Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel – An Essay Published in Berfrois


I recently wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s readings of the schlemiel and published it on the online journal Berfrois.  This essay touches on thinkers and themes that will appear in my book on the schlemiel.  It is a foreshadowing, if you will.

Here is the link to the article:


Menachem Feuer, The Author of Schlemiel Theory




Psychotic Man-Child Fathers – Schlemiel Children: Marc Maron’s “Attempting Normal” (Part I)


When I watch comedy, I’m always curious as to what kind of life this or that comedian lived while growing up. Like many theorists of comedy, I do think there is some plausibility to the claim that comedy, in some way, is born out of and addresses some kind of trauma or loss.   Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, claims that schlemiel humor is a response to failure and weakness. After all, Jews were often excluded from history and often related to the countries they lived in from a position of weakness. Given this situation, Wisse argues that the schlemiel and it’s brand of Jewish comedy are a “theoretical reversal” of history and creates what she calls an “ironic victory.” However, the victory is ironic because the memory of trauma, loss, and failure persist. Jews are acutely aware of this. But, at the very least, comedy mitigates the power they have over Jewish life and gives the comedian some kind of freedom. The victory is, at best, minimal.   But, at the very least, such humor provides, as Irving Howe might say, a margin of hope. The comedian, to be sure, gives the audience not something to laugh at so much as a way to address suffering and loss that is not a negation of it so much as a way of facing it with some kind of intelligence which, in turn, bears on our freedom.

When I first started reading Marc Maron’s book Attempting Normal, I was astonished to learn that he grew up in a house with a psychotic father.   Like the comedian Marc Maron, I also grew up in a household with a brilliant psychotic father. And like him, I also felt like, because of my life growing up, I was also “attempting normal.” Reading this book for the first time, I was so excited to learn how he, through humor, addressed the suffering he went through by virtue of being the child of a psychotic. Like Maron, I became very interested in humor. And when I started reading his book, I knew he would approach it in ways that would make perfect sense to me. Through humor he found a way into a way of life he had, since youth, never known.   And although he would never “be” normal, at the very least he could “attempt” it. This very thought is one I know intimately. To be sure, I feel that I “attempt” it in nearly everything I do. And there is something comical and something very sad about that fact.

To be sure, as a result of my experience, I have spent most of my life trying to put the pieces together. Along the way, it occurred to me that, as a result of my odd and brilliant father, and the psychotic experiences I had been a part of, I had, like Maron, become a schlemiel. In one of my first blog entries I called myself a schlemiel and a son of a schlemiel. It stuck me that this is appropriate because, from what little experience I have of psychotic individuals (I was raised by one) I can say that they are, by and large, schlemiels. They dream big and often reinterpret reality to fit into the their psychotic narrative (in which they are the winners and they control the show). However, unlike the schlemiel, the psychotic is far from a nebbish. He or she goes out of her way to make reality conform to his or her vision. The psychotic is not simply living in an imaginary world; they actually change reality.   And this often gets them in trouble. To be sure, my father was arrested several times and was thrown into many mental institutions because of his psychotic actions (and by psychotic I don’t mean violent but…unusual).   In the film Shlemiel (2011), by Chad Derrick, I recount some of these experiences. And, as a filmmaker, Derrick was interested in why I turned to this comic character and how I, like Maron, attempted normal.

Maron’s retelling of his father’s psychosis has a comic element that touches me and inspires me to write my own account. For this reason, I’d like to briefly discuss some of Maron’s stories and bring together what makes them not only a lesson for me but for anyone who wants to understand who humor relates to madness and suffering. Being the children of psychotic parents, and not being psychotic ourselves, we can laugh at the stories and gain some kind of understanding of our parents and ourselves.

Maron begins his account of his father’s psychosis and its relationship to his life by noting the saddest pat of his father’s madness; namely, the times his father had a psychotic episode:

The most peculiar, sad, and entertaining part of living with a manic-depressive is the timing of erratic emotional behavior, whether it is up or down. My father has had some really impressive mood events. (39)

The first event Maron recounts – vis-à-vis his father’s timing – is his graduation from university. He notes how his father – just like mine – was the Valedictorian of his high school class. He also notes how his father was deemed “the center” and the “wunderkind” of the family.   He was, as Maron says, “mythic in the family. The doctor, the genius, the golden one.” I find this description so close to my own, because my father was also regarded in this way. And, to be sure, he regarded himself as a legend as well. (He was a Valedictorian, also, at Columbia University, went on to receive the prestigious NASA fellowship, and went on to a promising career.)

