A Priest and a Schlemiel Get on the Slowpoke Express: On Sholem Aleichem’s “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah”

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In the United States and Europe, the advent of the train and long distance travel prompted many artists, storytellers, and thinkers to turn the train into a metaphor.   Sometimes the images are exciting and feed utopian visions and cause happiness, other times they feed sadness at the loss of what was and cynicism. Think for instance of Freud who, in Civilization and its Discontents, writes the following:

If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting them, so that taken all round we do not rear more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage and probably counteracted the beneficial effects of natural selection? And what do we gain by a long life when it is full of hardship and starved of joys and so wretched that we can only welcome death as our deliverer?

On the other hand, one of the most celebrated images of trains in the early 20th century can be found in Buster Keaton’s film The Goat (1921) where he escapes the police by way of unhitching a train and drifting away.

The train can be the schlemiel’s best friend. Ten years before Buster Keaton put out his film, Sholem Aleichem put out the Railroad Stories (1911). In his story, “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah,” the main character, a schlemiel named Berl Vinegar – much like Buster Keaton – averts a disaster by way of a train. But he doesn’t do so by way of his will so much as by virtue of…chance.

Sholem Aleichem prefaces this story with a chapter entitled “The Slowpoke Express.”   This train, Aleichem tells us, is built for the type of speed that Eastern European Jews (before the Holocaust) or rather schlemiels like to travel into modernity – slowly.

Would you like to know what the best train of all is? The best, the quietist, the most restful?

It’s the Slowpoke Express. (Tevye the Dairyman and Railroad Stories, 184)

Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd and Sendrl, the train doesn’t often reach its destination and is never on time. It’s a schlemiel-train:

The Slowpoke Express is no ordinary train. In the first place, you needn’t ever worry about missing it: whenever you arrive at the station, its still there….I’ve been riding the Slowpoke Express for several weeks now, and I’m still practically in the same place. I tell you, it’s magic! Don’t think I’m complaining, either. (184)

Regarding this train, the Jews in the town (the Bohopolians, Aleichem calls them) feel that the train is so much better than other trains because “there’s no danger of the accidents that occur on other lines. The slower the safer, they say”(185).

Playing on this claim, Aleichem, the narrator, makes his own. Namely, that he has it, “on good faith,” that “the Slowpoke was indeed involved in an accident, a veritable catastrophe that sowed panic up and down the line and set the who district by the ears.   The incident was caused by a Jew and – of all people – a Russian priest”(186).

Aleichem tells us that the “great train accident” happened on Hoshana Rabbah.   The holiday marks the end of a span of time in which the Jewish people can plea for a good new year (which spans Rosh Ha’shanna – the Jewish New Year – Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – and Sukkoth – the festival of the tabernacles). On Hoshanna Rabba one puts in one’s final kvitel (a final, personal note to God for mercy and a good year).

Aleichem tells us that after praying at synagogue and putting in his kvitel, “a Jew” went to stand by an “unchained locomotive.” He was simply curious and wanted to see if anyone would go to the Slowpoke Express that morning. But, what, the narrator wonders, does he expect to see?

Just what does he hope to see that’s so exciting – another Jew like himself from Teplik? Or a Jewess from Obodivke? Or a priest from Golovonyevsk? Jewish pleasures! But it was the custom to go, and go this Jew did. And in those days, don’t you know. The railroad was new; we weren’t used to the Slowpoke yet and were were still curious about it. (188)

At the station, the Jew runs into a “Russian priest from Golonovnyevsk.”   The priest insults the Jew by calling him “Yudko” and asking him what he’s looking at. The Jew “retorts angrily” and tells him that his name is Yudko, its Berko (a nickname).

This comical exchange leads to the topic of how a train works. Since “Berko” is a schlemiel of the luftmensch variety (he makes a sells vinegar but has no formal education) he acts “as if” he knows how the train works (because, after all, he knows how to make vinegar).   The priest insults Berko again and says that he doesn’t know anything about the train. He forgets the Jews name again, but Berko reminds him and this prompts him to be more bold in his assertion of knowledge.

