Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part II


After explaining how the Yiddish writers (“the writers of sweetness”) came out of a world that made “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” Howe and Greenberg define the themes of Yiddish literature which correlated with this Eastern European world: “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured”(39).   Howe and Greenberg are quite cognizant that this world died in the Holocaust. However, what one might miss is the fact that, in making their case for Yiddish literature, they write about these themes as if they could be generalized and used as a counter-valence to the Western and American obsession with heroism in the post war years. The value of this counter-valence comes out in their reading of the main character in Yiddish literature: the schlemiel. Read against western literature, it comes across as the anti-hero:

A culture that has been able to resist the temptations of worldly power – or has been blocked at the threshold of those temptations – will naturally favor an image of heroism very different from the one we know in Western literature. (39)

Howe and Greenberg point out how the movement from “hybris to humility,” which we find in the “Aristotelian formula” is not “organic to Yiddish literature.” To be sure, the schlemiel character is, from start to finish, humble. There is no such movement. In a footnote to this claim, Howe and Greenberg point out how this anti-hero and its lack of progress into history and heroism is antithetical to not only Western literature and Aristotle but also to Zionism:

The prevalence of this theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve – or improvise – an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment….Having for so long been exposed to the conditions of powerlessness, Yiddish culture could not quickly accustom itself to the climate of power. (39)

From here, Howe and Greenberg argue that the anti-heroic element can be found in the rejection of “historical aggrandizement.”   Tevye, for them, is the “embodiment of the anti-heroic Jewish hero whose sheer power of survival and comment makes the gesture of traditional heroism seem rather absurd”(40).   Not only his language but also his “ironic shrug” is symbolic of this ahistorical, anti-heroism.

Howe and Greenberg point out, however, how Aleichem had more patience with this anti-heroism while I.L. Peretz had less. Perhaps because Peretz was more fed up with anti-heroism and wanted to enter history, they put this in quotation marks, “modern.” This suggests that both Greenberg and Howe have sympathies with Aleichem’s project which, in their view, challenges the modern view of power and heroism.

The character that Zionist and more “modern” Yiddish writers want to leave behind is the little man, the “kleine mentschele”(40).   It is “he, the long-suffering, persistent, loving ironic” character whom “the Yiddish writers celebrate.” He “lives in the world” while the heroes of Western literature conquer it.

Out of the humble, little man come “a number of significant variations and offshoots.” One of these is the schlemiel, par excellence: “the wise or sainted fool who has often given up the householder’s struggle for dignity (think of Tevye) and thereby acquired the wry perspective of the man on the outside”(40).

Howe and Greenberg evoke I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” as an example of the “wise or sainted fool”(41).   Their description of Gimpel is evocative on different registers that are at once religious and secular. He has a “halo of comic sadness”:

He acquires, with the piling up of his foolishness, a halo of comic sadness, and..in the end, his foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world”(41).

Although Howe and Greenberg note that “Gimpel is the literary grandson of Peretz’s Bontsha Schweig,” they point out how he is a different kind of schlemiel since Singer, as opposed to Peretz, was more interested in preserving the character.   Howe discusses two other examples of the holy fool, schlemiel in this section, but he ends with a meditation on the child as the ultimate heroic anti-hero.

Hand in hand with the anti-heroic Jewish hero, and more at the center of things than the sainted fool, goes the Jewish child, precocious, ingenious, deprived yet infinitely loved. (41)

What’s interesting about his characterization is that he cites Sholem Aleichem’s Motl as an example. This reading is interesting because for Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse, and Sidra Ezrahi, Motl is not simply a child; he is a man-child, a schlemiel. Howe and Greenberg’s effort to give him a different category, as an offshoot of the humble anti-hero, suggest that there is something about Motl that is more powerful than all of the other schlemiel types. And that something is love. In contrast to how Dickens, Graham Greene, and Henry James, who have children who are “unloved and brutalized,” the children in Yiddish literature are loved. To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this love for children in Yiddish literature is part and parcel of the love of “the poor, the weak” and the “insulted” that emerges out of the Yiddish world. However, in their description, there is a moment of universalization:

For whatever the deficiencies of Yiddish culture, the power of love remains; for the child, the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured everywhere. It is the power at the heart of the Yiddish tradition. (42).

The word “everywhere” suggests that Howe and Greenberg find the love for the child, the poor, and the injured, which is particular to Yiddish culture, to be its greatest “power.” Howe and Greenberg suggest that the schlemiel – and the Yiddish culture it emerges out of – can present us with a universal that we can, today, learn from…even though the world that gave birth to it is gone. It presents a different, “sweeter” way to look at the world which, though not heroic in the western sense, is compassionate and can give hope.

But, as I noted, what happens when that world is gone? How does this universal live on if there is no world to nurture it? And doesn’t this relation to power emerge, as Hannah Arendt once said, out of worldlessness (not the world)? Instead of making “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” our world does the opposite. Unless, that is, we were to sink into a poverty and powerlessness much like the world of the Yiddish writers and, out of this, to find compassion and love rather than cynicism. It seems as if Howe envisions a world and an attitude that doesn’t emulate “crisis” and harsh realism so much as a “sweet” kind of realism that is based on love. And his examples of such a world are to be found in the aesthetics it produces. They are his guide and are the remnant of a feeling that could speak truth to power.

Lest we not forget, Howe and Greenberg wrote these words in the 1950s. How would they fare today? Are we, in our frustration with power, heroism, and Empire (as Hardt and Negri would say), looking for the schlemiel? Are we looking for the “writers of sweetness” who can give us characters that emerge out of poverty and remain anti-heroes from start to finish? Are we, today, looking for characters that evince compassion or are we looking for, as Howe would say, history, greatness, and heroism? And if Howe is with Aleichem rather than Peretz, would that suggest that his greatest enemy is…history? Are we looking for the world or for worldlessness? After all, Howe suggests that the schlemiel is not interested in heroism or making history so much as being in solidarity with those who don’t make history but are wounded by it: the poor, the injured, etc.   Or is it the case that the schlemiel is not so much a free choice so much as a choice that is made as a result of being….without history and…worldless?

Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part I


In the 1950s, Irving Howe took it as one of his tasks to introduce Yiddish literature to an American audience. This involved not just a translation project, which he engaged in with Eliezer Greenberg, Saul Bellow, and others, but it also involved writing different introductions to collections and books on Yiddish literature. In the middle of their introduction to A Treasury of Jewish Stories, Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe make the case for Yiddish literature. But unlike the other introductions Howe did, this introduction, written in the 1950s, is special since it argues for Yiddish literature against the then prevailing demand for “intense” literature:

We live in a time when the literature most likely to be valued by serious people is intense, recalcitrant, and extreme; when the novel is periodically combed for images of catastrophe; and the possibilities of life seem available only through ultimates, prophecies, and final judgments. (37)

We are more interested in the true “voice of crisis” since we are “creatures of crisis.” However, Howe and Greenberg suggest that “it would be good if we could also celebrate another kind of literature: the kind that does not confront every moment the harsh finalities of experience, or strip act to its bare motive, or flood us with anguish over the irrevocability of death”(37). This literature, which comes from the “writers of sweetness,” who value those “milder emotions,” is Yiddish literature.

Howe’s characterization of Yiddish writing, against the literature of crisis, is fascinating. It suggests that against the cynicism that comes with modern literature and its obsession with crisis, Yiddish literature offers hope. The “writers of sweetness…do not assume evil to be the last word about man.” And they do not “suppose heroism to be incompatible with humbleness”(37).

These words about heroism and humbleness are the preface to Howe and Greenberg’s introduction not just of Yiddish literature but also of the schlemiel to an American audience. To do this, they make the case for sweetness, which they see as synonymous with the compatibility of heroism and humbleness:

Sweetness is a quality our age suspects. Not many of us are sweet or care to be; and those few who are seem almost ashamed of their gift. (37)

According to Howe and Greenberg, the sweetness they refer to finds its origin in worldlessness:

The East European Jews could be as greedy as anyone else, and as unscrupulous in their pursuit of livelihood; but they were cut off from the world at an all too visible point; they knew that the fleshpots, tempting as they might be, were not for them. Who in the shtetl world was not finally a luftmensch, a trader who deal in air, exchanging nothing for nothing and living off the profits? (38)

Howe and Greenberg characterized this “precarious position” of sweet worldlessness in terms of a “symbolic national gesture” – namely, “the ironic shrug.” Moreover, this precarious position is political; it made a “feeling of fraternity with the poor.”