However, Maron, strangely like myself, had to live with his father’s high estimation of himself, his mind, and is capabilities. Like Maron’s father, my father was also highly selfish and erratic. And like Maron’s father, mine could also be abusive. But what I like most about Maron’s account is how he addresses it; he wonders if his father was consciously manipulating things. I wondered the same about my father:

I had lived with my father’s erratic, selfish, sometimes abusive behavior all my life it was always about him. A midlife diagnosis of bipolarity seemed to be his way of taking an easy way out, at least to my mind.   Initially I didn’t buy the diagnosis. Even now, sometimes I don’t know. It’s very hard to determine the validity of a mood disorder when someone is as plain old narcissistic as my dad. I thought he was just a man-child who refused self-awareness and defied wisdom even as his life fell apart around him. When necessary he would blame the “illness.” (39)

His father, in his eyes, was a man-child, a schlemiel. And he sees him as simply refusing self-awareness. This is a fascinating claim because I also thought of myself as more rational than my father and saw him opting out as things went down the tubes.   But although the son of the schlemiel may be the rational one, in the end, he is still deeply affected by the erratic nature of his father’s actions. Nonetheless, by recounting it, in this way, Maron gives the background for the comical events his father would spur on him – namely, in moments that would require the greatest seriousness.

In these moments, the inappropriate things his father does are comical; but seen against the background of his life and upbringing, we see the humor as bordering on sadness.

…to be continued….



My Vicarious Role in a Journalist’s Missed Encounter With Seth Rogen…in Las Vegas


About a month ago, I was contacted by Louie Lazar, a journalist who told me that he was given an assignment by Tablet: to determine whether or not Seth Rogen was the future of Jewish comedy. Pondering this question, Lazar came across several article/blog posts I had written on Seth Rogen for this blog. After going through them, he contacted me by way of email and told me he wanted to talk on the phone. Since he was hoping to interview Rogen, who was at a three-day-special-event hosted by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) that had Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and a few other stars in attendance, he told me he would call me from Las Vegas. I was excited to talk to him. I thought to myself, in dream-like fashion, here was an opportune moment.

Anticipating of the phone-call, I spent a few hours thinking about Rogen, what I had written on him, and what I could now say about him. I even posted a query on facebook to gather what people were thinking about Rogen.

When the journalist called, we ended up talking for over an hour about Rogen. One of the things I discussed with him was how Rogen was a “new schlemiel.” He was, as Daniel Itzkovitz might say about Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, an example of the schlemiel as “everyman.” This, of course, goes against the grain of the older model of the schlemiel who, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse argued, looks to challenge the “philosophical and political status quo.” His failure, so to speak, is an “ironic victory.” Rogen, I argued, is the status quo. Meaning: he is not an elitist; rather, he is “one of us.” The journalist agreed and noted that he was a “bro.” He has the body and demeanor of a bro – he likes to smoke pot and party – and that makes him “one of us.” To be sure, the motif of being a “bro” is central to his latest film Neighbors.

Before the conversation ended, Lazar asked me what questions I would ask Rogen if I were to interview him. In a rush of excitement, I gave the journalist several questions. (And even after the conversation ended, I sent him several more.)   After hanging up, I imagined – in schlemiel-like fashion – what answers Rogen would give. In a sense, I felt as if the journalist was a messenger; though him it was “as if” I was meeting Seth Rogen himself (who, just today, was dubbed by TIME magazine to be the “Stoner King of Comedy”). (An interesting side note, the word schlemiel seems to have a bit of Hebrew in it: Shelach (send) m’ (from) el (God) – in other words, he is a holy messenger of sorts or else…exiled from God and redemption; sent away.)

So…one can imagine how I felt when, just today, the journalist emailed me and told me that he published his feature piece on Rogen just yesterday.   I read his essay with great interest hoping to see how the interview worked out. I was so excited. I felt as if my schlemiel-like-dreams were going to come true. However, what I found was the most disappointing thing imaginable; namely, that the journalist wasn’t able to meet Rogen and converse with him. I felt as if, in the end, Lazar and I were the real schlemiels.   He hoped to have an encounter, we both dreamed about it, but in the end…it just didn’t happen.

To be sure, the difference between Rogen and Lazar is that while Lazar sought to find, meet, and interview Rogen, Rogen, as I told him on the phone, doesn’t really act in many films; he just “shows up.” To be sure, Lazar, uses this expression in the title of his piece: “Seth Rogen Exemplifies the Jewish Journey from Chosen People to Just Showing Up.”

Reading the piece, I felt an intimate sense of being duped because I was a part of Lazar’s search. What makes this failure so enjoyable, however, is the fact that it was written in the style of Gozo journalism that I love and have loved since high school. This was appropriate since the journalist, comically modeling himself on Hunter S. Thomson’s journey in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was asked to interview Rogen in….Las Vegas. The subtitle of the piece, “Beer and Loafing in Las Vegas, on the heels of the everyman start of the new stoner man-child comedy” says it all.   He is on the heels of a schlemiel and in following him, he also becomes a schlemiel of sorts. Together with the title, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was suggesting something that was in the midst of our conversation; namely, that Rogen is a “new schlemiel,” an everyman stoner who just “shows up” in this or that film or talk-show appearance. As I noted, half of Rogen’s comedy is just showing up.

