Jewish Mothers – Schlemiel Children


Growing up, I was always surprised by the representations of Jewish mothers I would see in films, TV shows, and books.  I was, in particular, floored when I first read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint when I was an undergrad.  I read my father’s autographed copy of the novel and knew, well before reading it, that it was an important book for another generation (the baby boomers); and I wondered if it would speak to me.  But something about the representation of Portnoy’s mother didn’t resonate.

Perhaps I was surprised by the representation of Portnoy’s mother because I was raised in upstate New York by a mother whose Long Island upbringing didn’t include all of the urban, immigrant, or post-immigrant fears that many Jewish mothers are “supposed” to have.  I did in fact have some very aggressive New Yorkers in my family, but they seemed tame in comparison to Philip Roth’s fictional mother.  Portnoy’s animosity toward his mother and her “guilt trips” is extreme, to say the least.  In this moment, when Portnoy is speaking with his therapist, he let’s loose his animosity:

BECAUSE WE CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! BECAUSE YOU FUCKING JEWISH MOTHERS ARE TOO MUCH TO BEAR! I have read Freud of Leonardo, Doctor, and pardon the hubris, but my fantasies exactly: this big smothering bird beating frantic wings about my face and mouth so that I cannot even get my breath. What do we want, me and Ronald and Leonardo? To be left alone! If only for half an hour at a time! Stop already hocking us to be good! (121)

Portnoy’s mother is a nag and, for Roth, Portnoy becomes a schlemiel by virtue of his mother’s over-weaning.  As Donald Weber says of the Borsht Belt Comedians, this generation’s comedy did much to blame mother’s for the inability to “fit in.”  For Roth, this was a sexual issue and a social issue that he, in his later novels, looks to overcome.

To be sure, Roth’s later work wants to leave the schlemiel and the nagging mother behind.  But, to my surprise, the nagging Jewish mother stereotype doesn’t die away.  In fact, I noticed that it resurfaced in recent film Guilt Trip (2012) and in Gary Shteyngart’s novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

But in both works, the Jewish mother re-emerges in an odd way.  In Guilt Trip, the mother (played by Barbara Streisand) comes across as the schlemiel.   Her son, played by Seth Rogen, is also a bit aggravated at his mother’s nagging, but he is not by any means a Portnoy.  And while we may be turned off by Portnoy’s nagging mother, we are endeared by the absent-mindedness of Streisand, the schlemiel-mother.

The mother in Shteyngart’s novel is different and, in contrast to Rogen’s character, Vladmir, is without a doubt dwarfed by his mother.  But the difference between them is based on an entirely different premise than in Roth’s novel.  It doesn’t lead Vladmir to become a “sexual schlemiel” like Portnoy; on the contrary, his sexuality is not the issue.  Rather, his economic and social status is the issue.  Vladmir’s mother is an immigrant who has become a raging financial success and she hounds him to climb the socio-economic ladder.

His mother is loud and aggressive, while he is sensitive, weak, and introspective. And the day we first meet her is on Vladmir’s birthday:

“DEAREST VOLODECHKA!” Mother shouted.  “Happy birthday…! Happy new beginning…! Your father and I wish you a brilliant future….! Much success…!  You’re a talented young man…! Economy’s improving….!  We gave you all our love as a child…! Everything you had, to the very last….! (12)

Like Portnoy, Vladmir is frustrated, but I wouldn’t say he is angry: “Vladmir turned down the volume on the headset.  He knew what was coming, and, indeed, seven exclamation marks down the road, Mother broke down and stated wailing God’s name in the possessive”(13).    He listens as his mother goes off on him and actually admires her for her theatrical performance.