Berko then proceeds to get on to the train with the priest and show him that he knows what he’s talking about.   After tinkering with a few switches, the train starts moving. The schlemiel, excited, thinks he has pulled one over on the Priest. Meanwhile, the onlookers are astonished that the Slowpoke Express is actually moving:

I hardly need to tell you what pandemonium broke out among the passengers in Sobolivke station when they saw the uncoupled locomotive mysteriously take off on its own. (189)

The whole won panics. Meanwhile, the Priest and Berko (“Berl Vinegar”) realize that Berko doesn’t know how to operate the train and can’t stop it from hurtling itself to disaster.

To bring out the difference between perspectives as a topic in the story, Aleichem notes how the people imagine the worst and make up stories about its disaster or what was going on inside of it…while it was still traveling along the tracks!

That’s when the real shindig started. What could be the meaning of it? A Jew and a priest in a runaway locomotive? Where were they running away to? And why? And who could the Jew be? (191)

When they learn that it is Berl in the train, they take the schlemiel for a shlimazel and see a tragic rather than a comic ending. However, what happens flips their tragic expectations on its head.

As they near their impending death, an argument between the Priest and Berl over death and judgment.   Berl has the last word by arguing that on Hohsana Rabbah he accepts whatever God decides.   He prays for the best to happen but…it may not happen if God so decides.

After saying this, a miracle happens: the train runs out of steam.

Berl takes this miracle as a lesson about man: “If he doesn’t get anything to eat…” he “runs out of steam and kaput”(194).   But that seems to be the wrong lesson. If the train didn’t run out of steam the schlemiel and the priest would be dead.   His insight may be off, but it shows us what matters.

The schlemiel’s happiness is contingent on chance; and more often than not, he averts disaster and gets lucky.   And like many a schlemiel, Berl got himself into this mess by thinking that he knew better.   Even so, since he is a good, simple soul, who lives a life based on chance, he survived.     But the real issue is the outcome. The people expected a disaster and the priest looked down on the Jew and his lack of intelligence. In the end, goodness and not negativity and tragedy win.

On this note, Aleichem tricked his reader by announcing – at the outset of the story – that there was a train disaster. He lied because he knows that people are more naturally interested in tragedy than comedy.   The point, for Aleichem, is not to increase our natural cynicism but to challenge it. That way, we can experience the wonder of possibility.   In any situation, something good can always happen and that, in a world full of tragedy (remember Aleichem was writing when the Pogroms were in full swing and Jews were fleeing Eastern Europe for America and other destinations), its harder to entertain this possibility since its not the way of things. Nonetheless, that’s were salvation (hoshana) comes in.   For Aleichem, it’s “Jewish” to believe that good things can happen…despite the fact that reality – like a predator – looks back at you with contempt.

Lest we not forget, all of this happens on a train, on the Slow Poke express.  The irony is that schlemiel – and not a well-trained conductor – gets the train going.  Perhaps that’s what Aleichem dreamed of…a schlemiel at the head of the train. But that dream, it seems, can only come true in fiction….unless we are schlemiels like Berl. If so, perhaps we also get lucky because…the train is speeding fast into the future and it doesn’t seem like it will lose steam. A schlemiel can’t stop the train.   Perhaps, nothing short of a miracle can save us from crashing.  But why imagine the worst? That’s too easy.

From the Face-to-Face to the Interface: A Moment in Jean Baudrillard’s “America”

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In our socially networked world, we are over saturated with information and images. We are bombarded and, in the midst of this, we seem to cobble together something of our own virtual bubble with icon-slash-friends who we share images, information, and identifications on a daily basis.   But, before this all become normal; it was called hyperreal. To be sure, Jean Baudrillard is most well known for his notion of the “hyperreal” which was popularized by his book, Simulations. In that book, published in 1983, he writes:

Abstraction today is no longer that of a map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULCURA – it is the map that engenders the territory….The desert of the real itself. (2)

As a part of his explanation of what this means, in “reality,” Baudrillard describes Disneyland, the American hallmark, as the prime example of the hyperreal. It is an “infantilized” world:

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. (24)

