My Vicarious Role in a Journalist’s Missed Encounter With Seth Rogen…in Las Vegas


About a month ago, I was contacted by Louie Lazar, a journalist who told me that he was given an assignment by Tablet: to determine whether or not Seth Rogen was the future of Jewish comedy. Pondering this question, Lazar came across several article/blog posts I had written on Seth Rogen for this blog. After going through them, he contacted me by way of email and told me he wanted to talk on the phone. Since he was hoping to interview Rogen, who was at a three-day-special-event hosted by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) that had Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and a few other stars in attendance, he told me he would call me from Las Vegas. I was excited to talk to him. I thought to myself, in dream-like fashion, here was an opportune moment.

Anticipating of the phone-call, I spent a few hours thinking about Rogen, what I had written on him, and what I could now say about him. I even posted a query on facebook to gather what people were thinking about Rogen.

When the journalist called, we ended up talking for over an hour about Rogen. One of the things I discussed with him was how Rogen was a “new schlemiel.” He was, as Daniel Itzkovitz might say about Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, an example of the schlemiel as “everyman.” This, of course, goes against the grain of the older model of the schlemiel who, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse argued, looks to challenge the “philosophical and political status quo.” His failure, so to speak, is an “ironic victory.” Rogen, I argued, is the status quo. Meaning: he is not an elitist; rather, he is “one of us.” The journalist agreed and noted that he was a “bro.” He has the body and demeanor of a bro – he likes to smoke pot and party – and that makes him “one of us.” To be sure, the motif of being a “bro” is central to his latest film Neighbors.

Before the conversation ended, Lazar asked me what questions I would ask Rogen if I were to interview him. In a rush of excitement, I gave the journalist several questions. (And even after the conversation ended, I sent him several more.)   After hanging up, I imagined – in schlemiel-like fashion – what answers Rogen would give. In a sense, I felt as if the journalist was a messenger; though him it was “as if” I was meeting Seth Rogen himself (who, just today, was dubbed by TIME magazine to be the “Stoner King of Comedy”). (An interesting side note, the word schlemiel seems to have a bit of Hebrew in it: Shelach (send) m’ (from) el (God) – in other words, he is a holy messenger of sorts or else…exiled from God and redemption; sent away.)

So…one can imagine how I felt when, just today, the journalist emailed me and told me that he published his feature piece on Rogen just yesterday.   I read his essay with great interest hoping to see how the interview worked out. I was so excited. I felt as if my schlemiel-like-dreams were going to come true. However, what I found was the most disappointing thing imaginable; namely, that the journalist wasn’t able to meet Rogen and converse with him. I felt as if, in the end, Lazar and I were the real schlemiels.   He hoped to have an encounter, we both dreamed about it, but in the end…it just didn’t happen.

To be sure, the difference between Rogen and Lazar is that while Lazar sought to find, meet, and interview Rogen, Rogen, as I told him on the phone, doesn’t really act in many films; he just “shows up.” To be sure, Lazar, uses this expression in the title of his piece: “Seth Rogen Exemplifies the Jewish Journey from Chosen People to Just Showing Up.”

Reading the piece, I felt an intimate sense of being duped because I was a part of Lazar’s search. What makes this failure so enjoyable, however, is the fact that it was written in the style of Gozo journalism that I love and have loved since high school. This was appropriate since the journalist, comically modeling himself on Hunter S. Thomson’s journey in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was asked to interview Rogen in….Las Vegas. The subtitle of the piece, “Beer and Loafing in Las Vegas, on the heels of the everyman start of the new stoner man-child comedy” says it all.   He is on the heels of a schlemiel and in following him, he also becomes a schlemiel of sorts. Together with the title, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was suggesting something that was in the midst of our conversation; namely, that Rogen is a “new schlemiel,” an everyman stoner who just “shows up” in this or that film or talk-show appearance. As I noted, half of Rogen’s comedy is just showing up.

And this is the sense that Lazar communicates in his piece. However, there is a big problem. Even though Rogen “shows up,” the problem, for the journalist, is that he can’t speak to him. I can hear Lazar asking himself, as the article moves on, “But…if he was really like one of us, why can’t I speak to him?”

