Not Quite Jewish….Almost American: From Portnoy to Admiral General Alladin

DownloadedFile-1

Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a long discourse-slash-novel that begins and ends on the couch of a psychiatrist.  But the novel is not simply a discourse on the psyche of the schlemiel.  Rather, it gives us a sense of how his identity crisis tarries between sexual identity and national identity.    Is Portnoy a Jew or an American?  Neither?  Does he reject one identity while failing to embrace another?

In a moment of revelation, Portnoy dramatizes his failure to be an American.  Something is getting in the way.  And this something makes him angry:

And its true, is it not? – incredible, but apparently true – there are people in life who feel at ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees?  Because it wasn’t, you see, that one was the best center fielder imaginable, only that one knew exactly, and done the smallest particular, how a center fielder should conduct himself.  And there are people like that walking the streets of the U.S. of A.?  I ask you, why can’t I be one!”(71).

Unlike Americans, Portnoy cannot “feel at ease” and have “self-assurance.”  Unlike Americans, he cannot “affiliate” himself with “what is going on.”  Here, we have the basis of a post-WWII schlemiel: He is ashamed of the fact that he is ill at ease, unsure of himself, and is unable to bravely “affiliate” himself with “what is going on” in America.  He has failed to be an self-possessed American male.

Immediately following this, Portnoy says that he is not simply a failure; he is a Jew:

But I am something more, or so they tell me.  A Jew.  No! No! An atheist, I cry.  I am a nothing where religion is concerned, and I will not pretend to be anything that I am not!…And I don’t care how close we came to sitting shiva for my mother either – actually, I wonder if the now if maybe the whole hysterectomy has not been dramatized into C-A and out of it again solely for the sake of scaring the S-H out of me!  Solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy. (71)

Being a Jew, for Portnoy, is not an essence; it is, rather, about being molded by one’s parents “to be” Jewish.  And Portnoy states emphatically that “I” will not “pretend to be anything that I am not!”  His Jewish guilt – or rather resentment – is based on his education and his birth.  To be sure, Portnoy is “told” that he is a Jew, which implies that he was told what to say and what to do.  He had no will of his own.  His whole education had a purpose.   Portnoy flatly states that it was dedicated “solely for the sake of humbling and frightening me into being once again an obedient and helpless little boy.”

In other words, Judaism didn’t help Portnoy to become a man.  He has never been properly raised to live in the world and be independent and self-present.  In other words, he was never taught how to be autonomous.  As a result of his upbringing, as a Jew, he has become a “helpless little boy.”   He has become heternomous and dependent on his mother.   This tension, in fact, has deeper roots in the struggle between heteronomy and autonomy.  This struggle, for the post-WWII Jewish-American schlemiel is a struggle that Jews also had in Germany.  In Germany, the schlemiel was a shameful character.  As Sander Gilman argues in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Jews, in the Enlightenment period (the Jewish-German Haskalah) made plays that satirically target the schlemiel.  His traits – which included being effeminate, over emotional, confused, unable to speak properly (mangling German), and being heteronomous – were to be laughed off the stage.

Like the schlemiels in these German-Jewish comedies, Portnoy is almost a man.

Portnoy’s only way of asserting his manhood is through anger; namely, through being sarcastic about the bad hand he was dealt.  And this is a new tactic, since in German-Jewish theater, the schlemiel is laughed at since he or she is unaware of his or her ‘folly’.  Here, it is different.  Here, the schlemiel “knows” what the source of his problem is.  And what ensues is a kind of impotent rage which is new to the schlemiel.  It is not a trait one would find in Yiddish literature.

As a part of his comic ranting, Portnoy turns on his mother.  She is responsible for making him a “helpless little boy.”

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO FUCKING MUCH TO BEAR!

Portnoy is in effect revolting against her and humiliating her as a way of “freeing himself” of his Jewish guilt.   He wants to be a man and reverse that education and go from being a child to a man on his own.  In other words, he wants to give birth to himself.  His path from heteronomy to autonomy is based on ridicule.  By destroying his mother, he believes he will be autonomous.  For Portnoy, this is synonymous with becoming an American.

But this is not enough.  He may successfully ridicule his mother and feel free.  However, in reality, he cannot be an American because he is not successful in the sex department.  His failure is measured by a skill.  To be sure, he believes that what he’s good at, and what helps him to give birth to himself as independent, is masturbation: both literal and literary masturbation.  His words ejaculate on the page.  Portnoy takes deep pride in this but he knows, ultimately, that this doesn’t make him an American of the sort we saw above.  Rather, it makes him an American-Schlemiel.

