The Tale of Two Sandlers: The Jewish-American Schlemiel and Adam Sandler

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Adam Sandler’s brand of comedy has always been of interest to me. And since today is Adam Sandler’s birthday, I was thinking about what to write about Sandler. To be sure, Schlemiel Theory has no blogs on Sandler save for a blog that discusses Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) within the context of the schlemiel and his/her adverse relationship with war.   In this blog I want to briefly take note of two ways that scholars have addressed Sandler. On the one hand, Daniel Itzkovitz addresses Sandler in terms of the schlemiel character and its relation to American culture; and on the other hand, Lawrence Epstein reads Sandler in terms of a new generation of post-assimilation Jews who are dealing with their Jewishness in nuanced ways that previous generations could not. Both scholars provide us with interesting insights about Sandler. But the key to understanding their differing readings depends on how you understand the meaning of (and relationship of) Jewishness in (or to) America.   Reading one against the other, we see two competing readings of Jewishness.   And we see…the Tale of Two Sandlers.

Daniel Itzkovitz brings up Daniel Sandler in his essay “They are All Jews.” In his essay, Itzkovitz queries into what has happened to Jewishness in America after films like Independence Day. Even though “Jewishness” seems to be coming more and more to the forefront in this (and other films) he wonders whether this “Jewishness” has more to do with Hollywood and less with reality (since, after all, there is a worry that, with intermarriage and assimilation, less of this new generation is interested in Jewishness and his continuation).

In this film, the main character Jeff Goldblum (who plays David Levinson, a “computer geek”) teams up with Will Smith (who plays Captain Steve Hiller, a “Black fighter pilot”) to save America and the world from an alien invasion. As a part of this teaming up, there is a “conversion of the Jewish nerd into a manly hero”(233). This “conversion” works to remake the Jew “into an unironically hypermasculine and stunningly generic ethnic: my big-fat-Jewish-savior, whose ultimate job is simultaneously to stand in as a universal representative of an unthreatening and vacuous difference, and to do so in part by converting everyone else to the newly watered down Jewishness”(234). In other words, Itzkovitz suggests that this film has the Jews stand in for a kind of bland new sense of difference in America. We are all Jews now, meaning all of our differences are non-threatening. The stand in for this is a Jew that goes from being a nerd-schlemiel to a “an unironic hypermasculine..ethnic”(234).   Itzkovits calls this “Hollywood’s ‘new male Jew’ and this is marked as a “world converting cinematic pinnacle”(235). In these moments, the minorities come together to save America and the world and, as Itzkovitz claims, to convert ethnic difference to something vacuous and unthreatening.

In contrast to this we have the “new schlemiel films” that cast actors like Ben Stiller, Jason Biggs, and….Adam Sandler. Given the new film paradigm with Independence Day, Itzkovitz wonders about these new schlemiel films. Now we have two “prominent categories” of Jewish men in America: “either as vaguely eccentric standard bearers for ethnic tolerance in a new multicultural America…or as vaguely eccentric embodiments of the middle class everyman. As the latter group makes clear, if the “neurotic nebbish” is really “out,” someone forgot to tell Hollywood”(241).   Biggs, Stiller, and Sandler, are “neurotic nebbish” schlemiels, the “unwholesome trinity of antiheroes whose in whose humiliations we find supreme pleasure”(241).   They“challenge us to rethink the manly triumph celebrated by Goldblum’s character”(241).

Writing on Sandler, Itzkovitz notes how in films like The Waterboy (1998), Punch Drunk Love (2002), and Anger Management (2003) he “plays nice guys prone to humiliation by tougher men and women but who ultimately triumph”(242). And in other films like Eight Crazy Nights (2002) and 50 First Dates (2004) “the manhood of his Peter Pan-ish characters is called into question by their inability to grow up”(242).

What Itzkovitz finds most interesting about Sandler (Stiller and Biggs’) “nebbishe outpouring” is that the Jewishness of these “new Hollywood Jews” reveals more about the “instability of postmodern culture than about Jews”(243). In other words, there is nothing really Jewish being disclosed about these films so much as the fact that “as much as American Jews are becoming mainstream, American audiences are “becoming Jewish”(243). They are becoming “instable.” And Jewishness is, as David Biale and Jon Stratton argue, becoming identified with being American. It is being naturalized. In this sense, Sandler really doesn’t tell us much about Jewish identity save for the fact that he, like other Hollywood Jews who play schlemiels, has “generalized” it and shown us more about American culture than about Jewishness.

What Itzkovitz would rather see, in other words, is a Jewishness that tells us more about being Jewish and not about America. But we don’t find this coming out of Hollywood.

Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, sees Sandler in a different light.

He argues that Sandler has “found a crucial spot in the comedy of his generation”(250). His films are “about the anxiety of growing up, about the need to reconcile with the family, and about taking responsibility”(250). Instead of seeing this as speaking solely to a general American audience, Epstein takes note that “part of Sandler’s comedy comes from his Jewish heritage. The emphasis on family and family reconciliation so prominent in Sandler’s films is embedded in Jewish life”(250).   He goes on to note that Sandler is “famously proud of being Jewish” and “draws on those traditions” so that other Jews of his generation and Americans of his generation “needed”(250).   In other words, Epstein argues that Sandler’s comedy draws on Jewishness and speaks to Jews of his generation and it speaks to Americans. It is literally Jewish-American comedy.

But there is more to the story.

Epstein argues that Sandler shows us that “part of his movement toward maturity” includes a “willingness to embrace an identity that transcends his individual self” – that is, Jewish identity. Epstein’s proof of Sandler’s willingness is the fact that he sung the “Hannukah Song” on Saturday Night Live which became an “ethnic anthem.”