Five years later, Baudrillard returns to his meditation on American as the center of the simulated world. He writes a book called America. In this book, Baudrillard goes deeper into the “desert of the real” than ever so as to provide his readers with a kind of journalistic account of his dissolution into a sea of relations. Everything, it seems, is caught up in virtual relations that are repeated in different series. Relations are altered and recycled.  Our lives are animated by them:

Sex, beach, and mountains. Sex and beach, beach and mountains. Mountains and sex. A few concepts. Sex and concepts. “Just a life.” Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things seem to exist by virtue of this strange destiny.   You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world. (32)

Baudrillard dives into the experience of relation to argue that all relation, today, is nothing more than what he calls an “interface” or “interaction” which has “replaced face-to-face contact and action”:

This is a culture which sets up specialized institutes so that people’s bodies can come together and touch, and, at the same time, invents pans in which the water does not touch the bottom of the pan, which is made of a substance so homogenous, dry, and artificial that not a single drop sticks to it, just like those bodies intertwined in ‘feeling’ and therapeutic love, which do not touch – not even a moment. This is called interface or interaction. It has replaced face-to-face contact and action. (32)

Touching the other, in his view, is “interfacing with the other.” There is a kind of “communication” in which there isn’t any real “communication.” He calls this a “code of separation.” By way of this code, all everything has become information that “wormed its way into everything, like a phobic maniacal leitmotiv.”

One wonders how this anticipates facebook and twitter: mediums that “interface” different people who exchange information but never really touch.   And it does seem as if there is a code of separation which rules over all of our relations. Baudrillard laments this and mourns the death of the “face-to-face” contact and action.

The problem with this, of course, is that it suggests that all bodily relations are “interfaced.” This suggests that Levinas is wrong and that we cannot be “persecuted” or “traumatized” by the other. In this hyperreal world, we can interface with the other and keep our distance; we need not be obligated by them. The only thing that affects us is the information that passes through us and keeps us and all things separate.

The only reason we are concerned about our bodies is because “everyone is made to concentrate” on the body, “not as a source of pleasure,” but “as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance, a sing and an anticipation of death, that death which not one can any longer give a meaning, but which everyone knows has at all times to be prevented”(35).

Our main concern, therefore, is to preserve our bodies from death and to make them properly interface with other bodies. We are “into” things because we are a part of this or that circuit within which we function.   We are constantly maintaining a circuit. Do we fit in or are we “the odd one’s out?”

The comedy, it seems, for Baudrillard is not to be found save for the fact that we are caught up in too many surfaces and interfaces. We live for the ecstasy of the network. But we fear, too often, that we have missed our cue. As Paul Celan says in one poem, we are adrift in a sea of relations.   And these relations often blur into each other making our relations more confusing.

For Baudrillard this can only go in one direction: toward a kind of Apocolypse of all history and all meaning. This is the fatalist reading. And it all starts in Disneyland where we all become infantile and, for Baudrillard, where we lose all sense of an adulthood that once was. In his world, the Levinasian face-to-face is a thing of the past. In the hyperreal, we all become children who know only interfaces and not faces.

The Restless Ones and Uneasy Permanence: Steinbeck on America, Mobile Homes, and Rootlessness

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On his travels with his dog Charley across America, John Steinbeck has a few moments in his journey when he is truly astonished by things he discovers for the first time. The wonder he has, which he records in Travels With Charley, prompts him to ask questions and look deeper into what he has found. More importantly, the questions he asks help him to reflect on what American is or has become. Like a Socrates of the road, Steinbeck learns about himself and his country by way of speaking to different people and “speculating.”   One of the things he discovers, which prompts him to reflection deeply on the nature of America and himself, is the mobile home.

Steinbeck discovers his first mobile homes when he is traveling on “roads out of manufacturing centers”(95). These mobile homes “comprise one of my generalities” about America. Steinbeck notes his first encounters with these mobile homes:

Early in my travels I had become aware of these new things under the sun, of their great numbers, and since they occur in increasing numbers all over the nation, observation of them and perhaps some speculation is in order. (95)

Steinbeck is prompted by the sheer mass of spaces to speculate further. He sees in the mobile home park a kind of paradox of rootlessness and their “uneasy permanence.” To understand it better, he “talks to the managers and the dwellers in this new kind of housing”(95).

