Circa 1843, Soren Kierkegaard published a book called Repetition. When one thinks of Kierkegaard, one usually thinks of anxiety, impossible existential dilemmas, and binding of Isaac. These things, by and large, don’t evoke the image of happiness. However, in Repetition, he entertains the possibility of happiness through the idea of repetition.
Today is Kierkegaard’s birthday. Since one usually wishes another a happy birthday, I thought it would be opportune to briefly think about what that would mean for Kierkegaard.
At the outset of his inquiry into repetition, Kierkegaard creates a dialectical contrast between recollection and repetition. Which of the two yields true happiness?
Recollection’s love is the only happy love, according to one author. He is absolutely right about this if one also remembers that it first makes a person unhappy. Repetition’s love is in truth the only happy love. Like recollection, it is not disturbed by hope nor by the marvelous anxiety of discovery, neither, however doesn’t have the sorrow of recollection. It has instead the blissful security of the moment. Hope is new attire, stiff and starched and splendid. Still, since it as not yet been tried on, one does not know whether it will suit one, or whether it will fit. Recollection is discarded clothing which, however lovely it might be, no longer suits one because one has outgrown it. Repetition is clothing that never becomes worn, that fits snugly and comfortably, that never pulls nor hangs too loosely.
Based on this reflection, it would be fair to say that Kierkegaard’s birthday would present a dilemma. On the one hand, it repeats over and over; and in that sense it is the source of happiness. On the other hand, every year one has a birthday one recollects the one’s before. Its both recollection and repetition.
This kind of dilemma reminds me of Larry David in Woody Allen’s film Whatever Works, singing Happy Birthday to himself. Too be sure, as David demonstrates, it’s also a schlemiel’s dilemma.
In contrast, how would Forrest Gump say “Happy Birthday Jenny?” Jenny, the name repeated throughout this film by another, less grumpy, American schlemiel character, evokes happiness and sorrow.
With that, I want to suggest that you take a look at several other posts by Schlemiel Theory on Kierkegaard as a way of….celebrating his birthday.
Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.
Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).
In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.
This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”
Here, the issue is comedy.
Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:
In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)
Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”
Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?
Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.
In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”
The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)
The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:
I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.” “Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”
Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.
But can this act be done after Auschwitz?
Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.
Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:
The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.
Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:
The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported. (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)
Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).
Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.
Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.
What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.” And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion. Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.
History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous time, empty time, but filled with presence of the now (Jetztzeit). Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate….Fashion has a flaire for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it’s a tiger’s leap into the past (Walter Benjamin, Thesis XIV of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)
Throughout the ages, many great artists, poets, and thinkers have shown great love for the circus. They feel that there is something about the circus. It can tell us about who we really are, what we believe in, or what we hope for. Perhaps the circus, as Walter Benjamin might say about “the presence of the now” (Jetztzeit), is our common origin. Perhaps the circus is the revolution. Perhaps it is the place where, as Benjamin says of fashion, there is a “tigers leap into the past.”
The circus, like the revolution, is a space where comedy, surprise, and excitement are center stage. It is a social, an aesthetic, and a political space. On the one hand, the Roman satirist Juvenal used the words “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circuses) to criticize those in power noting that the circus distracted Rome’s political leaders from history. And it was used as a tool for gaining power. On the other hand, the circus has been envisioned as a space of inversion and resistance to the dominant culture. In the circus political power appears as ridiculous: it’s the only place where you will find Nobility and Clergy dressed up as or riding pigs. Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the first theorists to explore this aspect of the circus; and in his notion of the carnivalesque, cultural studies and postmodernism found a model that proved fruitful for at least a decade or two. In Rome, the circus was dominated by power; but in the middleages it was not. The circus belonged to the people.
Like Bakhtin, Ernst Bloch also found the carnival to be of great interest. In an essay entitled “Better Castles in the Sky” (from the essay collection The Utopian Function of Art and Literature) Bloch makes a confession or admission to truth. His admission reveals that his fascination with the circus is a fascination with what makes us utopian. His admission discloses the circus in what I, following Bloch, would call an “anticipatory illumination.” To be sure, I would say that the circus, for Bloch, is the ultimate anticipatory illumination of utopia: “the circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance. A wall cannot be built anywhere in front of spectators who sit in a circle and surround performers. Nevertheless, there is an estrangement”(179).
