Becoming Jewish – Part VI of Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud


Unlike any author in Jewish-American or Yiddish literature, Bernard Malamud closely traces the process of a non-Jewish character’s becoming-a-Jew. But what makes Malamud’s treatment so fascinating and thought provoking is the fact that Frank, an Italian-American character who becomes a Jew, is that Frank is inspired to become Jewish by virtue of a schlemiel. His model, so to speak, is a Jewish fool. However, as Malamud shows us, although Bober, Malamud’s schlemiel character, may be a fool he is actually very wise. Moreover, he is not a caricature in the sense that people usually think when they hear the word schlemiel. His foolishness is informed by his blindness to people’s bad qualities and his trust of others who, oftentimes, betray him. But what makes this foolishness saintly is the fact that in trusting people he and those around him suffer. His failures affect others; but, at the very least, they are honest. Frank, his assistant is deeply affected by Bober when he realizes how much Bober suffers for others and how Bober takes it in stride. This prompts Frank to do things for Bober, to repent for all the times he lied and stealed from him, and to eventually ask him for forgiveness. In the process, Frank becomes more and more fascinated with Jewishness and he realizes that he may have to become Jewish if he is to atone for what he did.   He comes to this realization when Bober, after hearing from Frank that he had been lied to, decides to turn away from Frank.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how Frank had been caught stealing from Bober. Frank did this in order to have money to meet with Helen, Bober’s daughter.   To make things worse, when he meets up with Helen he saves her from being raped from Ward; however, once he does this, he forces himself on her (albeit in a way that is less aggressive). Following this, Helen, whose last words about Frank before leaving him are “uncircumcised dog,” learns of the theft and Bober becomes very disappointed.

In the wake of this, Frank becomes deeply introspective and realizes he has done wrong and needs to make amends. Frank gets a shot at redeeming himself when, out of nowhere, he is the first to notice that Bober is in a house full of gas (the burner wasn’t turned on). He saves Bober’s life.

Bober goes to the hospital. And in the time between Bober’s admittance to the hospital and his return back home, Frank starts looking into what it means to be Jewish. One of his biggest questions is how a people that suffers so much could be called “chosen”:

He read a book about the Jews, a short history. He had many times seen this book on one of the literary shelves and had never taken it down, but one day he checked it out to satisfy his curiosity. He read the first part with interest, but after the Crusades and the Inquisition, when the Jews were having it tough, he had to force himself to keep reading. He skimmed the bloody chapters but read slowly the ones about their civilization and accomplishments.   He also read about the ghettos, where the half-starved, bearded prisoner spent their lives trying to figure out why they were the Chosen People. He tried to figure out why but couldn’t. (191)

When Morris Bober returns, Frank decides to finally confess. He does this believing, as a good Christian would, that it would do the trick. But, as I noted in the last blog entry, it doesn’t.   Although Bober is a schlemiel – and schlemiels are rarely in these kinds of situations – he makes a decision to show Frank that he is at the limit. Bober has forgiven him many times but this time, with the urging of his wife Ida, he must draw the line. He does let Frank come back to work for him, and in doing so shows compassion, but something has changed. While, in the past, he was startled when he realized that he made Frank’s efforts larger than life, now he realizes that Frank doesn’t do as much as he once imagined:

Although Morris liked the improvements Frank made in the store he saw at once that they had not made the least effect on business. Business was terrible…He thought he had seen the store at its worst but this brought him close to fainting. (200)

Now, Bober starts realizing that the store he had worked in for so many years was a total failure. And in noting it’s failure, his near death, and Frank’s lying Bober starts coming to terms with failure. He, in a Levinasian sense, faces failure by noting the suffering around him that he can not do anything about save…give up. And this suffering hurts because they are already poor. Bober is too hold to learn a new trade and so is Ida (201). The thought of more poverty kills them.   But it is real. Frank witnesses all of this, first hand, and suffers with them. And when Ida fires him, due to this economic state of affairs, Frank leaves silently. He knows that it makes sense and he can no longer protest or ask for mercy.

