A Political-Schlemiel-Crisis: Obama as Man-Child Versus Putin as Real Man, or Sean Hannity’s Humiliation Over President Obama’s Masculinity

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I often do my utmost to stay away from contemporary politics in my blog, but I had to write something in response to a sound byte I recently heard in the media.   In a recent radio show, Sean Hannity – the well known TV host for Fox – claimed that “The Russian media keep showing a picture of [Obama] in Martha’s Vineyard, riding his little bicycle with his little helmet on. It’s so humiliating.”  Following this, Hannity evokes an image he had seen of Putin expressing his masculinity.  And he juxtaposes one image to the other:

Just – the picture of Putin swimming the butterfly, which is a real hard stroke. Yeah, big chested – and by the way, it’s in frigid water that he’s swimming across a river … so you got a picture of that juxtaposed next to Obama on a bicycle in Martha’s Vineyard with the goofy helmet on riding his bike.

Meditating on this image, Hannity said he was, for the first time in his life, “humiliated for my country.”

What I find so interesting about Hannity’s juxtaposition of President Obama to Vladmir Putin is that it finds resonance with the way German Jews (and many anti-Semites) thought of Eastern European Jews; namely, as weak, effeminate, and childish (that is, as schlemiels).  They thought of the schlemiel as a remnant of the degenerate “ghetto” Jew and called for what Max Nordau (the Vice President of the Zionist Congress) called the “muscle Jew.”  The New Jew, as Daniel Boyarin and others point out, was envisioned as the anti-thesis of the schlemiel.  Jews, Boyarin argues in his book Unheroic Conduct, were to take David or Bar Kochba, Jewish warriors, as their role models.  Jewish gyms were opened all over Germany and Jewish athleticism was celebrated.

The contrast didn’t come out of nowhere.  To be sure, athleticism and masculinity go hand in hand with state building whether it was 19th century Europe or 20th century America, showing “strength” is thought to be essential to being a nation.  One needs to protect one’s citizens and fight for the country if the state is to live.  A state led by a schlemiel, on the contrary, would, historically, be seen as a joke.  And for that to be a reality would be “humiliating.”  Russia, as Hannity understands it, still lives according to this masculinist paradigm, but America does not.  And this humiliates him.

Hannity, like many Jews in Germany before the Holocaust, wants strong citizens and, most importantly, a strong leader.  His juxtaposition of these images shows us that Hannity sees Obama much like many conservative pundits saw the Pajama Boy (who was the mascot for one of the phases of Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act).   Jay Michaelson, writing for The Forwards, went so far as to dub this criticism of Pajama Boy anti-Semitic.

Writing in response to this, I felt Michaelson went to far.  He was reading too far into it.  Nonetheless, the same issues come up about masculinity and politics.  I think it is worth our time to think about this relationship.  To be sure, Hannity is not wrong to see Putin doing this because Putin is, without a doubt, drawing on the image of leadership and masculinity (take a look at any number of images of Putin running around with his shirt off and a gun in his hand).  Hannity wishes President Obama would do the same.  And, to this end, he sites Benjamin Natinyahu as a model of leadership because Hannity sees him as a “real man.”   And this analogy is telling, given the fact that Israel was in many ways deeply impressed with the idea of the “New Jew” as a Jew who is independent and strong.

That said, what does the image of “strength” mean?  Would we all feel better about being Americans if President Obama was much more intimidating?  Would we all feel better if we saw images of him “swimming the butterfly” or engaging in rigorous physical activity? Would that send a better message to the world?  Hannity sure thinks so.  And because he doesn’t see it, his own masculinity, it seems, has been affected.

After all, Hannity has been wounded.  He is humiliated because in failing to train his body and character like Putin, President Obama has made Hannity – and this country -vulnerable.  Although this is an important ethical moment for anyone who understands what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas means by “ethics” (Levinas characterizes the ethical relation to the other in terms of vulnerability), perhaps it has a different meaning when it is on the political stage.  Levinas understood the political to be a realm where war is the ultimate reality test.  As he says in the preface to his book Totality and Infinity, “the trial by force is the test of the real.”  Even for Levinas, Hobbes seems to speak loudest in the realm that troubles Hannity most (the political realm) since Hobbes insisted that in politics, as in life, there is a war of all against all.  And war, as has been understood for centuries, is about sheer masculinity.