And this is the sense that Lazar communicates in his piece. However, there is a big problem. Even though Rogen “shows up,” the problem, for the journalist, is that he can’t speak to him. I can hear Lazar asking himself, as the article moves on, “But…if he was really like one of us, why can’t I speak to him?”

But there is more to the story. Reading the piece, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was astounded at how odd the whole scene, along with Rogen’s popularity, was. And this, to my mind, is exceptional: it prompts us to wonder, with him, what all this means. What is the meaning of a comic character’s everydayness when it is presented within a hyper-capitalist milieu of a conference dedicated to stars in Las Vegas?

At the outset, we can hear the juxtaposition in his sarcastic tone:

I’m drinking scotch in the VIP section of the Garden of the Gods, waiting for the God of the Gods, Seth Rogen, Any minute now, he should be walking past the 50-foot-high Corinthian columns flanked by statues of Julius Caesar mounted on war horses and into the private area between the Neptune Pool and Temple Pool, in which I’m standing, comfortably besides a heat lamp.

He, the everyman, is framed as a “God of the Gods.” And this is odd.

Lazar presents himself as a schlemiel in the process. He is, like Rogen, wearing a Grey suit and has stubble. (Grey being the color of mediocrity; the color that is the color of everydayness, showing up, etc.) And like a schlemiel, he “cuts himself shaving.” This motif comes back at the end of the piece when he thinks he will, finally, meet with Rogen.   But his worry is for naught.

One of the things that follows this introduction of sorts is a great sketch of how Rogen came across the everyman. To be sure, Lazar nails it when he points out that:

In 2009, in what they’ve described as their best work, Rogen and Goldberg wrote a Simpson’s episode about an overweight nerd (played by Homer) who becomes a superhero by channeling the powers of other comic book heroes. His name: “Everyman.”

In addition to this, Lazar points out that Rogen recently called himself a schlemiel, that is, a “self-medicated man-child” (he did so in his recent appearance before a U.S. Senate hearing on Alzheimer’s disease, which, to be sure, came right before his Las Vegas appearance!).

Following this, Lazar turns to himself, reflectively, and notes how he believed, against all the odds (Vegas style), that he would get to interview Rogen. But, as I noted above, this is thwarted several times. At one point, he notes how he drank too much and ended up missing Rogen; he was “too late.” While other journalists shout things out, he can’t say anything; he is tongue-tied. On another occasion, he ended up “locking eyes” with Rogen, but “before I could act” Rogen “snapped out of whatever mental state he was in…and walked off.” In other words, Rogen wasn’t really looking at him and, like a schlemiel, Lazar missed yet another possible encounter. He leaves in frustration; but, with the hope of a schlemiel, he is determined to try yet again.

And in a moment when he comes very close, he says that “I felt a surge of hope; here was my shot at redemption.” He blends in with a group of people and waits. But no one comes. It seems like yet another failure.

In one of his last attempts, he meets up with a “hippie” named “John.” The name and his description reminded me of an everyman like the dude. Near the end of the article, he notes how John, out of nowhere, tells him that “I just talked to him inside.” Wondering what he said and desperate for an encounter, Lazar screams out: “What!” When he asks John what they spoke about John, in a casual manner, says, “I dunno, we talked for a few minutes…He’s a great guy. Real normal-like.” Lazar, not satisfied with this simple reply, asks again “What did you talk about?” (After all, Lazar and I discussed so many questions that we were dying to get answers for, but, to no avail.)

The last lines of piece are written to me:

In my research, I’d spoken with a philosopher, Menachem Feuer, who’s written extensively about Rogen and who teaches a Jewish Studies course at York University in Toronto.* His students, a geographically and ethnically diverse mix, “know Rogen and identify with him.” What is that I asked. “It might have to do with him being an ordinary guy, the guy that just shows up,” he said. “He’s just like us.”

What I love about these last lines is that they hit on the central irony of his piece. If Rogen is so much like us, if he’s such an everyman, why can’t I speak with him? To be sure, the juxtapositions that Lazar runs through in his piece show us that he is and is not like us. He is made into a God of sorts, and, as I noted above, TIME calls him the “Stoner King of Comedy.” Lazar found out the hard way.

And so did I. Like Lazar, I imagined that there would be an interview and that all of my questions would be answered. And, in many ways, I felt as if, through Lazar, I would be meeting a god of sorts. I felt as if I too would be redeemed.   This is, without a doubt, the conceit of a schlemiel.   And, like any schlemiel, we end up failing and with dreams that were…just dreams.

The irony is that Rogen also casts himself as a schlemiel. He’s “just like us.” He just shows up. But, in the end, the schlemiel, the traditional one at least, doesn’t just show up. Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, he goes on a journey. He does things. And for this, I thank Louie Lazar. I feel as if he has shown me, in a kind of private joke, that he is an old schlemiel while Rogen, the everyman, is a new one.

