A Kvetching Schlemiel: On Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” – Take One


You don’t see many schlemiels in Yiddish Literature or Jewish-American literature that spend most of their time kvetching or complaining.   Schlemiels are better known for being dreamers, not complainers.   They live on air (luftmensches); not hot air so much as the air of dreams.  However, it does happen from time to time that one occasions a kvetching schlemiel.   Saul Bellow’s Herzog (from the novel of the same name) kvetches from time to time and so does Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (from the novel of the same name).   We also see a few kvetching schlemiels in contemporary literature.  Kugel, the main character of Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy lets out an occasional kvetch about his horrible situation.

And Larry David, in Curb Your Enthusiasm or in his lead role for Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, turns kvetching into an art form that, for all its repetition, has crafted a popular kind of modern-American schlemiel type.

But all of this kvetching, as is the kvetching of the other schlemiels mentioned above, is lightened by way of comedy.  And if we look deeper into the source of this kvetching we find a trail of bad luck.  But, as Ruth Wisse points out the schlemiel usually creates bad luck but is unaffected by it.  These schlemiels, however, are.  They are, as it were, schlemiels and shlimazels at the same time.

One kvetch that has recently caught my eye is the kvetching of the narrator and main character of Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.”  Edelshtein, the main character, has the kvetch of an immigrant.  He has left Europe and Yiddish behind for America.  And he can’t stop thinking about what has been lost.  His being caught up in what was and how it fails to relate to what is creates a comic rift which also has, for all its kvetching, a sad note.

Ozick’s descriptions of Edelshtein reflect a kind of comic kvetching that hits on many different levels.  Edelshtein’s anger is really “envy.” It is comical, yet painful because he feels that he knows history and that American Jews do not.  He doesn’t think, for this reason, that they should be considered Jews.

Spawned in America, pogroms a rumor, mamalashon a stranger, history a vacuum.  Also many of them were still young, and had black eyes, black hair, and red beards…He was certain he did not envy them, but he read them like a sickness.  They were reviewed, praised, and meanwhile they were considered Jews, and knew nothing.  (129, Jewish American Stories ed. Irving Howe)

Edelshtein looks around New York City and sees a childhood acquaintance from Kiev named Alexei Kirilov.  He wonders what ever happened to him.   How had history swallowed him up?  Did he die in the massacre of Babi Yar or did he flee to Russia?

This memory and question plies him, but what is he left with from the past?  Edelshtein, like many Yiddishists, turns to language.  But he realizes that the language he so loved is dead.  And he is a schlemiel by virtue of being stuck with a language that no one speaks anymore:

And the language was lost, murdered.  The language – a museum.  Of what other language can it be said that it died in a sudden definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil…Yiddish, a littleness, a tiny light – oh little holy light! – dead, vanished. Perished. Sent into darkness.  (130)

The murder or “sudden death” of this language was, the narrator tells us, Edelshtein’s “subject” – the one “he lectured on for a living”(130).  He constantly recalls it to people in Jewish community centers, synagogues, etc. But while he tells Yiddish jokes to make people laugh he knows – and they know – that the language is dead and that his humor is really meaningless:

But both Edelshtein and his audiences found the jokes worthless.  Old jokes.  They were not the right kind. They wanted jokes about weddings – spiral staircases, doves flying out of cages, bashful medical students – and he gave them funerals.  To speak Yiddish was to preside over a funeral….Those for whom his tongue was no riddle were specters. (131)

He lives in memory of a dead past; he draws life from it.  But his memory is not caught up in Europe alone; he remembers, most clearly, his experiences at the American home of Baumzweig.  Unlike Baumzweig, who was also a Yiddish writer, he had no children.  He had no one to pass on his past too; however, he does watch how Baumzweig’s children speak to him – using English to respond to their Yiddish.  The parents couldn’t adequately pass the tradition on. And this has an effect on him and gives him a sense of the “new generation.”  There was a generation gap.

But then it became plain that they could not imagine the lives of their children.  Nor could the children imagine their lives.  The parents were too helpless to explain, the sons were too impatient to explain.  So they had given each other up to a common muteness.  In that apartment Josh and Mickey had grown up answering in English the Yiddish of their parents.  Mutes.  Mutations.  What right had these boys to spit out the Yiddish that had bred them? (132)

In the midst of all this kvetching, Baumzweig reminds him of the schlemiel and that, though he never had children, Edelshtein has a son, himself

She told Edelshtein he too had a child, also a son.  “Yourself, yourself,” she said.  “You remember yourself when you were a little boy, and that little boy is the one you love, him you trust, him you bless, him you bring up in hope to a good manhood.” (133)

This memory is a kind of counter-memory to his present resentments.  It also prompts the question as to whether he actually did bring his “son” up to a “good manhood.”  Does his son remain a child, and he, a schlemiel?  Or was his “little light” a language that is dead?  Is his son dead if the language is dead?

