Schlemiels Don’t Adapt: Saul Bellow on Sholem Aleichem’s Characters

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Citing the traditional joke about the schlemiel who spills the soup on the schlimazel, Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, argues that the schlimazel “happens upon mischance” and “has a penchant for lucklessness”(14).  But “the unhappy circumstances remain outside him”(14).  In other words, the schlimazel’s comedy is situational.  The schlemiel, however, is different since his “misfortune is his character.  It is not accidental, but essential.”  After saying this, Wisse substitutes the word “existential” for the word “essential”: “the “schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving his very nature in its confrontation with reality”(15).    After writing this, Wisse inserts a footnote that explains that there is “some discussion of the derivation of this term (“existential”) and some attempt at definition” in a book by B.J. Bialostotski on Jewish humor.   In this book, Wisse makes reference to only two pages.  To be sure, dubbing the schlemiel an “existential” character needs more than two pages let alone a footnote reference.   Regardless, I applaud Wisse for making this claim.  There is a lot of truth to this observation.   However, as Wisse suggests indirectly, it needs more discussion (not just “some” discussion). I have, to be sure, dealing with existential interpretations of the schlemiel in my blog – mostly by way of Emmanuel Levinas and Walter Benjamin, amongst others.  But I have never read the schlemiel in terms of this specific distinction made by Wisse.  For this reason, I was happy to have stumbled across a 1953 book review of a Sholem Aleichem novel – The Adventures of Mottel the Cantor’s Son – by Saul Bellow entitled “Laughter in the Ghetto.”  In the review, he suggests something of an existential reading of the schlemiel.

1953 is an important year for Yiddish literature and for Bellow as it’s American translator.  Ruth Wisse points out that Irving Howe published Bellow’s translation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” from the Yiddish in The Partisan Review in 1953.   And Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi convincingly argues that Bellow’s translation was a landmark moment in the revival of Yiddish literature in America.  She goes so far as to argue that Bellow, Howe, and Leslie Feidler, looked to create a “virtual ghetto” by way of popularizing the work of I.B. Singer, Aleichem, and others who were translated into English.

Bellow’s review, so to speak, comes right on time since it coincides with the publication of “Gimpel the Fool.”  In this review, Bellow reflects on Yiddish literature in general and Aleichem in particular.   But the real focus of the review is Mottel, the main character of Aleichem’s final novel.  And Mottel, for all intents and purposes, is a schlemiel.

Bellow begins his review by defining Yiddish literature against Hebrew literature: “Hebrew was the language of serious literature among the Jews of the Pale (of Settlement): Yiddish the secular language and the language of comedy.”  But even though Yiddish is the “language of comedy,” Bellow points out that Aleichem turned it to serious concerns thus bridging the gap between “serious literature” and a language that was essentially comic.  But, as Bellow argues, built into Yiddish is an “ironic genius”: Aleichem “was a great ironist – the Yiddish language has an ironic genius – and he was a writer in whom the profoundly sad, bitter spirit of the ghetto laughed at itself and thereby transcended itself.”

Like Bellow, Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse were very interested in the relationship of laughter to tears.   I have written several blog entries on this topic which speak directly to the existential condition.   Bellow’s reading – and the title of his piece – seem to suggest that he saw the ghetto’s laughing at itself as a form of existential self-transcendence.  To explain this better, Bellow notes how the existential condition of the Jews was itself ironic:

The Jews of the ghetto found themselves involved in an immense joke.  They were divinely designated to be great and yet they were like mice.  History was something that happened to them: they did not make it.  The nations made it, while they, the Jews, suffered.

Bellow goes on to argue that the countless references to “all times and all greatness” in Yiddish conversation and Jewish study contributed, “because of poverty and powerlessness of the Chosen, to the ghetto’s sense of the ridiculous.”  In other words, the historical reality of Jews – given their history and greatness – was ironic for Jews who lived in the Pale.  It didn’t make sense and was laughable.  And in this situation, argues Bellow, “powerlessness appears to force people to have recourse to words.”

