Tag: Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi

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 Schlemiel as “Essentially….Existential”

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There are many kinds of Jewish fools and the schlemiel is only one type in the tradition of Jewish humor. However, it is the most popular comic character of all. So whenever someone asks me to define a schlemiel, the easy answer – like the answer Rabbi Hillel gave when he was asked to sum up the entire Torah in one sentence – can be found in a popular joke about a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik. It goes like this: A schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnick sit down for a bowl of soup. The schlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup. The schlemiel assures him that nothing will go wrong as it may have in the past. The schlimazel lets him go. But right about when he is going to give the schlimazel the soup, he trips up and spills the soup on the schlimazel’s lap.   As the schlimazel screams out, the nudnick asks him what kind of soup was spilled on his lap. In this scenario, the schlemiel is the disseminator of bad luck, the shlimazel receives the bad luck, and the nudnick amplifies the bad luck.

Regarding this joke, Ruth Wisse argues that the “schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in it’s confrontation with reality”(14). Wisse’s reading of the joke is peculiar. Since she uses the words “essential” and “existential” (terms that are often kept apart by existentialists who follow the lead of Jean Paul Sartre) in a similar way, she is saying that the “nature” of the schlemiel’s misfortunate “encounter with reality” is “essentially existential.” In other words, bad luck is “essentially” built into the very way the schlemiel “existentially” relates to reality. It is ontological, existential, and, it is Jewish.   Wherever the schlemiel goes, he seems, by virtue of his very relations to existence, to create bad luck for others. But, at the very least, he has good intentions. Regardless, if we take this joke as a paradigm, we would have to say that the schlemiel will always, so to speak, spill soup on some schlimazel (who happens to be in his path) because that’s the way the schlemiel relates to the world.

But is this really the case? Is the schlemiel to be understood, quite simply, as a character who has good intentions yet, in the end, will always be the disseminator of bad luck? And in what way is his comedy “essentially existential”?   Does this concept tell us about Jews in general or Jews in particular?

Although Ruth Wisse explains this classic joke in this way, her argument about the schlemiel in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero gives us a different perspective. To be sure, Wisse notes that this is an American joke not a European one. Does this imply that the European schlemiel is different? Indeed, it does.   To be sure, the American schlemiel is different from it’s European predecessor in many ways. And, I would argue, the American schlemiel has many other variants that don’t fit squarely into this joke or even the European model of the schlemiel (at least, as we shall see, the German-Jewish variant). Indeed, this joke, an American joke, like Hillel’s explanation of Judaism on one leg, does shed some light on the existential nature of the comic character; but it doesn’t do the American or the European schlemiel justice. They seem to be ontologically different. Their “essential existentiality” differs.

Expanding on Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel based on this Jewish-American joke, I’d like to argue that the claim that the schlemiel is an “essentially existential” character and this joke, which evinces an American version of the schlemiel, gives us a lead as to how we can go about understanding this comic character. By looking at this character in terms of it’s existentiality and its geographical and temporal location, we can have a better understanding of what this character means or can mean to us, here, in America.

We are, by virtue of time and place, more familiar with the American schlemiel than the European one. And this joke does shed a little light on the schlemiels we know and love, the popular one’s, which range from Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Barbara Streisand to Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman. All of them, to some extent, seem to spill the soup on somebody (and themselves).   (But what about the less popular schlemiels, the literary schlemiels that fall under the radar; the schlemiels we find in I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, or Bruce Jay Friedman? Is it wise to make a distinction? Are the literary schlemiels more existential than the popular ones? And if so, how?)

Drawing on the schlemiel’s popularity for American Jews, Sidrah Ezrahi claims that in America the schlemiel is a “cultural icon.” But, more importantly, she argues that the schlemiel is at the core of something larger; namely, the Jewish-American, diasporic imagination. Using the well-worn term “diaspora,” she suggests that Jewish-American identity is in some way existentially connected to this comic character. (Strangely enough, the only scholars who have written on Booking Passage have missed this key detail.)

