Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe’s Case for the “Writers of Sweetness” and the Jewish Anti-Hero – Part II


After explaining how the Yiddish writers (“the writers of sweetness”) came out of a world that made “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” Howe and Greenberg define the themes of Yiddish literature which correlated with this Eastern European world: “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured”(39).   Howe and Greenberg are quite cognizant that this world died in the Holocaust. However, what one might miss is the fact that, in making their case for Yiddish literature, they write about these themes as if they could be generalized and used as a counter-valence to the Western and American obsession with heroism in the post war years. The value of this counter-valence comes out in their reading of the main character in Yiddish literature: the schlemiel. Read against western literature, it comes across as the anti-hero:

A culture that has been able to resist the temptations of worldly power – or has been blocked at the threshold of those temptations – will naturally favor an image of heroism very different from the one we know in Western literature. (39)

Howe and Greenberg point out how the movement from “hybris to humility,” which we find in the “Aristotelian formula” is not “organic to Yiddish literature.” To be sure, the schlemiel character is, from start to finish, humble. There is no such movement. In a footnote to this claim, Howe and Greenberg point out how this anti-hero and its lack of progress into history and heroism is antithetical to not only Western literature and Aristotle but also to Zionism:

The prevalence of this theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve – or improvise – an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment….Having for so long been exposed to the conditions of powerlessness, Yiddish culture could not quickly accustom itself to the climate of power. (39)

From here, Howe and Greenberg argue that the anti-heroic element can be found in the rejection of “historical aggrandizement.”   Tevye, for them, is the “embodiment of the anti-heroic Jewish hero whose sheer power of survival and comment makes the gesture of traditional heroism seem rather absurd”(40).   Not only his language but also his “ironic shrug” is symbolic of this ahistorical, anti-heroism.

Howe and Greenberg point out, however, how Aleichem had more patience with this anti-heroism while I.L. Peretz had less. Perhaps because Peretz was more fed up with anti-heroism and wanted to enter history, they put this in quotation marks, “modern.” This suggests that both Greenberg and Howe have sympathies with Aleichem’s project which, in their view, challenges the modern view of power and heroism.

The character that Zionist and more “modern” Yiddish writers want to leave behind is the little man, the “kleine mentschele”(40).   It is “he, the long-suffering, persistent, loving ironic” character whom “the Yiddish writers celebrate.” He “lives in the world” while the heroes of Western literature conquer it.

Out of the humble, little man come “a number of significant variations and offshoots.” One of these is the schlemiel, par excellence: “the wise or sainted fool who has often given up the householder’s struggle for dignity (think of Tevye) and thereby acquired the wry perspective of the man on the outside”(40).

Howe and Greenberg evoke I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” as an example of the “wise or sainted fool”(41).   Their description of Gimpel is evocative on different registers that are at once religious and secular. He has a “halo of comic sadness”:

He acquires, with the piling up of his foolishness, a halo of comic sadness, and..in the end, his foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world”(41).

Although Howe and Greenberg note that “Gimpel is the literary grandson of Peretz’s Bontsha Schweig,” they point out how he is a different kind of schlemiel since Singer, as opposed to Peretz, was more interested in preserving the character.   Howe discusses two other examples of the holy fool, schlemiel in this section, but he ends with a meditation on the child as the ultimate heroic anti-hero.

Hand in hand with the anti-heroic Jewish hero, and more at the center of things than the sainted fool, goes the Jewish child, precocious, ingenious, deprived yet infinitely loved. (41)

What’s interesting about his characterization is that he cites Sholem Aleichem’s Motl as an example. This reading is interesting because for Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse, and Sidra Ezrahi, Motl is not simply a child; he is a man-child, a schlemiel. Howe and Greenberg’s effort to give him a different category, as an offshoot of the humble anti-hero, suggest that there is something about Motl that is more powerful than all of the other schlemiel types. And that something is love. In contrast to how Dickens, Graham Greene, and Henry James, who have children who are “unloved and brutalized,” the children in Yiddish literature are loved. To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this love for children in Yiddish literature is part and parcel of the love of “the poor, the weak” and the “insulted” that emerges out of the Yiddish world. However, in their description, there is a moment of universalization:

For whatever the deficiencies of Yiddish culture, the power of love remains; for the child, the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured everywhere. It is the power at the heart of the Yiddish tradition. (42).

The word “everywhere” suggests that Howe and Greenberg find the love for the child, the poor, and the injured, which is particular to Yiddish culture, to be its greatest “power.” Howe and Greenberg suggest that the schlemiel – and the Yiddish culture it emerges out of – can present us with a universal that we can, today, learn from…even though the world that gave birth to it is gone. It presents a different, “sweeter” way to look at the world which, though not heroic in the western sense, is compassionate and can give hope.