Half the length of the tunnel it takes me to unzip my zipper silently – and there it is again, up it pops again, as always swollen, bursting with demands, like some idiot macrocephallic making his parents’ life a misery with his simpleton’s insatiable needs.  “Jerk me off, “ I am told by the silk monster.  “Here? Now? Of course here and now. When would you expect an opportunity like this to present itself a second time?”(126)

He believes that he must masturbate.  He must be ‘bad’ if he going to PUT THE ID BACK INTO THE YID. But to be a Jewish-American man – living in the shadow of the Jewish State – he must pass the ultimate test: he must have sex with a Sabra.  This leads us to Portnoy’s Final complaint, his final failure.

Since he can’t be an American, what is the model for a self-confident, autonomous Jewish male who can “affiliate himself” with what is going on?  Portnoy realizes that this model would be a Sabra.   But he rejects this model thinking that if he can match her, sexually, that he will finally win.  But what happens is that when it comes to the moment of sex with Naomi, a Sabra, he fails miserably.  As I noted in a previous post on Roth, Portnoy comes to the realization that he can’t be a self-confident Jewish man, that is, an Israeli.  And this is his final complaint.

But this failure and the following verbal compensation for failure (by his calling her names) gives birth to the new Jewish-American Schlemiel.   Although he, like many past schlemiels, is not quite a man and not quite a child, he is, a man-child with a big mouth and a passion for masturbation.

He’s an American schlemiel: he is neither an American nor a Jew.  He’s somewhere inbetween.

But since Portnoy, things have changed. His method of transformation is comic and literal masturbation.  But, when Roth wrote this, it was not considered to be American.  In Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, however, masturbation is a rite of passage for Admiral General Alladin, the Dictator.  Through masturbation, he can become an American.  He can fit in with the others in the Brooklyn Co-op.

From Portnoy to Alladin of Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, we have a comic-sexual lineage of Jewish-American stand-up – or sit-down comedy.   The measure of being an American Schlemiel, his power, for Portnoy was his masturbatory rant.  What Sasha Baron Cohen does is yet another parody of the masturbatory rant.  But in his rant masturbation is no longer “bad” – in fact, it becomes the rite of passage to America.  A rite that Cohen’s character – the Dictator – picks up in the back room of a Brooklyn Health Food Co-op.

Perhaps Sasha Baron Cohen is telling us, in an awry way, that in that space and at this time, the Schlemiel is literally a Modern American Hero.  In other words, Portnoy may no longer have to complain since being a man and autonomous may no longer be a concern for the postmodern American Jew.  It may no longer be a thing that Jews are ashamed of since more and more Americans – at least in big American cities like New York (where the Dictator takes place) – are leaning toward a kind of metrosexuality.

Regardless of what may be the case, we must not forget that at the end of a film like The Dictator, Alladin is almost an American.  And this “almost” is what, still, makes a Schlemiel a schlemiel.   But the game has changed.  The test for the Schlemiel, at least in the Dictator is not sexual, it is political.  The test is democracy not masculinity.  And it seems as if, in the end, by becoming an advocate of democracy, the schlemiel becomes an American or…almost American.

Here, in America Everyday is Purim!

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi begins a section entitled “America is for Children” with the following claim: “Purim is for children, so is America.”

This claim can be found in Ezrahi’s commentary on Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son.  To be sure, her text is inspired by the following words of the main character (and schlemiel of the hour) – Motl:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.  He earns money every single day.  “Columbus, who can compare with you!

What does Aleichem mean when he has Motl, a schlemiel say that Purim in America is only one day in Europe but everyday in America?  And how does that relate to the next line: “he earns money every single day?”   What does making money have to do with Purim being everyday in America?  Lastly, what does it mean that Motl turns to an American holiday and says: “Columbus, who can compare with you!”

Ezrahi’s answers are worthy of discussion, especially here, in a blog dedicated to the schlemiel.  They broach a discussion on how the American and European schlemiel differ.  It also spurs a discussion of the difference between Israeli and American Jewishness. Ezrahi says, basically, that the American schlemiel leaves the European one behind – in the dust so to speak.  The American supercedes the European schlemiel.  In America, Purim is everyday.  It is the land of dreams.  In Israel if you will it, as Herzl says, its not a dream.