He is openly a Jew and “like his generation, doesn’t have to or want to hide being Jewish or feel any shame either. And in this sense there is a great irony.” The irony is that in previous generations Jews would do their utmost not to appear “too Jewish” in public (even though, Epstein agues, Jewishness was “enveloped and penetrated them”). Through Sandler, argues Epstein, we can see how Jewish values can “influence other parts of….identity and vice versa”(252).   Epstein sees Sandler as “balancing” Jewishness with being an American.   “The future of American and Jewish comedians will in part be determined by how they finally balance their American and Jewish identities”(252).

In contrast to Itzkovitz, Epstein’s Sandler is not simply a stand in for American identity he is a symbol of the future task of Jews to balance Jewishness.   His Jewishness, in this or that film, is a part of a larger spectrum.   Itzkovitz sees his Jewishness in a different light. And although Itzkovitz doesn’t discuss the “Hannukah Song,” one can assume that this is a part of the multicultural project that neutralizes ethnic difference. The Jewishness that interests Itzkovitz is more ambivalent and, as I said, most likely won’t be found in Hollywood.

I’d like to end with a clip of Don’t Mess With the Zohan. It shows us a more recent Sandler who is still looking to balance out Jewish identity. But in this film, unlike his other films, he is more explicitly Jewish than ever. And in the film the nebbishe American schlemiel and the hypermasculine Israeli merge to create an odd character who is struggling with his identity. His move to America is prompted by his more effeminate need to leave war behind and cut hair. This film leaves us with many questions about what has become of Jewishness in Hollywood and the meaning of ethnic difference. It also shows us how Sandler is “balancing” his Jewish identity – between America and Israel.   Perhaps this film is also a Tale of Two Sandlers….

Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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During the week of Robin Williams death, I wrote a piece on his role in Jakob the Liar. As I pointed out, Williams didn’t shy away from the challenge of bringing humor to the Holocaust. To this end, he decided to take on the role of the schlemiel, Jakob, who did his utmost to distance the Lodz ghetto from its impending doom.   He and Roberto Bengnini – who wrote and played the main role in Life is Beautiful – turned to the schlemiel and both were duly criticized for this since, “after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno and several Holocaust scholars who follow in his wake argue that humor, much like poetry, might be thought to be unethical when it comes to representing the Holocaust.   However, what makes the schlemiel interesting is, as Sidrah Ezrahi suggests, that its brand of comedy “revolts” against the world so as to preserve hope.   But that revolt is in the name of innocence.

While Bengini and Williams took to the schlemiel in the face of the Holocaust, Joan Rivers took more to a comic style that was in the spirit of Lenny Bruce (who, arguably, made a major impression on Rivers and changed her way of doing comedy).   These jokes do not preserve innocence so much as the spirit of revolt itself.   They strike at the civility that is at the core of the west.   And, as David Biale argues, Lenny Bruce created a new sense of Jewishness as a position that was not so much American as marginal, counter-cultural, and against the status quo. And because Rivers is “Jewish,” perhaps in Bruce’s sense, her Holocaust jokes take on another aspect.

The most recent joke Joan told about the Holocaust was on Fashion Police. In this joke she likens the “hotness” of Heidi Klum’s ass in a dress to the hotness of Germans “pushing Jews into the ovens” in concentration camps:

On CNN she was asked if she regretted telling the joke. She starts off by saying that it’s “just a joke,” notes that a large part of her husbands family died in the Holocaust, and finishes up by saying that her joke prompts this generation to think about the Holocaust (simply because it’s not on their minds and this will spur them to think).   After being asked again if she will apologize, she notes how her Jewishness keeps her from criticism: “Why don’t you worry about Mel Gibson? Why don’t you worry about the anti-Semites out there?” But the clincher is that the main thing is to laugh because if you can laugh “you can deal with it.”

This principle, it seems, is nearly identical to the one used by Begnini and Williams in their use of the schlemiel. It is not simply revolt for the sake of revolt. It seems that Rivers is suggesting this and the fact that it can spur people to think about the Holocaust.

In her interview with WSJ live, she says something a little different. She begins by saying the joke is on the Germans; they and not the ADL and Abe Foxman should be upset.   And she finishes off the discussion by noting what Dick Cavett said via Mark Twain: “Against the assault of humor, nothing can stand. Don’t flinch, Joan.” In other words, comedy is pure revolt.  Perhaos Cavett is suggesting the same thing as Lenny Bruce: Jewish comedy should always be in  revolt. She says it’s a brilliant comment (several times, in fact).

This year Rivers began her appearance on Jimmy Fallon (the first return to the Tonight Show for decades – since she was “banned” from the show) made a Holocaust joke about how if the German’s could successfully kill millions of Jews at least they could make cars that work. Its interesting that, in following up this joke, she told a joke about her getting vagina rings, and then she turned to a joke dealing with ethnicity and emotion. The joke is an inside/outsider joke. She asks Fallon if he is Irish. He says yes and then she says that she and Fallon get this but WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) don’t. (This initial insider/outsider joke hearkens back to Lenny Bruce’s jokes about what’s “Jewish” and “Goyish,” meaning WASPish.

Her Jewish/Goyish kind of routine with Fallon sughests that she us in the same camp as all ethnic comedians who fight to succeed in a WASP culture.  This seems to authorize her to tell jokes about anything, even the Holocaust.

But this is not the first time she has told jokes on the Holocaust.   In her book I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me (2012), Rivers tells jokes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and Anne Frank.

On Hitler:

“I hate people who say they’re ‘workaholics…There is no such thing. Hitler put in a lot of hours. Would you call him a workaholic? People who work 24/7 are not ‘addicted’ to work … they either hate their families or don’t have basic cable.”