But there is more to the story. Reading the piece, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was astounded at how odd the whole scene, along with Rogen’s popularity, was. And this, to my mind, is exceptional: it prompts us to wonder, with him, what all this means. What is the meaning of a comic character’s everydayness when it is presented within a hyper-capitalist milieu of a conference dedicated to stars in Las Vegas?

At the outset, we can hear the juxtaposition in his sarcastic tone:

I’m drinking scotch in the VIP section of the Garden of the Gods, waiting for the God of the Gods, Seth Rogen, Any minute now, he should be walking past the 50-foot-high Corinthian columns flanked by statues of Julius Caesar mounted on war horses and into the private area between the Neptune Pool and Temple Pool, in which I’m standing, comfortably besides a heat lamp.

He, the everyman, is framed as a “God of the Gods.” And this is odd.

Lazar presents himself as a schlemiel in the process. He is, like Rogen, wearing a Grey suit and has stubble. (Grey being the color of mediocrity; the color that is the color of everydayness, showing up, etc.) And like a schlemiel, he “cuts himself shaving.” This motif comes back at the end of the piece when he thinks he will, finally, meet with Rogen.   But his worry is for naught.

One of the things that follows this introduction of sorts is a great sketch of how Rogen came across the everyman. To be sure, Lazar nails it when he points out that:

In 2009, in what they’ve described as their best work, Rogen and Goldberg wrote a Simpson’s episode about an overweight nerd (played by Homer) who becomes a superhero by channeling the powers of other comic book heroes. His name: “Everyman.”

In addition to this, Lazar points out that Rogen recently called himself a schlemiel, that is, a “self-medicated man-child” (he did so in his recent appearance before a U.S. Senate hearing on Alzheimer’s disease, which, to be sure, came right before his Las Vegas appearance!).

Following this, Lazar turns to himself, reflectively, and notes how he believed, against all the odds (Vegas style), that he would get to interview Rogen. But, as I noted above, this is thwarted several times. At one point, he notes how he drank too much and ended up missing Rogen; he was “too late.” While other journalists shout things out, he can’t say anything; he is tongue-tied. On another occasion, he ended up “locking eyes” with Rogen, but “before I could act” Rogen “snapped out of whatever mental state he was in…and walked off.” In other words, Rogen wasn’t really looking at him and, like a schlemiel, Lazar missed yet another possible encounter. He leaves in frustration; but, with the hope of a schlemiel, he is determined to try yet again.

And in a moment when he comes very close, he says that “I felt a surge of hope; here was my shot at redemption.” He blends in with a group of people and waits. But no one comes. It seems like yet another failure.

In one of his last attempts, he meets up with a “hippie” named “John.” The name and his description reminded me of an everyman like the dude. Near the end of the article, he notes how John, out of nowhere, tells him that “I just talked to him inside.” Wondering what he said and desperate for an encounter, Lazar screams out: “What!” When he asks John what they spoke about John, in a casual manner, says, “I dunno, we talked for a few minutes…He’s a great guy. Real normal-like.” Lazar, not satisfied with this simple reply, asks again “What did you talk about?” (After all, Lazar and I discussed so many questions that we were dying to get answers for, but, to no avail.)

The last lines of piece are written to me:

In my research, I’d spoken with a philosopher, Menachem Feuer, who’s written extensively about Rogen and who teaches a Jewish Studies course at York University in Toronto.* His students, a geographically and ethnically diverse mix, “know Rogen and identify with him.” What is that I asked. “It might have to do with him being an ordinary guy, the guy that just shows up,” he said. “He’s just like us.”

What I love about these last lines is that they hit on the central irony of his piece. If Rogen is so much like us, if he’s such an everyman, why can’t I speak with him? To be sure, the juxtapositions that Lazar runs through in his piece show us that he is and is not like us. He is made into a God of sorts, and, as I noted above, TIME calls him the “Stoner King of Comedy.” Lazar found out the hard way.

