How Can Tevye Forgive Menachem Mendl? On Betrayal, Theft, and Forgiveness in Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In”

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There is nothing worse than betrayal. But there are different degrees of betrayal. Some forms are worse than others. The worst violation of trust occurs when the person who is the betrayer is a close friend or a relative.   The stakes are especially high when the entrusted party is approached by a family member or friend who puts his livelihood, wife, and children on the line. Such a betrayal can destroy a person’s outlook on life and make him or her cynical and bitter.   In betraying trust, one destroys or seriously damages hope…and humanity.

Judaism, to be sure, is based in large part on the notion – germane to “covenantal theology” – that the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d (the covenant between them) is based on trust that neither party will ever betray the other. There is a trust, built into Judaism, that G-d promises and delivers. What makes the Torah so special is the fact that, from start to finish, there are trust issues between the Jewish people and God. As Moses Maimonides and other Rabbinic scholars have noted many times, God is constantly, throughout history, testing the trust of the Jewish people.  But there is a twist. Even though trust may be damaged or even destroyed in the relationship between man and God – which we see throughout the Torah, as in the story of Yosef – forgiveness is possible, trust can be re-established, and promises can be renewed. This works with God and man. But when it comes to betrayal and forgiveness between human beings, it’s a more complex matter.

In Sholem Aleichem’s “The Roof Falls In,” which is a part of Tevye the Dairyman, we see the playing out of trust, betrayal, and forgiveness between Tevye and Menachem-Mendl.   As many people know from Fiddler on the Roof or from a cursory reading of Aliechem’s most famous book, Tevye is the epitome of the honest, poor, and simple everyday Jew. He is a G-d fearing man who, in his kindness, gives every man and woman a chance.   However, there is a very important chapter (short story) in Tevye the Dairyman which shows Tevye in the most uncharacteristic way – as a cynic.

The story starts off in the wake of a betrayal by his “relative, Menachem-Mendl…a fly-by-night, a who knows what, a wheeler-dealer, a manipulator, may he never find a resting place”(23).   Menachem-Mendl’s betrayal shifts Tevye’s view of life.  Aleichem, by way of these characters, takes his readers through his betrayal of Tevye and leaves us to judge whether or not the conclusion of the tale – and Tevye’s decision – is just.

Tevye starts off his tale on a bitter note. He points out how poor he was and how he had to sell everything he had in order to support his family but…it’s simply not enough. He is in a dire situation and he imagines – as he usually does – what good he would do if he actually had money:

Having sold everything and thrown some hay to my horse, I decided to take a stroll around town. As it is said, Man is but dust – a man is only human. I wanted to see a bit of the world, breathe the air, and look at the find good that Yehupetz displays in its shopwindows….Standing just like that at a large shop window with a pocketful of cons and ruble notes, I thought, God in heaven! If I had a tenth of what I see here, I would never complain to God again. I’d make a match for my eldest daughter and give her a good dowry….I’d see to it that the house of study had a metal roof, not a roof about to collapse any minute. I’d open a religious school in town and hospital and a shelter…so poor people wouldn’t have to lie around on the bare floor of a house of study. (24)

In the midst of his dreaming of the good he will do for his people, he is startled – or rather awakened – by a voice:

Sholem Aleichem, Reb Tevye!” I heard someone call from behind me. “How are you?” (24)

The voice is of his “second cousin once removed,” Menachem-Mendl. After doing their Jewish geography, Tevye embraces him as he would any family member (with love and concern).   Tevye notices that Menachem-Mendl looks poor and ragged and he becomes sympathetic. He tells Menachem-Mendel that a “Jew must have hope” and “faith” that things will get better:

I stole a glance at his shabby clothes, patched in many places, the shoes almost worn through. “You can be sure that God will help you and things will get better. As it says in the Bible, All is vanity. Money,” I said, “is round, one day it rolls this way, another day it rolls away, so long as you live. The most important thing is faith. A Jew must have hope. (24)

Tevye sees that Yehupetz has not been good to Menachem-Mendl and offers him his home to come back to and heal:

“Listen to me, Menachem-Mendl,” I said, “come to my place for a day, and you can at least rest your bones. You’ll be my guest,” I said, “a welcome one too. My wife will be happy to have you”(25).

Menachem-Mendl agrees, goes home with Tevye, and brings “nachas”(joy) to him since there is nothing more pleasurable for Tevye than having a guest. And what is better than a guest who is family? The trust that circulates between them is a given.

We drove home together, and everyone was delighted to see him – a guest! Here was our own second cousin, no small matter. As they say, “One’s own are not strangers.” Golde’s (Tevye’s wife) grilling began: How are thigns in Kasrilevka? How is Uncle Boruch-Hersh?…Who got divorced? Who has given birth and who is expecting?” (25)

Tevye feeds and treats Menachem-Mendl like a Prince. Menachem-Mendl praises and thanks Tevye and his wife for the food and hospitality.   He swears that he has never experienced such kindness.

