Neo-Hasidic Magical Realism and the Revision of the Hasidic Schlemiel


In his book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Hetrosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Daniel Boyarin has a chapter where he looks into how some of the stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Hasidism, evince a new approach to Jewish masculinity.    Boyarin prefaces this reading by arguing that Jews, traditionally, are averse to masculinity.  In fact, he notes that a Yiddishe Naches (a Jewish Joy) as opposed to Goyim Naches (non-Jewish joy) was illustrated, during the Middle Ages, in the Passover Haggadah.  The images Boyarin includes in his book show the four sons which, as he argues, demonstrate a clear distinction between the “evil” son and the simpleton.  As he argues, the distinction can be read in terms of masculinity.  The evil son is stronger and more masculine that the simple son.  And this, claims Boyarin, illustrates the fact that Jews in the Middle Ages saw masculinity as other.  Instead, Jews valued the quality of humility and edylkeit, qualities that were often found in the pious Jew.  Learning and not physical prowess were of interest to the Jewish community.

Boyarin argues that this value is challenged by way of the Baal Shem Tov’s stories.  Boyarin, relaying a few selected stories, calls the group that disseminates these stories “revisionist”(61).  And by revisionist he implies that they revised the Medieval paradigm which privileged humility and denigrated masculinity.  He argues that this revision is “closer to the normative traditional Judaism of the nineteenth-century of East Europe” and not to the normative traditional Judaism of the Middle Ages.  And it is closer in the sense that, according to Boyarin, it is more masculinist.

In the story he cites as a proof-text, we learn about how, on the way to school, a teachers assistant would take his students from their homes to the school or to the synagogue. He would sing heavenly songs as he walked them to school:

While he walked with the children he would sing with them enthusiastically in a pleaset voice that would be heard from far away.  His prayers were elevated higher and higher…And it was a time of rejoicing in heaven.

However, while this is happening, evil is brewing.  The Satan overhears this music and, looking to interrupt it, transforms himself “into a sorcerer.”  And, once, while the Baal Shem Tov was walking with the children, “singing enthusiastically with pleasure…”

…the sorcerer transformed himself into a beast, a werewolf.  He attacked and frightened them, and they ran away.  Some of them became sick, heaven help us, and, could not continue their studies.   (62)

In response, the Baal Shem Tov (from here on the BESHT) “recalled the words of his father, God bless his memory, not to fear anything since God is with him.”  Drawing on these words, the BESHT goes to the people in the community and “urges them to return the children to his care” since he will “fight with the beast and kill it in the name of God.”

The town agrees to his pleas.  And the BESHT then takes up a “sturdy club” with him just in case he is attacked:

While he walked with the children, singing pleasantly, chanting with joy, this beast attacked them.  He ran toward it, hit it in the forehead, and killed it. The corpse of the gentile sorcerer was found lying on the ground.  After that the Besht became the watchman of the Beit-hamidrash.  (62)

Writing on this passage, Boyarin notes that what we find in this passage is a “tension between its valorization of “Diasporic” models of Jewish masculinity (models based in the Middle Ages) and the inability of such men to ‘protect’ Jewish children from anti-Semitic violence”(63).   Boyarin points out that the BESHT is different insofar as he is a “Jewish boy who did not grow up like other Jewish boys.” He is different, says Boyarin, insofar as he is more masculine.  This text, he argues, provides a “revisionist model of masculinity…one closer to chivalric, romantic ideal of manliness than to the scholarly ideal of the Yeshiva-Bokhur”(63).  Nonetheless, says Boyarin, it is trying to “preserve” the “scholarly ideal.”  The proof of this can be found in the fact that there is a “delicate semiotic code opposing indoors to outdoors.”   The “subversive aspects” are placed on the “outdoors.”

Boyarin goes on to argue that this tension is negotiated in several of the Besht’s text. But the crux of the matter, for Boyarin, is that this is gradually lost when the Hasidic ideal is displaced by the Zionist one.  To be sure, Boyarin sees the Medieval Model as offer a critique of Hasidic and Zionist practices.  And he would rather we turn back to the older pre-Hasidic ideal.   While this reading is interesting, I like to suggest that Boyarin look into the final parts of Meir Abehsera’s parable.

As I have pointed out, the end of this parable works on a few levels and draws on Magical Realism.  In the parable, the Old Beggar – who was once the schlemiel whistler – is met with a major challenge: the Miser.  Before visiting the Miser, the Old Beggar is reminded that he is a schlemiel and of what great power this comic character has.  To sum up, the schlemiel has the power to break illusion and bitterness by way of joy.  The emphasis on breaking presents us with an ideal that Boyarin may take issue with since it includes a kind of violence that he might deem masculine.  Nonetheless, the notion of challenging evil and “breaking” klippot (shells that conceal God’s light) is actually a Medieval notion (found in the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria) that made its way to the Hasidim.

When the Old Beggar encounters the Miser, he is rudely accused of being a thief and a liar and it told to leave his premises.  In response, the Old Beggar transforms himself into a dog.  At first he goes at the miser, but then he becomes playful.  The joy seems to break the Miser, but, the audience is troubled when they see what looks like an attack on the Miser. But, and this is the twist, they see that they are really play fighting with each other.

Although Boyarin might call this yet another model of the “revisionist model of masculinity,” I think it would be wiser to call it a neo-Hasidic revision.  In Abehsera’s parable, the Old Beggar becomes a new kind of schlemiel, a schlemiel which can be aggressive and playful.   Moreover, in this model, the Old Beggar transforms into a dog (and reverts back to the schlemiel).  Instead of the Satan transforming into a Sorcerer, we see another trick that, this time, is played by the Old Beggar (who has much in common with Yeshiva Bocher of the Middle Ages insofar as he is humble and not aggressive).    However, the Old Beggar doesn’t become a schlemiel; he always was one.

But the schlemiel he originally played was one who actively disturbed an entire town by whistling in the middle of the night.  Moreover, the Old Beggar’s reversion to the schlemiel-as-dog ends with the dog-becoming-man.  This is where the tale ends.  And in this reversion the Miser and the Schlemiel/Beggar are now friends.   And the community, in bewilderment, learns of a deeper kind of joy which emerges out of a struggle that appears negative but is actually positive and playful.  The point of Abehsera’s neo-Hasidic tale is to revise the schlemiel.