What makes Ezrahi’s reading so thought-provoking is that it’s existential-ontological meaning is based on a historical and geographical distinction between Israel and America. Taking Philip Roth’s Portnoy as her cue, Ezrahi argues that American Jews are essentially schlemiels while Israelis are essentially not. The basis for Israeli identity is history and land; while for American-Jews the basis of Jewish-American identity is virtual. The validity of this distinction needs to be tested and it’s meaning understood. We need not accept her reading and, to be sure, we can learn a lot from it since she is the only person in “schlemiel theory” who has defined American Jews as schlemiels by way of an interpretation that, in many ways, draws from existentialism and phenomenology. To be sure, Ezrahi takes up where Wisse leaves off with her claim that schlemiels are “essentially existential.”

Pajama Boy, The (New) Schlemiel, and Obamacare

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When I woke up this morning I noticed an article by Politico (which is not a right-wing publication) that registered a high frequency on my schlemiel radar.  The words that caught my attention were in its headline: “Pajama Boy, An Insufferable Man-Child.”   The article was written in response to an ad tweeted by “Organizing for America,” a group that has been putting out ads in support of Obamacare.   The ad has been responded to by the likes of Chris Christie who tweeted – in one of several tweets – that he should “get out of his pajamas and get a job.”  And George Will, a well-known conservative who writes for the Washington Post called this an expression of the Democratic party.

Organizing for America was obviously shooting for a large demographic which emulates the man-child; that is, the schlemiel.  To be sure, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi writes in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the The Modern Jewish Imagination, the schlemiel has become a “cultural icon.”  Daniel Itzkovitz has also noted this trend in his essay “They Are All Jews” and points out that the “new schlemiel” is the “everyman.”

The people on Morning Joe on MSNBC found it – like America finds many “new schlemiels” – very funny.

Regarding this tweeted ad, Lowry of Politico writes:

Pajama Boy is about as threatening as Michael Cera and so nerdy he could guest-host on an unwatched MSNBC show. He is probably reading The Bell Jar and looking forward to a hearty Christmas meal of stuffed tofurkey. If he has anything to say about it, Obamacare enrollments will spike in the next few weeks in Williamsburg and Ann Arbor.

Lowry’s characterization is trying to dig up the stereotype that would appeal to a certain demographic.  And this demographic is one that finds great interest in the everyman as the new schlemiel.  He likens the subject to “Michael Cera,” who isn’t Jewish and isn’t cast as a Jew in any films; indeed, Michael Cera and “pajama man” are new schlemiels.  Indeed, many characters in Portlandia or Big Bang Theory qualify as “new schlemiels.”

Nonetheless, Jay Michaelson recently wrote a piece for the Forwards suggesting that the characterization of the Pajama Boy as a “man-child” (Michaelson, strangely enough doesn’t use the word “schlemiel”) was a negative characterization that draws on what he would call “fascistic” stereotypes of Jews-as-schlemiels (effeminate males):

In fact, Pajama Boy stands at a centuries-old nexus of anti-Semitism and misogyny. As scholars including Sander Gilman and Daniel Boyarin have shown, Jewish men have been accused of being unmanly for hundreds of years – including by other Jews, such as the early Zionists, whose muscular Judaism was a direct response to diaspora Jewish emasculation. This is an old, old motif.

The Jew is the Other is the Effeminate is the Liberal. He is the urbanite, the parasite, the usurer, the lawyer. His effeminacy corrupts the Volk or the Heartland or the real American values. He wouldn’t know how to drive a pick-up truck if it was on cruise control. And he definitely votes for Obama.

While I can understand what Michaelson is getting at, I think he is going to far.  He claims that the Pajama Boy – because of his looks – signifies as a Jew and that the Right thinks of all progressives, unconsciously, as Jews.

These last words go a little too far and go beyond politics to suggest anti-Semitism on the part of the Right.  It suggests that any characterization of the man-child draws on this age-old stereotype – that emerged by and large out of Germany – that was leveled against Jews.  I will quote them at length:

Normal human beings are gentiles. They spit or smoke tobacco, they speak plainly, and they are manly men who don’t wear pajamas, don’t raise their eyebrows, don’t support affordable healthcare, and definitely don’t flay their arms around like Woody Allen. Or Shylock. Real men. Not Jews.

