Strong Mothers, Weak Fathers & Schlemiel Children: Then and Now


The Jewish-American family has almost always been depicted in a comical way in novels, films, and TV shows. In the Jewish-American family, the mother plays a powerful role and is the pit of many jokes. In the 60s and 70s, many novels (such as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, TV shows like the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda, display the strong mother alongside a weak father; the children are, of course, schlemiels or Jewish American Princesses.

Maurice Berger in an essay entitled “The Mouse that Never Roads: Jewish Masculinity on American Television” (in Too Jewish, ed. Norman L. Kleeblatt) argues that the dysfunction of the Jewish family was central to these shows and that the mother was at the center of it all:

The Jewish mother’s dysfunctionalism – her inability to respect emotional boundaries, her disregard of her children’s privacy or feelings, and her over-controlling nature – renders her undesirable as a parent. The self-depreciating neurotic, exemplified by Rhoda Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Brenda Morgenstern (Julie Kavner), Rhoda’s bank-teller sister on the sitcom spin-off Rhoda (1974-1978), especially in contrast with her elegant WASP counterparts, continually undermines herself through whining entreaties that further denigrate her feminine voice. (95)

The weak father and the schlemiel fit well into this home which is run by the mother. Following the cultural theorist Hommi Bhabha, Berger calls this a “partial gender system.” In this system, everyone is partial in their gender. This goes for the mother and JAP daughters as much as it does for the men who are, in his reading, feminized schlemiels.

The wider significance of the partial system is exemplified by one of television’s most insidious masculine stereotypes: the feminized Jew. Given the rarity of the reverse construction, that of the hyper masculine or macho Jew, it is almost inconceivable that Jewish actors such as the starts of Bonanza (1959-1973), Lorne Green and Michael Landon, could have actually played their roles as Jewish cowboys – a role afforded to only one character on American television. (97)

Berger sees this epitomized in Felix Ungar (Tony Randall) of the Odd Couple. Even his roommate, Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), “reads as both effeminate and closeted”(99).

Martin Morgenstein (Harold Gould) plays the “subordinated schlemiel,” the “weak father…continually henpecked by the Jewish female, the Jewish father is shy , quiet, and usually un-opinionated; he is often berated or ignored by his wife and children who overrule him and undermine his authority”(99).

I’ll end this part of my reflection on the comedic Jewish family in TV and literature in the 60s and 70s with Roth’s Alex Portnoy – a definitive schlemiel character – and his awed and resentful description of his powerful mother (which goes on, in one paragraph, for a few pages):

It was my mother who could accomplish anything, who herself had to admit that it might even be that she was actually too good. And could a small child with my intelligence, with my powers of observation sought that this was so? She could make jello, for instance, with sliced perching hanging in it, teachers just suspended there, in defiance of the law of gravity. She could bake a cake that tasted like a banana. Weeping sufferings, she grated her own horseradish rather than buy the pashas they sold in a bottle at the delicatessen…..She dredges the further recesses of my ears during cold peroxide into my head….She lights candles for the dead – others invariably forget, she religiously remembers, and without even the aid of a notation on the calendar. Devotion is in her blood….When I am bad I am locked out of the apartment. I stand at the door hammering and hammering until I swear I turn over a new leaf. But what is it I have done….What can I possibly have done! (9-12)

To be sure, Portnoy blames his mother for his being an emasculated male (schlemiel). Powerful mothers and schlemiels are in films like Heartbreak Kid (1973, redone in 2017 with Ben Stiller) and also dot many stories of Bruce Jay Friedman.

What about now?

Powerful mothers and schlemiel children remain but with differences since, in the much used formula of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, the schlemiel ends up a different, more “functional” character at the end of the film and so does the mother. For instance, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand played the powerful mother/schlemiel son duo in the film Guilt Trip but the duo is functional by the end. While Jessie Eisenberg – a millennial like Seth Rogen – also turns to mothers and schlemiel duos in his book Bream Gives me the Hiccups the duo is comical in a way that is charming.