Instead of extremely humble schlemiels who wouldn’t know evil if it stared them in the eye, this schlemiel, while humble, is also touched by a zealousness and playfulness which looks to “break” seriousness by way of play and joy.  There is definitely a force behind this schlemiel that we don’t see in the Hasidic schlemiel evninced by Rabbi Nachman’s of Breslav’s “simpleton” (in “The Clever Man and the Simple Man”).

At the outset of Abehsera’s parable, we meet a schlemiel who whistles and the wind that comes from him, in the end, either moves people to laugh or takes their breath away.  That’s the point.  The neo-Hasidic schlemiel – for Abehsera – transforms and breaks the rules of realism and culture so as to transform the community and transform bitterness into joy. For Abeshsera, this is the task the writer needs to communicate to the reader. After all, as I pointed out in previous blog entries, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel.

Regarding Boyarin’s reading, I think it would be a mistake to simply read this in terms of a “revisionist” masculine paradigm which he, ultimately, sees as problematic.  Instead, this should be read in terms of what good it can do.   Abehsera responds to Walter Benjamin’s question as to whether the fool can do humanity any good with a resounding yes.  And we see this by way of the community’s response to the schlemiel’s magical realist transformation from a dog back to a beggar who seems to be fighting with the Miser but is really playing with him.  And that response is not simply laughter; it’s laughter followed by dumfoundedness.  That’s the neo-Hasidic revision.

Becoming-Dog: The Old Beggar, the Miser, and the Return of the Schlemiel as a Dog


In stories like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son, or I.L. Peretz’s “Bontshe Shvayg,” we don’t always see the positive effect the schlemiel has on people around him.  Or, if we do, that effect is usually minimal. And that is the point: the fact that people don’t change spurs the reader to be disappointed with the society that laughs at the schlemiel.  On the other hand, Peretz’s schlemiel spurs people to realize that they must change their priorities.  Regardless, we don’t often see the effect of the schlemiels magic in Yiddish literature.  However, in Hasidic literature we, from time to time, do.   I would include Meir Abehsera’s parable of the schlemiel in this kind of literature.  However, I would call it, instead, a “neo-Hasidic” kind of literature since it reflects not just on the schlemiel’s impact on people but it reflects on it within the text.  To be sure, the inclusion of philosophical reflection in the midst of the text is a modern practice.  We see it in all of the great modern and postmodern writers such as Lawrence Stern, Hermann Broch, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, etc.  Abehsera includes such reflection to foreground the relationship of the writer to the schlemiel.  And at the end of his parable, he points out what real-life experience spurred him to create and reflect on this relationship.  Abehsera adds the “old beggar” to this relationship.   To be sure, at the end of the parable the beggar – in many senses – stands between the writer and the schlemiel.  Abehsera shows how, of the two, the schlemiel is greater.  The schlemiel can transform others around him in ways that the beggar cannot.   And, in the end, the schlemiel aids the beggar and, in effect, helps the poor and the needy.   He does this by way of transforming himself and becoming-animal.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how the schlemiel lay dormant in the old beggar and  how the old beggar is reminded of this by way of a dream.  The dream is spurred by the old beggar’s experience of a circus as he begged for money.  As I noted in the last entry, the old beggar meets another old beggar in the dream who tells him about history of the circus and reminds him of the power of joy and laughter – which is at the schlemiel’s core.    The main point of this reminder was to inspire the beggar to go into the world and transform it not so much as a beggar than as a schlemiel.  To do this, he not only has to encounter one kind of joy with another; he also has to sweeten bitterness with joy.   And this last task is the hardest task of all for the schlemiel.

In the last part of the parable, the old beggar awakes from his dream and goes into the world.  But instead of going into the circus, he emerges into a world of angry and solemn people.  If they give anything to him, they “throw” it at him.  The narrator, who seems to have merged with the old beggar, takes on a weary tone and muses on the nature of judgment.  He points out that these people don’t “smell” good.  As I pointed out earlier, the Jewish tradition associates smell with judgment.  And it is the Messiah who it is said, will have the power to smell someone and judge them.  Abehsera plays on this and notes that though the beggar is not the Messiah he, nonetheless, knows what the smell of anger and bitterness is from his own life and experiences.

Using his sense of smell, so to speak, the beggar is able to determine how much a person should give if he/she is to be redeemed.  The implementation of this judgment apparently does wonder.  The narrator notes how “astonishing” it is “how a mere monetary transaction can acquaint the contributor with the reality of redemption.”

The narrator tells us that the old beggar does extremely well and brings home a lot of change.  He helps people to narrowly “avert death” by way of charity and this inspires him to take on the toughest challenge; namely, a miser who never gives money to anyone.

The encounter between the miser and old beggar is telling.  To be sure, the old beggar can do nothing to prompt the miser to give.  The miser is so bothered by the old beggar that he accuses him of “stealing” all of the money he has acquired through begging.   He then proceeds to kick him out of his home.

The old beggar’s response to the miser, strangely enough, transforms him into a schlemiel or rather a playful dog:

As the man lets loose a stream of obscenities, the beggar steps back and begins mimicking his mad behavior, trembling wildly, then falling on all fours, yelping and growling and circling the man who thinks he is having delusions upon seeing the beggar transform into a dog!  The dog barks, and the man panics and kicks it in the head; but the animal grabs the man’s bathrobe and pulls so hard that the miser tumbles, head over heels, crashing to the ground.  (130)

This transformation of the beggar into a dog-schlemiel is fascinating and, as far as I know, has no precedent in schlemiel literature.  Abehsera has the miser and the schlemiel-dog tumble around with each other and, in the end, he “breaks” the miser with laughter:

Man and animal thrash about, knocking over the table, causing plates and dishes to shatter on the gazebo’s marble floor.  The man gropes pitiably among the fragments of glass and porcelain and the remains of his meal.  He reaches for a large bone and flings it across the lawn, beyond the pines.  ‘Go get it!’ he shouts to the dog who, good naturedly, goes scampering after the bone…The latter is delighted. (131)

As all of this goes on, the miser becomes childlike and throws the bone out again.  As he does so, he notices that he is being watched by the community. They cheer and laugh in joy as they watch him and he waves back of them in acknowledgment.  In effect, the schlemiel has won.  By becoming a dog he has endeared the miser and prompted him to give.

But this isn’t the end of the tale.