Hannity’s juxtaposition of images of masculinity is read within this context.

An American-Post-Holocaust Schlemiel: Another Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake”

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Woody Allen’s Zelig traces the path of a character (of the same name) that, Irving Howe suggests (in one segment of Allen’s film), is based on the passionate drive of American Jews in the early 20th century to assimilate into American society.  Zelig, to be sure, is a schlemiel. But he is what I would call a post-historical-American schlemiel.  His Jewishness or his past is not his primary feature; his drive to assimilate is.  To assimilate, Jews – like many immigrant groups fresh to America – would act “as if” they were not Jews.  Instead, many Jews would act as if they were Americans. The act of hiding Jewishness and “passing” is nothing new.  Sander Gilman and Steven Aschheim, amongst other scholars, have drawn up historical documents from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to show how prevalent this was in Europe.   In a book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Gilman dedicates a chapter to Jews who acted as if they were German but who ultimately failed to be accepted.  He entitled this chapter “Living Schlemiels.”  Indeed, for Gilman, a “living schlemiel” is a person who tries his utmost to be accepted but in reality cannot.  In Allen’s film, Zelig is accepted wherever he goes, but, in contrast, many of the “living schlemiels” that Gilman discusses were not.   They learned the hard way.  Even though Woody Allen’s Zelig suggests that assimilation is something all American’s celebrate and that it doesn’t matter whether Zelig is Jewish since, ultimately, he is the everyman (a man, literally, of all occasions), Bernard Malamud suggests that a Jew can still try to pass and fail.

But there is more to the story.  In the “Lady of the Lake,” Bernard Malamud, shows us that what will (or perhaps should) trip a Jew up when he or she tries to pass is history.  To be sure, it is the memory of the Holocaust.  This is a lesson that Allen doesn’t take into consideration in Zelig since, quite simply, Zelig seems to have no history.  He just happens to live in the Jazz Era.  Malamud, in contrast, suggests we situate the schlemiel after the Holocaust. For Malamud, the post-Holocaust-American-schlemiel learns a lesson about what it means to be Jewish.

In the last blog entry, I introduced and discussed the basic plot of Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake.”  As I noted, Henry Levin changes his name (and identity) to Henry R. Freeman.  After receiving in an inheritance, he leaves for Europe in pursuit of Romance. As a New York Jew, Romance is a European and a non-Jewish experience since Romance is not a central trope of Judaism. (In fact, as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book Unheroic Conduct, humility, hard work, and diligent study are the greatest traits, not pride, power, and masculinity, which go hand-in-hand with Romance and what he calls, following a medieval tradition, “Goyim Naches”).

When he arrives in Europe, he experiences beauty and mystery.  He is taken into what the theologian Will Herberg, in his book Judaism and Modern Man, thinks is antithetical to a tradition that eschews mystical fusion and forgetfulness.  When he meets a mysterious woman named Isabella, he does his utmost to win her over. But, as I pointed out in the last blog, she seems to see through his ruse when she asks him, immediately upon meeting him, if he is Jewish.

He denies his Jewishness and hides his secret.  But right when he is about to kiss her, he is accosted by a tour guide who likes like a “sad clown” and carries a “rapier.”  This is a key interruption since he hits Freeman in the crotch and says that what he is doing is a “transgression.” To be sure, what makes the story meaningful are these interruptions since they, apparently, disclose a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew.  To be truly free, Freeman believes that he must eliminate the tension.  He cannot stand being a “stranger” any longer.  And this incident “embarrasses” him.

This prompts Freeman to think about how different her history is from his:

And she was different too….Not only in her looks and background, but of course different as regards past…Her past he could see boiling in her all the way back to knights of old, and then some; his own history was something else again, but men were malleable, and he wasn’t afraid of attempting to create daring combinations: Isabella and Henry Freedman. (102)

As one can see from this passage, he respects her history and tradition and sees it “boiling in her all the way back to knights of old.”  It is a stable history that lives on and, apparently, doesn’t change too much.  As for his own history, he sees it as something that is “malleable.”  He doesn’t wish to keep it so much as change it and make a new, “daring combination.”  This is his main thought.  He will conceal his Jewishness to accomplish this experiment of sorts.