In this interpretative contrast between Israel and America, knowledge of the interpreter’s place makes s difference: Ezrahi is an American ex-patriot.  She has been living in Israel and teaching in Hebrew University for some time now.  Her latest work, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, pivots on the tension between Israel and America, Homecoming and Diaspora.  She writes, literally, from Israel. And this makes a difference insofar as America, to an Israeli like Ezrahi, looks like a foolish, amnesiac land.

Israel is intimately tied to the history of the Jewish people.  In Israel, Ezrahi says, memory and history is “recovered.”  While in America, reality, the present moment, experience itself is being “rediscovered.”   In America, there is endless forgetfulness.

While the land of Israel (ha’aretz) is the basis for Israeli literature, history, archeology, and politics is the land of Israel, the diasporic Jewish literature of America has no basis in history or a land.

For Ezahi, Israeli literature is consequential.  It is about a real land and real people.  Jewish-American literature is not.  Its based on the schlemiel and swims in virtual reality.

For American Jews, “the text (and not Israel) is, as George Steiner once wrote, “the homeland.”  It is, as Ezrahi says, a “substitute” for the land.  It is a “fictional sovereignty.”  In this land, the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams,” (as Heinrich Heine would say) is the king.  In this land, the land of the free, Purim is every day.

But things have changed.  After the land of Israel was established “fictional sovereignty” becomes a “diasporic privilege.”  It is, in other words, not a necessity.  Life in America – inside and outside of fiction – is the disaporic privilege of the few who ignore the land and the “recovery” of Judaism.  The schlemiel is a diasporic privilege. Israelis don’t have time for it.  They are in reality, not dreams (like us).

To be sure, the life of the postmodern American Jew is dwelling in the pages of fiction.  The key character and the author of these texts is the schlemiel.

But there is more to the story.  This is high culture of diasporic privilege, the low culture also celebrates the Schlemiel.  Diasporic privilege – that is the privilege of the schlemiel – is all around America.

According to Ezrahi, the schlemiel is an American “cultural icon.”

But how did he become a cultural icon?  How did this all happen?  And what does it mean?

Ezrahi’s interpretation of Aleichem’s Motl says it all.  To be sure, we can learn everything we need to know about why America is different from Israel by understanding Aleichem’s words on Purim.

According to Ezahi, the main task of the schlemiel in its  Yiddish-European model incarnation was to “turn things over” (ha’hefuch).  To revise the past – turn it over – through language.  Words.  One creates one’s own Diasporic homeland.

The power of the schlemiel is the power of language.  It is the “substitute” for power and for a homeland.

She calls the schlemiel’s wordcraft “the alechemy of words.”

According to Ezrahi, Aleichem’s schlemiel Motl revises history!  His father dies (which she reads as Europe dying) and he refuses mourning by way of speaking to much.  But more importantly, by going to America and substituting America for Europe.

For Aleichem, as for Modernist writers, language becomes everything.  For Ezrahi, his obsession with words is a denial of history and past trauma.  And this is Motl.  The schlemiel loves playing with language.  But, there is more, you don’t have to be a fictional character or author to play with language and create a “substitute sovereigny”(to substitute for one’s lack of a land and real power).  All you have to be is an American and you’re a schlemiel.  (Presto!)

In America Purim is everyday:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.

And why?

Ezrahi argues that the next line tells us: “He (Motl, the schlemiel) earns money every single day!”

For Ezrahi, this means that Purim is everyday.  Because, in America, one can remain a child (like Motl) and just work a simple job, or, as we hear all the time, the American schlemiel can live the dream.

Even though one is a child, at the very least, every day one can (in America) move from thing to thing.  The American-Jew (and the American, in general) does need any grounding in a land or history.  Living the dream is equivalent to Purim every day.  Moving from thing to thing.  Endless discovery, opportunity, and hope are the name of the American-schlemiel-game.

“Though Motl doesn’t grow, he moves, ultimately acting out his capacious dreams in New York’s streets…The child as a site of a Purim sensibility and as a miniature shlemiel…But no less significant, though seldom remarked, is that it is followed by its antithesis: the embrace of an alternative reality, of America as a space of unlimited possibility.”

Motl, in this American moment, “renounces” what Erazhi calls the “Purim privilege as superfluous.”  And he, the new American schlemiel, embraces “virtual reality.”

For Ezrahi, America is Purim.  Continuous optimism is provided by an endless procession of “simulcura.”  Where does it all come from?  It comes from out of the heartland (and producer) of dreams: Hollywood.