At this point Frank drops out of the narrative and the reader, wondering what is going on with him, is drawn into a world without Frank in it. While this is going on, we see that the thing most on Morris Bober’s mind is survival and failure.   In one fascinating moment, Bober is visited by a Jewish customer. And in this moment, we see a side of Jewishness that we haven’t seen before. One that Frank has also never seen. The man suggests that instead of falling into poverty the store can be burnt down and that Bober can collect insurance money (212). Bober turns him away, however. He would rather be poor that rip off the system (212). Strangely enough, however, Bober thinks about it and even lights a few little strips of paper just to see them burn up (not to burn the store down).   But then, like a schlemiel, the little fire he starts catches on to his clothes. And Frank emerges, from out of nowhere, to put out the flames. He utters these words: “For Christ sake,” Frank pleaded, “take me back here,” But, as the narrator notes, “the grocer ordered him out of the house”(214).

The next words, of the next chapter, tell us that “Karp’s store began to burn.” (Karp, as I noted before, is the person who told Bober about how Frank was duping him and how Bober was duped by his faith in Frank. Moreover, Karp wants Bober to marry his daughter to his son.)   Ward, one of the people who, together with Frank, robbed Bober at the outset of the novel, is the one who burns Karp’s store down (more or less out of anger and hatred of Jews).   In the wake of this, Bober sinks into mourning, something Malamud sees as a major part of being Jewish: “Pain is for poor people”(219).   He sits with Karp and has tea with him in the aftermath.

But out of nowhere, Karp says that he wants to buy Bober’s store because he likes the location (220). In response, “Morris couldn’t believe his ears. He was filled with excitement and dread that someone would tell him he had just dreamed a dream, or that Karp, fat fish, would turn into a fat bird and fly away, screeching, “Don’t you believe me,” or in some heartbreaking way change his mind”(220).

To be sure, failure and poverty are normal for Bober. So one can understand his response as being afraid that it was yet another false hope. However, this time it is real. He and Ida weap for joy as this seems to be the only real break they have had in life: real good luck (220).

But, as one can imagine, a schlemiel’s good luck doesn’t last too long.

Morris Bober, in his excitement, wakes up the next morning to see a “spring snow” falling on the ground. And instead of going outside with a jacket, boots, etc, he goes out in his regular clothes. That night, before going to bed, Bober becomes very emotional and reflective. He tells his daughter how much he loves her and, in tears, tells her how he remembers her when she was a baby and how he always wanted her to be happy (224). In response, Helen tells him how much she wants to give him and he tells her how much more he wants to give her. His last words to her, before he goes to bed are “look how it snows”(224). They both watch the snow “through the moving windows, then Morris sad good night”(224).

In his bed, alone, Morris becomes “restless, almost dejected” when he reflects on all the new changes he will have to “get used to.” Like many Jews, he worries about the future and what will be. He fears that the worst may happen to him and his family. But “what he feared most was that he would make another mistake and again settle in a prison. The possibility of this worried him intensely…His thoughts exhausted him. He could feel his poor heart running a race against the merciless future”(224). Bober remains a schlemiel because he fears he will likely make another mistake. For this reason, he sees this success as yet another possible failure.

Following this, Malamud describes how Bober becomes “drenched in hot sweat” while his “feet were freezing.” Being a good humble Jew, he worries that if he thinks to much about how sick he is and if he tells others people will suffer. He didn’t want to wake his wife or anyone else:

Gradually he accepted the thought that he had a cold- maybe a flu. He considered waking her to call a doctor but who could they call without a telephone? And if Helen got dressed and used Sam Perl’s phone, what an embarrassment that would be, waking up a whole family when he warrant their bell; also arousing a doctor. (225)

The narrator takes on a Jewish tone when he mimics Bober’s thought processes regarding the snow in April and how ironic it would be if this would lead to something bad. He reminds us that this is the state of a schlemiel: “It frustrated him hopelessly that every move he made seemed to turn into some inevitable thing”(225).

