After the Holocaust, different scholars and journalists have debated over whether the schlemiel is dead or should live on. Regardless of the debate, however, it is evident that the character has lived on whether in literature or film. One need only go to the movie theater to see the film Neighbors to see this or watch episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie to gather the evidence. One can also see this character running throughout numerous novels. Nonetheless, there have been and there still are some people who would like to bury this character.
But, to be sure, this character lives on. And if one were to look in Yiddish literature, one will be hard put to find a story where a schlemiel dies, is buried, and is given a Eulogy. Even in Jewish American fiction, I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, Nathan Englander, and Shalom Auslander (to name only a few) don’t have stories or novels that include the death of a schlemiel character. Bernard Malamud is an exception to the rule. Near the end of his novel, The Assistant, Morris Bober, the schlemiel of the novel, dies, is buried, and is given a eulogy.
What most interests me about this fictional funeral is the eulogy dedicated to the schlemiel and the effect it has on Frank, the gentile character who, on the one hand, betrayed the schlemiel and, on the other hand, asked for his forgiveness. It is a unique moment in schlemiel literature because it discloses the schlemiel as a broken Saint of sorts while, at the same time, handing on the baton to Frank who becomes a schlemiel, literally, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death. And, in the end, converts to Judaism. This initiates a new kind of American-schlemiel-tradition.
The Rabbi’s Eulogy notes, immediately, the chief characteristic of Bober, which is the main trait of the schlemiel: “Morris Bober…was a man who couldn’t be more honest”(228). To illustrate, he recounts a story told to him by Helen, Bober’s daughter, who:
Remembers from when she was a small girl that her father ran two blocks in the snow to give back a poor Italian lady a nickel that she forgot on the counter. Who runs in winter-time without a hat or coat, without rubbers to protect his feet, two clocks in the snow to give back five cents a customer forgot….Could he wait for tomorrow? Not Morris Bober. (228)
The Rabbi goes on to explain that he did this because he “did not want the poor woman to worry”(229). He didn’t want her to suffer.
The Rabbi, near the end of the Eulogy, discusses Bober’s Jewishness and in doing so he brings out the American schlemiel’s brand of Jewishness which may not be observant but is, at the very least, full of heart:
When a Jew dies, who asks if he is a Jew? He is a Jew, we don’t ask. There are many ways to be a Jew…’Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with a Jewish heart.’ Maybe not to our formal tradition – for this I don’t excuse him – but he was true to the spirit of our life – to want for others that which he wants for himself…He suffered, he endur-ed, but with hope. Who told me this? I know? He asked little for himself – nothing, but he wanted for his child a better existence than he had. (230)
Following the talk, Helen reflects, in her grief, on what she heard. And in her reflection she corrects a few things that really bring out why Bober was a schlemiel:
I said Papa was honest but what was the good of such honesty if he couldn’t exist in this world? Yes, he ran after this poor woman to give back a nickel but he also trusted cheaters who took away what belonged to him….He was no saint; he was in a way weak, his only true strength in his sweet nature and his understanding. He knew, at least, what was good. (230)
She adds that he was not admired, as the Rabbi claimed, and hardly anyone knew his kindness and trust which went under the radar. And her last words give the most negative assessment of her father and explain why she ultimately saw him as responsible for his own failure:
He didn’t have the imagination to know what he was missing. He made himself into a victim. He could, with a little more courage, have been more than he was. (230)
Frank, following the ceremony, reflects on Bober’s death and what stays with him is that Bober’s Jewishness was linked to “suffering”: “Jews could make a suit of clothes out of it”(231).
As they put dirt on his coffin, Helen and Ida give their last words. Helen throws a flower into the grave. When it comes to Frank’s turn, he becomes a schlemiel and falls into the grave:
Frank, standing close to the edge of the grave, leaned forward to see where the flower fell. He lost his balance, and though flailing his arms, landed feet first on the coffin. (231)
Frank, like a schlemiel, scrambles out of the grave, “helped by the diggers”(232). And he thinks to himself how he has ruined everything and how he has failed: “I spoiled the funeral, he thought. He felt pity on the world for harboring him”(232).
In this moment, Malamud creates something of a schlemiel tradition that passes from the death of one schlemiel to the birth of another schlemiel. The irony is that Frank is not a Jew – not yet. At the very end of the novel, he becomes one. He “circumcised himself” and “the pain enraged and inspired him”:
One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew. (246)
Malamud’s narrative on Frank becoming a schlemiel and then a Jew is thought provoking. Frank didn’t simply become a schlemiel; he became a Jew. But in doing so he had the courage, like Abraham (the first Jew), to circumcise himself. And this pain “enraged and inspired him” because he, like Abraham, went against his nature. What makes this so fascinating is that even though he goes through this he is still a schlemiel. He is a Jewish schlemiel who faces failure.
The terms Malamud uses to describe this are fascinating because the Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas uses the same terms to described the relation of the self to the other. As Levinas says many times in his book Otherwise than Being, the other “persecutes me” and “inspires me.” To be sure, this is what a Schlemiel Saint like Bober does for Frank. After all, Frank’s decision to circumcise himself and become a Jew is ultimately inspired by him. He was inspired by what Edith Wyshcogrod would call Bober’s “saintly sample” of “carnal generality” – that is, if Boner’s selflessness and suffering for the other (in general, and Frank, in particular).