To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this worldlessness was a virtue since it challenged the status quo and resisted power: “the world of the East European Jews made impossible the power-hunger, the pretensions of aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life”(38).

To emphasize this, they put the following sentence in italics to describe the greatest moral power of Yiddish literature:

The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured – these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature. (38)

Appealing to a rhetoric of identification and commitment, Howe and Greenberg argue that the “writers of sweetness” “wrote from a firm sense of identification, an identification that was simultaneously inheritance and choice; and this was the source of their moral security”(39).   Their identification and commitment was to the “power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, etc.” This identification, claims Howe and Greenberg, has nothing to do with “shtetl nostalgia” and it is not “uniquely Jewish.” However, it is “only that the Jews – with God’s help – have had more occasion than most peoples to look into the matter.”

Howe’s appeal to the particular and the universal are, in this instance, very interesting. His reading of the “writers of sweetness” suggests that Yiddish writers have something to teach an age that has become to cynical and obsessed with heroism. But, at the same time, he suggests that more people can write in these ways and have solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the injured. Anyone can look into the matter and become a “writer of sweetness.” However, the Jews have an advantage since their history, their worldlessness, has forced them to reflect on their state. The “ironic shrug” and the schlemiel are two figures that emerge out of this reflection.

….to be continued…

Jewishness, the Holocaust, and History: Irving Howe on the Holocaust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflections sur la question juive


At the beginning of a chapter to his “intellectual autobiography” entitled “Jewish Quandaries,” Irving Howe begins with questions “from young friends” about the Holocaust: “When did you first become aware of the gas chambers? How did you respond to the reports from Europe that the Nazis were systematically exterminating Jews?”   Howe points out that “for some years now” these questions are also his questions (247). And when he thinks of them now, reflecting on how he first responded to them, he has a “recurrent clamor of confused memories.”   He says he cannot answer them with “clear thoughts and eloquent emotions.” Howe counts himself as one of the people who, when faced with “great cataclysms…blink and stumble…retreat into old opinions….turn away in fear”(247). Howe isn’t happy with this situation and describes his moral quandary and his failure.

Howe points out that facts and information were “pouring out after the war” but he didn’t grasp the meaning of the event until the early fifties. He personifies his awakening to this as something belated and shameful. In this trial by memory, he is guilty. And according to his conscience, he is accused of not being moral enough.

Memory points a figure: “You were slow, you were dull in responding to the Holocaust.” I plead guilty, but would add mildly that now, when incessant talk about the Holocaust risks becoming a media vulgarity, we may value silence a bit more than anyone could have supposed in the earlier years. Conscience scoffs: “Come, you’re not really trying to say you were silent because your feelings overwhelmed you? Wasn’t it more likely that your feelings were rather skimpy?” (248)

In not being able to “grapple with the Holocaust,” Howe believes he had lost his humanity. To not have thought or language to address crisis is, for Howe, tantamount to losing one’s humanity. And this failure hurts him.

Howe admits that he was not alone in this failure: “No one knew what to say, no one could decide whether to cry out to the heavens or mourn in silence. We had no language.”

Howe notes how when he first heard of this, when he was in Alaska, he “felt an uncanny sort of fear.” This feeling came when he saw pictures he saw of the “GIs, ordinary American boys” looking at the “death camps piled high with corpses.” In these pictures, he noticed that they “registered a stunned horror.” In Alaska, he had no one to talk to.

When he came back to New York from Alaska, Howe slowly realized that his Marxist framework would be inadequate to address the Holocaust:

Some of us continued to think more or less in Marxist categories – loosened and liberalized, but Marxist still. I would not go so far as to say that a Marxist framework foreclosed the possibility of grasping the Holocaust in its moral terribleness and historical novelty. The more terribleness we recognized as well as anyone else; the historical novelty we did not. Writing about Nazism in the thirties, when its full criminality was visible, Trotsky had foreseen it would end as “barbarism.” But that was only a word, though an accurate one, which neither we nor anyone else could yet have filled out with a sufficiently ghastly content. (249)

This thought prompts Howe to reflect on the creation of new categories for confronting a “new historical phenomenon.” And this is where he comes to terms with the limits of Marxism for understanding everything:

Marxism could tell us a good deal about reactionary societies, but what could it say about the roots of evil, the gratuitous et systematic sadism of the SS? I don’t know that any other structure of thought told us much about that sadism either, but at least it would not try to reduce everything to a “social base” or the “death agony of capitalism.” (250)

In many ways, this failure prompted Howe to rethink his Jewishness:

In the years before the war people like me tended to subordinate our sense of Jewishness to cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics. We did not think well or deeply on the matter of Jewishness – you might say we avoided thinking about it. Jewishness was inherited, a given to be acknowledged, like being born white or poor. (251)

Following the war and the Holocaust, the thought of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and Jewishness starts become a concern for Howe. He points out how, in 1945, he came across a few lines in an article by Dwight Macdonald (in his essay “The Responsibility of Peoples”) that sparked thought about the meaning of such uniqueness. The article wasn’t the best but it didn’t create a quandary for Howe:

Unsystematic as these remarks were, they had the virtue of insisting upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust – an event without precedent yet prepared for by the anti-Semitism of the West. (253)

Howe muses that Macdonald was “probably influenced by Hannah Arendt, who a few months earlier had published a brilliant essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in the Jewish Frontier”(253). How saw this essay as a “step forward in the effort to “understand,” precisely because it called into question the very relevance or possibility of understanding.”

But these essays didn’t reach Howe when he was in Alaska. He read them after they were published.   The only essays he came across, which appeared serially in Partisan Review and Commentary in 1946 and 1947 were essays that belonged to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflexiouns sur la question juive (translated as Anti-Semite and Jew).

Howe points out, immediately before he even starts commenting on Sartre’s book, that even flawed books can prompt insight. And this foreshadows his commentary on Sartre which, if anything, prompted him to think on a much deeper level not just about the meaning of the Holocaust but about the meaning of Jewishness:

There are times when a flawed piece of writing is more valuable than a “correct” one – honest confusions, incomplete strivings can stimulate others to think better. So it was with Sartre’s little book. Decades later it is easy enough to spot its errors, but at the tie time the book came out, it was tremendously stimulating. (254)

Howe begins his commentary by going straight to Sartre’s definition of a Jew, a definition that Howe will take as the main point of his criticism:

“The Jew” – an abstraction he could not avoid – is defined by Sartre by his “situation.” This “situation” is an ensemble of conditions and environments signifying both the relentless pressures of the anti-Semite and the tepid defenses of the democrat who is prepared to defend the Jew but not as a Jew, only as abstract “man.” A Jew, writes Sartre, “is anyone who for any reason calls himself such or is called such in any community whose practices take note of the distinction.” Yet, despite the persistence of this “distinction” Sartre comes to the odd conclusion that the Jews “have no history. What creates the Jew so to speak, and enables his twisted precarious survival, is the all-but-universal enmity he incurs. (254)

What bother’s Howe most in Sartre’s claim that Jews don’t have a history. By saying that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of this or that “situation” is, for Howe, a bad reading that must be exposed.   Sartre’s book suffers from “an extreme ahistoricity. It reduced both the Jew and the anti-Semite to bloodless, timeless essences, and failed to ask what might be the origin of anti-Semitism or, still more important, the reasons for its persistence”(255).

And this failure to grasp the Jew and to reduce the Jew to something ahistorical is something that Howe associates with a Marxist framework: “Sartre’s conclusion, so lame after his analytic fireworks, came to little more than a version of the Marxist notion that anti-Semtisim is the consequence, or index, of the social wrongs of capitalist society, and that with socialism this blight would wither away”(255).

Howe takes Sartre’s logic to its Marxist conclusion by suggesting that, in Sartre’s view, since Jews had no “history” or “community of interest,” and once they were “n longer plagued by pathological enemies,” they would then “freely dissolve themselves into the encasing classless society”(255). Howe sarcastically notes that Sartre can’t imagine the possibility of “Frenchmen becoming Jews”(255). This would turn Sartre’s scenario “upside down.”

What Sartre failed to see, according to Howe, is the fact that one “could locate” the “situation” of the Jews in a “traditional essence.” Sartre saw the Jews as merely an effect of a situation and a people without history or freedom: “He did not see it sufficiently as a persistent choosing of identity, a heroic self-assertion”(255).

