Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part II


Before presenting his parable on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar, Meir Abehsera tells us about a dream that he had as a young man.  Playing on the theme of “memory as redemption” – which we discussed in the last blog entry – Abehsera recalls a dream he had as a child and how that dream, which was vague, now comes back to him but with more clarity.  This dream offers us an allegorical key to understand what exactly is at stake with the schlemiel as Holy Fool.

Writing on his apprehension of the dream as a child, Abehsera writes metaphorically of how his dream:

…was like the hoarse, insistent pounding of the sea that exhorts young dreamers to set sail, and as mysterious as an unknown song begging to be aired. (106)

Abehsera goes on to liken this dream to a “song” that he, as a writer, wanted to pen.  He didn’t write it, apparently, because he didn’t think he was ready.  And, “at a certain point I decided that it would take me until old age before I would be prepared to do it justice.”  In such lines, one can hear a persona that is humble, perhaps too humble and afraid to take the leap into writing.  It foreshadows something. Indeed, I think Abehesera is asking the reader to pay close attention to this persona since, through his parable, we see that the writer goes through a transformation.  And this transformation is brought about by witnessing the schlemiel face-to-face. 

But before we get there, we learn of a person who is touched by a dream but who, as a matter of course, must let us know that he may not be prepared to write its song.  Echoing what he stated earlier, his problem is a memory-slash-imagination problem:

I might have kept my resolve to let go of the dream, had it not been for the rapid deterioration of memory that I perceived in the people around me.  It is true that I am uneven.  I am half raw and half burnt.   I had to come out….Can a crudely fashioned man such as myself succeed in singing the song whole?

In this passage, I want not only to point out his low estimation of himself and the world around him but also the fact that something has changed: instead of simply writing the song, he now says that his task is to sing it.  And he fears that he can’t.  Moreover, he can only sing a fragment of it. 

Looking down on himself and parodying the kind of song it will sound like, Abehsera jokingly plays out a narrative in which his performance is judged from the “ancient sages.”

The ancient sages look down on me from their heavenly portals. They are amused, but perturbed at my insolence.  One of them says: “Who gave that clown permission to speak?”  “Sounds like a barking dog,” says another.  “But look how his audience howls.” A third stage, though engrossed in an enormous book, has overheard the conversation.  He lifts his head for a moment and peers down at me.  “is there such a shortage of teachers that we’re forced to put up with this?”(106)

 This moment of slapstick put down’s be the sages is brought together by something they can all agree on; namely, that Abehsera is a schlemiel:

“We all agree,” says the first, “that he is an empty-headed fool.”

But Abehsera is not alone; it seems his generation gives birth to schlemiels. This is what one of the sages says:

“But consider the generation in which he lives…and read what it says here.”  He thrusts a thick volume across the table and quotes: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” 

This prompts the question that is of great concern to schlemiel theory: must the schlemiel stop being a man-child and become a man?  Is that the issue?  Will Abehsera’s singing of this song redeem him from being a schlemiel?  Or is it the case that the song itself is a comic one and leaves the schlemiel a schlemiel.  Is the schlemiel, in other words, the “Possible Man” that Abehsera mentions in the title?  Or will he always be a possible, half man, at least, until the Messiah arrives?

Following this reflection, we witness Abehsera trying to rally himself up to sing this song.  The effect is, in many ways, quite comical.  Yet, at the same time, it puts forth a spirit of revolt which is, to be sure, Abehsera’s response to the sages’ put-downs.

I had no choice but to go ahead with my original intent to speak with a spirit of revolt in my heart.  I figured that at that stage, my immaturity would prove more productive..

He must act, even if his actions appear crude.  He, in effect, is the barking dog the sages were talking about; but he transforms the barking dog into something redemptive.  It foreshadows a key, transformative, moment in the parable (which I will discuss in the next entries).

At the end of this moment of inspiration and revolt, he turns to the metaphor of dance and claims that his writing is with his feet and not his hands:

For a melancholy bystander (namely himself, as writer), I write page after page of holy texts with my feet, not stopping until the blood reds my cheeks.  He takes a liking to my dance, and asks for more than I can afford to give.

But something happens, the “melancholy bystander” takes charge of his dance:

Now I am his puppet. He maneuvers me like a bouncing ball.  I am about to collapse from exhaustion, yet here I am building up speed, trapped by own will to please. (109)

But something has happened.  It appears as if this melancholy bystander has become a fool of sorts and he loses himself in the dance:

He comes near me, clapping hands and jerking to the beat of my unconventional interpretation of scriptural verse.  His lack of rhythm throws me so off balance that I have to constantly change my pace to cover for his awkwardness.  A sudden surge of joy brims over his pathetic countenance, revealing a hint of dementia.  I grasp his hands, and together we compose holy patterns that swallow his affliction, until he begins to look like himself again. 

