjamin writes of is the shock of realizing that one is caught up in that movement. The literary dogs of Walser and Kafka lead us into a literary figuration and experience of that movement which, as Kafka, notes, is like a kind of music that takes one outside oneself, outside time, and into space.

Morning, Night…Smallness Again: Robert Walser’s Tzimtzum Reflection

In a vignette dated May 1920, Kafka’s favorite writer, Robert Walser reflects on smallness by way of moods, one in the morning, the other in the evening, that return to smallness. I would like to argue that it can be read as a fascinating reflection on what Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) calls Tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a narrative or metaphor about how G-d created the universe; namely, by contracting Himself and making room – an open space -for humankind to dwell and receive His goodness and have a relationship with Him (for better or for worse, to du, you).

If one were to imitate G-d (imitatio dei) as many Medieval Theologians suggest is the way one becomes godly, one can say that, in terms of the Tzimtzum, the imitation of G-d suggests a backwards movement in which infinite space is created through G-d’s becoming small. In both senses, godliness can be said to be found in the infintesimal, or in becoming small. One becomes G-d, so to speak, by becoming large and small, simultaneously.

God is to be found in the endless movement of becoming small.

For this and other reasons, Franz Kafka really enjoyed the writing of Robert Walser. In reflections like the one on May 1920 we can see why. Walser situates a mystical reflection on smallness in prose. In a fashion that is deeply other oriented (Levinasian or Buberian), he reflects on you and your mood and your presence. The you can be thought of as a reference to G-d peeking (as the Song of Songs suggest) into our world.

Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors.

He compares this to how “you” are at night:

How different, though, at night – then tiring thoughts come to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind the clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you were firm and strong.

While you, during the day, are like a child and wild, at night one contracts.

In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Mourning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.

The day drives “you” ought into immensity – in lines of flight – the night “pulled you back into modest smallness again.” This is the double movement of tzimtzum, but what is amazing about this reflection is that Walser personalizes it. The last line suggest it is a process of expanding outward and returning to smallness as one is pulled back into modest smallness “again.”

I would argue that what Walser is capturing is the idea that the movement to “modest smallness,” again, is the movement of becoming godly which is given a figure that is deeply embodied in a physical and environmental state of being. Its spirituality is coupled with the day and the night. It is not simply metaphor; it is a personalization and materialization of smallness. However, in his reflection, this movement of smallness is built into existence.

Happy Birthday to a Schlemiel Who Just Happens to Come from New York

Image by Drew Friedman

There are many different arguments about when the Schlemiel went mainstream in America. While Hannah Arendt sees that happening with Charlie Chaplin, Daniel Itzkovitz argues that it was the debut of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1978) and its winning of four Oscars that made it clear that the Schlemiel was no longer a Jewish icon; it was an American icon. Itzkovitz argues that, following this film, the schlemiel was Americanized. The New Schlemiel, argues Itzkovitz isn’t even Jewish and has lost its Jewish particularity, such as in shows like Seinfeld or Adam Sandler’s films. However, it can be argued that with Larry David and Seth Rogen that particularity has been retained. Either way, Woody Allen is a major part of that trajectory.

One of the things that sticks out with Woody Allen – something we see in a Woman Schlemiel Character that came before him named Fanny Brice – is the use of Yinglish. That use is often associated with New Yorkers who also happen to be schlemiels (think of schlemiel characters Larry David, Jason Alexander, or Adam Sandler). Woody Allen, to be sure, is a major popularizer of the idea that most schlemiels happen to come from New York and have a Yinglish accent.

This Woody Allen joke, which has all of these elements of a schlemiel…..that happens to be from New York:

While taking my noon walk today, I had more morbid thoughts. What is it about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours. Melnick says the soul is immortal and lives on after the body drops away, but if my soul exists without my body I am convinced that all my clothes will be too loose fitting. Oh, well….

Oh well, Happy Birthday Woody!

“He adored New York City….”

Woody Allen’s Schlemiel character is of great interest to Schlemiel Theory. Take a look at these blog posts:

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

A Personal Note on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: From Riches to Rags

The Schlemiel-as-Criminal? On Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”

Blindness And Insight: From Paul and Augustine to Woody Allen’s “Anything Else” – Part I

Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting

A Note on the First Episode of Woody Allen’s “A Crisis in Six Scenes”

It’s a Family Affair: Caring Mothers, Radical Children, and…an Anxious Schlemiel Husband in Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes”

The WSJ Calls Donald Trump a “Woody Allen” (Schlemiel) “Without the Humor”

Photography, Violence, and Comedy: Reflections on Two Photos (of Goebbels and Woody Allen)