This failure is what prompts Howe to undertake his query into the relationship of Jewish identity to history, tradition, and agency.


…to be continued….


Irving Howe’s Recollections of Hannah Arendt


Irving Howe and Hannah Arendt both published important essays in The Partisan Review.   Howe published and edited the important 1953 issue of The Partisan Review where he included Saul Bellow’s monumental translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and an important introduction on Jewishness. Arendt published essays at The Partisan Review on philosophy, literature, and politics such as “Franz Kafka, a Reevaluation,” (1944), “What is Existenz philosophy?” (1946), “The Concentration Camps”(1948), and “The Cold War and the West”(1962).

Howe first met Arendt when she was the editor of Schocken Books.   Howe’s recollection of their meeting and his description of Arendt in his wonderful book, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography, are worth recounting as they give us something of an intellectual portrait and show us that Howe was impressed by her presence. Howe situates her in a chapter entitled “Jewish Quandries.” What’s most interesting about this placement is the fact that he discusses his literary project in Yiddish literature side-by-side with his meetings and encounters with Arendt. In her, he saw something of a secular Jewishness that he felt had died in Europe. He calls it an “idea” that he loved but, in reality, couldn’t make real because such Jewish secularism (attempted, he believed, by the movement of Yiddish theater and literature in the lower east side) was “decaying.”

Howe tells us that when he first met her, Arendt was looking for someone to do “literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month”(270).   Howe was her man. And he notes that though the pay was low, it “came with the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week”(270). At the time, she was not well-known because she hadn’t published On Totalitarianism, but “everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her”(270).

With a little dismay, Howe notes that even though Arendt “loved to ‘adopt’ people,” he was not one of the chosen”(270). He muses that he wasn’t “perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures”(270).

But Howe notes that there was one thing she would love to discuss with him “Kafka and Brecht,” on the one hand, and “Yiddish folk tales and American politics” on the other. The confluence of the two is telling because they touch on things that meant a lot to Howe in his work on the schlemiel, Yiddish literature, modernist literature, and politics.

Howe’s description of Arendt is, in many ways, literary.  Arendt had, for him, a kind of theatrical quality.

He notes that, although she was “far from ‘good looking’ in any commonplace way,” she was a “remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette. ‘Szee here,’ she would declare with a smile meant both to subdue and to solace, and then she’d race off into one of her improvisations”(270).

“Mere Americans,” says Howe, were “dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy” she knew. But Howe notes that what really dazzled them was not her “thought” so much as the “style of her thinking”(270). His description of her style is worth noting, at length, because he’s trying to translate it into literature. She fills the rooms she dwells in with the “largeness of her will” and is “larger than her setting.”

She brissled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender with gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm. (270)

But something was missing in this performance. He couldn’t quite grasp its “substance”:

Even while appreciating her performance, I often failed to grasp its substance.

Howe, nonetheless, tells his reader that he did learn something from his discussion with her about politics: “that politics has to be scrutinized in its own right and not just as an index of social conflict”(271).

But while she had command over thought and politics and a style that he emulated, Howe noticed that when it came to Jewishness Arendt’s attitudes were “hopelessly mixed.” And this had to do with her “hostility toward established Jewish institutions, especially Zionist ones.”

Hannah’s attitudes toward modern Jewish life, her feelings toward the Jews as they actually lived in all their frailty and imperfection, were hopelessly mixed. (271)

Howe notes how the book on Eichmann and all the attendant criticism deeply affected her. And in his reflections on her book, Howe takes the side of Norman Podhoretz who “saw Arendt’s book – rightly, I think – as an instance of that deep impulse among some Jews, especially intellectual ones, to make ‘inordinate demands…that the Jews be better than other people…braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified….But the truth is – must be – that Jews under Hitler acted as men will act when they are set upon by murderers”(275).

He notes that “such controversies will never be settled” and describes, in a sad manner, his last encounter with Arendt. At a party they shook hands, and she sharply took it away as she “turned on her heel and walked off.” The gesture was like a “wound” that remained with him:

It was the most skillful cut I have ever seen or received, and I was wounded quite as keenly as she wanted me to be. (275)

Arendt left him with a wound. And perhaps this marked his wounded sense of Jewishness as the chapter goes on to articulate.

…to be continued….



Schlemiels Don’t Adapt: Saul Bellow on Sholem Aleichem’s Characters


Citing the traditional joke about the schlemiel who spills the soup on the schlimazel, Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that the schlimazel “happens upon mischance” and “has a penchant for lucklessness”(14).  But “the unhappy circumstances remain outside him”(14).  In other words, the schlimazel’s comedy is situational.  The schlemiel, however, is different since his “misfortune is his character.  It is not accidental, but essential.”  After saying this, Wisse substitutes the word “existential” for the word “essential”: “the “schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving his very nature in its confrontation with reality”(15).    After writing this, Wisse inserts a footnote that explains that there is “some discussion of the derivation of this term (“existential”) and some attempt at definition” in a book by B.J. Bialostotski on Jewish humor.   In this book, Wisse makes reference to only two pages.  To be sure, dubbing the schlemiel an “existential” character needs more than two pages let alone a footnote reference.   Regardless, I applaud Wisse for making this claim.  There is a lot of truth to this observation.   However, as Wisse suggests indirectly, it needs more discussion (not just “some” discussion). I have, to be sure, dealing with existential interpretations of the schlemiel in my blog – mostly by way of Emmanuel Levinas and Walter Benjamin, amongst others.  But I have never read the schlemiel in terms of this specific distinction made by Wisse.  For this reason, I was happy to have stumbled across a 1953 book review of a Sholem Aleichem novel – The Adventures of Mottel the Cantor’s Son – by Saul Bellow entitled “Laughter in the Ghetto.”  In the review, he suggests something of an existential reading of the schlemiel.

1953 is an important year for Yiddish literature and for Bellow as it’s American translator.  Ruth Wisse points out that Irving Howe published Bellow’s translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” from the Yiddish in The Partisan Review in 1953.   And Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi convincingly argues that Bellow’s translation was a landmark moment in the revival of Yiddish literature in America.  She goes so far as to argue that Bellow, Howe, and Leslie Feidler, looked to create a “virtual ghetto” by way of popularizing the work of I.B. Singer, Aleichem, and others who were translated into English.

Bellow’s review, so to speak, comes right on time since it coincides with the publication of “Gimpel the Fool.”  In this review, Bellow reflects on Yiddish literature in general and Aleichem in particular.   But the real focus of the review is Mottel, the main character of Aleichem’s final novel.  And Mottel, for all intents and purposes, is a schlemiel.

Bellow begins his review by defining Yiddish literature against Hebrew literature: “Hebrew was the language of serious literature among the Jews of the Pale (of Settlement): Yiddish the secular language and the language of comedy.”  But even though Yiddish is the “language of comedy,” Bellow points out that Aleichem turned it to serious concerns thus bridging the gap between “serious literature” and a language that was essentially comic.  But, as Bellow argues, built into Yiddish is an “ironic genius”: Aleichem “was a great ironist – the Yiddish language has an ironic genius – and he was a writer in whom the profoundly sad, bitter spirit of the ghetto laughed at itself and thereby transcended itself.”

Like Bellow, Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse were very interested in the relationship of laughter to tears.   I have written several blog entries on this topic which speak directly to the existential condition.   Bellow’s reading – and the title of his piece – seem to suggest that he saw the ghetto’s laughing at itself as a form of existential self-transcendence.  To explain this better, Bellow notes how the existential condition of the Jews was itself ironic:

The Jews of the ghetto found themselves involved in an immense joke.  They were divinely designated to be great and yet they were like mice.  History was something that happened to them: they did not make it.  The nations made it, while they, the Jews, suffered.

Bellow goes on to argue that the countless references to “all times and all greatness” in Yiddish conversation and Jewish study contributed, “because of poverty and powerlessness of the Chosen, to the ghetto’s sense of the ridiculous.”  In other words, the historical reality of Jews – given their history and greatness – was ironic for Jews who lived in the Pale.  It didn’t make sense and was laughable.  And in this situation, argues Bellow, “powerlessness appears to force people to have recourse to words.”

This suggests that history forced Jews to be comical.  But this isn’t the existential part.  The existential part has to do with not giving in to the judgment of history and the refusal to adapt.