Abehsera has the schlemiel/dog transform back into the old beggar.  And, strangely enough, the two get into a fight.  The “townspeople stop laughing.” And “absolute silence is interrupted by scattered remarks directed at both the beggar and the rich man.”  Some protest the beating and some encourage it.  But, at some point, the miser let’s himself be beaten up and then it occurs to the audience that they really aren’t fighting: they are play fighting:

The kicks are not truly kicks and the screams are not screams either. It is an unrehearsed drama between two men who, moments before, were antagonists, but through the chemistry of their encounter are about to engender a love so deep as to render it contagious.  (132)

In the end, the miser starts to laugh and the townspeople are dumbfounded.   But it is this dumfoundedness which transforms the community-as-circus into a community that is returned to itself.   Abehsera notes that his parable is drawn from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov since he, like the Baal Shem Tov, writes of a character who acts with foolishness to bring the dead back to life.

And this, says Abehsera, is the wisdom of the fool.  The schlemiel shares this wisdom with the writer and it becomes the “paradigm of a new type of intellect”(133).

What I find so interesting about this “new type of intellect” (and the parable that is used to communicate it) is not simply that it is “relayed” to the writer by the schlemiel; but that it is also relayed by the schlemiel through becoming an animal that makes the bitter sweet and the man into a child.

To be continued….

Seeking Alms at the Circus: The Schlemiel and the Old Beggar


In Yiddish literature and in many a Hasidic tale, schlemiels are often portrayed as being poor and humble.  However, we don’t often see a schlemiel as a beggar.  Although they are poor, they make people laugh.  And their dreams and imaginings often distract them from the poverty around them.  After all, schlemiels – although they may be poor or ragged – are usually figures of hope.   Beggars, in contrast, are often very solemn characters who are portrayed as being devoid of hope or dreams.   And when we see beggars in this or that Hasidic or Yiddish tale, the authors of these tales make sure to separate the two.

However, the last part of Meir Abehsera’s parable presents us with something different.  From the narrator, we learn that the “whistler” (the schlemiel) had, in old age, become a beggar.  In other words, Abehsera gives us a schlemiel which is hidden within the beggar:

An old man is walking on a deserted road.  His worn out clothes are evidence that he is a beggar.  The rooftops of the town toward which he is heading appear on the horizon.  From a pocket, he removes an immaculate handkerchief and covers his mouth. As he walks steadfastly toward the town, his shoulders hunched, his face buried in the handkerchief, he is periodically seized with violent fits of coughing.  The beggar is none other than the legendary whistler, whose age and waning strength now prevent the practice of his former craft.  Instead, he has totally given himself over to the task of collecting funds for the needy.  (121)

As we can see from the narrator’s description of the beggar, there are certain things – without which – one can no longer be a schlemiel; namely, his “age” and “waning strength.”  A schlemiel, for the narrator, is identified with the whistler – who we encountered in the beginning of this parable.  We first see the schlemiel as a character who, in the middle of the night, awakes a town with his whistling.  As I have noted, this moment has a life-changing effect on the writer.  Here, however, the schlemiel becomes a beggar.  He lacks the energy to disrupt; but he turns himself to the same end that the whistler did: redemption.

As the narrator tells us, this is a noble – though difficult – path to travel on. And the schlemiel-become-beggar sees his new task as a “blessing” since he “paves the giver’s road”:

It’s a vexing occupation, but the old man does not complain; he actually views his present appointment as an unmitigated blessing.  In begging for charity, he knows he paves the giver’s road, bestowing life upon him, both in the here and the hereafter.   He saves the miser from certain death, and forces die-hard thinkers to face the deed.  (121)

However, the narrator creates a situation where the schlemiel may have an opportunity to emerge from body of the beggar.  This situation involves the beggar’s entrance into a circus.  We are immediately reminded of the powerful noise that once blew through the schlemiel/whistler by way of the narrator’s description of the beggar’s encounter with the circus:

Inside the gate he is greeted by the explosive sounds of a fairground.  Calliope music blasts from the loudspeakers mounted over the entranceways to rides and gates.  There is a skeeball, a batting cage, a rifle range, and a roller coaster, whose clacking wheels can barely be heard beneath the squeals of passengers. (121)

Abehsera’s knowing very well of the Kabbalistic way of contrasting the Sitra d’Kedusha (“The Side of the Holy”) with the Sitra Achra (“the Other Side”) is playing one kind of wind against another.  To be sure, the whistling the schlemiel is on the Side of Holiness and it battles with the noise of the other side.  But, at this point of the parable, that is not yet explicit.  In yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how the writer – inspired by the memory of the schlemiel – spoke out against the “bad wind” of the Maggid who looked to frighten his congregants.  Here, it is more than just wind that is at stake; it is the noise that is produced by wind that is at issue.  This noise has spiritual meaning.

To be sure, there is a lot at stake.  The entire community – and not one individual – is the source of this noise.  Included amongst the throng of people is a Rabbi, a Talmudist, many “young yeshiva students,” and the rabbis wife. The description of the scene is joyful.  Everyone is having fun. And the wind that blows through them is the wind of laughter:

The beggar wends his way through the thrown. A Talmudist is tossing baseballs at kewpie dolls. The Chief of Police, bare-chested, muscles bulging, is bench-pressing barbells before dazzled young yeshiva boys.   The rabbi’s wife, holding a plucked chicken high in the air, breathes fire, and in a single blast, roasts the bird whole.  Every face glows red…from excessive laughter.  Happiness sizzles in the early evening air like streaks of summer lightening.  (123)

In the midst of all this joy and laughter, the “beggar feels uneasy.  He lifts his eyes skyward in prayer.”  The irony of all this is that a schlemiel would take great joy in the fact that people around him are laughing; but the twist is that he is no longer a schlemiel: he is now a beggar.  And in this scene, he sees himself as having no way of gaining charity.  He is, after all, a somber figure in the midst of all this joy.

In his prayer, he asks for strength and that God should “place kindness in their hearts, that they may give with an open hand, and thereby be redeemed.”  The beggar’s prayers are answered and he leaves with a “heavy sack of coins.”  However, he is still troubled by what he saw and heard at the circus; and we see this in his dream.