But this is not the last thought.

Malamud takes us into Bober’s last dream before dying: he dreams about his son Eprhaim, who died young. Eprhaim, to be sure, is only mentioned once in the novel. And this is, without a doubt, very important. Ephraim is Bober’s secret. He keeps his son’s death to himself and never mentions it. However, as we can see his last dream turns to him.   What Bober sees in Eprhaim is himself. He sees a man child who is poor and dies before he can live his life:

Ephraim wore a beanie cut from the crown of an old hat of Morris’s, covered with buttons and shiny pins, but the rest of him was in rags….The boy looked hungry. (226)

Bober is “shocked” by Ephraim’s hunger and he pleas with him. Bober tells him that he feeds him “three times a day.” But this statement is undergirded by Ephraim’s death: “why did you leave so soon your father?”

Bober continues to plea with him telling him that he will give him a college education and help him. But Ephraim turns away and “disappeared in a wake of laughter”(226).   Bober wakes with tears in his eyes and a feeling of regret. He “wanted to apologize” to his family and his wife for not providing enough. He even “moaned a little thinking of Frank”(226). His last thoughts are painful: “I gave away my life for nothing. It was a thunderous truth”(226).

But in the midst of this “thunderous truth,” the narrator distracts us: “Was the snow still falling?” And he tells us that Morris died in the hospital three days later. These last lines tap into what Malamud finds to be most important about being Jewish. The regret, the self-doubt, the feeling of meaninglessness, are there, they are “thunderous truth” that are belied by failure; however, in the midst of all of this there is distraction, laughter, and turning away. The pain, it seems, is too much. And though Morris Bober and the narrator acknowledge it, they both know that too much of the pain and regret will kill them. Distraction is a part of survival. But the pain is all based on suffering for the other. Bober is, in these moments, what Edith Wyschogrod would call a “sample” of the saintly. His life is committed to the other and the reader can sense Bober’s “carnal generality” through his final regrets and his realization that, with all he has done, he hasn’t done enough.   And this is the point: Malamud shows us that a schlemiel’s failures and mistakes need not be thought of as caricatures; they can teach us about what it means to be moral.

This “sample,” to be sure, has a lasting effect on Frank and prompts him to want to become a Jew and a schlemiel. Frank’s desire to become a Jew reaches its apex in the wake of Bober’s funeral.   And the process that we witness, as readers, shows us how the saintly sample can transform the life of another person and prompt them to become a Jew and a schlemiel-saint.

….to be continued…



On Louis CK’s “Goodbye Jews!” and the “Jewish Thing” – Take 2


Early this morning I reposted a blog entry on Louis CK.  And as a part of the facebook tagline, I jokingly referred to Louis CK as an “honorary Heeb.”  In response, a friend of mine pointed out that she thought that Louis CK was not Jewish and, on the contrary, that at least one of his pieces might disclose a “bit” of anti-Semitism.  She asked me if I ever saw the “Airplane” clip, suggesting that this clip in particular has elements of the anti-Semitic and may alter my reading.

The possibility of anti-Semitism did in fact come across my mind before she gave me her opinion.  I was, in fact, writing up a new blog entry which addresses Louis CK’s joke about Schindler’s List.  When I first saw it, I wondered how he would traverse the risky topic of the Holocaust.  To my mind, Louis CK’s joke about Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List  hit at the limit of anti-Semitism. Louis CK brings it to the limit by way of imagining the auditions that Steven Spielberg would have to give for a key role in which a young German girl brazenly sends the Jews away to the concentration camps with the words “Goodbye Jews!” This is a serious role, but what would happen if the auditioning little girls had a miniscule amount of knowledge of the kind of voice that should be used.  This irony addressed to this serious topic is the focus. Spielberg gathers many different girls for the audition and it is Louis CK’s performance of the voices that sends the audience into peals of uneasy laughter.

