Tag: Sander Gilman

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.

An American-Post-Holocaust Schlemiel: Another Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake”

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Woody Allen’s Zelig traces the path of a character (of the same name) that, Irving Howe suggests (in one segment of Allen’s film), is based on the passionate drive of American Jews in the early 20th century to assimilate into American society.  Zelig, to be sure, is a schlemiel. But he is what I would call a post-historical-American schlemiel.  His Jewishness or his past is not his primary feature; his drive to assimilate is.  To assimilate, Jews – like many immigrant groups fresh to America – would act “as if” they were not Jews.  Instead, many Jews would act as if they were Americans. The act of hiding Jewishness and “passing” is nothing new.  Sander Gilman and Steven Aschheim, amongst other scholars, have drawn up historical documents from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to show how prevalent this was in Europe.   In a book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Gilman dedicates a chapter to Jews who acted as if they were German but who ultimately failed to be accepted.  He entitled this chapter “Living Schlemiels.”  Indeed, for Gilman, a “living schlemiel” is a person who tries his utmost to be accepted but in reality cannot.  In Allen’s film, Zelig is accepted wherever he goes, but, in contrast, many of the “living schlemiels” that Gilman discusses were not.   They learned the hard way.  Even though Woody Allen’s Zelig suggests that assimilation is something all American’s celebrate and that it doesn’t matter whether Zelig is Jewish since, ultimately, he is the everyman (a man, literally, of all occasions), Bernard Malamud suggests that a Jew can still try to pass and fail.

But there is more to the story.  In the “Lady of the Lake,” Bernard Malamud, shows us that what will (or perhaps should) trip a Jew up when he or she tries to pass is history.  To be sure, it is the memory of the Holocaust.  This is a lesson that Allen doesn’t take into consideration in Zelig since, quite simply, Zelig seems to have no history.  He just happens to live in the Jazz Era.  Malamud, in contrast, suggests we situate the schlemiel after the Holocaust. For Malamud, the post-Holocaust-American-schlemiel learns a lesson about what it means to be Jewish.

In the last blog entry, I introduced and discussed the basic plot of Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake.”  As I noted, Henry Levin changes his name (and identity) to Henry R. Freeman.  After receiving in an inheritance, he leaves for Europe in pursuit of Romance. As a New York Jew, Romance is a European and a non-Jewish experience since Romance is not a central trope of Judaism. (In fact, as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book Unheroic Conduct, humility, hard work, and diligent study are the greatest traits, not pride, power, and masculinity, which go hand-in-hand with Romance and what he calls, following a medieval tradition, “Goyim Naches”).

When he arrives in Europe, he experiences beauty and mystery.  He is taken into what the theologian Will Herberg, in his book Judaism and Modern Man, thinks is antithetical to a tradition that eschews mystical fusion and forgetfulness.  When he meets a mysterious woman named Isabella, he does his utmost to win her over. But, as I pointed out in the last blog, she seems to see through his ruse when she asks him, immediately upon meeting him, if he is Jewish.

He denies his Jewishness and hides his secret.  But right when he is about to kiss her, he is accosted by a tour guide who likes like a “sad clown” and carries a “rapier.”  This is a key interruption since he hits Freeman in the crotch and says that what he is doing is a “transgression.” To be sure, what makes the story meaningful are these interruptions since they, apparently, disclose a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew.  To be truly free, Freeman believes that he must eliminate the tension.  He cannot stand being a “stranger” any longer.  And this incident “embarrasses” him.

This prompts Freeman to think about how different her history is from his:

And she was different too….Not only in her looks and background, but of course different as regards past…Her past he could see boiling in her all the way back to knights of old, and then some; his own history was something else again, but men were malleable, and he wasn’t afraid of attempting to create daring combinations: Isabella and Henry Freedman. (102)

As one can see from this passage, he respects her history and tradition and sees it “boiling in her all the way back to knights of old.”  It is a stable history that lives on and, apparently, doesn’t change too much.  As for his own history, he sees it as something that is “malleable.”  He doesn’t wish to keep it so much as change it and make a new, “daring combination.”  This is his main thought.  He will conceal his Jewishness to accomplish this experiment of sorts.

After sending a letter requesting to see her again, he is ecstatic to see that she wishes the same.  But before he goes, he is told that her family is known for “trickery.”  Following this, the theme of concealment and trickery comes more and more to the fore.