But before he does, he discusses the meaning of “uneasy permanence.” He points out that “the fact that the homes can be moved does not mean that they move”(96).   He is astonished at this new way of life:

Sometimes their owners stay for years in one place, plant gardens, build little walls on cinder blocks, put out awnings and garden furniture. It is a whole way of life that is new to me. (96)

He tries to find words for what he calls a mobile home “revolution”:

It seemed to me a revolution in living and on rapid increase. Why did a family choose to live in a home? Well, it was comfortable, compact, easy to clean, easy to heat”(97).

Steinbeck zeroes in on the new feature of these homes: privacy. It solves problems to leave the spaces one grew up in for any place in America:

Each family has a privacy it never had before. The old folks are not irritated by crying babies. The mother-in-law problem is abated because the new daughter has a privacy she never had and a place of her own in which to build the structure of the family. When they move away, and nearly all Americans move away, or want to, they do not leave unused and therefore useless rooms. Relations between the generations are greatly improved. (99)

But in one of his recorded conversations with mobile home owners, Steinbeck notes that the biggest challenge to these good things is…rootlessness. He is astonished at their indifference to rootlessness and pushes them to discuss it. While drinking with them, he drops the question about this topic:

Sipping a highball after dinner, hearing the rushing water in the electric dishwasher in the kitchen, I brought up a question that had puzzled me. There were good, thoughtful, intelligent people. I said, “One of our most treasured feelings concerns roots, growing up rooted in some soil or some community.” How did they feel about raising their children without roots? Was it good or bad? Would they miss it or not? (100)

The response to this question, by a husband and wife, shows Steinbeck that they don’t mind being rootless. The husband, whose father was an immigrant from Italy, notes that his father “cut his roots away and came to America” and migrated from place to place and job to job. His wife is also the daughter of immigrant parents; Irish immigrants.

Steinbeck asks her if she misses “some kind of permanence?” Her response is telling since it tells the story of America, a country that is always on the move:

“Who’s got permanence? Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up, you move where it’s better. You got roots you sit and starve. You take the pioneers in the history books. They were movers. Take up land, sell it, move on…How many kids in America stay in the place where they were born, if they can get out?”(101)

After leaving them, he reflects on what they told him and he learns about himself and a lesson or two about America:

Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the resltless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? And the fact is we have. But that’s the short view. What are roots and how long do we have them? (103)

Steinbeck concludes his musing with two speculations that begin with “maybe” and “perhaps.” These speculations suggest that the Americans tap into a primal need to be “elsewhere”:

Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else. (104)

He tells us that “Charley,” his dog, has no answer. And this suggests that Steinbeck has to live on with the mystery of American rootlessness and the desire to move and be “elsewhere.” It is a part of himself and he sees this need in his conversations with mobile home owners.

One wonders what he would make of terms like “trailer trash” and a comedic show like Trailer Park Boys.   Would Steinbeck see something less profound and amusing? Would he find an “uneasy permanence” dwelling in this show or something else?  Are they living out their desire to live elsewhere?

 

Interested in the Right Thing at the Wrong Time: On Andy Warhol’s (American) Comedic Reflections

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When reading Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), one cannot but be struck by his absent-mindedness and innocence. It is distinctly American and, at the same time, it is urban and ironic.  Andy drifts in and out of different topics in a simple and understated way. And, because of his writing’s extreme simplicity, it comes across as comical.

In the first part of the book, entitled “How Andy Puts His Warhol Pants On,” Warhol frames the discussion about “bluejeans” within a conversation between Warhol and B (two ordinary Americans) about the most ordinary things like waking up and talking about what they do once they are up. In the midst of this we see Warhol’s greatest American desire: to have a TV show:

“I wake up every morning. I open my eyes and think: here we go again.”

“I get up because I have to pee.”

“I never fall back to sleep,” I said, “It seems like a dangerous thing to do. A whole day of life is like a whole day of television. TV never goes off air once it starts for the day, and I don’t either. At the end of the day the whole day will be a movie. A movie made for TV.”

“I watch television from the minute I get up,” B said. “I look at NBC blue, then I turn the channel and look at the background in a different color…”(5)

Warhol lets B drone on and then interprets what she was saying, which is, basically, what Warhol dreams of:

B was referring to the great unfulfilled ambition of my life: my own TV show. I’m going to call it Nothing Special.