However, the narrator notes that this admiration is bitter-sweet; as we learn, Vladmir suffered as a child under his mother’s admonitions to be the best:

Vladmir…suffered under his mother’s accusative wails as B-plus report cards were ceremonially burned in the fireplace; as china was sent flying for chess-club prizes not won; as he once caught her in her study sobbing at three in the morning, cradling a photo of the three-year-old Vladmir playing with a toy abacus, so bright-eyed, so enterprising, so full of hope. (14)

We also learn that she laments that he has “hips of a homosexual” and, later in the novel, we also learn that she finds his walk to be “too Jewish”(45).  In other words, his body (and not just his economic and academic failures) also bears the mark of his failure to integrate.

The phone conversation that ensues against this background outlines the anger that his mother feels because he is not a success.  But, in the end, she notes that he is not a “complete loss”:

His mother made an effort to laugh and told him how insane it would be not to have a birthday barbeque.  “You’re only twenty-fine once,” she said. “And you are not a – How you say? A complete loss”(15). Since he’s not a “homo” and he has a “Jewish girl. Little Challah-Bread” he’s not a complete loss.

Here, the important thing for his mother is that he, at the very least, stay with a Jewish woman.   But he cannot look “too Jewish” or like a homosexual as that would keep him from being accepted and rewarded by society.

These sketches of Vladmir’s Jewish mother show her to be laughable but not to be a person worthy of anger and ridicule.  As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Vladmir is treated like a child by Rybokov and here, too, he seems to be in the position of a child. But this childishness is not something today’s readers will find reprehensible; in fact, many may in fact identify with Vladmir’s childishness and his plight.  Unlike his mother who resents it, readers will most likely identify with his innocence.  And, in our bad economy, we can understand his economic failure and his lack of ambition.

Portnoy’s mother “smothers” him and won’t let him be, and as we can see Vladmir’s mother is also overbearing.  However, Vladmir doesn’t resent her, he humors her and loves her.  Both Portnoy and Vladmir are schlemiels, but Portnoy takes his aggression out on his mother (who he blames for his becoming a sexual schlemiel) while Vladmir takes no aggression out on his mother and blames her for nothing.  He is, more or less, a passive schlemiel.  And the innocence of the latter is more endearing of interest to us that the aggression and anger of Portnoy.  Their failures are read differently by both authors.

In many ways, although I never had a mother like Portnoy’s or Vladmir, I can understand how their exaggerations may have some truth.  But of the two, I find that Shteyngart’s approach to Vladmir’s mother is much more to my liking that Roth’s approach to Portnoy’s mother.  Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that I find something admirable in the way the narrator and Vladmir relate to the mother.  They humor her.  This, to my mind, is the best approach.  And, besides, who, after all, should be to blame for being a schlemiel.  While it was a stigma for Roth, for Shteygart being a schlemiel has its advantages.   Being a failure, in other words, has its fringe benefits.

But, for Shteyngart, being a schlemiel, it seems, is more than simply being a failure. For this author, the best traits of the schlemiel can be found in his loving, reflective, and innocent nature.  Much of this difference in attitude has to do, I think, with our differing attitude on what it means to be a man and a success.  Although many people in Shteyngart’s novel want Vladmir to be a man and a success, we don’t.  What matters most to us isn’t his success or his manhood; rather, what matters is the fact that he loves his mother and all those around him no matter how much they may be disappointed with him.

And on this note, I guess I’m lucky.  My Jewish mother, unlike the mother of these fictional Jewish mothers, never gave me any guilt trips.  And even if she did, I think I , like Vladmir, would still love her.

Girshkin and Rybakov: Gary Shteyngart’s Comic Duo


There’s nothing quite like a comic duo or what Neil Simon, at one time, called an “odd couple.”  To be sure, it always helps a comic routine when one comedian plays off another.  By witnessing one comedian play off another, the audience gets some kind of “contact buzz.”  One need only think of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Laverne and Shirley, or Neil Simon’s odd couple – Felix Unger and Oscar Madison – to know what I’m talking about.  If you want a more contemporary example, think of the film Dumb and Dumber (1994) with Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carey) or the 2008  film Step Brothers  which starred Will Farrell (as Brennan Huff) and John C. Reilly (as Dale Doback).

And what would Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm be without their endless procession of different comic pairs in all sorts of interesting combinations and situations?