To be sure, Freeman, though exuberant and confident that he will trick her, sees more and more signs that something is amiss.  When he arrives on the island where she lives, she tells him that all of the paintings that he sees on the walls are copies (109) and this “slightly depresses him.”  This suggests that he wants something original and sees himself as a “copy” of sorts; after all, he is trying to copy a gentile.

Immediately after feeling this disappointment, he notices an image of a leper that catches his attention.  Freeman asks why the leper “deserved his fate?” Isabella’s answer hits at the main theme: “He falsely said he could fly”(110).  In response, Freeman asks, quizzically, “And for that you go to hell?”  She, however, doesn’t reply.  To be sure, she leaves him to ruminate on the lie.  Did Freeman also claim he could fly when, in fact, he couldn’t?  In other words, was Freeman really free?

What follows is a series of scenes that show Freeman on the edge wondering whether or not he should tell her the truth; that he is a Jew.  His excitement about her is interrupted by the lie he has kept to himself about his identity.  All of this annunciated by one word: “no”:

If Isabella loved him, as he now felt she did or would before long; with the strength of this love they would conquer problems as they arose….No, the worry that troubled him most was the lie he had told her, that he wasn’t a Jew.  He could, of course, confess, say she knew Levin, not Freeman, man of adventure, but that might ruin all, since it was quite clear she wanted nothing to do with a Jew, or why, at first sight, had she asked so searching a question? (112)

This worry and his interpretation of her earlier question stay with him to the very end of the story.  But it all begins to break down when, traveling into the alps, she asks Freeman whether the peaks “those seven – look like a Menorah?”

Hearing this, he thinks that she has called his bluff.  He is in shock, but he tries his utmost to cover it up, thinking he will pass a test:

“Like a what?” Freeman politely inquired. He had a sudden frightening remembrance of her seeing him naked as he came out of the lake and felt constrained to tell her that circumcision was de rigueur in stateside hospitals; but he didn’t’ dare.  She may not have noticed.  (115)

Following this, he narrowly averts questions regarding Jewishness. However, at this point, she reveals to him that she has tricked him: she is not nobility, she doesn’t come from a noble line; rather, she is the daughter of a caretaker.  The island that Freeman went to was not owned by her family.

After saying this, she was hoping he too would confess to some kind of trick.  However, Freeman still insists on being quiet about his Jewish identity:

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. He wanted to say more but warned himself not to.”

In response she says, “That’s what I was afraid of.”  Her reply is odd; however, he doesn’t notice, all he can think about is how Italian she looks: “She was a natural-born queen, whether by del Dongo or any other name. So she lied to him, but so had he to her”(116).  However, he is avoiding the one fact: he didn’t tell her the truth.

To be sure, he only sees her as an Italian he can have a romance and a “future” with. When, near the end of the story, he sees her all in white, he imagines her as his bride.  He fails to notice, however, that she is now more hesitant toward him than ever.

In the final scene he kisses her, but she “whispers Goodbye” to him.  In response he says, “To whom goodbye?…I have come to marry you”(117).  Upon hearing this, she asks, once again, the question that pains him the most: “Are you a Jew?”

Although his mind tells him not to lie, he overcomes this and says: “How many no’s make never?  Why do you persist with such foolish questions?”

Her reply discloses the fact that Freeman’s denial of Jewishness – in order to experience romance and start a “new life” – was his downfall:

“Because I hoped you were.”

Malamud then brings the clincher. When she opens up her top, he sees, written on her breasts, “a bluish line of distorted numbers.”  In other words, she is a survivor of the concentration camps who had been marked by the Nazis for extermination.  She cannot deny her Jewish identity and, in fact, was looking to marry a Jew and thought that Freeman was, in fact, a Levin:

“I can’t marry you. We are Jews.  My past is meaningful to me.  I treasure what I suffered for.”

As she goes away, he says that he is really Jewish and grasps at her breasts.  She disappears and he feels as if he is grasping at a “moonlit stone” (a “lady of the lake”).  In other words, he was duped.  He is a schlemiel, in this scenario, because he lets his freedom get the best of him.  Malamud’s lesson is that Levin brought his bad luck on through his masquerade.  At the end of the story, we learn that Levin is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel like Zelig.

To be sure, Malamud would like to let his readers know that there is no reward for the Zelig-like denial of history and Jewish identity.  The Jew, for him, is not a freeman.  The post-Holocaust-American Jew is bound by history, suffering, and memory.  But, as the story notes, the European Jew has a better understanding of this while the American Jew doesn’t.  For Malamud the American-Jew is a schlemiel who is more interested in an improvised, free, and new life than a historical one.   He is, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “lord of dreams.”  But these dreams, in this story, are the dreams of someone who cares more for freedom and romance than history and Jewish identity.