Whether or not the Pajama-Boy bashers are unconsciously anti-Semitic or not, I don’t know. Consciously, they are against everything “Judaism” stands for, at least as construed by its enemies: outsiderness, cosmopolitanism, liberalism, a progressive rather than nativist agenda, an opposition to the notion that there is one kind of “normal” person, a sympathy for the underdog and the immigrant as opposed to the successful and the privileged, and, yes, a rejection of a certain gendered, masculinist understanding of justice wherein the strong survive and the weak are trampled underfoot like the untermenschen they are.

That fascistic outlook has long been a part of far-right conservatism – whether in revisionist Zionism, contemporary French/Hungarian/Greek nationalism, American Republicanism, or German fascism. Real men are strong, and the weak don’t deserve our pity. Let them get sick for lack of healthcare; they probably deserve it. And as for women, and the parasitic “Jewish” men who resemble them? They are to be suppressed and domesticated, not empowered. Patriarchy is good. Sexism is natural. Get out of your onesies, America. And put on your jackboots.

While I think there is some truth to what Michaelson is saying (since there is a history of negatively characterizing Jews as effeminate, schlemiels; and I have written on this, extensively), the fact of the matter is that the “ideal of work” (which he calls patriarchal) is at the core of the right’s characterization.  But I wouldn’t call this fascistic.  And do “they” deplore “everything a Jew stands for?”  Do they hate Jews like they hate liberalism?  Do Jews = Liberalism?  Do Jews = Progressivism?

The fact of the matter is that the effeminate male, the nerd, is the new schlemiel.  But many new schlemiels work and are successful.  All of the nerds, for instance, in a show like Big Bang Theory may have their trials and tribulations with sexuality, but they will all likely be successful.  (The new schlemiel is not necessarily a slacker, despite some (not all) of Judd Apatow’s characterizations.)  And the whole country right and left knows this.  The problem is tactical.  The ad campaign made a big mistake in producing this character in pajamas which, obviously, would suggest that he is a “dependent” child.

Regardless, I think it is problematic for Michaelson to present things in this manner as it suggests that half of this country hates Jews and thinks of all Jews as progressive man-children.  The connotation of the man-child who doesn’t work and isn’t a “real-man” is a problematic, obviously.  But, if we are going to go there, then are we going to slight Woody Allen and his latest films or Judd Apatow and his for giving in to patriarchal fascism?  After all, at the end of most of their films, the man-child becomes a man.

I find this problematic.  But I wouldn’t call it fascism or even anti-Semitic.  If anything, it denotes a move away from the “little failure” (as Gary Shteyngart calls himself) to a success. This tension is what defines America, today.  It’s the tension that is produced by the schlemiel.  I notice it.  I try not to politicize it.

So when I saw the tweets, the right-wing responses, and Michaelson’s reaction, I decided to step back and present it the whole spectrum.  What we have here, as I have argued, is an America that is coming to grips with the “new schlemiel.” Its not Jewish so much as the “everyman.”  The question that this ad evokes is the question of what it means to be a young American.  What does it mean that some people see themselves through Duck Dynasty while others see themselves through Portlandia or Big Bang Theory?    What happens when people watch both programs?  Are they confused about whether or not they are an American schlemiel?

Regardless, I want to be careful and say that the equation may be with progressivism and not with pajama-boy-as-Jew.  Although I had the brief thought that the Pajama Boy was a Jew  and was tempted by it, it occurred to me that this is a new schlemiel, not an old one (that emerged out of Germany, and NOT Eastern Europe).  And I would suggest that we don’t use the word ‘fascism” and make such comparisons.  Its not the right tact.

We need to find another language for this, one that doesn’t enter into the register of anti-Semitism and suggest that America has more in common with Nazi Germany than ever in its characterizations of the “pajama boy.”

Yes, this is – in major part – a masculinity issue that emerges out of a country that wants to see itself, once again, as a nation at work, not on vacation.  If that’s fascist, anti-Semitic, and patriarchal, what does that imply about Communist social-realism or the images that progressives in this country used to signify what it means to be an American?