The awkwardness of the schlemiel character – from shows like Parks and Recreation to Community – makes awkwardness a norm; so, in contrast to Berger and an age that emulates masculinity, we now have shows that don’t see the awkward male or child as an issue. To be sure, both men and women are schlemiels in these shows. Disfunction is not in contrast; its the norm. If anything, masculinity and authority are the target of these comedies. Jeff, in Community, represents this kind of masculinity but, if anything, that is challenged in nearly every episode by the other schlemiel characters.

Simon Rich – who writes for SNL, the New Yorker, and is the creator of Miracle Workers on Netflix – is an up and coming writer of the schlemiel in many of his comedies.

But in these shows by Rich we see less families and more people just starting off in life. He seems to be avoiding the powerful Jewish mother trope.

Nonetheless, what we seem to be seeing more of these days is a shift. Although the schlemiel remains, the mother is not the source of all dysfunction in the Jewish comedic family. You don’t have the same kind of schelmiel family anymore, whether that is to be found in Arrested Development or in Transparent. Because the understanding and reception of gender has changed, so has the comedic family. The schlemiel – in many ways – has become more than an American icon; it has become a norm of sorts in American TV and film.

A Shtreimel in the Mud: The Schlemiel, the Mensch & Freud’s Male Fantasies


Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are often seen by academics as figures of modernity. Their thoughts and writings have touched countless scholars who have seen the Modern world through their lenses. One can also read the schlemiel and this characters Jewishness through them, even if it is – as is the case with all of them – through opposition to the schlemiel and Jewishness. One need only think of Marx’s essay on the “Jewish Question” or Nietzsche’s exaltation of the ubermensch. But the thinker of modernity who is most important for thinking the schlemiel or Jewishness, according to Daniel Boyarin and Paul Breines, is Freud.

Daniel Boyarin and Paul Breines read Jewishness (and the schlemiel or “gentle Jew”) through Freud. They argue that Freud’s recollection of his “father’s hat in the mud episode” is a watershed moment not only in the transition of Jews into modernity, but also a figure of the moment in history when the “tough Jew” came into conflict with the “gentle Jew” (that is, the schlemiel and frail mensch/bochur).

Modernity spelled the end of a Jewish figure that was part and parcel of Jewishness.

Boyarin, “With all that has been written about this text connecting it with Freud’s individual psychology, I think it has not been sufficiently emphasized how emblematic the story is of a historical moment, the parallel shift of Jews from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’ and ‘eastern’ to ‘western’, and the ways that both are intimately implicated in questions of male gender”(34, Unheroic Conduct)

At that point I was brought up against the event in my youth whose power was still being shown in all these emotions and dreams. I may have been ten or twelve years old, when my father began to take me with him on his walks and reveal to me in his talk his views upon things in the world we live in. Thus it was, on one such occasion, that he told me a story to show how much better things were now than they had been in his days. “What I was a young man,” he said, “I went for a walk one Saturday in the streets of your birthplace; I was well dressed, and had a new fur cap on my head. A Christian came up to me and with a single blow knocked off my cap and shouted: “Jew! Get off the pavement!” “And what did you do? I asked. “I went into the roadway and picked up my cap,” was his quiet reply. This struck me as unheroic conduct on the part of this big, strong man who was holding his little boy by the hand. I contrasted this situation with another which fitted my feelings better: the scene in which Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, made his boy swear before the household alter to take vengence on the Romans. Ever since that time Hannibal had had a place in my fantasies. (Interpretation of Dreams, my emphasis)

Boyarin represents this moment in epic terms and parts with Freud. Boyarin prefers his father’s “unheroic conduct”(the title of Boyarin’s book) to Freud’s masculine fantasies of Hannibal (which, for Boyarin are anti-Jewish, even self-hating):

First of all, there is the signal that a historical shift is at stake in the father’s declation that he is about to tell the story that will indicate how much “better things are now.” Second, there is the indication of the shift in space. The incident took place in “the streets of Freud’s birthplace,” that is, in the eastern place from which the Freud’s had come to Vienna. Third, ther eis the indication that Freud’s father had been, at that time, a very traditional Jew. He was wearing a streimel, the Sabbath fur hat of the East European Hasid….All of these cultural forces are explicitly concatenated with the ideas of masculinity within the text. Freud’s father, “a big, strong man,” behaves in a way that Freud experinces as shameful, and Freud seems to know that…this passivity has to do with his father’s Jewishness.