Literature also has its host of comic pairs. Don Quixote had Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and its Yiddish brother, Mendel Mocher Sforim’s, Benjamin the III, which also had a comic pair.  Even Samuel Beckett made sure to have a comic pair in his classic play Waiting for Godot.   In these comic pairs, there is often a schlemiel and a shlimzael or, otherwise, two schlemiels or fools.  And, although each pair may seem formulaic, there is something that we can learn from their comic pairings.  To be sure, we can, by way of comic amplification, be confronted with tensions that are existential, cultural, historical, or political.  Some tensions, however, are more urgent than others.  In Waiting for Godot, an existential tension is foregrounded while in Don Quixote or Benjamin the III a historical tension is.  Some of these tensions can arguably be called timeless while others are timely.

In Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which I blogged on for the first time yesterday, we have a comic pair which introduces a “timely” tension: this pair amplifies the tensions that may or may not exist between immigrants as they make their way in America.  And it does this by way of a subtle, comic relationship which is fraught with many gaps and blindspots. In their playful relationship, we are prompted to give the schlemiel and his comic foil our full attention.   From the outset, the comic tension in terms of a number of oppositions: old/young; citizen/non-citizen; man-child/man.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, Vladmir is portrayed as a schlemiel. He is the “unlikely” schlemiel hero.  He is half P.T. Barnum, half Lenin.  The Barnum part is the most prominent.

The narrator tells us that on the day we meet him, Vladmir is 25.  And of these years, half of them were spent in Russia; the even half (12 years). The odd half (13 years) is spent in the USA.  This odd half makes the difference when we meet, for the first time, Vladmir’s comic companion: the “fan man,” a man named Rybakov.

We first meet Rybakov by way of an altercation in the Emma Lazarus Immigration Absorption Society’s Manhattan Office.  He screams out in Russian and calls out Vladmir’s last name. This totally takes Vladmir by surprise:

Suddenly, Vladmir heard the frenzied croaking of an elderly Russian out in the reception room: “Opa! Opa! Tovarisch Girshkin! Ai! Ai! Ai!” (5)

In response to this, Vladmir let’s his Lenin-part take over: “It was time to act. Vladmir braced himself against the desk and stood up.”  But this “act” is comically deflated by the narrator.  What we see in this deflation is a tension between a man and a man-child, between P.T. Barnum and Lenin. Vladmir looks big, but he’s really small:

All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergarten-sized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall.   A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs comically coming undone…he dwarfed his surroundings like the line skyscraper built in Queens…But it was true: Vladmir was short. (5)

This dialectical tension between being a man and a child is played out in his meeting with Rybakov.  When he sees Rybakov harassing the guard, he shouts in Russian and asserts a categorical rule that must be obeyed: “Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!…We never do that to the guard.”

After hearing this, Rybakov (“the madman”) turns to face Vladmir and shouts “Girshkin!…It’s you!”  Like Vladmir, Rybakov is a “man of small stature,” but he is more aggressive than Vladmir.  He wears a jacket bearing the weight of many “Soviet war medals.”  And, when he sees Vladmir, he tosses the guard to the side.

Vladmir, upon seeing this, says aggressively: “What do you want from me?” But, in response, Rybakov repeats this question in a quizzical manner and adds “My God, what haughtiness!” And with this gesture, he lifts his crutch and gives Vladmir a “practice jab: On guard!”

This leads to an exchange that shows how Vladmir can also be a “man.”  But this doesn’t last long since he is disarmed by Rybakov’s madness and humor.  This comes across when Rybakov talks about his “fans.”  He has “two.”  Humored by this, Vladmir jokingly (and endearingly) says, “The fan said come over.” And then he realizes that this man is not a threat to him: “Right then, on the spot, Vladmir recognized that this wasn’t a problem client. This was a fun client.  A loop-de-loop client.  The kind of client that turned on your morning switch and kept you brisk and agitated all day”(7).