The narrator tells us that in his dream he is visited by another “old beggar” who tells him about how it has all come down to this: a circus full of noise which includes everyone, even the leaders of the Jewish community, the Rabbi, etc.  In his account, we can hear the separation of “true joy” and “false joy”; “true laughter” and “false laughter.”  The old beggar notes how, in the beginning, all of the poor were taken care of and of how this care for the poor was an expression of the learning that the Jewish community did.  But all of that came to an abrupt end.  And the wealthy no longer cared for the poor; they ignored the poor.  And people didn’t talk to each other.  Joy was replaced by seriousness: “seriousness became such a plague that dozens died from it every year.”  The death caused by seriousness was so great that the “town council met for a special session.”

In response to all of the death caused by seriousness, the town council decided that “happiness was the answer, and that a grand amusement park would provide the cure.”  They went right to work building the park and it “was an instant success.”  The “plague of seriousness” ended.

But now a new problem arises. The old beggar points out that “an abominable, overpowering stench” issued from the village.  The old beggar could do nothing to stop this smell and he ended up dying in the forest outside the town.  After finishing this account, he hands the ball over to our old beggar and tells him what is at stake. And in doing so, he makes distinctions between true and false joy, etc.  The old beggar in the dream brings together all of the pieces that were, as I pointed out in the outset of these blog entries on Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man, tied to remembrance and redemption. And out of this, our beggar learns (or rather, remembers) his original task – the task of the schlemiel:

You surely noticed how artificial was the joy of these people….With their silly behavior, they hope to demonstrate that they are in the swim, that they can outdo us.  Our bursts of joy, as you know, are upsurges of remembrance.  I don’t have to tell you that their false joy is the result of a deficient memory….Your mission, therefore, my dear colleague, consists of breaking these people with true laughter, until they regain their true identity…You break them with joy and you will affect the entire planet. (125)

This task shows us that, ultimately, the schlemiel concealed within the old beggar has the last word.  And it also discloses Abehsera’s conviction that there is such a thing as “true laughter” and “true joy” and that this laughter and joy will help people to “regain their true identity.”  This task is redemptive and affects the “entire planet.”  And it cannot be done without a battle.  To be sure, we hear this in the command to “break them with joy.” The ironic twist that Abehsera is communicating is that by breaking them one fixes them.

In the next two blog entries, I hope to follow out this thread to the end.  The point of these close readings is to understand how central and important the schlemiel is for Abehrsera’s project.  To be sure, without the schlemiel man (that is, the best man can be) – for Abehsera – is not “possible.”  For Abehsera, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel and the “possible man.”  What he relays to his readers is a joy and laughter that can break “us” out of our “false joy.”  And, in effect, he asks us to also become relays and to take part in a joy that will “affect the entire planet.”   But being a relay is not by any means an easy task when the world is, as Abehsera suggests, caught up in the circus….

The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 2


How can an encounter with a schlemiel have an affect on one’s writing?  And does it matter if this encounter is fictional? Will our reading change as a result? And what do the figures of the “gaze” and the “whistle” have to do with these changes?

These are the questions that Meir Abehsera’s narrator prompts in the reader.  To be sure, in the last blog entry we saw how the writer leaves his town and the old librarian – who defends his task as a writer (which is to “teach the world”) – to follow the idiot/schlemiel.  The writer is prompted to leave with him since he is singled out by the fool and “gazed” at.  This gaze is the response to the librarians point which is that what is right and wrong for the idiot may not be right and wrong for others (namely, the writer and the people he wishes to teach).  For this reason, we can see that the gaze has an esoteric quality.   It is an assurance that what the schlemiel teaches is not a relative kind of truth about good and evil.  To be sure, we are introduced to the schlemiel by way of a “whistling” that is supposed to ward away evil. And the advice of the schlemiel to the town is to fight and run away from evil.  His whistling is a way of running from evil or fighting against it. And that evil, as he states, is merely an illusion.  Whistling will, apparently, challenge it.

I ended the last blog entry with the thought that the schlemiel helps us to get a sense of the shape of evil – regardless of whether that schlemiel is secular or religious. This schlemiel is a Holy Fool; so its absent mindedness is based on a certain tact: namely to challenge evil.

With this in mind, I would like to take us into the next phase of Abehsera’s parable.  In this phase, we learn, right off the bat, that:

The writer has had a difficult time since his encounter with the idiot.  He has not lifted his pen in years.  He even finds it hard to a write a letter to his family. (116)

In this phase of the story, the writer cannot write.  The only thing he has is the experience of the schlemiel’s gaze.  This gaze has, so to speak, suspended his writing (as well as his sense of himself as a writer with an appointed task of teaching humanity).   All he can think about is the gaze:

From time to time, he is tempted to offer people some peace of mind by tossing them some factual news, but he restrains himself because, you see, on that fateful day, as the idiot look at him with his piercing eyes, he completely lost contact with his work. Or rather, it all became meaningless to him. (116)

Since he is left with his encounter with the schlemiel he wonders about why it means so much to him and this thought leads him to a reflection on his new task.   The question that haunts him is whether he himself is a schlemiel or is he, rather, a writer?

The most amazing thing he had yet to discover was that the persona of the idiot happened to mysteriously cohere with an undefined, yet consistent, recurring thought that had accompanied him in his youth.  This was precisely the same pounding thought that had him start to write in the first place; but he had lost it…A few days went by before he could finally figure out that he knew the idiot from deep inside himself, not in the sense that they were one and the same person, but that he had become the idiot’s relay.   (117)

This new formulation is very telling and it sheds some light on what I have been working on with Walter Benjamin and Kafka; namely, the relationship of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.  This question of what this relationship was and how it relates to the writer and thinker was of interest to both Benjamin and Kafka.  For Abehsera the relationship is defined in terms of the writer (Sancho Panza) being the “relay” for the idiot/schlemiel (Don Quixote). But this is more than a relay of foolishness. For Abehsera, it’s a relay of spirituality and wisdom.  (Benjamin, I would argue, also saw this kind of relay.)

Abehsera notes that his “wisdom grew at a remarkable pace” once he realized how, now, whenever he tries to speak his words would be overwhelmed by a “rush of ruminations.”  And when he tried to speak, he would utter “sheer nonsense.”  Now, this “infirmity” prompts him to “search for other modes of communication.” And one of these modes includes whistling. But it also includes theater and play; basically, anything that can make people laugh.

