KINDERLAND or Chelm?

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Chelm is a real place in Poland that some say has existed since the 9th century.  It is also a mythological place where, legend has it, all the Jews are schlemiels.

From the YIVO encyclopedia, we learn that Chelm-like stories have existed, in print, since 1597.  But the legend itself may go back further.  And as the encyclopedia points out, many Yiddish writers either cited these stories, retold them, or modeled their own mythic schlemiel cities on Chelm.

In America, the most well-known Chelm stories, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, come to us by way of I.B. Singer.  When I was a child, my Rabbi – who presided in a conservative synagogue in a small town in the Adirondacks named Knesseth Israel – used to read them to us every Saturday so as to inspire us before we had the “children’s minyan.”  (He would gather the children around him and either read these stories or a variety of fun Hasidic stories.  I liked these best, however; we all did.  I can remember giggling with my friends as he told them.  Imagine that, I used to think, a town of fools and led by fools!)

I mention the fools of Chelm in this blog entry because this land of Schlemiels relates, however obliquely, to what Benjamin and Dostoevsky (apparently wanted): namely, a KINDERLAND (a land of children) which I discussed in yesterday’s blog.

The term KINDERLAND actually comes from Nietzsche but it became a key word for Georges Bataille, a good friend of Walter Benjamin.

It is well-known that Benjamin and Georges Bataille were friends.  To be sure, Benjamin’s archival material, much of which we have today, was left with Bataille.  (As J.M. Coetzee notes in his 2001 essay on Benjamin for The New York Review of Books,  Bataille hid and preserved the Arcades Project manuscript.)

The two may have spoken of this vision of a land of children.  But we can have no doubt that they discussed their utopian visions as the Nazi spectre hung over Europe and crisis loomed on the horizon.

Bataille takes to the word KINDERLAND in a piece entitled the “Nietzschian Chronicle.” There, he writes (in capital letters) of a Nietzschean KINDERLAND which challenges “every man’s VATERLAND.”

According to Bataille, this KINDERLAND was something of a prophesy which was expressed by none other than DIONYSOS:

The very first sentences come from ‘realms of dream and intoxication’.   The entire message is expressed in one name: DIONYSOS.  When Nietzsche made DIONYSOS (in other words, the destructive exuberance of life) the symbol of the will to power, he expressed in that way a resolution to deny to a faddish and debilitating romanticism the force that must be held sacred.

This prophesy, says Bataille, is wrapped up in the future.  And it bespeaks the renewal of life.  And, like Benjamin, he notes that KINDERLAND will only come about through destruction and “decomposition.”

Elsewhere, in an essay entitled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Bataille notes that “action alone proposes to transform the world, make it similar to dreams.”  This language of dreams, youth, and action is familiar to this blog.

As I noted in an earlier blog entry, Schlemiels and “Messianic activists” share the same problem: they confuse dreams with reality.  Here, Bataille insists, in the name of Nietzsche and his prophet DIONYSOS, that action will transform the world into a KINDERLAND.

In his “Nietzschian Chronicle” he suggests that this Land would be “without a head.”  This has striking resonance when one thinks about the “Wise Fools of Chelm” who lead the land.  Their judgments are foolish and childlike in nature.  They lead “without a head.”  (But, in I.B. Singer’s version, this is laughable.  Its not real.  And, more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything destructive about this.)

When I was a kid, the fools of Chelm used to make me laugh aloud.  But I could never imagine a KINDERLAND in reality.  And perhaps this is the trick.

Although I would dream of such a land as a child, I’m not so sure I would do so as an adult.  This land of children they envision couldn’t be Chelm.  Or could it?  Would there be any fools in the KINDERLAND?

What exactly did Benjamin and Batialle mean when they (and apparently Dostoevsky) imagined a land of children?  Did they share the same vision of this KINDERLAND or differing visions?

We can hear their call for life, which resonates with the tones of vitalism, but can we imagine the land?  What, after all, would a KINDERLAND look like? If we can’t imagine a KINDERLAND in reality, perhaps we can say that KINDERLAND is a text?  Is it the Derridian text where everything is play or in play?  Is this a land without a head?  A land without a center?  Or is it….Chelm?

And must we destroy the land (and ourselves) to redeem the land, as Bataille and Benjamin suggest we should when the land is lacking “youth”?  Is this the only way to the future KINDERLAND?