In many ways, I prefer the old schlemiel to the new one. But now that Rogen’s film has become yet another blockbuster and now that he is the new “stoner king of comedy,” I may have to accept the fact that the new schlemiel is now the God of comedic gods.   And what we are left with today – it seems – is “beer and loafing.”


*I teach several courses at York University, actually.


Menachem Feuer – The Creator and Author of Schlemiel Theory – Welcomes You

Hi, my name is Menachem Feuer, the Creator and Author of the Blog.

Welcome to Schlemiel Theory! I hope you enjoy the blog!  More Blogs and Vlogs (New Addition *) are on the way!

(Check out this story for more on who I am, where I come from, and why I love the schlemiel.  Click here for a definition of this character and the purpose of this blog.)

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

A Talk (Today) at the New School: The Schlemiel in Walter Benjamin & Hannah Arendt’s Mystical and Political Readings

I will be giving a talk today at the New School on Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel.  This talk is based on the book I am currently writing on the schlemiel.

If you are in NYC or in the vicinity, drop in.

Here’s the abstract:

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were both interested in the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel. We have evidence of this interest by way of essays, letters, and notes on this character. Most of their discussions happened while they were both in Paris before WWII.   Their readings of the schlemiel are antithetical and when read against each other we can see what, for them, is at stake with this character. The figure that they most differed on was Franz Kafka. Walter Benjamin’s letters to Gershom Scholem clearly demonstrate that he was at his wits end about the relationship of theology, aesthetics, and politics in Kafka’s novels, short stories, and diaries. Although Benjamin published the first part of his essay on Kafka two years after beginning his project, the other parts of the essay troubled him for over five years. Benjamin’s goal was stated in a letter to Scholem dated October 17, 1934. There, Benjamin uses the metaphor of the bow to describe why he had such difficulty “The image of the bow suggests why: I am confronted with two ends at once, the political and the mystical.” After making many attempts to maintain this tension, Benjamin simply admitted to failure (as is evident in two letters to Scholem and Adorno). Nonetheless, I would like to argue that Arendt succeeded where Benjamin failed since he gave only a mystical reading while she gave a political reading of the schlemiel. But, in the end, her reading is also marred by a failure to understand this character in an American context and it fails to understand certain aspects of the schlemiel that have an after-life. The schlemiel offers a new way of reading their work and understanding how comedy informed their understanding of politics, mysticism, and Jewishness.  

Happy (First) Birthday Schlemiel Theory!


Today is a special day for Schlemiel Theory!  One year ago today, I started this blog as a part of an academic project (and to some extent, a personal project).  The goal of my project was to provide an important academic and public resource for the study of the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel.   Moreover, this project would serve as the basis for articles on the character and my book on the schlemiel, which is a work-in-progress.

As of today, I can happily say that this blog has accomplished all of these goals.    It has reached a wide audience and many of my blog entries have been widely circulated and cited.  In the last year, schlemiel theory has received over 22,000 views/unique hits and has nearly 2000 followers who receive my blog entries on their email every week.  Most importantly, schlemiel theory has become the best academic resource on the schlemiel on the web.

I have blogged on a variety of topics ranging from the schlemiel as prophet and the schlemiel and the messianic to Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiels and Slavoj Zizek’s reading of kyncism and cynicism.  And the work I have done on the schlemiel touches on such scholars, writers, poets, and comedians as: Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Irving Howe, Emmanuel Levinas, Leo Strauss, Leo Shestov, Hannah Arendt, Ernst BlochSidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Robert Walser, I.B. Singer, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Gary Shteyngart, Andy Kaufmann, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Howard Stern, Louis CK, Larry David, and Seth Rogen (amongst many others).

In the age of social networking, this blog, because of all its unique hits, will come up first when people research the schlemiel in general or this or that schlemiel in particular (Seth Rogen, Woody Allen, etc).    It is the portal to the schlemiel and its unique brand of comedy.  More importantly, my work preserves the work of such scholars as Ruth Wisse and Sanford Pinsker – the only scholars to have ever dedicated books to the schlemiel – and carries on the tradition of schlemiel theory for a new age.

I want to thank everyone for your support and encouragement.  And I look forward to writing more and more on the schlemiel.  To be sure, given all the burgeoning expansion of schlemiels today and the fact that so many have yet to receive their due, this blog has its work cut out for it.

Thanks for your support!

I’ll see you all at the circus!

Reflections on “My Schlemiel Universe”

bar mitzvah 2

Last year, Chad Derrick and I screened the film Shlemiel at the Le Mood festival of Jewish Art, Culture, and Learning in Montreal.  I was blown away by the festival.  I had never seen such a gathering of wonderful cutting edge Jewish artists and art lovers as at this event.  It took place on one day with several concurrent sessions each hour which stretched from 11am until 8pm.  At night there was Jewish-themed entertainment and comedy.  Underpinning all of this was the warmth of the Montreal Jewish community, which I feel is without parallel in North America.

