Ruth Wisse’s Political Schlemiel


A few months ago – when Edward Snowden was leaking information and his story was in the headlines nearly every day for a few weeks – someone went through my blog and wrote an article in which Snowden was characterized as a “political schlemiel.”  The article – authored by John Grant – was written for the well-known left-leaning website Counterpunch.  It was entitled “Whistleblowers as Modern Tricksters.”  In the article, John Grant also cites Ruth Wisse and her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero:

According to Ruth R. Wisse in The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, the schlemiel was a quite resilient character who suffered “vicious, unrelenting harassment” but “whose continuing ability to experience frustration without yielding to desperation or defeatism may be reason enough for winning our interest.”

Further drawing on Wisse, Grant cites the distinction between the schlemiel and schlimazl, associates the schlimazl with the New York Times, and the schlemiel with Bradley Manning (and Edward Snowden):

Jewish tradition, according to Wisse, contains an amazing assortment of mythic and literary fools. Two of them are often used in comparison. The schlemiel is distinguished from the schlimazl this way: “the former spills the soup, the latter is the one into whose lap it falls.” Thus, we might see Bradley Manning as the schlemiel and The New York Times as the schlimazl. The schlemiel/trickster is an active force “in confrontation with reality” notorious for the disruption of authority. As such s/he is a cleansing and positive force vis-a-vis abusive and overweening authority.

Although this example of the “political schlemiel” is a possible application, I think it is worth our time to look deeper into the issue by taking a closer look at Ruth Wisse’s reading of the “political schlemiel.”

To be sure, the first section of the first chapter of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero is entitled “The Political Schlemiel.”  Wisse begins this chapter with a joke:

Sometime during World War I, a Jew lost his way along the Austro-Hungarian frontier.  Wandering through the woods late at night, he was suddenly arrested by the challenge of a border guard: “Halt, or I’ll shoot!” The Jew blinked into the beam of the searchlight and said:

“What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?  Can’t you see that this is a human being?”

Wisse interprets the joke in the following way:

Outrageous and absurd as his innocence may be by the normal guidelines of political reality, the Jew is simply rational within the context of ideal humanism.  He is a fool, seriously – maybe even fatally – out of step with the actual march of events.  Yet the impulse of the joke, and of schlemiel literature in general, is to use the comical stance as a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophical status quo.

In other words, the schlemiel is political simply by virtue of his being a humanist who doesn’t understand the “normal guidelines of political reality.”  He is “out of step with the actual march of events” (that is, history).  This argument sounds much like the argument that Hannah Arendt makes in her essay “The Jew as Pariah” since she would also see all of the schlemiels as historical pariahs who challenge the “political and philosophical status quo.”   And, if one will read Arendt’s essay closely, there is a point when the Jew will no longer be in this historical position – a point at which the schlemiel’s challenge to society will no longer be necessary.

What many people miss – in their readings of Wisse and Arendt (vis-à-vis the political nature of the schlemiel) is the most important question: do schlemiels challenge the “political and philosophical status quo” because they want to or because they are reflecting the historical fact that Jews did not know how to live in a world of politics and history?  Arendt and Wisse, I think, tend to see these challenges as produced by history and an ill-fit between Jews in the world.   After all, the schlemiel emerges for Arendt, Wisse, and Gilman on the cusp of Emancipation and Enlightenment; a period when Jews were, for the first time, even considered as “citizens.”   When this happens, the relationship of the Jew to the “world,” “history,” and “politics” becomes an issue. Before this time, Jews lived in their own autonomous communities and were always considered second class citizens.

After Wisse tells yet another war joke, she points out that the schlemiels in these types of jokes are not “anti-military” types so much as a “non-military” types of schlemiels (4).  To clarify, Wisse writes: “The responses (of the schlemiels in these military jokes) are not in the spirit of conscious rebellion, but the naïve, wholly spontaneous questions of a different culture.”

Wisse points out, as she did in her introduction to the schlemiel, that there were different ways of looking at this “weakness.”  On the one hand, weakness registers as a form of cultural opposition:

The schlemiel is also used as the symbol of an entire people in its encounter with surrounding cultures and its oppositions to their opposition.  (4)

On the other hand (mostly in central Europe and less so in Eastern Europe), this weakness was seen as a thing to be eliminated.  And what better weakness is there to eliminate – for Jews who wanted to fit into military societies like Germany and Austria – than military weakness?

Wisse sides with the former and notes that the schlemiel was a “model of endurance” in which “his innocence was a shield against corruption, his absolute defenselessness the only guaranteed defense against the brutalizing potential of might”(5)

However, as she notes, with Enlightenment there is “God’s view” of the Jew and “Voltaire’s.”  This may lead to a form of “self-hatred” (5) in which Jews hate their Jewishness (which they associate with weakness).  But it doesn’t, says Wisse, because the schlemiel “does not submit to self-hatred, and stands proudly on his record” (that is, his religious history which is based on serving God and being subject to God and not man’s judgment). This, one might say, is the balance.

Wisse calls this the “inevitable dialectic” and the proof of this dialectic’s effectiveness is “survival”(5).  In other words, by not fully surrendering Jewish history to Voltaire, the Jew makes a “political” gesture.    Building on this claim, Wisse says that “the schlemiel is the Jew as he is defined by the anti-Semite, but reinterpreted by God’s appointee”(6).

What I find so interesting about Wisse’s reading is that on the one hand she says that the political gesture of the schlemiel is “non-military” rather than “anti-military.”  That is not so much conscious, yet, over here she seems to be saying that it is.  More is at stake, it seems, for Wisse.  And what is at stake is the preservation of the Jewish people.

This works with Wisse’s shift to politics later in life; since, as she stated in a talk to West Point Jewish students at their graduation, the schlemiel may no longer be necessary when Jews can fight for themselves.  In other words, once Jews are integrated, and are no longer “weak,” the schlemiel will no longer be necessary.

But is this really the case?  After all, the schlemiel does live on. And is it, from time to time political, as Gordon seems to be arguing?  If it can’t be anti-military and it can only be non-military, how does that work out?  Isn’t Snowden an “anti-military” type?  How could he be a schlemiel?