Living Schlemiels – Stranger than Fiction

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One of the things I have never discussed on this blog is the topic of the “living schlemiel.”  To be sure, the most well-known books on the schlemiel – Ruth Wisse’s The Schlemiel as Modern Hero and Sanford Pinsker’s The Schlemiel as Metaphor – do not address this topic.  Their concern is the schlemiel in literature, folklore, and, for Pinsker (only with regards to Woody Allen), cinema.  The first time I saw the expression “living schlemiel” was in Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews.  To be sure, Gilman used this title for a section on his third chapter which includes German-Jewish writers and thinkers of the 18th and 19th century such as Ludwig Borne and Heinrich Heine.  For Gilman, Heine’s poetry, which dubbed the schlemiel the “lord of dreams” (the poet), bled into his life.  And Ludwig Borne’s life also, for Gilman, bore the stamp of the schlemiel.  Although Heine, according to Hannah Arendt, embraced the title of the “schlemiel” and “lord of dreams,” Gilman’s reading suggests that he and Borne did all they could to avoid it.  And that’s the point: Gilman calls them both schlemiels because no matter how much they did to fit into German society – and this included Heine’s baptism and both Heine and Borne’s attempts to satirize their Jewish origins to be accepted as equals – they remained the odd one’s out.

In judging their lives in this fashion, Gilman is teaching us that he, like many German Jews, uses the term in a critical/judgmental sense.  To live the life of the schlemiel, he suggests, is to live a life that is blind to the fact that it is excluded.  It “believes” it and fits into the world when it doesn’t. And this fits well into Gilman’s definition of the schlemiel vis-à-vis literature and theater. Schlemiels are  “fools who believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.”  This is what Gilman is saying about Heine and Borne: they think they were in control of their world and could cajole it to accept them, but it refused their gestures.  In effect, Gilman suggests that they were odd in two senses: as a result of their satire they were excluded from their Jewish communities; and, despite their efforts, they were not accepted into the “world.”

Taking this definition into account, I wondered about how it could be applied to people I knew and not just to this or that intellectual.  And should it be modified?

Thinking about this, I would say that it should be modified to include the fact that, with a living schlemiel, there is a blindness over the reality that he or she is not fitting in; yet, despite it all, they keep on trying.  And here’s the twist: unlike Gilman who would suggest that the “living schlemiel” comes to a bad end, I would suggest that sometimes their foolishness can bear fruit.

I’ll offer a story about people who, I think, may be living schlemiels or at least analogous to living schlemiels.   This may serve as an illustration of how the schlemiel may be alive and living amongst us.  The question, I think, is how to judge them.

I was raised in Upstate New York by parents who were both raised in New York City.  I was one of a small handful of Jews and, in many ways, my parents skill set and education didn’t match up that well with the rural community that they made their new home.  Growing up, I often felt like I was the “odd one out.”

But, after years of travel, higher education, and exposure to the urban way of life, I realized that many people in my town, from an urban perspective, would be considered the odd one’s out.  I’m somewhere in the middle.   Describing my borderline state, my father jokingly calls me a “cosmopolitan hick.”  I think this title is apt and see read it in terms of what advantages it gives me over people who are either fully urban or are down-and-out country bumpkins.  The greatest advantage I have, to my mind, is the fact that I can participate in both groups and for this reason I am better able than many of my friends to comprehend or judge things that are said by one group about another.  I see it from the inside of both, widely different, cultures.  So when someone is said to be the “odd one out” by one group on another, my ears perk up.  However, there are times when no one says anything and I am the sole witness of an event that is of the schlemiel variety.  Let’s call it a schlemiel situation.

I recently went out for an evening with a group of friends to a bar on the Sacandaga Lake, a lake I spent a lot of my youth enjoying.   (To preserve my friend’s identity, I will change their names while noting what happened.)   In this group of friends, the words and deeds of at least two of my friends spurred a schlemiel-situation in which I bore witness to a schlemiel or two and was prompted to make a schlemiel-judgment call.

They traveled over to the bar by way of the boat.  I came in by car and met them there.  When I got to the bar, I heard that they were still on the lake on the way to the bar.  When I got word that they arrived, I went down to the lake to discover that one of my friends was playing guitar the entire way.  What’s unusual about this?  My friend, let’s call him Bob, is full of energy. He passionately gets into everything he does.  However, sometimes this can be grating because he subjects everyone he knows to his learning experience.  He does have experience as a lead singer in a band and he plays guitar, but he doesn’t take well to criticism.