What Abehsera seems to be illustrating in this moment is his spiritual vocation.  His dance is the dance of the schlemiel and its goal is to heal – at least temporarily – the pain of exile.  Indeed, this happiness, says Abehsera, will be enough to “last him for one exile.”

However, after going through this Holy Madness, Abehsera comes back into his body and his weariness. But this is redeemed by his new friend – who gives the weak comfort and then takes the lead in this dance:

But my lungs are burning and my knees are weak.  He senses my weariness, pulls my head to rest against his shoulder, and we twirl, so fast that we form one body.  I am only mind; my feet no longer touch the ground.  And the music grows louder as we play that old Jewish game of being caught and freed at the same time. (110)

Out of this moment of shared joy and transformation, Abehsera gathers his wits and calls for the schlemiel to take to the streets.  And this is where the Messianic tone starts ringing out:

In the meantime, intelligence won’t be wasted.  On the contrary, it will only gain by going out into the streets.  It will wear street clothes.  It will come dressed as a harlequin to prepare people for the coming festivity. 

The Holy Fool he announces, who will prepare everyone for the “coming festivity,” is full of color and life.  He likens him to the major figure of commedia dell’arte – Harlequin.

The schlemiel and his wildly colored outfit and dance will “entertain the wrecked sensibilities of the perplexed.  It will amuse them with bright flags before flipping them over to reveal the basic black and white of unequivocal truth.”

Abehsera tells us that, in his dreams, he constantly thinks of the schlemiel.  The schlemiel is, in his words, his “alter ego.”  He, the writer, has the schlemiel as his muse.  And, to be sure, it seems that, at times, the writer transforms into the schlemiel.  He is a prophet of sorts who heals those “wrecked sensibilities of the perplexed” and who “prepares people for the coming festivity.” 

Perhaps this is what Marc Chagall – an artist who well-understood the place and meaning of the schlemeil to the Jews of Eastern Europe – had in mind when he made his lithograph “Harlequin with Flowers.”  The schlemiel makes us happy. He brings us flowers and hope.  But for Abeshera, he does more that just entertain: he discloses, by way of his theatrics and indirection, some kind of hidden, “unequivocal truth.”


All of this is prologue to the parable of the Idiot, the Writer, and the Beggar.  In the next few blog entries we will address it and assess this messianic mission that Abehsera has given over to the schlemiel.


Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part I


At the beginning of the summer, I had an interesting talk with the Kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson about Holy Fools.  The subject that I wanted to discuss with him, which pertains to the Holy Fool, is something he was familiar with in his studies of Habad (Lubavitch) Hasiduth and Mysticism; namely, something called Ruah Shtut D’kedusha (“the Holy Spirit of Foolishness”).  What spurred our conversation was a challenge that I posed to his reading of “negative theology.”  I suggested that we pay closer attention to the “madness” that this negative theology suggests and to think about how it may or may not relate to what Paul deMan – the literary theorist – would call, following the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German Romantics – the “irony of ironies.”  As I have suggested in other blog entries, deMan’s reading of madness, which is spurred by the “irony of ironies,” leans toward the Daemonic.  What I wondered was whether the “madness of the Holy” differed from this type of madness prescribed by deMan.  To be sure, The Zohar, one of the most important books in Jewish mysticism, often makes distinctions between what’s called the Sitra d’Kedusha (the side of the Holy) and the Sitra Achra (the other side).  Where did the madness of the Holy fit?  Elliot was very intrigued by this question and has, since, exchanged some emails with me about it.

But the point I ended our conversation with was, to my mind, the most important. I suggested that Elliot take a look at Meir Abehsera’s book The Possible Man: Life in the Shadow of the Just.   For me, this book took the Holy Fool not so much as a concept than as a Midrash and an account of someone very close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, someone who, in my view and perhaps his own, plays and played the Holy Fool.  During his years with the Rebbe, he lived out the “Holy Spirit of Foolishness” and, fortunately, he gave it to the next generation of Jews by way of parables in his book.  It can be found in the chapter entitled “The High Road.”

Before I discuss this wonderful work or writing, I just want to say a few words about Meir Abehsera.  I have great respect, love, and admiration for Abehsera.  Before becoming the Rebbe’s “whistler” (a name I will explain over the next few blog entries), Abehsera was a writer, artist, and poet in Paris. He was also one of the major people who was instrumental in bringing Macrobiotics (a way of life, eating, and community) to America.  After touring through the United States in the 1960s, he settled in Binghamton, New York, created something of a community, and influenced countless people there.  Two of those people are very close to me today.  (One of them is my uncle.)  In many ways, I find Abehsera to be one of the most important Jews in my life.  He is, in many ways, a schlemiel-rebbe for me.  His Jewishness is all-embracing, kind, joyful, and inspiring.  He wants to people to dance, sing, and talk with each other.  His gatherings at his home, whether in New York, Los Angeles, or in Israel, were gatherings unlike any I have ever been to.  I am not a child of the 60s, but in many ways I feel as if what he did is the closest thing I will ever come to a Jewish “be-in.”