(I’ll leave this post, as Paul Celan says with respect to the Other, an ‘open question.’  Celan says that the poem is going toward the other, toward the future, but does this mean we are going towards Chelm, KINDERLAND, or “?”)

But….perhaps the interchange between Dwayne and Alvy Singer bears a clue of where we’re going?

The Destructive Element in Comedy (Take 1)

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Something happened in the schlemiel’s journey from Eastern Europe to America.  One of the most striking – yet unrecognized – shifts in humor is that while the Eastern European schlemiel tends to be simple, humble, innocent, and generally harmless, the American schlemiel tends – from time to time – to be much more violent, aggressive, and (self)destructive.  American Schlemiels are more physical and intense.  One need only think of The Three Stooges, Zero Mostel, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Phillip Roth, Andy Kaufmann or even Larry David to understand that sometimes the schlemiel is far from harmless.

As we see in this segment from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, two schlemiels, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, are caught up in an intense form of miscommunication.

Each move closer drives these schlemiels father apart.   Their relationship is innocent and violent.

How do we understand the kinetics between them? Is there an element of destruction and violence between them? How do we read this?

Perhaps there is a destructive element inherent in all irony and comedy.   There certainly is a kinetics in comedy; say, for instance, in slapstick comedy.   But how does this relate to the schlemiel?  Are kinetics and play necessarily destructive?  And are they intimately related to the character of the schlemiel?

The blog entries I have done on Scholem and Benjamin point me in this direction since both of them cannot avoid the question of disaster and destruction when they talk about hope.  There seems to be a subtle relationship between hope and disaster.  And the schlemiel, as a character, cannot be separated from hope and disaster.

Gershom Scholem suggested that the intense hope for redemption that we find in the Kabbalah and in the Sabbatinians was a response to disaster.   But in the Sabbatinian case, it not only came out of disater, it created it.   Scholem suggests that Benjamin, like the Sabbatinians, went down the road to disaster when he confused religion and politics.  And, as I suggested in the last blog, the schlemiels confusion of dream and reality often leads to some kind of disaster – even though the schlemiel may, in fact, be unaware that this is the case.  After all, the schlemiel is absent minded.

But there is a problem.  Although absent-mindedness can give us hope, it can also make us melancholic.   In a story like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” for instance, the constant lying to Gimpel seems to be natural to society.  It seems as if his naïve trust in others will never make headway.  Each time he trusts people, the hope of the reader or of the audience, is challenged.  And this can be disasterous.  But, as I suggested in the last blog, the fool suspends such disaster and holds it in a tension with hope.  Nonetheless, disaster is present in nearly every moment of the story.  Our laughter at Gimpel, the foolish schlemiel, is mitigated by this tension.  Its really not so funny when you really think about what’s happening to him.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse, much like Scholem, argued that the schlemiel grew out of historical disaster.  The schlemiel is a “modern hero” insofar as he comically responds to disaster.  His humor, in a sense, negates the fact that Jews were ruined and rendered powerless by the forces of history and Exile.   Her theory closely parallels Scholem’s reading of Kabbalah’s origins since the schlemiel, like the Kabbalah, offers the Jews hope in bad times.  However, with the schlemiel, this hope is not intense; it is tempered by a destructive element; namely, skepticism.  The Kabbalah on the other hand, once it enters history, has nothing to temper it.  And this, for Scholem, is the disaster.  It is the same disaster, he argues, which secular messianic political movements face.

The question for us is whether this reading is sufficient for us to understand aggressive schlemiels.

While Scholem and Wisse turn to history to understand the dialectic of destruction and creativity, Walter Benjamin argues that the violent elements of comedy have a deeper root.  For this reason, he, like the Romantics before him, turns to irony and the imagination for an answer.  And what he finds there, however, is not a mental capacity so much as a material one.  Like children, there is something innocent and natural about destruction which Benjamin wanted to employ in his own criticism and writing.   His understanding of the relationship of children, the imagination, and irony to disaster is very instructive.

I would like to suggest that we follow, in the next blog (or two) Walter Benjamin’s investigation into this matter.   His observations can give us a sense of what a criticism of the schlemiel would look like if it were to adhere to Benjamin’s understanding of the destructive element (in contrast to the understanding held by Wisse or Scholem regarding the dialectic of history and creativity).