By saying that the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance,” Bloch is saying something quite radical. This implies that all other artistic performances are not honest or down to earth. It also implies that Bloch values honesty and being “down-to-earth” which are basic folk virtues. To be sure, the honesty marks a kind of innocence with what makes us utopian. In fact, he repeats the word “honest” twice so as to underscore the importance of this fundamentally social and political virtue. But more importantly, these values, for Bloch, find their only vehicle in the circus and in no other artistic space. Their vehicle is comedy!
All other theatrical performances are mixed with ideology, power, and dishonesty; the circus is not. It has the quality of honesty. It is so honest that it is utopian. Bloch suggests that utopian justice, in this sense, is all about a kind of honesty that can only be prefigured in the circus.
Why is this the case? Why does the circus, for Bloch, basically articulate, unlike any other art, the utopian function? How does it articulate the “anticipatory illumination” and what he would call “genuine heritage?”
Before Bloch makes his admissions of truth for the circus and its utopian function, he discusses the roots of the circus performance. According to Bloch, “the sideshows at the fair” are uncanny and exciting because “they don’t originate here, nor does their magic, which is continually dusted off and revealed anew in the repeated performances of the sideshows”(178). The magic we see at the circus “operates as if abnormal and foreign. Yet, it is ordinary and full of swindles”(178). To be sure, it is very canny. It is plain, simple, and downright ordinary. However, it is “still more substantial than the trouble that the philistine causes for the age-old joy of young and old people.” In other words, the circus, for all its ordinariness, is more substantial than the law.
The circus is the spirit; the philistines – the ruling class – are the law.
Instead of pursuing this distinction further, Bloch takes a detour. Bloch’s detour takes us into the life of the circus and the nature of its magic: in taking this detour, Bloch avoids talking about the origin of the circus. All Bloch notes, before this point, is that they (those in the circus) “don’t originate here.” Does this mean they originate elsewhere, in another world? Where are the people of the circus from?
Bloch cuts in with quasi-historicism for an answer. Bloch suggests, as if we know, that a circus is a “boat like show”: “So these boat like shows set sail and are carried by the South Seas for the simple soul and the uncorrupted, complicated soul too.” The circus, originally a boat show, is for the simpleton (the schlemiel) and the complicated soul (the skeptic).
Moreover, the ship visits all kinds of cities; the ships have no boundaries: “The tent-boats weigh anchor for a short time in the dusty cities. They are tattooed with pale green or bloodthirsty paintings in which votive pictures projecting rescue at sea disasters are mixed with those of the harem.”
At this point, Bloch slips into the mode of allegory and allusion to illustrate why the circus is the “only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”
I’d like to closely follow his words so as to figure out what he is alluding to with a canny-slash-uncanny circus that originates on the sea but, in our day, finds itself on the ground.
Bloch creates a metonymy of sorts associating the “motor” of the boat with a sound that is “foreign, fatty, unhuman, breathless, sluggish”(178). And from sound Bloch moves to the figure of a “dancing wax lady screwed down next to the entrance. And she dances with sudden contortions, moves with twisted gestures of screwed down wax that turn into dance, and she throws her head back from time to time.”
The first thing that strikes me about this metonymy is that the figure moves and is nailed down; its dance embodies a dialectical tension and, for this reason, it appears comical. It reminds me of a dancing Hula doll.
Bloch writes of this figure lovingly and situates it behind the barker of the circus, who brings her to a halt. After noting this Bloch explains its “hidden meaning” by way of a juxtaposition of life and death:
Eventually she comes to a halt and trembles in this position right behind the barker, who fears nothing. The type of world extolled here has the secrets of the bridal bed and also the miscarriage at one end and the secrets of the bier on the other end. (178)
This image is mythical. Bloch passes from this image, however, to one that is full of particularities and seems to play with myth by way of plurality:
Strange human creatures and their art offer themselves to spectators in nothing but peepshows of abnormality. The sword swallower and fire eater, the man with the untearable tongue and iron skull, the snake charmer add the live aquarium. Turks, pumpkin men, fat women, they are all there.