The writer now notes one of these practices.  However, he relates this practice to reading scripture.  Now, whenever he reads even a little bit of it, thoughts rush to his head. And when he fell into a “trance” he would “offset the undesired effect by standing on his head.” One would think that this clownish activity effaces his seriousness; but, as he puts it, it does something else:

He would feel rather silly doing it, but it was the only way he knew to keep his soul from taking off.  Ever since this began to happen, he would only study alone, from fear he would have to perform public headstands when his head threatened to explode.  (118)

After stating this, the writer reflects on an encounter he had with a Maggid (a story teller and a Rabbi). The point of the story is to illustrate the new task of the writer.  As the writer tells it, the Maggid starts his lesson off with humor (as it is a Talmudic tradition to start every lesson with a joke).  And this had the “audience roaring with laughter.”  All of this was “woven” into a talk the Maggid gave on the Torah.  Unfortunately, the lesson of the story went to the other extreme and slighted the audience with being sinners who, if they did not repent, would be punished.   In response to this, the writer notes:

He had the entire congregation in the palm of his hand.  But then, all faces had turned white from extreme fear.  A bad smell began to ooze out from an unknown source, but only the writer noticed it. (119)

This smell, which we will turn to in a second, prompted the writer to feel a rush of energy and it spurred a memory of the schlemiel – his “teacher” – and his words to “run from evil and do good.”   And this memory spurred words to emerge:

He screamed loud, deep within himself, to break the walls of darkness which were entrapping him.  He heard the din of galloping horses in his head. Soon, an avalanche of words began to roll out of his mouth. Every word was blasted out by a powerful combustion that was fueled by an utter abhorrence of evil. (120)

The effect of these words was to undo the “damage that the manic maggid had inflicted upon the congregants.”  According to the narrator, the “smell” that the writer sensed cam from a “low grade type of fear.”  In contrast to this low grade type of fear and the smell it emits, the fear of the righteous emits a smell is pleasant.

What is the deal with “smell” and what does it have to do with the schlemiel?

Abehsera is dealing with a tradition that emerges out of the prophets. In reference to the Messiah, it is written that he can judge by the way of smell.  Citing Isaiah 11:3, which says that the Messiah will judge good and evil by way of smell, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) writes:

Bar Koziva ruled for two and a half years, and then said to the rabbis, “I am the Messiah.” They answered, “It is written that the Messiah can judge by smell (based on Isaiah 11:3); let us see whether he [Bar Koziva] can do so.” When they saw that he could not judge by smell, they killed him.

Writing on this power of smell, which the schlemiel in this parable possesses, Abehsera writes of how smells will emerge from the memory of the “transgressions of his youth.”  And, “against” these odors from the past, the writer “measures other people’s sins by the nuances of smell.”  The Messiah, “however, like his saintly predecessors whose lives are untainted by sin, will be spared the noxious smell of other’s indiscretions.  Since he will lack first-hand experience (like the schlemiel or the writer), Heaven will have to grant him the power to judge at least the spirit, if not the substance of sin.”

This sense of smell is something that the writer apparently learns from the schlemiel. And, as mentioned above, since the writer is a “relay” for the schlemiel, this sense will also be relayed.  This suggests that the schlemiel not only teaches one how to whistle and find other ways of communication to “run from evil” but also a sense of smell which can detect it.  This sense, as I have indicated above, is connected – in some way –to the messianic.  It gives the schlemiel and the writer some form of judgment vis-à-vis evil.

In the next blog entry, we will return to this sense of smell which recurs; this time, however, in the form of a beggar.  Since the schlemiel, in the third part of the parable becomes the beggar.

The Whistle and the Gaze of the Holy Fool – Take 1


We all know what its like to be a stranger in a crowd.   The fact of the matter is that in big cities people are thrown into a situation where they are anonymous and alone.  We get used to it and some even crave being alone.   We hide away as we walk through urban streets and ride through the caverns of the city on subways.  And, like many who hide away, we like to look and not be looked at.  We are voyeurs and this isolated state leaves us without a world.  And, as Hannah Arendt has noted, a person is “worldless” if he or she is not seen.   Unfortunately, many of us would prefer to be worldless voyeurs.  And what we fear most is being caught.

But there is more to the story.  When we are confronted by a stranger, this experience may, at one and the same time, be a shock and a challenge.   This is the sense one has when one reads Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd.”  In that story, the main character sees someone very unique. Someone who sticks out in the crowd:

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age)-a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression. Any thing even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before. I well remember that my first thought, upon beholding it, was that Retszch, had he viewed it, would have greatly preferred it to his own pictural incarnations of the fiend. As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense-of supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. “How wild a history,” I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!” Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view-to know more of him. Hurriedly putting on all overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into the street, and pushed through the crowd in the direction which I had seen him take; for he had already disappeared. With some little difficulty I at length came within sight of him, approached, and followed him closely, yet cautiously, so as not to attract his attention.

What we find in Poe’s story is the voyeur who passionately follows the “man of the crowd” in hope of not being discovered.   Now, imagine that instead of seeing the man in the crowd, one first hears him.  And instead of him being someone who only inspires horror and fascination, he also inspires joy and even prompts redemption and transformation.  And also imagine that one is found out and seen by the man in the crowd.  One is gazed at by the person one hides from.

This is the situation of the Holy Fool in Meir Abehsera’s parable.   And this is what gives the schlemiel, in Abehsera’s parable, a symbolist aspect.

The symbolic aspect – which can be found in Edgar Allen Poe and his French translator, Charles Baudelaire – is put at the beginning of the parable by way of reference to a “dream adventure” in which the schlemiel appears in the “middle of the night”:

In one of those dream-adventures, he appears in the central square of a small town, in the middle of the night.

But “he” is different from the “man in the crowd.”  He makes himself known and disturbs the entire town.  He is not an anonymous figure in a crowd that the writer/philosopher follows.  And his disruption is not his appearance; it is a sound. To be sure, a noise:

He whistles loudly. Everyone is awakened.  Then, with a second whistle, he shatters plaster moldings and chandeliers, bringing mirrors and paintings crashing to the floor.   Landlords and tenants pour into the square.  They run toward the sound of the whistling and find the idiot standing by the fountain.  (111)

In response to the idiot’s disruption of the town, he is singled out and accused of “destroying property.”  The idiot/schlemiel – like many schlemiels in the Jewish tradition – has no idea that he has done something wrong:

He looks around in bewilderment, his hands resting on his hips. 

In the midst of all this, a “man in his later thirties,” a writer, “shakes a crumpled sheaf of papers in front of the idiot’s face.  ‘This was all that is left of a manuscript which was to teach the world!”