After they finish eating, Menachem-Mendl starts talking about what happened to him. He tells Tevye how he became rich and lost his money.   Tevye is impressed with Menachem-Mendl’s grasp of how the market works (26). As Menachem-Mendl manically goes on and on about his business dealings and the ways of the world, Tevye starts dreaming about money. The next morning, Menachem-Mendl props him up and makes Tevye an offer he can’t refuse. If he “partners up” with and gives Menachem-Mendl money, Menachem-Mendl assures Tevye that he will become a rich man.   But Menahcem-Mendl goes farther than that and appeals to Tevy’s desire for the good by telling Tevye that by doing so, Tevye will “save his life” and bring him “back from the dead.”

“You now have the chance, Reb Tevye, to make quite a few groschens and also save my life, literally bring me back from the dead.”(26).

Although Tevye tells him he doesn’t have much money, Menachem-Mendl pushes him to give more money than he can afford to give and to trust him fully on this “investment.”

“Really now,” he said, “are you telling me you can’t find a mere hundred, Reb Tevye, with your business, and your reputation, kayn eyen horeh?” (27)

All of the talking overwhelms Tevye, and he entrusts Menachem-Mendl. He starts having hope and convinces himself that Menachem-Mendl couldn’t be a liar. Menachem-Mendl could be a “heaven sent messenger” who could help Tevye live the rest of his life as a “respectable man.”

To make a long story short – why should I carry on? – I developed a yearning, and it was no laughing matter. Who could tell? I asked myself. Maybe he was a heaven-sent messenger…He didn’t strike me as a liar, making up tall tales out of his head. And what if things did turn around as he had said, and Tevye could become a bit of a mensch in his old age? How long could a person struggle and slave day after day, again and again the horse and wagon, again cheese and butter? (28)

Menachem-Mendl seals the deal by invoking God. He tells Tevye that God should “punish him” if he cheats Tevye:

“You can believe me, Reb Tevye,” he said. “I swear to you, let God punish me if I cheat you. I will honestly share everything with you.”(29)

After Menachem-Mendl gets the money and departs, Tevye starts dreaming of all the money he will have and how well the family will live:

We parted like the best of friends and kissed affectionately, as in usual between relatives. Standing by myself after he left, lively thoughts and daydreams entered my head, such sweet dreams that I wanted them never to end, to go on forever. (29)

Menachem-Mendl’s assurances and promises, which feed Tevye’s dreams of a better life are a prelude to the major betrayal.  Tevye’s wife starts worrying and, in the end, she is right. Everything falls to pieces.

Menachem-Mendl disappears and stops communicating with his “partner,” Tevye. Tevye starts realizing that he has been duped and starts, understandably, “going out of his mind.” This passage, of Tevye’s realization, are sad and shocking. They are very unique in Aleichem’s corpus of fiction, which is usually more upbeat and hopeful.

In short, a week passed, and two and three – no letter from my partner! I was going out of my mind, walking about in a daze, not knowing what to think. He could have just forgotten to write, I thought. He knew very well that we were waiting to hear from him. Then I began to wonder what I could do to him if he were to skim off the cream and tell me hadn’t earned anything. Would I call him a liar? I told myself it couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible. I treated the man like one of my own, been ready to take on his troubles. How could he play a trick like that on me?!…. A cold chill ran through my body. Old fool! I said to myself.   You made your bed, now lie in it, you ass! (30)

Following these disturbing revelations, Tevye’s wife prompts him to go to Yehupetz and find out what is going on. As he travels there, he starts imagining what may have happened. Since Tevye loves to only think good thought and would rather not dwell on the worst case scenario, he imagines the best case scenario and imagines what he will say when he confronts him (31-32).

He goes through the city in search of Menachem-Mendl. He doesn’t find him and nearly gives up.   But when he stops to look into one of the store windows he notices, in the reflection of the shop window, is the image of Menachem-Mendl!

My heart hurt when I saw him, so sorry did I feel for him! If ever I had an enemy, and if ever you had an enemy, may we hope to see them in the same state as Menachem-Mendl. His coat, his boots, were in terrible shape. (33)

When they turn to each other, we have an enigmatic scene and many questions that, as readers, we must think through. What will they say to each other? Will Tevye curse him or forgive him?   The representation of Menachem-Mendle as ragged and impoverished suggests an answer.

Menachem-Mendl, we learn, was “abashed to see me, we both stood as if frozen, unable to speak, just looking into each other’s eyes like tow roosters, as if to say, We’re both miserable and cleaned out. We might as well take tin cups and go from house to house! (33)

Menachem-Mendl appeals to Tevye’s emotions by making himself into a total schlimazel who is on the verge of suicide: “Reb Tevye! Without luck, a man shouldn’t have been born! Rather than living, it is better to hang!”(33).   But Tevye, against what one would expect, tells him that he is right: Menachem-Mendl is a disgrace and should be publically whipped. Tevye reminds Menachem-Mendl of how he didn’t just destroy him but his whole family!

“You took a household full of living souls, poor creatures, innocent as lambs, and slit their throats without a knife! God in heaven,” I said, “how can I face my wife and children? Go on, tell me, you slaughterer, swindler, thief!”(33, my emphasis)

Menachem-Mendl agrees that he is a thief, a slaughterer, and swindler.   He says that he deserves Gehennam (hell). Tevye says that Gehennam is “too good for you, fool”(33).   After saying this, Menachem-Mendl “lowers his head” and suggests that he may commit suicide.

But instead of walking away and letting him go, Tevye says he hears “every sigh and groan” he makes. “My heart went out to him”(33).

