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

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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?

Robin Williams and The Post-Holocaust Schlemiel in “Jacob the Liar”

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Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.

Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).

In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.

This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”

Here, the issue is comedy.

Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”

Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?

Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”

The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)

The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:

I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.”
“Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”

Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.

But can this act be done after Auschwitz?

Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.

Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:

The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.

Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:

The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported.  (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)

Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).

Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.

Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.

What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.”  And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion.  Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part I

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The schlemiel is often thought of as the Jewish fool who, in the traditional joke, is paired up with a nudnik and a schlimazel. The schlemiel, as the traditional joke goes, is asked to get a bowl of soup by the schlimazel. When the schlemiel gets right near the table, and it seems as if all will go well, he spills the soup of the schlimazel’s lap. The schlimazel, who receives the bad luck, screams out. And the nudnick asks what kind of soup it is. In this scenario, the schlemiel is portrayed as a perpetual bungler who disseminates bad luck wherever he goes. (In fact, all three figures congregate around bad luck.) As the explanation goes: Jews, accustomed to bad luck throughout their history, took to this character so as to laugh at their misfortune. But, to be sure, there is obviously more to the story. The schlemiel is not the ordinary fool and shouldn’t simply be thought of as a bungler. The schlemiel is, to be sure, related to the Jewish saint. His failure has deeper roots.

In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out how the schlemiel, in Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse argues that “the genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature is the tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav entitled “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man.” The story, published in 1807, anticipates Yiddish literature which will take the schlemiel as its main character. In Hebrew and Yiddish, the word “simpleton” is “Tam,” this term was often used by Hasidim to describe a righteous man. The irony, however, is that for the Hasidim, the simple man is the righteous man. He need not be a “wise man” or “clever man.” Rather, he can be a schlemiel, too. And, as Wisse notes with regard to this story by Rabbi Nachman, what makes it special is that “the instinctive response of devotion” is privileged over “the highest achievement of the mind”(17).   In the story, the simpleton’s devotion is seen as comical by the “clever man,” but in the end the simpleton’s devotion pays off.   The most important thing for Wisse is to map the movement from the simple schlemiel to the secular one in Yiddish literature. She is interested in how faith and righteousness is translated into the secular. Writing on this, Wisse argues that “in the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living “as if” good will triumph over evil”(22).   In Yiddish literature:

The figure of the schlemiel was employed to present the case of hope over   despair, because the author retained his awareness of reality even if his character did not. The schlemiels are committed to Messianic truth, and if need be they can reinterpret, distort, or obviate immediate reality when it contradicts their ultimate ideal. Society finds them wanting, but according to the internal judgment of the story, their foolishness is redeemed. Rarely does this literary schlemiel rise to the heights achieved by the Bratzlaver’s simple man, because rarely does the modern author share the great Rabbi’s full-hearted conviction. More usually, the schlemiel remains the practical loser, winning only an ironic victory of interpretation. (23)

Wisse was referring to the Yiddish tradition of schlemiel literature. And her explanation of the schlemiel is framed in terms of the translation of Rabbi Nachman’s simpleton into Yiddish literature vis-à-vis the concept of faith and acting “as if” the good will triumph.

What I would like to suggest is that we approach the schlemiel’s relationship to religion and literature differently. Instead of looking into Yiddish literature, I would like to take up the schlemiel in post-Holocaust Jewish-American literature (namely, by way of Bernard Malamud, one of it’s greatest representatives); and instead of looking at the schlemiel by way of Wisse’s framework for faith and its translation into the secular, I would like to use a different model based on Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Levinas in terms of addressing the Saint and hagiography. The latter, as I hope to show, is a model which helps us to understand how faith is not an idea but something that is transmitted, as Wyschogrod would say, by way of “samples of ethical behavior”(277). Unlike Wyschogrod, however, I am not taking actual saints as my example so much as schlemiels who, to be sure, are really saints in disguise. The main character of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, a Jewish store owner in the post-War era named Morris Bober is a case in point. Since, today, our hagiography is fiction and our saints are the “little men” and everyday people.

 

Edith Wyschogrod’s Reading of Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography

Before we begin our reading of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, I’d like to briefly go over Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Emmanuel Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography.