In other words: how does the new schlemiel fit into the American image? And how do we characterize these kinds of reactions?  Is it right to make analogies of Nazi Germany and to argue that the negative schlemiel stereotype (the Jew as man-child) is at work, today?

Sarah Silverman, Hannah Arendt, and “The Old/New Lord of Dreams”

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Last night, before I went to sleep, I noticed that Sarah Silverman had Tweeted something that had schlemiel written all over it.

Why?

In Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Jew as Pariah: The Hidden Tradition,” Arendt argues that Heinrich Heine’s schlemiel initiates the “hidden tradition” of the Pariah.  Heinrich Heine, argues Arendt, was the first notable Modern German-Jewish poet to popularize the schlemiel in Germany.   According to Arendt, this happens in his Hebrew Melodies poems where we learn of the “lord of dreams” which is another name for the poet who is attached to nature and the world of dreams (which it fosters) but not fully to the world (not to “life life”).

Strangely enough, Arendt sees the model for this in Heine’s description of the Jewish Sabbbath and – in particular – in relation to the song “lecha dodi.”  Through the song, sung to welcome the Sabbath, the Jews are transformed:

In his poem, Princess Sabbath, the first of his Hebrew Melodies, Heinrich Heine depicts for us the national background from which he sprang and which inspired his verses. He portrays his people as a fairy prince turned by witchcraft into a dog. A figure of ridicule throughout the week, every Friday night he suddenly regains his mortal shape, and freed from the preoccupations of his canine existence (von huendischen Gedanken), goes forth like a prince to welcome the sabbath bride and to greet her with the traditional hymeneal, Lecha Dodi.

Arendt tells us that this is the only “positive” aspect of Judaism that Heine can find and, to be sure, he uses it for poetic purposes:

This poem, we are informed by Heine, was especially composed for the purpose by the people’s poet-the poet who, by a stroke of fortune, escapes the grueling weekly transformation of his people and who continually leads the sabbath-like existence which is to Heine the only positive mark of Jewish life.

Out of this figure, Heine creates the schemiel (spelled shlemihl in the German).  The transformation of the Jew from a dog to a prince foreshadows the task of the “lord of dreams” since the transformation is a way of telling the world to go to hell.  And for Heine, this is accomplished by the schlemiel poet.

As Arendt notes, by way of her schlemiel genealogy, the schlemiel has no “heroic deeds” to boast of; rather, his greatest trait is his “noble heart.”  To explain what this means, Arendt notes the schlemiel-poet’s “innocence.”  And, in her translation, the secret of the schlemiel’s innocence is not Phoebus Apollo but Rabbi Faibusch (the last name is a comic play on the Greek Phoebus):

Innocence is the hall-mark of the schlemihl. But it is of such innocence that a people’s poets-its “lords of dreams”-are born. No heroes they and no stalwarts, they are content to seek their protection in the special tutelage of an ancient Greek deity. For did not Apollo, that “inerrable godhead of delight,” proclaim himself once for all the lord of schlemihls on the day when-as the legend has it-he pursued the beauteous Daphne only to receive for his pains a crown of laurels? To be sure, times have changed since then, and the transformation of the ancient Olympian has been described by Heine himself in his poem The God Apollo. This tells of a nun who falls in love with that great divinity and gives herself up to the search for him who can play the lyre so beautifully and charm hearts so wondrously. In the end, however, after wandering far and wide, she discovers that the Apollo of her dreams exists in the world of reality as Rabbi Faibusch (a Yiddish distortion of Phoebus), cantor in a synagogue at Amsterdam, holder of the humblest office among the humblest of peoples.

The schlemiel, Arendt tells us, is “the peoples poet”; he is not the poet of the nouveau rich and the parvenu.  On the contrary, he, like the people, are outsiders in a fake society ruled by lies and posturing.  Moreover, the schlemiel stands with the people and with nature, not with culture:

It is but natural that the pariah, who receives so little from the world of men that even fame (which the world has been known to bestow on even the most abandoned of her children) is accounted to him a mere sign of schlemihldom, should look with an air of innocent amusement, and smile to himself at the spectacle of human beings trying to compete with the divine realities of nature. The bare fact that the sun shines on all alike affords him daily proof that all men are essentially equal. In the presence of such universal things as the sun, music, trees, and children-things which Rahel Varnhagen called “the true realities” just because they are cherished most by those who have no place in the political and social world-the petty dispensations of men which create and maintain inequality must needs appear ridiculous.