Here he tells the joke to Conan O’Brien.

And here he gives it over to an audience at Carnegie Hall:

He imagines there are fifty little girl actresses who are trying out.  They are “going from the Hannah Montana auditions to the Schindler’s list audition.”  Each of them pronounces the phrase “Goodbye Jews” and, as one can see, Louis CK has them do versions that don’t fit the context.  Nonetheless, the power of the message could prompt people to think that the message is overshadowed by the comic performance of the words “Goodbye Jews.”

Although I find this point interesting, I would argue that this is not anti-Semtic; rather, it shows Louis CK’s tension with Jewishness.  And this is what I am looking for. The point of the contrast, in comparing the “Goodbye Jew” piece to the Louie piece in the last blog, is to show that Jewishness is something that Louis CK, at times, addresses.

For him, if comedy is not disturbing than it is not comedy.  And the fact that a film like Schindler’s List is a holy cow is quite apparent to him.  As a non-Jew he’d like to inject a tension into this so as to point out, by way of the young girls auditioning, that they had no sense of the role they were to play.  As young American women who want to be on TV or Film, they have no sense of history, the Holocaust, or how to properly relate to the topic. Their awkwardness is telling: it teaches us that they don’t have a cultural sense of what is the norm. That norm, so to speak, is lessened now.  As Louis CK notes at the beginning of the piece; its no longer a blockbust film; its on TBS (the main Boston TV channel).

Its banal.  And, when we have to relate to it with the proper gravitas, we become awkward. What happens when our children, so to speak, don’t know what’s at stake? They will, of course, be awkward.  And, regardless of that, the very fact that “Goodbye Jews!” is to be performed would make one very awkward. Who, after all, would want to say those words (with conviction) in an America that deems itself, by and large, conscious of the Holocaust?  The mere fact of saying it is disturbing.  This comes out in the awkward approaches we hear in each of Louis CK’s voices.

Now for the contrast: On the one hand, you have pieces that put Louie CK in the position of the loser-who-can-redeem himself; he is given a choice between succeeding and failing as a comic by a Jew who was once a comic but is now a movie mogul.   He is like a schlemiel but not quite.  He has an odd relationship to this tradition.

Through this Louie clip, we can address his relationship to scenarios in which he acts in relation to Jews or with Jewish topics.  How does he situate himself?

Moreover, from this clip we can query into what his relationship is to a Jewish comic tradition; one which, as the Jewish film mogul/executive suggests, starts in New York City in the Carnegie Deli.   How does Louis CK relate to this Jewish comic tradition? How does he, literally, compete with Seinfeld?  Is it a Jew vs. a non-Jew struggle?  Or is this a question of “who” takes on a comic tradition?  Need it be a Jew? Or is Louis CK far from this?  As we see in the beginning of the clip, Louis CK doesn’t know who this Jewish-comic ancestor is.   This blindness directs us to the tension and the issue: what is Louis CK’s relationship to a Jewish comic tradition?  Is there any?  Why should he care about Jews?

In contrast to a clip like this, anyone who watches Louis CK can tell you that Jewishness is certainly not something Louis CK regularly concerns himself with.  In the clip below, we don’t see any such narrative.  What we find is scatological humor.  Here’s a joke justify farts – providing reasons why farts are so amazing.

He reasons that “they come out of your ass.  The hang out around shit and they smell for that reason.  His gestures are mired in the physical processes.  There is nothing “Jewish” here.   To be sure, this video segment simply doesn’t pose the question.  Its caught up in the gestural.  In the “Goodbye Jews,” the gesture of enunciating these words.  This gestural focus, however, takes us away from the historical tension.

More important is how Louis CK’s use of gesture brings about – when he addresses the issue – a tension with Jewishness.  It is a clash between repeating or not repeating a Jewish comic tradition. As I noted above, is Louis CK a competitor with Jerry Seinfeld? Does he emerge from the same tradition, in Carnegie Deli, or is he doing comedy despite that relationship?