When we screened our film, I was amazed by the reception and the feedback.  People were genuinely excited to see it. They thought I was courageous to allow the ups and downs of my Jewish life to be displayed on the screen.   Many of them understood my struggle with Jewish identity and how that was related to my complicated past with a father who was psychotic.

This year I wanted to build on what I did last time; but instead of telling the story from the filmmaker’s perspective, I wanted to tell it from mine.  To this end, I gave a talk entitled “My Schlemiel Universe: From Woody Allen to Sarah Silverman to Me.”  The talk started off with the most basic question: What is a schlemiel?  Responding this question, I provided a number of different perspectives from Hannah Arendt, Sander Gilman, and Ruth Wisse.  Then I gave my own reading of the schlemiel which moves from “fictional” schlemiels to “living” schlemiels.

Ruth Wisse argues that the shlimazel is a character whose comedy is “situational” while the schlemiel’s comedy is “existential.”  Bad things happen to the shlimazel by way of this or that odd circumstance or situation.  Nothing in his/her “nature” would warrant such bad luck.  In contrast the schlemiel creates bad luck by virtue of his very existence.

In my talk, I looked to show how I played both a shlimazel and a schlemiel by virtue of the odd situations I was thrown into, on the one hand, and an odd Jewish-American existence in upstate New York,on the other.  The point of my talk was to provide an autobiographical account of my own schlemielkeit.

Philip Roth has Portnoy do this with his analyst in Portnoy’s Complaint.  But Roth doesn’t do this with his own life.  This would be too dangerous.  Rather, as Sanford Pinsker points out, his novels show a progression away from this character and “existence.”  Roth, in other words, wanted to pave his way out of schlemieldom.  And this is something many post-Holocaust writes wanted.  However, writers like Saul Bellow, Howard Jacobson, Steve Stern, and Gary Shteyngart don’t.   They are interested in looking at the schlemiel’s existential and historical plight.  And in doing so, they are able to articulate the plight of being in-between being Jewish and American, being Jewish and English, or Jewish and Russian.  This existence prompts stories that are fraught with a kind of humor that is “haunted” by strife and anxiety.

But, unlike some schlemiel writers and many a Jewish cultural critic from the 20th century, I, like these writers, feel the subject is worthy of discussion.  And it is worthy of being rethought in terms of the traumas that still afflict us today.  In terms of my own life, I can look to the schlemiel as a way of understanding how, as a child and as an adult, I have grappled with living in-between being an American and a Jew as well as being in-between being like all the other kids in my town and being the son of a brilliant, psychotic father.    And this is only scratching the surface.

That said, I think the schlemiel lives on; but not just in fiction.  Moreover, the “existential” part of the schlemiel is not something that is restricted to fiction.  No, on the contrary, it is something that is alive and well – even today, after the founding of Israel and even post-assimilation.  Unfortunately, not many of us know what this means.  My point: if we did, many of us could engage in a reflection on the comic-existential dimensions of our own lives.

Why, after all, do we have to turn to Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, or Larry David, when we can simply look in the mirror?  What we will find is that we play, so to speak, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote at the same time.  Sancho Panza, as the story goes, followed around a fool named Don Quixote.  But he wasn’t a fool.  We was a rationalist and a skeptic. But that’s the trick.  We live through that relationship in terms of how we reflect on ourselves.

Although some would scoff at the suggestion, because they are so “rational” and “normal” and “adjusted,” this suggestion is something that the best writers and artists in the field of Jewish-American literature, poetry, and film have – in my view – done.  But they have done this with fiction.

How would this look in reality?  And would it lead to what Freud would call the “interminable analysis?

I thank Le Mood Montreal for allowing me to share my interminable-schlemiel-self-analysis and explore these questions (of this – wink, wink – Jewish-American schlemiel).  Thank you for allowing me to educate the next generation of schlemiels.

Shlemiel, the Day After: Post-Screening Reflections


Last night the screening of Shlemiel at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center went very well.  What I love most about sharing the film are the Q & A sessions that follow the screening.  This time I was fortunate to be showing the film to a group of artists and art critics whose insights into the film were insightful and novel.  These emerged out of questions pertaining to where I am now and where I am going.

Every time I see the film, I see myself going through a process and I can’t help but smirk to see how my dreams, like a schlemiel, didn’t match up with reality.  I dreamed big and the film maker did a fine job of showing how my father also did.  From the very start, I could see that I was casting my net out and believed that my band, Men With Babies, would be successful.  What the film shows is how it failed to make it to the NXNE (North by North East Music) Festival.  Nonetheless, after the film was made, it screened at NXNE and my band was invited to play. (And the band’s future – albeit in a new incarnation – is still yet to be determined.)  The film also shows how I dreamed big about religious experience and how that also faltered.   This had to do with the fact that I came to Judaism through a Hasidic group that had major Messianic aspirations.  Moreover, my father also had the Messianic on his mind (as a part of his psychosis).  And, as I pointed out in my last post, I opened myself up to his insights and they bled into my own search for what it meant to be an American Jew.