On Anne Frank:

“They only order half a chicken, take two bites, then put it in a doggie bag to take home, where it lasts them for six months. Anne Frank didn’t hoard food like this, and that bitch was hungry.”

And in Larry King’s interview with her in 2010, King asks Rivers about Holocaust humor in 5:49.   He asks her if there is any “area you will not go to?” And she says, “No. If I think I want to talk about, it’s right to talk about.” And she goes on to say that if she were in “Auschwitz she would tell jokes just to make it ok for us.”

And she concludes, as she did three years later, that if you make something funny you can deal with it. Both statements are telling, but the first is more telling since it has resonance with the films made by Begnini and Williams. Both of them play characters who also tell jokes to help make it ok for us. But the “us” is different and so are the jokes. The humor that Robbins and Begnini use is the humor of the schlemiel. It’s purpose is to make fool younger people so as to preserve their innocence. In contrast, one can imagine that River’s humor, inside of Auschwitz, would have been much different. Instead of prompting Jews to live “as if” the good still exists (and preserving innocence), one can imagine that her jokes would be anything but innocent. However, they would work in the same way: they would make things ok for us (for fellow Jews who were suffering in the Holocaust). And this suggest that Rivers would use humor to revolt against the world. By saying no to it, things would be “ok for us.”

One may disagree with this approach – and many Holocaust scholars and the ADL have. But one needs to ask not just whether humor is tenable after Auschwitz but whether it is tenable during Auschwitz. This is what Rivers suggests to Larry King. And, unlike Williams and Bengini, she saw the Jewish humor that subscribes to vulgarity as more powerful than the humor that subscribes to the schlemiel when it comes to the Holocaust. And this difference also shows us a difference between two trends in post-Holocaust Jewish-American humor: one leaning toward Lenny Bruce and the other toward the traditional schlemiel that we see in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” In the face of Evil, Gimpel acts “as if” good exists. In contrast, Rivers, in contrast, laughs at Evil. And perhaps her revolt is the demonstration (instead of an acting “as if”) of what’s best in humanity.

And this appeal to comedy – in the face of disaster – harkens back to what Walter Benjamin once said of Franz Kafka: “the only thing Kafka was certain of is that only humor helps. The question, however, is whether it can do humanity any good.”

Joan Rivers, “She Was the Bravest of Them All”

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The death of Joan Rivers has left its mark. Many of us have been searching for words. And, as with any death, we try to remember the best things about her. So many things come to mind, but how, I wondered, could I find words. This was too much. After Robin Williams death, I was besides myself and now Joan. All of the joy they brought to my life, the life of my friends, and my family. It felt as if it was all gone.

….

As soon as I heard the news of Joan’s death, I went immediately to twitter to check the comedians I follow for insights into who she was and what she did. After learning of her death, Mel Brooks tweeted: “Joan Rivers never played it safe. She was the bravest of them all. Still at the top at the end. She will be missed.”

Something about Brooks’ words resonated deeply in me. Yes, he was right. She never played it safe. She was the bravest of all. Her bravery, however, didn’t have to do with the comic boundaries she broke with her words so much as with her person. As a female comic, she took risks that broke boundaries for other women comics. And this, I thought, is what Brooks meant when he said she was “the bravest of them all.”   And this needs to be recognized and remembered in the wake of her passing.

Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, gives Joan her own chapter. The title of the chapter and its subtitle suggest that with female comedy had radically changed Jewish comedy in America: “Kosher at Last: Jewish Women Comedians.” Epstein begins his chapter without mentioning Joan’s name. Joan is presented as a woman without a name (“she”):

She was still struggling for recognition as a comedian. Billed as “Pepper January – Comedy with Spice,” she was faced with a hostile audience. The raucous men seated at the tables had a very definite set of ideas about the men and women who stood in front of them to provide entertainment: the men were supposed to tell jokes, and women were supposed to take their clothes off. Here, though, was this thin, loud woman trying to tell them jokes. The audience members began booing. (253)

After writing this description of “her” act, Epstein tells us her name: Joan Molinsky. As with many Jewish-American comic artists (and artists in general), she had to change her name. She went to her agent, Tony Rivers, and he told her that in order for her to get recognized as an American artist she had to change her last name to Rivers. From then on, she was Joan Rivers.

But the name change wasn’t enough. As Epstein notes, after World War II Borsht Belt humor, which Brooks, Reiner, and Allen (amongst many other famous comedians) participated in, “instilled a deep hostility toward women and mothers”(254). But these comedians weren’t doing something that went against the norm. Epstein tells us that they were a part of a “wider American culture” that was changing radically and was anxious about its identity. They, like many Jews, wanted to assimilate as they moved from the city to the suburbs. Given this situation, male comedians, argues Epstein, were worried that women comedians could “retard their entrance into American society.”

Within such a cultural milieu it was hard for a woman comic to survive unscathed.

And while men had an easier time assimilating, Jewish women, argues Epstein, were the “new Jews, the unaccepted minority, the people seeking power who were not allowed to gain entrance into society, in this case the society of comedians”(257).

For this reason, Epstein argues that women comics, like Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, were “unable to engage normal comic subjects.” As a result, a woman comedian was “stuck making fun of herself”(257). Totie Fields was the first to do this.

And Joan Rivers “built on Fields’s success.” Her humor, like Fields’ was based on self-deprecation.

However, she was also adept at speaking whatever came to her mind and this helped her to become more independent. However, Epstein argues that it wasn’t until she saw Lenny Bruce perform in 1962 that she became radically independent: 

The real turning point for her…was in watching Lenny Bruce perform in 1962. She saw in Bruce a sort of comedy she wanted to perform, a comedy that came from personal, intimate experiences, a direct and honest approach. Rivers was not interested in the political and religious confrontations that came to dominate Bruce’s material, but she was deeply impressed by his delivery style. She transformed his blunt obscenity into softer words such as tramp or slut. She also made a deliberate choice. She went for the large lower middle class. (258)

Epstein characterizes her transition as a “change from self-mockery to self-assertion.”   She talked about subjects women never talked about.   For a woman to do this was heroic and courageous.

