Last year, Chad Derrick and I screened the film Shlemiel at the Le Mood festival of Jewish Art, Culture, and Learning in Montreal. I was blown away by the festival. I had never seen such a gathering of wonderful cutting edge Jewish artists and art lovers as at this event. It took place on one day with several concurrent sessions each hour which stretched from 11am until 8pm. At night there was Jewish-themed entertainment and comedy. Underpinning all of this was the warmth of the Montreal Jewish community, which I feel is without parallel in North America.
When we screened our film, I was amazed by the reception and the feedback. People were genuinely excited to see it. They thought I was courageous to allow the ups and downs of my Jewish life to be displayed on the screen. Many of them understood my struggle with Jewish identity and how that was related to my complicated past with a father who was psychotic.
This year I wanted to build on what I did last time; but instead of telling the story from the filmmaker’s perspective, I wanted to tell it from mine. To this end, I gave a talk entitled “My Schlemiel Universe: From Woody Allen to Sarah Silverman to Me.” The talk started off with the most basic question: What is a schlemiel? Responding this question, I provided a number of different perspectives from Hannah Arendt, Sander Gilman, and Ruth Wisse. Then I gave my own reading of the schlemiel which moves from “fictional” schlemiels to “living” schlemiels.
Ruth Wisse argues that the shlimazel is a character whose comedy is “situational” while the schlemiel’s comedy is “existential.” Bad things happen to the shlimazel by way of this or that odd circumstance or situation. Nothing in his/her “nature” would warrant such bad luck. In contrast the schlemiel creates bad luck by virtue of his very existence.
In my talk, I looked to show how I played both a shlimazel and a schlemiel by virtue of the odd situations I was thrown into, on the one hand, and an odd Jewish-American existence in upstate New York,on the other. The point of my talk was to provide an autobiographical account of my own schlemielkeit.
Philip Roth has Portnoy do this with his analyst in Portnoy’s Complaint. But Roth doesn’t do this with his own life. This would be too dangerous. Rather, as Sanford Pinsker points out, his novels show a progression away from this character and “existence.” Roth, in other words, wanted to pave his way out of schlemieldom. And this is something many post-Holocaust writes wanted. However, writers like Saul Bellow, Howard Jacobson, Steve Stern, and Gary Shteyngart don’t. They are interested in looking at the schlemiel’s existential and historical plight. And in doing so, they are able to articulate the plight of being in-between being Jewish and American, being Jewish and English, or Jewish and Russian. This existence prompts stories that are fraught with a kind of humor that is “haunted” by strife and anxiety.
But, unlike some schlemiel writers and many a Jewish cultural critic from the 20th century, I, like these writers, feel the subject is worthy of discussion. And it is worthy of being rethought in terms of the traumas that still afflict us today. In terms of my own life, I can look to the schlemiel as a way of understanding how, as a child and as an adult, I have grappled with living in-between being an American and a Jew as well as being in-between being like all the other kids in my town and being the son of a brilliant, psychotic father. And this is only scratching the surface.
That said, I think the schlemiel lives on; but not just in fiction. Moreover, the “existential” part of the schlemiel is not something that is restricted to fiction. No, on the contrary, it is something that is alive and well – even today, after the founding of Israel and even post-assimilation. Unfortunately, not many of us know what this means. My point: if we did, many of us could engage in a reflection on the comic-existential dimensions of our own lives.
Why, after all, do we have to turn to Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, or Larry David, when we can simply look in the mirror? What we will find is that we play, so to speak, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote at the same time. Sancho Panza, as the story goes, followed around a fool named Don Quixote. But he wasn’t a fool. We was a rationalist and a skeptic. But that’s the trick. We live through that relationship in terms of how we reflect on ourselves.
Although some would scoff at the suggestion, because they are so “rational” and “normal” and “adjusted,” this suggestion is something that the best writers and artists in the field of Jewish-American literature, poetry, and film have – in my view – done. But they have done this with fiction.
I thank Le Mood Montreal for allowing me to share my interminable-schlemiel-self-analysis and explore these questions (of this – wink, wink – Jewish-American schlemiel). Thank you for allowing me to educate the next generation of schlemiels.