Messianic Schlemiels and Messianic Activism: Bound to Failure

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In Yiddish literature, schlemiels are usually harmless.  The dreams that these Jewish fools live by spur them to be absent-minded. And, though they do collide with reality from time to time, these absent-minded dreams don’t harm it.  Rather, reality often harms the schlemiel.

The term Luftmensch, which means a person who “lives on air,” on dreams, is often associated with the schlemiel.  With her big ideas about how s/he is going to make a living, the schlemiel lives on air.  They often fail to realize their dreams in reality, but this doesn’t stop them from dreaming again.  Regardless, these types of schlemiels are characterized by their dreams and their failures.

But what happens when a schlemiel’s dreams collide with reality and force reality to conform to these dreams?

In an essay entitled “Toward an Understanding of a Messianic Idea,” Gershom Scholem argues that those who “press for the End” are bound to fail.

His wording is striking as it contrasts the “man of faith” to the Kabbalistic “activist.”  To understand his contrast, I’d like to suggest a distinction that is based on a standard understanding of the schlemiel.

In many of his stories, the Hasidic Rabbi, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, considers the man of faith to be simpleton and a schlemiel.  In his simple faith, he waits and prays for redemption.  He doesn’t push for the end.  His foolishness is a matter of perspective.  For the person who relies on his intellect and deeds to get him through life, the “man of faith” is a schlemiel.  But, for the reader of these Hasidic tales, it’s the other way around.  The real fool is the man who relies on his intellect and will power.

Gershom Scholem tells us that, for the “man of faith,” there is an “essential lack of relation between human history and the redemption.”  But, Scholem argues, this attitude was “again and again in danger of being overrun by the apocalyptic certainty that the End had begun and all that was still required was the call to ingathering.”

This “call,” so to speak, is read by Scholem as a call to action.  He calls it “messianic activism.”

“Even and again the revolutionary opinion that this attitude deserves to be overrun breaks through in the Messianic actions of individuals or entire movements.”

This “enticement to action…is inherent in this projection of the best in man upon his future.”

It would seem that this utopian and revolutionary action is contrary to the schlemiel.  But Scholem notes that “the enticement to Messianic action” is an “enticement that is bound to fail because no one is capable of such action.”

Scholem goes so far as to say that such action is so impossible “it must be done by magic, and it must fail for just this reason.”

To be sure, even though the Messianic activist has little interest in the schlemiel (that is, the man of faith), Scholem characterizes him, to be sure, as a luftmensch who will always fail “because no one is capable of such action.”

In other words, Scholem sees all secular humanists with utopian aspirations as schlemiels.  He sees their Utopian Kabbalist precursors, some who resorted to magic, also as schlemiels.

The actions of these dreamers, he notes, are dangerous. Once they fail, they can lead to nihilism on a large scale.

What can we learn about the schlemiel from Scholem’s characterizations of “messianic activism”?  If the schlemiel’s actions remain within the shtetl or within the space of fiction, they are harmless, but if they enter history, then the schlemiel’s actions are dangerous.

Even though Scholem never uses the word schlemiel to characterize the “messianic activist,” it should be clear, based on what we have said, that he would.

Entering history with a utopian dream, thinking that one can redeem it through their actions, will, for Scholem, always lead to failure.

The action, Scholem says, is impossible.  Nonetheless, it has been done not just by Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah who Scholem has written on extensively, it has also been done by political utopians (whether on the left of right such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and many many others whose messianic activism has, as Scholem might say, torn a hole in reality).

Scholem sees the origin of Modernity in this Messianic kind of activism, but this doesn’t mean he looks upon it in a positive way.  From his rhetoric, we can surmise that he might agree that there are schlemiels that dream of the messianic age and don’t do anything to bring it (the “men of faith” – schlemiel’s who don’t act) and there are schlemiel who act on their Messianic dreams and aspirations.

As we saw above, there is, for the man of faith, an “essential lack of relation between human history and redemption.”  While for the Messianic activist, there is.

And, lest we not forget, Scholem is speaking about Jews entering history.  He understood this movement to be dangerous as it was saturated with the aspirations of utopian schlemiel activists.

One wonders if Scholem would call the Israelis who took Israel in 1948 schlemiels. For on that day, they entered history and did, what he would think, is impossible.  But, as we see now, things are far from redeemed.  And, unfortunately, some damage has been done.  And nihilism is on the horizon.