To begin with, Wyschogrod, in an essay entitled “Exemplary Individuals: Toward a Phenomenological Ethics,” argues that her starting point for a reading of hagiography and saints must start off with what she calls “carnal generality.” She draws on this notion from the work of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (264).   For Ponty, “generality is inscribed in the incarnate subject, an ensemble of self-transcending acts and lingual capacities. By contrast, Levinas focuses on the alterity of other persons and its impact on the self, an alterity that cannot be brought into conceptual focus by language.” Although these definitions differ, “both agree that the psycho-physiological primordium that is the incarnate subject expresses a generality of which universals and essences are derivative types”(264).

Wyschogrod argues that these generalities are “context-specific” (she calls these contexts “carnal generality”).   In the spirit of phenomenology, Wyschogrod argues that Ponty, in his “analysis of social existence,” looks, through “successive exfoliations” of the context, to get at the “essence” of the phenomena. However, Wyschogrod notes that Ponty stays away from the word “universal” and suggests that we use the word “carnal generalities” to avoid the connotations suggested by words like “essence.”   To be sure, Wyschogrod tells us that he uses the term “carnal generalties” in reference to “dialogue” and language. Drawing on this, she argues that “this generality is constituted by the power of the self to inhabit the body of the other”(265). In other words, language is the medium that brings a “carnal generality” between self and other together: “together the other and I form an ensemble of significations, a single flesh that is traversed and expresses meaning”(265).

Wyschogrod notes the difference, however, between Ponty and Levinas on this issue of language. While, for Ponty, there is a coming together of the self and other in moments of communication, for Levinas, “the breach between the self and other is unsurpassable”(266).   This difference, argues Wyschogrod, is what “”opens discourse” and makes “ethical relation possible”(266).   Regardless, for Levinas and Ponty, the “carnal generalities” remain. The question, however, is what they communicate and what we can learn from them.   For Wyschogrod, “carnal generality” conveys what she calls “exemplification” and this is best seen in hagiography.

To introduce this new idea, Wyschogrod, instead of writing about saints and their hagiography, talks about a case of “idiot savant twins” convey by the neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks. In his account of the case, Sacks recalls how the two would engage in “a singular and purely numerical conversation,” a “mathematical game in which they exceeded the competence of the most sophisticated mathematicians”(269). After watching them, Sacks concluded that “the twins did not form abstract notions of numbers but experienced them in some sensuous and immediate way”(269). As Wyschogrod explains, Sacks discovered that they learned and communicated not by way of mathematical ideas but…spatially.

Saints, argues Wyschogrod, are not much different: “they are idiot savants of the ethical, although, in contrast to the twins, they often possess considerable psychological acuity, as well as remarkable powers of political and social organization”(269). Wyschogrod argues that the entire life of the saint is devoted to the “alleviation of sorrow (psychological suffering) and pain (physical suffering) that afflict other persons without distinction of rank or group…or that afflict sentient beings, whatever the cost in pain or sorrow to him or herself”(270).

With this definition in mind, Wyschogrod argues that not all saints are mystics in the sense that they do not all experience a from of unity with the Godhead but many, the most ethical, remain painfully incarnated (270).   Her project is to preserve, for “modern and postmodern critics,: a “concept of saintliness” by “uncovering singularities,” which she associates with the “landscapes of the saintly imagination”(270).   To illustrate how this relates to hagiography, Wyschogrod cites a few passages from St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the last two examples she cites come from the Baal Shen Tov and Buddhism.   What she notes, in this hagiography, is how the “trace of transcendence” can be seen in them. To be sure, she notes that the bodily presence in them is an ethical figure.

In the second to last section of her essay, Wyschogrod writes of what she calls “exemplification”(277). This is the view that, “in taking the saint to be an exemplary figure, we mean that the saints’ acts are samples of ethical behavior and that the saint’s life as a whole an sample of compassion, generosity, and love”(277). Take note that Wyschogrod takes heed of Jacques Derrida’s critique of the example, which is based on the structure of the signifier and the signified (the idea – signified – has an example – a signifier) and, ultimately finds its birth in Plato’s concept of “forms” – eidos). For this reason, she uses the word “samples” (not examples) to describe what the saints provide readers:

The utility of samples lies in their enabling us to learn the character of the whole of which they are samples. Thus, in the case I am considering, one would watch the saint’s behavior in order to learn what goodness, compassion, and love are like. (277)  

Unlike Wyschogrod, who took saints as her samples, I would like to take the schlemiels of modern fiction as our samples. There is a “trace of transcendence” in them. Perhaps the reason Wyschogrod overlooked them is because she didn’t associate the comical with the ethical. And this, I believe, needs to be addressed. To be sure, as I have noted, the schlemiel, as Wisse sees it, is ultimately a religious figure. It can provide us with a sample that is closer to us since the world we inhabit is much more ironic than the world that the saints occupied. To be sure, I think that the saint’s hagiography survives by way of schlemiel fiction. And it speaks to us in an intimate manner after the Holocaust.