What I find so interesting about Epstein’s reading is that it parallels, in many ways, the reading of David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews. But in Biale’s book, there is a different trajectory which moves from the male “sexual schlemiel” to Lenny Bruce.

Biale, to be sure, gives the schlemiel a fundamental role in the creation of American culture and a new, awkward sexuality which finds its best expression in the work of Woody Allen. He argues that the schlemiel doesn’t simply adapt to American culture; it also creates something new.   The sexual schlemiel, with his “comic fumbling,” de-eroticizes “gentile America.”   And in doing so, his comic fumbling and “sexual ambivalence infects gentile women and turns them into mirror images of himself: even gentile Americans become ‘Jewish’”(207). With this unique claim and powerful rhetoric (“infests,” “turns into mirror images”), Biale does something no schlemiel theorist has done before: besides noting how women become mirror images of the schlemiel, he also argues that America has become more “Jewish” by virtue of the schlemiel.

Biale goes on to elaborate that there is a “hidden agenda”(207) that goes hand-in-hand with this “mirroring,” which is “to identify American with Jewish culture by generalizing Jewish sexuality and creating a safe, unthreatening space for the shlemiel as American antihero”(207). And this identification illustrates what he means by “harmonizing” Jewish experience with American culture.   By being the American anti-hero, Biale is suggesting that the “sexual schlemiel” plays an important role in a new American culture that, in many ways, emulates the anti-hero.

Biale’s choice of words is instructive as it suggests that this “unthreatening space” was prefaced by living in a space of cultural anxiety and a desire to get rid of it. In fact, he notes that in “America a deep insecurity about the Jews position in American culture seems to underlie this instinctive turn tot comedy”(207).   Based on this reflection, Biale muses that the distance afforded by comedy may have relieved anxiety by winning over a “potentially hostile gentile audience”(207).   For this reason, Biale ventures a hypothesis about how, if Americans can laugh at Jewish sexual neurosis and see such a neurosis as it’s own, then “perhaps the Jew will be accepted as an organic part of the cultural landscape”(207).  

However, he notes that since Jews put such neurosis on the screen and in novels, one can argue that they weren’t too anxious so much as slightly anxious. Rather, he argues that they “assumed” that the “sexual schlemiel” was a “legitimate part of American culture”(207) And this prompted them to “generalize Jewish sexuality” by way of the schlemiel.

Biale notes that this generalization of Jewish sexuality by way of the schlemiel was challenged by another one; namely, that of Lenny Bruce. He, “perhaps more than any other comedian, broke with the tradition of the Jew as a sexual schlemiel in order to outrage conventional morality with Jewish eroticism”(216). While Roth and Allen have schlemiels who freely talk about sex, these characters don’t challenge the status quo. As we saw above, they create it by creating an identification between being a schlemiel and being an American.

For Bruce, being Jewish means to “be outside the American mainstream, both verbally (mouths) and erotically (bosoms). It means to identify with what was sexually liberated on the margins of American culture”(217). Biale’s reading makes it clear that the schlemiel – though an anti-hero – is a character that belongs to the American mainstream while Bruce’s anti-schlemiel does not. Bruce, in contrast to the schlemiel, is a part of and edgy and “hip” Jewish culture (217) which “was in as much conflict with Jewish convention as with Christian convention…and for Bruce the former was more sexually liberated than the latter”(217). This suggests a political reading of the schlemiel.

However, Biale notes that while Bruce was going against the American grain he was not a feminist. At the very least, he was “able to imagine a male Jewish counterculture that was subversively erotic”(217).   Moreover, Bruce’s kind of comedy – in contrast to the schlemiel’s – taps into a working class ethos. It is Lenny Bruce’s brand of comedy that “captured the bawdy tumult of the Lower East Side culture, from the ribald Yiddish theater to the lurid tales of the Bintel Brief” (219).   His work, along with the work of E.L. Doctorow (namely in his novel, The Book of Daniel), evinces a Jewish sexuality that refutes “America’s erotic and political hypocrisy”(220).

Given Biale’s reading, we can say that Rivers also passed from a self-deprecating schlemiel phase to a Lenny Bruce phase. She didn’t simply, as Biale says above, “mirror” the schlemiel. She left this comedic-type behind for a more aggressive kind of comedy. We can also argue that though Bruce was courageous for what he did, perhaps Rivers was even more courageous since she was a woman. And doing what Bruce did, as a woman, was much more difficult.

The question we need to ask is whether Joan Rivers created such a subculture as well.   Epstein suggests she did in the sense that she created a space for women comedians to speak and for Jewish women to feel comfortable with being assertive and bold.

And in this, Mel Brooks was spot on. He suggests that she had more courage than all of them. This means that she had more audacity than the Borsht Belt comedians (who he was a part of) and Lenny Bruce. As a woman, she broke more boundaries then they did. And she led the way for comedy to where we are today with comedians like Gilda Radner, Sandra Bernhard, and Sarah Silverman.

We will miss you Joan. You opened doors for women that were closed and you changed the face of comedy. Your legacy lives on and you were…the hardest working woman in showbiz.