This suggests that history forced Jews to be comical.  But this isn’t the existential part.  The existential part has to do with not giving in to the judgment of history and the refusal to adapt.

When Bellow turns to the novel he points out how Mottel, the main character of the Aleichem novel, is always happy: “almost nothing can take place which he is unable to make into a occasion of happiness: with boundless resilience he tells, after his father’s death, how quickly he learns the prayer for the dead, how well everyone treats him now that he is an orphan.”  Mottel has “an inexhaustible power of enjoyment and cannot be affected….He declines to suffer the penalties the world imposes on him.”

Bellow sees this aloofness of the schlemiel as fundamental to a Jewish condition. This comes out in his comparison of Aleichem to Gogol.  In his comparison, he notes that while “Gogol’s humor is wilder, more inventive and lavish, Aleichem’s is drier and more sad.”  But, more importantly, Aleichem’s characters have the “immediate problem of survival.”  And they “must survive, but not by adapting themselves; adaptation is forbidden and they must remain what they are.”

This, to my mind, suggests an existential condition and it also suggests an “imperative”: they must “remain what they are.”  In other words, the schlemiel must remain a schlemiel.  After all, Mottel doesn’t adapt yet, somehow, he manages to survives.   Bellow calls this a kind of balancing act: “Mottel learns early in life to perform difficult feats of equilibrium.”

Mottel’s schlemiel-performance is an existential decision.   Mottel is not a victim of circumstance; his comedy is not situational.  He is not a schlimazel.  Mottel is a schlemiel and, according to Bellow, he must be. And this is what makes him so important to Aleichem and the Jewish people.  In order to survive, the schlemiel doesn’t adapt.  He doesn’t give in to history. And that is the schlemiel’s decision and perhaps, most importantly, what makes the schlemiel a Jewish comic character.

Jews Gone Wild: The Adirondacks in the Imagination of Ben Katchor and Saul Bellow

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As a Jew who was born and raised in the Adirondack foothills, I have always been curious as to how my Jewishness was different from my relatives and friends from New York City.  Both of my parents were born and raised in New York City, so this difference, so to speak, hit home.  My father was very cultured and highly educated but, in some ways, I saw him – over the years living in Gloversville New York – become more country-like (and wild).  He became a hybrid of sorts.   I went through a similar process, but in reverse.   I grew up, from his urban perspective, wild.  I ran with the locals and did things that he wouldn’t deem “Jewish.”

Upon leaving Gloversville for university, I spent a lot of time with New Yorkers.  I passionately dove into learning philosophy, literature, and Jewish Studies.  And, in truth, I divorced myself from my rural origins.  (After the death of two of my friends by way of drugs, drinking, and driving wildly – which all happened while I was away in university – I grew to resent these wild origins.)  But years after graduating, I have learned that you can take the boy out of Gloversville but you can’t take Gloversville out of the boy.  Echoing the tension between the urban and the rural, my father has dubbed me a “cosmopolitan hick.”

To be sure, the relationship of the Jew to Upstate New York is always on my mind.  So when I come across fiction that takes Jews in Upstate New York as a topic, I am deeply interested.   But what I have found, thus far, has been very troubling.  The associations many writers and artists have of the Jew in Upstate New York are, to be sure, very negative.  These images are associated with literally going wild.  In the Catskills and New York City one can be a schlemiel (in the most Jewish sense); but in the Adirondacks, the Jew experiences evil, depredation, and loses all vestiges of Jewishness.   The journey of the Jew to Upstate New York is – for some Jewish-American writers and artists – the journey of the American Jew: from Jewishness to something…wild.

