Becoming-Dog: The Old Beggar, the Miser, and the Return of the Schlemiel as a Dog

DownloadedFile-2

In stories like I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son, or I.L. Peretz’s “Bontshe Shvayg,” we don’t always see the positive effect the schlemiel has on people around him.  Or, if we do, that effect is usually minimal. And that is the point: the fact that people don’t change spurs the reader to be disappointed with the society that laughs at the schlemiel.  On the other hand, Peretz’s schlemiel spurs people to realize that they must change their priorities.  Regardless, we don’t often see the effect of the schlemiels magic in Yiddish literature.  However, in Hasidic literature we, from time to time, do.   I would include Meir Abehsera’s parable of the schlemiel in this kind of literature.  However, I would call it, instead, a “neo-Hasidic” kind of literature since it reflects not just on the schlemiel’s impact on people but it reflects on it within the text.  To be sure, the inclusion of philosophical reflection in the midst of the text is a modern practice.  We see it in all of the great modern and postmodern writers such as Lawrence Stern, Hermann Broch, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, etc.  Abehsera includes such reflection to foreground the relationship of the writer to the schlemiel.  And at the end of his parable, he points out what real-life experience spurred him to create and reflect on this relationship.  Abehsera adds the “old beggar” to this relationship.   To be sure, at the end of the parable the beggar – in many senses – stands between the writer and the schlemiel.  Abehsera shows how, of the two, the schlemiel is greater.  The schlemiel can transform others around him in ways that the beggar cannot.   And, in the end, the schlemiel aids the beggar and, in effect, helps the poor and the needy.   He does this by way of transforming himself and becoming-animal.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how the schlemiel lay dormant in the old beggar and  how the old beggar is reminded of this by way of a dream.  The dream is spurred by the old beggar’s experience of a circus as he begged for money.  As I noted in the last entry, the old beggar meets another old beggar in the dream who tells him about history of the circus and reminds him of the power of joy and laughter – which is at the schlemiel’s core.    The main point of this reminder was to inspire the beggar to go into the world and transform it not so much as a beggar than as a schlemiel.  To do this, he not only has to encounter one kind of joy with another; he also has to sweeten bitterness with joy.   And this last task is the hardest task of all for the schlemiel.

In the last part of the parable, the old beggar awakes from his dream and goes into the world.  But instead of going into the circus, he emerges into a world of angry and solemn people.  If they give anything to him, they “throw” it at him.  The narrator, who seems to have merged with the old beggar, takes on a weary tone and muses on the nature of judgment.  He points out that these people don’t “smell” good.  As I pointed out earlier, the Jewish tradition associates smell with judgment.  And it is the Messiah who it is said, will have the power to smell someone and judge them.  Abehsera plays on this and notes that though the beggar is not the Messiah he, nonetheless, knows what the smell of anger and bitterness is from his own life and experiences.

Using his sense of smell, so to speak, the beggar is able to determine how much a person should give if he/she is to be redeemed.  The implementation of this judgment apparently does wonder.  The narrator notes how “astonishing” it is “how a mere monetary transaction can acquaint the contributor with the reality of redemption.”

The narrator tells us that the old beggar does extremely well and brings home a lot of change.  He helps people to narrowly “avert death” by way of charity and this inspires him to take on the toughest challenge; namely, a miser who never gives money to anyone.

The encounter between the miser and old beggar is telling.  To be sure, the old beggar can do nothing to prompt the miser to give.  The miser is so bothered by the old beggar that he accuses him of “stealing” all of the money he has acquired through begging.   He then proceeds to kick him out of his home.

The old beggar’s response to the miser, strangely enough, transforms him into a schlemiel or rather a playful dog:

As the man lets loose a stream of obscenities, the beggar steps back and begins mimicking his mad behavior, trembling wildly, then falling on all fours, yelping and growling and circling the man who thinks he is having delusions upon seeing the beggar transform into a dog!  The dog barks, and the man panics and kicks it in the head; but the animal grabs the man’s bathrobe and pulls so hard that the miser tumbles, head over heels, crashing to the ground.  (130)

This transformation of the beggar into a dog-schlemiel is fascinating and, as far as I know, has no precedent in schlemiel literature.  Abehsera has the miser and the schlemiel-dog tumble around with each other and, in the end, he “breaks” the miser with laughter:

Man and animal thrash about, knocking over the table, causing plates and dishes to shatter on the gazebo’s marble floor.  The man gropes pitiably among the fragments of glass and porcelain and the remains of his meal.  He reaches for a large bone and flings it across the lawn, beyond the pines.  ‘Go get it!’ he shouts to the dog who, good naturedly, goes scampering after the bone…The latter is delighted. (131)

As all of this goes on, the miser becomes childlike and throws the bone out again.  As he does so, he notices that he is being watched by the community. They cheer and laugh in joy as they watch him and he waves back of them in acknowledgment.  In effect, the schlemiel has won.  By becoming a dog he has endeared the miser and prompted him to give.