Arendt’s rhetoric makes it clear that the schlemiel, the “lord of dreams” stands on the side of the “true realities” because they are politically excluded.  In other words, they have no choice but to dream because they have no place in the world which, with all of its inequalities, appears “ridiculous.”

Can we say the same of Sarah Silverman?  In her tweet, she says that she is “crazy busy with dream life.” That’s where her real work is: in the dream world and in producing dreams.  She has “very little time for life life.”  She seems to be telling us that she is the old/new Lord of Dreams.

But here’s the catch.  Arendt believed the Schlemiel would no longer be necessary once the Jews were allowed to live in a world as equals.  At the point, Jews would no longer have to dream.  And Sidra Ezrahi, in Booking Passage, has argued that, while in exile, the schlemiel was appealing because it provided Jews (who were the losers of history) with a “substitute sovereignty.”  But now, after the establishment of Israel, that no longer seems necessary as real sovereignty is within reach.  However, Ezrahi notes that, though things have changed, American artists and writers still insist on what she calls the “trope of diaspora.” In lieu of this, she sees America as fertile soil since it is the “land of dreams.”  And in this virtual world, which comes straight out of Hollywood, the Lords, so to speak, are the “Lords of Dreams.”

What can we take out from this?

Perhaps Sarah Silverman gives evidence that supports Ezrahi’s argument about America and schlemiels.  If that is the case, what does it imply?  Isn’t it the case that the Lord of Dreams passes back and forth between the world of dreams and the world of reality?  Isn’t the schlemiel, the poet of the people who, like the schlemiel, feel like they are in the middle?

If this is the case, perhaps we can say that Arendt was wrong when she said that Superman replaced Charlie Chaplin (the last in her line of schlemiel-pariahs in the “hidden tradition”).  In my book and here, on this blog, I am venturing this possibility.

But we need to ask ourselves, whether or not Sarah Silverman is the schlemiel-poet-of-the-people and whether we can still say that she, like Heine’s Lord of Dreams, speaks from the angle of nature and the people.  Perhaps she speaks from a land of dreams that has no relation to the political or to a utopian dream that nature and culture merge.  Perhaps her work is to dream and nothing more nor less than that.

Perhaps she is just a woman-child, who lives somewhere in-between dreams and reality:

 

 

 

The Schlemiel and the Sabra or Portnoy’s Final Complaint

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In The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and Jewish American Literature, Sanford Pinsker devotes an entire chapter to the work of Phillip Roth.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Although the chapter is dedicated to Phillip Roth, the majority of the chapter is on Roth’s most popular and controversial novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.  For Pinsker, the other two novels that are mentioned in the last part of the chapter –  The Ghost Writer and Counterlife – do not so much illustrate the schlemiel as put forth a new type of postmodern novel that emerged after Portnoy’s Complaint.  Pinsker suggests that these novels were not so much about the schlemiel as an attempt to leave the schlemiel behind for the novel within the novel and writing as such.

One of the most interesting elements of Pinsker’s treatment of Portnoy’s Complaint is the evidence he marshals to prove that Portnoy is a schlemiel.  Pinsker stages his argument by pointing out Portnoy’s favorite pastimes: masturbation and mouthing off.    To be sure, Portnoy violates all decorum by speaking in detail about his masturbation and mentioning all the places he has left his semen.  Ruth Wisse and Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi would argue that this “mouthing off” is an important trait of the schlemiel. Portnoy’s words give him, as Wisse would say, an “ironic victory.”  But, for Pinsker, this isn’t the only thing that makes Portnoy a schlemiel.

Rather, the key trait of the schlemiel can be found in Portnoy’s memory of failure: “What he remembers most, however, about these masturbatory binges are his darkly comic failures.  In this regard, none is more spectacular that his disastrous episode with Bubbles Girardi.”