Tevye ends his tale by saying that he forgave him. He says that, if you think about it, “You aren’t entirely to blame.” Tevye can’t conceive of Menahcem Mendl as a swindler and thief! He also puts himself out there as a guilty party! “To say you did it on purpose would be foolish because we were equal partners, fifty-fifty”(34). After excusing him, Tevye offers to have a drink with him: “Come, my friend, let’s have some brandy!”

Looking back, Tevye notes how “that…is how the roof fell in, and with it all my dreams”(34). In other words, Tevye may have forgiven Menachem-Mendl but there was a price to pay: he can no longer, like a schlemiel, dream of something better. But there is more at stake, here. With the loss of dreams and hope, what happens to the Jew? Hasn’t Menachem-Mendl destroyed the fabric of Judaism? And was Tevye wrong for forgiving him? Tevye muses about the meaning of this experience and differentiates himself from the reader:

And what of hope and faith? On the contrary, the more troubles you have, the more faith you must have, and the poorer you are, the more hope you must have. Do you want any more proof?

But I think I’ve gone on too long today. It’s time to go and tend to my business. As you’ll no doubt say, “All men are false.” Every man has his burden. Be well and have a good life! (35)

These words – the last of the chapter, story – suggest that the reader can leave the story with a sense of cynicism at the betrayal perpetrated by Menachem-Mendl, a relative of Tevye, or let that it go.   Either way “every man has his burden,” and this burden – the burden of betrayal – is perhaps the biggest of all for humans.  Sholem Aleichem shows us how the greatest deeds of kindness of trust can be trounced by the people one would think one can trust. And this, for Aleichem, is not just the greatest challenge to Jewishness but the greatest challenge to humanity. The meaning of justice is at stake in this story. The reader may not agree with Tevye’s choice and would rather leave Menachem-Mendl to die, alone for the evil he had done.   Either way that is the “burden” of the reader or for anyone who has been betrayed by someone they trust.   While God may forgive man, man may not forgive someone who has destroyed his or her life and dreams. That type of forgiveness is a different matter.

And I’ll leave it there…..for you to decide. Would you forgive Menachem-Mendl?

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

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After explaining how the Yiddish writers (“the writers of sweetness”) came out of a world that made “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” Howe and Greenberg define the themes of Yiddish literature which correlated with this Eastern European world: “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured”(39).   Howe and Greenberg are quite cognizant that this world died in the Holocaust. However, what one might miss is the fact that, in making their case for Yiddish literature, they write about these themes as if they could be generalized and used as a counter-valence to the Western and American obsession with heroism in the post war years. The value of this counter-valence comes out in their reading of the main character in Yiddish literature: the schlemiel. Read against western literature, it comes across as the anti-hero:

A culture that has been able to resist the temptations of worldly power – or has been blocked at the threshold of those temptations – will naturally favor an image of heroism very different from the one we know in Western literature. (39)

Howe and Greenberg point out how the movement from “hybris to humility,” which we find in the “Aristotelian formula” is not “organic to Yiddish literature.” To be sure, the schlemiel character is, from start to finish, humble. There is no such movement. In a footnote to this claim, Howe and Greenberg point out how this anti-hero and its lack of progress into history and heroism is antithetical to not only Western literature and Aristotle but also to Zionism:

The prevalence of this theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve – or improvise – an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment….Having for so long been exposed to the conditions of powerlessness, Yiddish culture could not quickly accustom itself to the climate of power. (39)

From here, Howe and Greenberg argue that the anti-heroic element can be found in the rejection of “historical aggrandizement.”   Tevye, for them, is the “embodiment of the anti-heroic Jewish hero whose sheer power of survival and comment makes the gesture of traditional heroism seem rather absurd”(40).   Not only his language but also his “ironic shrug” is symbolic of this ahistorical, anti-heroism.

Howe and Greenberg point out, however, how Aleichem had more patience with this anti-heroism while I.L. Peretz had less. Perhaps because Peretz was more fed up with anti-heroism and wanted to enter history, they put this in quotation marks, “modern.” This suggests that both Greenberg and Howe have sympathies with Aleichem’s project which, in their view, challenges the modern view of power and heroism.

The character that Zionist and more “modern” Yiddish writers want to leave behind is the little man, the “kleine mentschele”(40).   It is “he, the long-suffering, persistent, loving ironic” character whom “the Yiddish writers celebrate.” He “lives in the world” while the heroes of Western literature conquer it.

Out of the humble, little man come “a number of significant variations and offshoots.” One of these is the schlemiel, par excellence: “the wise or sainted fool who has often given up the householder’s struggle for dignity (think of Tevye) and thereby acquired the wry perspective of the man on the outside”(40).

Howe and Greenberg evoke I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” as an example of the “wise or sainted fool”(41).   Their description of Gimpel is evocative on different registers that are at once religious and secular. He has a “halo of comic sadness”:

He acquires, with the piling up of his foolishness, a halo of comic sadness, and..in the end, his foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world”(41).

Although Howe and Greenberg note that “Gimpel is the literary grandson of Peretz’s Bontsha Schweig,” they point out how he is a different kind of schlemiel since Singer, as opposed to Peretz, was more interested in preserving the character.   Howe discusses two other examples of the holy fool, schlemiel in this section, but he ends with a meditation on the child as the ultimate heroic anti-hero.