And so did I. Like Lazar, I imagined that there would be an interview and that all of my questions would be answered. And, in many ways, I felt as if, through Lazar, I would be meeting a god of sorts. I felt as if I too would be redeemed.   This is, without a doubt, the conceit of a schlemiel.   And, like any schlemiel, we end up failing and with dreams that were…just dreams.

The irony is that Rogen also casts himself as a schlemiel. He’s “just like us.” He just shows up. But, in the end, the schlemiel, the traditional one at least, doesn’t just show up. Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, he goes on a journey. He does things. And for this, I thank Louie Lazar. I feel as if he has shown me, in a kind of private joke, that he is an old schlemiel while Rogen, the everyman, is a new one.

In many ways, I prefer the old schlemiel to the new one. But now that Rogen’s film has become yet another blockbuster and now that he is the new “stoner king of comedy,” I may have to accept the fact that the new schlemiel is now the God of comedic gods.   And what we are left with today – it seems – is “beer and loafing.”


*I teach several courses at York University, actually.


Hasid or Hipster? A Word or Two on Nextbook’s Golem Animation


No.  This blog entry is not on the Hasid or Hipster tumblr site, which, believe me, I really enjoy as does Jimmy Kimmel and a variety of people who regard themselves as “hipster Jews.”   Rather, its on an animation by Nextbook called the Golem which pits a group of Hasids against a group of Hipsters.   Playing on some kind of possible tension, which may or may not exist (after all, a lot hipsters live in Williamsburg which is home to Satmar Hasidim) this short animation does a lot to diffuse it.    And it does it by way of showing that, in the end, the Hasid, the Hipster, and the Golem are all schlemiels who, instead of putting up a fight, would rather just hang out and chill.

As you can see from the opening credits, Golem graphic, and music, this animation (set against the background of a city) seems to promise something ominous.  After all, a Golem is a creature which, the Talmud tells us, is made out of clay and given life by virtue of a magic spell.  The famous words that are associated with the Golem in the Talmud are “Rava Bara Gavra.”  Although they sound like a spell, they simply mean that Rava, an esteemed Rabbi from the third century, created (Bara) a man (Gavra).  Apparently, as Midrashic legend tells us, he may have also made a lamb that would be killed for a Sabbath meal.  Years hence, in the times of the Maharal of Prague, the story re-emerges of a Golem that was solicited to protect the Jews from attacks by mobs of anti-Semites.  (At the time, Jews in Germany were often accused of what’s called “blood libel”: the hateful and totally false claim that Jews would kill Gentile babies and use their blood for Matzoh on Passover.)

The opening of this animation draws the story.  But this wasn’t simply a legend amongst the Jews.  The Golem story found wild expression in the German Expressionist film from the 1920s.  In this film, the Golem is associated with the something very grim and Gothic.  He appears to be a monster of sorts.

In the animation, this is displaced 11 seconds in to the clip.  Not only is the dark imagery supplanted, so is the music.  Now, we see a lighter background and odd techno-retro-ish music against the subtitle “Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

We are then introduced to three Hasidim who are gathered in the apartment of a Hasid who lives above a Hipster Bar.  He asks the other two Hasidim if it’s “Simchas Torah” (a Jewish holiday that celebrates the Torah) downstairs.  This comment is effaced when, downstairs, one of two hipsters in the bar asks: “What is that pounding…is it Simchas Torah already?”

One of the Hasidim gets the idea that the Hasidim should boycott their establishments so that the Hipsters will leave.  But this plan falls flat because, as he says, “none of them have jobs.”  The same Hasid suggest that they take graver measures.  And by this he means the creation of a “monster” who will “do our bidding” (a Golem).  While he says, this we hear chilling music.

One of the Hasidim says that “the secret of the Golem has been lost for generations” while the narrator says “until now.”  At this point, the animation shows us a Wikipedia page which shares the Golem’s secret.  (The joke, in this instance, targets a Messianic kind of valuation our society gives to Wikipedia.)  .  And the comic blunders that follow accumulate and bring out sheer schlemielkeit.  After all, what kind of Golem would Hasidim reading a Wikipedia page on the Golem produce?