 

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

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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….

 

 

Academic Schlemiels

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In Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, the main character S. Levin leaves New York City for a job teaching at a college in California. He envisions a new life for himself on the West Coast as an academic. Little does he know that the job he has applied for is not the same job he is given. When he gets to California, he realizes that the college he works for doesn’t respect the liberal arts. They don’t want what he has to offer: an English professor who gives students a deeper understanding of literature and humanity. Rather, they want professors who can teach technical writing. When he gets there, he realizes that he is one of several adjunct teachers and will remain so for an indefinite time period. And even though he realizes that he is stuck and that only a few options are open to him in a small, conservative college town in northern California, he still retains some kind of hope that his journey will enable him to start all over again and live a “new life.”

What Levin finds out is that the new life he gets is much different from the new life he expected. And this reality, amongst other things, makes him into a schlemiel. To be sure, a schlemiel’s expectations don’t match with reality. Schlemiels often dream big (Hannah Arendt, by way of Heinrich Heine, calls the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” and in Yiddish the schlemiel is often called a “luftmensch,” someone who “lives on air”). But they are in for a shock when they realize that their dreams paved the way to failure. Nonetheless, schlemiels are often fortunate enough to have the ability to distract themselves from failure and to pursue some other project or dream. Were they to fully gather the meaning of their failure, they would be tragic characters.   Hence, the innocence and absent-mindedness of the schlemiel.

S. Levin, to be sure, fails in many of his encounters at the college. Even before his first day teaching, he ends up in a fling with a girl named Laverne who he meets in town. He goes with her to a barn to have sex and has problems getting his clothes off. When he does, he is immediately interrupted with his pants down. He and Laverne, both naked, run into the street in terror.   This is his first failure.

Moreover, his first day of class doesn’t go according to protocol. He fidgets over his mistakes, while in the midst of teaching, and ends up making a comic performance:

Sweating over the error he might have made…Levin got up and demonstrated on the blackboard types of sentences, as the students, after a momentary restlessness, raptly watched his performance….Levin, with a dozen minutes left to the hour, finally dropped grammar to say what was still on his mind: namely, welcome to Cascadia College. He was himself a stranger in the West but that didn’t matter. By some miracle of movement and change…At this they laughed, though he wasn’t sure why. (85)

The narrator points out how, after saying his piece, they turned away from him yet “in his heart he thanked them, sensing he had created their welcome of him. They represented an America he had so often heard of, the fabulous friendly West”(85). Meanwhile, they are treating him rudely.   Yet he tells them that “this is the life for me”(85). In response they “broke into cheers, whistles, loud laughter”(86). Instinctively, “as if inspired,” Levin “glanced down at his fly and it was, as it must be, all the way open”(85). In other words, they weren’t giving a laugh and cheers of support so much as mockery. Like a schlemiel, he misinterpreted everything that was going on around him for the better when, in fact, it was bad.

In hope of checking out the beautiful California scenery, Levin ends up getting a car; but when he first starts driving it, he feels terror more than joy as he turns the wheel. This changes over time, but the initial experience was not what he expected. And when Levin tries to make waves in the school to get more liberal arts that also backfires. As the novel progresses, we see that he ends up in an affair with a professor’s wife who is desperate for love. This ends up on a bad note, too. He is found out by the professor and is asked, by the dean, to leave the college town. The novel ends with him leaving just as lonely as when he came, but also a little wiser.

However, all is not lost. His failure doesn’t define him. As he moves from new experience to new experience, his life seems to get better (although, in the most minute way).   He may be an existential schlemiel who, it seems, is always getting himself into trouble. But at the very least he gets a better sense of his existential failures as the novel comes to an end. His name, after all, is Levin (the root of the name Levin is “lev,” Hebrew for heart). He is better for all of his failures, he has suffered and become more human, but he is still an academic schlemiel.