Hand in hand with the anti-heroic Jewish hero, and more at the center of things than the sainted fool, goes the Jewish child, precocious, ingenious, deprived yet infinitely loved. (41)

What’s interesting about his characterization is that he cites Sholem Aleichem’s Motl as an example. This reading is interesting because for Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse, and Sidra Ezrahi, Motl is not simply a child; he is a man-child, a schlemiel. Howe and Greenberg’s effort to give him a different category, as an offshoot of the humble anti-hero, suggest that there is something about Motl that is more powerful than all of the other schlemiel types. And that something is love. In contrast to how Dickens, Graham Greene, and Henry James, who have children who are “unloved and brutalized,” the children in Yiddish literature are loved. To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this love for children in Yiddish literature is part and parcel of the love of “the poor, the weak” and the “insulted” that emerges out of the Yiddish world. However, in their description, there is a moment of universalization:

For whatever the deficiencies of Yiddish culture, the power of love remains; for the child, the poor, the weak, the insulted and injured everywhere. It is the power at the heart of the Yiddish tradition. (42).

The word “everywhere” suggests that Howe and Greenberg find the love for the child, the poor, and the injured, which is particular to Yiddish culture, to be its greatest “power.” Howe and Greenberg suggest that the schlemiel – and the Yiddish culture it emerges out of – can present us with a universal that we can, today, learn from…even though the world that gave birth to it is gone. It presents a different, “sweeter” way to look at the world which, though not heroic in the western sense, is compassionate and can give hope.

But, as I noted, what happens when that world is gone? How does this universal live on if there is no world to nurture it? And doesn’t this relation to power emerge, as Hannah Arendt once said, out of worldlessness (not the world)? Instead of making “impossible the power hunger, the pretensions to aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life,” our world does the opposite. Unless, that is, we were to sink into a poverty and powerlessness much like the world of the Yiddish writers and, out of this, to find compassion and love rather than cynicism. It seems as if Howe envisions a world and an attitude that doesn’t emulate “crisis” and harsh realism so much as a “sweet” kind of realism that is based on love. And his examples of such a world are to be found in the aesthetics it produces. They are his guide and are the remnant of a feeling that could speak truth to power.

Lest we not forget, Howe and Greenberg wrote these words in the 1950s. How would they fare today? Are we, in our frustration with power, heroism, and Empire (as Hardt and Negri would say), looking for the schlemiel? Are we looking for the “writers of sweetness” who can give us characters that emerge out of poverty and remain anti-heroes from start to finish? Are we, today, looking for characters that evince compassion or are we looking for, as Howe would say, history, greatness, and heroism? And if Howe is with Aleichem rather than Peretz, would that suggest that his greatest enemy is…history? Are we looking for the world or for worldlessness? After all, Howe suggests that the schlemiel is not interested in heroism or making history so much as being in solidarity with those who don’t make history but are wounded by it: the poor, the injured, etc.   Or is it the case that the schlemiel is not so much a free choice so much as a choice that is made as a result of being….without history and…worldless?

Adorno’s Whispers in the Dark: The Holocaust, The Child, and the Schlemiel

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As a third generation American – and as a person three times removed from the Holocaust – I was always curious about the meaning of the Holocaust. It happened, as the author David Grossman writes in his novel See: Under Love, “over there.”   What I find so intriguing about Grossman’s novel, which begins with the meditations of an Israeli child about the Holocaust, is how close it is to my own experience in so many ways. To be sure, the main character of the novel, Momik, tries to piece the Holocaust together by way of things he hears and gathers from scattered conversations and images relating the to the Holocaust.   Unlike his parents, who refuse to discuss, he can sense that something rotten is being hidden from him. And, like a detective, he tries to put it all together.

Although, as an American, my experience is much different from an Israeli’s, I can identify with the desire to put together clues. For, in truth, when it comes to the Holocaust, we are all like children. Something “whispers” to the child – regarding trauma – that the civilized adult can’t hear.

Theodor Adono points this out in his book Negative Dialectics:

Children sense some of this in the fascination that issues from the flayer’s zone, from carcasses, from the repulsively sweet odor of putrification….An unconscious knowledge whispers to the child what is repressed by civilized education; that is what matters, says the whispering voice….it kindles “what is that?and “where?”

David Grossman’s Momik is constantly hearing these kinds of whispers from people around him. And after hearing them, him repeats them and puts them together into a comic kind of narrative-slash-collage. The narrator of the novel parries this naïve search for truth and suggests that Momik believes that he is hearing a “secret language” from people who were “over there”:

Momik loved Grandma Henny very much. To this day it makes his heart ache to think of her. And all the suffering she suffered when she died too. But anyway, Grandma Henny had a special language she used when she was seventy-nine after she forgot her Polish and Yiddish and the little bit of Hebrew she learned here. When Momik came home from school he used to run in to see how she was, and she would get all excited and turn red and talk that language of hers….She had a permanent smile on her little face, a kind of faraway smile, and she talked through her smile. (34)

Henny is a living cartoon-like character for Momik. He doesn’t see her as mentally ill so much as funny or odd. Strangely enough, the language she speaks sounds a lot like Sholem Aleichem. To be sure, David Grossman was inspired to write by Aleichem and it comes through in this section.   What I’d like to suggest is that Henny’s secret language brings together Aleichem with the Holocaust. Something that, in reality, never happened. After all, Aleichem died in the early 20th century.