This is wholly ironic because, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi argues in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination, which we mentioned in our blog on Purim (https://schlemielintheory.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/here-in-america-everyday-is-purim/), Israeli’s have had little to no interest in the schlemiel.  “Israel is Real, “says Ezrahi; its not a dream (like America).  Nonetheless, the act that brought it into reality was utopian; it was the act of a schlemiel.

It was impossible.  Nonetheless, this should give us a lot to think about.  In America, in Europe, and around the world the “messianic activism” of at least one variety of schlemiel lives on.  And if we were to follow Scholem, we would see the danger that looms around their actions is the danger of nihilism.

Perhaps Scholem wanted to fare somewhere in the middle.  Somewhere between one schlemiel and another; for, as the main character Stephen Daedelus says in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”

Perhaps history is the dream, and all of the messianic activists on the stage of history are really schlemiels?  But, unlike Stephen Daedelus, the schlemiel usually doesn’t know she is dreaming.   And if you don’t know you’re dreaming, how can you awake from your dreams?

Ask the Great Dictator:

Reflecting on Comedy: Miriam Katz’s Comic-Art Project (Take 2)

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Miriam Katz is an art curator who has taken on the task of bringing comedy into the serious and overly academic artworld.  On March 19th 2011, she was the curator of a “showcase of experimental comedy” at MOMA P.S. 1.  As Martha Schwender of the The Village Voice points out in an article entitled “Have you Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?” Katz included comic performers such as Jon Glaser, David Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel in her art show.

Echoing Miriam Katz, Martha Schwender demurs on what happens when “comedians are being presented as artists?”  Will there be a collision?

What I found interesting about her article’s presentation of Katz’s project was its insistence on the link between trauma, comedy, and thoughtful reflection.

Schwender, citing Katz, notes that “comedy is much less safe than art.”  Literally and figuratively.  Apparently, there are more starving comedians than starving artists. Art has become too smug with itself and now “comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become to academic or safe.”  The world of comedy is a dangerous space and those who live in it take more risks that are typical of those who dwell in the artworld.

But here is the problem.   Comedy is unreflective and forgetful.  Citing Katz, Schwender writes: “Laugher obliterates the memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, its so awesome!”

This, Katz argues, is problematic.  Comedians are “hungry for critical feedback.”

In other words, comedians want us to think about comedy and share our thoughts with them.

At the end of this piece, Schwender, echoing Katz, gives her own reflection on comedy.  She notes that when comedians do well on stage they say that they “kill.”  This, I would add, is similar to the Borscht Belt expression of ‘knocking them dead.”  Or “blowing them away.”

What do they mean by such language?  Does the comedian have a violent and antagonistic relationship with her audience?

Schwender doesn’t give a direct answer.  Instead, she demonstrates that comedy is not all lightness and fun; death and mortality are themes in contemporary comedy: “(Andy) Kaufman talked about faking his own death…Zadie Smith..uses her own hapless father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

But does comedy really triumph over reality?  Is comedy redemptive?  Schwender seems to suggest as much here.  It takes us through the darkness and leads us to light.

Schwender ends the piece with a suggestion of hope; namely, a new era of art.  What Dada was to WWII, Katz’s new efforts will be to our current post-traumatic situation: “Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in a similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections.  Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crushed with diamonds.  Now, laughter is taking over.”

But what does this mean?  Is Miriam Katz awakening us to a messianic-kind of Dadaist comic-epoch which has found its birth in 2011, in Manhattan?   And how do we “reflect” on this post-traumatic comic moment?  Do we find redemption in it? Does comedy, dark comedy of the Andy Kaufmann variety, offer redemption or catharsis?

In search of an answer, I went to hear from Katz herself.  I found an interview with Katz in BOMBLOG.  The interview took place recently and focuses on her new podcast project.  Since her exhibition, Katz created a website with monthly podcasts of comedians reflecting on their work: http://www.breakdownshow.com/about/

The website is called Breakdowns.  The name is apropos as it hints at an emotional breakdown and a reflective breakdown of the (comic) breakdown.  But, and here is the question, is reflection on comedic-slash-traumatic comedy redemptive?  Must all comedy, worth anything, be thought of in this way?

In her interview with Sam Korman in BOMBLOG, we get a better picture of her understanding of the relationship of comedy-slash-trauma and reflection.

http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7063

Blogging on February 15th, Korman leads the way to the question of comedy and redemption when he associates Katz’s art project (and his own interview) with going into the depths of darkness by way of the comedian but, in the end, finding “our way back…redeemed.”  He suggests that his interview and her comic-art project are a mythic type of journey into and out of darkness.