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When I first read The Jew of New York – a graphic novel by Ben Katchor – I was astonished by how he represented the Jew who went off into the wilds of Upstate New York.   First of all, we must keep in mind that Ben Katchor was raised in New York and, in many of his comic strips, it is more than obvious that he sees the world through the complex lenses of a New York Jew.  In his graphic novel, he presents his readers/viewers with a narrative and a host of comic strip images of a Jew who went to Upstate New York in the 19th century.  In his narrative, the movement of the Jew – who is named Moishe Ketzelbourd – from New York City to Upstate New York is allegorical; it is the movement of assimilation and it, literally, is about a Jew gone wild.  In fact, in his comic strip, we see the Jew literally become-a-wild animal by virtue of his experiences in Upstate New York.  The main character, like my father, deals in animal skins and furs.  And this dealing brings him, so to speak, closer to the wild of America; so close that he eventually merges with the animal.  At the end of the story, he is brought back to New York City to be shown in a Yiddish theater as an American-Indian-Jew (one of the “lost tribes”); he is the the Jew who-went-Upstate-and-Became-an-Animal.  In the most intense scene in the book, he leaps off the stage and is killed.

Perhaps this allegorical comic strip alerts us to the dangers of capitalism and assimilation in America; but, ultimately, it is a representation of a specific place in New York State which has a mythological location in the urban-imagination.  And in this place the Jew is transformed into something of an animal.

Another interesting story I recently came across – written by Saul Bellow – is entitled “The Old System.”  It tells the story of Dr. Braun, an old veterinarian.  In the beginning of the story we meet a Dr. Braun who is very cynical and broods over the possibility that he might be no different from an animal. However, to counter this frightening thought, he comes to the realization that he can say: “I am.”

The feeling of necessary existence might be the aggressive, instinctive vitality we share with a dog or an ape.  The difference being the power of the mind or spirit to declare I am.

But as he broods more on this, he realizes that he is not pleased with this Cartesian conclusion or even with its existential of Buddhist alternative: that “he is not.”  Something else needs to be addressed, something that can help him to address his fascination with the question of man’s animality.

Drawing the reader into this reality, the narrator shows Dr. Braun not so much as a thinker as a person who is fully immersed in his body.  Cleaning his body is no consolation for the character; the narrator tells us that cleaning his body does not bring “order” to the world or answer Dr. Braun’s questions. This suggests that his joy lies elsewhere; in a body that is not “clean.” What could this be?

As he makes his breakfast, Dr. Braun thinks more and more about the meaning of civility, progress, and science (as James Joyces’s “anti-hero” Leopold Bloom does when we first meet him in Ulysses).  He wonders: has science and progress – in making us more abstract – detached us from something more organic, something wild.

As he thinks about this, he stumbles across memories of youth that he had buried away.  As we learn, he had another life.  He grew up as a Jew in Upstate New York. Dr. Braun is raised in Albany New York by his Godmother – Aunt Rose.  She, like Upstate New York, is described as “hard.” Her hardness is the “hardness of reckoning, hardness of tactics, hardness of dealing and speech.”   The narrator relates this hardness to what he dubs the “comic ugliness” of Upstate New York which grows by the “will of a demon spirit.”

She was building the kingdom with the labor of Uncle Braun and the strength of her obedient songs.  They had their shop, their real estate. They had a hideous synagogue of such red brick as seemed to grow in upstate New York by the will of a demon spirit charged with the ugliness of America in that epoch, which saw to it that a particular comic ugliness should influence the soul of man.  In Schenectady, in Troy, in Gloversville, Mechanicville, as far west as Buffalo. There was a sour paper mustiness in this synagogue.  (305, Jewish Stories ed. Irving Howe)

As the story goes on, we see this ugliness show its darker (less comical) side.  But it doesn’t do so in Albany; rather, it is in the wilds of the Adirondacks that we bear witness to Braun’s primal scene (wherein he goes from being a Jew to an animal of sorts).   Dr. Braun’s first sexual experience (at the age of seven) happens in a cabin in the Adirondacks.   At the cabin, we meet his cousins from the Adirondacks.  His cousin “Mutt” is a Jew-gone-wild:

Braun slept in the attic with his Cousin Mutt.  Mutt danced in his undershirt in the mourning, naked beneath, and sang an obscene song:

‘I stuck my nose up a nanny goat’s ass and the smell was enough to blind me’

He was leaping on bare feet, and his thing bounded from thigh to thigh.  Going into saloons to collect empty bottles, he had learned this.