Today, the majority of untenured academics who teach in universities and colleges are a lot like Levin. They sign up for a job thinking that they will be a success, achieve tenure, and will gain respect. But what they find, in a job market where non-tenured professors outnumber tenured professors 4:1, is that they were mistaken. Their efforts, it seems, were for naught. Nonetheless, many of them keep at it and endure great suffering so they can, at the very least, live a life that they love. In this sense, they are like Levin. They have great hearts, but the fact of the matter is that the world they are in could care less for them.   They live with humiliation and failure.   And, as a friend on facebook suggested today, this kind of failure has become the new normal.

In this sense, the academic – that is, the adjunct – schlemiel is becoming the norm. Like any schlemiel narrative, this reality is not just a commentary on the person who is foolish enough to pursue their dreams; rather, it is a commentary on the world they believed they knew. In this scenario, the commentary is on the academic world. The academic schlemiel is not wholly responsible for his dreams; if it weren’t for the world that puts out the possibility of success, these dreams wouldn’t exist.

We can see this relation of the world to the schlemiel in many Sholem Aleichem stories, where characters envision America as a land of freedom and success. When they get to America, they see failure all around them. But they do and don’t see it. They remain optimistic when the reader can clearly see that reality says otherwise. That optimism, the conceit of the Jewish fool, doesn’t diminish the cynicism the reader should feel when reading this. This is what Ruth Wisse would call a “balanced irony.”

Strangely enough, Wisse, at the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that we should leave the schlemiel and its balanced ironies behind.   In other words, such ironies are not good for Jewish character in modern day America. She wrote this in 1972. Today, however, we need these kinds of balanced ironies because academic and economic failure have become endemic. Cynicism, spurred by failure and neglect, is at the base of daily academic life. In the face of this, we need to balance the cynicism that comes with lost dreams against the hope that one will eventually succeed. To be sure, the current acadmic system should be seen within this tension: it encourages graduate students to dream while, at the same time, showing that those dreams have little reality. And for that, we need the schlemiel figure to challenge what Wisse calls the “political and philosophical status quo.” The sorry state of the academic schlemiel should be an eye-opener. Levin, a character from Malamud’s 1961 novel, is still with us in 2014.

Anyone who stays in academia will identify with Levin’s hopes, failures, and misreadings. In a sense, they have been duped and have allowed themselves to be duped while knowing full well that success, today, is not so easy to attain. Like Levin, the academic schlemiel wants a “new life.” And although they are given a new life, that life may not be the one they expected. But, at the very least, like Levin…they can move on. They can experience, as he says to his class, the “miracle of movement.” Even though, at times, it seems one is going nowhere and even though they are humiliated and disrespected, an academic schlemiel can always leave and go elsewhere. Knowing this, perhaps, is the only hope an academic schlemiel can have.

In a system that dupes graduate students and PhDs into becoming a “lord of dreams” (a dream of tenure and academic success), it seems to be the only consolation.  We see this clearly in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” after he is lied to by everybody – who he trusts time and time again believing that they can be good – he decides to leave the city for some other city. He moves on….and leaves the city, which duped him into marrying a woman with kids and lovers, for some other place where, hopefully, people will be honest.  The real “new life” is elsewhere.

The Schlemiel as “Essentially….Existential”

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There are many kinds of Jewish fools and the schlemiel is only one type in the tradition of Jewish humor. However, it is the most popular comic character of all. So whenever someone asks me to define a schlemiel, the easy answer – like the answer Rabbi Hillel gave when he was asked to sum up the entire Torah in one sentence – can be found in a popular joke about a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik. It goes like this: A schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnick sit down for a bowl of soup. The schlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup. The schlemiel assures him that nothing will go wrong as it may have in the past. The schlimazel lets him go. But right about when he is going to give the schlimazel the soup, he trips up and spills the soup on the schlimazel’s lap.   As the schlimazel screams out, the nudnick asks him what kind of soup was spilled on his lap. In this scenario, the schlemiel is the disseminator of bad luck, the shlimazel receives the bad luck, and the nudnick amplifies the bad luck.