When first asked why “comedy is so important,” Katz gives an answer that speaks to trauma and reflection.  She notes that comedy gives people relief, is critical and fun, and allows for “difficult truths to emerge.”

Her challenge to the artworld is to be critical “in a joyous way” instead of being too serious and academic.  And comedy makes this joyous type of criticism possible (which sounds much like what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Gay Science”).

But, toward the middle and end of the interview, Katz shifts and gives us a picture of comedy that is not redemptive.  First of all, she notes the position of the comedian to the audience is not a mutual catharsis.   Rather, “structurally we (the audience) are arbitrary.  The comic just wants the sounds coming from our bodies.”  All she wants is the audience to have a “bit more agency or influence.”  The little freedom she wants for “us” inheres in our “critical” response to comedy.  The act itself, however, harbors no agency.  Its just bodies responding in space to humor.

Korman is not satisfied with this kind of answer, so, later in the interview, he tries to bring in another philosophical angle.   He demurs that when one laughs at oneself, one becomes a listener.  This relation would be redemptive.

In response, Katz notes that this would be equivalent to standing outside of oneself and looking at oneself from a birds-eye-view: “That’s so weird and cool: making yourself laugh.  It forces you to ask, who’s that?”

For Katz, this seems to be a moment of ambivalence and self-alienation; not a moment of self-recognition.  It is traumatic.

What’s of more interest to her, it seems, is the relationship between the audience and the comedian: not what it means, but what happens.

(As Walter Benjamin once wrote in his Kafka essay, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.”  This attention, I would add, is to what happens-as-it-happens.)

Katz ends the interview with a paradoxical reflection.  When you laugh there is relief (and I would add that this is cathartic and redemptive); however, she contradicts this when she says: “there’s also no escape.  It forces you to admit things about your limitations and about what you really want.”

The fact that we cannot “escape” ourselves and that we are forced to admit things about ourselves and our desires is a shameful moment.  On the contrary, there is no relief.

Comedy, in other words, forces us to be uncomfortable.  It exposes us to our mortality and our desires (whether frustrated, failed, sick, or what have you).

But this isn’t the comedy we see on The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, or Saturday Night Live; no, it’s the disturbing kind of comedy we find in comedians like Andy Kaufmann and Lenny Bruce.  The comedy she is talking about is the variety that makes us chuckle while feeling uneasy in our skins.

And this is what we see in this Andy Kaufmann video, which I posted in yesterday’s blog:

Bringing a critical understanding of comedy can help us to understand what comedy does to us, but it can’t redeem us.  Nonetheless, it can spur us to act.  The schlemiel faces us, in a Levinasian sense (which I mentioned in the previous blog entry) with the “demand of the hour.”  Our choice to act, to decide, follows in the wake of our comic exposure to ourselves, the other, and to the hour (our situation).

This, I would argue, is the agency that Miriam Katz is trying to find for her comic audience.  Our freedom follows the comic breakdown.

Freedom and critical reflection are in the wake of the schlemiel’s oblique prophesy.

What do Louis CK, Andy Kaufmann, Emmanuel Levinas, and The Miriam Katz Project have in Common?

Today, I was incredibly delighted to see a post by the Jewish arts and culture website Tablet on my facebook page with the following tagline and question:

Art historian Miriam Katz thinks of comedians as spiritual guides, and she wants to bring stand-up into the serious world of galleries and museums:

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What do you think — can comedy be intellectualized?

As I scanned the tagline, the question, the image, and the post, I was overwhelmed.  I was really excited to see that something I am deeply concerned with in my blog is being echoed “out there” in the virtual sphere and “in reality.”

The “schlemiel as prophet,” as a “spiritual guide,” seems to be catching on.

But it’s confusing. What does this mean?  I could see that the question after the tagline and the responses to it in the facebook thread bore confusion over this question.

What the thread opined on was whether or not a comic could be a spiritual guide. As one can imagine, some thought this idea to be absurd while others did not.  The general response, however, was that this is a question that has yet to be thought through in a thoroughgoing manner.

The image, propped between the tagline and question, also evokes questions as to what the comedian can communicate to us.  To be honest, I found the Louis CK image to be more telling than the question.