Introducing Larry Abramov, Your Humble Diarist in “Super Sad True Love Story”

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Thomas Mann, near the beginning of his book Death in Venice, presents a figure of a man on a boat who, though old, is dressed as if he is young. Mann uses the most grotesque terms to describe him. The narrator tells us that Aschenbach, the main character, is appalled by the juxtaposition of youth and old age. And this evokes an experience of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might call an experience of angst or what Freud would call the uncanny. At first, he sees a man in a “bright yellow summer suit of ultra-fashionable cut, with a red necktie, and a rakishly tilted Panama, surpassed all the others in his crowing good humor.” But when he looks closer the “good humor” and gay-candor become terrifying:

But as soon as Aschenbach looked at him more carefully, he discovered with a kind of horror that the youth was a cheat. He was old, that was unquestionable. There were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson of the cheeks was paint, the hair under his brilliantly decorated straw hat was a wig; his neck was hollow and stringy, his turned-up mustache and imperial on his chin were dyed; the full set of yellow teeth which he displayed when he laughed, a cheap artificial plate…Fascinated with loathing, Aschenbach watched him intercourse with his friends….He felt as thought everything were not quite the same as usual, as though some dreamlike estrangement, some peculiar distortion of the world were beginning to take possession of him.

What I love about Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story is the fact that, unlike Mann’s Aschenbach, we are given an opportunity to chuckle about the juxtaposition of age and youth (that is middle-age and youth). Instead of pulling back in horror and anxiety, Shteyngart gives a kind of sad-charm to the juxtaposition.  

At the outset of the novel, entitled “Do not go Gentle,” we read a diary entry by the main character, Larry Abramov. He is a middle aged man who tells us that he has made a “major decision: I am never going to die.”   His description of how he is going to live on beyond his body is comical. He tells us, with a faux confidence, that “others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain.”

In pop-cultural confidence, Abramov tells himself (after all, it’s his diary) to stop “them” from telling us that “life’s a journey” where you end up somewhere. He assures himself that they are going nowhere, while he is going somewhere:

When I beg the pilot of the rickety UnitedContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Park’s fickle arms, that’s a journey.(3)

But he won’t beg him. He’s a schlemiel. And this is his fictional attempt at romantic heroism.  Yes, he will return to the woman he is in love with: Eunice Park. But how?  After writing this, he can’t keep his mind on the romantic mission.  He’s a distracted anti-hero.  He changes the subject in what  seems a sudden revelation. And that revelation is not about returning to her on a romantic journey, but the meaning of a line in a popular Whitney Houston song.  It speaks to his obsession with “living on.”

But wait. There’s more, isn’t there? There’s our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, au buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP. Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are our future until they too perish. The song’s next line, “Teach them well and let them lead the way,” encourages adult’s relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. (4)

He thinks this self-negation (for the children and their future) is foolish. But when he reflects on the meaning of Whitney Houston’s line about “ah chil’ren” this brings him to reflect, once again, on Eunice Park.  And in this reflection, we see why he charmed by her: she is young and innocent.  The two, taken together, bring out a comical juxtaposition of youth and middle age:

Lovely and fresh in their youth; blind to mortality; rolling around, Eunice Park-like, in the tall grass with their alabaster legs; fawns, sweet fawns, all of them, gleaming in their plasticisty; at one with the simple nature of their world. (4)

As one can see, he is drawn in by Eunice Park who is “blind to mortality” while he, apparently, is not. He sees her as an “innocent” schlemiel. And he seems to want that for himself because he is thinking about death and immortality. But, and this is the catch, he is also a schlemiel because he dreams of escaping mortality by way of technology. He has been swayed by what Dostoevsky would call the “miracle” of science. 

But unlike Thomas Mann’s narrator, we don’t see a character who is horrified of this juxtaposition of youth and age. This covering over of death evokes a different mood and has a charm that is missing in Mann’s novel.

….to be continued….

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.

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

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

Here is the link to the article: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/menachem-feuer-walter-benjamin-hannah-arendts-readings-of-the-schlemiel/

Enjoy!

Menachem Feuer, The Author of Schlemiel Theory

 

 

 

Marriage, Fate, and a Bathroom Epiphany in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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Irony often plays on the gap between expectation and reality. The gap between is a commonplace in much schlemiel fiction.   Playing on the main motif of How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti, the main character and author of the novel, casts the other as her teacher. She looks for ethical and artistic models of personhood outside her self. Following this model, Heti notes how, several months before her wedding, she saw a beautiful wedding (the perfect model of how a wedding “should” be):

Several months before our wedding, my fiancé and I were strolling together in an elegant park when off in the distance we noticed a bride and a groom standing before a congregation, tall and upright like two figures on a cake…The vows were being exchanged, and the minister was speaking quietly. Then I saw and heard the lovely bride grow choked up with emotion as she repeated the words for richer or for poorer. A tear ran down her cheek, and she had to stop and collect herself before she finished what she was saying. (23)

When she comes to the same moment, years later, Sheila did the same things but “felt none of it.” She felt it was canned and she felt as if “she was not there at all”:

Then something happened. As I said the words for richer or for power, that bride came up in me. Tears welled in my eyes, just as they had welled up in hers. My voice cracked with the same emotion that had cracked her voice, but I felt none of it. It was a copy, a possession, canned. That bride inhabited me at the exact moment I should have been more present. It was like was not there at all – it was not me. (23)

Compounding the feeling of alienation and bad luck, Heti recalls a painful event with her last boyfriend before she got married. She and her boyfriend used to have desks in the same room. Both of them would sit at their desks and write plays (24). But one day, after hearing her on the phone talking about a crush she had a on a photographer, he got angry, stole her computer where she was sleeping and returned it to her desk with a play he wrote about her. The play had plotted out her entire life leaving nothing to freedom or chance. The plot casts her as a kind of existential schlemiel (in the worst sense):

When I go up the next morning, I found, there on the screen, an outline for a play about my life – how it would unfold, decade by decade. Reading it compulsively as the sun came up in the window behind me, I grew incredibly scared. Tears ran down my cheeks as a I absorbed the horrible picture he had painted of my life: vivid and vile and filled with everything his heart and mind knew would hurt me best. (24)

The play culminates with Sheila in a pornographic encounter with a Nazi. She kneels in a dumpster and gives a Nazi a blowjob (25). When she asks the Nazi, in her “last bubble of hope,” “Are you mine?” he says “Sure, baby,” and “cruelly stuck my nose in his hairy ass and shat. The end”(25).