Mutt’s sister – and Braun’s other cousin – is “fat Tina.”  Braun is essentially drawn into a sexual encounter with her.  Like Mutt, Tina is a Jew who has been made wild by Upstate New York.  She has thrown all civility to the winds.  And the narrator describes all the details of their sexual encounter putting a large emphasis on a physical animality:

She lifted her dress and petticoat to cool him and with her body. The belly and thighs swelled before him.  Braun felt too small and frail for this ecstasy…she rested her legs upon him, spread them wider, wider.  He saw the barborous and coaly hear.  He saw the red within.  She parted the folds with her fingers..  Parting, her dark nostrils opened, the eyes looked white in her head. (306)

Following this, we see Braun become wild with “her sexual odor” and later, “when he was playing in the yard,” he sees his cousin Isaac with his fiancée in the trees “embracing sweetly.”  The narrator tells us that Braun “tried to go with them,” which may imply that he tried to join in the sexual gestures.  But he is “sent away.”   When, like an animal, Braun goes back toward Isaac, he is turned “roughly” away.  In response,

little Braun then tried to kill his cousin.  He wanted with all his heart to club Isaac with a piece of wood. He was still struck by the incomparable happiness, the luxury of pure murderousness.  Rushing toward Isaac, who took him by the back of the neck, twisted his head, held him under the pump. (307)

What I find most startling about this and Katchor’s descriptions about what happens to Jews in Upstate New York is the fact that this area is associated with the end of Jewishness and the beginning of an American-life which is outlined by wildness, hardness, and barbarism.  These visions of Upstate New York both include a character who becomes murderous in his animality.  And as Bellow’s narrator tells us, he really enjoys his sexuality and violence.  To be sure, this is what troubles Dr. Braun most about his existence.  Deep down inside, he feels, as an American-Jew, that he feels closer to animality than to Jewishness.  And this feeling was fostered by his experiences in the Adirondacks.

I can’t say the same for myself, however.  To be sure, I’m astonished at how much the life of a Jew growing up in the Adirondacks has become such a charged figure (even a mythical figure) of Bellow and Katchor’s imaginations.  But, at the same time, I can understand what drives these representations as I did experience something of a wild, post-Jewish life growing up – a life in which I was surrounded by people who would take pride in being called a dog.    I was (almost) one of them…the meaning of this almost, however, has much more to do with the schlemiel…

….to be continued

I.B. Singer on the Schlemiel (a.k.a. “Little Man”)

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In a 1968 Paris Review interview with Harold Flender, I.B. Singer, the Nobel Prize winning Yiddish writer, was asked about the schlemiel.  However, the name schlemiel wasn’t used in Flender’s question.  Rather, Flender uses the word “little man.”   His question to Singer and Singer’s response are telling as they suggest a break in the tradition and something different about I.B. Singer’s schlemiel:

Flender: The hero of most Western writing is the Superman, the Promethean character.  The hero of Yiddish fiction, Jewish writing, seems to be the little man.  He’s a poor but proud man always struggling.  And your classic example of the little man would be Gimpel the Fool.  How do you account for the fact that in so much Yiddish fiction the hero is the little man?

In response to Flender’s question, Singer begins by noting that the Yiddish writer was not “really brought up on ideas of heroes” and that there are “very few heroes in the Jewish ghettos.”   Singer’s initial response is echoes throughout Daniel Boyarin’s book Unheroic Conduct, which provides much evidence that Jews associated knights, duelists, and heroes with “Goyishe Nachas” (non-Jewish joy); in apposition to this, says Boyarin, is the Jewish ideal of humility (“Yiddishe Nachas”).  For Boyarin, the person who embodies this ideal is, literally, the little man (Boyarin sometimes uses images from Passover Haggadoth to illustrate how important the “little man” was to Jews in the Middle Ages).  For Boyarin, this tradition was challenged by Jews in the west who looked to be more heroic.  In contrast, in the Eastern part of Europe, where Singer and Yiddish literature emerge, the ideal lives on.