One of the things I have never discussed on this blog is the topic of the “living schlemiel.” To be sure, the most well-known books on the schlemiel – Ruth Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero and Sanford Pinsker’s The Schlemiel as Metaphor – do not address this topic. Their concern is the schlemiel in literature, folklore, and, for Pinsker (only with regards to Woody Allen), cinema. The first time I saw the expression “living schlemiel” was in Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. To be sure, Gilman used this title for a section on his third chapter which includes German-Jewish writers and thinkers of the 18th and 19th century such as Ludwig Borne and Heinrich Heine. For Gilman, Heine’s poetry, which dubbed the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” (the poet), bled into his life. And Ludwig Borne’s life also, for Gilman, bore the stamp of the schlemiel. Although Heine, according to Hannah Arendt, embraced the title of the “schlemiel” and “lord of dreams,” Gilman’s reading suggests that he and Borne did all they could to avoid it. And that’s the point: Gilman calls them both schlemiels because no matter how much they did to fit into German society – and this included Heine’s baptism and both Heine and Borne’s attempts to satirize their Jewish origins to be accepted as equals – they remained the odd one’s out.
In judging their lives in this fashion, Gilman is teaching us that he, like many German Jews, uses the term in a critical/judgmental sense. To live the life of the schlemiel, he suggests, is to live a life that is blind to the fact that it is excluded. It “believes” it and fits into the world when it doesn’t. And this fits well into Gilman’s definition of the schlemiel vis-à-vis literature and theater. Schlemiels are “fools 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.” This is what Gilman is saying about Heine and Borne: they think they were in control of their world and could cajole it to accept them, but it refused their gestures. In effect, Gilman suggests that they were odd in two senses: as a result of their satire they were excluded from their Jewish communities; and, despite their efforts, they were not accepted into the “world.”
Taking this definition into account, I wondered about how it could be applied to people I knew and not just to this or that intellectual. And should it be modified?
Thinking about this, I would say that it should be modified to include the fact that, with a living schlemiel, there is a blindness over the reality that he or she is not fitting in; yet, despite it all, they keep on trying. And here’s the twist: unlike Gilman who would suggest that the “living schlemiel” comes to a bad end, I would suggest that sometimes their foolishness can bear fruit.
I’ll offer a story about people who, I think, may be living schlemiels or at least analogous to living schlemiels. This may serve as an illustration of how the schlemiel may be alive and living amongst us. The question, I think, is how to judge them.
I was raised in Upstate New York by parents who were both raised in New York City. I was one of a small handful of Jews and, in many ways, my parents skill set and education didn’t match up that well with the rural community that they made their new home. Growing up, I often felt like I was the “odd one out.”
But, after years of travel, higher education, and exposure to the urban way of life, I realized that many people in my town, from an urban perspective, would be considered the odd one’s out. I’m somewhere in the middle. Describing my borderline state, my father jokingly calls me a “cosmopolitan hick.” I think this title is apt and see read it in terms of what advantages it gives me over people who are either fully urban or are down-and-out country bumpkins. The greatest advantage I have, to my mind, is the fact that I can participate in both groups and for this reason I am better able than many of my friends to comprehend or judge things that are said by one group about another. I see it from the inside of both, widely different, cultures. So when someone is said to be the “odd one out” by one group on another, my ears perk up. However, there are times when no one says anything and I am the sole witness of an event that is of the schlemiel variety. Let’s call it a schlemiel situation.
I recently went out for an evening with a group of friends to a bar on the Sacandaga Lake, a lake I spent a lot of my youth enjoying. (To preserve my friend’s identity, I will change their names while noting what happened.) In this group of friends, the words and deeds of at least two of my friends spurred a schlemiel-situation in which I bore witness to a schlemiel or two and was prompted to make a schlemiel-judgment call.