Heti is disturbed by the play and tries but cannot stop thinking about it. She thought, in some way, that it could come true! She felt she could not escape this theatrical fate:

It lodged inside me like seed that I was already watching take root and grow into my life. The conviction in every line haunted me. I was determined to act in such a way as to erase the fate of the play, to bury far from my heart the rotting seed he had discovered – or planted – there. (25)

In these lines we see that Heti’s schlemiel is struggling with fictional fate. She wants freedom. But how will she get it if she is constantly making big mistakes. It seems as if there is no way out. It’s as if she was fated to be a slave, a schlemiel-slave-of-fate.  Marriage seems to promise a way out of fate, but it only seems to reiterate eternal repetition.

In the beginning of their marriage, they have “two years” of parties. At the end of the second year, she wonders “Why are we having these parties?(26). Imagining she was someone from the future looking back she says, winking at the Jews building pyramids: “That could only have built by slaves.”

While in the bathroom, Sheila thinks of a dream she had about writing and shitting: “Sitting there, I recalled a dream from the night before, in which I was taking pills that made me shit a lot. In my dream, I decided I would only write what I thought about as I shit – since I was now spending all my time shitting”(27). Her dream parallels shit and writing and touches on the main theme of making Big Mistakes (as noted in another blog entry, Heti points out that all artists must make “Big Mistakes” – a motif shared with schlemiels). It seems she is reconsidering not just her marriage but also her art.

Right after she leaves the toilet she meets someone who takes part in the Ugly Painting Contest: Margaux. The backstory of her relationship with Margaux gives us a sense of how artists, like schlemiels, have dreams about art but are awakened, like Sheila, to the fact that their project (writing, painting, acting) might be meaningless.   (The metaphor Sheila will use, which we have already seen above, has to do with waste: either having one’s face put in someone’s ass or defecating.) But the lesson is never final. The schlemiel, like all of these artists, seems to repeat the cycle. To be sure, the postmodern schlemiel goes through this process, returns to her original naivite, and starts again.

As Heti’s metaphor suggests, being an artist-schlemiel and making art is like returning to the bathroom, repeatedly.   And if one model fails, the schlemiel – at least in Heti’s version – will always move on to another. Once that fails, one goes to the bathroom and then returns to start again. In other words, as a result of repeated failure, the schlemiel’s models will always be tainted or will become tainted (at some point).   Yet the schlemiel doesn’t give up hope that he or she will, one day, know “how a person should be.”

Zionists and Schlemiels: On the Difference Between Cultural and Political Zionists at “Der Schlemiel” Journal

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Very few scholars have addressed the appropriation of the schlemiel by Zionist thinkers and critics. Daniel Boyarin has suggested the contrast between the less masculine, Medieval model for the Jew (which, to be sure, is a humble simpleton who bears many of the more feminine qualities that are associated with the schlemiel) and the more masculine Zionist model for the ideal Jew. Although his study suggests such contrasts, he doesn’t use the schlemiel or discuss how this comic figure was situated within the tension between the Diaspora Jew and the Zionist. Moreover, he doesn’t look at the differing cultural representations of Jews by Cultural Zionists (who aligned with Ahad Ha’am and included people like Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and others) and Political Zionists in his study.  In his book Unheroic Conduct, he is more interested in the representations of the Political Zionists.

Building and extending Boyarin’s work to the subject of the schlemiel, David Brenner, in his book German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka’s Kitsch, dedicates a chapter to the schlemiel as a “proto-post-colonial subject.”   He takes the 1903 pro-Zionist journal Der Schlemiel: Illustriertes judisches Witzblatt [The Schlemiel: An Illustrated Journal of Jewish Humor] as the basis for his reading of the schlemiel in these terms.   What makes Brenner’s chapter on the schlemiel so important for schlemiel theory and scholars interested in Zionism is the fact that he historicizes the journals shift from a position that was informed by Cultural Zionism to one that was informed by Theodor Herzl’s version of Political Zionism.

Brenner points out that, in its first issue (and following issues) of Der Schlemiel, the German based journal looked to appeal to Eastern European Jews who had a great love for Jewish culture and Jewish humor. The first subject of the journal was the failed attempt of Theodor Herzl to make Uganda the homeland of the Jews. The Zionist congress, in this first issue, becomes a “congress of schlemiels” and Herzl is presented as parodying his thinking of such a possibility as schlemiel-ish.

But what interests Brenner most is the representation of the Jew who goes to Uganda and mixes Jewishness and African culture. The cross between the Jew and the African that is seen in some of the caricatures, according to Brenner, has a positive valence. The main character of one of the parodies is called Mbwapwa Jumbo. As Brenner notes, “Jumbo converts to Orthodox Judaism and Mizrahi Judaism.” And, “with time, he becomes an Eastern (African) Jew, speaking a German admixed with (and some English) syntax and vocabulary”(30). He argues that this caricature looked to create a kind of “cultural Judaism” (in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am).   This schlemiel is a proto-post-colonial schlemiel because it is a hybrid which inverts the degradation of Eastern European Jews and Africans by German and Austrian Jews who, like most Europeans, were bent on a colonial project.