One can be American-Schlemiel if one makes a sacrifice. (Or perhaps this sacrifice has already been made to establish a new (yet virtual) diasporic foundation?)  This, according to Ezrahi, is Motl’s teaching.

In the moment of his ‘yes-saying’ to everything, to America, there is an exchange, that is, a sacrifice: “We can trace the process by which the world of the Shtetl is replaced by the world for America: “Vashti” is exchanged for “Harry” and Purim for Columbus, the coinage of Russian poverty for American capitalism and Yiddish for English.”

This portrayal of Motl as the archetype of the American schlemiel is thought-provoking.  Is Ezrahi right?  Is America caught in the grip of schlemiel dreams?  And should American’s come to terms with their “diasporic privilege?”  If Purim is everyday in America, how is this possible?

What few scholars who have read and commented on about Ezrahi’s book note is that she is portraying Exile (embodied in America) in a negative light.  Even though Purim is everyday in America, it is based on a denial of mourning.  America is, for Ezrahi, amnesia.

The schlemiel is too busy having fun, discovering America, to mourn.  And this is, for Ezrahi, the problem.

As one can guess, Ezrahi says that Israel, on the other hand, has mourned the Holocaust.  It’s fiction and its Jewish life is not based on an alternate reality; Israel is based on the land and on real history not on dreams.  As Ezrahi writes: Israel “is real.”

This would imply that my Purim is emblematized in Motl’s sacrifice and optimism.  My Purim is everyday!

And, worst of all, if I were to agree with Ezarhi’s reading, I would have to say that my life is based on forgetfulness and ahistorical. In my American, schlemiel optimism, I live on dreams.  I don’t live on the land.

Is this something I can accept as an American Jew?

I don’t agree with Ezrahi’s claim that the schlemiel’s optimism is based on the inability of American’s Jews to remember a Europe that they have made “virtual” (Ezrahi calls I.B. Singer’s work, Fiddler on the Roof, etc “the virtual ghetto”).

But I do agree , to some extent, with her argument that the schlemiel is an American “child” (of sorts) who is “moving through space and things.”  But what exactly does it mean to “move through space and things?”

Is the American schlemiel (or the schlemiel in general) a phenomenologist?  As Husserl (and Wiliam Carlos Williams) said, is he going “to the things themselves.”

http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/prt/en4405872.htm

Ezrahi cites Walter Benjamin to claim that in America the schlemiel is dazzled by things in space.  For Ezrahi, this fascination with things seems to be a distraction from the real thing; the thing that matters for Jews: the land (ha’aretz).

But is this right?  We are far from the prophetic schlemiel.  There are no “demands of the hour” in Ezrahi’s America.  There are no “demands of the hour” on Purim, either.   Only someone who can hear real – not simulated – demands to their Jewishness, is consequential.  For Ezrahi, ha’aretz issues these demands on Jewish identity.  They are the demands of history and the hour.

Without a land, the American schlemiel is, for Ezrahi, inconsequential.  Israelis have a real sovereignty – American Jews do not.  Their sovereignty is imaginary.  Just like Jewish-American identity, which is constantly trying on new Purim clothes.  Changing in and out of ‘things.’

All American Jews are schlemiels who are dancing the Chameleon with Woody Allen’s Zelig: Zelig, the schlemiel with a million faces.  He has no real land.  Zelig sovereignty is inconsequential.  His, like the  optimism of any American Jew, is based on not mourning Europe.

But is this description or, rather, this Zelig challenge right?

I am not ashamed.  I don’t think I have a “diasporic privilege’.  True, I don’t have to worry about ha’aretz every day because I don’t live there. But this doesn’t mean I don’t care and that I have simply left my Jewish identity (tied to ha’aretz) un-recovered.  

Moreover, I don’t think that my Jewish-American existence, my American dreaming, is based on my inability to mourn or my optimism.  

I love America, where every day its Purim!  In America, we’re all children!

My advice to this suggestion: ha’hafook – do what we all can do on Purim: “turn it over!”  Turn over the notion that American is a substitute for Israel.  Turn over the notion that all American’s are schlemiels because they – and not Israelis – are caught up in virtual-Jewish-reality.

One need not worry if, by turning it over, they are being unethical and not mourning or remembering Jewish history and trauma.  Turning over these ideas can help us to understand what is at stake at this hour.  The oblique prophet, the Schlemiel, especially on Purim,shows the way.

Happy Purim!  Don’t renounce your Purim privilege!  There are still things to “turn over.”   After all, its the “demand of the hour!”  Literally!