The narrator that tells us that, as they were about to “lynch him” the idiot surprised them and said that he didn’t want to destroy their property; he just wanted something to eat.  But, while looking for food, he noticed something odd. And he had to whistle. He whistled because he saw “dark hosts gathering in the sky, preparing your annihilation.”  His whistling, he believed, would scare them away.

One of the people in the crowd confronts the idiot-slash-Holy-Fool by calling him out on his mission.

“If I understand his words correctly…this imbecile claims to have been sent to save us.  And to the idiot: “Answer me this, then: If you are really the rescuer you portray yourself to be, where does that power come from anyway?  From a holy place, or somewhere else?”

In response to this, the idiot’s face “lights up” and he says that his power is not really his and that “what has happened here is not done by own will or calculation. I do as I am told.”

In other words, the idiot literally interprets himself as a schlemiel which can be read as Shelach (sent) m (from) el (God).  He has no will.  His will is the will of the master.  And his master, it seems, wants him to whistle and disturb the entire town.

The idiot goes on to explain to the crowd that he, in fact, was at one time a mystic and wealthy (“I had everything: wealth, glory, and wisdom.  I could read minds and predict events”).  But he met a sage and lost all his powers.  And was told that he should devote his time to people.  This, says the idiot, was a revelation that caused him great joy:

What a relief that was!  He cleared my head.  I went out of there as a free man. I danced in the streets.  I howled.  And I whistled.  I whistled so much that my mind became an empty chamber.  Within that emptiness, which was devoid of all my intellectual acrobatics, I suddenly made an extraordinary and sublime contact with the sage, my Rebbe.  For just an instant, I ceased to be a separate self. (113)

After saying this, he throws water on his face from a nearby fountain and says he must leave.  But as he leaves he calls on the people to stop fighting with him and to, instead:

“Fight the enemy! But now how to do it.  For he is…illusion.  This is why he appears so overwhelming.   So take my advice.  Have no pity.  Use your breath.  Whistle as I do.  With the breath of pleasure we have sinned, and through the breath we shall be redeemed!”

But after stating this message, he “whirls around and peers through the crowd, scanning the faces as though expecting to find someone.”  And, lo and behold, who does he find but the writer:

The idiot points a trembling finger in his direction…The writer’s face, now in full view, turns green.

Like the philosopher/writer who is following the “man of the crowd” and who fears to be seen, the writer is found out and publicly accused.  This is a moment of surprise and shock which will, ultimately, prompt a transformation:

“And you! the idiot says.  “Be sure to despise evil with every fiber of your being.  You’ll see that it will make you a better writer.   As you run from evil, you will acquire rhythm, through which your soul will speak more freely.”

What is so emblematic about this scene is that the writer, like Sancho Panza, is taking his directives from a Don Quixote figure (the idiot/schlemiel).  The problem is for the writer to accept this mission.  And this mission, in contrast to the secular mission of the writer, is religious.

In response to this, a woman in the crowd speaks out, an “old librarian,” and says that she has “groomed this gentleman from youth.  And I have seen him blossom into the finest writer of his time.  Now you come, carrying on with crazed grandiloquence about clouds and evil forces, to lure the very spiritual genius from our midst!” After saying this, she notes that what the idiot sees as right and wrong is not the same for what others would deem right or wrong.

The idiot doesn’t speak; rather, he gazes at the writer.  The writer, shocked by this gaze, feels as if he has seen him before:

But where? Was it in dreams?  No, it was in his life. Where then? 

In this midst of this confusion and in the face of the “old librarian’s” defense of his work and life, the writer makes his decision with his feet and follows the idiot.

They disappear from the place. The townspeople return to their homes.

This ending echoes and resists Poe’s “Man of the Crowd.”  He is fascinated with the idiot; and like the writer/philosopher of Poe’s story he feels “as if” he knows him from somewhere.  But unlike Poe’s story, he is broken out of his space and follows him out of the town.  He is singled out; he is no longer anonymous.  And this singling out, which was initiated first by whistling, privileges the breath.  Abehsera is suggesting that the writer draw his life from this idiot and his revelation and not the librarian.  He suggests that writing should find its basis in disrupting evil and not fighting the town.

This is a religious path spurred by a religious schlemiel.  In the next blog entries, I will look into where the idiot takes the writer and where this parable takes you, the reader. I would like to suggest that what we have here, in this parable, is a sketch of a schlemiel, his mission, and its meaning.   This meaning is not the same as the secular schlemiel, but, ultimately, the secular schlemiel is also interested in fighting evil.  What is at stake, it seems, is the writers estimation of what evil is.  And the schlemiel’s form and mission – as well as the writer’s – will take shape in light of this estimation of evil.

And it all starts with a whistle and a gaze which singles out the writer and fool in the crowd….

Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part II


Before presenting his parable on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar, Meir Abehsera tells us about a dream that he had as a young man.  Playing on the theme of “memory as redemption” – which we discussed in the last blog entry – Abehsera recalls a dream he had as a child and how that dream, which was vague, now comes back to him but with more clarity.  This dream offers us an allegorical key to understand what exactly is at stake with the schlemiel as Holy Fool.

Writing on his apprehension of the dream as a child, Abehsera writes metaphorically of how his dream:

…was like the hoarse, insistent pounding of the sea that exhorts young dreamers to set sail, and as mysterious as an unknown song begging to be aired. (106)

Abehsera goes on to liken this dream to a “song” that he, as a writer, wanted to pen.  He didn’t write it, apparently, because he didn’t think he was ready.  And, “at a certain point I decided that it would take me until old age before I would be prepared to do it justice.”  In such lines, one can hear a persona that is humble, perhaps too humble and afraid to take the leap into writing.  It foreshadows something. Indeed, I think Abehesera is asking the reader to pay close attention to this persona since, through his parable, we see that the writer goes through a transformation.  And this transformation is brought about by witnessing the schlemiel face-to-face. 

But before we get there, we learn of a person who is touched by a dream but who, as a matter of course, must let us know that he may not be prepared to write its song.  Echoing what he stated earlier, his problem is a memory-slash-imagination problem:

I might have kept my resolve to let go of the dream, had it not been for the rapid deterioration of memory that I perceived in the people around me.  It is true that I am uneven.  I am half raw and half burnt.   I had to come out….Can a crudely fashioned man such as myself succeed in singing the song whole?

In this passage, I want not only to point out his low estimation of himself and the world around him but also the fact that something has changed: instead of simply writing the song, he now says that his task is to sing it.  And he fears that he can’t.  Moreover, he can only sing a fragment of it. 