Henny talks about “Mendel,” an Aleichem character that leaves her and travels from Russia to America (35). This is what Momik gathers of this narrative:

How could you do such a thing and break your mother’s heart, and then she begs him, Sholem, never, never, even when he reaches America where the streets are paved with gold, to forget he’s a Jew, and to wear tefillin and pray in synagogue. (35)

The narrator tells us that she is speaking a “language no one understands” and yet “Momik understood everything. That was a fact. Because Momik has a gift, a gift for all kinds of languages no one understands, he can even understand the silent kind that people who say maybe three words in their whole life talk”(35).

Moreover, Momik can “translate nothing into something. Okay, that’s because he knows there’s no such thing as nothing, there must be something, nu, that’s exactly how it is with Grandfather Anshel” (35).

Momik hears these “whispers in the dark,” and as the novel goes on we learn that the little bits and pieces he hears are all a part of different narratives. Some of them are fictional while others are not. Regardless, all of these stories are mimicked (like his name, Momik) and translated into Momik’s narrative on the Holocaust.

I can identify with this. And I think that Momik’s queries about the Holocaust were a search for the truth and that truth was tied to the meaning of his Jewish identity. I still ask the question today, on Yom HaShoah: who am I in relationship to what happened over there? Like Adorno’s child, I ask “What is it?” and “Where is it?” It is still over there, so to speak. And with all of the media we have today, I still feel as if I am hearing a faint whisper of some secret language. The facts are incontrovertible, true; but, still, they must be put together in ways that relate to us and that is an act of the imagination.

In going through this exercise, we become like Momik, a schlemiel. We feel through the dark yet with the passion of a schlemiel, which, though misguided, is still the passion for truth. In listening closely to these whispers in the dark, to this secret language, we become like children. And a man-child is…to be sure….a schlemiel.   Here….a post-Holocaust schlemiel.

 

 

Theater and It’s Double or The Schlemiel as Modern Artist

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Dan Miron, one of the greatest living scholars of Yiddish literature, has argued that Yiddish literature took on a project that was consistent with Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), on the one hand, and the modernist concept of the artist on the other. In his book A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century, Miron convincingly argues that Mendel Mocher Sforim should in fact be regarded as the real origin of Modern Yiddish fiction and that Sholem Aleichem followed Sforim’s lead.

Miron’s brilliant argument starts off with pointing out the main problem for the Eastern European Haskalah; namely, that Yiddish, as a language, was not “beautiful.” It is, in the view of the German Haskalah, an ugly “caliban” language. It is inferior to Hebrew. But if the Haskalah wanted to reach the Jewish masses, so as to educate and improve them, then it would be ridiculous to use Hebrew; after all, Yiddish, not Hebrew, was the language they were most familiar with. That said, many Haskalah writers turned to Yiddish but none succeeded because they didn’t find a way of, in Miron’s words, “dramatizing” Yiddish.

For Miron, Mendel Mocher Sfroim, whose real name was S.Y. Abromovitsch, succeeded because he saw himself as a clown of sorts. He took on an ironic, schlemiel-like narrator who spoke directly to his audience. The irony is not that he is a clown but that he is an actor and can take on any personality. He is and is not one of the people; Abromovitsch is not Mendel Mocher Sforim but he acts as if he is. Sholem Aleichem does the same. And this brings out a kind of irony about everything is said.

By being a comic narrator, Yiddish fiction becomes modern. To be sure, comedy and the presence of the comic artist in the text, for Miron, make Sforim and Aleichem’s fiction modern. And, as a modern critic, Miron points this out for his modern readers. We must, in effect, be aware of the irony behind this; namely, that the artist is “tricking” us.

Citing Y.L. Berdichevski, Miron argues that the modern Yiddish writer needs to be a circus performer of sorts. He is a “mimetic genius” who is able to convey his views while, at the same time, appearing to be one of the people:

First, he is a dedicated artist. To achieve his goal, he must absorb himself in his work, “lose whatever he possesses in it.” Second, he is a mimetic genius. He evokes comparisons from one distinct area, that of theater or even the circus. One may compare him to a tightrope dancer who skillfully keeps his perilous balance between the historical bias of the language toward the exclusive mentality of the “the Jew” and his own intellectual bias toward “foreign” ideas and concepts. One may even compare him to a ventriloquist who is able to assume a voice or voices distinctly different from his own master and with mimetic subtlety, with such accuracy of nuance, as to make them express his own “ideas” without letting his audience become aware of his trick.   (84)

In other words, the schlemiel – like its author – is double. The schlemiel appears naïve and absent minded but in reality is not.   Schlemiels are and are not alienated from the community. They are a part of it and yet they are the odd ones out. In other words, the schlemiel, like the author, walk a tightrope and this provides them with a form of aesthetic freedom in a community that would, otherwise, not accept their “foreign” views.