When Bellow turns to the novel he points out how Mottel, the main character of the Aleichem novel, is always happy: “almost nothing can take place which he is unable to make into a occasion of happiness: with boundless resilience he tells, after his father’s death, how quickly he learns the prayer for the dead, how well everyone treats him now that he is an orphan.”  Mottel has “an inexhaustible power of enjoyment and cannot be affected….He declines to suffer the penalties the world imposes on him.”

Bellow sees this aloofness of the schlemiel as fundamental to a Jewish condition. This comes out in his comparison of Aleichem to Gogol.  In his comparison, he notes that while “Gogol’s humor is wilder, more inventive and lavish, Aleichem’s is drier and more sad.”  But, more importantly, Aleichem’s characters have the “immediate problem of survival.”  And they “must survive, but not by adapting themselves; adaptation is forbidden and they must remain what they are.”

This, to my mind, suggests an existential condition and it also suggests an “imperative”: they must “remain what they are.”  In other words, the schlemiel must remain a schlemiel.  After all, Mottel doesn’t adapt yet, somehow, he manages to survives.   Bellow calls this a kind of balancing act: “Mottel learns early in life to perform difficult feats of equilibrium.”

Mottel’s schlemiel-performance is an existential decision.   Mottel is not a victim of circumstance; his comedy is not situational.  He is not a schlimazel.  Mottel is a schlemiel and, according to Bellow, he must be. And this is what makes him so important to Aleichem and the Jewish people.  In order to survive, the schlemiel doesn’t adapt.  He doesn’t give in to history. And that is the schlemiel’s decision and perhaps, most importantly, what makes the schlemiel a Jewish comic character.

Outside Llewyn Davis: The Schlemiel in the Coen Brothers Latest Film


After having read J. Hoberman’s film review of Inside Llewyn Davis in Tablet, I was excited to see the latest Coen Brothers film.   What I found most interesting about the review was the fact that Hoberman uses the schlemiel to interpret the Coen Brothers films in general and this film in particular.  But in his reading of the schlemiel in their films, he employs an interesting strategy: he starts by focusing on the Coen Brothers’ desire to “torture” their characters and from there moves to a description of their “victims.”    Before I discuss the film and my response to it, I’d like to address Hoberman’s strategy since it seems to suggest something contrary to what Ruth Wisse, who he cites in his article, suggests about the schlemiel: while he focuses on the comic character’s “existential victimization,” Wisse argues that the point of the schlemiel is not just to disclose “existential victimization” so much as its tension with those little things about humanity that give hope.  The schlemiel narrowly averts total victimization by way of wit, language, or art.  In her own words, the schlemiel may lose in reality but she ultimately wins an “ironic victory” by way of art.  But, as Wisse well knew, this victory is not complete.  It is marked by the tension between hope and skepticism.

While Hoberman is correct in noting that the main character of the Coen Brothers film is plagued by bad luck, his emphasis on the Coen Brother’s desire to “victimize” their characters and his characterization of the schlemiel as an “existential (read absolute) victim” takes away from this tension.   To be sure, if a character is totally hopeless, he or she is not a schlemiel.  No matter how minimal, there must be some redeeming quality (either in the character, the characterization, or the tone of the medium).  To be sure, the Coen Brothers film tests the limits of the schlemiel and prompts us to ask about why they would do this.  What is at stake with this old/new incarnation of the schlemiel?  How does it relate to how “we” view ourselves in these trying times?

Hoberman begins his reading of the schlemiel in the Coen Brothers films with a reading of Larry Gopnik, the “Job-like anti-hero” of A Serious Man.  He calls Gopnik an “existential victim”:

While most Coen characters could be considered garden variety shmeggeges, Larry Gopnik is something more culturally specific: a schlemiel. A shmeggege is merely a nitwit. The luckless and self-deceiving, well-intentioned but ineffectual schlemiel, defined by the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia as one who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner” is an existential victim—or maybe the embodiment of an existential condition.

Paraphrasing Ruth Wisse and her opus on the schlemiel, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, he argues that for writers like Sholem Aleichem the Jewish people are a “schlemiel people.”   But were he to look closer at Wisse’s book, he would find that though they may be a “schlemiel people,” Aleichem, in Wisse’s view, always maintained that while he saw the Jews as the losers of history, he didn’t see them as “existential” (read absolute) victims.  (I want to note, here, that I don’t equate the word “existential” with absolute, but the way Hoberman uses it – vis-à-vis the “existential victim” – one would think that a fatalism is at work.  And this is not what the schlemiel is about.  His crisis-slash-victimization-by-existence (or history, rather) is informed by his existential condition; however, it is narrowly averted.)  In fact, in Aleichem’s novels we find joy juxtaposed with pain.  And this is accomplished through wit and art.  Both Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse have noted this juxtaposition in their critical analysis on Aleichem.

Hoberman goes on to emphasize the schlemiel’s “existential” (victim) quality in A Serious Man by comparing it to the one of the most bleak American schlemiel novels in the 20th century; namely, Stern by Bruce Jay Friedman:

Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher. (A Serious Man, as outraged Village Voice reviewer Ella Taylor wrote in a memorable rant, was “crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-toothed, know nothing rabbis.” They are, to say the least, uniformly unlovely.)     

This contrast is telling, and I would love to hear more on the meaning of this difference.  However, from here Hoberman turns to Inside Llewyn Davis to note that the main character in this film “inspires a sympathy beyond the constraints of his creators’ rote contempt.”  If this is the case, wouldn’t Llewyn’s schlemiel character have some redeeming qualities that turn us against the world?  While Wisse would see this as a key feature of the schlemiel (in many a Yiddish novel), Hoberman doesn’t – at this point – make too much of the sympathy inspired by this character.

Rather, Hoberman gives much more attention to the character as existential victim:

Every aspect of Llewyn’s life is absurd. He is the universe’s plaything. For much of the movie’s first half, the Coens contrive to have him in futile pursuit of a benefactor’s pet cat while at the same time fending off the escalating fury of a friend and fellow folksinger’s wife (Carey Mulligan) who claims that he’s made her pregnant. Later, Llewyn goes on the road to Chicago with a feline cat and a human one (John Goodman as a hideous jazz junkie hipster), hoping to land a gig at the Gate of Horn or at least get representation from the owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). A stand-in for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, this imposing figure is singularly unimpressed by Llewyn’s heartfelt and not unoriginal rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” crassly remarking only “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

Hope does peep up, however, at the end of the film.  But it is minimal.  And Hoberman rightly points out that, at the very end of the movie, the appearance of Bob Dylan is kept minimal so as to disclose Llewyn as the schlemiel.  Dylan is the “movie’s structuring absence”:

It cannot have been lost on the Coens that it was a Minnesota Jew like themselves who effectively schlemiel-ized an entire movement of earnest idealists. (Who could top the singer’s “Positively 4th Street” kiss-off: I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you.) Nor could the brothers have failed to see the joke. The magnitude of Dylan’s off-screen success magnifies Davis’ humiliation. Dylan is their movie’s structuring absence: That he is a Jew who is not a schlemiel means he can’t be shown at all.

The last words of Hoberman’s review suggest that the Coen Brothers want to victimize Llewyn Davis by leaving the successful Jew out.  We can only read Llewyn Davis’s failure by way of what is “outside” of Llewyn Davis; namely, the “Jew who is not a schlemiel.”  This suggests that while Hoberman begins his review with a reading of the schlemiel and Llewyn as the “existential victim” with little to no hope, he reads the schlemiel in terms of the tension between hope and skepticism.   The only redeeming quality of the schlemiel is really to be found in our historical understanding that for every Llewyn there is a Bob Dylan.

This last insight is of great interest to me because it suggests that the existence of the schlemiel, today, may be premised on how we understand history.  At the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel can only exist in a historical time that is an admixture of hope and skepticism.   If we live in a time that is totally skeptical or totally optimistic, the schlemiel, in her view, cannot exist.

This brings us to the question of what is “outside” Llewyn Davis.  Rather than reading this film (and others) in terms of the Coen Brothers “victimizing” the schlemiel we need to ask why this might appear to be the case for Hoberman..or any of us.  To be sure, the Coen Brothers are providing us with a limit case of the schlemiel that is based on how we view ourselves.  Although Bob Dylan does emerge at the very end of the movie and although we know that he will emerge after the failure of folk music, we also know that history is not over and that it is not characterized by pure progress.