That said, he was very excited to show me that he had learned how to play rhythm in a rockabilly kind of style.  I listened but, like the night before, he still needed to be much more gentle with his strumming if he was to get it right.  His erratic strumming coupled with his singing, which didn’t match up, his innocence, and his intense personality made me think of Bob as a “living schlemiel.”   To be sure, people tell him that his playing is off, but he goes on.  Its funny.  And so is he.  He is the odd one out, but he manages to slip through the cracks. But, as I found out, this has its limits.

Before going into the bar, Bob started talking with some people in a boat coming in to the bar’s dock.  Using a megaphone, he brought them in (acting as if he was an air-traffic control). This made the whole boat laugh and they were, instantly, endeared with him.  This gave him a big boost.

When he came up to the bar, he started working his foolish magic.  And this is when things started getting odd: reality and dream started clashing.  In the bar, Bob met up with a man in his seventies.  He got this gentleman going and he started dancing wildly to the music.  To have fun, I egged Bob on to increase the madness. But, to my chagrin, I bore witness to some mixed feelings in the bar.  The older gentleman started going off and people around the bar looked at him as if he was crazy.  I felt an odd identification and repulsion with the old man who was dancing wildly.  He was the odd one out and though people were giving him dirty looks, I couldn’t help but think them wrong.  He was having a good time and, yes, he appeared to be a schlemiel of sorts.  He believed he was enthralling the audience by going over the top, but he enthralled no one save Bob.

Together, they were whooping it and each encouraged the other.  I pulled back and noticed, immediately, that my friend Bob was eager to sing with the band.  In Upstate New York, it does often happen that people from the audience go on stage and sing.  But there are tell-tale signs when and when not to do this.  Moreover, it’s always good to have a friend in the band you’re joining.  In this situation there were neither signs nor friends. And my friend, Bob, went into it without any concern hoping his joy and charm would win the day.

But what happened was far from what he imagined. The drummer of the band told him to get off stage and the lead singer gave him dirty looks.   And the older man dancing around the bar started turning off a few of the audience members.  Things looked as if they would get ugly.

But they didn’t.  My friend did all he could to mend things.  It worked, but it didn’t get him on stage so much as in their favor.  What gets me, however, is that my friend kept at it as if there never was a negative moment.  And this blindness, though comic, gives him the title of a living schlemiel.

Following this, I went back to his boat and talked with another friend who keyed me into another kind of living schlemiel: one who has God on his mind and odd ways of relating to Him.   We were looking up at the stars when he said to me that he talks with God.  I asked how and he told me that he would ask questions while looking up at the stars. And for each question, God would answer with a shooting star.  I found this innocent and endearing, but coming from an adult this did seem odd. But isn’t faith a strange thing, too.  And, to be sure, Ruth Wisse notes that the first major literary schlemiel was, in fact, a schlemiel of faith.  That schlemiel comes out of the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.  He is the simpleton who, with simple faith, believes in God.  His simplicity is scoffed at by the educated Jewish world, which, at that time, privileged the Jew who learns over the simple Jew.  The former, they believed, was closer to God. But the Baal Shem Tov – and his grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – thought the contrary.  Their stories bear witness to the spiritual doings of the simpleton.  My friend’s story about his communication with God reminded me of this; to be sure, the model for the literary schlemiel is a real one.  This is something Wisse doesn’t discuss as much.  But in this moment, I felt there is a need for more of this kind of reflection on “living schlemiels.”

If I weren’t a “cosmopolitan hick,” I’m not so sure I would look upon what I was seeing in the ways I do.  To be sure, I feel like Sancho Panza did when he followed Don Quixote.  He felt he could learn something from the fool, and so do I.

Some of my friends teach me about the living schlemiel.  But, to be sure, I can also see this from Chad Derrick’s documentary on (a segment of) my life: Shlemiel.  Every time I screen the film to audiences, I see that this is what the filmmaker – who is also my friend – was trying to accomplish.  And, every time I give the Question and Answer session following the film, I am asked if I am a schlemiel (a living schlemiel).  Perhaps I am.

But I am aware of many of the things I am blind too while my friends may not be.   However, then again, I am not.  We may see things that others don’t see, but we are often blind to ourselves.  You may not know this, but you too may be a schlemiel.  And, if we cared, we would be surprised how many living schlemiels are in our midst.   The question is how to judge them and ourselves.  Do we have anything we can learn from “living schlemiels”?