They traveled over to the bar by way of the boat. I came in by car and met them there. When I got to the bar, I heard that they were still on the lake on the way to the bar. When I got word that they arrived, I went down to the lake to discover that one of my friends was playing guitar the entire way. What’s unusual about this? My friend, let’s call him Bob, is full of energy. He passionately gets into everything he does. However, sometimes this can be grating because he subjects everyone he knows to his learning experience. He does have experience as a lead singer in a band and he plays guitar, but he doesn’t take well to criticism.
That said, he was very excited to show me that he had learned how to play rhythm in a rockabilly kind of style. I listened but, like the night before, he still needed to be much more gentle with his strumming if he was to get it right. His erratic strumming coupled with his singing, which didn’t match up, his innocence, and his intense personality made me think of Bob as a “living schlemiel.” To be sure, people tell him that his playing is off, but he goes on. Its funny. And so is he. He is the odd one out, but he manages to slip through the cracks. But, as I found out, this has its limits.
Before going into the bar, Bob started talking with some people in a boat coming in to the bar’s dock. Using a megaphone, he brought them in (acting as if he was an air-traffic control). This made the whole boat laugh and they were, instantly, endeared with him. This gave him a big boost.
When he came up to the bar, he started working his foolish magic. And this is when things started getting odd: reality and dream started clashing. In the bar, Bob met up with a man in his seventies. He got this gentleman going and he started dancing wildly to the music. To have fun, I egged Bob on to increase the madness. But, to my chagrin, I bore witness to some mixed feelings in the bar. The older gentleman started going off and people around the bar looked at him as if he was crazy. I felt an odd identification and repulsion with the old man who was dancing wildly. He was the odd one out and though people were giving him dirty looks, I couldn’t help but think them wrong. He was having a good time and, yes, he appeared to be a schlemiel of sorts. He believed he was enthralling the audience by going over the top, but he enthralled no one save Bob.
Together, they were whooping it and each encouraged the other. I pulled back and noticed, immediately, that my friend Bob was eager to sing with the band. In Upstate New York, it does often happen that people from the audience go on stage and sing. But there are tell-tale signs when and when not to do this. Moreover, it’s always good to have a friend in the band you’re joining. In this situation there were neither signs nor friends. And my friend, Bob, went into it without any concern hoping his joy and charm would win the day.
But what happened was far from what he imagined. The drummer of the band told him to get off stage and the lead singer gave him dirty looks. And the older man dancing around the bar started turning off a few of the audience members. Things looked as if they would get ugly.
But they didn’t. My friend did all he could to mend things. It worked, but it didn’t get him on stage so much as in their favor. What gets me, however, is that my friend kept at it as if there never was a negative moment. And this blindness, though comic, gives him the title of a living schlemiel.
Following this, I went back to his boat and talked with another friend who keyed me into another kind of living schlemiel: one who has God on his mind and odd ways of relating to Him. We were looking up at the stars when he said to me that he talks with God. I asked how and he told me that he would ask questions while looking up at the stars. And for each question, God would answer with a shooting star. I found this innocent and endearing, but coming from an adult this did seem odd. But isn’t faith a strange thing, too. And, to be sure, Ruth Wisse notes that the first major literary schlemiel was, in fact, a schlemiel of faith. That schlemiel comes out of the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. He is the simpleton who, with simple faith, believes in God. His simplicity is scoffed at by the educated Jewish world, which, at that time, privileged the Jew who learns over the simple Jew. The former, they believed, was closer to God. But the Baal Shem Tov – and his grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – thought the contrary. Their stories bear witness to the spiritual doings of the simpleton. My friend’s story about his communication with God reminded me of this; to be sure, the model for the literary schlemiel is a real one. This is something Wisse doesn’t discuss as much. But in this moment, I felt there is a need for more of this kind of reflection on “living schlemiels.”
If I weren’t a “cosmopolitan hick,” I’m not so sure I would look upon what I was seeing in the ways I do. To be sure, I feel like Sancho Panza did when he followed Don Quixote. He felt he could learn something from the fool, and so do I.
Some of my friends teach me about the living schlemiel. But, to be sure, I can also see this from Chad Derrick’s documentary on (a segment of) my life: Shlemiel. Every time I screen the film to audiences, I see that this is what the filmmaker – who is also my friend – was trying to accomplish. And, every time I give the Question and Answer session following the film, I am asked if I am a schlemiel (a living schlemiel). Perhaps I am.