Warhol’s dream show, like much else he says, is really “nothing special.” But this, Warhol is telling us, is what people do when they have time: they fill it with chat about things they do, like to do, would like to do, and don’t want to do. They also drift into things that “believe” in.

Warhol tells B that he “believes in uniforms”(12). B says she also “believes” in them because “if there’s nothing there, clothes are certainly not going to make the man. It’s better to always wear the same thing and know that people are liking you for the real you and not the you your clothes make”(12). After making this cliché statement about the self vs. the clothes one wears, B changes the subject to where people leave their things. She finds it best to leave ONLY clothes out: “Nothing should be hidden except the things you don’t want your mother to see. That’s the only reason I’m scared of dying”(12).

She doesn’t want her mother to find “the vibrator” and her “diary.” Warhol finds this discussion to be going in the wrong direction. For this reason, he tells B that he “believes in bluejeans.”

Like an ad on TV, B says that the jeans made by Levi Strauss are “the top original bluejeans. They can’t be bought old, they have to be bought new and they have to be worn in by the person. To get that look. And they can’t be phoney bleached or pheoney anything”(13).

In response, Warhol suggest “French Bluejeans.” B rejects this and says, “No.  American are the best. Levi Strauss.” Warhol, excited by her response, whispers that he wants to die with his bluejeans on.” This so excites B that she says he should be President! Blue jeans, it seems, make the American and are more important than TV.

These reflections are, to be sure, comical by virtue of their simplicity and optimism. TV, Bluejeans, and how one lays things out in one’s room are shared as if they were self-evident truths. Warhol would have us believe that bluejeans really do make the man…and the President. He would have us believe that all Americans want their own TV show but really have nothing special to say. Americans are all simple people; Andy is an American; therefore he must like bluejeans, TV, and…things.

What interests me about this comical talk is when it turns away from things and turns toward comedy itself. In chapter seven, which is entitled “Time,” Warhol discuss timing in relation to comedy. What he admires most about comedians is their timing:

I look at professional people like comedians in night clubs, and I’m always impressed with their perfect timing, but I could never understand how they can bear to say exactly the same thing all the time. Then I realized what’s the difference, because you’re always repeating your same things all the time anyway, whether or not somebody asks you or it’s your job. You’re usually making the same mistakes. You apply your usual mistakes to every new category or field you go into. (114)

Warhol, always looking for the American common-denominator, realizes (as if in an epiphany) that we repeat ourselves constantly. Timing makes these things…interesting and funny.   However, when the timing is off, one may fall flat.

Warhol understands this intimately. Following this aphorism, Warhol notes that he, like a schlemiel of sorts, is always off in his timing. Because, whenever he is interested in something, he always seems to come too late:

Whenever I’m interested in something, I know that timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time. I should just get interested after I’m not interested anymore, because right after I’m embarrassed to still be thinking about a certain idea, that’s when the idea is just about to make somebody a few million dollars. My same good mistakes. (114)

Like the schlemiel, Warhol’s mistakes are honest and common. The irony of this reflection is that Warhol, as we can see above, seems to be on time. After all, B says he should be President because he said he would like to “die in bluejeans.” But there is something odd about this timing. The idea of bluejeans being something someone should die in is not novel, but, at the moment, it sounded so novel that Warhol – in a brief moment – became an icon.

But, as Warhol muses elsewhere, one must do something…regardless of whether one is on time or not. And that’s the wisdom of a schlemiel who does things all the time – even though those things might be too late, at least the fool does them…And, sometimes, as Warhol knew very well…being late can be fashionable.

 

The Other (American) Side of Failure: A Few Words on Delmore Schwartz

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Delmore Schwartz’s fiction and poetry – which has its fair share of schlemiels and schlemiel moments – has been of great interest to Schlemiel Theory.  His schlemiels offer a nuanced reading of this character which differs in many ways from its European cousins.  Indeed, what I find in Schwartz’s schlemiel is an American variety of this character which, unlike many of its counterparts, has a more explicit struggle with failure and success.