But this isn’t the end of the tale.

Abehsera has the schlemiel/dog transform back into the old beggar.  And, strangely enough, the two get into a fight.  The “townspeople stop laughing.” And “absolute silence is interrupted by scattered remarks directed at both the beggar and the rich man.”  Some protest the beating and some encourage it.  But, at some point, the miser let’s himself be beaten up and then it occurs to the audience that they really aren’t fighting: they are play fighting:

The kicks are not truly kicks and the screams are not screams either. It is an unrehearsed drama between two men who, moments before, were antagonists, but through the chemistry of their encounter are about to engender a love so deep as to render it contagious.  (132)

In the end, the miser starts to laugh and the townspeople are dumbfounded.   But it is this dumfoundedness which transforms the community-as-circus into a community that is returned to itself.   Abehsera notes that his parable is drawn from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov since he, like the Baal Shem Tov, writes of a character who acts with foolishness to bring the dead back to life.

And this, says Abehsera, is the wisdom of the fool.  The schlemiel shares this wisdom with the writer and it becomes the “paradigm of a new type of intellect”(133).

What I find so interesting about this “new type of intellect” (and the parable that is used to communicate it) is not simply that it is “relayed” to the writer by the schlemiel; but that it is also relayed by the schlemiel through becoming an animal that makes the bitter sweet and the man into a child.

To be continued….

Seeking Alms at the Circus: The Schlemiel and the Old Beggar

DownloadedFile-1

In Yiddish literature and in many a Hasidic tale, schlemiels are often portrayed as being poor and humble.  However, we don’t often see a schlemiel as a beggar.  Although they are poor, they make people laugh.  And their dreams and imaginings often distract them from the poverty around them.  After all, schlemiels – although they may be poor or ragged – are usually figures of hope.   Beggars, in contrast, are often very solemn characters who are portrayed as being devoid of hope or dreams.   And when we see beggars in this or that Hasidic or Yiddish tale, the authors of these tales make sure to separate the two.

However, the last part of Meir Abehsera’s parable presents us with something different.  From the narrator, we learn that the “whistler” (the schlemiel) had, in old age, become a beggar.  In other words, Abehsera gives us a schlemiel which is hidden within the beggar:

An old man is walking on a deserted road.  His worn out clothes are evidence that he is a beggar.  The rooftops of the town toward which he is heading appear on the horizon.  From a pocket, he removes an immaculate handkerchief and covers his mouth. As he walks steadfastly toward the town, his shoulders hunched, his face buried in the handkerchief, he is periodically seized with violent fits of coughing.  The beggar is none other than the legendary whistler, whose age and waning strength now prevent the practice of his former craft.  Instead, he has totally given himself over to the task of collecting funds for the needy.  (121)

As we can see from the narrator’s description of the beggar, there are certain things – without which – one can no longer be a schlemiel; namely, his “age” and “waning strength.”  A schlemiel, for the narrator, is identified with the whistler – who we encountered in the beginning of this parable.  We first see the schlemiel as a character who, in the middle of the night, awakes a town with his whistling.  As I have noted, this moment has a life-changing effect on the writer.  Here, however, the schlemiel becomes a beggar.  He lacks the energy to disrupt; but he turns himself to the same end that the whistler did: redemption.