To be sure, I thought of the Messianic in terms of my own music.  But I didn’t cast all my chips down with the Hasidic vision of the Messianic.  The film shows that part; but it doesn’t show how I was influenced by the Messianic aspirations of avant-garde art and poetry.  I was interested in breaking boundaries like Antonin Artaud, the Living Theater, or Jerzy Growtowski.

To my mind, these movements, words, and gestures looked to break open boundaries and expose us to something we have never seen, something to come, something Messianic.

I also saw this in the mad writing that came out of Thomas Pynchon and other experimental writers.  I heard this madness in much of Paul Celan’s later poetry.  And as a person who has studied philosophy and teaches philosophy, I found a philosophical root for this in the Messianic as understood by the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.  All of this amounted to an avant-garde type of secular messianism (or as John Caputo might say – in the name of Derrida – a “messianism without messianism”) and a revolutionary kind of practice.

When I was a teenager, I foolishly looked to art as Nietzsche, in the preface of The Gay Science), did: I thought I could – by my own efforts – transform my bodily and psychological pain and trauma into joy. But, unlike Nietzsche, I learned when I was an undergraduate that if this were to possibly happen, I could not do this alone.   I truly believed, like Emmanuel Levinas, that it depended on the other.

The “schlemiel-problem” in all of this doesn’t lie with this insight; it inheres in the word “believe.”  To be sure, I believed too much in the interaction of myself and the audience and this led to a crash course.  But, at the very least, I learned that if I were to crash it would be before the other and not by myself.

The questions from the audience prompted me to think about how much my dreams didn’t fit with reality.  I now realize that I couldn’t, like the avant-garde artists I loved, go at it alone.  I still believe that a secular messianic happens and can happen between the actor, writer, artist and the audience – it happens between people.  And that I, of course, must initiate an encounter or respond to an encounter.  I know that, because the actor, writer, and artists must take risks that they are, and have to be, to some extent hopeful and, yes, foolish.  Artists, like schlemiels, must dream.  And those dreams – if they are to be affective – must be shared.  And this, one must admit, is foolish because it is uncertain.  Nonetheless, one must take one’s (foolish) chances.

The schlemiel fails best because he or she still goes on and is, in many ways, blind to failure and to the scope of his or her dreams or perceptions.

I can testify to that as can many a schlemiel-artist.   I am a schlemiel who is aware of his propensity to dream big; but that won’t stop me from being a schlemiel.  Unlike others, I don’t think the schlemiel is something that can or even should be eliminated through a conscious rejection of ‘dreams’ in favor of ‘reality’ or the ‘world’ or the feminine for the masculine, or humor for seriousness.  No.  One can and must dream and take risks and this is a part of the human condition.  No matter how hard a Jew tries not to be comic and to shoot far over their mark and avoid the blind spots, one will always miss something.  And this makes sense.

This doesn’t simply mean that we should, as Beckett said, “fail better.”  It means that we should always try to make for a fit between ourselves and the world but with a comic awareness that that fit will always, comically, be off.

And this speaks to my own Jewishness.  I may have tried to reject one part of it, but I have at the same time embraced another part.  I am not afraid to say that me relationship to the world, as a Jew, is still mediated by the schlemiel.  My relationship to Jewishness also bears its mark.

I thank the artists and art critics at the Isabella Freedman Artists Retreat for helping me to rethink where I have, as Paul Celan might say, come from and where I am going to.  In the end, this schlemiel has come out of a mess and is now going (awkwardly) towards you, the other, but with different eyes.  And yet, I know, that even with these new eyes there will always be a blind spot which may keep me from seeing what or who is in front of me.

Who is that in the mirror?  It’s me and its not me….

Reflections of a Jewish-American Dreamer on “Shlemiel” – a Documentary


Words cannot express the honor and gratitude I have for Chad Derrick who decided a few years ago to film my life and my Jewish-American story.  He patiently followed me around with a camera for a few years and listened to my story.  He edited hundreds of hours of film to distill it to its essential moments.  It is a wonderful work of cinema verite style that, without a doubt, does justice to at least one part of my life and struggles with being an American-Jew.

I’m really excited to be showing the film Shlemiel (directed by Chad Derrick) in the United States.  It has been shown in Toronto and in Montreal, but it has not been shown in the country I was born and raised in.   And this is significant since this country, so to speak, nurtured this schlemiel.  Living in the Adirondack’s in a small rural Jewish community, with a father who dreamed big and crashed hard, I learned to dream.  It was here that I learned how, as I say at the beginning of the film, “a schlemiel is a dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.”