At one point, Ruth Wisse thought that the historical founding of Israel spelled the end of the schlemiel.  But now, in her latest book, she still sees its existence as having some historical use.  The Coen Brothers, to my mind, also see history as a part of their film.  The film, though framed in the early 1960s, should give us pause to ask whether the schlemiel – as they understand it – exists today.

As I watched the film, I realized that the schlemiel does exist; regardless of the successes of this or that Jew, the economy is slumping and many, like Davis, feel as if everything they touch “turns to shit.”  The only redeeming quality of Davis is outside him in the sense that the possibility of success exists.  And although Davids is not a Jew, he is an outsider and an “existential victim” by virtue of harsh, American historical reality.

But if we don’t see the historical possibilities around us, then the appearance of Dylan at the end of the film is meaningless.  Hoberman suggests –at the end of his review – that Davis will likely go up with Dylan to a life of success.  But is this true? Can we read this historical moment in such positive terms?  It all depends on how we read what is outside Llewyn Davis.  And this is where the genius of the Coen Brothers consists: they teach us that the thin line between being a schlemiel and an absolute victim of harsh American reality is based on our historical circumstances.  The power of art is limited by history.

The Yiddish writers, who popularized the schlemiel, knew this too.  And they always foregrounded hope against the existential realities of history.    But even during the worst pogroms, they still found hope.  And many of them, including Sholem Aleichem and even Franz Kafka, saw some kind of hope in America, We live after that hope, after the Holocaust, and after 9/11.  Our view of history is obviously different.  But, in the end, the presence of the schlemiel depends on how we view the meaning of success in America.

As long as there is a tension with the promise of success in America, the schlemiel will exist.  The minimal presence of Bob Dylan against the presence of Llweyn Davis reminds us that the margin between success and failure is growing.

When we compare Llewyn Davis to schlemiels played by Seth Rogen or Ben Stiller you can see that while films by Judd Apatow are popular they are based, ultimately, on the belief that there is lots of hope for the schlemiel and that his failure is laughable.  The Coen Brothers, on the other hand, think otherwise.  And this is what makes their film and their schlemiel more appealing to me than Apatow’s (which fails to balance hope and skepticism in a realistic and existential manner).

The Coen Brothers realistically look into what is outside Llewyn Davis to understand what is inside him.  And our historical situation will determine whether he is a schlemiel or an “existential victim.”  In other words: Dylan’s minimal presence at the end may not be enough to make us smile. In that case, our knowledge of what is outside Llewyn Davis may not change a thing.

Let’s hope he’s a schlemiel.  If he’s not, America is in trouble.

Delmore Schwartz and Lou Reed: The Odd Couple


When I first heard that Lou Reed was influenced by the poet Delmore Schwartz, I was very happy.  I love their work and I have been looking to write on the possible relationship between Reed’s music and Schwartz’s poetry for a while.  With the passing of Lou Reed, this thought has crossed my mind more than once over the last few days.  To my surprise, I noticed – just this morning – that The Jewish Philosophy Place had posted a blog entry on Lou Reed and Delmore Schwartz.    The entry didn’t look into how Reed may have been influenced by Schwartz; it simply noted that Lou Reed majored in English at Syracuse University where Zachary Braiterman, the author of the Jewish Philosophy Place Blog, teaches.  Regardless, his blog entry prompted me to return to Schwartz’s work and to think about how it might relate to Reed’s music.

I don’t want to go in depth about this or that influence on Reed, so much as point out their shared interest in irony and the comedic.  What I love about their humor is that it doesn’t come from a high place that looks condescendingly on this or that target, so much as from an awareness of their own odd predicament in a world that is and is not theirs.  Their fiction, poetry, and lyrics didn’t so much provide them with a form of redemption so much as a way of reflecting on their comic/odd relationship with America, their parents, and their dreams.  They were both outsiders and regardless of their successes I can’t help but think that they thought of themselves as failures.  Yet, in the spirit of their art – and in the spirit of the schlemiel – this reflection wasn’t tragic so much as comic.  They shared the realization that they were the “odd one’s out” and in this we can say that they are an “odd couple” of sorts.

In his Foreword to the Delmore Schwartz’s collected stories, Irving Howe takes note of how the danger of addressing Delmore Schwartz is that one might get caught up in his sad life and miss his wonderful fiction and poetry.  In the process, Schwartz risks becoming “the subject of a lurid cultural legend.”  Nonetheless, Howe points out how Schwartz’s story is an American story of going in the opposite direction of the American dream – from success to failure: “The image of the artist who follows a brilliant leap into success  with a fall into misery and squalor is deeply credited, even cherished in our culture.”

Howe points out that Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” found an odd location in the first issue of the new Partisan Review in 1937.   It was the only story in the collection and it appeared right in the beginning.  Howe tells us that when he first read the story he experienced the “shock of recognition.”  What took Howe aback was the fact that the narrator, who sees his entire life pass before him on a movie screen, screams back at the screen when he sees his parents getting married: “Don’t do it. It’s not to late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”  Howe tells us that when he read it for the first time he deeply identified with Schwartz’s “cry against the mistakes of the past.”

When Howe reread the story, he found not just a protest against history but also a protest against existence.  But this voice wasn’t so much a voice of an existentialist as a voice “at home with the speech of people not quite at home with English speech.”  In other words, Howe found in Schwartz the struggles that were familiar to children of Immigrants (a theme I have been discussing a lot on this blog vis-à-vis Gary Shteyngart’s work).

In Schwartz’s work, Howe finds “the pathos and comic hopelessness of the conflict between immigrant Jewish families and their intellectual children”(ix).     He also finds the “frantic mixture of idealism and ambition, high seriousness and mere seriousness.”  The “mere seriousness” was also used as invective against New York intellectuals.  Howe says his criticisms were “bitter and..sometimes nasty.”    But, all in all, his words “created communities” and “floundering intellectuals.”  They indicated a “strong awareness of the sheer foolishness of existence, the radical ineptitude of the human creature.”  But he didn’t exclude himself from this foolishness and often played the fool.  In doing so, he was able to surprise his audience and evoke an awareness of the “ridiculousness of….everything”:

The persona of buffoonery, which goes perfectly well with a sophisticated intelligence, brings with it some notable dangers, but at its occasional best it enabled Schwartz to catch his audience off guard, poking beneath the belt of its dignity, enforcing the shared ridiculousness of….I guess, everything.  (xi)

All of this, Howe claims, comes out of Schwartz’s “anti-rhetoric.”  This, he claims, was a “deliberate mimicry of immigrant speech.”  And in this gesture, we find his sad and odd humor at work.

One story that really brings this out is “America! America!”  In this piece, the narrator, using his anti-Rhetoric (which mocks an English adapted by immigrants), introduces us to “Shenandoah Fish.”  He comes back from Paris and, in contradistinction to his American-immigrant parents, he was “not troubled by his idleness.”  The narrator tells us that he enjoys “two months of idleness” but this enjoyment starts to evaporate when he experiences a new “emotion”:

The emotion of a loss or lapse of identity. “Who am I?  what am I?” Shenandoah began once more to say to himself, and although he knew very well that this was only the projection of some other anxiety…nonetheless the intellectual criticism of his own emotions was as ever to no avail whatever. (11)

The comic aspect of this can be found in the fact that the narrator states things in a plain-American style (one which Howe finds to be a “mimicry of (English) immigrant speech”).  The narrator states, in simple declarative sentences, that Fish didn’t like the Baumann’s (family friends who chased after money and success):

The important thing in insurance was to win one’s way into the homes and into the confidences of other people.  Insurance cannot be sold as a grocer or druggist sells his goods. (12)

The descriptions of the Baumanns as the paradigmatic Jewish-American-Immigrant family, while simple, are demeaning.  By using this anti-Rhetoric Mr. Baumann comes across as a monster.  And although they “like” fish, it seems he doesn’t like them. And he doesn’t seem to like their children who all seem so perfect.  All of this indicates that he sees himself as the odd one out: he can’t become an American; at least, not like the Baumann’s or their children.