But, as I noted, what happens when that world is gone? How does this universal live on if there is no world to nurture it? And doesn’t this relation to power emerge, as Hannah Arendt once said, out of worldlessness (not the world)? Instead of making “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” our world does the opposite. Unless, that is, we were to sink into a poverty and powerlessness much like the world of the Yiddish writers and, out of this, to find compassion and love rather than cynicism. It seems as if Howe envisions a world and an attitude that doesn’t emulate “crisis” and harsh realism so much as a “sweet” kind of realism that is based on love. And his examples of such a world are to be found in the aesthetics it produces. They are his guide and are the remnant of a feeling that could speak truth to power.

Lest we not forget, Howe and Greenberg wrote these words in the 1950s. How would they fare today? Are we, in our frustration with power, heroism, and Empire (as Hardt and Negri would say), looking for the schlemiel? Are we looking for the “writers of sweetness” who can give us characters that emerge out of poverty and remain anti-heroes from start to finish? Are we, today, looking for characters that evince compassion or are we looking for, as Howe would say, history, greatness, and heroism? And if Howe is with Aleichem rather than Peretz, would that suggest that his greatest enemy is…history? Are we looking for the world or for worldlessness? After all, Howe suggests that the schlemiel is not interested in heroism or making history so much as being in solidarity with those who don’t make history but are wounded by it: the poor, the injured, etc.   Or is it the case that the schlemiel is not so much a free choice so much as a choice that is made as a result of being….without history and…worldless?

The Other is My Teacher: First Thoughts on Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”


When I first started reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I was struck by the title, the first words of the novel, and their speaker, the main character, who is an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction: her name is Sheila Heti.  Her book, published in 2012, has received great reviews by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and many other reputable publications. I need not go through what has already been said about her wonderful novel by these reviews. Rather I’d like to introduce a nuanced way of reading her novel that taps into the existential comedy of being – which is connected to the comedy of education – that runs throughout the text. The comedy we find with Sheila, to be sure, resonates very well with the schlemiel.

What intrigued me about this confluence between the title of Heti’s novel, it’s first words, and the main character, was the fact that they are all involved, in the most Talmudic way, in a series of questions, tests, and life possibilities that are aimed at learning something and being something. But this education is not a simple one; it is what I would call a schlemiel-education. This is the case because the relationship of Sheila to her experiences is based on an uncertainty as to “how a person should be.” She is a lot like Motl of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son. He leaves Europe with his family to discover America. Motl embraces and attempts to learn from each experience about how to be.   But in learning, we don’t see him commit to any one way of being or another. Motl’s education, it seems, has no end.

And in many ways the other, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say, is the schlemiel’s teacher.   But Heti’s schlemiel is different insofar as Sheila is a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, the genre of women-schlemiels has, unfortunately, not been explored. But Heti’s book offers us what Edith Wychogrod would call a “sample” of the “general carnality of the (female) saint.” (As I pointed out in my blogs on Malamud and Levinas, the schlemiel is a secular saint of sorts. And Wychogrod offers us an exceptional model as to how we can read the schlemiel who, like the saint, takes the other as her teacher.)

Like children, we learn from others how to live our life and how to be. But for thinkers like Immanuel Kant this  type of education is immature. To learn from others how to live one’s life, as an adult, is shameful. A “mature” individual should, rather, use his or her reason as a guide for how he or she should live his or her life. Kant identified Enlightenment with the autonomy that comes by living one’s life in accordance with one’s reason. But there is more to the story. Enlightenment is not simply based on living one’s life in accordance with reason; rather, it requires that one sacrifice one’s desire to look to others for how one should live one’s life and for how someone should be.   Kant would, for this reason, associate autonomy with the sacrifice of heteronomy.

Nearly a century after Immanuel Kant, a Jewish man (who despised his Jewish identity) named Otto Weininger argued in his book Sex and Character (1903) – which was very influence by Kant – that Jews are effeminate because they are caught up in experience.   Jews are not capable of autonomy, in his view, because they look to experience for the answer to their question “How should a person be?” Writing on Weininger, Freud pointed out that the chapter that most “attracted his attention treated Jews and women with equal hostility and overwhelmed them with the same insults”(77, cited in Sander Gilman’s Freud, Race, and Gender) Arguing against Weininger, Freud calls him a “neurotic.” And, being a neurotic, “Weininger was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes; and from that standpoint what is common to Jews and women is their relation to the castration complex”(77).   According to Gilman, Weininger’s “infantile complex” is an “example of the problematic relationship of a Jew to his circumcision”(77).