By walking the tightrope, common Yiddish readers are indirectly exposed to a kind of theatricality. And it is this theatricality that, according to Miron, has an educational and an aesthetic purpose. Comedy, in effect, allows the artist to be an insider and an outsider to his own culture. And this duplicity is something that the artist ultimately would like to inculcate in his readers.   In mimicking characters in the ghetto, one gains a distance yet, at the same time, this mimicry is endearing. It shows that the author wants to be a part of his people and by accepted by them; yet, by way of a dramatic form of comedy (theatricality) the author is free from them. The vehicle of this comic closeness and distance is the schlemiel. His mimetic genius is that of the author. Moreover, for Aleichem and Abromovitsch, who both had a version of the Haskalah project, humor was the best means for teaching “mimetic genius” as a means of becoming…modern.

Given the emphasis on Enlightenment values and thinking, we often don’t see or hear anything about comedy or theatrical mimesis as a key ingredient. Miron is novel in this claim. His claim is interesting when read against Leo Strauss who has argued, in the introduction to Philosophy and Law, that the Enlightenment’s main weapon is mockery. The difference between the two is that the narrators and schlemiels of Sforim and Aleichem’s books don’t mock their characters directly. Their art is the art of indirect caricature. It is the work of the “mimetic genius” who can speak like all of us but who, ultimately, is caricaturing what we all take for granted. It is, as Antonin Artaud might say, a “theater and it’s double.”   The schlemiel’s comedy is his mask.

 

 

 

Humor as Prosthesis: On Comic Word Play and Ironic Victories

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Some schlemiel theorists like Ruth Wisse and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi read comedy as a kind of compensation for failure and powerlessness. Comedic language, in this scenario, is a kind of prosthesis.   The feverish pace of comedy is, in this scenario, structured to give the writer, joke-teller, and audience a false – read fictional – sense of control.

Reflecting on the excessive use of language in Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiel-comedy, Ruth Wisse writes:

Sholem Aleichem generally employs the technique of monologue, of which the epistolary form is but a variation, to convey the rhythms and nuances of character, and to underscore the extent to which language itself is the schlemiel’s manipulative tool. Through language the schlemiel reinterprets events to conform to his own vision, and thereby controls them, much as the child learns to control the environment by naming it. One need only read Menachem Mendl’s joyous, and incomprehensible, explanation of the stock market to appreciate how proficient handling of language can become a substitute for proficient commerce. Moreover, the richness of language in some way compensates for the poverty it describes. There is in the style an overabundance of nouns, saying, explanations, and apposition….The exuberant self-indulgence of…description takes the sting out of failure itself….Maurice Samuel called…it “theoretical reversal.” (54)

In this scenario, all comic language is ironic as is the laughter that goes along with it since, in this view, everyone goes along with the joke. Nonetheless, we know what the schlemiel is doing. He is, as it were, not fully absent minded. And, as Wisse suggests, the schlemiel uses language like a “manipulative tool” so as to reinterpret events and things that they cannot master so that they can “conform to his own vision.”

Writing on the telephone as a prosthesis, Avital Ronell argues that it is “capable of surviving the body which it in part replaces” and it “acts as a commemorative monument to the dissolution of the mortal coil”(88, The Telephone Book). Playing on Freud, Ronell goes on to call the prosthesis a “godlike annexation of a constitutively fragile organ.” It performs a “restitutional service” by going right to where the trauma touches the body.

Ronell argues that Freud anticipates Marshall McLuhan who argues that if the body fails the prosthesis succeeds. However, for McLuhan, the prosthesis is not simply a substitute for a weak or “fragile organ.” It is an extention of our existing organs. Citing McLuhan, Ronell notes that for him the prosthesis will no longer be a buffer between the body and the world. It will directly relate to it. In other words, it is no longer a substitute and it no longer is false. And now when it is shocked or traumatized there is an “auto-amputation of the self.”

Ronell contrasts this new understanding of trauma mediated by a prosthesis which now becomes “real” to Freud who argues that the enjoyment of this false limb amounts to a “cheap thrill.”

Bringing all this together, I’d like to test out the prosthetic theory of humor posited by Wisse, above. If humor is a prosthesis, than wouldn’t our enjoyment of it be, in Freud’s words, cheap? Perhaps this suggests that the schlemiel is understood as a prosthesis and that our “ironic victory” is…ironic. Without that understanding, our laughter would in fact be cheap.

On the other hand, if we read prosthetic humor along the lines of McLuhan there is no false limb. It is not a tool so much as an extention of our bodies. If that is the case, humor – as an extention of our bodies – exposes us to existence. It doesn’t protect us and it can potentially harm the schlemiel. This insight, to my mind, bears some interesting fruit. We see the effects of this more in stand-up comedy than in Yiddish literature. While Sholem Aleichem’s Motl or Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin seem to be immune to existence – by way of their humor – stand-up comedians and some contemporary schlemiel characters, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel are not. Sometimes language can provide us with an ironic victory othertimes the same words can signify, for a schlemiel, defeat.

It all depends on how you read the prosthesis for sometimes the substitution afforded by comedy doesn’t compensate for lack so much as expose us to excess.

I’ll leave you with a clip from Andy Kaufmann since his comic words and his gestures seem to expose him rather than protect him from failure.