After sending a letter requesting to see her again, he is ecstatic to see that she wishes the same.  But before he goes, he is told that her family is known for “trickery.”  Following this, the theme of concealment and trickery comes more and more to the fore.

To be sure, Freeman, though exuberant and confident that he will trick her, sees more and more signs that something is amiss.  When he arrives on the island where she lives, she tells him that all of the paintings that he sees on the walls are copies (109) and this “slightly depresses him.”  This suggests that he wants something original and sees himself as a “copy” of sorts; after all, he is trying to copy a gentile.

Immediately after feeling this disappointment, he notices an image of a leper that catches his attention.  Freeman asks why the leper “deserved his fate?” Isabella’s answer hits at the main theme: “He falsely said he could fly”(110).  In response, Freeman asks, quizzically, “And for that you go to hell?”  She, however, doesn’t reply.  To be sure, she leaves him to ruminate on the lie.  Did Freeman also claim he could fly when, in fact, he couldn’t?  In other words, was Freeman really free?

What follows is a series of scenes that show Freeman on the edge wondering whether or not he should tell her the truth; that he is a Jew.  His excitement about her is interrupted by the lie he has kept to himself about his identity.  All of this annunciated by one word: “no”:

If Isabella loved him, as he now felt she did or would before long; with the strength of this love they would conquer problems as they arose….No, the worry that troubled him most was the lie he had told her, that he wasn’t a Jew.  He could, of course, confess, say she knew Levin, not Freeman, man of adventure, but that might ruin all, since it was quite clear she wanted nothing to do with a Jew, or why, at first sight, had she asked so searching a question? (112)

This worry and his interpretation of her earlier question stay with him to the very end of the story.  But it all begins to break down when, traveling into the alps, she asks Freeman whether the peaks “those seven – look like a Menorah?”

Hearing this, he thinks that she has called his bluff.  He is in shock, but he tries his utmost to cover it up, thinking he will pass a test:

“Like a what?” Freeman politely inquired. He had a sudden frightening remembrance of her seeing him naked as he came out of the lake and felt constrained to tell her that circumcision was de rigueur in stateside hospitals; but he didn’t’ dare.  She may not have noticed.  (115)

Following this, he narrowly averts questions regarding Jewishness. However, at this point, she reveals to him that she has tricked him: she is not nobility, she doesn’t come from a noble line; rather, she is the daughter of a caretaker.  The island that Freeman went to was not owned by her family.

After saying this, she was hoping he too would confess to some kind of trick.  However, Freeman still insists on being quiet about his Jewish identity:

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. He wanted to say more but warned himself not to.”

In response she says, “That’s what I was afraid of.”  Her reply is odd; however, he doesn’t notice, all he can think about is how Italian she looks: “She was a natural-born queen, whether by del Dongo or any other name. So she lied to him, but so had he to her”(116).  However, he is avoiding the one fact: he didn’t tell her the truth.

To be sure, he only sees her as an Italian he can have a romance and a “future” with. When, near the end of the story, he sees her all in white, he imagines her as his bride.  He fails to notice, however, that she is now more hesitant toward him than ever.

In the final scene he kisses her, but she “whispers Goodbye” to him.  In response he says, “To whom goodbye?…I have come to marry you”(117).  Upon hearing this, she asks, once again, the question that pains him the most: “Are you a Jew?”

Although his mind tells him not to lie, he overcomes this and says: “How many no’s make never?  Why do you persist with such foolish questions?”

Her reply discloses the fact that Freeman’s denial of Jewishness – in order to experience romance and start a “new life” – was his downfall:

“Because I hoped you were.”

Malamud then brings the clincher. When she opens up her top, he sees, written on her breasts, “a bluish line of distorted numbers.”  In other words, she is a survivor of the concentration camps who had been marked by the Nazis for extermination.  She cannot deny her Jewish identity and, in fact, was looking to marry a Jew and thought that Freeman was, in fact, a Levin:

“I can’t marry you. We are Jews.  My past is meaningful to me.  I treasure what I suffered for.”

As she goes away, he says that he is really Jewish and grasps at her breasts.  She disappears and he feels as if he is grasping at a “moonlit stone” (a “lady of the lake”).  In other words, he was duped.  He is a schlemiel, in this scenario, because he lets his freedom get the best of him.  Malamud’s lesson is that Levin brought his bad luck on through his masquerade.  At the end of the story, we learn that Levin is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel like Zelig.