What Freud misses about Weininger’s reading of the Jew is that both of them are deemed to be in a constant state of change and their education seems to be endless. For Weininger, neither is guided by reason so much as by experience. Heti’s book, to be sure, is Jewish in a double sense in that its narrator and main character is a woman schlemiel. For Weininger a Jewish woman is guided, to an even greater extent than the male, by experience and the other. To be sure, it wouldn’t be off to say that for Weininger she is the greater schlemiel. The male, in many ways, is really no different from her; but she does it better because she is truly feminine; he is an amalgamation of male-and-female.

Although I don’t agree with Weininger, I find it particularly interesting that I, as a Jewish male, am learning from the story of a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, Kant saw the novel as a kind of distraction and would likely associate it with the feminine.   Given this reading, I could say that as a Jewish male, I am being doubly distracted by her work from being autonomous. This book would, in Weininger and Kant’s view, only distract me from being autonomous and from guiding my life by reason.   However, in defiance of them, I would argue, as I have above, that this book provides us with a schlemiel education. It shows us the comical nature of having the other as a teacher. In involves us with an endless lesson.

Even though there is something laughable and even positive about this, there is also something very sad. The first words of the novel – in the prologue – show us a schlemiel-subject who is always-already in the midst of the question, which situates “the other as my teacher” and evokes questions about which ways of being one should, existentially, take on for oneself:

How should a person be?

For years and years I have asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too….But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?  

All of these questions – and their possible answers – are at once comical and torturous. These are the questions of a woman-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who takes the other as her teacher.

(Sheila Heti is the sister of David Heti, a comedian Schlemiel Theory has written on recently.   To be sure, they have many interesting resonances as for as the schlemiel character goes.  In upcoming entries, I will dig into the details and travel with the stops, starts, pauses, false starts, and sudden turns in her novel. They all make up a “sample” of schlemiel education.)

Progressive Schlemiels: On Dan Miron’s Reading of Sholem Aleichem’s “Motl the Cantor’s Son”


Dan Miron is one of the greatest living critics of Yiddish and Jewish-American literature today.   His books on these bodies of literature have won him critical claim.  What interests me most is how Miron would approach a schlemiel like Motl (the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son: Writings of an Orphan Boy.   After all, I have written several blog entries on this character and have read Motl in terms of ontological and epistemological distraction.  And in my last reflection, based on a review made by Saul Bellow, I outlined the character’s Jewishness by way of his  “refusal to adapt.”  To be sure, Bellow argues that Motl, like the Jews, had no choice but to refuse since adaptation would be tantamount to giving in to history.  And that would be a complete abdication of freedom.   Like Bellow, Miron is interested in how Motl relates to history.   According to Miron, Aleichem faced his greatest artistic task in creating a character who could properly relate to the sad and difficult history of the Jewish people in eastern Europe:

To say the truth about the crisis of eastern European Jewry in the first decade of the twentieth century that nobody else would dare to say, a truth to be reported only by someone as innocent and guileless as a child…Motl is put forward to say, in his childish way, that the demise of the traditional eastern European civilization is not only unavoidable but also welcome.  (xxviii Introduction to Tevye the Dairy Man and Motl the Cantor’s Son).

Miron’s last point stakes out a historical claim and situates his reading within a progressivist framework.  As Miron suggests, Aleichem wanted to push off from the past and embrace a new Jewish future.  Paraphrasing Aleichem, Miron writes: “it is high time for the shtetl culture to leave the historical stage for something else, no matter how primitive and crass, as long as it is alive and vital; that being an orphan is, under certain circumstances, preferable to being burdened by a moribund ancestry”(xxviii).    In other words, Miron reads the schlemiel in terms of an effort to kindly say goodbye to eastern Europe and the Shtetl and to say hello to  health, vitality, and a new future.   In other words, the schlemiel, in this historical context, embodies a progressive historical force that leaves the past, suffering, and history behind for the new.

To this end, Miron describes Motl, a schlemiel, not so much as a character than as an “attitude.”  He cites Deleuze and Guittari as his theoretical support:

As a fictional character, Motl is what Deleuze and Guittari, in their discourse on minor literature, refer to as agencement, an arrangement of traits and narrative inflections that convey an attitude rather than the reality of a specific fictionalized human being.  (xxviii)

Miron tells us that this “attitude” remains consistent throughout the story.  It is “static” against a background and changing locations that are in “constant flux.”   He is immune to the effect of time: “his character” is “immune to the process of aging and to being reconditioned by drastically changing life situations”(xxix).  In other words, the schlemiel’s blindness to the world and change is not a negative aspect of the character worthy of criticism; rather, it is a part of a kind of force that transcends change, a historical force that is vital: “nimble, energetic, bright, unencumbered by heavy clothes, never seeking the warmth of hearth and home, always Puck-like, need to walk, to run, almost to fly”(xxix).