My friends and the older man I saw the other night reminded me that, though people may laugh or scoff at a schlemiel (of the Jewish or non-Jewish variety), there is something about this character – in fiction and in reality – that is good and worthy of our thought and reflection.   This goodness is something that many German-Jews missed (in their rush to judge the schlemiel as an idiot who should, like all things from the ghetto, be left behind).  But it was recognized by the Hasidim, by many of the Yiddish writers, and by some Jewish-American novelists, filmmakers, and artists.  Now that the times have changed, we need to ask ourselves where this goodness can be found and how it can be found.  These are questions not only for schlemiel-in-theory but for the schlemiel-in-reality.  The living schlemiel…..

Another Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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For the longest time, the claim that someone is a “Self-Hating Jew” has given vent to a lot of attacks on comedians, filmmakers, writers, etc.  It often comes up when something is said by this or that Jew which isn’t, as the saying goes, “good for the Jews.”  And it is often used against people who are radical critics of Israel.  Instead of calling people who claim that this or that person is a self-hating Jew a name, I just want to point out that, although many people may deplore it, it comes from a place of concern.  And that concern 1) emerges out of centuries of oppression and anti-Semitism against Jews (which culminates in the Holocaust) and 2) with the sense that Jews have of themselves as a people which, in spite of all the negativity against them, are proud of their Jewishness.

It would be amiss to think that Jews alone have such a concept and make such accusations.  For instance, the African-American community also has a notion of selling out one’s relation to “blackness.”   A person who leaves it behind is described and defined, most recently, by the MSNBC host, Toure and Eric Dyson, an sociology professor at Georgetown University Michael Eric Dyson in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now.  (To be sure there are countless books on this topic.)    By mentioning this, I don’t wish to excuse the act of accusing this or that person of being a Self-Hating Jew so much as to show its relation to suffering, history, and ethnicity.

In Sander Gilman’s book, the Jews who he includes under the title of (possible) Self-Hating Jews include figures such as Karl Marx, Ludwig Borne, and Heinrich Heine who had a (or some) negative attitude toward their Jewishness (or Jewishness in General) and saw it as a barrier to their assimilation or to progress.  However, most recently Paul Reitter has written a book entitled On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred which traces the origin and genesis of the concept of Jewish Self-Hatred.  He argues that it didn’t begin after the Enlightenment so much as after WWI.  Reitter argues that Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing popularized the term but did so as to actually work through Jewish self-loathing.  However, though this book changes the perspective we may have on the meaning of Jewish Self-Hatred, it also creates a whole new problem for understanding the meaning of the term as used by Sander Gilman and others.  I suggest looking Amos Bitzan’s exceptional review of the book, which explains this problem in more detail.

Reitter and Gilman’s take on Jewish Self-Hatred can help us to better understand what is at stake in understanding Sarah Silverman’s edginess with respect to the claim that she might be a self-hating Jew.  I began and ended my last note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness with a discussion of the Jewish “trait” as it relates to what Sander Gilman and others have called “Jewish Self-Hatred.”  The point I was trying to make is that Silverman is playing with the notion.  And this makes her work, as it pertains to Jews, edgy.  I am certainly not accusing her of being a self-hating Jew.  Rather, I’m pointing out how she evokes herself as a possible target of such an accusation while, at the same time, allaying such suspicions.   Let’s call this moving back and forth from target to non-target her comic strategy.   And her act of employing it may work to diffuse or expose this complex phenomenon.

We see this in the chapter entitled “Jew,” from her quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter.  As I noted in the last entry on this topic,  Silverman begins the chapter by acting ‘as if’ (hence the irony) the editor’s call to have her write on her Jewishness was an embarrassment.  She then goes on to note how she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  Here, she plays on the trait.  However, later in the chapter, she confesses that she cannot not think of herself as Jew; her traits betray her Jewishness:

Growing up, the only way I really sensed I was a Jew was by dint of the fact that everyone around me was not.  My dark features and name both scream “Jew” like an air-raid siren.   Most people in New Hampshire have names like Lisa Bedard (pronounced Beh-daahhd) or Cheryl Dubois (Boo-boyz).  I was the only one with hairy arms and “gorilla legs.” (220).