What astonishes me about the Louis CK image and the caption is that, taken together, they suggest that the face is linked to comic-spiritual guidance.  This suggestion or allusion hits at something deep: it hits at the relationship of prophesy to comedy and the face.

For me, this is profound because Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher I esteem above nearly all the philosophers of the 20th century, argued that the face is prophetic.  And this prophesy pertains to suffering.    The face, for Levinas, traumatizes and inspires “me” to be-for-the-other.  It takes me outside of myself before I can even think about whether or not I want to help the other.

For Levinas, one is always-already and yet-to-be for the other.  The face tells me, in a prophetic manner, “Thou shalt not Kill.”  Levinas calls my relationship to the other the one-for-the-other.  Which means, I am for the other before I am for myself.  And this is magnified by the other’s suffering which “I” struggle with only because I am always-already affected by it.

Perhaps this struggle bespeaks the bittersweet comedy of being-for-the-other?

The subtitle of the piece bespeaks this in an oblique way: “choose the face that best describes your pain.”

The irony of this image is that none of them describe my pain; rather, they strike me with the pain of the other.  They concern me and I cannot simply choose one over the other.  They all beckon me to ethical concern.   My choice is, so to speak, too late.

After looking at this image and thinking these things, I thought immediately of Andy Kaufmann.

To my surprise, I clicked on the Tablet link associated with the image and found this article by Jessica Weisberg on the art curator Miriam Katz entitled “Andy Kaufmann Isn’t Funny.”  At this point, you can only imagine, I was besides myself.  Astonished.

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/theater-and-dance/125181/andy-kaufman-isnt-funny#

I decided, nearly two years ago, that I would write the final chapter of my book (a work in progress) on him.  To my mind, he is one of the best illustrations of the schlemiel-as-prophet.

There is a demand in his comedy; namely, the demand of the other.  His pain on stage, while funny to many, solicits the viewer.  As Levinas might say, it traumatizes and inspires her to think about her laughter and about what to do in response to the schlemiel.  (In my book and in a later blog, I will return to this scene on the David Letterman show.):

Notice how the audience doesn’t know whether he is joking or really suffering.  This ambiguity is the basis of the prophetic-comic demand that he makes to the audience.   He does this, quite simply, through his face and his gestures.

I am overjoyed to see that I am not the only one who has been struck by the prophetic demand of Kaufmann’s comedy.  And I applaud Miriam Katz for the work she has done on Andy Kaufmann.

Here’s is a brief overview of the scene she is a part of in NYC. This article comes from The Village Voice.

http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-03-16/art/have-you-heard-the-one-about-the-art-scene-embracing-comedians/

In my next blog entry, I hope to further address this article and the merits of her artistic project, which, like mine, is to show the world “out there” that there’s more to the schlemiel than entertainment value.

Here, in America Everyday is Purim!

In Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, Sidrah Dekoven Ezrahi begins a section entitled “America is for Children” with the following claim: “Purim is for children, so is America.”

This claim can be found in Ezrahi’s commentary on Sholom Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantors Son.  To be sure, her text is inspired by the following words of the main character (and schlemiel of the hour) – Motl:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.  He earns money every single day.  “Columbus, who can compare with you!

What does Aleichem mean when he has Motl, a schlemiel say that Purim in America is only one day in Europe but everyday in America?  And how does that relate to the next line: “he earns money every single day?”   What does making money have to do with Purim being everyday in America?  Lastly, what does it mean that Motl turns to an American holiday and says: “Columbus, who can compare with you!”

Ezrahi’s answers are worthy of discussion, especially here, in a blog dedicated to the schlemiel.  They broach a discussion on how the American and European schlemiel differ.  It also spurs a discussion of the difference between Israeli and American Jewishness. Ezrahi says, basically, that the American schlemiel leaves the European one behind – in the dust so to speak.  The American supercedes the European schlemiel.  In America, Purim is everyday.  It is the land of dreams.  In Israel if you will it, as Herzl says, its not a dream.

In this interpretative contrast between Israel and America, knowledge of the interpreter’s place makes s difference: Ezrahi is an American ex-patriot.  She has been living in Israel and teaching in Hebrew University for some time now.  Her latest work, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, pivots on the tension between Israel and America, Homecoming and Diaspora.  She writes, literally, from Israel. And this makes a difference insofar as America, to an Israeli like Ezrahi, looks like a foolish, amnesiac land.