Searching for evidence of Louis CK’s tense relationship to Jewishness and to his possible anti-Semtitism, I did a Google search correlating the airplane routine, which I heard was anti-Semitic, to Louis CK and anti-Semitism and I found only two links of interest: the first link was published in The Jewish Press.  It was entitled “Louis C.K. – Not a Jew.”  It was published in May 20, 2012 and was authored by the blog Not a Jew – Jew: Choosing to be Chosen A Blog of My Journey to Judaism

The blog is authored by someone who refuses to give his name and directs us, instead, to the journey of conversion: from being a non-Jew to a Jew. In the “about” section we read:

His name is not important, but his journey to become a Jew is.

But, apparently, said person who wrote the blog has written for the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, etc.  His task, ultimately, to show his readers that he realized that Louis CK isn’t Jewish and this, in some way, prompts him to want to convert to Judaism.

In this piece, he presents his argument as to why Louis CK is “not Jewish.”  He begins his argument by creating a criteria by which he distinguishes between what it means to be a Jew from what it means to be a non-Jew.  To give authority to his reading, he cites his “friend” (the notorious Rabbi, TV show host, Hollywood personality, and author of Kosher Sex – amongst other books) Shmuley Boteach:

One of the main things I’ve learned about the differences between Jews and non-Jews (namely Christians) is: non-Jews place a great deal of importance on how you feel, what you believe, your intentions, your inner motivations for being good.  By contrast, according my friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Jews “care far less about what you believe.  What you do is more important.”

If it all comes down to a tension between concern with belief and conviction – on the one hand – and action – on the other -how does Louis CK fare?

He, the author of the blog, sites a comedy routine by Louis CK where he talks about how he relishes the fact that he “thought” about being ethical and giving up his seat to a soldier on an airplane but he didn’t.  This, argues the blogger, isn’t Jewish.  A Jew wouldn’t think about whether he or she thought about doing said deed; a Jew, says Boteach, would do it. The principle of Jewishness is, as the blogger states: Action is greater than thought.  This seems to be a crude principle, but it can be understood in a more significant and sophisticated manner.

Relishing the thought that one “could” help would make Louis CK into a solipsistic, Cartesian, kind of philosopher instead of what Emmanuel Levinas. The latter thinks ethics is “first philosophy,” not thought or being.  Levinas puts the other, ethics, before all philosophy and reflection.   Levinas’s essay, entitled the “Temptation of Temptation,” makes it clear that Louis CK is caught up in the “temptation of temptation.”  For if temptation is about relishing the fact that one is “capable” of thought (that one “can”) than the temptation of temptation is to think about what one is capable of doing and not doing anything. As Aristotle might say, this is philosophy:  thought thinking thought.   That, Levinas would argue, is not holy.  It is not Jewish.  For Levinas, being-for-the other (in action, not thought) is Jewish.

The blogger notes something like this when he notes that there may be a “Little Jew” in Louis CK because he gives a lot of his money to charity:

But perhaps there’s a little Jew inside of Louis C.K., after all.  Because, when his video generated over a million dollars in downloads in just its first 12 days online, he issued a statement “to set an example of what you can do if you all of a sudden have a million dollars that people just gave to you directly because you told jokes.”

He gave $250k to the people who produced the video and built the web site to sell it.  Another $250k went to his staff for “a big fat bonus.”  $280k went to five different charities (including Kiva, which I discovered because of him – thank you Louis C.K.!).  In total, he gave away 78% of his million dollars, which is 7.8 times more Jewish of him than a Jew who tithes 10%.

While this is very interesting, while it gives me a criteria for what’s Jewish and what’s not Jewish, it doesn’t equate Louis CK’s comedy with the anti-Semitic.