That said, I’d like to summarize and unpack his wonderful parable.  I think it would be appropriate for Schlemiel-in-Theory to start the Jewish New Year with a spiritual reflection on the schlemiel (or at least one, important, variety of the schlemiel: the holy fool and the “holy spirit of foolishness”).

Here it goes:

Before talking about the Holy Fool, Abehsera begins his “High Road” chapter with a reflection on Memory, Imagination, and Redemption.   The serve as a central motifs in his chapter and they are the preface to his words on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar.

Speaking of himself in terms of his inadequate memory, Abehsera writes that “unlike the Just – who are the true repository of memory… – I am a broken vessel, who must resort to circuitousness to find my own way around.  My memory is that of an archeologist by comparison.  Each fragment that I unearth calls for the next, until I finally face the complete form”(94).    What kind of memory do the Just have and how can we tap into it?  How is it possible?

Following this reflection on memory, Abehsera turns immediately to something that concerned The Baal Shem Tov and his grandson Rabbi Nachman of Breslav; namely, the rift that grew in Europe between educated Jews and simple Jews.  To be sure, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, this rift gave birth to the first “literary schlemiels” in Rabbi Nachman’s stories.  The schlemiel, in these stories, challenges the Jewish intellectual who sees himself as closer to God as a result of his greater intelligence and skepticism.  The simplicity and naivite of the simpleton are, for the intellectual, negative traits.

Abhesera points out the Baal Shem Tov came around to address this rift:

He proceeded to transmit to common folk, in their own terms, what had been previously reserved for a select few.  His rationale was clear: the same Father in heaven who gives clever people the capacity to understand, also creates the feeble mind, and grants it no less right to share in the divine feast. (96)

Echoing the Baal Shem Tov, Abehsera lauds the simpleton. They, who live in the “now,” are closest to what Martin Buber would call “root experiences” (such as the giving of the Torah, Splitting of the Sea, etc) and they are the one’s who are closest to the Messianic.  And reflecting on what he says about memory, Abehsera describes this relationship to the “now” of the messianic the “memory of the future as well as of the past”:

Simple people were ideal chariots to transport the sacred, with never a self-conscious thought, for they did not suffer from the vanity with which the gifted are apt to be plagued. They could travel in an instant through time to Sinai, and fall to their faces, trebling as if they had just received the Law….The messiah was not a fable for these good people, or a possible dream of times to come; for them, redemption was now.   Cunning minds might contend that they were merely naïve.  I would say, rather, that they bore the mark of wisdom: a good memory of the future as well as of the past. (97)

The point of the imagination – and the point of the Baal Shem Tov’s famous expression “memory is redemption” – is to “bind past events with those that must inevitably come, to fuse the two extremes of the time and bring them to peace with the present.”  In other words, what Abehsera learns out of the Baal Shem Tov is that the imagination has a messianic and temporal task.  Imagination is equated with memory.  And for Abehsera memory/imagination is an “agent of healing” and spurs the “process of reawakening.”

Nonetheless, memory is challenged by the forces of trauma and destruction.  Memory “slips away.” And, for Abehsera, this is where the Baal Shem Tov and he himself comes in: his work (echoing that of the Baal Shem Tov) is the work of memory and its task is to heal the wounds that Jews have endured by exile and the Holocaust.

After pointing this out, Abehsera notes what he is up against; namely the fact that, in the times of the Baal Shem Tov, people were much more imaginative and hopeful.  Today, in contrast, the imagination is “less obsessive.”  We are – by and large – skeptics and rationalists who live in a disenchanted world.  And “yesterday’s dreamer is an extinct breed.”  So, in this world, we have to “smuggle” light in.  And this is done by way of metaphor.  Regarding this, Abehsera writes: “A metaphor is a transfer that can only be carried out by flesh and blood.” And it is human beings – and not angels – who have to use metaphor to transfer/smuggle light.   In other words, the way to truth, for Abehsera, is by way of the oblique.  We must hint at things but this is done by way of parable.

The trick is to keep this parable simple enough so as to speak to the hearts of people and not to an intellectual elite. And this is certainly something that is on his mind.

What I like most is how Abehsera situates himself within this framework and how, in his parables, he brings in the Holy Fool.  To be sure, it is the Holy Fool who smuggles in the light but, and here is the twist, this is conveyed by way of writing.  For this reason, Abehsera gives a parable that involves the relationship between the “writer” and the “idiot” (Holy Fool) so as to illustrate what is at stake.

In the next blog entry, I hope to discuss the dream that inspired this parable. Since this dream offers a, so to speak, allegorical key to the parable it deserves its own entry and must be laid out.  As I will demonstrate, it gives us a new way of understanding the schlemiel, one which shows how deeply personal and spiritually meaningful this comic character can be.