Regarding this joke, Ruth Wisse argues that the “schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in it’s confrontation with reality”(14). Wisse’s reading of the joke is peculiar. Since she uses the words “essential” and “existential” (terms that are often kept apart by existentialists who follow the lead of Jean Paul Sartre) in a similar way, she is saying that the “nature” of the schlemiel’s misfortunate “encounter with reality” is “essentially existential.” In other words, bad luck is “essentially” built into the very way the schlemiel “existentially” relates to reality. It is ontological, existential, and, it is Jewish.   Wherever the schlemiel goes, he seems, by virtue of his very relations to existence, to create bad luck for others. But, at the very least, he has good intentions. Regardless, if we take this joke as a paradigm, we would have to say that the schlemiel will always, so to speak, spill soup on some schlimazel (who happens to be in his path) because that’s the way the schlemiel relates to the world.

But is this really the case? Is the schlemiel to be understood, quite simply, as a character who has good intentions yet, in the end, will always be the disseminator of bad luck? And in what way is his comedy “essentially existential”?   Does this concept tell us about Jews in general or Jews in particular?

Although Ruth Wisse explains this classic joke in this way, her argument about the schlemiel in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero gives us a different perspective. To be sure, Wisse notes that this is an American joke not a European one. Does this imply that the European schlemiel is different? Indeed, it does.   To be sure, the American schlemiel is different from it’s European predecessor in many ways. And, I would argue, the American schlemiel has many other variants that don’t fit squarely into this joke or even the European model of the schlemiel (at least, as we shall see, the German-Jewish variant). Indeed, this joke, an American joke, like Hillel’s explanation of Judaism on one leg, does shed some light on the existential nature of the comic character; but it doesn’t do the American or the European schlemiel justice. They seem to be ontologically different. Their “essential existentiality” differs.

Expanding on Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel based on this Jewish-American joke, I’d like to argue that the claim that the schlemiel is an “essentially existential” character and this joke, which evinces an American version of the schlemiel, gives us a lead as to how we can go about understanding this comic character. By looking at this character in terms of it’s existentiality and its geographical and temporal location, we can have a better understanding of what this character means or can mean to us, here, in America.

We are, by virtue of time and place, more familiar with the American schlemiel than the European one. And this joke does shed a little light on the schlemiels we know and love, the popular one’s, which range from Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Barbara Streisand to Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman. All of them, to some extent, seem to spill the soup on somebody (and themselves).   (But what about the less popular schlemiels, the literary schlemiels that fall under the radar; the schlemiels we find in I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, or Bruce Jay Friedman? Is it wise to make a distinction? Are the literary schlemiels more existential than the popular ones? And if so, how?)

Drawing on the schlemiel’s popularity for American Jews, Sidrah Ezrahi claims that in America the schlemiel is a “cultural icon.” But, more importantly, she argues that the schlemiel is at the core of something larger; namely, the Jewish-American, diasporic imagination. Using the well-worn term “diaspora,” she suggests that Jewish-American identity is in some way existentially connected to this comic character. (Strangely enough, the only scholars who have written on Booking Passage have missed this key detail.)

What makes Ezrahi’s reading so thought-provoking is that it’s existential-ontological meaning is based on a historical and geographical distinction between Israel and America. Taking Philip Roth’s Portnoy as her cue, Ezrahi argues that American Jews are essentially schlemiels while Israelis are essentially not. The basis for Israeli identity is history and land; while for American-Jews the basis of Jewish-American identity is virtual. The validity of this distinction needs to be tested and it’s meaning understood. We need not accept her reading and, to be sure, we can learn a lot from it since she is the only person in “schlemiel theory” who has defined American Jews as schlemiels by way of an interpretation that, in many ways, draws from existentialism and phenomenology. To be sure, Ezrahi takes up where Wisse leaves off with her claim that schlemiels are “essentially existential.”

A Schlemiel and His Mother: Reflections on Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Good Time”

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Bruce Jay Friedman has been writing fiction since the early 1960s. As a novelist, he is most well-known for Stern. But he is most famous for his plays Scuba Duba and Steambath. Both were shown Off Broadway in the early 1970s and were overnight successes. Steambath was adapted for TV in 1973. And Friedman wrote several screenplays that were turned into popular movies such as Heartbreak Kid (1973), Stir Crazy (1980). Dr. Detroit (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984), and Splash (1984), and Brazzaville Teenager (2013). (The last film is short directed by Michael Cera and Heartbreak Kid was recently redone with a starring role by Ben Stiller).