Once Bloch realizes he has gone way out in his description, he reels it in with some analysis, noting that “fairy tale realm reappears continually and also that of the horror story.” This implies that the fair moves between innocence and horror. He calls “the fair, a colorful, peasant fantasy.” However, it is interrupted by the city (as well as by horror).
He notes the historical change from the country to the city in the movement of the fair from Europe to America:
In the large American cities it has become increasingly automated with loudspeakers and amusement centers. However, the land of the wishes from the medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained. And it maintains itself out of the Middle ages, which go much further back, right to the fair of the higher order, in the kind of show of the Circenses without any curtain at all. (79)
What Bloch does over here is articulate what we saw in yesterday’s blog; namely, the “genuine heritage.” To be sure, Bloch sees the fair as the heritage to which he, a circus lover and a lover of honesty, must turn. His language, following upon his mention of a show of a “higher order,” a Circenses “without any curtain at all” verges on the religious and the revolutionary.
In Benjamin’s sense of the “tiger leap” backwards, Bloch sees a merging of all times in the ring of the circus. In the “ring” of the circus the Medieval, the Roman, and the tradition of the circus on the sea come together:
For, as the miracles of the sidewshows are assembled together under one roof, in a ring, and as the managerie breaks out from here, the coliseum or the circus now originates from the South Seas. (79)
However, as with history, something is lost. And what is it? The hula doll I referenced above (the wax dancer):
Of course, the feature of the wax figure cabinet cannot be present here, that suspended animation, that mechanical organ, because everything in the circus is alive. And, in contrast to the fair, which operates with concealment, with stage, showcase, and curtains, the circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it.
But although the hula doll is gone, something new and revolutionary, something much more revolutionary than the fair or the sea circus has arrived. For Bloch the circus is the most revolutionary because it is “fully open.” It is, for this reason, the most utopian space.
To be sure, following this claim that the “circus is fully open. The ring brings everything with it,” Bloch makes his greatest claim: “The circus is the only honest, down-to-earth honest performance.”
This admission of truth is his way of taking the “tigers leap” into the past.
And as Friedrich Holderlin has said (and Martin Heidegger reminds us in his famous essay on the “The Origin of the Work of Art”): “that which dwells near the origin departs.”
Or as Bloch tells us, utopia starts and will always end in the circus.
What happens to the Schlemiel after the Holocaust?
This is a very complicated question. In one entry, I discussed the end of the schlemiel by way of the story of Menachem Kipinis, a reporter who acted as if he was reporting on the town of Chelm (a real town in Poland, and a fictional town in Jewish folklore). Chelm, as I explained there, is a town of schlemiels. As the story about Kipinis goes, he, the schlemiel reporter, along with all of the living Jewish members of Chelm, found their end in concentration camps. I suggested, there, that I was here to continue reporting on the schlemiel whose existence now transcends the boundaries of the real or fictional town.
For Ezrahi, the schlemiel takes part in what she calls “Diasporic privilege.” This privilege is not restricted to the domain of Hollywood and popular culture; in fact, it is found in high, literary, culture. Regarding this, Ezrahi notes that the schlemiel is bound to a textual homeland not to a real land such as Israel. It is a figure of endless discovery not, as in Israel, a figure of historical recovery. It’s trope is the trope of Diaspora not Homecoming.
In today’s blog, I’d like to suggest another route for the post-Holocaust schlemiel; one mapped out by Nathan Englander in his short story “The Tumblers.” This route takes us into a scenario where the schlemiel lives on, but as damaged by history.
Ezrahi is correct when she claims that, with books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Compalint (and after 1967), American Jews can no longer think of themselves without thinking of Israel. Jewish identity has changed radically, she says. We are no longer, simply, schlemiels. In fact, the American schlemiel battles, as we see in Portnoy’s Complaint, with the Sabra (I will return to this in another blog entry).
However, Ezrahi is not correct on all accounts. There is a post-Holocaust schlemiel in America, one she doesn’t recognize, one that has yet to be researched. As I would like to suggest, Englander, someone who has not survived the Holocaust and is far from its origin, recognizes that an American-Jew can’t look to the schlemiel as his predecessors did. If at all, the schlemiel takes on a new shade.