As Pinsker recounts, Bubbles made a deal with Portnoy’s friend Smolka to “jerk off one of his friends.”  However, there are two conditions:  1) the individual will have to leave his pants on and 2) she will “count fifty strokes” and no more.  Portnoy is elected to receive the “prize” but “the result is comic schlemiel hood of the first water”(149).

What Pinsker finds comic is that Portnoy is brought right to climax, but Bubbles stops at 50 strokes.  Portnoy cries out:

JUST ONE MORE! I BEG OF YOU! TWO MORE! PLEASE! N-O!”

Portnoy reflects on his failure and decides that he’ll have to finish the job whereupon he cums in his eye: “I reach down and grab it, and POW!  Only right in my eye.”

The greatest insights in Pinsker’s book on the schlemiel – and in his chapter on Roth – follow upon this passage.

Pinsker notes that “Portnoy’s sexual antics are the stuff of which Borsht Belt stand-up is made, but as he keeps on insisting, this is no Jewish joke, no shpritz (machine gun spray of comic material”(150).

And this is the ironic denial that makes him a schlemiel.  Roth is doing Schlemiel Stand Up.  Unlike Lawrence or Joyce, Pinsker tells us that Roth doesn’t take his failures with a “high seriousness”(150). Rather, Roth is a tumbler (an acrobat of sorts): “Roth reduces to the anxious flip.  The cunning of history is to blame here; when Portnoy shouts “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN THE YID! The effect dovetails a domesticated Freudianism into the jazzy stuff of popular culture”(150).

What does Pinsker mean by this “jazzy stuff of popular culture?”  Pinsker notes that what Roth has popularized and made comic is the stuff of tragedy: guilt.  And who else but Franz Kafka is the teacher of how to make guilt a comic affair.  To be sure, Roth said this in his book Reading Myself and Others (1975).  There, he notes that he got his stand-up routine from a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka: “I was strongly influenced by a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka and a very funny bit he does called ‘The Metamorphosis’… Not until I got hold of guilt, you see, as a comic idea, did I begin to feel myself lifting free and clear of my last book (Portnoy’s Complaint) and my old concerns”(150).

Pinsker uses this line as evidence that Roth may have come from Kafka and he may practice the schlemiel, but he wants to lift himself “free and clear” of this character.  For Pinsker, all of Roth’s future books were more mature while Portnoy’s Complaint was all about “enjoying being bad.”  Portnoy’s kvetch, his complaint, and his enjoyment of being bad differ, Pinsker tells us, from Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” since Portnoy is not the man in the sense that Whitman portrayed himself to be.  He is afflicted by his own misfortunes and guilt.  Whitman is guilt free, Roth is not.  Here, Pinsker suggests that Portnoy’s mouthing off doesn’t change his reality.  He is still caught up in his masturbatory dreams and his guilt, which he can’t seem to escape.  His stand-up comedy doesn’t make a difference.  It seems, more or less, like impotent rage.

What Pinsker overlooks, however, is the fact that Portnoy’s greatest humiliation – his greatest and final complaint – comes at the end of the book with Naomi, the Sabra (native Israeli).   This time, he gets to sleep with a woman.  But before he does, he comes to realize that he is no match for her.  This dialogue brings out the crux of the new Jewish-American schlemiel who lives in the shadow of the Sabra.

Naomi deftly describes the difference in her characterization of Portnoy’s stand-up routine in which self-ridicule is the most prominent feature:

You seem to take some pleasure, some pride, in making yourself the butt of your own peculiar sense of humor.  I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life.  Everything this somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny’  All day long the same thing.  In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-deprecating. (264)

After Naomi goes on to discuss how powerlessness got Jews nowhere, Portnoy says, flat out: “Wonderful.  Now let’s fuck.”

In response, Naomi calls him “disgusting” and then they engage in a name-calling match in which Naomi puts the nail in the coffin by calling him a schlemiel.  Notice that in the following, “Schlemiel!” (in italics) is the final word:

“Right! You’re beginning to get the point, gallant Sabra!  You go be righteous in the mountains, okay? You go be a model for mankind!  Fucking Hebrew saint!” “Mr. Portnoy, “ she said…”You are nothing but a self-hating Jew.” “Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.” “Coward!” “Tomboy.” “Schlemiel!” (265)

Portnoy, cursing under his breath says, “I’ll show her who’s the schlemiel!”  But he fails, sexually. He’s impotent.