She then goes on to note that when she was in Third Grade, one boy, Matt Italia, threw “pennies and nickels at her feet” as she “stepped on to the bus.”  In jest Silverman notes that it “wasn’t as bad as it sounds” since she made “52 cents!”  But she doesn’t see Matt’s affront as anti-Semitic; rather, she thinks that Matt and others “were just trying to wrap their heads around the differences between people.  Matt didn’t hate me when he threw change at my feet any more than he loved me when we were boyfriend and girlfriend”(220).

Some people may read this and argue that, in this serious reflection (minus any irony), Silverman doesn’t want to call anti-Semitism by its real name. Regardless, Silverman does admit that she cannot escape her Jewishness.  But it is not the object of hatred so much as a childish confusion over what it means to be different.

In the next section, entitled “Seriously, Though, New Hampshire was not Especially Jewish,” Silverman goes on to talk about yet another way she had a sense that she was Jewish; namely, her difference from Christians.  She notes that she went to Church with her friends on Sundays after “Saturday-night sleepovers” and that sometimes her friends would come to temple.  But, regarding the temple and the church, she notes:

Both places of worship seemed to be these bizarre forums where authority figures told fucked-up ghost stories between spurts of loving encouragement. (221)

Her assessment of religion indicates that, for her, Jewishness (her traits, differences, etc) means more to her than Judaism.  To this end, she notes that, when she was sent to a “local convent” – while her mother went to school to get a degree – she was treated differently than she was in her Jewish home.  There, Silverman learned that she would be punished if she didn’t finish her PBJ sandwich; at home, there was no such pressure. That difference, for her, constitutes some sense of her Jewishness.

The following section, entitled “Unlike Jesus Christ, I am Embraced, Rather Than Murdered, by Jews, for Flapping my Yapper,” employs her strategy of flipping back and forth between making herself a target of Jewish Self-Hatred and effacing it.  The very title bespeaks the claim; namely, that Jews killed Jesus.  This is a claim she plays with in her Jesus is Magic (2005) film.

Silverman turns from Jews and Jesus to speaking explicitly about her Jewishness. She validates it by noting that her sister Susan – who visited Israel, went to seminary, and became a Rabbi – loves Judaism.  And Silverman jokingly notes that the proof of her sister’s love can be found in the fact that her sister added an extra Jewish name (her husband’s) to her own. She became Susan Silverman Abramowitz.

After noting her sister’s turn to Judaism, Silverman notes that she hasn’t pursued Judaism but “the faith has sort of pursued me”(224). But I wouldn’t say Judaism has pursued her so much as Jewisness. She notes that she has now “been deemed ‘good for the Jews’ and from that there seems to be no going back; the Jews have spoken”(224).  By stating this, Silverman is making it clear that she doesn’t think there is any reason why she should be called “self-hating” – after all, she has been “deemed ‘good for the Jews.’”

But here’s the punch line.  Immediately after saying this, she states (ironically):

I could do anything now and I’ll still be considered good for them.  I could, for example, accept Jesus as my lord and savior.  I could deny the Holocaust.  I mean, when you think about it, the proof isn’t exactly overwhelming – what, a couple of trendy arm tattoos and some survivor testimonials filmed by Steven Spielberg?  Um, Steven Speilberg? The guy who made E.T.?

Here, she works out her strategy which is to play around with the Jewish Self-Hatred card.  The punch line, in this statement, is that Silverman uses her charm (she knows about E.T. after all) to get the joke past the gates of Jewish Self-Hatred.

All of these seemingly self-hating jokes, Silverman tells us, are similar to those told by fat people to put people around them at ease about their “differentness”:

The smart fat kid will be the first to make a fat joke as a protection from whatever insults the other kids might hurl at him, and, as a smart Jew, I did likewise.  Joking about my differentness seemed to put the people around me at ease.  Even though I actually knew almost nothing about being a Jew other than that I was one.  (226)

This claim casts another light on her strategy.  Silverman jokes about Jews appeal to allaying fears of others (regarding her “differentness”) and to playing with the claims of Jewish Self-Hatred.

I’ll close with the last section of her “Jew” chapter since this section ends on the note of the trait, which reminds us that Silverman’s Jewishness is still caught up in allying the possible negativity her name, physical traits, etc may evoke. The essence of that negativity would be her Jewishness.

In this section, Silverman turns to the Jewish name change and notes that Winona Ryder changed her name from Winona Horowitz.   She says that the name change was a “sneaky Jewish move” and adds, perhaps pridefully, that she didn’t change her name (231).   Silverman admits that her name may create some “limitations” on the work she would get in Hollywood, New York, etc.  And she can see that there is some bias.