Englander’s story appears in the book For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
“The Tumblers” takes place in Chelm at the beginning of the Holocaust:
“Who would have thought that a war of such proportion would bother to turn its fury against the fools of Chelm?”
First off, we learn of the main character, Mendl, who descends from the legendary “Gronam the Ox.” He inherits Chelm and he carries on this legacy which, as the story goes on, changes.
Before the big changes happen, we learn that “Gronam’s logic was still employed when the invaders built the walls around the corner of the city, creating the Ghetto of Chelm”(28).
This schlemiel logic was used to make light of the difficult things: “they called their aches “mother’s milk,” the darkness became “freedom”; filth they referred to as “hope”(28). This is the logic of the faithful simpelton (the tam) – who as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – in his stories – taught is the schlemiel.
However, there is a limit to their substitutions and that limit is death: “It was only death that they could not rename, for they had nothing to put in its place. This is when they become sad and felt their hunger and when some began to lose their faith in God”(28).
At this moment, the narrator tells us that “This is when the Mahmir Rebbe, the most pious of them all, sent Mendel outside the walls”(28).
Mendel, although a schlemiel, goes out to learn what is going on. We witness how Mendel filters much of what he knows through the mind of a schlemiel. He struggles with what he sees; none of it makes sense. When he meets up with an orphan friend named Yocheved, she tells him of how she and he will run away to a farm and eat duck. Like any schlemiel, he dreams his hunger away.
However, he loses his innocence and much of his dream logic when he sees Yocheved killed by a bullet. The description of her death, as seen through his eyes, is a measure of his incomprehension and his new, liminal sense of existence. As the narrator points out, Yocheved would not have died had she not been startled by the beating of her uncle. Her death, both real and represented, is mixed with aesthetics, shock, and religious confusion.
The bullet left a ruby hole that resembled a charm an immodest gril might wear. Yocheved touched a finger to her throat and turned her gaze toward the sky, wondering from where such a strange gift had come. Only Mendel looked back at the sound of the shot: the other had learned the lessons of Sodom. (35)
Mendel is damaged by this memory. He has seen death. But he moves on and doesn’t give up hope.
His Rabbi tells him and his group of Hasidim to shave off their beards and to dress like they are secular people. They all manage to escape and stumble upon a circus train by way of passages built by way of schlemiel logic.
This leads them to the next game they must play. They are taken to be acrobats by the other circus performs in a train. They take them for such performers because of their thin, Jewish bodies. Now, to survive, they must act “as if” they are acrobats.
The rest of the ride to their first performance, Mendel learns how to do a few acts from the other performers on the train and he relays them to his fellow schlemiels.
They learn them as best they can, but when the moment of truth comes, and they have to perform before an audience of high officials, they fail.
However, their failure saves them, since the audience takes them to be acting “as if” they are Jews who “tumble” all over each other.
What bothers Mendel most about all of this is that the world they are performing for – the world the circus performers are performing for – is “efficient” and “orderly” in a violent sense. In Chelm, where the order was loose and playful, there was no such violence.
Moreover, Mendel realizes that to be ordered, as a performer, one must act as if he or she is something when he or she is not. He notices that the art of the circus performers is based on a forced kind of duplicity.
At the end of the story, he puts his hands up. Unlike other schlemiels, the narrator notes that Mendel’s hands are not soft and humble, they are “cracked and bloodless, gnarled and intrusive”(54). These are the hands of a post-Holocaust schlemiel.
Englander ends his story by reminding us that Mendel’s hands, the hands of this accidental entertainer, are different from the hands that have died in the Holocaust:
But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks of boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies. (55)
As a reader, we now know that we cannot think of the schlemiel without thinking of the Holocaust. This is the novelty that Englander wants us to come to terms with. This isn’t a Hollywood Schlemiel and it isn’t a schlemiel whose homeland is the text, as Ezrahi claims with so many other schlemiels.
Rather, Englander teaches us that we American-Jews who live in the shadow of the Holocaust can no longer think of the schlemiel in the same way; regardless, he knows that the schlemiel, Mendel, lives on. But, as Englander shows us through his creative fiction, he lives on in shame.
His irony – the irony of the schlemiel – is no longer fictional; it is historical.