What I find so original about this reading is that Miron, unlike any commentator on the schlemiel, describes the character as a kind of model of the “attitude” that is necessary to be vital and live on.  In other words, this schlemiel is the model for a kind of Jewish post-European vitalism-slash-historical force.  Miron likens him to a force that can be either “hot” or “cold.”

He flows with all that is vibrant: appetites, vitality, effervescence, motility, optimism, lust for life, and freedom.  On the other hand, he is a keen, unemotional, unflinching observer. (xxix)

The latter part, the cold part, is the part that watches history fade away and distances itself from the “ghettoized” aspects of his mother, brother, family, village, etc.  Miron uses this hot/cold distinction to depict this progressive attitude that looks coldly at the past yet is hot for the future and the new.   The cold part, Miron tells us, finds its best expression in the fact that Aleichem makes Motl’s new occupation, upon landing in the new world, a caricaturist.  He has a “passion for drawing cartoons that emphasize all kinds of unseemly metonymies.”  These “unseemly metonymies” are caricatures of the past.   Miron sees caricature as a “non-Jewish art” because Jews are prohibited by the Torah from making any “graven images.”  And this, for Miron, is the perfect vehicle for rebellion against tradition.  It helps him to become “detached from it” and to see it for how bad it is or has become.  And, in Miron’s words, “Motl’s inclination toward caricature contributes to Sholem Aleichem’s objective to deconstruct shtetl literature, to dismantle its components and to expose it as nonfunctional”(xxxi).

Miron’s claim suggests that schlemiel, as a caricaturist, is really not blind.  He coldly sees and rejects shtetl culture and history.  The blindness is more on the “warm” front where he chases after life in all its “flow” and “vitality.”  This is a reading of the schlemiel that has never been put forward and it is very amusing insofar as it suggests that schlemiel is not totally blind or absent-minded and that the character is the expression of a progressive “attitude.”   He is not, as Paul Celan might say, mindful of his dates.

Miron’s progressivist reading mirrors, in many ways, a Zionist reading of diasporic, European culture.  Aleichem, in his view, reads the diaspora in similar terms. But unlike German-Jews, who viewed the schlemiel as a product of the ghetto and should be abandoned, Aleichem sees Motl as a heroic figure who leaves the ghetto behind.  Miron tells us that Motl may start out as a “prospective victim” (xxxi) but he avoids this negative fate by leaving Europe behind.   He is, as Miron notes, “happy” in the midst of negative conditions since he detaches himself from these conditions and attaches himself to life and hope.  His “child rebellion” is not extinguished by the repressive apparatus of the “shtetl’s oppressive system of education.”    Motl “celebrates his independence” from this system and this “child rebellion” against the shtelt is the key to his survival.  For Miron, this is the “attitude” that left the ghetto behind for “new life.”  He is an “orphan,” a member of an “orphaned people,” which “emerges” from “historical lethargy.”  “Whipped into wakefulness” Motl, like the Jewish people, “gropes for happiness that has evaded it for so long”(xxxii).

Miron’s rhetoric suggests, more than Irving Howe, that Aleichem wasn’t simply laughing and crying over history; he was rejecting it.  This reading of the schlemiel suggests that this schlemiel, the immigrant schlemiel, is premised not so much on the rejection of the status quo (which is what Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have suggested) as rejecting the shtetl while embracing the new.  The schlemiel must, for progressive reasons, be cold to the past (and caricature it) while being warm to every new experience.

What happens, however, to the new schlemiel. The one who arrives in America?  Will they retain hope, too?  Is the new schlemiel hot and cold?  After all, Motl is an immigrant leaving Europe behind.  What happens to the landed schlemiel?

In my latest readings of Cynthia Ozick’s  “Envy; or Yiddish in America” I pointed out that the landed schlemiel, after the death of eastern European Jewry and its cultural legacy, is not so happy.   Edelshtein is a “master of failure” and, as an older schlemiel, has a much different “attitude” than Motl.   He lives in the wake of the Holocaust, Motl doesn’t.

Miron’s suggested reading, a historicist reading, should be put in context.  Not all schlemiels are like Motl.   And his hot and cold relations may not be found in schlemiels we find in much post-Holocaust literature.  Their attitude toward history and progress is much different from his.  They are more acutely aware of failure than he.  We see this in Malamud, Ozick, and Bellow.

…to be continued….