But this criteria doesn’t seem to work.  Aren’t Jewish comedians always playing around with thoughts and possible scenarios?  Doesn’t that happen throughout the Talmud?  However, the Rabbis always think in terms of how this or that scenario relates to Jewish law while Louis CK thinks of scenarios in terms of things we find embarrassing or odd.   These scenarios seem to be replayed in much Borscht Belt comedy, too.  Were they also “tempted by temptation?”  Or should we read Louis CK’s reflections differently – in terms of the social relations he works through?  Is it a Jewish way to go against the grain and test the limits of this or that discourse (here, the discourse of Holocaust representation or in terms of the relationship of Jewish comedy in the past to Hollywood today)?

Besides this should we call Louis CK Jewish or Non-Jewish in terms of only one example and a citation from Shumley Boteach?

I think we need to look more deeply into the matter. And I’d like to say that I leave this blog post with the voices of Louis CK’s little girls as they say “Goodbye Jews.”   They are out of touch with Jewish history but its really not their fault now is it?  America right now seems to be forgetting more and more and Louis CK, in that piece, brings us face to face with that reality. At the same time, he’s marking off the fact that he is not Jewish in saying “Goodbye Jews.”

But his departure is not so much anti-Semitic as marking off a difference between himself and Jews.  He also doesn’t know who he is inheriting the comic tradition from.  It may not matter to him, as we see in the Louie clip, above.

The only other link I found on Google relating Louis CK to anti-Semitism, had nothing in fact to do with anti-Semitism.  Rather, it was an article from Heeb Magazine which simply notes some Tweets Louis CK did while he was, apparently, drunk.  I’ll note one of his Tweets and leave it at that:


Even though Louis CK shouts out, in the voices of many bright eyed girls, “Goodbye Jews,” this drunken Tweet says: “Don’t worry, Louis CK likes Jews!”

Jew or Not Jew: Louis CK’s Humor and The Jewish Thing – Take 1


After I first saw him perform, I immediately wondered if Louis CK (Louis Szekely) was Jewish.   At first glance, his gestures, jokes, and comedy routine seemed, for me, to be Jewish.   But I was uncertain.  The ambiguity over his identity prompted me to think about what I was interested in: was I interested in whether or not he was a Jew or whether or not his gestures were Jewish?   I also wanted to know what he thought of such a question about his comic routines and their ethnic identifications.  I couldn’t put my finger on what made his comic routine (or he himself) seem “Jewish.”  This inquiring mind…wanted to know.

A simple Google search brought me to the site “Jew or Not Jew.”  (This site, by the way, has nothing to do with the app that was deemed anti-Semitic.)  On this web page, I discovered that Louis CK wasn’t Jewish.  He was raised a Catholic. And, according to the blurb on the page, Louis CK said the following to the LA Weekly which, this site believes, indicates a happenstance kind of relationship to Jewishness:

L.A. WEEKLY: Why are so many funny comics from Boston?

LOUIS C.K.: Because Boston is a miserable place filled with drunks, losers and Jewish girls with big tits.

From this and from his lineage, the site concludes that he is not a Jew.  Fine.  But I was not satisfied by this superficial assessment.  I wanted more. I wanted to see how he dealt with the Jewish thing.

But before I look into that, let’s take a look at the man himself.  Louis CK is a provocative stand-up comic whose self-deprecating, aggressive, awkward, and vulgar brand of comedy has gained critical acclaim over the years.  Many of his best skits draw on his personal life and observations as a divorced and aging father.  The character he plays on stage is constantly attempting to come to terms with all of the odd situations and minute details of being a father, being single, and searching for success.  In all of these departments, no matter what he does, something always seems to go wrong.

Despite what we often see in his comic routines, he has, apparently, been very successful.  He has credit for writing comedy and doing many comedy performances and has written for the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and The Chris Rock Show. And between 2008 and 2010 he recorded two full-length comedy specials: Chewed Up (2008) and Hilarious (2009). In 2011 he released Live at the Beacon Theater.

In addition to these comedy specials Louis CK has starred in two different sitcoms where he was the center of the show: Lucky Louie (2006) and Louie (2010).