Looking down on himself and parodying the kind of song it will sound like, Abehsera jokingly plays out a narrative in which his performance is judged from the “ancient sages.”

The ancient sages look down on me from their heavenly portals. They are amused, but perturbed at my insolence.  One of them says: “Who gave that clown permission to speak?”  “Sounds like a barking dog,” says another.  “But look how his audience howls.” A third stage, though engrossed in an enormous book, has overheard the conversation.  He lifts his head for a moment and peers down at me.  “is there such a shortage of teachers that we’re forced to put up with this?”(106)

 This moment of slapstick put down’s be the sages is brought together by something they can all agree on; namely, that Abehsera is a schlemiel:

“We all agree,” says the first, “that he is an empty-headed fool.”

But Abehsera is not alone; it seems his generation gives birth to schlemiels. This is what one of the sages says:

“But consider the generation in which he lives…and read what it says here.”  He thrusts a thick volume across the table and quotes: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” 

This prompts the question that is of great concern to schlemiel theory: must the schlemiel stop being a man-child and become a man?  Is that the issue?  Will Abehsera’s singing of this song redeem him from being a schlemiel?  Or is it the case that the song itself is a comic one and leaves the schlemiel a schlemiel.  Is the schlemiel, in other words, the “Possible Man” that Abehsera mentions in the title?  Or will he always be a possible, half man, at least, until the Messiah arrives?

Following this reflection, we witness Abehsera trying to rally himself up to sing this song.  The effect is, in many ways, quite comical.  Yet, at the same time, it puts forth a spirit of revolt which is, to be sure, Abehsera’s response to the sages’ put-downs.

I had no choice but to go ahead with my original intent to speak with a spirit of revolt in my heart.  I figured that at that stage, my immaturity would prove more productive..

He must act, even if his actions appear crude.  He, in effect, is the barking dog the sages were talking about; but he transforms the barking dog into something redemptive.  It foreshadows a key, transformative, moment in the parable (which I will discuss in the next entries).

At the end of this moment of inspiration and revolt, he turns to the metaphor of dance and claims that his writing is with his feet and not his hands:

For a melancholy bystander (namely himself, as writer), I write page after page of holy texts with my feet, not stopping until the blood reds my cheeks.  He takes a liking to my dance, and asks for more than I can afford to give.

But something happens, the “melancholy bystander” takes charge of his dance:

Now I am his puppet. He maneuvers me like a bouncing ball.  I am about to collapse from exhaustion, yet here I am building up speed, trapped by own will to please. (109)

But something has happened.  It appears as if this melancholy bystander has become a fool of sorts and he loses himself in the dance:

He comes near me, clapping hands and jerking to the beat of my unconventional interpretation of scriptural verse.  His lack of rhythm throws me so off balance that I have to constantly change my pace to cover for his awkwardness.  A sudden surge of joy brims over his pathetic countenance, revealing a hint of dementia.  I grasp his hands, and together we compose holy patterns that swallow his affliction, until he begins to look like himself again. 

What Abehsera seems to be illustrating in this moment is his spiritual vocation.  His dance is the dance of the schlemiel and its goal is to heal – at least temporarily – the pain of exile.  Indeed, this happiness, says Abehsera, will be enough to “last him for one exile.”

However, after going through this Holy Madness, Abehsera comes back into his body and his weariness. But this is redeemed by his new friend – who gives the weak comfort and then takes the lead in this dance:

But my lungs are burning and my knees are weak.  He senses my weariness, pulls my head to rest against his shoulder, and we twirl, so fast that we form one body.  I am only mind; my feet no longer touch the ground.  And the music grows louder as we play that old Jewish game of being caught and freed at the same time. (110)

Out of this moment of shared joy and transformation, Abehsera gathers his wits and calls for the schlemiel to take to the streets.  And this is where the Messianic tone starts ringing out:

In the meantime, intelligence won’t be wasted.  On the contrary, it will only gain by going out into the streets.  It will wear street clothes.  It will come dressed as a harlequin to prepare people for the coming festivity. 

The Holy Fool he announces, who will prepare everyone for the “coming festivity,” is full of color and life.  He likens him to the major figure of commedia dell’arte – Harlequin.

The schlemiel and his wildly colored outfit and dance will “entertain the wrecked sensibilities of the perplexed.  It will amuse them with bright flags before flipping them over to reveal the basic black and white of unequivocal truth.”

Abehsera tells us that, in his dreams, he constantly thinks of the schlemiel.  The schlemiel is, in his words, his “alter ego.”  He, the writer, has the schlemiel as his muse.  And, to be sure, it seems that, at times, the writer transforms into the schlemiel.  He is a prophet of sorts who heals those “wrecked sensibilities of the perplexed” and who “prepares people for the coming festivity.” 

Perhaps this is what Marc Chagall – an artist who well-understood the place and meaning of the schlemeil to the Jews of Eastern Europe – had in mind when he made his lithograph “Harlequin with Flowers.”  The schlemiel makes us happy. He brings us flowers and hope.  But for Abeshera, he does more that just entertain: he discloses, by way of his theatrics and indirection, some kind of hidden, “unequivocal truth.”


All of this is prologue to the parable of the Idiot, the Writer, and the Beggar.  In the next few blog entries we will address it and assess this messianic mission that Abehsera has given over to the schlemiel.


Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part I


At the beginning of the summer, I had an interesting talk with the Kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson about Holy Fools.  The subject that I wanted to discuss with him, which pertains to the Holy Fool, is something he was familiar with in his studies of Habad (Lubavitch) Hasiduth and Mysticism; namely, something called Ruah Shtut D’kedusha (“the Holy Spirit of Foolishness”).  What spurred our conversation was a challenge that I posed to his reading of “negative theology.”  I suggested that we pay closer attention to the “madness” that this negative theology suggests and to think about how it may or may not relate to what Paul deMan – the literary theorist – would call, following the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German Romantics – the “irony of ironies.”  As I have suggested in other blog entries, deMan’s reading of madness, which is spurred by the “irony of ironies,” leans toward the Daemonic.  What I wondered was whether the “madness of the Holy” differed from this type of madness prescribed by deMan.  To be sure, The Zohar, one of the most important books in Jewish mysticism, often makes distinctions between what’s called the Sitra d’Kedusha (the side of the Holy) and the Sitra Achra (the other side).  Where did the madness of the Holy fit?  Elliot was very intrigued by this question and has, since, exchanged some emails with me about it.

