Tag: Holocaust

Joan Rivers’ Tattoo(s) – “6M” – for 6 Million Jews Killed in the Holocaust and…a Freckle

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Over the weekend, someone told me that a Rabbi praised Joan Rivers for having a “6M” tattooed on the inside of her arm in the memory of the 6 million who died in the Holocaust. Although the Rabbi noted that Jews are, according to the Torah, forbidden to have tattoos, he noted that what she did was an exception. Apparently, she did this right near the end of her life and, according to this Rabbi, her public support for her fellow Jews in Israel was of great importance. She had, in his mind, become a saint-of-sorts and it didn’t matter if she had a “6M” tattoo.

Hearing this, I immediately went on line in search of the tattoo. But when I did a google search I found no such “Holocaust tattoo.” Rather what I found was an episode of “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (Season 2, Episode 9) where she goes to get a tattoo of a “bumble bee” on her derriere. This, apparently, was her “first tattoo.”  But instead of going through it, she gives up in the process. Reflecting on the failed attempt to get a tattoo, she kvetches: “I wanted a bee and I got a freckle.”  

http://www.wetv.com/joan-melissa-joan-knows-best/videos/joan-melissa-tattoo-time

Eventually, I found a few articles that mentioned her “6M” tattoo. The reflections they offered were meager. The most I found was a statement she made about it in an interview where she notes that:

“Being Jewish has always been important to me,” she reiterated and to prove it she got a tattoo last year. “I now have 6M tattooed on the inside of my left arm. It’s only a half-inch but every time anyone sees it they’re reminded of the six million who perished, and so am I.”


In pursuit of something more reflective, I was fortunate enough to find a “diary entry from her last book, published this year, in which she talks about the tattoo within the context of a two jokes.

In her Diary of a Mad Diva (2014) Joan Rivers writes, in her June 2nd entry, of her “6M” tattoo. But before she discusses her tattoo and its relation to the Holocaust, she writes of something she’s “always wanted to do: I went shoplifting with Lindsay Lohan.”   But this is a joke. And this joke is the preface to her confession about something much more serious:

Dear Diary: 

Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I went shoplifting with Lindsay Lohan. Ha, ha. No, that’s not a joke. In my own way I have been stealing for years. I have bath towels with big Ns on them from the Ark. However, I would never steal with Lindsay Lohan, as she is not smart. She keeps putting things down the front of her dresses even though she wears see through dresses. Once I was told she stuffed a sofa into the back of her Spanx but was caught when she waddled out of the store with a huge butt. They thought she was Jennifer Lopez.

What I did do today was I got t a tattoo! To honor the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, on my left forearm I had them tattoo a little blue “6M.” Surprisingly it hardly hurt, so next week, I’m planning to get a “12M” to honor the twelve million Jews who refused to buy retail, and if that doesn’t hurt, I’ll get a “26 ½ M” for all the Jewish business men whose second wives are blond shiksa goddesses.

What I love about this reflection is that she couches her confession about her tattoo – the only one she really went through with – in a series of jokes about the other tattoos that she will get. Each of the numbers she rattles off hit on classic jokes about Jews in America and their love for a good deal and “blond shiksa goddesses.”

These jokes, so to speak, take the edge off of what she really did on June 2nd. The book was released one month later. Her death wasn’t far off.

And while one can see the pattern of her “bumble bee” tattoo on her but, which never came to be in reality, one can’t find the tattoo of the “6M” on her arm on google image search.   It’s there, but we can’t see it. She also decided not to record her getting this tattoo as she did with the bumble bee (attempt-at-a-tattoo). And this is telling. It seems that she wanted to keep the image of this tattoo to herself. She could talk about it, as we have seen above, and she shared it with a few people here and there; but she didn’t want to make it into an icon. Her reminder was something…that would remind herself primarily….Or so it seems…..

Joan Rivers and Holocaust Humor

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

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

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmrabo1vHZo]

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

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

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piVCGSDP1UA]

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srtES-HebG0]

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

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

On Hitler:

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

On Anne Frank:

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

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAc6eBsrAfY]

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

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

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

Robin Williams and The Post-Holocaust Schlemiel in “Jacob the Liar”

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Both Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams are popular, internationally acclaimed comedic actors. Their work does a lot to open up the possibilities of comedy and expand its scope. Perhaps in an effort to test the limits of comedy, they took on one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a comedic actor in the 20th century: addressing the Holocaust. After Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1997) and Jacob the Liar (1999), starring Robin Williams as Jacob, made their debuts, there was a major debate over whether or not, as Sander Gilman puts it, the “Shoah can be funny.” While Gilman finds these films to have “aesthetic” merits, the answer to his own question is an emphatic no.