In fact, as Martin Berman has noted, the “feminine” response of Freud’s father in this incident was not “unheroic” but antiheroic and indeed traditionally Jewish: ‘A Jew was expected to be able to control his anger, not to be provoked; his feelings of inner dignity were sustained by a belief in his own spiritual superiority which a ruffian and a ‘Goy’ and in no way touch.” For traditional Jewry there were both alternative civilities, Edelkayt, and alternative paradigms of ‘manliess’ that could be summed up in the relatively modern term mentsch. (35-36)

Boyarin sees the gentleness of traditional Judaism (Edelkayt) as the meaning of Yiddishkeit. (Boyarin sees Yiddish as a non-masculine/feminine language as opposed to Hebrew, which is, for him, “masculine”). Boyarin sees Yiddish as linking men and women in a language that has nothing to do with the masculine: “The Yeshiva Bochur, as the Male Ideal (the later mentsch) and the domestic and female”(37).

This ideal of the gentle Jew is, because of the “westernization process” “abandoned for a dawning ideal of the ‘New Jewish Man, ‘the Muscle Jew,” a figure almost identical to his ‘Aryan’ confreres and especially the ‘Muscular Christian’, also born about this time”(37).

In other words, what Paul Brienes calls the “tough Jew” comes out of the process. Unlike Boyarin, Breines sees the gentle Jew embodied in the Schlemiel and the Schlemiel’s body, not the Yeshiva Bochur or the metsches body.

Breines, like Boyarin, cites Freud in much the same manner: to illustrate the dawn of the split between the gentle (traditional) Jew and the “muscle Jew.” The latter, for both, is a male fantasy (which we see embodied with Freud’s shame that his father opted to do nothing and be “unheroic”).

Both see the idea of Jews having a nation state as making the schlemiel/gentle Jew option untenable, since the Nation State needs people to go to war for it and die for it. They would rather the Jew be stateless. Freud, for them, made a mistake and became a self-hating Jew of sorts. But that’s not his fault; as Boyarin and Breins argue, it’s a part of Jews becoming modern.

What is the solution to the “tough Jew” problem that Freud poses? Is it, as Boyarin seems to suggest, a return to traditional Jewishness (Yiddishkeit, Edlakayt, the Yeshiva Bocur) or is it a return to the schlemiel and gentleness, which Breines seems to suggest? Can we go beyond Freud by choosing what he rejects?

I write “seems” because, Breines way of going beyond Freud is to argue that the schlemiel and the tough Jew dichotomy should be transcended. He argues that, after the Holocaust, in figures like Nat Dickstein of Ken Follet’s, The Triple, whose body is weak, schlemiel like, yet his actions are those of a tough Jew who kills Arabs and Russians to protect Israel. The schlemiel’s body, argues Breines, justifies the killing and makes it moral.

To go beyond the schlemiel in the post-Holocaust era, would suggest – since Brenies is no fan of Zionism (and neither is Boyarin) – is to become anti-Israel. He wants to channel the “ethical” aspect of the schlemiel in this direction because he, like an anti-Zionist such as Marc H. Ellis, thinks that the ethical calling for Judaism is to say “Judaism does not equal Israel.” The diasporic positon, it seems, for all of them is not comical; its political and utterly serious. Marc H. Ellis thinks its “prophetic.”

While they make these points, the fact of the matter is that the schlemiel has become a norm in American culture. The dichotomy doesn’t seem to work, and the alternative to it is either to become gentle (a schlemiel) or militant (politically). But there are more problems with this either/or.