To be sure, Malamud would like to let his readers know that there is no reward for the Zelig-like denial of history and Jewish identity.  The Jew, for him, is not a freeman.  The post-Holocaust-American Jew is bound by history, suffering, and memory.  But, as the story notes, the European Jew has a better understanding of this while the American Jew doesn’t.  For Malamud the American-Jew is a schlemiel who is more interested in an improvised, free, and new life than a historical one.   He is, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “lord of dreams.”  But these dreams, in this story, are the dreams of someone who cares more for freedom and romance than history and Jewish identity.

Neo-Hasidic Magical Realism and the Revision of the Hasidic Schlemiel

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In his book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Hetrosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Daniel Boyarin has a chapter where he looks into how some of the stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Hasidism, evince a new approach to Jewish masculinity.    Boyarin prefaces this reading by arguing that Jews, traditionally, are averse to masculinity.  In fact, he notes that a Yiddishe Naches (a Jewish Joy) as opposed to Goyim Naches (non-Jewish joy) was illustrated, during the Middle Ages, in the Passover Haggadah.  The images Boyarin includes in his book show the four sons which, as he argues, demonstrate a clear distinction between the “evil” son and the simpleton.  As he argues, the distinction can be read in terms of masculinity.  The evil son is stronger and more masculine that the simple son.  And this, claims Boyarin, illustrates the fact that Jews in the Middle Ages saw masculinity as other.  Instead, Jews valued the quality of humility and edylkeit, qualities that were often found in the pious Jew.  Learning and not physical prowess were of interest to the Jewish community.

Boyarin argues that this value is challenged by way of the Baal Shem Tov’s stories.  Boyarin, relaying a few selected stories, calls the group that disseminates these stories “revisionist”(61).  And by revisionist he implies that they revised the Medieval paradigm which privileged humility and denigrated masculinity.  He argues that this revision is “closer to the normative traditional Judaism of the nineteenth-century of East Europe” and not to the normative traditional Judaism of the Middle Ages.  And it is closer in the sense that, according to Boyarin, it is more masculinist.

In the story he cites as a proof-text, we learn about how, on the way to school, a teachers assistant would take his students from their homes to the school or to the synagogue. He would sing heavenly songs as he walked them to school:

While he walked with the children he would sing with them enthusiastically in a pleaset voice that would be heard from far away.  His prayers were elevated higher and higher…And it was a time of rejoicing in heaven.

However, while this is happening, evil is brewing.  The Satan overhears this music and, looking to interrupt it, transforms himself “into a sorcerer.”  And, once, while the Baal Shem Tov was walking with the children, “singing enthusiastically with pleasure…”

…the sorcerer transformed himself into a beast, a werewolf.  He attacked and frightened them, and they ran away.  Some of them became sick, heaven help us, and, could not continue their studies.   (62)

In response, the Baal Shem Tov (from here on the BESHT) “recalled the words of his father, God bless his memory, not to fear anything since God is with him.”  Drawing on these words, the BESHT goes to the people in the community and “urges them to return the children to his care” since he will “fight with the beast and kill it in the name of God.”

The town agrees to his pleas.  And the BESHT then takes up a “sturdy club” with him just in case he is attacked:

While he walked with the children, singing pleasantly, chanting with joy, this beast attacked them.  He ran toward it, hit it in the forehead, and killed it. The corpse of the gentile sorcerer was found lying on the ground.  After that the Besht became the watchman of the Beit-hamidrash.  (62)

Writing on this passage, Boyarin notes that what we find in this passage is a “tension between its valorization of “Diasporic” models of Jewish masculinity (models based in the Middle Ages) and the inability of such men to ‘protect’ Jewish children from anti-Semitic violence”(63).   Boyarin points out that the BESHT is different insofar as he is a “Jewish boy who did not grow up like other Jewish boys.” He is different, says Boyarin, insofar as he is more masculine.  This text, he argues, provides a “revisionist model of masculinity…one closer to chivalric, romantic ideal of manliness than to the scholarly ideal of the Yeshiva-Bokhur”(63).  Nonetheless, says Boyarin, it is trying to “preserve” the “scholarly ideal.”  The proof of this can be found in the fact that there is a “delicate semiotic code opposing indoors to outdoors.”   The “subversive aspects” are placed on the “outdoors.”