As you can see from these lines, Naomi has the last word. And that word is schlemiel. She is strong and he, a man, is weak. What we have here with Naomi is the new, Israeli Jew (which scholars like Daniel Boyarin, David Biale, and others discuss at length).  In the face of Naomi, the Sabra, all Portnoy has for power is his wittiness and vulgarity.  But the irony is obvious.  Roth is showing that Portnoy’s words are no substitute for her physical power.  Rather, his wittiness differs and competes with her power.  And, like any schlemiel it loses in the end.  What remains in the aftermath of all his verbal acrobatics is his failure.  (The acrobatics metaphor which I mentioned in my last blog on Beckett and Federman fits well here.)

Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi interprets the meaning of Portnoy’s failure in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination.  Ezrahi notes that Portnoy explicitly confesses to his loss when he sings a self-depricating song, which he has created for this specific situation of failure: “Im-po-tent in Israel, da, da, da”(226).  Ezrahi’s interpretation of this moment of failure is telling.

On the one hand, Ezrahi says that the novel demarcates the “very moment when the schlemiel as cultural hero is superceded by what the critics of Zionism call the “tough Jew,” when “images of Jewish wimps and nerds are being supplanted by those of the hardy, bronzed kibbitznik, the Israeli paratrooper, and the Mossad agent.”   On the other hand, she notes that in Roth’s later novel Operation Shylock the schlemiel becomes a competitor: “What has happened to turn powerlessness into a competing cultural claim and Diaspora into the most authentic and secure form of Jewish existence?”(226).

The lines that follow this question, however, demonstrate that Ezrahi doesn’t believe Roth’s project has left the schlemiel behind. The claims he makes in Operation Shylock are still based on powerlessness:  “Once again Roth’s hero is defeated in Israel, but this time in a battle, fought with weapons – the pen and the sword – no less phallic but more consequential.  Israel has become the place where Reality writ large has the same affect on the psyche as Naomi did on the libido”(226-7).

In other words, Roth’s characters are still schlemiels but now Exile, “redefined as “Diaspora,” is no longer limited to the realm of therapy (as it was for Portnoy) but extends to the much larger realm of fiction.”

Fiction and not the libido becomes the resevoir of the dream and fantasy while Isreal becomes Reality (Israel IS-REAL) or the reality principle.  This contrast shows that, for Ezrahi, the schlemiel’s battle is not simply psychological as it was with Naomi.  Portnoy’s problem may be psychological, but the narrator and main character of Operation Shylock – whose names all happen to be Phillip Roth – have a problem with Israel.  In other words, their Jewish identity is ruptured by its very existence.

But, to be sure, we also see that this problem exists in Portnoy as well.  His problem is not merely psychological.  After all, he tries to call Naomi names so as to show he is more powerful, but it is to no effect.  Reading Ezrahi’s take on Roth, one cannot help but think that Roth is fully aware that he is on the side of the dream; and the side of the dream, as even Roth suggests, will always be the side of guilt and failure.

If Roth takes his task from Kafka, as Pinsker tells us, Ezrahi’s observation is very telling.  Roth admits that he saw Kafka as a “sit-down” comedian who took the tragic notes out of guilt by making guilt comical.  As Pinsker argued, Roth believed that by writing he would eventually be done with guilt and the schlemiel. But as Ezrahi argues, this project, inevitably failed.  Why?

For Ezrahi, this project to leave schlemiel-hood can never be completed since there is a competing claim; namely, the claim of reality (the claim of Israel). And this claim demonstrates that the real basis for the schlemiel, for Ezrahi, is the difference between dreams and reality (or as she puts it, Exile and Homecoming).  For her, language, without a land, provides (and has, traditionally, provided) nourishment for the exiled Jew.  The schlemiel’s words, as Wisse would argue, give people a sense of dignity in the face of failure.  But, as Ezrahi suggests, fiction, like the schlemiel, can’t stop dreaming.  Given these premises, I would suggest that Ezrahi can argue that Roth is not simply a schlemiel in the sense that he doesn’t know what is going on in reality.  No.  He is a guilty schlemiel.  We see this above, in the citations from Portnoy’s Complaint.  He, so to speak, enjoys his symptom.