Since both Benigni and Williams both played the innocent and naïve Jewish fool otherwise known as the schlemiel, another question comes up which Gilman does not address. Speaking to this issue and hitting on a deeper problem, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in an essay entitled “After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?” argues that “what is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter ‘nach Auschwitz’, after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as a building block of a post-Shoah universe”(Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, 2001, p287).

In other words, the question isn’t about whether Robin Williams or Roberto Benigni can accomplish the feat of using comedy, nach Auschwitz, to relate to the Holocaust so much as whether the schlemiel character that they draw on – which is one of the most important stock characters in the Jewish tradition – can or even should exist after the Holocaust.

This question is important to many scholars of the Holocaust and should be important to authors, poets, artists, and filmmakers who address the Holocaust in their work. The task of judging the meaning and value of the Enlightenment’s projects – vis-a-vis literature, philosophy, and politics – ‘nach Auschwitz’ was launched by Theodor Adorno in essays and in sections of his books. Adorno is most well known for his claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. He was directing his words toward the poet Paul Celan. However, while some, like George Steiner, took Adorno literally (and making a categorical claim), others, like Lawrence Langer did not. And Langer is correct. Adorno was looking for a new kind of poetics “after Auschwitz.”

Here, the issue is comedy.

Adorno also has a little known essay about comedy and historical disaster entitled “Is Art Lighthearted?” In this essay, Adorno suggests that the lighthearted nature of comedy, after Auschwitz, must be challenged. As in his claim regarding poetry after Auschwitz, here Adorno finds an exception to the rule in Samuel Beckett’s kind of comedy:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectivity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno’s approach to Beckett suggests that it is possible for comedy to exist after the Holocaust. But this is only because Beckett’s kind of comedy goes beyond the typical dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. And in doing so it creates a “laughter about the absurdity of laughter” and a “laughter about despair.” It is a “laugh that laughs at the laugh.”

Can we apply Adorno’s approach to Beckett’s humor to the schlemiel, which Robin Williams plays in Jacob the Liar? Can (or should) the schlemiel, like comedy in general, live on after the Holocaust? And, with that in mind, can we say that Williams’ portrayal of the Holocaust schlemiel was unethical, amoral, or ethical?

Prior to the Holocaust, the schlemiel was a “building block” for generations of Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement (in the 19th century), left for Europe, and landed in America. The schlemiel gave millions of Jews a way to understand themselves and survive the many defeats of history (which included pogroms). It’s humor gave them a sense of dignity when they were powerless.

In her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out that although the Jews suffered multiple defeats in history they could still turn to the schlemiel who won an “ironic victory.”

The traditional Western protagonist is heroic insofar as he attempts to change reality. The schlemiel becomes hero when real action is impossible and reaction remains the only way a man can define himself. As long as he moves among choices, the schlemiel is derided for his failures to choose wisely. Once the environment is seen as unalterable – and evil – his stance must be accepted as a stand or the possibilities of “heroism” are lost to him altogether. (39)

The schlemiel comically responds to historical disaster. Through word play, plot, and humor in this or that story or novel by Yiddish writers such as Mendel Mocher Sforim or Sholem Aleichem, Jewish readers could, as David Roskies says, “laugh off the traumas of history.” Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi illustrates this in a book entitled Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination where she includes a dialogue between Motl, the main character of Sholem Aleichem’s last novel (Motl, the Cantors Son) to illustrate. He is so innocent and naïve that he can’t grasp the nature of a pogrom and the concept of evil:

I ask him what is a pogrom? All the emigrants keep talking about “pogroms” but I don’t know what they are/ Kopl says, “Don’t you know what a pogrom is? Then you’re just a baby! A pogrom is something that you find everywhere nowadays. It starts out of nothing, and one it starts it lasts for three days.”
“Is it like a fair?” “A fair? Some fair! They break windows, they bust up furniture, rip pillows, feathers fly like snow…And they beat and kill and murder.” “Whom?” “What do you mean, whom? The Jews!” “What for?” “What a question! It’s a pogrom, isn’t it?” “And so it’s a pogrom. What’s that?” “Go away, you’re a fool. It’s like talking to a calf.”

Motl, like many Yiddish schlemiel characters, is innocent. And Ezrahi argues that the idea of preserving Jews from historical trauma was not just a modern practice; it was used in relation to the attempted genocide against the Jews in Purim which is remembered on Purim. As a part of the holiday, Jews celebrate the “aborted catastrophe” and turn “defeat into triumph.” The Jewish world is “turned topsy-turvy (nahofokh-hu) for one day each year and saints and villains become interchangeable.” (“Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” are exchanged in a day of celebration where the Rabbis suggest that the Jewish people should drink so much as to not know the difference between them.) Ezrahi suggests that this carnivalesque and comical act spares Jews of having to get caught up in the trauma of history; it distances them from the disaster.