The Golem they produce – first of all – speaks (which goes against the legend; the Golem, as a rule, can’t speak).  But, more to the comic point, when it speaks he comes across more as a Nebish-schlemiel than as a monster.  His back hurts.  He needs to go lie down.  And he’s worried that, since he may have been made of clay he may have allergy problems.  When told that he will have to scare the Hipsters away (or, rather, “destroy them”), he comically points out how ridiculous this would be: “I mean..have you seen my body?  What do you want me to do? File their taxes to death?”

These comical rhetorical questions tell us that this Golem is a schlemiel.  He would rather have peace than war.  As the Golem says, “Go destroy them yourselves.  I’m no fighter.”  (I discussed this trait of the schlemiel in my blog entry on the Political Schlemiel and in my entry on the schlemiel and weakness.)

After feeling a little Jewish guilt because of his “creators” kvetching, he goes downstairs.

But before he does, we bear witness to a hipster conversation which is, as in the earlier parts of the animation, looking to be cool and disaffected.  In the midst of this conversation, the Golem breaks through the wall to scare them.   In response, the hipster asks for his iphone.  Upon hearing this, the Golem acts “as if” he is angry, calls them fools, and tells them that the “police won’t help them.” But the hipster doesn’t want the phone to call the police.  Rather, he wants to “tweet a photo” of the Golem and put it on facebook.

This works to disarm the Golem and his act.  Following this, they all start chatting and the Golem sets into his true identity: like them, he’s a hipster.  When asked about the word on his head – what one of the hipsters calls a “head tattoo” (the word is Emet – Truth – which in the Golem story stays on his head to keep him alive; when the Aleph of Emet is taken away, he dies), he says it means truth but adds in indifferent hipster parlance: “Uh…I mean…but what is truth anyhow?”

Continuing the comedy, the Golem’s arm falls off and he asks the female hipster to put it back.  She tells him not to worry: she’s dated Golems before.

In this world, all is banal.  In a Warholian fashion, nothing shocks, not even a Golem.  But that’s hip.

In characteristic fashion, the Golem makes it into the news, becomes popular, and attracts a group of ‘sports-bar’ types to the Williamsburg bar.  At that point the hipsters, rather than the Hasidim, say: there goes the neighborhood.  The last words they utter suggest that they go, instead, to Crown Heights, were there is a “Manticore” DJ (who is apparently half human/half scorpion).  The Golem stays there, in the back of the bar, as they walk away.  This suggests that the Golem is passé and that there are many other hybridic half human beings out there.  But they are no longer scary monsters; they’re cool.

And the last scene we see of the Golem become a jock while the Rabbis complain of assimilation. Like Woody Allen’s chameleon-Schlemiel, Zelig, the Golem changes with every person he is around.  But he is left back, while they move on.  And we are left with a few questions: Should the Golem have gone off with the hipsters?  Is his assimilation, now, giving in to jocks rather than hipsters?

Ending on this note of assimilation is telling because the Golem, like the schlemiel he has become, has been transformed by the American cultural imagination.  This transformation of the Golem into schlemiel suggests that what lasts, in America, after all is said and done, is the schlemiel.  American Jews, who may align themselves with  the comic aspects of Jewish identity, feel more akin to the schlemiel than to the Golem.  Of all characters, the American-Golem-Schlemiel – whose greatest asset is his coolness and indifference to fighting – remains.

Contrast this to Israel and its historical consciousness and you will find that their reading of the Golem is much different; for many, the schlemiel represented something Jews were not: a figure of power who could protect the community from enemies.  Israelis deemed, in the wake of figures like the Golem, to protect themselves.

But in this animation, where Hipsters are seemingly pit against Hasidim, protection isn’t the issue: comedy is.  In this battle, comedy displaces the Golem legend and transforms the Golem from a monster-of-sorts to a schlemiel.  In this piece, the Golem-Schlemiel is the “unlikely hero.”   And instead of Hasid or Hipster we have the schlemiel.