We also can see his mind wander back to the child in Kiev who, regardless of his kvetching about the end of Yiddish, remains close to his heart.  The question of his “son” and its “maturity” as well as this memory of a child whose fate his unknown  – juxtaposed to the present memory of the death of Yiddish – makes him into a kvetching schlemiel of sorts.

…to be continued….

What Happens When a Schlemiel Goes to War? On the Comic Battles Between Hanukkah, Christmas, and Thanksgiving


What happens when a Schlemiel goes to war?  Not much.  To be sure, there is a large tradition within Jewish humor about the schlemiel-going-to-war.  In a blog entitled “Ruth Wisse’s Political Schlemiel,” I cited and explained two such jokes.  Ruth Wisse, in fact, begins her opus, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, with a reflection on the “political schlemiel.”   The reason why she starts with this humor has to do with what she thinks is most important regarding this character; namely, the fact that through these jokes about the schlemiel at war we can see that the schlemiel’s purpose was to “challenge the political and philosophical status quo.”  However, Wisse qualifies this by noting that this challenge is ultimately more cultural than political: by not knowing how to fight or why one should fight, the schlemiel is showing us cultural dissonance.  Wisse’s qualification is telling since it indicates that the nature of this challenge, in her mind, may appear political but is actually the result of a cultural difference between Eastern European Jewish culture and Western culture, which celebrates war and masculinity.   In other words, the schlemiel joke is involved in what seems to be a cultural kind of battle.  The cultural challenge, however, has its benefits: it gives Jews a sense of dignity and helps them to win an “ironic victory.”

This is an interesting claim.  And how we read it makes all the difference.  Lawrence Epstein, for instance, sees – in his book The Haunted Smile – Jewish humor as a way of getting accepted into American culture while, at the same time, giving it a backhand.  This, for him, is a cultural kind of revolution which uses comedy as a weapon.  But, in the end, the success of the battle is measured by the fact that Jewish comedy became a major basis for Jews – in his view – being accepted into Jewish culture.   Building on this, I’d say that such comedy goes from challenging the status quo to becoming the status quo.

That said, the theme of Jews at war or as militant is still – it seems – at variance with the cultural norm in America.  And in films where Jews are in battle, Jews are often portrayed as schlemiels.  Although these characters may appear more masculine, as in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008), they are still drawn to peace, their mothers, and the effeminate.  They are not warriors in the Roman, Greek, German, or American (etc) sense.

The main character (Zohan) is an uber-masculine-Israeli who ultimately wants to go to NYC to cut hair.  But he is drawn in to the ultimate mission, which is to battle with the ultimate Palestinian terrorist named “Phantom” – played by John Turturro.

The Zohan engages in a few comic-battles with Phantom.  But, ultimately, he leaves it all for something that most men would never do: cutting hair.  And, while in America, he pursues a peaceful path toward reconciliation with the Palestinians (which is encouraged by his Palestinian-American girlfriend).  His masculinity is curbed as he goes along on his journey and so is his militancy which, Sandler suggests, emerges out of being an Israeli.

In The Hebrew Hammer (2003), we also see this masculine-schlemiel.   In this film, the battle between Hanukkah and Christmas is the theme. And the veneer of masculinity is provided by the Blaxploitation genre which Jonathan Kesselman, the writer and director, exploits to the hilt.   But what happens in the process, as with what happens in the Zohan, is that the battle itself is shown to be ridiculous.

We see this on both sides of the divide. Santa is killed by his son, Damian Claus, played by the comedian Andy Dick.  After the murder of Santa Claus, Damian Claus, looks to eliminate his Jewish competition.  Throughout the film, we see that beneath all of their masculine toughness is a man-child, a schlemiel.   We see this especially with the Hebrew Hammer. He loves his mother and is a good Jewish boy who also likes to daydream.  In the end of the battle (and echoing the actual story of Hanukkah), Hanukkah lives on and the Jews survive possible extinction.  But the task of the battle waged in the the Zohan and the Hebrew Hammer is the same: to comically challenge the notion of war itself.

And just yesterday, I noticed a video on Thanksgiving versus Hanukkah.  And this is apropos of the fact that this year Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fell on the same day (which rarely happens).

In addition to using the battle theme, the genre used in this short was “horror.”  The battle between Jews and Americans in this clip brings out both traditions and, ultimately, does no harm. For a brief moment, however, the question is posed as to the meaning of these traditions. But this is harmless.  In the end, the comic battle is the take away and the premise of sharing a house for the eight days of Hanukkah is the Jewish-American experiment.  And guess what: we all win because we can all drive each other crazy.