 

 

A Note on Goya and Sholem Aleichem’s Caricatures

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Charles Baudelaire, in his essay “Some Foreign Caricatures,” distinguishes between a “historical” and an “artistic” caricaturist. Writing on Goya, who took the horrors of the Spanish Insurrection and the war with Napoleonic France, Baudelaire notes that Goya opened up the field of caricature by introducing “fantasy” into the comic. And, in contrast to the categories he set up in his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Baudelaire argues that Goya’s brand of comedy fits neither into the category of the “absolute” or the “purely significative comic.” Unlike ETA Hoffman, who is the master of the “absolute comic” (and what Paul deMan, citing Baudealire, calls the “irony of irony”), while Goya may be able to “plunge down” into the depths of grotesque and “soar up to the heights of the absolute,” the “general aspect under which he sees all things is above all the fantastic.”

When an average person, who knows nothing about history, sees Goya’s historical figures, although they may not recognize the historical aspect, he will “experience a sharp shock at the core of his brain.” His works overcome us, says Baudelaire, like “chronic dreams” that “besiege” our sleep.   He calls Goya a “true artist” because in his caricatures, which Baudelaire calls “fugitive works,” he is able to remain “firm and indomitable.”   In other words, the test of the “true artist” is to bring shock to caricature.   And he ultimately accomplishes this, claims Baudelaire, by showing us how the “monstrous” is possible and “credible.”   And this “fantastic” element, because it made so tangible, is what shocks us:

No one has ventured further than in he in the direction of the possible absurd. All those distortions, those bestial faces, those diabolic grimaces are impregnated with humanity…In a word, the line of suture, the point of junction between the real and the fantastic is impossible to grasp; it is a vague frontier.

Reading this, I wonder how would Baudelaire regard the caricatures found in Yiddish literature and Jewish American literature. How would he interpret the choice of writers like Sholem Aleichem or Howard Jacobson who have cast schlemiels as caricaturists? Do they, as Baudelaire says of Goya, “remain firm and indomitable” in their “fugitive works”? And is their goal to make the “monstrous” credible, by way of caricature, or seem less “diabolical”?

To be sure, Dan Miron argues that Motl is not a “diabolical character” and neither are his caricatures. As Miron points out, the caricatures marks a “cold” relation to the past of a desponded and ailing world that he wants to leave behind. But he does this by way of humor.   Motl, to be sure, is the agent and reporter of this distortion. Miron tells us that he doesn’t change while his world does and this sounds like what Baudelaire would say regarding the caricaturist as an artist. However, the main difference between what Miron is saying about caricature and what Baudelaire is saying is that the schlemiel’s survival has more to do with the possibility of a new life and less to do with having an epiphany of the “possibility” of the “impossible.”

Baudelaire’s interest in caricature is focused on jarring humanity by way of shock while Sholem Aleichem’s interest is in providing a figure for Jews to understand how to relate to the past and the new future, promised by America. The schlemiel’s caricatures – rather than the schlemiel as a caricature – provide the vehicle, so to speak, to travel from Europe and arrive in America.   Caricature, for Aleichem (as opposed to Baudelaire) doesn’t suspend identity so much as provide a way of forging a new identity.   And the agent of that caricature is the schlemiel-artist (and not Baudelaire’s version of the modern artist).

Comedic horror, in other words, doesn’t seem to have a role in schlemiel literature and art while for Baudelaire it has a central place.

Progressive Schlemiels: On Dan Miron’s Reading of Sholem Aleichem’s “Motl the Cantor’s Son”

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Dan Miron is one of the greatest living critics of Yiddish and Jewish-American literature today.   His books on these bodies of literature have won him critical claim.  What interests me most is how Miron would approach a schlemiel like Motl (the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son: Writings of an Orphan Boy.   After all, I have written several blog entries on this character and have read Motl in terms of ontological and epistemological distraction.  And in my last reflection, based on a review made by Saul Bellow, I outlined the character’s Jewishness by way of his  “refusal to adapt.”  To be sure, Bellow argues that Motl, like the Jews, had no choice but to refuse since adaptation would be tantamount to giving in to history.  And that would be a complete abdication of freedom.   Like Bellow, Miron is interested in how Motl relates to history.   According to Miron, Aleichem faced his greatest artistic task in creating a character who could properly relate to the sad and difficult history of the Jewish people in eastern Europe:

To say the truth about the crisis of eastern European Jewry in the first decade of the twentieth century that nobody else would dare to say, a truth to be reported only by someone as innocent and guileless as a child…Motl is put forward to say, in his childish way, that the demise of the traditional eastern European civilization is not only unavoidable but also welcome.  (xxviii Introduction to Tevye the Dairy Man and Motl the Cantor’s Son).

Miron’s last point stakes out a historical claim and situates his reading within a progressivist framework.  As Miron suggests, Aleichem wanted to push off from the past and embrace a new Jewish future.  Paraphrasing Aleichem, Miron writes: “it is high time for the shtetl culture to leave the historical stage for something else, no matter how primitive and crass, as long as it is alive and vital; that being an orphan is, under certain circumstances, preferable to being burdened by a moribund ancestry”(xxviii).    In other words, Miron reads the schlemiel in terms of an effort to kindly say goodbye to eastern Europe and the Shtetl and to say hello to  health, vitality, and a new future.   In other words, the schlemiel, in this historical context, embodies a progressive historical force that leaves the past, suffering, and history behind for the new.