But I am aware of many of the things I am blind too while my friends may not be. However, then again, I am not. We may see things that others don’t see, but we are often blind to ourselves. You may not know this, but you too may be a schlemiel. And, if we cared, we would be surprised how many living schlemiels are in our midst. The question is how to judge them and ourselves. Do we have anything we can learn from “living schlemiels”?
My friends and the older man I saw the other night reminded me that, though people may laugh or scoff at a schlemiel (of the Jewish or non-Jewish variety), there is something about this character – in fiction and in reality – that is good and worthy of our thought and reflection. This goodness is something that many German-Jews missed (in their rush to judge the schlemiel as an idiot who should, like all things from the ghetto, be left behind). But it was recognized by the Hasidim, by many of the Yiddish writers, and by some Jewish-American novelists, filmmakers, and artists. Now that the times have changed, we need to ask ourselves where this goodness can be found and how it can be found. These are questions not only for schlemiel-in-theory but for the schlemiel-in-reality. The living schlemiel…..
Last night the screening of Shlemiel at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center went very well. What I love most about sharing the film are the Q & A sessions that follow the screening. This time I was fortunate to be showing the film to a group of artists and art critics whose insights into the film were insightful and novel. These emerged out of questions pertaining to where I am now and where I am going.
Every time I see the film, I see myself going through a process and I can’t help but smirk to see how my dreams, like a schlemiel, didn’t match up with reality. I dreamed big and the film maker did a fine job of showing how my father also did. From the very start, I could see that I was casting my net out and believed that my band, Men With Babies, would be successful. What the film shows is how it failed to make it to the NXNE (North by North East Music) Festival. Nonetheless, after the film was made, it screened at NXNE and my band was invited to play. (And the band’s future – albeit in a new incarnation – is still yet to be determined.) The film also shows how I dreamed big about religious experience and how that also faltered. This had to do with the fact that I came to Judaism through a Hasidic group that had major Messianic aspirations. Moreover, my father also had the Messianic on his mind (as a part of his psychosis). And, as I pointed out in my last post, I opened myself up to his insights and they bled into my own search for what it meant to be an American Jew.
To be sure, I thought of the Messianic in terms of my own music. But I didn’t cast all my chips down with the Hasidic vision of the Messianic. The film shows that part; but it doesn’t show how I was influenced by the Messianic aspirations of avant-garde art and poetry. I was interested in breaking boundaries like Antonin Artaud, the Living Theater, or Jerzy Growtowski.
To my mind, these movements, words, and gestures looked to break open boundaries and expose us to something we have never seen, something to come, something Messianic.
I also saw this in the mad writing that came out of Thomas Pynchon and other experimental writers. I heard this madness in much of Paul Celan’s later poetry. And as a person who has studied philosophy and teaches philosophy, I found a philosophical root for this in the Messianic as understood by the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. All of this amounted to an avant-garde type of secular messianism (or as John Caputo might say – in the name of Derrida – a “messianism without messianism”) and a revolutionary kind of practice.
When I was a teenager, I foolishly looked to art as Nietzsche, in the preface of The Gay Science), did: I thought I could – by my own efforts – transform my bodily and psychological pain and trauma into joy. But, unlike Nietzsche, I learned when I was an undergraduate that if this were to possibly happen, I could not do this alone. I truly believed, like Emmanuel Levinas, that it depended on the other.
The “schlemiel-problem” in all of this doesn’t lie with this insight; it inheres in the word “believe.” To be sure, I believed too much in the interaction of myself and the audience and this led to a crash course. But, at the very least, I learned that if I were to crash it would be before the other and not by myself.
The questions from the audience prompted me to think about how much my dreams didn’t fit with reality. I now realize that I couldn’t, like the avant-garde artists I loved, go at it alone. I still believe that a secular messianic happens and can happen between the actor, writer, artist and the audience – it happens between people. And that I, of course, must initiate an encounter or respond to an encounter. I know that, because the actor, writer, and artists must take risks that they are, and have to be, to some extent hopeful and, yes, foolish. Artists, like schlemiels, must dream. And those dreams – if they are to be affective – must be shared. And this, one must admit, is foolish because it is uncertain. Nonetheless, one must take one’s (foolish) chances.