Boyarin goes on to argue that this tension is negotiated in several of the Besht’s text. But the crux of the matter, for Boyarin, is that this is gradually lost when the Hasidic ideal is displaced by the Zionist one.  To be sure, Boyarin sees the Medieval Model as offer a critique of Hasidic and Zionist practices.  And he would rather we turn back to the older pre-Hasidic ideal.   While this reading is interesting, I like to suggest that Boyarin look into the final parts of Meir Abehsera’s parable.

As I have pointed out, the end of this parable works on a few levels and draws on Magical Realism.  In the parable, the Old Beggar – who was once the schlemiel whistler – is met with a major challenge: the Miser.  Before visiting the Miser, the Old Beggar is reminded that he is a schlemiel and of what great power this comic character has.  To sum up, the schlemiel has the power to break illusion and bitterness by way of joy.  The emphasis on breaking presents us with an ideal that Boyarin may take issue with since it includes a kind of violence that he might deem masculine.  Nonetheless, the notion of challenging evil and “breaking” klippot (shells that conceal God’s light) is actually a Medieval notion (found in the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria) that made its way to the Hasidim.

When the Old Beggar encounters the Miser, he is rudely accused of being a thief and a liar and it told to leave his premises.  In response, the Old Beggar transforms himself into a dog.  At first he goes at the miser, but then he becomes playful.  The joy seems to break the Miser, but, the audience is troubled when they see what looks like an attack on the Miser. But, and this is the twist, they see that they are really play fighting with each other.

Although Boyarin might call this yet another model of the “revisionist model of masculinity,” I think it would be wiser to call it a neo-Hasidic revision.  In Abehsera’s parable, the Old Beggar becomes a new kind of schlemiel, a schlemiel which can be aggressive and playful.   Moreover, in this model, the Old Beggar transforms into a dog (and reverts back to the schlemiel).  Instead of the Satan transforming into a Sorcerer, we see another trick that, this time, is played by the Old Beggar (who has much in common with Yeshiva Bocher of the Middle Ages insofar as he is humble and not aggressive).    However, the Old Beggar doesn’t become a schlemiel; he always was one.

But the schlemiel he originally played was one who actively disturbed an entire town by whistling in the middle of the night.  Moreover, the Old Beggar’s reversion to the schlemiel-as-dog ends with the dog-becoming-man.  This is where the tale ends.  And in this reversion the Miser and the Schlemiel/Beggar are now friends.   And the community, in bewilderment, learns of a deeper kind of joy which emerges out of a struggle that appears negative but is actually positive and playful.  The point of Abehsera’s neo-Hasidic tale is to revise the schlemiel.

Instead of extremely humble schlemiels who wouldn’t know evil if it stared them in the eye, this schlemiel, while humble, is also touched by a zealousness and playfulness which looks to “break” seriousness by way of play and joy.  There is definitely a force behind this schlemiel that we don’t see in the Hasidic schlemiel evninced by Rabbi Nachman’s of Breslav’s “simpleton” (in “The Clever Man and the Simple Man”).

At the outset of Abehsera’s parable, we meet a schlemiel who whistles and the wind that comes from him, in the end, either moves people to laugh or takes their breath away.  That’s the point.  The neo-Hasidic schlemiel – for Abehsera – transforms and breaks the rules of realism and culture so as to transform the community and transform bitterness into joy. For Abeshsera, this is the task the writer needs to communicate to the reader. After all, as I pointed out in previous blog entries, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel.

Regarding Boyarin’s reading, I think it would be a mistake to simply read this in terms of a “revisionist” masculine paradigm which he, ultimately, sees as problematic.  Instead, this should be read in terms of what good it can do.   Abehsera responds to Walter Benjamin’s question as to whether the fool can do humanity any good with a resounding yes.  And we see this by way of the community’s response to the schlemiel’s magical realist transformation from a dog back to a beggar who seems to be fighting with the Miser but is really playing with him.  And that response is not simply laughter; it’s laughter followed by dumfoundedness.  That’s the neo-Hasidic revision.