In most of his novels, short stories, and screenplays, Friedman includes at least one schlemiel character. To be sure, Friedman, like Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, and Judd Apatow, has popularized the schlemiel in American culture.   Unfortunately, very few people have properly read his schlemiels.   In the Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse characterized his novel, Stern, in negative terms. The main character, a schlemiel named Stern, “suffers from an ulcer, the localized symbol of hurt, and actual cause of his anxiety and pain. The ulcer is a kind of “heart condition”(87).   This, for Wisse, is the anti-thesis of what Saul Bellow had done with the schlemiel in his novel, Herzog (Herzog means “heart song” in Yiddish). This schlemiel’s sickness is “a lower, less poetic organ” and it is, for Wisse, “symptomatic of Friedman’s harsher, lower form of humor”(87). Wisse goes on to call Stern just “another study of the sick man as the relatively healthy man, the psychological equivalent of loser as winner, but one that exposes the full horror of this inversion”(87).

Wisse’s words are by no means charitable to Freidman and neither are the words of the famous film critic J. Hoberman who recently likened – in the most negative way – the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man (2009) to Stern. Larry Gopnik, the schlemiel of Serious Man – is like Stern:

Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher.    

To be sure, the case for the weak and sick man-child schlemiel is made in many places by Bruce Jay Friedman. But what’s sometimes missed is how this sickness relates to the other or in the case of a story called “The Good Time” the (m)other. In this story the mother’s boundless energy also makes her into a schlemiel. And while she may appear healthy and the boy sick they are, in fact, a team.

In “The Good Time,” the main character and narrator of the story is a schlemiel who is going off to war in Korea. He is in Chicago and will be leaving from there to basic training and then war. Friedman uses “coldness” as a leitmotif in the story. The main character is followed by it everywhere:

No matter what I wore, the cold got into me and down inside my clothes and made feel lonely and as though I would never relax for the rest of my life. It followed me into the hotel room in which I stayed and chased me as I drove along the Lake. (117, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman).

It seems as if the main character is in a transitional point between childhood and manhood and that the cold chasing him around is the cold of life and adulthood which he pulls back from. Regarding sickness, he notes that the word Korea reminds him of the word “Cholera.” In the following sentence, he notes that, for the first time in his life, he is getting a pair of eyeglasses. The fact that he is astonished that when you put the glasses on you can “see everything” should alert the reader that he is naïve and childlike.

In the midst of this cold and his contemplation of what may happen to him over there, his mother decides to leave Philadelphia for Chicago so as to show him a “good time.” She “knew I was feeling bad” and wanted to “cheer me up”(117). His mother, to be sure, is fearless, loud, and brash. But when we see her in juxtaposition to her son, we see that she is also a schlemiel. But her schlemielkeit, it seems, is more in tune with a vital American culture. It is a kind of energetics that is based on fast-talk and quick-action.

When we first meet the mother (or rather “Mother,” her name throughout the story), we see that she is brimming with enthusiasm for every experience she has (as if every moment is her last). Mother brings a woman she meets on the train who travelled with her. She insists that the lady and her baby meet her son. It doesn’t make any sense, but since Mother is so excited by their spending time with each other she wants her son to meet her:

“Did you ever see such a sweet face on a girl? Look at her. That’s the type I meet everywhere I go. And good? Good as gold. Her and her baby.” (118)

Upon seeing him, Mother demands a hug: “Grab your mother around for a hug. It’s all right. It’s your mother. I came all the way from Philadelphia.” When he notes that the girl, which his mother said was so great, was ordinary, his mother says, “You’re in quite a mood.” In other words, the mother wants him to be infected by her intensity and to overlook the ordinariness of things. She wants him to live in the moment instead of being in fear of the future.

His mother yells for a cab, engages the cabbie in talk, and they are off. As they are moving, the narrator notes a juxtaposition between age and youth in his mother. And as he passes from the one to the other he warms up: “Her figure was still so young and good it embarrassed me to look at it. And I have to admit I didn’t feel quite so cold now with her near me”(119).