This moment of realization is a, so to speak, “schlemiel moment”; it is a moment of innocence and trust which makes Vladmir into a man-child of sorts.  And this happens, quite simply, because Vladmir is entertained.  To add to all the entertainment, Rybakov tells Vladmir that he is “psychotic” and Rybakov’s gestures that accompany this declaration are, to be sure, endearing:

His enormous eyebrows twitched in confirmation, and he smiled with false modesty, like a kind who brings in his father the astronaut on career day. (7)

Rybakov then tells a charming story about how he wrote a letter to the President and sent it to the New York Times.  Rybakov produces the letter, reads it, and talks about it.  Hearing this, Vladmir can’t help but think of this man as the most innocent idiot he has ever met.  And then he makes the big mistake; he identifies with him. This prompts him to start feeling sorry for their poor condition.  They are all immigrant-losers.  The narrator amplifies this effect by comparing Vladmir’s world, inside the immigration office (the world of the “poor huddled masses”), to the world outside the office, in the financial district:

Outside the nonexistent windows of the back office, the canyons of the financial district were awash with rationalism and dull commercial hope: suburban secretaries explored bargains on cosmetics and hose; Ivy Leaguers swallowed entire pieces of yellow tail in one satisfied gulp.  But here it was just Vladmir the twenty-five-year old and the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (9)

Coming out of this misty recollection, Vladmir, like a child watching a clown, hears Rybakov speaking about his fans that go “krik krak” and “trikka trikka.”  Noticing this, Rybakov starts treating him like a child and calls him a “little goose”: “Oh, I know who you are, little goose.”

Surprised by this comment, Vladmir is reminded of how, when he was a child (“a diminutive, unsteady creature”), he was called a “little goose.”  This puts Vladmir into a childish state of mind and he becomes childlike.  Rybakov runs with it:

“The Fan sang an epic song for me the other night, said Rybakov.  “It was called “The Tale of Vladmir Girshkin and Yelena Petrovna, His Mama.” “Mother,” Vladmir whispered.  He didn’t know what to say.  That word, when spoken in the company of Russian men, was sacred in itself. (9)

At this point, Rybakov discloses the fact that he knows something about Vladmir’s mother and this wakes him up a little.  But, in the end, “the fan man” has the last word and the last gesture which reduces Vladmir to the status of a man-child:

The Fan Man reached over and pinched Vladmir’s nose between thumb and forefinger, a familiar Russian gesture reserved for small children.   “I’m psychotic,” the Fan Man explained. “But I’m no idiot.” (11)

In this end, Vladmir, the “unlikely hero,” comes across as the “idiot” not Rybakov.  This gesture and these words convey to us a subtle tension between these two.  Vladmir is the younger and the more inexperienced one; Vladmir is a US citizen, but Rybakov is not.  Without Vladmir’s help, Rybakov cannot be a citizen.   And, as we learn later in the novel, Rybakov has something Vladmir doesn’t: money (and lots of it).

The comic relationship between them, with all of its tensions, is first given to readers by way of a subtle sense of how easily Vladmir, with his big heart, can become like a child in Rybakov’s (or anyone’s hands).  The fact that he can go from shouting to cooing in front of Rybakov is a central aspect of Shteygart’s schlemiel and of many schlemiels (such as Saul Bellow’s) whose hearts can lead them into trouble.  Rybakov, as I hope to show, is that trouble.  And what he has to offer Vladmir is easy money.  With that offer comes the American dream and, also, a lot of other things a schlemiel doesn’t know about since, of course, the schlemiel doesn’t understand the meaning of money or, for that matter, evil.

As in many schlemiel comedies, it takes a comic duo to bring out, on the one hand, the schlemiel’s innocence and, on the other, the fact that there are some things that a schlemiel simply cannot see in front of him with his own two eyes.

Instead of being a tall and powerful Vladmir, perhaps he’s really just an innocent little Girshkin.