As the narrator tells us, this is a noble – though difficult – path to travel on. And the schlemiel-become-beggar sees his new task as a “blessing” since he “paves the giver’s road”:

It’s a vexing occupation, but the old man does not complain; he actually views his present appointment as an unmitigated blessing.  In begging for charity, he knows he paves the giver’s road, bestowing life upon him, both in the here and the hereafter.   He saves the miser from certain death, and forces die-hard thinkers to face the deed.  (121)

However, the narrator creates a situation where the schlemiel may have an opportunity to emerge from body of the beggar.  This situation involves the beggar’s entrance into a circus.  We are immediately reminded of the powerful noise that once blew through the schlemiel/whistler by way of the narrator’s description of the beggar’s encounter with the circus:

Inside the gate he is greeted by the explosive sounds of a fairground.  Calliope music blasts from the loudspeakers mounted over the entranceways to rides and gates.  There is a skeeball, a batting cage, a rifle range, and a roller coaster, whose clacking wheels can barely be heard beneath the squeals of passengers. (121)

Abehsera’s knowing very well of the Kabbalistic way of contrasting the Sitra d’Kedusha (“The Side of the Holy”) with the Sitra Achra (“the Other Side”) is playing one kind of wind against another.  To be sure, the whistling the schlemiel is on the Side of Holiness and it battles with the noise of the other side.  But, at this point of the parable, that is not yet explicit.  In yesterday’s blog entry, I pointed out how the writer – inspired by the memory of the schlemiel – spoke out against the “bad wind” of the Maggid who looked to frighten his congregants.  Here, it is more than just wind that is at stake; it is the noise that is produced by wind that is at issue.  This noise has spiritual meaning.

To be sure, there is a lot at stake.  The entire community – and not one individual – is the source of this noise.  Included amongst the throng of people is a Rabbi, a Talmudist, many “young yeshiva students,” and the rabbis wife. The description of the scene is joyful.  Everyone is having fun. And the wind that blows through them is the wind of laughter:

The beggar wends his way through the thrown. A Talmudist is tossing baseballs at kewpie dolls. The Chief of Police, bare-chested, muscles bulging, is bench-pressing barbells before dazzled young yeshiva boys.   The rabbi’s wife, holding a plucked chicken high in the air, breathes fire, and in a single blast, roasts the bird whole.  Every face glows red…from excessive laughter.  Happiness sizzles in the early evening air like streaks of summer lightening.  (123)

In the midst of all this joy and laughter, the “beggar feels uneasy.  He lifts his eyes skyward in prayer.”  The irony of all this is that a schlemiel would take great joy in the fact that people around him are laughing; but the twist is that he is no longer a schlemiel: he is now a beggar.  And in this scene, he sees himself as having no way of gaining charity.  He is, after all, a somber figure in the midst of all this joy.

In his prayer, he asks for strength and that God should “place kindness in their hearts, that they may give with an open hand, and thereby be redeemed.”  The beggar’s prayers are answered and he leaves with a “heavy sack of coins.”  However, he is still troubled by what he saw and heard at the circus; and we see this in his dream.

The narrator tells us that in his dream he is visited by another “old beggar” who tells him about how it has all come down to this: a circus full of noise which includes everyone, even the leaders of the Jewish community, the Rabbi, etc.  In his account, we can hear the separation of “true joy” and “false joy”; “true laughter” and “false laughter.”  The old beggar notes how, in the beginning, all of the poor were taken care of and of how this care for the poor was an expression of the learning that the Jewish community did.  But all of that came to an abrupt end.  And the wealthy no longer cared for the poor; they ignored the poor.  And people didn’t talk to each other.  Joy was replaced by seriousness: “seriousness became such a plague that dozens died from it every year.”  The death caused by seriousness was so great that the “town council met for a special session.”

In response to all of the death caused by seriousness, the town council decided that “happiness was the answer, and that a grand amusement park would provide the cure.”  They went right to work building the park and it “was an instant success.”  The “plague of seriousness” ended.

But now a new problem arises. The old beggar points out that “an abominable, overpowering stench” issued from the village.  The old beggar could do nothing to stop this smell and he ended up dying in the forest outside the town.  After finishing this account, he hands the ball over to our old beggar and tells him what is at stake. And in doing so, he makes distinctions between true and false joy, etc.  The old beggar in the dream brings together all of the pieces that were, as I pointed out in the outset of these blog entries on Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man, tied to remembrance and redemption. And out of this, our beggar learns (or rather, remembers) his original task – the task of the schlemiel:

You surely noticed how artificial was the joy of these people….With their silly behavior, they hope to demonstrate that they are in the swim, that they can outdo us.  Our bursts of joy, as you know, are upsurges of remembrance.  I don’t have to tell you that their false joy is the result of a deficient memory….Your mission, therefore, my dear colleague, consists of breaking these people with true laughter, until they regain their true identity…You break them with joy and you will affect the entire planet. (125)

This task shows us that, ultimately, the schlemiel concealed within the old beggar has the last word.  And it also discloses Abehsera’s conviction that there is such a thing as “true laughter” and “true joy” and that this laughter and joy will help people to “regain their true identity.”  This task is redemptive and affects the “entire planet.”  And it cannot be done without a battle.  To be sure, we hear this in the command to “break them with joy.” The ironic twist that Abehsera is communicating is that by breaking them one fixes them.