Once they start talking, the narrator feels he can be honest with her and speak about how he feels about going “over there.” In response, she tosses a line, rhythmically, that sounds off against the word “there” – he calls this a “pet line”: “He’s there and you’ve got to get there.” These lines irk him and make him cold because they refuse to give in to his fear. After hearing this, he remembers another one liner, which, to be sure is all about challenging the other: “You’re on your way in, I’m on my way out.”

To be sure, as the story moves on more and more of these pet lines come to the surface. They are used to get things going and keep things warm and exciting. However, they don’t leave room for any emotional bonding between them. And they don’t leave room for fear. They are given out in rapid-fire fashion, as are her bold movements.

She has no regard for the civility. When they get back to the hotel, she takes off her top and walks around in “her brassiere and skirt…it made her comfortable”(120). It doesn’t matter that she is doing this in front of her son. To be sure, he takes this as normal. But after a while, as we shall see, he lets too many things slide. And this comes back to bite him.

The story shifts into high gear as they go out.   And as they move, we hear more and more noise. But Friedman turns this noise into a kind of music that is laced with optimism. In one scene they go to a club where Tommy Dorsey is playing music. While they are getting into the music, a large group of paraplegics come into the club. Excited by the music, they all start making noises to the music. They are giving canes by the club and they tap them against the floor in rhythm to the music. The narrator’s mother hears the word “sheeeet” repeated by some of them while one of the narrator’s friends, who tags along, goes “spit-spat.”   All of this noise works to just move things forward, into the future.

Moved by this rhythm, they get into the car and speed off along the Chicago lakeshore Listening to music as they drive, they continue the rhythm from the club. They carry it on late into the evening, but the mother doesn’t want to sleep:

“If you want to sleep, sleep…It’s your privilege. But you’re crazy if you miss a minute. I have quite a day planned for you.”(124)

The next day they go off to see a musical comedy called “New Faces.” During the act, the mother has her own comedy act and interrupts people in the audience. She wants to be the center of attention and make a scene for her son. After having her laugh and causing a stir, she leaves with her son to see an old friend called “Monkey” Lucella.

Monkey is a lot like her. He is wild, but he is also very wealthy. When they first meet, Monkey pulls out a wad of bills and tells Mother, “look at this.” In response, Mother says: “The son of a bitch…The money this son of bitch must have made here in Chicago. The fortune of money”(126). All of this theater hits a fever pitch at the end of the party when Lucella, who is married (his wife is “cold” and quiet) and has a son named “Seal”, lifts Mother up on his shoulders.

The narrator breaks down when he sees his mother’s underwear:

Her skirt split open and some garment showed that I never wanted to see in my whole life. It had elaborate hooks and snaps on it and it seemed you’d have to be very old before wearing it. It was just something I never wanted to see on my mother. (128)

When he sees “more” of the undergarment, he loses control and does something “I haven’t done in perhaps fifteen to twenty years, but something I had been in the habit of doing for quite some time as a child.   Starting to cry, I put my head down, closed my eyes and rammed my head into Lucella’s groin” (128).

His mother responds by sweeping him out of the house and getting a cab. Upon leaving, the main character, feeling miserable, vents:

Was this her idea of giving me a good time? Was that the way you treated a son who was very cold and couldn’t relax and needed glasses and was going to a place that sounded like a terrible children’s disease – a disease that probably began with a rash, for all I knew, and ended by attacking your damned kidneys. (129)

Like Stern, this story ends with sickness. But what needs to be seen is that this sickness, which is steeped in fear, is spurred in many ways by the mother. Her optimism and bold embrace of the moment divorce her from her son and make him sick. Moreover, it is her sexuality that she doesn’t hide from him. Freidman seems to be suggesting that this is what drives him back into his childhood and makes him a schlemiel. His mother has gone to far and instead of cheering him up, she has only made him more bitter and scared. This comic due shows us that a schlemiel can be a kind of nebbish character (like the son) and can also be a vital character who is out of touch with reality (like the mother).

Contrary to what many critics might say, Bruce Jay Friedman was interested in the many varieties of the schlemiel. The critics only got him half right. As we can see in this story, the main character may be like Stern but his mother is not.   And I would like to suggest that it is the latter, fast-talking kind of schlemiel that is often missed in Friedman’s work. Her optimism and brashness, though foolish, is – in this story – juxtaposed to the main character’s fear, childishness, and cynicism.   It is the relation between the two that makes this story – and these schlemiels – distinctly American.

 

….to be continued….