However, we learn that Baumann has an “idle son” named “Sydney.”  Fish identifies with him in some way.  Toward the end of the story, we learn of Baumann’s relationship to Syndey, which Fish’s mother recounts to him.  After hearing it, Fish feels abstract and removed from this world that he had left for Paris and returned to; he sees much of this world, which he had missed, as a “caricature, and an abstraction.”  However, instead of being repulsed, we learn from the narrator that Fish wishes he could have “seen these lives form the inside, looking out”(32).

Following this twist in the plot, the narrator tells us that he now feels his connection to the immigrant Jews:

And now he felt for the first time how closely bound he was to these people.  He felt that the contemptuous mood which had governed him as he listened was really self-contempt and ignorance.  He thought that his own life invited the same irony. (32)

He looks in the mirror and sees himself and the moment he is living in as ridiculous and a failure.  But the point I want to make is that he sees this all against the fact that he shares so much with the people he originally despised.  He wonders how his children will see him.  Will they see him as a schlemiel?  How does he stand in relation to the future?

Schwartz ends this short story with a reflection on his schlemielkeit, which is based on the fact that “no one truly exists in the real world”:

No one truly exists in the real world because no one knows all that he is to other human beings, all that they say behind his back, and all the foolishness which the future will bring him. (33)

This realization teaches us that, in relation to others and to the future, in relation to that which transcends him, he, like a schlemiel, has no world.  In this realization, he discovers that he is not the only “odd one out.”

I hear this story put to words in Lou Reed’s song “Perfect Day.”  It’s odd appeal to the other discloses something that Fish and the narrator of “America! America!” were acutely aware; namely, that we don’t really know who we are to others and that “all they say behind his back” and the “future” itself will only bring more “foolishness.” Regardless, I think Howe is correct: this kind of realization comes to Fish, the narrator, and Schwartz by way of being the child of Immigrants, by virtue of being between two worlds where one’s identity is constantly at stake.  The day Fish comes to his realization is far from a “perfect” day, but, as he realizes, this is the way every day is and will be for him…until he dies.

May Lou and Delmore – an “odd couple” – rest in peace…they no longer have to look in the mirror and  wonder about who or what they are….

The Day of Judgment: Reflections on Sholem Aleichem’s “A Yom Kippur Scandal”


On Erev Yom Kippur (the Eve of Yom Kippur), it makes sense – at least for me – to ask how Sholem Aleichem, perhaps the most well-known and celebrated of all writers on the schlemiel – approaches Yom Kippur by way of fiction.  With this in mind, I thought of one piece that has Yom Kippur in its title, a piece which the literary critic Irving Howe believed illustrated the darker side of Aleichem’s work: “A Yom Kippur Scandal.”

Aleichem’s story begins with a “man with round eyes, like an ox” who, “sitting in a corner” of a synagogue, “overhears stories about thefts.”  In response to hearing them, he screams out “That’s nothing!”

He has a story that will top their stories, one which will astonish them.

The storyteller begins by pointing out that in Kasrilevka (Aleichem’s Chelm – his imaginary town where schlemiels come and go) there is no thievery. And that is because, quite simply, no one has any money.  But, in truth, he says, a “Jew is not a thief by nature.”  Jews don’t break into houses brandishing knives or guns.  If they steal, and they don’t often do so, they do in an indirect, clandestine manner: “He will divert, pervert, and subvert and contravert as a matter of course; but he won’t pull anything out of your pocket.”  (This, of course, plays on the difference, stated in the Talmud and familiar to Jews of Aleichem’s time, between the Ganev (thief who steals openly) and the Gozlan (the thief who steals indirectly).

However, he tells us, he witnessed one case that was unusual; and that case happened on Yom Kippur.  He tells us that a wealthy man came from out of town and, upon coming to the synagogue, he generously gave charity to the poor in the synagogue.  Following this, the community makes room for the charitable guest at the front of the synagogue for the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.

The guest takes his seat, prays deeply, “standing on his feet all day,” and, right after the final shofar blasts of Yom Kippur, he screams out that his money has been stolen:

Help! Help! Help!

He looses consciousness and falls on the floor.  When he comes to, he tells the congregants that a large sum of money had been stolen from him while he was praying.  First of all, in traditional Judaism, it is well-known that on Yom Kippur (the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths”) one doesn’t carry money.  And this man, who appeared very pious, was violating this prohibition on the very day one would be careful not to carry money.  Nonetheless, this is not addressed.  Rather, the theft is.

The man tells us that the stolen money wasn’t even his own.  He was a clerk, a poor man with a lot of children.  He couldn’t face them know and he openly ponders ending his life.  In response, the “crowd stood petrified.”  And the Rabbi, observing the scene, orders the doors to be locked.

Following this, he addresses what just happened and communicates his awe as to how, on a day like Yom Kippur, someone could stoop so low as to steal (and in a synagogue)!

I cannot believe it is possible.  It simply cannot be.  But perhaps – who knows?  Man is greedy, and the temptation – especially with a sum like this… is great enough.  So if one of us was tempted, if he were fated to commit this evil on a day like this, we must probe the matter thoroughly, strike at the root of this whole affair.

He orders everyone to empty their pockets.

Everyone does so except for a gentleman named Lazer Yossel, “who turned all colors and began to argue that, in the first place, the stranger was a swindler…No one had stolen any money from him. Couldn’t they all see that it was all a falsehood and a lie?”  At this point, the “man with round eyes” (the story teller) tells us that the congregation, upon hearing this, became very suspicious of Lazer.  The crowd orders that he be searched.

Lazer pleas desperately with them:  “He begged them not to search him.  He swore by all that was holy that he was innocent.”  After saying this, storyteller notes how he was a young and learned man (he even calls him “our prodigy”) but, in lieu of the story, he notes that, nonetheless, there was reason to be suspicious of him.  To be sure, the reasons he brings up are odd (they aren’t really reasons so much as rumors) and they show how, in a given situation, one can dig up anything to make a good man look evil.

The man is thrown on the ground by the crowd and searched.  But what they find is not what they expected: instead of finding money, they find “a couple of well-gnawed chicken bones and a few dozen plum pits still moist from chewing.”

The story ends in shame and disillusion.  And the money, the “man with the round eyes of an ox” says, was never found.  The last words of the story say that it was “gone forever.”   But before saying these words, we learn that the narrator turns to the widow “unconcerned” and “resumed smoking.”   He is indifferent.

Reflecting on this story, I think that Irving Howe, to some extant, is right: this story exposes us to something dark about Jewishness.  But what is it?

What struck me most is the presence in this story of judgment and the fact that it all happens on the day of judgment.  What Aleichem wants us to consider is how we judge each other and how we are judged. To be sure, the storyteller wants us to understand how we look at people and judge them based on who we think they are.  Moreover, he shows how, given this or that rumor, our judgment of them may always turn sour.  We saw this with the scholar, and, as readers, we thought that his words incriminated him.

But what we thought he was guilty of was incorrect.  Yes, he was guilty, but we had no idea he would be guilty of eating on Yom Kippur instead of fasting.  Regardless, we are astonished and, by the end of the story, the difference between appearance and reality is put into the foreground.  We are left with a sense that those who we think are pious may not be and that, at the same time, we are also guilty of falsely judging them.  In this story, everyone is guilty of something.  And, of all days to see this, it is on Yom Kippur.  It seems as if everyone is keeping it, but concealed in their pockets are things that are forbidden on that day: such as money (which may or may not have been stolen) and food (which was eaten).

And perhaps that is the point.  We all seem to be hiding things and the veneer of holiness may only serve to conceal sin.  This thought is very cynical,  And the last words of the story “gone forever” seem to amplify this cynicism.  They seem to hint at something, besides money, which is “gone forever.”  Given the cynical tone of the story, what seems to be gone forever is not the money but true piousness and trust.   And this, I believe, is what bothers critics like Irving Howe.

But is honesty really gone forever?

This, I think, is the question or rather the challenge that Aleichem wants to leave us with.  The last words – and the story – can be a judgment upon humankind, that is, if we let it be.   On Yom Kippur, the tradition is that one wears a white kittle (garment) the reason being that, on Yom Kippur man aspires to be close to the angels.  I just want to underscore the word “aspires.”  If it is to be honest, the cynicism in this piece brings out what is at stake and helps us to realize how easy it is to falsely judge the other and, at the same time, how what we take for good may not be.  Nonetheless, the possibility of goodness doesn’t thereby disappear; rather, it is complicated.