Ezrahi suggests that in Operation Shylock Roth makes it explicit that he may fight with Israel but, ultimately, he will always be a comic failure.  His identity, as a Jewish-American writer will be ruptured.  He knows that his homeland is in a text while being cognizant that Israel is now a reality.  Ezrahi suggests that he knows that he has refused history in the name of fiction.   But do Jewish-American writers share this awareness?  Are they, like Kafka and other pre-Israel schlemiels, not able to properly enter history? To be sure, as a result of this failure, which they were not fully responsible for, Ezrahi tells us that they had to live in a “substitute” land with a “substitute” sovereignty. Today, Ezrahi argues, one no longer has to do this. A Jew can go home and “recover” their history.   But writers like Roth consciously opt not to.  And this opting-not-to constitutes their comical identity.   So, today, the schlemiel and its comic relationship with guilt remains but now it has a different basis.

What amazes me most about all of this is that what Roth and Ezrahi both seem to be saying is that to be an American Jew –and to resort to a constructed identity, fiction, and dreams – is to be a schlemiel.  Ezrahi calls this a “diasporic privilege.”  Based on this logic, one can say that living an ironic, schlemiel-like existence is a “guilty” pleasure that is had at the expense of returning to the land.  American Jews, as schlemiels, enjoy their symptom.   Now, being a schlemiel has a price; but before Israel was Real (for many before 1967), being a schlemiel was, as Ruth Wisse argues, necessary for Jewish survival.

For Ezrahi, Jews are forced to answer a question: What side are you on?  On the side of Portnoy or Naomi the Sabra?   One can brazenly be a schlemiel and deny any guilt, but at what price?  This, I think, is one of the main questions Ezrahi wants American-Jews to ponder.  Unfortunately, no scholar I have met who has read Ezrahi has figured it out.  For some strange reason, they miss this question and, instead, think Ezrahi is praising Diaspora.  This misreading, though unfortunate, is telling.

I won’t make this misreading.  I’m here to ask this question and to reflect on what it means.  Should I read Roth as she does – in terms of his comic acknowledgment of a guilt that is based on saying no to Israel?  Or should I consider myself to be a “New Jew” (see David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s book New Jews: The End of Diaspora, who, according to these authors, is not bound by the distinction of Diaspora and Homecoming)?

What better time to pose this question than today on the 65th Anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948?  Ezrahi has every right to ask us to ponder such guilt since she lives in  Israel and knows full well that there is a difference between being Jewish in Israel and being Jewish in America.  I do not see it from her perspective.

I read and write about the schlemiel, but with a difference.  As an American-Jew, I understand that with Israel’s existence, my enjoyment of the schlemiel can be thought of as a guilty pleasure.  And I clearly understand that her reading hinges on Jewish history.  If an American Jew thinks he or she is beyond the dream of having a land of his or her own, he or she is thinking ahistorically.  Though this is possible, and happens often enough (since, unlike Phillip Roth, many Jews lack an acute sense of what is at stake with Israel or how they are a part of a long history of Exile), one needs to ask oneself what is at stake if we totally lose our “Jewish guilt” which, today, is not tied to anything primordial but, quite simply, to Israel.  Can a Jew simply leave the schlemiel behind, which, for Ezrahi, would suggest that one leaves Israel and history behind?  Or are Jewish American novelists – like Shalom Auslander or Nathan Englander (to name only two) – willing to embrace this character and its ironic relationship with the Isreal?  Will the schlemiel remain, regardless of what we do, since Israel and America will most likely remain the two primary places where Jews live and dream?

These questions should trouble American Jews and be so troubling as to make us complain a little and realize the situation we are faced with.  Perhaps, for American Jews -in general – and Jewish-American writers – in particular -Israel is or will be the Final Complaint (as it was for Portnoy and for the author of Operation Shylock)?