Israel is intimately tied to the history of the Jewish people.  In Israel, Ezrahi says, memory and history is “recovered.”  While in America, reality, the present moment, experience itself is being “rediscovered.”   In America, there is endless forgetfulness.

While the land of Israel (ha’aretz) is the basis for Israeli literature, history, archeology, and politics is the land of Israel, the diasporic Jewish literature of America has no basis in history or a land.

For Ezahi, Israeli literature is consequential.  It is about a real land and real people.  Jewish-American literature is not.  Its based on the schlemiel and swims in virtual reality.

For American Jews, “the text (and not Israel) is, as George Steiner once wrote, “the homeland.”  It is, as Ezrahi says, a “substitute” for the land.  It is a “fictional sovereignty.”  In this land, the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams,” (as Heinrich Heine would say) is the king.  In this land, the land of the free, Purim is every day.

But things have changed.  After the land of Israel was established “fictional sovereignty” becomes a “diasporic privilege.”  It is, in other words, not a necessity.  Life in America – inside and outside of fiction – is the disaporic privilege of the few who ignore the land and the “recovery” of Judaism.  The schlemiel is a diasporic privilege. Israelis don’t have time for it.  They are in reality, not dreams (like us).

To be sure, the life of the postmodern American Jew is dwelling in the pages of fiction.  The key character and the author of these texts is the schlemiel.

But there is more to the story.  This is high culture of diasporic privilege, the low culture also celebrates the Schlemiel.  Diasporic privilege – that is the privilege of the schlemiel – is all around America.

According to Ezrahi, the schlemiel is an American “cultural icon.”

But how did he become a cultural icon?  How did this all happen?  And what does it mean?

Ezrahi’s interpretation of Aleichem’s Motl says it all.  To be sure, we can learn everything we need to know about why America is different from Israel by understanding Aleichem’s words on Purim.

According to Ezahi, the main task of the schlemiel in its  Yiddish-European model incarnation was to “turn things over” (ha’hefuch).  To revise the past – turn it over – through language.  Words.  One creates one’s own Diasporic homeland.

The power of the schlemiel is the power of language.  It is the “substitute” for power and for a homeland.

She calls the schlemiel’s wordcraft “the alechemy of words.”

According to Ezrahi, Aleichem’s schlemiel Motl revises history!  His father dies (which she reads as Europe dying) and he refuses mourning by way of speaking to much.  But more importantly, by going to America and substituting America for Europe.

For Aleichem, as for Modernist writers, language becomes everything.  For Ezrahi, his obsession with words is a denial of history and past trauma.  And this is Motl.  The schlemiel loves playing with language.  But, there is more, you don’t have to be a fictional character or author to play with language and create a “substitute sovereigny”(to substitute for one’s lack of a land and real power).  All you have to be is an American and you’re a schlemiel.  (Presto!)

In America Purim is everyday:

Purim comes only once a year, but here (in America), everyday is Purim for Vashti.

And why?

Ezrahi argues that the next line tells us: “He (Motl, the schlemiel) earns money every single day!”

For Ezrahi, this means that Purim is everyday.  Because, in America, one can remain a child (like Motl) and just work a simple job, or, as we hear all the time, the American schlemiel can live the dream.

Even though one is a child, at the very least, every day one can (in America) move from thing to thing.  The American-Jew (and the American, in general) does need any grounding in a land or history.  Living the dream is equivalent to Purim every day.  Moving from thing to thing.  Endless discovery, opportunity, and hope are the name of the American-schlemiel-game.

“Though Motl doesn’t grow, he moves, ultimately acting out his capacious dreams in New York’s streets…The child as a site of a Purim sensibility and as a miniature shlemiel…But no less significant, though seldom remarked, is that it is followed by its antithesis: the embrace of an alternative reality, of America as a space of unlimited possibility.”

Motl, in this American moment, “renounces” what Erazhi calls the “Purim privilege as superfluous.”  And he, the new American schlemiel, embraces “virtual reality.”

For Ezrahi, America is Purim.  Continuous optimism is provided by an endless procession of “simulcura.”  Where does it all come from?  It comes from out of the heartland (and producer) of dreams: Hollywood.

One can be American-Schlemiel if one makes a sacrifice. (Or perhaps this sacrifice has already been made to establish a new (yet virtual) diasporic foundation?)  This, according to Ezrahi, is Motl’s teaching.