But can this act be done after Auschwitz?

Like the Purim story, Ezrahi argues that the schlemiel was a modern, Yiddish version of the comedic rewriting of history. Jacob the Liar, however, falls after the Pogroms that Aleichem included in his novel from the early 20th century and after the Holocuast.

Writing on the film (and book), Ezrahi notes that it is a “self-declared counter-narrative” to the Holocaust. It effaces the historical dimension of the ghetto and the Holocaust:

The mise-en-scene has been identified by readers as the Lodz ghetto, where Jurek Becker (the author of the novel) himself was incarcerated as a child. But like the other ghettos and camps in the fictions under consideration, the ghetto is never named, and takes on a generic quality.

Ezrahi argues that this generic quality is the “baseline” for the novel. It looks to return everything back to normal and we see this in the central theme of Jacob and his lies which look to desperately turn the clock back:

The lie that Jakob fabricates, his possession of a radio that broadcasts good news to the ghetto, is simply an editorial projection of the normal onto the abnormal. The recipients of the lie are the inhabitants of the ghetto (or all its gullible inhabitants) but its primary target is a young girl, Lina, whom Jakob adopts when her parents are deported.  (Note that Ezrahi uses the original Jakob while the American film changes it to Jacob.)

Ezrahi focuses in on the fact that Jacob’s heroic efforts “are aimed at preserving the innocence of her childhood world at all costs.” To be sure, in saying this, Ezrahi is hitting on something we find not just with the Yiddish schlemiel but also with Charlie Chaplin. Williams, much like Charlie Chaplin, plays the schlemiel and uses comedy to preserve the innocence of different characters (including himself).

Ezrahi makes a daring move and suggests that the issue of using comedy (and denying history) goes deep: it hits at theological issues. In the wake of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres argues that laughter is “a priori…hostile to the world it depicts.” While tragedy “quiets us with awe…laughter revolts” against the world.

Ezrahi suggests that the basis of this revolt – with respect to the schlemiel – is not simply a rejection of history because it can’t live in it. Rather, it evinces a messianic kind of hope that is implicit in the Jewish tradition: the hope for a better world and return to a world and a history without evil. This wish is at the core of Jewish eschatology and a utopian dream wish for a better world which smashes history.

What’s most interesting is that the audience “colludes” with the schlemiel. And this suggests that we have been very influenced by this belief in a better world so much so that we are willing to go along with this or that lie to save “innocence.”  And, in the wake of disaster, the schlemiel is the vehicle for such collusion.  Perhaps Williams took to the role of Jacob because he – like other authors of the schlemiel and actors who played the schlemiel – wanted to preserve innocence and found comedy to be the best way of preserving hope. However, he knew that the only way to do this, after the Holocaust, would be to lie…like the character he played, Jacob. For without this hope and without this lie, there can only be the belief that history wins and that comedy, after Auschwitz, is impossible.

The Post-Holocaust Schlemiel (Take 3)

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What happens to the Schlemiel after the Holocaust?

This is a very complicated question.  In one entry, I discussed the end of the schlemiel by way of the story of Menachem Kipinis, a reporter who acted as if he was reporting on the town of Chelm (a real town in Poland, and a fictional town in Jewish folklore). Chelm, as I explained there, is a town of schlemiels.  As the story about Kipinis goes, he, the schlemiel reporter, along with all of the living Jewish members of Chelm, found their end in concentration camps. I suggested, there, that I was here to continue reporting on the schlemiel whose existence now transcends the boundaries of the real or fictional town.

In another entry on the post-Holocaust schlemiel, I noted that, for Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, the schlemiel lives on in America, but not in Israel, because America has not properly mourned the Holocaust and the end of European Jewry.  It lives on in America as a cultural icon; it lives on in a culture dominated by Simulcura.  Here, in America, after the Holocaust, the schlemiel finds its home in Hollywood.  One need only think of Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Larry David, Seth Rogen, etc to get a sense of what she is getting at.

For Ezrahi, the schlemiel takes part in what she calls “Diasporic privilege.”  This privilege is not restricted to the domain of Hollywood and popular culture; in fact, it is found in high, literary, culture.  Regarding this, Ezrahi notes that the schlemiel is bound to a textual homeland not to a real land such as Israel.  It is a figure of endless discovery not, as in Israel, a figure of historical recovery.  It’s trope is the trope of Diaspora not Homecoming.

In today’s blog, I’d like to suggest another route for the post-Holocaust schlemiel; one mapped out by Nathan Englander in his short story “The Tumblers.”  This route takes us into a scenario where the schlemiel lives on, but as damaged by history.

Ezrahi is correct when she claims that, with books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Compalint (and after 1967), American Jews can no longer think of themselves without thinking of Israel.  Jewish identity has changed radically, she says.  We are no longer, simply, schlemiels.  In fact, the American schlemiel battles, as we see in Portnoy’s Complaint, with the Sabra (I will return to this in another blog entry).