In the next two blog entries, I hope to follow out this thread to the end.  The point of these close readings is to understand how central and important the schlemiel is for Abehrsera’s project.  To be sure, without the schlemiel man (that is, the best man can be) – for Abehsera – is not “possible.”  For Abehsera, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel and the “possible man.”  What he relays to his readers is a joy and laughter that can break “us” out of our “false joy.”  And, in effect, he asks us to also become relays and to take part in a joy that will “affect the entire planet.”   But being a relay is not by any means an easy task when the world is, as Abehsera suggests, caught up in the circus….

Meir Abehsera’s “Possible Man” – The Holy Fool, The Writer, and the Beggar – Part I

DownloadedFile

At the beginning of the summer, I had an interesting talk with the Kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson about Holy Fools.  The subject that I wanted to discuss with him, which pertains to the Holy Fool, is something he was familiar with in his studies of Habad (Lubavitch) Hasiduth and Mysticism; namely, something called Ruah Shtut D’kedusha (“the Holy Spirit of Foolishness”).  What spurred our conversation was a challenge that I posed to his reading of “negative theology.”  I suggested that we pay closer attention to the “madness” that this negative theology suggests and to think about how it may or may not relate to what Paul deMan – the literary theorist – would call, following the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German Romantics – the “irony of ironies.”  As I have suggested in other blog entries, deMan’s reading of madness, which is spurred by the “irony of ironies,” leans toward the Daemonic.  What I wondered was whether the “madness of the Holy” differed from this type of madness prescribed by deMan.  To be sure, The Zohar, one of the most important books in Jewish mysticism, often makes distinctions between what’s called the Sitra d’Kedusha (the side of the Holy) and the Sitra Achra (the other side).  Where did the madness of the Holy fit?  Elliot was very intrigued by this question and has, since, exchanged some emails with me about it.

But the point I ended our conversation with was, to my mind, the most important. I suggested that Elliot take a look at Meir Abehsera’s book The Possible Man: Life in the Shadow of the Just.   For me, this book took the Holy Fool not so much as a concept than as a Midrash and an account of someone very close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, someone who, in my view and perhaps his own, plays and played the Holy Fool.  During his years with the Rebbe, he lived out the “Holy Spirit of Foolishness” and, fortunately, he gave it to the next generation of Jews by way of parables in his book.  It can be found in the chapter entitled “The High Road.”

Before I discuss this wonderful work or writing, I just want to say a few words about Meir Abehsera.  I have great respect, love, and admiration for Abehsera.  Before becoming the Rebbe’s “whistler” (a name I will explain over the next few blog entries), Abehsera was a writer, artist, and poet in Paris. He was also one of the major people who was instrumental in bringing Macrobiotics (a way of life, eating, and community) to America.  After touring through the United States in the 1960s, he settled in Binghamton, New York, created something of a community, and influenced countless people there.  Two of those people are very close to me today.  (One of them is my uncle.)  In many ways, I find Abehsera to be one of the most important Jews in my life.  He is, in many ways, a schlemiel-rebbe for me.  His Jewishness is all-embracing, kind, joyful, and inspiring.  He wants to people to dance, sing, and talk with each other.  His gatherings at his home, whether in New York, Los Angeles, or in Israel, were gatherings unlike any I have ever been to.  I am not a child of the 60s, but in many ways I feel as if what he did is the closest thing I will ever come to a Jewish “be-in.”

That said, I’d like to summarize and unpack his wonderful parable.  I think it would be appropriate for Schlemiel-in-Theory to start the Jewish New Year with a spiritual reflection on the schlemiel (or at least one, important, variety of the schlemiel: the holy fool and the “holy spirit of foolishness”).

Here it goes:

Before talking about the Holy Fool, Abehsera begins his “High Road” chapter with a reflection on Memory, Imagination, and Redemption.   The serve as a central motifs in his chapter and they are the preface to his words on the Holy Fool, the Writer, and the Beggar.