Schlemiel Theory was recently cited by Zachary Braiterman’s Jewish Philosophy Place in a blogpost on Delmore Schwartz.  It is entitled “Delmore Schwartz (Monstrous Children & Dreary Children).”   Braiterman notes that I, “better than most,” understand that Schwartz’s characters “are schlemiel figures.  Oddballs and failures, they don’t belong to the world.”   Braiterman adds, however, that what “so many of Schwartz’s admirers trend to neglect is his characters are mean, and if they are not mean to themselves, then they are hapless, surrounded by bitter people who are mean to each other.”

What I find so compelling about Braiterman’s claim is the fact that he brings a much neglected element to schlemiel theory: anger.   To be sure, the schlemiels we see in classical Yiddish or Jewish American literature such as Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin III, I.L. Peretz’s Bontshe Shvayg, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel don’t seem to have any aspect of meanness.  They are all kind, yet worldless characters.  Do we see something fundamentally different with Schwartz’s characters?  After all, they are, as Braiterman argues, “mean.”

Braiterman argues that the reason why they are so mean has to do with the fact that there is a gap between their “ambitious self-regard” and their “actual mediocre talents” :

Schwartz’s characters are not just mean because of the depression and “not just because of the native Protestant anti-Semitism, but because these people, the characters who fill Schwartz’s short stories, really are impossible people, human beings whose ambitious self-regard streaks light years beyond their actual mediocre talents.

They are “impossible people” because their hopes don’t match with reality.  To be sure, the bifurcation between reality and the dreams of this or that character is a major part of what makes a schlemiel a schlemiel (say Aleichem’s Motl or Sofer’s Benjamin III).  They are luftmensches (they “live on air”).  But they are not mean.

Schwartz’s characters are.

I think something else is at work and that is the American experience.  Failure in America, for educated people like Schwartz and later Bernard Malamud, is much different from failure in Eastern Europe.  And this is something that Schwartz and Malamud understand better than a writer like I.B. Singer (who Irving Howe and the Partisan Review also published).   To be sure, the meanness that leaks through Schwartz’s schlemiels has to do with failure, American style.

What makes Schwartz (of Malamud) such great writers is the fact that they are able to translate the experience of high American hopes and great American failures into various schlemiel characters.  And, yes, there is something mean about this because, in the end, failure in America is mean.  Schwartz, to be sure, had a hard time balancing out hope and skepticism in the face of his failures.  He couldn’t do what Aleichem did. But is that a fault?

The worldlessness of his characters, his schlemiels, brings out a different use of the character.  It brings out the darker side of the schlemiel, the side that Yiddish writers didn’t want to see.  This may have to do with the fact that they saw it too much.  Schwartz’s America is different.  It isn’t the Pale of Settelment. And unlike his brothers in Eastern Europe, he had many more opportunities.  For this reason, his experience of failure was fundamentally different.

In mid to early 20th century America, a different schlemiel was called for.  Hence the schlemiels we see coming out of Bellow and Malamud all grapple with hope and failure.  However, Moses Herzog or Henry Levin don’t experience failure in the same intense way as Schwartz’s schlemiels.  Nonetheless, one will notice that failure is always haunting them in ways that are different from the missed encounters we see with failure in the novels or stories of the Yiddish writers.   While many schlemiels are blind to it, these characters (and their authors) are not.

Jewish American writers are not just on the “other side of the pond,” they are also on the “other side of failure.”  I thank Zachary Braiterman (and his Jewish Philosophy Place) for reminding me that Schwartz’s bitterness was, in many ways, a thread that finds its way through so many American schlemiels.

Hail Caesar the Popular-Mystic-Comic – A Few Thoughts on Sid Caesar

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On February 12, 2014, we lost one of the greatest comedians in the Jewish-American tradition: Sid Caesar.  On Twitter, his long time friend and colleague, Carl Reiner wrote:

“We’ve lost the greatest, monologist, pantomimic, sketch comedian TV has ever known! Word GENIUS is oft misused but not so here. HAIL CAESAR”

Although I am from an entirely different generation – my parents and grandparents grew up with and watched Sid Caesar on TV, I didn’t – I grew up hearing his name mentioned from time to time by my relatives and their friends.  I can understand, after watching so much footage and hearing so much praise of him, why Carl Reiner would say this.   But, still, my understanding is not the same.