However, Silverman then turns it all around and shows us that the thought she had about not changing her name had nothing to do with pride; rather, she kept her name because the name Silverman sounds less “ethnic and more graceful than Horowitz.”   Following this, she says that she can’t imagine Jon Stewart as Jon Leibowitz. Why?  Because it sounds “too Jewish.”

These statements, of course, may evoke the claim of Jewish Self-Hatred. And she knows it. For this reason, she employs her comic strategy in the last paragraph of the section to allay it all. But the punch line returns us to the Jewish trait and the problem of Jewish Self-Hatred:

Whether I like it or not, I am, at least from the world’s point of view, Jewish.  And yes, I admit I draw on my Jewishness when comically advantageous, though nothing I have even done, or plan to do, will be about advancing any kind of Jewish agenda….Because I have accepted being identified as Jewish, I’ll also have to accept the responsibilities, limitations, and consequences.  If I ever want to get away from that, it’ll be an uphill battle that will require, among other things, a larynx transplant and some major hair removal.  (232)

In the end, it is the physical ethnic trait that identifies Silverman as “Jewish.”  That seems to be the punch line.  Her Jewishness, perhaps to the chagrin of those who make accusations of her being a self-hating Jew, doesn’t seem to be based on pride so much as difference.  And her comic strategy, it seems, plays on these accusations as well as her sense of Jewish difference.  Silverman knows she is targeted, and like many comedians she evokes and plays with this comic targeting in several of her (Jewishly oriented) routines.

A Note on Sarah Silverman’s Jewishness

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Sander Gilman’s book, The Jew’s Body, points out how, since Jews became modern, they were often identified with negative stereotypes based on different body parts such as the nose, the ears, lips, and even the feet.  Jews were also identified with negative psychological traits.  What interests me most about Gilman’s work is not how non-Jews looked at Jews in these ways so much as how Jews have looked at themselves by way of these bodily and psychological stereotypes.   The discomfort some Jews have had with others Jews has to do with the fact that, for them, these Jews would look or act “too Jewish.”  When it is extreme and expresses itself as a form of repulsion, it may be called Jewish Self-Hatred.

Over the last two decades there has been a move by some “New Jew” comedians, artists, and writers to play around with the fine line between humor and “Jewish Self-Hatred.”

An interesting case for seeing how this works itself out today can be found in the comedy of Sarah Silverman.  Oftentimes, she plays on the discomfort she feels about her own Jewishness and the Jewishness of others.

What does Jewishness mean to Sarah Silverman?  There are many different places where Silverman puts her Jewishness at the forefront of her routines.  And if anyone wants to get a sense of this he or she should look at each of these routines and ask a number of important questions.  I can’t touch on all of them in one blog entry, nor do I want to, but I’d like to take a look at least two instances.  And, in future blog entries I will return to this topic and look into more. These reflections are preliminary at best.

Let’s start with Silverman’s cover for Heeb Magazine in which she appears naked beneath a sheet with a hole in it.  The image blandishes an insider joke which involves the urban myth that some Hasidim have sex with their wives through a hole in a sheet.

Playing on this urban myth, and making herself the pornographic target of the Hasid, Silverman is shown naked behind a white sheet with a deviant “bad girl” look on her face.  This suggests much for those who like Louis CK, think of Hasidim, comically, in terms of sexual transgression.  The point of these jokes or images is obviously to go against the grain of what one would think a religious person would do.  Silverman, like Louis CK, is playing up this stereotype for comic affect. This type of image puts Silverman in an adversarial-comic-relation to the Hasidic other and gives us some sense of her Jewishness (which is “modern,” which can poke fun at a “pre-modern” Jewishness).  But, to be sure, the adversarial aspect of this image is effaced by her charm and innocence.   And that’s the trick. The clash between rudeness and innocence is what gives her comedy its “New Jew edginess.”

But it would be amiss to leave out the fact that, historically, Jews in Germany of the 19th and 20th century (before the Holocaust) found Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) of the Hasidic variety to be repulsive, dirty, and smelly.  Gilman and others have written extensively on this topic and one wonders how this historical relation between modern German-Jews and their neighbors in Eastern Europe passes on to American Jews.  Silverman, obviously, doesn’t go as far as they did; but she does find an otherness in them that she, like Woody Allen and others, plays on.  Nonetheless, she does so for a reason: she plays on the otherness of their practice to demarcate a boundary between her Jewishness and sexuality and theirs.