Although Singer is aware of this tradition of the “little man” in Jewish history and Yiddish literature, he understands it differently from Boyarin (who sees it in a positive light and, in fact, calls for a return to such smallness in his book).  We see this in his response to Flender:

In my own case, I don’t think I write in the tradition of the Yiddish writers’ “little man,” because their little man is actually a victim – a man who is a victim to anti-Semitism, the economic situation, and so on.  My characters, though they are not big men in the sense that they play a big part in the world, still they are not little, because in their own fashion they are men of character, men of thinking, men of great suffering.

Reading this, one might be astounded because Gimpel seems to be a victim of sorts in the sense that the community perpetually lies to him and he seems takes the bait.  Ruth Wisse, writing of Gimpel, argues that he does in fact have some understanding of these tricks but he goes on, still.  And, for Wisse, this has much to do with the survival of morality in the wake of the Holocaust.  Regardless of what one may think, however, Gimpel is still a “little man.” Singer shrugs his shoulders and admits to this, yet with a difference which is brought up by virtue of a comparison with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye:

It is true that Gimpel the Fool is a little man, but he’s not the same kind of little man as Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye.  Tevye is a little man with little desires, and with little prejudice.  All he needed was to make a living.  If Tevye could have made a living, he wouldn’t have been driven to leave his village….In my case, most of my heroes could not be satisfied with just a few rubles or with the permission to live in Russia or somewhere else.  Their tragedies are different.

Singer’s answer suggests that, for him, his “little men” are different because they are after something different, something more complex than Aleichem’s “little men.”  And the reason he offers for this difference is because their tragedies differ.  This, it seems, is another way of saying that his “little men” are different because they come after a tragedy much greater than the pogroms suffered by many of Aleichem’s little men.  Simply finding a new land like Russia, Israel, or America is not enough for them (while it is, for many of Aleichem’s characters, sufficient).

Singer thinks this tradition of the “little man” changes with Gimpel and, to point out this difference, he goes so far as to say that we should refer to Gimpel as a “fool” and not a “little man.”

Gimpel was not a little man.  He was a fool, but he wasn’t little.  The tradition of the little man is something which I avoid in my writing.

What Singer is getting at is something that Ruth Wisse picked up on in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.  Like Singer, she understood that the schlemiel is a “modern hero” in the sense that he is not a little man; rather, he has a kind of moral dignity.  However, unlike Singer, she doesn’t see a bifurcation between Aleichem and Singer in terms of the schlemiel.  She acknowledges the post-Holocaust schlemiel in Singer but she also sees a moral dignity in Aleichem’s characters who balance out hope and skepticism.

Regardless of Wisse’s reading, I think she would agree with Singer that the schlemiel has changed after the Holocaust.  What we need to ask is how the difference between the schlemiel as “little man” (victim) versus the schlemiel as “fool” articulates itself in Jewish-American fiction.   Singer is suggesting to us that if the schlemiel is to matter, today, it cannot simply be the same “little man” we see in the tradition of Yiddish literature.   And, more importantly, it can’t be because it now speaks American-English and slang not Yiddish.

“Gimpel the Fool” was the first English translation of I.B. Singer’s Yiddish stories. And it was translated, for The Partisan Review, by another Nobel Prize winning writer: Saul Bellow.  One need not wonder, however, what was lost in this translation.  Singer tells us: the little man was lost.  It died in Europe with the end of European Jewish life.  In America and after the Holocaust, Gimpel becomes a “fool” and this implies that now the stakes are even higher.  Singer seems to be suggesting that now the schlemiel can go from being a little man to a bigger one; the schlemiel grows in stature but this stature is moral.  Singer seems to be suggesting that the greatness of the schlemiel is proportionate to the suffering it indirectly addresses.  S/he is not a hero in the typical sense; s/he is a hero in the moral sense. (And on this note, I think, in contrast to Singer, that Aleichem’s characters are heroic.)

Given what we have learned from Singer, the only question we need to ask ourselves is whether or how any schlemiel we see has anything “big” to teach us. If it doesn’t, then it is an empty shell.  Perhaps this is what we often find in Hollywood, but, fortunately, I’ll be the first to say that the schlemiel Singer makes reference to lives on in the pages of many Jewish-American writers, in some stand-up comedians, and in a few films (as this blog has made evident).