Isn’t the tough Jew being sublimated in such anti-Zionist militancy whether in Breines, Ellis, or even Boyarin?

All of them feel like they have the real grip on the meaning of Jewishness and to have taken to political activism as the only solution. To be sure, this is a route that Hannah Arendt was traveling when she said, in 1944, that Chaplin’s Great Dictator (the schlemiel) was displaced by superman. In our time, the figure of people like Judith Butler, who took on Arendt’s mantel, is the political anti-schlemiel whose main target is Israel.

The schlemiel reminds us that militancy isn’t the answer. The comedy of the schlemiel is something that resists it all. Freud knew this when he wrote Wit and the Unconscious. That’s the Freud we don’t hear about in either Boyarin or Breines’ books because you can’t find the tough Jew/gentle Jew dichotomy in place and also because not all fantasies – as Freud knew – are fantasies of power.

The schlemiel is a dreamer, not a fighter. As I.B. Singer points out, Gimpel is looking for someone who won’t lie to him and he is foolish enough to believe he can find one who will. This isn’t a fantasy of power. It’s the dream of trust, which is the bedrock of humanity. Our greatest fantasy (one we share with Gimpel) is that, despite all of the violence and militancy in the world, humanity is trustworthy. It’s also a fantasy of Judaism: just like the Jewish people trusts in God, God trusts the Jewish people. But history – the greatest threat to keeping ancient promises – says the contrary.

The schlemiel is the figure of that contradiction and not simply (or only) the figure of Jewishness as frailty and gentleness. The schlemiel – as a figure of this contradiction – is like the Shtreimel of Freud’s father…in the mud of history.

Kierkegaard’s “Happy” Birthday: “Repetition’s Love is the Only Happy Love”


Circa 1843, Soren Kierkegaard published a book called Repetition.   When one thinks of Kierkegaard, one usually thinks of anxiety, impossible existential dilemmas, and binding of Isaac.  These things, by and large, don’t evoke the image of happiness. However, in Repetition, he entertains the possibility of happiness through the idea of repetition.

Today is Kierkegaard’s birthday.   Since one usually wishes another a happy birthday, I thought it would be opportune to briefly think about what that would mean for Kierkegaard.

At the outset of his inquiry into repetition, Kierkegaard creates a dialectical contrast between recollection and repetition.  Which of the two yields true happiness?

Recollection’s love is the only happy love, according to one author. He is absolutely right about this if one also remembers that it first makes a person unhappy.  Repetition’s love is in truth the only happy love.  Like recollection, it is not disturbed by hope nor by the marvelous anxiety of discovery, neither, however doesn’t have the sorrow of recollection.  It has instead the blissful security of the moment.  Hope is new attire, stiff and starched and splendid.  Still, since it as not yet been tried on, one does not know whether it will suit one, or whether it will fit.  Recollection is discarded clothing which, however lovely it might be, no longer suits one because one has outgrown it.  Repetition is clothing that never becomes worn, that fits snugly and comfortably, that never pulls nor hangs too loosely.

Based on this reflection, it would be fair to say that Kierkegaard’s birthday would present a dilemma.   On the one hand, it repeats over and over; and in that sense it is the source of happiness. On the other hand, every year one has a birthday one recollects the one’s before.  Its both recollection and repetition.

This kind of dilemma reminds me of Larry David in Woody Allen’s film Whatever Works, singing Happy Birthday to himself.   Too be sure, as David demonstrates, it’s also a schlemiel’s dilemma.


In contrast, how would Forrest Gump say “Happy Birthday Jenny?”  Jenny, the name repeated throughout this film by another, less grumpy, American schlemiel character, evokes happiness and sorrow.

With that, I want to suggest that you take a look at several other posts by Schlemiel Theory on Kierkegaard as a way of….celebrating his birthday.

Why not?

If you want to read more, check these out:

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 1)

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 2)

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 1)

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 2)

Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 1

Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 2


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.”

last of the schlemeils

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.


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


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”


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


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


Menachem Feuer – the author of Schlemiel Theory ( – 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.


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!