The schlemiel fails best because he or she still goes on and is, in many ways, blind to failure and to the scope of his or her dreams or perceptions.
I can testify to that as can many a schlemiel-artist. I am a schlemiel who is aware of his propensity to dream big; but that won’t stop me from being a schlemiel. Unlike others, I don’t think the schlemiel is something that can or even should be eliminated through a conscious rejection of ‘dreams’ in favor of ‘reality’ or the ‘world’ or the feminine for the masculine, or humor for seriousness. No. One can and must dream and take risks and this is a part of the human condition. No matter how hard a Jew tries not to be comic and to shoot far over their mark and avoid the blind spots, one will always miss something. And this makes sense.
This doesn’t simply mean that we should, as Beckett said, “fail better.” It means that we should always try to make for a fit between ourselves and the world but with a comic awareness that that fit will always, comically, be off.
And this speaks to my own Jewishness. I may have tried to reject one part of it, but I have at the same time embraced another part. I am not afraid to say that me relationship to the world, as a Jew, is still mediated by the schlemiel. My relationship to Jewishness also bears its mark.
I thank the artists and art critics at the Isabella Freedman Artists Retreat for helping me to rethink where I have, as Paul Celan might say, come from and where I am going to. In the end, this schlemiel has come out of a mess and is now going (awkwardly) towards you, the other, but with different eyes. And yet, I know, that even with these new eyes there will always be a blind spot which may keep me from seeing what or who is in front of me.
Who is that in the mirror? It’s me and its not me….
Words cannot express the honor and gratitude I have for Chad Derrick who decided a few years ago to film my life and my Jewish-American story. He patiently followed me around with a camera for a few years and listened to my story. He edited hundreds of hours of film to distill it to its essential moments. It is a wonderful work of cinema verite style that, without a doubt, does justice to at least one part of my life and struggles with being an American-Jew.
I’m really excited to be showing the film Shlemiel (directed by Chad Derrick) in the United States. It has been shown in Toronto and in Montreal, but it has not been shown in the country I was born and raised in. And this is significant since this country, so to speak, nurtured this schlemiel. Living in the Adirondack’s in a small rural Jewish community, with a father who dreamed big and crashed hard, I learned to dream. It was here that I learned how, as I say at the beginning of the film, “a schlemiel is a dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.”
On my way to The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut – where I will be making the first screening of the documentary to an American audience – I have decided to stop off in my hometown Gloversville, New York and to reflect on who I am and what this film discloses about my journey – the journey of a wayward, dreaming Jewish-American schlemiel.
A lot of my story is rooted in this area. As you can see from the trailer in this post, the documentary is interested in how and why I became a religious Jew and how and why I decided to create a band – named with Men With Babies – as a way of communicating and celebrating this new found Jewishness. I say “new found” as I was not raised as a religious Jew. I was born in a hospital up the road from where I grew up, which was named after a wealthy Jew in the area by the name of Nathan Littauer. I did have a Brit Milah (a circumcision) with a Rabbi and Mohel (who does the circumcision). And I was given a Hebrew name: Menachem Menkah (it was the name of my grandfather, father’s side, who died before I was born). But that, together with several years after school, at the Lucius Littauer Jewish Community Hebrew school (until I was thirteen), and my bar-Mitzvah were the only Jewishness I had. And it didn’t last. I didn’t go by my Hebrew name and all of my Hebrew learning was not related to my life. (My parents never told me what it meant to be Jewish. We just did it as a matter of course.)
All of my friends knew me as “Matt” or “Feuer” (mispronounced as ‘fewer’ rather than the Germanic pronunciation Foyer – which means ‘fire’). No matter what I did, and no matter how well I performed in sports, school, or at parties, I always thought of myself as “less than” (fewer) I could be. And that came from my sense of being an American, not a Jew.