And this is where the schlemiel comes in.  As Aleichem knew, the schlemiel was often subject to the negative judgment of the community for no other reason than that he is good or hopeful in a time that lacks hope or goodness.  Nonetheless, he exists.  And he exists in the face of the crowd which, more often than not, lives on rumors and lies.   But as “A Yom Kippur Scandal” suggests even the most pious may be hiding something from sight.

These pious people, in this story, were.  But they aren’t schlemiels.  And even if a schlemiel, like everyone else stands in judgment on Yom Kippur, we need to ask whether or not he is hiding anything.  Doesn’t he wear everything on his face?

Regardless, as we know from the stories I have discussed on this blog, no one – not even the schlemiel – escapes judgment (even if he is hiding nothing).

The Final Notes of Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Epistolary Exchange over Sholem Aleichem


The last three letters exchanged between Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse over Sholem Aleichem’s fiction and its meaning show us the subtle differences between these two important thinkers and literary critics.  As I pointed out in my last blog entry about this dialogue, Ruth Wisse suggested that Aleichem was, in contrast to the Yiddish writers Mendel Mocher Sforim and I.L. Peretz, more “balanced.”  This was a part of Wisse’s epistolary strategy since she was countering Howe’s harsher view of Sholem Aleichem’s fiction.  Wisse’s response to Howe shows us that while she agrees that there are “dark undercurrents” in Aleichem’s work, these words do not subsume Aleichem’s approach to Jewishness, Jewish history, and Yiddish literature.

For Wisse, as I’d like to show in this entry, Howe’s view should be balanced out with a more positive view of the Jewish writer.  Like her brother, David Roskies, she sees Aleichem as an artist who acknowledges fragmentation but who, in response to it, takes on the tradition of the Magid (story-teller).   She sees Aleichem as a “stand-up” comic of sorts who is looking to create bridges and create balance; unlike Howe, who sees him primarily as a modernist writer who focuses on fragmentation and ruin.  The last letters between Howe and Wisse work to bring out this differing take on Aleichem and his work.

At the end of his third letter to Ruth Wisse, Howe notes that although Sholem Aleichem’s Motl Stories are “casual offhand, charming, even mischievous,” Aleichem will “suddenly…drop to a fierce irony, a harrowing sadness.”  And this, for Howe, is the keynote of Aleichem as a modernist writer.  He ends on the sad note: for Howe, Aleichem goes from laughter to tears.

In response, Wisse turns to Aleichem’s Yiddish so as to show that he was a Yiddish artist.  In other words, she agrees with Howe that Aleichem is an artist, but she takes a different strategy with respect to explain why this is the case. She turns to his language and shows that Aleichem used Yiddish to show how repetition is used to create a closed circle of thoughts – what she calls a “circular style.”   Noting this style in relation to one of Aleichem’s characters, Wisse points out that “her mind is imprisoned in its own obsessive circularity.”  But the point of Aleichem’s using circular style in relation to this character is to “give truth to her particular embattled consciousness, self-protecting and self-defeating.”  This speaks to the negative note that Howe is addressing.

But from here, Wisse turns to the linguistic strategies of Tevye (one of Aleichem’s most celebrated characters).  Wisse sees this character as evidence of Aleichem-the-artist and not simply Aleichem the-folk-storyteller:

Like a true musician, he enjoys showing the speed and grace with which he can skip from one note or one tone to another.  His best jokes and quotations are polyglot, drawing attention to their mixture of high and low.

But Aleichem differs from a writer like I.L. Peretz who “drew attention away from the specificities of Yiddish, away from its folk expressions, the interplay of its source languages, the different dialects of its various speakers.”  Contrary to Peretz, “the unfixed nature of Yiddish was its greatest attraction, and its infinite range of dialects and oral styles the best literary means of capturing the dynamic changes – or the resistance to change – in the culture.”  By pointing this out, Wisse is shifting the emphasis of this epistolary exchnage.  For Wisse, the emphasis should be on the way Aleichem bridges high and low culture by way of his use of Yiddish.  This makes him a modern artist.

Howe catches wind of this shift of emphasis and, so to speak, sticks to his guns.  In his final letter to Wisse, he reiterates his points.  His first words seek for the agreement between he and Wisse about the “oddity” of his stories.  In other words, he acts his if they agree fundamentally but, ultimately, he is changing emphasis.  Howe ends with five points which convey this “oddity” and how it relates to Aleichem being a quintessential modern writer.  For the purpose of understanding his tactic, I’ll summarize each.

1)    Aleichem is a literary artist and not an “oral story teller” and the evidence for this can be found in the “sudden, abrupt blockage” of closure in Aleichem’s stories.

2)    His work demonstrates that he is not interested in “resolution of an external action” so much as evoking “shocked laughter.”

3)    His work is more interested in the “clever Jew” (who is “complicated, quizzical, problematic”) than in the naïve simpleton who is concerned with the “old ways of piety.”  The relation of the “clever Jew” to the past is secondary to his being…a “complicated, quizzical, problematic” Jew.

4)    He is a sophisticated writer who is “very much aware” of his full departure from the tradition of oral storytelling.

5)    Shalom Aleichem, like Saul Bellow who followed in his footsteps, “knew intuitively that the boundary between comedy and tragedy is always a thin and wavering line.”

Howe’s last point is something I have been discussing from the very beginning of my blog series on Howe.  It taps into his approach to Jewishness.  To be sure, he sees the fluid movement between comedy and tragedy as a defining characteristic of modern Jewishness and modern Jewish-American literature.  And this reiterates what he was saying in his introduction to Jewish American Stories.

Wisse final letter to Howe – literally, her last word –  provides us with a key to understanding how she differs with Howe over how we should understand Sholem Aleichem and his project.

First of all, she notes that he avoided “the romantic subject, the heroic possibility, the grand style of the novel” because he was “simply unconvincing and demonstrably uncomfortable in this mode.”  More importantly, he was a modern writer because he is able to work on many levels simultaneously.  She notes “On Account of a Hat,” a story Howe loved, and points out that it has a “dozen interpretations: it is the plight of the Diaspora Jew, an exposure of rootlessness, a mockery of tyranny, the comic quest for identity, a Marxist critique of capitalism, and, of course, an ironic self-referential study of literary slight of hand.”

In other words, Wisse wants to “balance” out the “oddity” – that Howe finds so fascinating – with other elements of the text that Howe’s reading overshadows.  To be sure, she points out that Aleichem works by way of “indirection” with “the worm’s angle of vision, and with apparently flimsy materials.” But he uses them to present something tenacious about Jewishness, something Howe may miss.

As we saw above, Howe sees Aleichem’s Motl in terms of the final, negative note.  Wisse, reading the same character, points out his tenacity: “He confronts all the things that happened to him and forces himself upon life again and again, and the sum of these trials shape the rhythm, constitute the meaning, of his existence.”

Commenting on this, Wisse notes that:

Sholem Aleichem’s admiration for the stubborn ruggedness of Jewish faith and the surprising vitality of the people comes to expression not just thematically, in story after story, but in the resilient, recuperative shape of all his major work.

Knowing full well that her reading may not be deemed “academic” enough, she notes that Aleichem had no obsessive interest in an academic, modernist reading. She asks us to contrast Aleichem’s memoir to the “mountaineering saga of Jewish writers with all the high, serious climbs of other European literati.”  And what we will find from his simple memoir (consisting of only four anecdotes about the ordinary nature of other Yiddish writers and forgetting) is that he “he deflates intellectual and artistic pretentiousness, and even undercuts the grandeur of the Alps!”

In other words, Wisse, like Aleichem, thinks that Howe’s obsession with the “quizzical” and “troubling laughter” of Aleichem is something Aleichem would laugh at.  Playing on the word “quizzical” (which Howe uses several times in his letters to Wisse), Wisse gives her final words on Aleichem which show us a correlation of simple faith (hope) in the story (and storytelling) and not with the world:

What confronts us, finally, is the quizzical smile of the author, compulsively skeptical about everything but the story.

This tension between hope and skepticism, for Wisse, not only informs her reading of Aleichem as an artist; it also informs her reading of the schlemiel.   Howe’s reading of the schlemiel would differ significantly because, in reading Aleichem, he puts the emphasis on the quizzical-as-such and not the relation of the quizzical with the tension between fiction and reality or hope and skepticism.





