Robin Williams and The Post-Holocaust Schlemiel in “Jacob the Liar”


Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.

Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).

In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.

This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”

Here, the issue is comedy.

Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”

Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?

Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”

The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)

The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:

I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.”
“Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”

Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.

But can this act be done after Auschwitz?

Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.

Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:

The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.

Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:

The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported.  (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)

Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).

Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.

Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.

What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.”  And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion.  Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.

Reflections of a Jewish-American Dreamer on “Shlemiel” – a Documentary


Words cannot express the honor and gratitude I have for Chad Derrick who decided a few years ago to film my life and my Jewish-American story.  He patiently followed me around with a camera for a few years and listened to my story.  He edited hundreds of hours of film to distill it to its essential moments.  It is a wonderful work of cinema verite style that, without a doubt, does justice to at least one part of my life and struggles with being an American-Jew.

I’m really excited to be showing the film Shlemiel (directed by Chad Derrick) in the United States.  It has been shown in Toronto and in Montreal, but it has not been shown in the country I was born and raised in.   And this is significant since this country, so to speak, nurtured this schlemiel.  Living in the Adirondack’s in a small rural Jewish community, with a father who dreamed big and crashed hard, I learned to dream.  It was here that I learned how, as I say at the beginning of the film, “a schlemiel is a dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.”

On my way to The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut – where I will be making the first screening of the documentary to an American audience – I have decided to stop off in my hometown Gloversville, New York and to reflect on who I am and what this film discloses about my journey – the journey of a wayward, dreaming Jewish-American schlemiel.

A lot of my story is rooted in this area.  As you can see from the trailer in this post, the documentary is interested in how and why I became a religious Jew and how and why I decided to create a band – named with Men With Babies – as a way of communicating and celebrating this new found Jewishness.  I say “new found” as I was not raised as a religious Jew.  I was born in a hospital up the road from where I grew up, which was named after a wealthy Jew in the area by the name of Nathan Littauer.  I did have a Brit Milah (a circumcision) with a Rabbi and Mohel (who does the circumcision).  And I was given a Hebrew name: Menachem Menkah (it was the name of my grandfather, father’s side, who died before I was born).  But that, together with several years after school, at the Lucius Littauer Jewish Community Hebrew school (until I was thirteen), and my bar-Mitzvah were the only Jewishness I had.  And it didn’t last.  I didn’t go by my Hebrew name and all of my Hebrew learning was not related to my life.  (My parents never told me what it meant to be Jewish. We just did it as a matter of course.)

All of my friends knew me as “Matt” or “Feuer” (mispronounced as ‘fewer’ rather than the Germanic pronunciation Foyer – which means ‘fire’).  No matter what I did, and no matter how well I performed in sports, school, or at parties, I always thought of myself as “less than” (fewer) I could be.  And that came from my sense of being an American, not a Jew.

Like many Americans from the area, I was raised on little league baseball games, football, ice cream socials, clam bakes, keg parties, hunting, fishing, and the wind that blows down from the Adirondack mountains every day into the valley where I live.  Like many people in my town, I was raised to be kind and fun-loving.  I spent a lot of time on the Sacandaga Lake and, as a teenager I used to ride a “three-wheeler” through the Adirondacks.

My American side conflicted with my Jewish side and the difference between the two often prompted me to question who I was.  To begin with, both of my parents were from New York City and were, from my perspective, out of place in upstate New York.  My father didn’t fish, hunt, or participate in coaching a sport team.  He was an intellectual and a businessman.  And my mother tried hard to adapt, and though she cried many times for having to leave the city, she did succeed in being much like the other soccer moms in the area.  But my mother’s efforts were not enough.  And my father’s preoccupations led me away from my family and my tradition.   They led me to find a group of friends who, like me, were trying to figure out what it meant to be an American.

But, to be sure, what really drove me to my friends was not simply my father’s non-interest in doing what my friend’s fathers did.  My father’s life was complicated by lots of trauma, family feuding over the leather business, and mania.  (As you can see from these two hyperlinks, I have written about this topic in the blog, already.)  From what I have already written, you can see that my father was a person with big dreams who had real possibilities that were given to him and taken away.  His brilliance was too much for this small town and, unfortunately, I was often embarrassed when I found out, through my friends or other people, that rumors were going around town that my father had been put in a metal hospital or jail, or that he was going around town saying or doing crazy things.

What I haven’t mentioned about my father’s story is the fact that, while in high school, when he had many manic episodes, he took an interest in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.  He bought a full-volume set of The Zohar and made several trips to New York City to visit with Rabbi Rabbi Berg and his newfangled Kabbalah Center (which today attracts many Hollywood stars).  My father’s mania had a real source which was based on hateful things that were done to him by his own family, making money and spending it all, and by virtue of a genetic condition. But the interest in Kabbalah didn’t help.  To be sure, it made his psychosis more intense.

While this was going on, I kept one eye open on religion and the other on my friends.  To be sure, the more trouble my father got in and the more mystical he became, the more I was driven to my friends and to a desire to leave the house.  And when the opportunity came to leave came, I took it up with a passion.  In truth, the real problem was no longer simply my father, I started despising my home town.  I felt people were to narrow minded.  This came to me while reading books in my backroom (I had to hide this from my friends) and by way of following the Grateful Dead.  Seeing them in concert for the first time, in the early 90s, changed my perspective on a lot of things.