Like many Americans from the area, I was raised on little league baseball games, football, ice cream socials, clam bakes, keg parties, hunting, fishing, and the wind that blows down from the Adirondack mountains every day into the valley where I live. Like many people in my town, I was raised to be kind and fun-loving. I spent a lot of time on the Sacandaga Lake and, as a teenager I used to ride a “three-wheeler” through the Adirondacks.
My American side conflicted with my Jewish side and the difference between the two often prompted me to question who I was. To begin with, both of my parents were from New York City and were, from my perspective, out of place in upstate New York. My father didn’t fish, hunt, or participate in coaching a sport team. He was an intellectual and a businessman. And my mother tried hard to adapt, and though she cried many times for having to leave the city, she did succeed in being much like the other soccer moms in the area. But my mother’s efforts were not enough. And my father’s preoccupations led me away from my family and my tradition. They led me to find a group of friends who, like me, were trying to figure out what it meant to be an American.
But, to be sure, what really drove me to my friends was not simply my father’s non-interest in doing what my friend’s fathers did. My father’s life was complicated by lots of trauma, family feuding over the leather business, and mania. (As you can see from these two hyperlinks, I have written about this topic in the blog, already.) From what I have already written, you can see that my father was a person with big dreams who had real possibilities that were given to him and taken away. His brilliance was too much for this small town and, unfortunately, I was often embarrassed when I found out, through my friends or other people, that rumors were going around town that my father had been put in a metal hospital or jail, or that he was going around town saying or doing crazy things.
What I haven’t mentioned about my father’s story is the fact that, while in high school, when he had many manic episodes, he took an interest in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. He bought a full-volume set of The Zohar and made several trips to New York City to visit with Rabbi Rabbi Berg and his newfangled Kabbalah Center (which today attracts many Hollywood stars). My father’s mania had a real source which was based on hateful things that were done to him by his own family, making money and spending it all, and by virtue of a genetic condition. But the interest in Kabbalah didn’t help. To be sure, it made his psychosis more intense.
While this was going on, I kept one eye open on religion and the other on my friends. To be sure, the more trouble my father got in and the more mystical he became, the more I was driven to my friends and to a desire to leave the house. And when the opportunity came to leave came, I took it up with a passion. In truth, the real problem was no longer simply my father, I started despising my home town. I felt people were to narrow minded. This came to me while reading books in my backroom (I had to hide this from my friends) and by way of following the Grateful Dead. Seeing them in concert for the first time, in the early 90s, changed my perspective on a lot of things.
I started becoming more spiritual. And, after a few shows on the east and west coast, I decided to read some of Rabbi Berg’s books and, for the first time, I listened closely to my father’s psychosis and traveled with him on several of his manic episodes. Reading literature and philosophy, I thought that it would be better to let my father be and to experience him as I would experience a novel. In a way, I felt like a Sancho Panza and he felt like a Don Quixote. And so much of what he was doing was Jewish – a strange continent for an American-Jew who had opted to be an American first. As I went along with him, I started drifting away from my town and my life. I wanted a mystical experience. I dreamt of it. And I felt Kabbalah, as lived by my father, could lead the way.
My father was so full of life and insight. Everything he did was by virtue of chance. I felt as if I was living a Paul Auster novel and my father was the main character. His playing with chance led him to Washington, DC where he acted ‘as if’ he was going to save the country and talk to the President. On the way to the White House, we stopped off at the Washington Hilton. He went down to the lobby and saw Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. He opened the book, read an aphorism that dealt with going beyond dichotomy, and charged into the hotel restaurant. He ordered a table as if he was a dignitary. We sat down and father asked for menus. Before he could look at the menu, Dan Rather passed by and father yelled out “Dan!” Rather turned to my father, said, “Yes, how can I help you?” And from there my father had a discussion about world affairs and his solutions for at least ten minutes. At the moment when my father presented a wild idea, Rather was turned off and left the table. My father felt something “was wrong,” and left immediately thereafter.