To this end, Miron describes Motl, a schlemiel, not so much as a character than as an “attitude.”  He cites Deleuze and Guittari as his theoretical support:

As a fictional character, Motl is what Deleuze and Guittari, in their discourse on minor literature, refer to as agencement, an arrangement of traits and narrative inflections that convey an attitude rather than the reality of a specific fictionalized human being.  (xxviii)

Miron tells us that this “attitude” remains consistent throughout the story.  It is “static” against a background and changing locations that are in “constant flux.”   He is immune to the effect of time: “his character” is “immune to the process of aging and to being reconditioned by drastically changing life situations”(xxix).  In other words, the schlemiel’s blindness to the world and change is not a negative aspect of the character worthy of criticism; rather, it is a part of a kind of force that transcends change, a historical force that is vital: “nimble, energetic, bright, unencumbered by heavy clothes, never seeking the warmth of hearth and home, always Puck-like, need to walk, to run, almost to fly”(xxix).

What I find so original about this reading is that Miron, unlike any commentator on the schlemiel, describes the character as a kind of model of the “attitude” that is necessary to be vital and live on.  In other words, this schlemiel is the model for a kind of Jewish post-European vitalism-slash-historical force.  Miron likens him to a force that can be either “hot” or “cold.”

He flows with all that is vibrant: appetites, vitality, effervescence, motility, optimism, lust for life, and freedom.  On the other hand, he is a keen, unemotional, unflinching observer. (xxix)

The latter part, the cold part, is the part that watches history fade away and distances itself from the “ghettoized” aspects of his mother, brother, family, village, etc.  Miron uses this hot/cold distinction to depict this progressive attitude that looks coldly at the past yet is hot for the future and the new.   The cold part, Miron tells us, finds its best expression in the fact that Aleichem makes Motl’s new occupation, upon landing in the new world, a caricaturist.  He has a “passion for drawing cartoons that emphasize all kinds of unseemly metonymies.”  These “unseemly metonymies” are caricatures of the past.   Miron sees caricature as a “non-Jewish art” because Jews are prohibited by the Torah from making any “graven images.”  And this, for Miron, is the perfect vehicle for rebellion against tradition.  It helps him to become “detached from it” and to see it for how bad it is or has become.  And, in Miron’s words, “Motl’s inclination toward caricature contributes to Sholem Aleichem’s objective to deconstruct shtetl literature, to dismantle its components and to expose it as nonfunctional”(xxxi).

Miron’s claim suggests that schlemiel, as a caricaturist, is really not blind.  He coldly sees and rejects shtetl culture and history.  The blindness is more on the “warm” front where he chases after life in all its “flow” and “vitality.”  This is a reading of the schlemiel that has never been put forward and it is very amusing insofar as it suggests that schlemiel is not totally blind or absent-minded and that the character is the expression of a progressive “attitude.”   He is not, as Paul Celan might say, mindful of his dates.

Miron’s progressivist reading mirrors, in many ways, a Zionist reading of diasporic, European culture.  Aleichem, in his view, reads the diaspora in similar terms. But unlike German-Jews, who viewed the schlemiel as a product of the ghetto and should be abandoned, Aleichem sees Motl as a heroic figure who leaves the ghetto behind.  Miron tells us that Motl may start out as a “prospective victim” (xxxi) but he avoids this negative fate by leaving Europe behind.   He is, as Miron notes, “happy” in the midst of negative conditions since he detaches himself from these conditions and attaches himself to life and hope.  His “child rebellion” is not extinguished by the repressive apparatus of the “shtetl’s oppressive system of education.”    Motl “celebrates his independence” from this system and this “child rebellion” against the shtelt is the key to his survival.  For Miron, this is the “attitude” that left the ghetto behind for “new life.”  He is an “orphan,” a member of an “orphaned people,” which “emerges” from “historical lethargy.”  “Whipped into wakefulness” Motl, like the Jewish people, “gropes for happiness that has evaded it for so long”(xxxii).

Miron’s rhetoric suggests, more than Irving Howe, that Aleichem wasn’t simply laughing and crying over history; he was rejecting it.  This reading of the schlemiel suggests that this schlemiel, the immigrant schlemiel, is premised not so much on the rejection of the status quo (which is what Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse have suggested) as rejecting the shtetl while embracing the new.  The schlemiel must, for progressive reasons, be cold to the past (and caricature it) while being warm to every new experience.

What happens, however, to the new schlemiel. The one who arrives in America?  Will they retain hope, too?  Is the new schlemiel hot and cold?  After all, Motl is an immigrant leaving Europe behind.  What happens to the landed schlemiel?

In my latest readings of Cynthia Ozick’s  “Envy; or Yiddish in America” I pointed out that the landed schlemiel, after the death of eastern European Jewry and its cultural legacy, is not so happy.   Edelshtein is a “master of failure” and, as an older schlemiel, has a much different “attitude” than Motl.   He lives in the wake of the Holocaust, Motl doesn’t.

Miron’s suggested reading, a historicist reading, should be put in context.  Not all schlemiels are like Motl.   And his hot and cold relations may not be found in schlemiels we find in much post-Holocaust literature.  Their attitude toward history and progress is much different from his.  They are more acutely aware of failure than he.  We see this in Malamud, Ozick, and Bellow.

…to be continued….