But the point I ended our conversation with was, to my mind, the most important. I suggested that Elliot take a look at Meir Abehsera’s book The Possible Man: Life in the Shadow of the Just.   For me, this book took the Holy Fool not so much as a concept than as a Midrash and an account of someone very close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, someone who, in my view and perhaps his own, plays and played the Holy Fool.  During his years with the Rebbe, he lived out the “Holy Spirit of Foolishness” and, fortunately, he gave it to the next generation of Jews by way of parables in his book.  It can be found in the chapter entitled “The High Road.”

Before I discuss this wonderful work or writing, I just want to say a few words about Meir Abehsera.  I have great respect, love, and admiration for Abehsera.  Before becoming the Rebbe’s “whistler” (a name I will explain over the next few blog entries), Abehsera was a writer, artist, and poet in Paris. He was also one of the major people who was instrumental in bringing Macrobiotics (a way of life, eating, and community) to America.  After touring through the United States in the 1960s, he settled in Binghamton, New York, created something of a community, and influenced countless people there.  Two of those people are very close to me today.  (One of them is my uncle.)  In many ways, I find Abehsera to be one of the most important Jews in my life.  He is, in many ways, a schlemiel-rebbe for me.  His Jewishness is all-embracing, kind, joyful, and inspiring.  He wants to people to dance, sing, and talk with each other.  His gatherings at his home, whether in New York, Los Angeles, or in Israel, were gatherings unlike any I have ever been to.  I am not a child of the 60s, but in many ways I feel as if what he did is the closest thing I will ever come to a Jewish “be-in.”

That said, I’d like to summarize and unpack his wonderful parable.  I think it would be appropriate for Schlemiel-in-Theory to start the Jewish New Year with a spiritual reflection on the schlemiel (or at least one, important, variety of the schlemiel: the holy fool and the “holy spirit of foolishness”).

Here it goes:

Before talking about the Holy Fool, Abehsera begins his “High Road” chapter with a reflection on Memory, Imagination, and Redemption.   The serve as a central motifs in his chapter and they are the preface to his words on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar.

Speaking of himself in terms of his inadequate memory, Abehsera writes that “unlike the Just – who are the true repository of memory… – I am a broken vessel, who must resort to circuitousness to find my own way around.  My memory is that of an archeologist by comparison.  Each fragment that I unearth calls for the next, until I finally face the complete form”(94).    What kind of memory do the Just have and how can we tap into it?  How is it possible?

Following this reflection on memory, Abehsera turns immediately to something that concerned The Baal Shem Tov and his grandson Rabbi Nachman of Breslav; namely, the rift that grew in Europe between educated Jews and simple Jews.  To be sure, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, this rift gave birth to the first “literary schlemiels” in Rabbi Nachman’s stories.  The schlemiel, in these stories, challenges the Jewish intellectual who sees himself as closer to God as a result of his greater intelligence and skepticism.  The simplicity and naivite of the simpleton are, for the intellectual, negative traits.

Abhesera points out the Baal Shem Tov came around to address this rift:

He proceeded to transmit to common folk, in their own terms, what had been previously reserved for a select few.  His rationale was clear: the same Father in heaven who gives clever people the capacity to understand, also creates the feeble mind, and grants it no less right to share in the divine feast. (96)

Echoing the Baal Shem Tov, Abehsera lauds the simpleton. They, who live in the “now,” are closest to what Martin Buber would call “root experiences” (such as the giving of the Torah, Splitting of the Sea, etc) and they are the one’s who are closest to the Messianic.  And reflecting on what he says about memory, Abehsera describes this relationship to the “now” of the messianic the “memory of the future as well as of the past”:

Simple people were ideal chariots to transport the sacred, with never a self-conscious thought, for they did not suffer from the vanity with which the gifted are apt to be plagued. They could travel in an instant through time to Sinai, and fall to their faces, trebling as if they had just received the Law….The messiah was not a fable for these good people, or a possible dream of times to come; for them, redemption was now.   Cunning minds might contend that they were merely naïve.  I would say, rather, that they bore the mark of wisdom: a good memory of the future as well as of the past. (97)

The point of the imagination – and the point of the Baal Shem Tov’s famous expression “memory is redemption” – is to “bind past events with those that must inevitably come, to fuse the two extremes of the time and bring them to peace with the present.”  In other words, what Abehsera learns out of the Baal Shem Tov is that the imagination has a messianic and temporal task.  Imagination is equated with memory.  And for Abehsera memory/imagination is an “agent of healing” and spurs the “process of reawakening.”

Nonetheless, memory is challenged by the forces of trauma and destruction.  Memory “slips away.” And, for Abehsera, this is where the Baal Shem Tov and he himself comes in: his work (echoing that of the Baal Shem Tov) is the work of memory and its task is to heal the wounds that Jews have endured by exile and the Holocaust.

After pointing this out, Abehsera notes what he is up against; namely the fact that, in the times of the Baal Shem Tov, people were much more imaginative and hopeful.  Today, in contrast, the imagination is “less obsessive.”  We are – by and large – skeptics and rationalists who live in a disenchanted world.  And “yesterday’s dreamer is an extinct breed.”  So, in this world, we have to “smuggle” light in.  And this is done by way of metaphor.  Regarding this, Abehsera writes: “A metaphor is a transfer that can only be carried out by flesh and blood.” And it is human beings – and not angels – who have to use metaphor to transfer/smuggle light.   In other words, the way to truth, for Abehsera, is by way of the oblique.  We must hint at things but this is done by way of parable.

The trick is to keep this parable simple enough so as to speak to the hearts of people and not to an intellectual elite. And this is certainly something that is on his mind.

What I like most is how Abehsera situates himself within this framework and how, in his parables, he brings in the Holy Fool.  To be sure, it is the Holy Fool who smuggles in the light but, and here is the twist, this is conveyed by way of writing.  For this reason, Abehsera gives a parable that involves the relationship between the “writer” and the “idiot” (Holy Fool) so as to illustrate what is at stake.

In the next blog entry, I hope to discuss the dream that inspired this parable. Since this dream offers a, so to speak, allegorical key to the parable it deserves its own entry and must be laid out.  As I will demonstrate, it gives us a new way of understanding the schlemiel, one which shows how deeply personal and spiritually meaningful this comic character can be.