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Schlemiels – a couple of notes

June 18, 2012

Do we have any Jewish literature for young adults in New Zealand??? I’m not aware of it… which is interesting… but anyway…

Some notes on schlemiels:

A traditionally Yiddish character, whose traits were developed in response to ghetto life, modern schlemiels are familiar from television’s Maxwell Smart or film’s Woody Allen (as well as Marcelo Birmajer’s writing). The schlemiel is the master of failure and the victim of circumstance, but always also, in some way, the unwitting author of his own demise)…

The Schlemiel as Metaphor establishes that the schlemiel character, like the “hero,” has been with us always – beginning with the Bible and developing into a comic literary figure of major importance – and at no time more popular than he is today.  One of the reasons for this, Sanford Pinsker feels, is the “failure appeal” of the schlemiel – that as our society becomes increasingly competitive, stories about failures have a way of giving reassurance all around.[1]

“… the schlemiel is also used as the symbol of an entire people in its encounter with surrounding cultures and its opposition to their opposition.  Though the Jewish fool began as a typical prankster and wit in the Middle Ages, his utility as a metaphor for European Jewry was later perceived by the folk and its formal writers.  Vulnerable, ineffectual in his efforts at self-advancement and self-preservation, he emerged as the archetypal Jew, especially in his capacity of potential victim.[2]

[1] Back cover (Harry Moore?): Pinsker, S. (c1971). The Schlemiel as Metaphor; Studies in the Yiddish and American Jewish Novel.Carbondale and Edwardsville, SouthernIllinoisUniversity Press.

[2] Pp4-5 Wisse, R. R. (1971). The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.Chicago &London, TheUniversity ofChicago Press.

Another note (though I forget which book Wisse was referring to…)… 

“The ending is also typical of schlemiel conclusions in that the character’s salvation, not his benevolence, is its exclusive concern.  The saint is concerned for others and is canonized for his ability to affect attitudinal or substantive change.  … Salvation for the schlemiel, to the contrary, is always partial and personal.  He does not affirm the objective presence of goodness, but merely the right and the need to believe in it as one component of the human personality.[1]

[1] P98 Wisse, R. R. (1971). The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press.

Note also:

Len Bell and Diana Morrow (Eds)  Jewish Lives in New Zealand (Random House)


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