To support his argument that the journal began with a bent toward Cultural Zionism, Brenner argues that Leo Wintz, a Ukranian Jew, founded the journal. He saw the schlemiel as a vehicle and as a “weapon against both anti-Semitism and assimilaton”(34). However, Brenner argues that Herzl wasn’t happy with the journal’s parody of his Political Zionistic move to leave for Uganda; and by the end of the year he suggested that they change editors.

When the Political Zionists take over, the schlemiel becomes, as Brenner argues, a “colonial subject.” It is more feminized and takes on a negative valence; now the mixture of the African and the Eastern European Jew takes on a more negative valence (36). The tough African takes on Eastern European customs (including Yiddish) and in doing so becomes weak. He leaves for Israel, is forced to emigrate to Galveston, Texas and falls victim to a pogrom (36).

Jumbo becomes the pit of a joke and is seen, a German-Jewish sense, as the schlemiel one doesn’t want to be.   According to Brenner, the new editors “stereotyped Africans and Jews in order to promote – but also to deconstruct – identity politics and other essentialisms”(38). However, this “should come as no great revelation: stereotypes were a time-tested effective means of attracting Jewish audiences in Western Europe to Jewish nationalism”(39). Jews learned what to be, in other words, by learning what not to be.

Brenner is on to something here because the German Schlemiel, as characterized by Sander Gilman in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, defines schlemiels as a comic characters who “believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.” But according to Gilman, this character did not emerge out of Jewish folklore so much as out of the Enlightenment: “Schlemiels are the creation of the Enlightenment. It is the Jewish enlightener’s attempt to use satire to cajole the reader into not being a fool.”

In contrast, Ruth Wisse argues that the Eastern European schlemiel had more of a positive valence. Although it had negative features, it also had positive features such as humility, trust, and optimism. It translates the religious aspect of this character: “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 and right over wrong.”

The difference between the German and the Yiddish schlemiel is clear. While Gilman argues that the schlemiel was used by the Jewish-German enlightenment as a foil to show German Jews what not to be; in Eastern Europe, the schlemiel’s comic failures had a more positive aspect. In other words, the German enlightenment courted the meaning of failure differently from their Eastern European brethren.

Brenner adds to Wisse’s reading of the Eastern European (Yiddish) schlemiel by suggesting that Cultural Zionists read the character in terms of being a kind of Jewishness that was open to otherness; a post-colonial Jewishness that found hybridity funny, yet in a positive manner.   The non-militaristic and non-athletic aspects of the Jumbo character, according to Brenner, didn’t have a negative effect on the Eastern European readers of the journal.

Nonetheless, as Brenner points out, the schlemiel still trades in stereotypes. But that is the case with any stock character which conveys Jewishness to large audiences. The difference, however, is what these stereotypes convey. He looks into what features we identify with and why. And in the context of Political and Cultural Zionism, we can see that the representation of the schlemiel in Der Schlemiel differed along the lines of how they thought of how Jews were and…should be. In the schlemiel, in other words, we can see a criticism of Jewishness and a new vision. One is open to hybridity and the effeminate aspects of the character while the other trades, according to Brenner, in a kind of “nationalistic essentialism.” The schlemiel can help us to look at ourselves. The question, however, is what we see and what decide to identify with and what to reject. The Political Zionists leaned toward a German Jewish reading of the schlemiel; while the Cultural Zionists, who first started the journal, took on a more Eastern European reading.

 

 

 

The Schlemiel’s Trust Issues in Sheli Heti’s Comic Novel “How Should a Person Be?”

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Sheila Heti – the author, narrator, and main character of the comic novel How Should a Person Be? – has fears that if she trusts someone, she may hurt someone and hurt herself. But, as we learn from the prologue, she has to if she is to learn how a person should be. She doesn’t look inside herself; she looks to others. This conflict, at the core of her being, makes her experience of herself and the world more fragmented.

To bring out the fragmentation, Heti introduces emails to her narrative and, in addition, she does something odd and irritating with them: she breaks the emails into numbered lines that have no explicit reason for being numbered save for the order.   These emails punctuate the text and complicate the narrative with information which may or may not be relevant. Here is a small snippet of the first email from Margaux, which, however, does have relevance since it shows a tension between actions and expectations that Heti has of others. It also shows major distrust and insecurity:

1. i have always admired a lack of social obligation, in fact, i aspire to it. the number of birthday parties i attend is too many, apart from that, i assumed you weren’t coming to my party and you did not.

2. at my party, you husband, probably being noting but sweet and drunk and feeling generous, and probably having nothing to do with your sentiments, said, “hell, you and Sheila should spend more time together.”

3. and i laughed and thought nothing about it.

4. but then when i saw you in the street yesterday, i was very annoyed and probably annoying. my annoyance was unfair and a little silly.

The email ends with a kind of apology which recurs throughout the text in a certain manner; especially between Margaux and Sheia. Both make “mistakes,” feel ashamed, and apologize (especially Sheila). (Apology, to be sure, is a major part of Toronto culture, the milieu of this novel; wherein the average citizen says “I’m sorry” often in day-to-day life.)