This is something we see in today’s animation of “Larry David’s Thanksgiving” with his Jewish family in NYC.  In the end, however, the war is a farce.  This lesson, it seems, has roots in the schlemiel comedy I outlined at the outset of the blog.  Perhaps it would be best if we all, like the original schlemiels-at-war, just played at being soldiers rather than being soldiers.   And perhaps that is what many of the above mentioned film-makers are saying. However, there is a difference: when the first schlemiel jokes about war were written they expressed an opinion from the margins of different military cultures; today, these types of jokes seem to have become the norm.

On this note, I’ll end this blog entry with a parody of Star Wars by Mel Brooks called Spaceballs (1987).  It brings this comedy of war to a universal scale and it brings it, of course, to American audiences. But this battle is no longer between Jews-eager-to-be-accepted and skeptical Americans, but…an American (Star-Wars-Like) battle.


A Heated Discussion Over the Schlemiel in Brooklyn


Like any scholar, I love a good discussion.  I especially love difficult ones.   The best discussions put my arguments and assumptions to the test and, sometimes, alter them.  However, at some point, what at first seems like a good discussion may become a shouting match.  Such angry talk may become a “conversation stopper,” but I always make sure to ask myself what I can learn from these moments of passion.  Regarding such conversation, a recent discussion of the schlemiel I gave was especially interesting because, at some point, the academic became much more mundane and everyday.  The talk I originally planned dovetailed.  And I like this as I often find many academic discussions to be sterile. I often walk away from them the same person.

I grew up with friends who challenged each other on a daily basis, but these moments weren’t academic.  They were thoroughly mundane and through them I learned how to stand up for what I believed in or, at the very least, to test what I believed in.  These challenges helped to me to grow as a human being and left me with questions that I felt deeply and knew I had to work through.  Most of these questions had to do with my identity and breached the issue as to what it means to be Jewish, American, white, and male in small-town America.  The challenges which issued these questions altered how I looked at myself and the world around me.  They were physical and psychological; they were not intellectual or academic (although they became academic questions, their root was the everyday challenges I faced growing up).  So when I find spaces where academic challenges merge with everyday challenges and where these challenges come at me from different – unexpected – angles, I can’t help but smile: I know that I will, hopefully, experience a moment of possible growth and change.  On the other hand, I know that such challenges may also teach one nothing and may only create unnecessary difficulties or even stunt one’s growth.

The challenge I recently faced came up last Thursday night; it was over the meaning of the word and concept of the “schlemiel.”  I gave a talk in Brooklyn entitled I entitled “The Life and Death of the Schlemiel: Why does the Schlemiel Matter?”  As anyone can see from this blog (and from my articles), the “schlemiel” means a lot to me; but as I learned it means even more for people much older than I who grew up (oftentimes in households where Yiddish was one of the spoken languages or references) with the term: some used it to harm others while others were harmed by it; some associated it with humility, others with idiocy.  I knew these possible responses very well from my studies of this character but I had yet to experience the challenges posed by people who, throughout their life, intimately experienced its meaning.

In the talk, I wanted to pose the question of whether the schlemiel was still alive, why peple would want to eliminate this comic character, and, if it still exists, what kind of schlemiel “should.”  After seeing my abstract, the organizer of the evening wanted me to address the Holy Fool in more depth and relate it to my original topic. Here is the edited abstract:

Is the schlemiel a “holy fool” or just a Jewish fool?  Does s/he still exist today and, if yes, should it continue to do so ? Can the schlemiel offer hope to dark times or is simply entertaining?  Dr. Feuer –  a “schlemiel theorist” – will define & explain the meaning of the schlemiel.  To this end, he will contrast the Eastern European Schlemiel to the  Western European Schlemiel, trace its tensions with Zionism, discuss its passage from Europe to America before and after the Holocaust, its new variations in the United States in the post-WWII , and its legacy in film, literature, and TV over the last few decades. This will include a discussion of rabbis, writers, filmmakers, & actors, that span Rabbi Nachman of Breslav,  Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, Phillip Roth, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, and Seth Rogen.  After discussing the schlemiels meaning and history, philosophical and ethical questions will be posed as to whether or not the schlemiel should persist or vanish into the dust bin of history.  What’s at stake in this question?  Is the schlemiel just a secular fool and if not wherein lies its holiness?

As you can see, I wanted to 1) define the schlemiel in terms of two predominant traditions – one from Eastern Europe and the other from Western Europe; 2) trace the history of the character and outline its high points and its low points; and 3) to ask whether the Holy Fool could make a “come back” in today’s increasingly secular Jewish-American environment.