Speaking of himself in terms of his inadequate memory, Abehsera writes that “unlike the Just – who are the true repository of memory… – I am a broken vessel, who must resort to circuitousness to find my own way around.  My memory is that of an archeologist by comparison.  Each fragment that I unearth calls for the next, until I finally face the complete form”(94).    What kind of memory do the Just have and how can we tap into it?  How is it possible?

Following this reflection on memory, Abehsera turns immediately to something that concerned The Baal Shem Tov and his grandson Rabbi Nachman of Breslav; namely, the rift that grew in Europe between educated Jews and simple Jews.  To be sure, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, this rift gave birth to the first “literary schlemiels” in Rabbi Nachman’s stories.  The schlemiel, in these stories, challenges the Jewish intellectual who sees himself as closer to God as a result of his greater intelligence and skepticism.  The simplicity and naivite of the simpleton are, for the intellectual, negative traits.

Abhesera points out the Baal Shem Tov came around to address this rift:

He proceeded to transmit to common folk, in their own terms, what had been previously reserved for a select few.  His rationale was clear: the same Father in heaven who gives clever people the capacity to understand, also creates the feeble mind, and grants it no less right to share in the divine feast. (96)

Echoing the Baal Shem Tov, Abehsera lauds the simpleton. They, who live in the “now,” are closest to what Martin Buber would call “root experiences” (such as the giving of the Torah, Splitting of the Sea, etc) and they are the one’s who are closest to the Messianic.  And reflecting on what he says about memory, Abehsera describes this relationship to the “now” of the messianic the “memory of the future as well as of the past”:

Simple people were ideal chariots to transport the sacred, with never a self-conscious thought, for they did not suffer from the vanity with which the gifted are apt to be plagued. They could travel in an instant through time to Sinai, and fall to their faces, trebling as if they had just received the Law….The messiah was not a fable for these good people, or a possible dream of times to come; for them, redemption was now.   Cunning minds might contend that they were merely naïve.  I would say, rather, that they bore the mark of wisdom: a good memory of the future as well as of the past. (97)

The point of the imagination – and the point of the Baal Shem Tov’s famous expression “memory is redemption” – is to “bind past events with those that must inevitably come, to fuse the two extremes of the time and bring them to peace with the present.”  In other words, what Abehsera learns out of the Baal Shem Tov is that the imagination has a messianic and temporal task.  Imagination is equated with memory.  And for Abehsera memory/imagination is an “agent of healing” and spurs the “process of reawakening.”

Nonetheless, memory is challenged by the forces of trauma and destruction.  Memory “slips away.” And, for Abehsera, this is where the Baal Shem Tov and he himself comes in: his work (echoing that of the Baal Shem Tov) is the work of memory and its task is to heal the wounds that Jews have endured by exile and the Holocaust.

After pointing this out, Abehsera notes what he is up against; namely the fact that, in the times of the Baal Shem Tov, people were much more imaginative and hopeful.  Today, in contrast, the imagination is “less obsessive.”  We are – by and large – skeptics and rationalists who live in a disenchanted world.  And “yesterday’s dreamer is an extinct breed.”  So, in this world, we have to “smuggle” light in.  And this is done by way of metaphor.  Regarding this, Abehsera writes: “A metaphor is a transfer that can only be carried out by flesh and blood.” And it is human beings – and not angels – who have to use metaphor to transfer/smuggle light.   In other words, the way to truth, for Abehsera, is by way of the oblique.  We must hint at things but this is done by way of parable.

The trick is to keep this parable simple enough so as to speak to the hearts of people and not to an intellectual elite. And this is certainly something that is on his mind.

What I like most is how Abehsera situates himself within this framework and how, in his parables, he brings in the Holy Fool.  To be sure, it is the Holy Fool who smuggles in the light but, and here is the twist, this is conveyed by way of writing.  For this reason, Abehsera gives a parable that involves the relationship between the “writer” and the “idiot” (Holy Fool) so as to illustrate what is at stake.

In the next blog entry, I hope to discuss the dream that inspired this parable. Since this dream offers a, so to speak, allegorical key to the parable it deserves its own entry and must be laid out.  As I will demonstrate, it gives us a new way of understanding the schlemiel, one which shows how deeply personal and spiritually meaningful this comic character can be.