And recently, in 2013, he did a special for HBO entitled Oh My God.

From time to time, Louis CK is involved in comic situations or tells jokes that involve Jews.  In this segment from Louie on FX, Louis CK is face-to-face with a stereotyped Jewish media executive from Hollywood.  But before he goes in to meet the media executive, he and his agent, an awkward looking teenager in a tight suit with large glasses, are left to wait in a waiting room not knowing who they are there to see or what is about to happen to them.  When called, they naively go into the office.  The scene is reminiscent of a Kafka novel.  And, as a result of their utter lack of knowledge and the lack of communicating between them and the secretary, it seems as if they are on the way to some kind of disaster.  However, as in a Kafka novel, he is not greeted by a non-descript messenger of the institution.  Rather, he is greeted by a New York Jew who speaks with a distinctly New York (“Jewish”) accent.  In this scene, Louis, who is usually very aggressive and uptight, cowers.  When asked by the executive, “Do you know who I am?” Louis CK acts as if he knows.

The executive begins by complementing Louis CK for his performance on the David Letterman Show.  This butters him up.  It also enter Louis CK into a cat and mouse game.  The executive tells Louis CK that he has a secret to tell him.  But before he tells Louis CK his secret, he says that he “started off in Carnegie Deli” (as a comedian).

To be sure, we still don’t know “who” he is, but we now know one thing he has done and may fuzzily infer his identity.  This comment is oddly placed and, at the same time, it suggests that the man talking to him went through the Jewish comedy circuit (and, for some reason, this is something the executive thinks Louis CK should identify with as a root of the modern day stand-up comedy that he does).  However, Louis CK mistakenly thinks that this factoid is the secret.  The executive laughs at the mistake and indicates that the secret is not Jewish comedy or the origin of stand-up comedy.  The secret has nothing to do with Jewish comic identity.

Before Louis CK can hear the secret, he has to, in a Kafkan sense, sign papers that he has no time to read.  After he does, the Jewish media mogul reveals the “secret” to Louis CK which isn’t a statement so mush as a question: Do you want to replace David Letterman?  Louis CK humbly declines and suggests a Jewish comedian for the job: Jerry Seinfeld.  Strangely enough, the executive confirms that Louis CK was right: Seinfeld was also asked to be the new host.

But this doesn’t mean that he is on par with Seinfeld; the mogul basically tells Louis CK that the two are incomparable.  Louis CK learns that he is an “option” while Seinfeld is a “slam dunk.”  In this scenario, Louis CK is the ridiculed schlemiel.  He’s not the first in line, although he dreams of being there.

In response to this offer, Louis CK suggests that the media executive may not want him because, if he knew who he was and how old he was, he would reject him.

In response to this, the media mogul describes Louis CK as a guy who comes from a working class family in Boston and notes, with a big jab, that Louis CK isn’t doing so well and that his career is in a slump.   And after noting that Louis CK is at the point in his career where he is afraid that he might do something embarrassing, he asks, “Am I right?”

The camera pans to Louis CK who lightly sighs and turns his head slightly away.  Then the music starts as the media executive suggests a way Louis CK can redeem his career and his sad life.  But then, after giving hope, the media executive takes it away and notes how Louis CK, as he gets older, will become more and more of a failure.  With poetic egress, the media executive calls him a “circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit.”   In other words, he makes Louis CK “conscious” that he is a schlemiel of the worst (negative) variety and will remain so if he doesn’t grasp hold of his proposal.   In contrast to classical schlemiels in Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer, Louis CK is not so absent-minded that he will miss the meaning of the media executive’s description.  In their stories, they don’t know they are schlemiels and they don’t care; in this clip, it’s the opposite.

In this version of the schlemiel, the schlemiel has the possibility of success or failure.

“It’s in your power to change that…and sill your chances are very slim.  David Letterman is retiring…do you want his job?”

The episode ends with this question.