In the moment of his ‘yes-saying’ to everything, to America, there is an exchange, that is, a sacrifice: “We can trace the process by which the world of the Shtetl is replaced by the world for America: “Vashti” is exchanged for “Harry” and Purim for Columbus, the coinage of Russian poverty for American capitalism and Yiddish for English.”

This portrayal of Motl as the archetype of the American schlemiel is thought-provoking.  Is Ezrahi right?  Is America caught in the grip of schlemiel dreams?  And should American’s come to terms with their “diasporic privilege?”  If Purim is everyday in America, how is this possible?

What few scholars who have read and commented on about Ezrahi’s book note is that she is portraying Exile (embodied in America) in a negative light.  Even though Purim is everyday in America, it is based on a denial of mourning.  America is, for Ezrahi, amnesia.

The schlemiel is too busy having fun, discovering America, to mourn.  And this is, for Ezrahi, the problem.

As one can guess, Ezrahi says that Israel, on the other hand, has mourned the Holocaust.  It’s fiction and its Jewish life is not based on an alternate reality; Israel is based on the land and on real history not on dreams.  As Ezrahi writes: Israel “is real.”

This would imply that my Purim is emblematized in Motl’s sacrifice and optimism.  My Purim is everyday!

And, worst of all, if I were to agree with Ezarhi’s reading, I would have to say that my life is based on forgetfulness and ahistorical. In my American, schlemiel optimism, I live on dreams.  I don’t live on the land.

Is this something I can accept as an American Jew?

I don’t agree with Ezrahi’s claim that the schlemiel’s optimism is based on the inability of American’s Jews to remember a Europe that they have made “virtual” (Ezrahi calls I.B. Singer’s work, Fiddler on the Roof, etc “the virtual ghetto”).

But I do agree , to some extent, with her argument that the schlemiel is an American “child” (of sorts) who is “moving through space and things.”  But what exactly does it mean to “move through space and things?”

Is the American schlemiel (or the schlemiel in general) a phenomenologist?  As Husserl (and Wiliam Carlos Williams) said, is he going “to the things themselves.”

http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/prt/en4405872.htm

Ezrahi cites Walter Benjamin to claim that in America the schlemiel is dazzled by things in space.  For Ezrahi, this fascination with things seems to be a distraction from the real thing; the thing that matters for Jews: the land (ha’aretz).

But is this right?  We are far from the prophetic schlemiel.  There are no “demands of the hour” in Ezrahi’s America.  There are no “demands of the hour” on Purim, either.   Only someone who can hear real – not simulated – demands to their Jewishness, is consequential.  For Ezrahi, ha’aretz issues these demands on Jewish identity.  They are the demands of history and the hour.

Without a land, the American schlemiel is, for Ezrahi, inconsequential.  Israelis have a real sovereignty – American Jews do not.  Their sovereignty is imaginary.  Just like Jewish-American identity, which is constantly trying on new Purim clothes.  Changing in and out of ‘things.’

All American Jews are schlemiels who are dancing the Chameleon with Woody Allen’s Zelig: Zelig, the schlemiel with a million faces.  He has no real land.  Zelig sovereignty is inconsequential.  His, like the  optimism of any American Jew, is based on not mourning Europe.

But is this description or, rather, this Zelig challenge right?

I am not ashamed.  I don’t think I have a “diasporic privilege’.  True, I don’t have to worry about ha’aretz every day because I don’t live there. But this doesn’t mean I don’t care and that I have simply left my Jewish identity (tied to ha’aretz) un-recovered.  

Moreover, I don’t think that my Jewish-American existence, my American dreaming, is based on my inability to mourn or my optimism.  

I love America, where every day its Purim!  In America, we’re all children!

My advice to this suggestion: ha’hafook – do what we all can do on Purim: “turn it over!”  Turn over the notion that American is a substitute for Israel.  Turn over the notion that all American’s are schlemiels because they – and not Israelis – are caught up in virtual-Jewish-reality.

One need not worry if, by turning it over, they are being unethical and not mourning or remembering Jewish history and trauma.  Turning over these ideas can help us to understand what is at stake at this hour.  The oblique prophet, the Schlemiel, especially on Purim,shows the way.

Happy Purim!  Don’t renounce your Purim privilege!  There are still things to “turn over.”   After all, its the “demand of the hour!”  Literally!