But, in the end, even Singer would likely admit that if the schlemiel is simply a fool and not also a little man, he will not live on.   Perhaps, like a “little man,” and following an ancient tradition, he would comically shrug his shoulders and say (in a Yiddish-American way): Genug shoyn! (Enough already!)

The Final Notes of Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Epistolary Exchange over Sholem Aleichem

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The last three letters exchanged between Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse over Sholem Aleichem’s fiction and its meaning show us the subtle differences between these two important thinkers and literary critics.  As I pointed out in my last blog entry about this dialogue, Ruth Wisse suggested that Aleichem was, in contrast to the Yiddish writers Mendel Mocher Sforim and I.L. Peretz, more “balanced.”  This was a part of Wisse’s epistolary strategy since she was countering Howe’s harsher view of Sholem Aleichem’s fiction.  Wisse’s response to Howe shows us that while she agrees that there are “dark undercurrents” in Aleichem’s work, these words do not subsume Aleichem’s approach to Jewishness, Jewish history, and Yiddish literature.

For Wisse, as I’d like to show in this entry, Howe’s view should be balanced out with a more positive view of the Jewish writer.  Like her brother, David Roskies, she sees Aleichem as an artist who acknowledges fragmentation but who, in response to it, takes on the tradition of the Magid (story-teller).   She sees Aleichem as a “stand-up” comic of sorts who is looking to create bridges and create balance; unlike Howe, who sees him primarily as a modernist writer who focuses on fragmentation and ruin.  The last letters between Howe and Wisse work to bring out this differing take on Aleichem and his work.

At the end of his third letter to Ruth Wisse, Howe notes that although Sholem Aleichem’s Motl Stories are “casual offhand, charming, even mischievous,” Aleichem will “suddenly…drop to a fierce irony, a harrowing sadness.”  And this, for Howe, is the keynote of Aleichem as a modernist writer.  He ends on the sad note: for Howe, Aleichem goes from laughter to tears.

In response, Wisse turns to Aleichem’s Yiddish so as to show that he was a Yiddish artist.  In other words, she agrees with Howe that Aleichem is an artist, but she takes a different strategy with respect to explain why this is the case. She turns to his language and shows that Aleichem used Yiddish to show how repetition is used to create a closed circle of thoughts – what she calls a “circular style.”   Noting this style in relation to one of Aleichem’s characters, Wisse points out that “her mind is imprisoned in its own obsessive circularity.”  But the point of Aleichem’s using circular style in relation to this character is to “give truth to her particular embattled consciousness, self-protecting and self-defeating.”  This speaks to the negative note that Howe is addressing.

But from here, Wisse turns to the linguistic strategies of Tevye (one of Aleichem’s most celebrated characters).  Wisse sees this character as evidence of Aleichem-the-artist and not simply Aleichem the-folk-storyteller:

Like a true musician, he enjoys showing the speed and grace with which he can skip from one note or one tone to another.  His best jokes and quotations are polyglot, drawing attention to their mixture of high and low.

But Aleichem differs from a writer like I.L. Peretz who “drew attention away from the specificities of Yiddish, away from its folk expressions, the interplay of its source languages, the different dialects of its various speakers.”  Contrary to Peretz, “the unfixed nature of Yiddish was its greatest attraction, and its infinite range of dialects and oral styles the best literary means of capturing the dynamic changes – or the resistance to change – in the culture.”  By pointing this out, Wisse is shifting the emphasis of this epistolary exchnage.  For Wisse, the emphasis should be on the way Aleichem bridges high and low culture by way of his use of Yiddish.  This makes him a modern artist.

Howe catches wind of this shift of emphasis and, so to speak, sticks to his guns.  In his final letter to Wisse, he reiterates his points.  His first words seek for the agreement between he and Wisse about the “oddity” of his stories.  In other words, he acts his if they agree fundamentally but, ultimately, he is changing emphasis.  Howe ends with five points which convey this “oddity” and how it relates to Aleichem being a quintessential modern writer.  For the purpose of understanding his tactic, I’ll summarize each.