On my way to The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut – where I will be making the first screening of the documentary to an American audience – I have decided to stop off in my hometown Gloversville, New York and to reflect on who I am and what this film discloses about my journey – the journey of a wayward, dreaming Jewish-American schlemiel.

A lot of my story is rooted in this area.  As you can see from the trailer in this post, the documentary is interested in how and why I became a religious Jew and how and why I decided to create a band – named with Men With Babies – as a way of communicating and celebrating this new found Jewishness.  I say “new found” as I was not raised as a religious Jew.  I was born in a hospital up the road from where I grew up, which was named after a wealthy Jew in the area by the name of Nathan Littauer.  I did have a Brit Milah (a circumcision) with a Rabbi and Mohel (who does the circumcision).  And I was given a Hebrew name: Menachem Menkah (it was the name of my grandfather, father’s side, who died before I was born).  But that, together with several years after school, at the Lucius Littauer Jewish Community Hebrew school (until I was thirteen), and my bar-Mitzvah were the only Jewishness I had.  And it didn’t last.  I didn’t go by my Hebrew name and all of my Hebrew learning was not related to my life.  (My parents never told me what it meant to be Jewish. We just did it as a matter of course.)

All of my friends knew me as “Matt” or “Feuer” (mispronounced as ‘fewer’ rather than the Germanic pronunciation Foyer – which means ‘fire’).  No matter what I did, and no matter how well I performed in sports, school, or at parties, I always thought of myself as “less than” (fewer) I could be.  And that came from my sense of being an American, not a Jew.

Like many Americans from the area, I was raised on little league baseball games, football, ice cream socials, clam bakes, keg parties, hunting, fishing, and the wind that blows down from the Adirondack mountains every day into the valley where I live.  Like many people in my town, I was raised to be kind and fun-loving.  I spent a lot of time on the Sacandaga Lake and, as a teenager I used to ride a “three-wheeler” through the Adirondacks.

My American side conflicted with my Jewish side and the difference between the two often prompted me to question who I was.  To begin with, both of my parents were from New York City and were, from my perspective, out of place in upstate New York.  My father didn’t fish, hunt, or participate in coaching a sport team.  He was an intellectual and a businessman.  And my mother tried hard to adapt, and though she cried many times for having to leave the city, she did succeed in being much like the other soccer moms in the area.  But my mother’s efforts were not enough.  And my father’s preoccupations led me away from my family and my tradition.   They led me to find a group of friends who, like me, were trying to figure out what it meant to be an American.

But, to be sure, what really drove me to my friends was not simply my father’s non-interest in doing what my friend’s fathers did.  My father’s life was complicated by lots of trauma, family feuding over the leather business, and mania.  (As you can see from these two hyperlinks, I have written about this topic in the blog, already.)  From what I have already written, you can see that my father was a person with big dreams who had real possibilities that were given to him and taken away.  His brilliance was too much for this small town and, unfortunately, I was often embarrassed when I found out, through my friends or other people, that rumors were going around town that my father had been put in a metal hospital or jail, or that he was going around town saying or doing crazy things.

What I haven’t mentioned about my father’s story is the fact that, while in high school, when he had many manic episodes, he took an interest in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.  He bought a full-volume set of The Zohar and made several trips to New York City to visit with Rabbi Rabbi Berg and his newfangled Kabbalah Center (which today attracts many Hollywood stars).  My father’s mania had a real source which was based on hateful things that were done to him by his own family, making money and spending it all, and by virtue of a genetic condition. But the interest in Kabbalah didn’t help.  To be sure, it made his psychosis more intense.

While this was going on, I kept one eye open on religion and the other on my friends.  To be sure, the more trouble my father got in and the more mystical he became, the more I was driven to my friends and to a desire to leave the house.  And when the opportunity came to leave came, I took it up with a passion.  In truth, the real problem was no longer simply my father, I started despising my home town.  I felt people were to narrow minded.  This came to me while reading books in my backroom (I had to hide this from my friends) and by way of following the Grateful Dead.  Seeing them in concert for the first time, in the early 90s, changed my perspective on a lot of things.

I started becoming more spiritual.  And, after a few shows on the east and west coast, I decided to read some of Rabbi Berg’s books and, for the first time, I listened closely to my father’s psychosis and traveled with him on several of his manic episodes.  Reading literature and philosophy, I thought that it would be better to let my father be and to experience him as I would experience a novel.  In a way, I felt like a Sancho Panza and he felt like a Don Quixote.  And so much of what he was doing was Jewish – a strange continent for an American-Jew who had opted to be an American first.  As I went along with him, I started drifting away from my town and my life.  I wanted a mystical experience.  I dreamt of it.  And I felt Kabbalah, as lived by my father, could lead the way.