When we went upstairs, he said he had to make a phone call to the doctor that delivered me (a Dr. Woolsey). He acted as if he had him on the phone, he turned to me, and said “Dr. Woolsey just told me the truth…You are not my son. You are my brother’s son. You are an imposter.” This talk, which I had never heard before, threw me off guard. I was confused. And in the midst of this, my father stormed out of the room. I followed after him. He said we must leave DC. We are being followed. What ensued was a wild imaginary goose-chase. My father swerved in and out of traffic as we sped off to New York City (where my mother, at that time, was visiting). As he swerved, he read license plates and did letter-number combinations. He translated these into messages about what was going on and what we should do.
In the midst of this madness, he said that we must pull over into a rest-stop. We went inside, and my father told me, “There he is!” “Who,” I asked. “Just come with me,” he said. We went over to a man in overalls and my father stared him directly in his eyes. He asked him, “What do you do for a living?” And the man replied, “I am a ‘tree-whacker.” My father rejoined: “You cut down trees, correct?” “Yes,” said the man. After saying this my father said, “There, you see, he was trying to cut us down. Its code.”
All of this relates to a sad story that goes back to when I was a ten-year-old boy. My father had, for years, thought that he was being stalked by his brother’s mafia men since my father had a real law suit against them. His brothers were scared and bought off many lawyers, apparently. In any case, my father’s first manic episode came after a new car he had bought, in celebration of the case actually hitting the courts, came up.
The car had a tape deck. And I wanted to hear Grease (the musical). But my father said I couldn’t until we left NYC for Gloversville. On the way, I put the tape in and immediately thereafter the car set on fire. We pulled over. And the car went up in flames on the side of the New York State Thruway. This led to much paranoia and speculation. It also led to my father’s madness and gave me my first experience of my father’s madness as a child. It also led me to meet with a mafia boss who confirmed that a ‘hit’ was made on my family (mind you, I was ten) and that he would, from then on, protect us. I’d like to share more but I’ll save that for another blog.
Needless to say, these experiences all formed a backdrop for my “return” to Judaism. After my father’s breakdown in DC, I no longer felt I could go to him to learn about mysticism or Judaism. It was a wake up call of sorts to find things out for myself. And I did.
But I took a big detour by way of my studies in Comparative Literature and Philosophy. I took a big detour by way of trying to live a life in total denial of God, a life of pure experience informed by art, literature, and relationships. All of this led to my own breakdown of sorts. It also led me back to this, my hometown.
I felt like I had to return to my roots: my American roots and my Jewish roots. And that led to a process in which I went to Yeshiva, became religious, married, and had two wonderful little children. Shlemiel documents this transition, but it also shows how, over the last five years, my life has changed. My struggle to figure out what it means to be an American-Jew, I feel, is ongoing. It has brought me back to my home town, it brought me into a music project, and it has brought me into this, my schlemiel project.
Today, as I write this, I realize that I was right to say that a schlemiel is a “dreamer and his dreams don’t match up with reality.” I have no problem saying that I have played the schlemiel. And though it may be a derogatory term for some people I know, it need not be. It was the German-Jewish tradition that found fault in the schlemiel and were embarrassed by the schlemiel (depicting him as a backwards, Eastern-European shtetl type). They were interested in reality not dreams. But the Eastern European schlemiel is a different story; in him we find a tension between hope and skepticism; in him we find something sad about history and life and yet also something very optimistic and good.
I’ll admit that my dreams don’t match up with reality and they haven’t for a while. But the key to all of this doesn’t have to do with my way of thinking. No. It has to do with the my specific history and with my grappling with Jewish-American identity. In this struggle, I cannot help being the schlemiel. My dream of being a Jew is interrupted by my American dream. And these dreams are caught up with unredeemed fragments of history and reality. Hopefully, someday they will find a better match, but until then I remain – sincerely yours – a schlemiel. My dreams still don’t match up with reality.
But I can still dream. Here’s a clip from a film produced by Samuel Goldwyn, my uncle, who once passed through Gloversville as he traveled to Hollywood. He, a Jewish-American like me, also had a dream. And it started here, in Gloversville. Thank you Chad Derrick, for making this dream a filmic reality!