Immediately following this email, Sheila says she is “thrown off” (in other words, the email astonishes her; and, as I have noted above, astonishment is a key feature of the schlemiel).   To be sure, the email makes Sheila feel special. Her excitement and astonishment becomes disturbed. This is evinced by the fact that as she wanders through the neighborhood she “zipped and unzipped my jacket as my body went from hot to cold”(31). She muses that this it is a curse and a blessing to “have a woman,” and she launches into her inability to understand women (herself being one) and their relationships with each other: “I supposed I didn’t trust them. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand….It would have been too easy to count the ways I had been betrayed by girls, all the ways I had been hurt by them. And if I wanted, I could have easily made a list of all the girls to whom I had caused pain”(32)

The schlemiel, to be sure, has trust issues. But usually they are usually the other way around. The schlemiel trusts others and is betrayed. Here, the schlemiel is wary of trust because she has been burned so many times before. Sheila, this schlemiel, is more reflective on the meaning of trust than the character; and, in a postmodern sense, she does what the reader would do vis-a-vis what we find in a story like “Gimpel the Fool”:

Trust has to be won from zero at every encounter. That’s the reason you always see women being so effusive with each other – crying out shrilly upon recognizing each other in the street. Women have to confirm with each other, even after so many years: We are still all right….A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman – not permanently. It’s just not a safe place to land. I knew the heart of a woman could be a landing ground for a ma, but for a woman to land in another woman’s heart? That would be like landing on something wobbly, without form, like trying to stand on Jell-O. Why would I want to stand tall in Jell-O? (33)

In other words, Sheila, at this moment, is thinking about how much a failure and waste of time it would be if she tried to gain Margaux’s trust. However, in an odd follow up to this reflection, Sheila talks about her “first day at typing school”(33). Although the scene is odd, the theme of the text gives us a cue as to how this is connected to the reflection on women. While noting that she smiles at everyone, Sheila says that she regards all of the other people in the class as “liars” but she “wants them on her side.” She wants to be their “hero”(34). She “prayed” that she wouldn’t “create any enemies”(34). However, like a schlemiel, she fails, and realizes that she can’t use “wit” (as many schlemiels do) to win: “By the end of the first afternoon, they were laughing at me….I saw I wasn’t going to outwit them. Those people didn’t deal with wit”(34).

As in Woody Allen’s Anything Else -when Jason Biggs tells Allen that he and Allen can outwit two bullies by wit and Allen retorts that this won’t do – she realizes that she can’t win through wit because she belongs with the “liars and the weaklings”(34); the “jocks” have a different “interior” and have an “integrity that springs from the very center of the earth itself”(34).

This distinction is at the core of the latter day schlemiel. And though, as we can see above, she is wary of having a relationship with Margaux because of what she envisions will happen, she receives two more emails from Margaux that suggest to her that Margaux is a lot like her: she seems to be absent-minded and has a different interior that the jocks; she is a weakling of sorts, too. But, more importantly, Sheila can see that Margaux, in one of the emails, really wants to be her friend. It seems as if she can trust Margaux from email lines like this which Sheila all numbers “1”:

  1. i am surprised at how much i miss you, like a real teenage girl.
  1. hello. I was wondering, if you have red bike lights, could i borrow them tomorrow night?
  1. i’m going to paint your portrait a hundred times and never mention it to anyone – articulately.
  1. yes, I would like to see you. i have all the time in the world. (37)

Following this, Sheila becomes childlike and remembers a poem she used to read in Hebrew school:

Love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

Love is like a magic penny!

Hold on tight and you won’t have any!

Lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many,

They’ll roll over the floor, oh!

However, when she reflects on the poem, she becomes perplexed about what it means to give. The central metaphor of the poem distracts her from it’s content:

This seemed impossible to me, just crazy! If you give it away you’ll end up having more? It was the only poem I knew and my favorite one, for it baffled me. I recited it over and over to myself, as if there was something I could learn from it. In my head, in rooms in homes, zillions of pennies rolled over the floors, thick and encompassing like waves. (38)

She thinks these thoughts while “overcome with wonder” and drifts into thinking about something arbitrary: Margaux’s “grade-six graduation ceremony” in Texas (where she lived). She imagines her dressed like a schlemiel, with clothes too big for her. But there is a difference. Though she is laughed at by the audience, Margaux’s “dignity” is “in tact”(38) while, as we can see from her humiliating experience in the typing class above, the laughter at Sheila makes her vulnerable and affects her sense of self.

The dialectical back and forth between taking risks or opting out of them is at the crux of these types of reflections. The end of chapter three drives this home since he see that she, like a schlemiel, lets optimism overtake her cynicism: “For so long I had been looking hard into every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn’t”(38). She muses on how people have told her, however, that looking to others for hope is a dead end; and that it is better to “find such things in yourself, that you cannot count on anyone to supply even the smallest crumb that your life lacks”(39). This thought, nonetheless, doesn’t keep her from deciding that it is worth taking risks with Margaux, hoping that she would learn something how a person should be: “Although I knew this might be true, it didn’t prevent me from looking anyway. Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart”(38). The last words are the most telling since these are the words that can only be said by a schlemiel who trusts his heart over his head. This kind of logic is the logic of the schlemiel and one can assume that it will lead only to disappointment or some mistake.   Although trust is the basis of religion and society, the virtue of the schlemiel is to show us the other, more existential side of trust wherein the one who trusts often fails. For Heti, trust is a risk; but one that must be ventured.

Menachem Feuer’s Guest Appearance on Burning Books Podcast – American Pastoral #14

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I recently made a guest appearance of the Burning Books Podcast (a podcast dedicated to literature) and spoke about “glovemaking” in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, the novel itself, being raised in a glovemaking family in Gloversville, New York, the schlemiel, my blog, my new book project, and much much more.

Here is the description of the podcast by Burning Books and links to the podcast (Episode #14):

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Feel like making glove?? That’s not a typo. This week we discuss perhaps the best passage in any of Philip Roth’s novels, the ‘glovemaking scene’ (again, not a typo) in American Pastoral. And we do this with American lit scholar and Gloversville, NY native, Menachem Feuer. Also, we discuss the definition of a schlemiel, a person who could never make a glove. And Franz Kafka makes an appearance at the end – another person we can safely assume was not versed in the art of glovemaking, IN ANY SENSE OF THE WORD. Get that hand out of your pocket and put your headphones on. *heat*.
links:
 
iTunes 
 
 
Soundcloud
 
Check out BurningBooks other podcasts, too.  They are educational, insightful, and very interesting!