For a person like myself, who hasn’t grown up with Caesar, I am in a different position.  And as a person who identifies with and situates himself within the history of Jewish-American comedy, I am very interested in what makes Caesar’s comedy “Jewish” or unique.  After all, Reiner says in his Tweet that Caesar was the “greatest monologist, pantomimic, sketch comedian TV has ever known.”   But as a schlemiel theorist what I want to know is whether or how any of what he performs relates to, adds on to, or revises the schlemiel tradition.

I obviously won’t be able to answer this question in one blog entry or even two.  It will take me time to really work through these questions.  However, what I can say is that what strikes me about his comedy sketches is the fact that in his parodies of this or that figure he deeply engages the audience.  And, in drawing them in, he, like a mystic, opens up a new space where one’s ways of thinking are, as it were, born for the first time.  The awkwardness this creates makes for something revelatory and it does so by way of exposing the audience to a person who wants desperately to relate to them.

One piece I am really interested in –because I am an academic – is a piece on “Professor Von Fossil,” the absent-minded archeologist from Austria.  He is introduced by none other than Carl Reiner.

Reiner is dressed up formally and takes on the serious tone of journalist who is looking to learn and share something with the audience.  Right off the bat, the professor – who looks like a hobo – breaks with the norm by way of his greeting: he shakes Reiner’s hand twice, looks him straight in the eye, and says, with what appears to be great sincerity, that he is so happy to actually meet someone.  In other words: he is truly grateful to make an appeal to the other.  This solicits some laughter in the audience when he coldly turns and says “that’s enough.” The reaction is odd because on the one hand he draws the audience in – by way of his friendly and happy demeanor – yet, on the other hand, he pushes them away.

When asked about the pyramids and their “architecture,” Caesar begins his answer in an academic way with the head down thinking and gestures.  But the answer doesn’t seem to be coming.  But then he breaks the rules by saying “look at the pyramids” – gesturing to the audience – repeatedly.  This breaks the ice.  The audience laughs because this is breaking with the role of professor.  He is playing with language, gesture, and social mores.  He is foregrounding language; and this is comical.

He then goes off on a tangent about animals building things, and goes way off topic and even changes accents and speaks more in a person-to-person manner about animals and their ways.  This also foregrounds the medium.

Following this, he talks about a hole that was found in Persia.  But this is “a hole within a hole within a hole.”  This, to my mind, alludes to the emptiness of his comic gestures which dig holes in this or that discourse, which, in a mystical-comical manner, he plunges his audience.  (As in a comic trance…)

This goes to the next level when he mimes out what a translator had communicated to him regarding the writing on the walls around the big hole.  Drawing his finger back and forth and using a dialect that seems middle eastern, Caesar takes us through an absurd translation (replete with a gaze, gestures, and odd tones). The effect is mystical and fresh as it goes beyond the limit: where after all will this go?  We don’t know when the translation-slash-movement will end.  It has an animated character that goes against all academic decorum.

But then he gets to translation into English, which is the punch line: “No handball playing against the wall.”

In other words, we were duped.  He is not talking about some ancient artifact; he seems to be talking about something contemporary.   This punch line evokes the greatest laughter.  The joke is on academia, really.  For after Reiner asks him a very academic question, Caesar mocks him on the side as if his academic question is…too academic.

This appeals to the audience which now sees the Professor as a jokester and a simpleton.  He’s not really a stuffy academic.  The last three jokes – especially his book with the matriarchs in Cincinatti – also show us that he is really not so academic as a hobo of sorts.

And the last line of the routine contrasts with the first: instead of embracing him he tells Reiner to “get out of here.”  But the audience knows he can’t be serious; after all, the professor doesn’t mean anything he says.

He is the everyman; the simpleton.  His anger really isn’t anger and his seriousness is really not serious.  That’s what makes him so funny.

And that’s what makes him a Caesar of sorts.  The schlemiel teaches not to take ourselves so seriously; but, while in Europe the schlemiel is a luftmensch, in a tele-visual America, in a country guided by entertainment, he can be a leader.  Herein lies the secret of popular, comic, mysticism….