In truth, this question draws the fine line between being a schlemiel and not being one. This is the line the American schlemiel must cross if he/she is to be a “man.”  There is an either/or at work here which underlies one aspect of American identity: One can either remain a failure or change.  For instance, this Jewish media executive changed from being a comedian in New York to being a mogul in Hollywood.  Can Louis CK do it?  Can he be like Seinfeld, a successful Jewish comic?  Or is it too late?

This segment makes for a fascinating commentary on how Jews have “made it.”  And now, instead of a Jew, it is a non-Jewish comedian who is in the position of the failure and it is a Jewish media executive and Jerry Seinfeld who are in the opposite position.

After writing on Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s humor, it hit me that the Jewishness of this piece is close to what Irving Howe saw as the “undercurrent of darkness” in Sholem Aleichem’s humor.   It is an analogue to the overlapping of laughter and tears which Howe draws from a comment by Saul Bellow about Jewishness.  To be sure, there is nothing kitschy or sentimental about Louis CK’s humiliation.  His aging and failure are tangible.  We can, like the media executive, imagine him going on as a failure (even though we all know that the real Louis CK is a great success).    And this possibility is supposed to trouble us since, as we can see from the clip, it is troubling for Louis CK.  He wants to be a success but can’t help thinking of himself (or knowing himself to be) as a failure.

We all want him to make it just like we all want characters in Sholem Aleichem’s stories to make it in America but, as we all know, the characters in Aleichem’s books don’t often gain such success.  As Ruth Wisse points out in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, their success is in their words.  When it comes to success in the world, they often fail.  Language is often their saving grace.  Reading Aleichem, we know that his characters may be funny but in the end they may all remain schlemiels.  And nothing will change (save for their place).

But is that such a bad thing?  It is if success is your only criterion and where being a schlemiel is equated with being an aging and decaying loser who doesn’t have a real job.  What we see with Louis CK is that, although he is not a Jew, he still can play a Jew in the sense that he plays the everyman.  His very existence is that of a schlemiel.  He is an aging failure who likely has “no future.”  Louis CK is, as the media executive says, “a circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit.”  In other words, like a schlemiel, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and the places he does occasion are dying away.

Louis CK, if he is to be considered at all, is an “option.”  From the executive’s perspective, Louis CK can save the studio money (Seinfeld is too expensive).  But in reality the secret is that Louis CK makes the studio money because the Jewish comic gestures that started in the Carnegie Deli (which the Media Mogul notes indirectly) have now become part and parcel of all Hollywood comedy.  The irony of it all is, as the clip shows in the end, the pilot must be done in New York City (home of the Carnegie Deli) and not in Hollywood.  In other words, Louis CK goes back to the place where it all started and he is given this mission by a Jew, but, and this is the point, he is not Jewish.

After watching this clip, I had a better understanding of how one could understand Louis CK’s ambiguous Jewishness and what it implies.  I also understood that although we would like to see him become like Seinfeld, we would, ultimately, rather see Louis CK fail as he desperately tries to succeed.  And in such failure we discover something that looks and feels Jewish but really isn’t.  We also discover a comedy that is far crueler than anything we would find in Sholem Aleichem.  Things have changed.

In America today, failure, it seems, has become a commonplace.  As Walter Benjamin tells us, beauty, for Kafka (and himself), is the beauty of failure.  And failure has, in America, lost its ethnicity and perhaps even its beauty when it found Louis CK.  Echoing Irving Howe’s reading of Sholem Aleichem, I would say that my laughter at Louis CK is deeply “troubled.”  And this “troubled laughter” has nothing to do with comedy in the face of the threat to Jewish existence posed by Jewish history so much as comedy in the face of the threat posed by one’s age, choices, and bad economic situation.  And this threat is common to many Americans.  It doesn’t come out of a tradition, as does the schlemiel, so much as out of a condition. Perhaps the take away from Jewish humor – which seems to be echoed in this episode – is that only a comedy that honestly depicts and performs failure can survive it.