Silverman also tests her “edge” on Jewish Bubbies (grandfather (in Yiddish)  = Zadie; grandmother – Bubbie ) in Florida – as she did in her viral video which promoted President Obama: “The Great Schlep.”

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She begins the video by saying, in a way that plays on anti-Semitism, that (at :35) “if Barack Obama doesn’t get elected President, I’m going to blame the Jews.”  After saying this, we se see an image of a Jewish nose in the right corner of the screen.  The nose is the punch line.

But to make her reading acceptable, she notes the Jewish grandmothers have a lot in common with African-Americans.  Silverman sits between the two on a couch (a very “homely” gesture of American everydayness) and makes the comparisons.  Each of them plays on stereotypes to get a comic affect: some comparisons are harmless; others are not.  They both wear track suits, like Cadillacs, etc.  But, after saying that both the African-American gentleman and the Jewish Bubbie have many friends who are dead, the African-American gentleman leaves the couch.   This joke, she realizes, was shameful.  And this is the point: at one and the same time, the joke-comparison brings up a social-racial issue and then admits to a feeling of guilt.  It’s as if Silverman is defining her Jewishness not just in terms of her being kind-yet-rude but also in terms of her being ashamed and being a supporter of Barack Obama.

More important, however, is the subtext: namely, that Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida don’t get along with African-Americans and need to be convinced if they are to vote for Barack Obama.   But, as the video ends, it is the grand-children who must convince their bubbies in Florida.  And they must, ultimately, do so by way of threats, not reasoning.  (And this implies that the Jewish grandparents are likely to be very stubborn and settled in their ways.)  The threat: If the grandparents don’t vote, they will not be visited this year.

The joke is on them, really.  Silverman’s video is not about the bubbies so much as about the grandchildren who are watching the video; it is their Jewishness, a comic-edgy Jewishness, that she wishes to cultivate and turn toward a political end. But this Jewishness is based on cultivating an awareness of traits and in fostering an attitude which is progressive and political.

I’d like to end this blog-post with a brief reflection on the chapter entitled “Jew” in Silverman’s quasi-autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.  It brings Silverman’s acute awareness of Jewish traits and her own Jewishness to the forefront.

In a chapter entitled “Jew,” Silverman addresses her Jewishness in her characteristic charming-yet-rude quasi-naïve style.  To begin with, her chapter title takes on the negative practice of calling someone a “Jew.”  The one word, with its anti-Semitic history, tells all.   But she plays on this edge by saying she doesn’t know what it means to be Jewish:

I don’t remember if I mentioned this to you before, but I am Jewish.  If my publisher had a sense of decency, they would have printed that disclaimer prominently on the book cover.  Otherwise, how would you necessarily know?  I mean I can’t think of anything about me that really says “Jew!!” (217)

After noting this, she goes immediately to her physical traits and notes that she doesn’t even “look” Jewish.  She points out how, in a visit to Iceland, she “blended in with the Gentile population seamlessly.”  And then, in an allusion to anti-Semitism, she writes “although there was an incident…”   But, as we learn, the incident had nothing to do with her being a Jew so much as her black hair which an “intoxicated Icelandic shepherd mistook” for a scouring pad.

To be sure, Silverman says it flatly (and, of course, ironically): she doesn’t like to be faced with her Jewishness and worries that it will bother the reader:

It’s just not fun to be reading and thoroughly enjoying a book and then you get close to the end and discover that the thing was written by a member of an ethnicity that disgusts you.  I write this chapter somewhat begrudgingly. (217)

But, in the end, she does write and admits not so much to her mission so much as to a Jewish trait she can’t stand:

To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend, or advance the cause of the Jewish people.  Nevertheless, my Jew editor convinced me to write a chapter on Jewishness by using one of our culture’s greatest tools of persuasion: relentless nagging. (218)

Although this is obviously a joke, one cannot walk away from it without asking why it works.  It works because Silverman is banking much of her Jewish comedy on identifying this or that physical trait or habit with Jewishness and mocking it.  Silverman’s discomfort with her own Jewishness makes it “edgy.”  But it also breaches questions as to what Jewishness is. Do we share the same understandings of Jewishness with Silverman and is that why some of us may find her Jewish dis-comfort laughable?  Or do some of us, when reading this, sigh?   Is she making fun of people who feel uncomfortable when Jews talk about Jewishness, is she laughing at herself, or is she half-serious?  Most importantly, why does Jewishness have to reside in this or that Jewish “trait”?  Is Jewish comedy attached to the trait whether it wants to be or not?