Laughter through Tears or Tears through Laughter: Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem – Take 3


Irving Howe initiated his letters to Ruth Wisse about Sholem Aleichem by staking his main claim that, based on his own experience of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, he must go against the grain and state that they, like all stories of the Schlemiel (from Chelm to Hershel Ostropolier), have “their undercurrents of darkness.”  Throughout Howe’s letter, we find a repeated emphasis on how odd he now feels when he reads Aleichem: “And now, in reading Sholem Aleichem, I find myself growing nervous, anxious, even as I keep on laughing.”   This troubled laughter reverberates throughout the letter.

Although she agrees in many ways, Ruth Wisse is suspicious of Howe’s way of speaking.  And despite the fact that she can understand its source and agrees with it – to some extent – she puts forth a different tone and a different emphasis.  As the epistolary correspondence moves on, this becomes more and more apparent.

Wisse initiates her epistolary response to Howe by noting that what he is saying was also said by the Yiddish critic and early admirer or Sholem Aleichem, Ba’al Makshoves.  According to him, Wisse tells us, Aleichem “conjures up the collective anxiety and then dispels it magically, laughing the danger away.”   Reflecting on this, Wisse argues that Aleichem’s contemporaries may have “taken the uncertainties for granted” and “enjoyed the relief he alone provided.” But she agrees with Howe and reflects that “nowadays his name has become such a byword for folksy good humor, innocent ‘laughter through tears,’ that we are surprised to rediscover the undertone of threat in his work.”

She concedes that it might be their shared “modernist bias” that makes them frown upon contemporary kitsch representations of Aleichem’s work; nonetheless, she does note that Aleichem was aware of the “fatal weakness of the culture.”  It comes through in the “narrator’s sense of his own shared culpability in having brought it (the culture) low.”

In other words, he is a “self-conscious” modern artist and, like Howe and Wisse, he has a modernist bias.  And unlike “Tevye, Sholem Aleichem encouraged his children’s Russification.”  But, and here is the difference, Aleichem knew he was “confined to a Jewish fate” and was the “product of ‘tradition.’”  He also left for American and made and remade himself like many other Jews fleeing a slowly dying Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Although she acknowledges the modernist bias and the “ferocity” we see in Aleichem, Wisse wants to take some of the sting out of Howe’s reading. And she does this by  lending more emphasis on Aleichem as the artist who, she believes, can do the Jewish people some good.  Making reference to an Aleichem story entitled “Station Baranovitch,” Wisse notes how the narrator and the author share a similar task; the task of the story teller:

The fate of Kivke (the place in the story) and the Jewish community are ultimately in the hands of the gifted story teller whose untimely departure at Baranovitch constitutes the story’s only fatal event.  The artist can transform reality at will – a potent charm in desperate times – but his magic is subject to temporal claims.

Like her brother, David Roskies (who in his book A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling, looks into the power of the Magid, “storyteller,” to bridge the past and the present), Wisse wants us to pay closer attention to the storyteller.  Nonetheless history does matter for Wisse as much as it does for Howe.  But history is balanced against the powers of the story teller: as we see in Wisse’s words above, the storyteller’s “magic is subject to temporal claims.”

In response to Wisse’s counter-balancing of the story-teller and his magic to the horrors of history, which he addresses, Howe takes note once again of the kitschy view he is trying to think through with his emphasis on the undercurrent of horror in Aleichem.  He justifies his challenge in view of this:

To see Sholem Aleichem in this way seems a necessary corrective to the view, now prevalent in Jewish life, that softens him into a toothless entertainer, a jolly gleeman of the shtetl, a fiddler cozy on his roof.

The words “toothless entertainer,” “jolly gleeman of the shtetl,” etc are meant to cajole and insult those who fall for kitsch and masscult.  He goes on to say that Aleichem is a “self-conscious” artist and not a “folk writer.”  The problem with this claim, however, is that Wisse (like her brother Roskies) believes that Aleichem, although a self-conscious writer, was still drawing deeply on the folk tradition of the Magid (story-teller).  In response, Howe notes that he came out of this culture -where the storyteller and the audience were intimate – but that he was not bound by it.  Nonetheless, Howe himself is perplexed as his thesis – influenced by Saul Bellow – about comedy and horror being interchangeable is being challenged by Wisse who is looking for more balance between the powers of the story teller and the challenge of history.

The word Howe uses to distinguish his reading of Aleichem from the older type of Magid – and to “balance” the Jewish tradition with the modern artist – is “quizzical” (a word which, as we shall see, Wisse plays on):

Sholem Aleichem stands as both firm guardian of the Jewish past and a quizzical skeptical Jew prepared (as the story of the Tevye stories makes clear) to encounter and maybe accept the novelty and surprise of modern Jewish life.  It’s just this balance, so delicate and precarious, that I find so enchanting in his work.

In “the end,” says Howe, what we also hear in Aleichem’s folkloristic tales is a “quizzical voice.”  Howe goes on to say of this voice that it “tells of madness…but so long as we can hear that voice, we know the world is not yet entirely mad.”  Indeed, Howe sees quizzical voice as offering a kind of salvation for modern readers such as himself who see the world as mad.

But this mad, quizzical voice is not funny.  And its salvational aspect is, because it is mad, still troubling.  Nonetheless, Howe agrees that the traditional and the modern should be balanced by way of balancing the folk voice (the voice of the Jewish tradition) with the “quizzical” voice.

In response, Wisse next letter pushes Howe to think more about the meaning of balance so as to take the edge off of his modernist obsession with the “quizzical” and the uncanny.   She notes that of the three greatest Yiddish writers – Mendele, I.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem – all tried to find a “balance” between tradition and modernist writing but each of them tilted too much in the direction of towards the skeptical: “The strain of this divided existence, and the resentment, shows in their work.”  However, Aleichem is “different”; he achieves balance:

Sholem Aleichem is different.  Though he too felt the impending break in the ‘golden chain’ of Jewish tradition, and felt the cracks within his own life, he makes it his artistic business to close the gap.

Wisse goes so far as to say that “wherever there is a danger of dissolution,” the stories “work their magic in simulating or creating a terra firma.”   In other words, we need to pay attention to the crisis but, more importantly, we need to see how Aleichem addresses it and “balances” out tradition.  As Roskies, Wisse’s brother might say, Aleichem provides a “bridge” and that, for Wisse, is more important that the “quizzical” voice that Howe hears in Aleichem’s work.

To be sure, by Terra Firma Wisse even goes so far as to agree with the Yiddish critic Borukh Rivkin that Aleichem gave the Jews of Eastern Europe a “fictional territory to compensate for their lack of a national soil.” Wisse’s reading, here, is echoed by Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination.  In her book Ezrahi sees this move, for her embodied in the post-Holocaust American translation project of Howe, Bellow, and Feidler, as the creation of a “virtual shtetl” – and, after the founding of Israel, this substitute land (think of George Steiner’s “text as homeland”) comes into question.

In addition to finding the necessary “balance” in terms of rescuing tradition from dissolution, Wisse claims, in response to Howe, that even though Tevye is not the Vilna Gaon, he is “the original stand-up comic, playing to an appreciative audience of one: his impresario, Sholem Aleichem, who then passes on this discovered talent to his readers.”

In other words, Wisse looks to underscore the ameliorative aspects of Jewish humor which are a response to history.  She does this by pointing out that Aleichem not only balances out tradition but he does so in the spirit of the “original stand up comic,” which he created.

And this speaks to Wisse’s recent book No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, since Wisse looks for a humor that balances tradition instead of destroying it by way of extreme/excessive sarcasm.

As I have tried to show in this blog entry, Wisse also thinks that extreme skepticism (the “quizzical” tone that Howe speaks of with Aleichem) can also pose a threat.  That’s why she introduces the notion of “balance” into the epistolary exchange with Howe.

(In the next blog entries that address this epistolary exchange, I’d like to bring out this subtle contrast between Howe and Wisse so as to show how the schlemiel can be read in terms of the tension between tradition and modernity.  If an author looks at the schlemiel in too skeptical or quizzical a light, the Jewish tradition may be compromised. Nonetheless, Wisse does agree that skepticism must be there.  As I noted above, for Wisse it seems to be a matter of emphasis.  She would agree that there is a strange, dark “undercurrent” with the schlemiel, but how much of an undercurrent?  How does it relate to – or balance out with – the comic element?  Is that what makes for Jewishness?  Or does radical skepticism and irrevernace, as we see in writers like Sholom Auslander or even Phillip Roth, mark Jewishness as “quizzical?”)