My father was so full of life and insight.  Everything he did was by virtue of chance.  I felt as if I was living a Paul Auster novel and my father was the main character.  His playing with chance led him to Washington, DC where he acted ‘as if’ he was going to save the country and talk to the President.  On the way to the White House, we stopped off at the Washington Hilton.  He went down to the lobby and saw Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.  He opened the book, read an aphorism that dealt with going beyond dichotomy, and charged into the hotel restaurant.  He ordered a table as if he was a dignitary.  We sat down and father asked for menus.  Before he could look at the menu, Dan Rather passed by and father yelled out “Dan!” Rather turned to my father, said, “Yes, how can I help you?” And from there my father had a discussion about world affairs and his solutions for at least ten minutes.  At the moment when my father presented a wild idea, Rather was turned off and left the table. My father felt something “was wrong,” and left immediately thereafter.

When we went upstairs, he said he had to make a phone call to the doctor that delivered me (a Dr. Woolsey).  He acted as if he had him on the phone, he turned to me, and said “Dr. Woolsey just told me the truth…You are not my son.  You are my brother’s son.  You are an imposter.”  This talk, which I had never heard before, threw me off guard.  I was confused.  And in the midst of this, my father stormed out of the room.  I followed after him.  He said we must leave DC.  We are being followed.    What ensued was a wild imaginary goose-chase. My father swerved in and out of traffic as we sped off to New York City (where my mother, at that time, was visiting).  As he swerved, he read license plates and did letter-number combinations.  He translated these into messages about what was going on and what we should do.

In the midst of this madness, he said that we must pull over into a rest-stop.  We went inside, and my father told me, “There he is!” “Who,” I asked.  “Just come with me,” he said.  We went over to a man in overalls and my father stared him directly in his eyes.  He asked him, “What do you do for a living?” And the man replied, “I am a ‘tree-whacker.”  My father rejoined: “You cut down trees, correct?” “Yes,” said the man. After saying this my father said, “There, you see, he was trying to cut us down. Its code.”

All of this relates to a sad story that goes back to when I was a ten-year-old boy.  My father had, for years, thought that he was being stalked by his brother’s mafia men since my father had a real law suit against them.  His brothers were scared and bought off many lawyers, apparently.  In any case, my father’s first manic episode came after a new car he had bought, in celebration of the case actually hitting the courts, came up.

The car had a tape deck. And I wanted to hear Grease (the musical). But my father said I couldn’t until we left NYC for Gloversville.  On the way, I put the tape in and immediately thereafter the car set on fire.  We pulled over.  And the car went up in flames on the side of the New York State Thruway. This led to much paranoia and speculation.  It also led to my father’s madness and gave me my first experience of my father’s madness as a child.  It also led me to meet with a mafia boss who confirmed that a ‘hit’ was made on my family (mind you, I was ten) and that he would, from then on, protect us.  I’d like to share more but I’ll save that for another blog.

Needless to say, these experiences all formed a backdrop for my “return” to Judaism.  After my father’s breakdown in DC, I no longer felt I could go to him to learn about mysticism or Judaism.  It was a wake up call of sorts to find things out for myself.  And I did.

But I took a big detour by way of my studies in Comparative Literature and Philosophy.  I took a big detour by way of trying to live a life in total denial of God, a life of pure experience informed by art, literature, and relationships.  All of this led to my own breakdown of sorts.  It also led me back to this, my hometown.

I felt like I had to return to my roots: my American roots and my Jewish roots.  And that led to a process in which I went to Yeshiva, became religious, married, and had two wonderful little children.  Shlemiel documents this transition, but it also shows how, over the last five years, my life has changed.  My struggle to figure out what it means to be an American-Jew, I feel, is ongoing.  It has brought me back to my home town, it brought me into a music project, and it has brought me into this, my schlemiel project.

Today, as I write this, I realize that I was right to say that a schlemiel is a “dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.”  I have no problem saying that I have played the schlemiel. And though it may be a derogatory term for some people I know, it need not be.  It was the German-Jewish tradition that found fault in the schlemiel and were embarrassed by the schlemiel (depicting him as a backwards, Eastern-European shtetl type). They were interested in reality not dreams. But the Eastern European schlemiel is a different story; in him we find a tension between hope and skepticism; in him we find something sad about history and life and yet also something very optimistic and good.

I’ll admit that my dreams don’t match up with reality and they haven’t for a while. But the key to all of this doesn’t have to do with my way of thinking.  No.  It has to do with the my specific history and with my grappling with Jewish-American identity.  In this struggle, I cannot help being the schlemiel.  My dream of being a Jew is interrupted by my American dream.  And these dreams are caught up with unredeemed fragments of history and reality.  Hopefully, someday they will find a better match, but until then I remain – sincerely yours – a schlemiel.  My dreams still don’t match up with reality.

But I can still dream.  Here’s a clip from a film produced by Samuel Goldwyn, my uncle, who once passed through Gloversville as he traveled to Hollywood.  He, a Jewish-American like me, also had a dream.  And it started here, in Gloversville. Thank you Chad Derrick, for making this dream a filmic reality!