However, Ezrahi is not correct on all accounts.  There is a post-Holocaust schlemiel in America, one she doesn’t recognize, one that has yet to be researched.  As I would like to suggest, Englander, someone who has not survived the Holocaust and is far from its origin, recognizes that an American-Jew can’t look to the schlemiel as his predecessors did.  If at all, the schlemiel takes on a new shade.

Englander’s story appears in the book For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

“The Tumblers” takes place in Chelm at the beginning of the Holocaust:

“Who would have thought that a war of such proportion would bother to turn its fury against the fools of Chelm?”

First off, we learn of the main character, Mendl, who descends from the legendary “Gronam the Ox.”   He inherits Chelm and he carries on this legacy which, as the story goes on, changes.

Before the big changes happen, we learn that “Gronam’s logic was still employed when the invaders built the walls around the corner of the city, creating the Ghetto of Chelm”(28).

This schlemiel logic was used to make light of the difficult things: “they called their aches “mother’s milk,” the darkness became “freedom”; filth they referred to as “hope”(28).  This is the logic of the faithful simpelton (the tam) – who as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – in his stories – taught is the schlemiel.

However, there is a limit to their substitutions and that limit is death: “It was only death that they could not rename, for they had nothing to put in its place. This is when they become sad and felt their hunger and when some began to lose their faith in God”(28).

At this moment, the narrator tells us that “This is when the Mahmir Rebbe, the most pious of them all, sent Mendel outside the walls”(28).

Mendel, although a schlemiel, goes out to learn what is going on.   We witness how Mendel filters much of what he knows through the mind of a schlemiel.  He struggles with what he sees; none of it makes sense.  When he meets up with an orphan friend named Yocheved, she tells him of how she and he will run away to a farm and eat duck.  Like any schlemiel, he dreams his hunger away.

However, he loses his innocence and much of his dream logic when he sees Yocheved killed by a bullet. The description of her death, as seen through his eyes, is a measure of his incomprehension and his new, liminal sense of existence.  As the narrator points out, Yocheved would not have died had she not been startled by the beating of her uncle.  Her death, both real and represented, is mixed with aesthetics, shock, and religious confusion.

The bullet left a ruby hole that resembled a charm an immodest gril might wear.  Yocheved touched a finger to her throat and turned her gaze toward the sky, wondering from where such a strange gift had come. Only Mendel looked back at the sound of the shot: the other had learned the lessons of Sodom. (35)

Mendel is damaged by this memory.  He has seen death.  But he moves on and doesn’t give up hope.

His Rabbi tells him and his group of Hasidim to shave off their beards and to dress like they are secular people.  They all manage to escape and stumble upon a circus train by way of passages built by way of schlemiel logic.

This leads them to the next game they must play.  They are taken to be acrobats by the other circus performs in a train.  They take them for such performers because of their thin, Jewish bodies.  Now, to survive, they must act “as if” they are acrobats.

The rest of the ride to their first performance, Mendel learns how to do a few acts from the other performers on the train and he relays them to his fellow schlemiels.

They learn them as best they can, but when the moment of truth comes, and they have to perform before an audience of high officials, they fail.

However, their failure saves them, since the audience takes them to be acting “as if” they are Jews who “tumble” all over each other.

What bothers Mendel most about all of this is that the world they are performing for – the world the circus performers are performing for – is “efficient” and “orderly” in a violent sense.   In Chelm, where the order was loose and playful, there was no such violence.

Moreover, Mendel realizes that to be ordered, as a performer, one must act as if he or she is something when he or she is not.  He notices that the art of the circus performers is based on a forced kind of duplicity.

At the end of the story, he puts his hands up.  Unlike other schlemiels, the narrator notes that Mendel’s hands are not soft and humble, they are “cracked and bloodless, gnarled and intrusive”(54). These are the hands of a post-Holocaust schlemiel.

Englander ends his story by reminding us that Mendel’s hands, the hands of this accidental entertainer, are different from the hands that have died in the Holocaust:

But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks of boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies. (55)

As a reader, we now know that we cannot think of the schlemiel without thinking of the Holocaust.  This is the novelty that Englander wants us to come to terms with.  This isn’t a Hollywood Schlemiel and it isn’t a schlemiel whose homeland is the text, as Ezrahi claims with so many other schlemiels.

Rather, Englander teaches us that we American-Jews who live in the shadow of the Holocaust can no longer think of the schlemiel in the same way; regardless, he knows that the schlemiel, Mendel, lives on.  But, as Englander shows us through his creative fiction, he lives on in shame.

His irony – the irony of the schlemiel – is no longer fictional; it is historical.