Gary Shteyngart’s Immigrant-Becoming-American Schlemiel: The Unlikely Hero of our Times


Vladmir Girshkin is the main character of Gary Shteygart’s novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.   It is the story of a particular kind of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel and his becoming-American world.  The “arc of his dreams,” as the schlemiel-like narrator of the novel shows us, begins in Russia and ends in America.  These dreams come from a character whose story (and whose persona) is characterized as “Part P.T. Barnum, part V.I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe.”

If we listen closely to this sentence, we will have to ask two simple questions:

1)    If Lenin was the man who would conquer half of Europe, was P.T. Barnum the man who conquered the other half?

2)    What does it imply that Vladmir’s story is one part Lenin’s power and the other part, so to speak, “American circus power”?

In response to this, I’d suggest we ask what P.T. Barnum’s power is and how that power relates to Vladmir, and what Lenin’s power is and how that relates to Vladmir.  On the one hand, the power over “the other part of Europe” is an American-carnivalesque-power.  And this, as we see in the novel, is part of Vladmir’s character and is part and parcel of the narration of Vladmir’s story.  This circus power is the power of the American-schlemiel-dreamer.  On the other hand, we have the power of Lenin which is political, intentional, and masculine.  I’d suggest that the latter is humored by the former and that the schlemiel is kept in check by the latter.

But the narrator shows us, right off, that America has the home team advantage, since the story doesn’t begin in Russia; it begins in a shabby immigration office in Manhattan.  And the story takes off in the most mundane way, which indicates that Vladmir may in fact dream of power since he has none.  But we see something other than power in his office. He is in the “middle of (immigrant) things.”  The story begins…

On a Monday morning. In an office. With the first cup of instant coffee gurgling to life in the common lounge.

But not so fast.   This scene of the immigration office is revised by the narrator. His revision gives you a sense of the narrator’s way of thinking and speaking.  He tells us of how Vladmir’s

…story begins in New York, on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, the most disheveled, godforsaken, not-for-profit corner of New York’s financial district.  On the tenth floor, the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society greeted its clients with the familiar yellow water-stained walls and drying hydrangeas of a sad Third World government office.

He is a schlemiel who works together with “Assimilation Facilitators” to process immigrants.  In this American scene, these Assimilation Facilitators forge truces between warring peoples of the world in order to make peace in the office (not the world): “in the reception room, under the gentle but insistent prodding of trained Assimilation Facilitators, Turks and Kurds called a truce, Tutsis queued patiently behind Hutus, Serbs chatted up Croats at the demilitarized water fountains.”

While this is all going on, Vladmir is in “the back office.”  He is the immigrant schlemiel: “the immigrant’s immigrant, the expatriate’s expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer and an unlikely hero of our times.

Reading these words about a fool who is the “unlikely hero of our times,” I am reminded of the title and main theme of Ruth Wisse’s schlemiel-theory opus: The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.   At the end of her book, it seems as if the schlemiel ‘was’ a modern hero but is no longer one since (in the early 1970s) Jewish American writers like Phillip Roth wanted to put an end to the schlemiel.

The schlemiel can only live in a world which is neither fully optimistic nor fully skeptical.  And the world of the 1970s wanted to create more “positive” images of the Jew in which Jews were shown as normal, strong, and American.  The schlemiel, interpreted by Roth (in Portnoy’s Complaint) and Bruce Jay Friedman (in Stein) as a half-man and a loser, seemed to have been something they had left behind after they wrote his obituary.

To add to this, Irving Howe thought Jewish literature would lose its Jewishness the farther it went away from its immigrant roots. But this opening of the novel challenges Howe, Roth, and Friedman.  And it puts forth the new “unlikely hero” who also happens to be an immigrant.

In one fell swoop, Shteyngart shows us how the schlemiel lives on but as a new kind of immigrant: Vladmir Girshkin.

His becoming-American is the story of a schlemiel – an “unlikely hero” whose story is part P.T. Barnum and part Lenin.

(I will be blogging more on this extraordinary novel over the next few weeks.  This will, of course, be interspersed with blog entries and guest blog entries about new and old work on, about, or related to the schlemiel.)