I started becoming more spiritual.  And, after a few shows on the east and west coast, I decided to read some of Rabbi Berg’s books and, for the first time, I listened closely to my father’s psychosis and traveled with him on several of his manic episodes.  Reading literature and philosophy, I thought that it would be better to let my father be and to experience him as I would experience a novel.  In a way, I felt like a Sancho Panza and he felt like a Don Quixote.  And so much of what he was doing was Jewish – a strange continent for an American-Jew who had opted to be an American first.  As I went along with him, I started drifting away from my town and my life.  I wanted a mystical experience.  I dreamt of it.  And I felt Kabbalah, as lived by my father, could lead the way.

My father was so full of life and insight.  Everything he did was by virtue of chance.  I felt as if I was living a Paul Auster novel and my father was the main character.  His playing with chance led him to Washington, DC where he acted ‘as if’ he was going to save the country and talk to the President.  On the way to the White House, we stopped off at the Washington Hilton.  He went down to the lobby and saw Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.  He opened the book, read an aphorism that dealt with going beyond dichotomy, and charged into the hotel restaurant.  He ordered a table as if he was a dignitary.  We sat down and father asked for menus.  Before he could look at the menu, Dan Rather passed by and father yelled out “Dan!” Rather turned to my father, said, “Yes, how can I help you?” And from there my father had a discussion about world affairs and his solutions for at least ten minutes.  At the moment when my father presented a wild idea, Rather was turned off and left the table. My father felt something “was wrong,” and left immediately thereafter.

When we went upstairs, he said he had to make a phone call to the doctor that delivered me (a Dr. Woolsey).  He acted as if he had him on the phone, he turned to me, and said “Dr. Woolsey just told me the truth…You are not my son.  You are my brother’s son.  You are an imposter.”  This talk, which I had never heard before, threw me off guard.  I was confused.  And in the midst of this, my father stormed out of the room.  I followed after him.  He said we must leave DC.  We are being followed.    What ensued was a wild imaginary goose-chase. My father swerved in and out of traffic as we sped off to New York City (where my mother, at that time, was visiting).  As he swerved, he read license plates and did letter-number combinations.  He translated these into messages about what was going on and what we should do.

In the midst of this madness, he said that we must pull over into a rest-stop.  We went inside, and my father told me, “There he is!” “Who,” I asked.  “Just come with me,” he said.  We went over to a man in overalls and my father stared him directly in his eyes.  He asked him, “What do you do for a living?” And the man replied, “I am a ‘tree-whacker.”  My father rejoined: “You cut down trees, correct?” “Yes,” said the man. After saying this my father said, “There, you see, he was trying to cut us down. Its code.”

All of this relates to a sad story that goes back to when I was a ten-year-old boy.  My father had, for years, thought that he was being stalked by his brother’s mafia men since my father had a real law suit against them.  His brothers were scared and bought off many lawyers, apparently.  In any case, my father’s first manic episode came after a new car he had bought, in celebration of the case actually hitting the courts, came up.

The car had a tape deck. And I wanted to hear Grease (the musical). But my father said I couldn’t until we left NYC for Gloversville.  On the way, I put the tape in and immediately thereafter the car set on fire.  We pulled over.  And the car went up in flames on the side of the New York State Thruway. This led to much paranoia and speculation.  It also led to my father’s madness and gave me my first experience of my father’s madness as a child.  It also led me to meet with a mafia boss who confirmed that a ‘hit’ was made on my family (mind you, I was ten) and that he would, from then on, protect us.  I’d like to share more but I’ll save that for another blog.

Needless to say, these experiences all formed a backdrop for my “return” to Judaism.  After my father’s breakdown in DC, I no longer felt I could go to him to learn about mysticism or Judaism.  It was a wake up call of sorts to find things out for myself.  And I did.

But I took a big detour by way of my studies in Comparative Literature and Philosophy.  I took a big detour by way of trying to live a life in total denial of God, a life of pure experience informed by art, literature, and relationships.  All of this led to my own breakdown of sorts.  It also led me back to this, my hometown.

I felt like I had to return to my roots: my American roots and my Jewish roots.  And that led to a process in which I went to Yeshiva, became religious, married, and had two wonderful little children.  Shlemiel documents this transition, but it also shows how, over the last five years, my life has changed.  My struggle to figure out what it means to be an American-Jew, I feel, is ongoing.  It has brought me back to my home town, it brought me into a music project, and it has brought me into this, my schlemiel project.

Today, as I write this, I realize that I was right to say that a schlemiel is a “dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.”  I have no problem saying that I have played the schlemiel. And though it may be a derogatory term for some people I know, it need not be.  It was the German-Jewish tradition that found fault in the schlemiel and were embarrassed by the schlemiel (depicting him as a backwards, Eastern-European shtetl type). They were interested in reality not dreams. But the Eastern European schlemiel is a different story; in him we find a tension between hope and skepticism; in him we find something sad about history and life and yet also something very optimistic and good.

I’ll admit that my dreams don’t match up with reality and they haven’t for a while. But the key to all of this doesn’t have to do with my way of thinking.  No.  It has to do with the my specific history and with my grappling with Jewish-American identity.  In this struggle, I cannot help being the schlemiel.  My dream of being a Jew is interrupted by my American dream.  And these dreams are caught up with unredeemed fragments of history and reality.  Hopefully, someday they will find a better match, but until then I remain – sincerely yours – a schlemiel.  My dreams still don’t match up with reality.

But I can still dream.  Here’s a clip from a film produced by Samuel Goldwyn, my uncle, who once passed through Gloversville as he traveled to Hollywood.  He, a Jewish-American like me, also had a dream.  And it started here, in Gloversville. Thank you Chad Derrick, for making this dream a filmic reality!