Very few scholars have addressed the appropriation of the schlemiel by Zionist thinkers and critics. Daniel Boyarin has suggested the contrast between the less masculine, Medieval model for the Jew (which, to be sure, is a humble simpleton who bears many of the more feminine qualities that are associated with the schlemiel) and the more masculine Zionist model for the ideal Jew. Although his study suggests such contrasts, he doesn’t use the schlemiel or discuss how this comic figure was situated within the tension between the Diaspora Jew and the Zionist. Moreover, he doesn’t look at the differing cultural representations of Jews by Cultural Zionists (who aligned with Ahad Ha’am and included people like Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and others) and Political Zionists in his study. In his book Unheroic Conduct, he is more interested in the representations of the Political Zionists.
Building and extending Boyarin’s work to the subject of the schlemiel, David Brenner, in his book German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka’s Kitsch, dedicates a chapter to the schlemiel as a “proto-post-colonial subject.” He takes the 1903 pro-Zionist journal Der Schlemiel: Illustriertes judisches Witzblatt [The Schlemiel: An Illustrated Journal of Jewish Humor] as the basis for his reading of the schlemiel in these terms. What makes Brenner’s chapter on the schlemiel so important for schlemiel theory and scholars interested in Zionism is the fact that he historicizes the journals shift from a position that was informed by Cultural Zionism to one that was informed by Theodor Herzl’s version of Political Zionism.
Brenner points out that, in its first issue (and following issues) of Der Schlemiel, the German based journal looked to appeal to Eastern European Jews who had a great love for Jewish culture and Jewish humor. The first subject of the journal was the failed attempt of Theodor Herzl to make Uganda the homeland of the Jews. The Zionist congress, in this first issue, becomes a “congress of schlemiels” and Herzl is presented as parodying his thinking of such a possibility as schlemiel-ish.
But what interests Brenner most is the representation of the Jew who goes to Uganda and mixes Jewishness and African culture. The cross between the Jew and the African that is seen in some of the caricatures, according to Brenner, has a positive valence. The main character of one of the parodies is called Mbwapwa Jumbo. As Brenner notes, “Jumbo converts to Orthodox Judaism and Mizrahi Judaism.” And, “with time, he becomes an Eastern (African) Jew, speaking a German admixed with (and some English) syntax and vocabulary”(30). He argues that this caricature looked to create a kind of “cultural Judaism” (in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am). This schlemiel is a proto-post-colonial schlemiel because it is a hybrid which inverts the degradation of Eastern European Jews and Africans by German and Austrian Jews who, like most Europeans, were bent on a colonial project.
To support his argument that the journal began with a bent toward Cultural Zionism, Brenner argues that Leo Wintz, a Ukranian Jew, founded the journal. He saw the schlemiel as a vehicle and as a “weapon against both anti-Semitism and assimilaton”(34). However, Brenner argues that Herzl wasn’t happy with the journal’s parody of his Political Zionistic move to leave for Uganda; and by the end of the year he suggested that they change editors.
When the Political Zionists take over, the schlemiel becomes, as Brenner argues, a “colonial subject.” It is more feminized and takes on a negative valence; now the mixture of the African and the Eastern European Jew takes on a more negative valence (36). The tough African takes on Eastern European customs (including Yiddish) and in doing so becomes weak. He leaves for Israel, is forced to emigrate to Galveston, Texas and falls victim to a pogrom (36).
Jumbo becomes the pit of a joke and is seen, a German-Jewish sense, as the schlemiel one doesn’t want to be. According to Brenner, the new editors “stereotyped Africans and Jews in order to promote – but also to deconstruct – identity politics and other essentialisms”(38). However, this “should come as no great revelation: stereotypes were a time-tested effective means of attracting Jewish audiences in Western Europe to Jewish nationalism”(39). Jews learned what to be, in other words, by learning what not to be.
Brenner is on to something here because the German Schlemiel, as characterized by Sander Gilman in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, defines schlemiels as a comic characters who “believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.” But according to Gilman, this character did not emerge out of Jewish folklore so much as out of the Enlightenment: “Schlemiels are the creation of the Enlightenment. It is the Jewish enlightener’s attempt to use satire to cajole the reader into not being a fool.”
In contrast, Ruth Wisse argues that the Eastern European schlemiel had more of a positive valence. Although it had negative features, it also had positive features such as humility, trust, and optimism. It translates the religious aspect of this character: “In the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living as if good will triumph over evil and right over wrong.”
The difference between the German and the Yiddish schlemiel is clear. While Gilman argues that the schlemiel was used by the Jewish-German enlightenment as a foil to show German Jews what not to be; in Eastern Europe, the schlemiel’s comic failures had a more positive aspect. In other words, the German enlightenment courted the meaning of failure differently from their Eastern European brethren.
Brenner adds to Wisse’s reading of the Eastern European (Yiddish) schlemiel by suggesting that Cultural Zionists read the character in terms of being a kind of Jewishness that was open to otherness; a post-colonial Jewishness that found hybridity funny, yet in a positive manner. The non-militaristic and non-athletic aspects of the Jumbo character, according to Brenner, didn’t have a negative effect on the Eastern European readers of the journal.
Nonetheless, as Brenner points out, the schlemiel still trades in stereotypes. But that is the case with any stock character which conveys Jewishness to large audiences. The difference, however, is what these stereotypes convey. He looks into what features we identify with and why. And in the context of Political and Cultural Zionism, we can see that the representation of the schlemiel in Der Schlemiel differed along the lines of how they thought of how Jews were and…should be. In the schlemiel, in other words, we can see a criticism of Jewishness and a new vision. One is open to hybridity and the effeminate aspects of the character while the other trades, according to Brenner, in a kind of “nationalistic essentialism.” The schlemiel can help us to look at ourselves. The question, however, is what we see and what decide to identify with and what to reject. The Political Zionists leaned toward a German Jewish reading of the schlemiel; while the Cultural Zionists, who first started the journal, took on a more Eastern European reading.