Thank you, Sid, for sharing it…

A Note on the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Simpleton in William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”

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I didn’t grow up in the generation of the Beat Poets, but I was always interested in them.   One of the poets who had a great influence on Beat Poets like Allan Ginsburg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti was William Carlos Williams.  One of the first books of poetry I read of his was “Paterson.”  I recently ran across the text and I was drawn in by the poetry of Book One Section II.  I found something very American, poetic, and comical in that section.  What I found so amazing is that Williams manages to keep each of these voices distinct.  The difference between a few styles of writing produces this comedic effect and this has much resonance with the schlemiel (who is a simpleton, a “tam”).

In the opening stanza, we hear a voice that is confused, a voice that is concerned with the “how” (not the “what”).  This voice is “more than a how,” says the poetic voice; it is a voice that Howls:

There is no direction. Whither? I

Cannot say. I cannot say

More than how.  The how (the howl) only

Is at my disposal (proposal): watching –

Colder than stone –

In a modernist sense, Williams is suggesting that we pay close attention to “how” he speaks and even more so to his “howl.”   This will help us to understand his poem.

The following stanza evokes an image of a “bud forever green.” But this bud has fallen on the pavement.  It is “divorced.”  From what?

Playing on this divorce, Williams evokes a public (and not a poetic) American voice which is mixed with a philosophical one:

Divorce is

The sign of knowledge in our time,

Divorce! Divorce!

These words direct our attention (by way of indirection) to the many ways things in this poem that are divorced from each other.   The next stanza evokes the “roar” of Paterson’s main waterfall.  It induces “sleep and silence…the roar of eternal sleep.”   The roar looks to “divorce” us from “wakefulness.”  It “challenges” us to stay awake.

Given the how we saw in the outset, we should ask a question: How – in the midst of this roaring – does one keep oneself awake?

The poem, at this point, presents “two halfgrown girls hallowing hallowed Easter.”  They are “weaving about themselves.”  But they are “disparate” among the roaring waters.  The theme of separation and divorce are once again pronounced.

“Beauty” comes to the rescue.  To be sure, Immanuel Kant and other philosophers associate beauty with harmony.  And in this scenario, perhaps beauty can bring the divorced elements together.  The poet, speaking from a poetic and a philosophical angle, provides a reflection on the girls mentioned above.  He says they are wrapped up in ribbons, bows, and twigs.  There is even reference to fur.  Their beauty, it seems,  harmonizes culture and nature.  But, in the midst of this poetic solution to a philosophical crisis, we hear an American voice interrupt the image:

Ain’t they beautiful!

The voice of the slang is divorced from the poetic voice, but, in its simplicity, it brings the poem to a different place:

Certainly I am not a robin or erudite,

No Erasmus nor bird that returns to the same

Ground year by year….

The ground has undergone a subtle transformation, its identity altered.

The poet, who also seems to be a philosopher, loses his identity, the “ground” he speaks from (which could be a philosophical or poetic ground) is altered; and, as a result, he becomes a simpleton and child-like.  But this transformation is not complete: the poet and philosopher return after this shift.  And they are both overwhelmed by all of the details of existence.  They stay “awake” out of some kind of existential terror.  But the simpleton does not seem to be affected.  Is he sleeping?  Has the roar of the waterfall put him to sleep?

This contrast – between the poet, the philosopher, and the simpleton – makes me think of the schlemiel.  The schlemiel travels around existence, explores it, yet without any philosophical quandaries about beauty, the divorce between the cultural and the natural, and so forth.  He is free of that, but the poet is not.  And this creates a kind of relationship – like the one between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote: the fool and the rationalist.

But, and this is the point, they (like the voices in this poem) stick together.  And Sancho Panza learns from Quixote.  Here, the poet and the philosopher learn from the ways of the simple American who is “not a robin or erudite” and he doesn’t return to the “same ground.” For the Simpleton, everything seems different (but in the way of wonder not angst, which sees everything as divorced).   And, unlike the philosopher or the poet, he doesn’t have a ground.  But, for the simpleton,  that’s nothing to panic over.  They panic, while he wanders, distracted, through the American landscape.