I planned on starting off by telling a few traditional schlemiel jokes and then, after doing this, introduce the cover of the May 2009 New York Magazine which had a picture of Larry David looking down at a pale Woody Allen (the look saying something along the lines of “you’re all washed up”).  Below the photo is the caption: “The Last of the Schlemiels.”  The subtitle had the obvious function of stating an irony; namely, that not only Woody who is washed up, so are you Larry David.  You are both the “last of the schlemiels.”  The statement is a bold assertion or rather ‘death sentence’.  The point of bringing this up was to ask whether these schlemiel jokes or the schlemiel himself had any place today in our American society.  As I looked to show, this statement may have relevance for some but it is not true: schlemiels live on.  But, more importantly, I wanted to show what had become of the schlemiel and how had first called for its death and why.

This would bring me into the topic of comparing and contrasting a German-Jewish view of the schlemiel to an Eastern European view.  The former desired the end of the schlemiel while the latter associated the schlemiel with piety, honesty, and even, for some, the holy fool.

For me, this distinction lives on today; but it is the negative imputations against the schlemiel (which draws on the German-Jewish tradition) which had a long after-life. On the other hand, schlemiels often played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Woody Allen, or Seth Rogen have a charm to them that challenges this view.  Nonetheless, they are far from being “holy fools” or share any resemblance with Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiels.

But before I could even address these contemporary schlemiels or the life and death of the schlemiel, I was met with a major challenge that issued from the distinction between Eastern European and German-Jewish Schlemiels.   Some people in the audience immediately took to one interpretation or the other and a heated argument took place.

I did my best to mediate between the two and explain what the other parties could not accept.  This was a great challenge as one of the people arguing insisted over and over again that there is nothing good that can be said about the schlemiel: she insisted that no one should be a schlemiel.

In response to this, I explained the meaning of the schlemiel in terms of its critique of society.  I explained that if I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool was constantly being lied to it wasn’t his fault that he trusted everyone so much as the fact that everyone lied to him. The point of the schlemiel was to situate us between hope and skepticism (or cynicism). And as Ruth Wisse notes at the very end of her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the schlemiel cannot exist in a society that is wholly cynical or optimistic.  This led me to a discussion of Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine and his extreme emphasis on cynicism.  I asked where, in this film, we could find a schlemiel and about how this kind of film contrasts with Allen’s earlier films which had schlemiels.

This prompted audience members to think about the relationship of the schlemiel to the cynical times we are currently living in America and about how important the schlemiel is as a figure of critique.  But, still, there was a lot of anger in the audience about the schlemiel.  One person, in particular, couldn’t let go of her negative reading of the character and saw nothing redeeming about it.  This prompted other audience members to yell at her and associate her with a certain Jewish-ethnic perspective.  This heated talk led to a lot problems and kept me from continuing my lecture.

After I ended the talk, I wondered whether I did the right thing and whether I met the challenges that emerged out of a discussion of the schlemiel.  I talked with a few friends about this as well as the organizer. Some explained that this is what happens in Brooklyn: people are often very stubborn about their views, love to argue, and are oftentimes rude about it all.  Others explained that the reason there was so much contention was because many people in the room were called schlemiels when they were growing up or, otherwise, called people schlemiels.  Still others explained that some people, had entrenched views about the schlemiel which were based on what Jewish tradition they came out from in Eastern or Western Europe.

All of these explanations makes sense, but what I left this heated discussion with was something else; namely, a task.  I realized, by way of these challenges, that if I’m going to argue for a positive and critical reading of the schlemiel that I will be challenged by people who have deeply ingrained views of this character.  Its hard for me – a “little pisher” – to make such claims as I wasn’t raised in Brooklyn by parents who used this term regularly in a negative manner.  Nonetheless, I have the knowledge and awareness of this characters wider meaning and possible meaning which can challenge deeply ingrained views.  I can offer a new/old reading which can make the schlemiel relevant – once again – and spur people to ask themselves why Woody Allen and Larry David are not only not the “last of the schlemiels” but that there are other schlemiels.  And, more importantly, we need to ask ourselves what schlemiels should live on.  I believe some are not worth our time while other schlemiels are.  And I’m willing to take on the challenge of explaining why.  This, for me, is not simply an academic challenge; defending my reading of the schlemiel, is also a life challenge.  The schlemiel means that much to me, an American-Jew who, though he hasn’t been raised in Brooklyn by parents who speak Yiddish, has every right to defend my reading of this character. For me the schlemiel is not something I don’t want to be so much as a character who can spur me – and others – to stand in the uncomfortable space between hope and skepticism.