1)    Aleichem is a literary artist and not an “oral story teller” and the evidence for this can be found in the “sudden, abrupt blockage” of closure in Aleichem’s stories.

2)    His work demonstrates that he is not interested in “resolution of an external action” so much as evoking “shocked laughter.”

3)    His work is more interested in the “clever Jew” (who is “complicated, quizzical, problematic”) than in the naïve simpleton who is concerned with the “old ways of piety.”  The relation of the “clever Jew” to the past is secondary to his being…a “complicated, quizzical, problematic” Jew.

4)    He is a sophisticated writer who is “very much aware” of his full departure from the tradition of oral storytelling.

5)    Shalom Aleichem, like Saul Bellow who followed in his footsteps, “knew intuitively that the boundary between comedy and tragedy is always a thin and wavering line.”

Howe’s last point is something I have been discussing from the very beginning of my blog series on Howe.  It taps into his approach to Jewishness.  To be sure, he sees the fluid movement between comedy and tragedy as a defining characteristic of modern Jewishness and modern Jewish-American literature.  And this reiterates what he was saying in his introduction to Jewish American Stories.

Wisse final letter to Howe – literally, her last word –  provides us with a key to understanding how she differs with Howe over how we should understand Sholem Aleichem and his project.

First of all, she notes that he avoided “the romantic subject, the heroic possibility, the grand style of the novel” because he was “simply unconvincing and demonstrably uncomfortable in this mode.”  More importantly, he was a modern writer because he is able to work on many levels simultaneously.  She notes “On Account of a Hat,” a story Howe loved, and points out that it has a “dozen interpretations: it is the plight of the Diaspora Jew, an exposure of rootlessness, a mockery of tyranny, the comic quest for identity, a Marxist critique of capitalism, and, of course, an ironic self-referential study of literary slight of hand.”

In other words, Wisse wants to “balance” out the “oddity” – that Howe finds so fascinating – with other elements of the text that Howe’s reading overshadows.  To be sure, she points out that Aleichem works by way of “indirection” with “the worm’s angle of vision, and with apparently flimsy materials.” But he uses them to present something tenacious about Jewishness, something Howe may miss.

As we saw above, Howe sees Aleichem’s Motl in terms of the final, negative note.  Wisse, reading the same character, points out his tenacity: “He confronts all the things that happened to him and forces himself upon life again and again, and the sum of these trials shape the rhythm, constitute the meaning, of his existence.”

Commenting on this, Wisse notes that:

Sholem Aleichem’s admiration for the stubborn ruggedness of Jewish faith and the surprising vitality of the people comes to expression not just thematically, in story after story, but in the resilient, recuperative shape of all his major work.

Knowing full well that her reading may not be deemed “academic” enough, she notes that Aleichem had no obsessive interest in an academic, modernist reading. She asks us to contrast Aleichem’s memoir to the “mountaineering saga of Jewish writers with all the high, serious climbs of other European literati.”  And what we will find from his simple memoir (consisting of only four anecdotes about the ordinary nature of other Yiddish writers and forgetting) is that he “he deflates intellectual and artistic pretentiousness, and even undercuts the grandeur of the Alps!”

In other words, Wisse, like Aleichem, thinks that Howe’s obsession with the “quizzical” and “troubling laughter” of Aleichem is something Aleichem would laugh at.  Playing on the word “quizzical” (which Howe uses several times in his letters to Wisse), Wisse gives her final words on Aleichem which show us a correlation of simple faith (hope) in the story (and storytelling) and not with the world:

What confronts us, finally, is the quizzical smile of the author, compulsively skeptical about everything but the story.

This tension between hope and skepticism, for Wisse, not only informs her reading of Aleichem as an artist; it also informs her reading of the schlemiel.   Howe’s reading of the schlemiel would differ significantly because, in reading Aleichem, he puts the emphasis on the quizzical-as-such and not the relation of the quizzical with the tension between fiction and reality or hope and skepticism.