Jackie Mason, the American Comedian, made a career of lampooning Jewish traits; one of these being how impractical Jews generally tend to be. One of the gags he made, when I caught his London show in the early 1990’s, was: “How does a Jew know when it is time to sell a car? When the ashtray is full!” I am not quite sure what non-Jews make of this but Mrs Ericle certainly gets it. Coming from New Zealand, where it is commonplace to run into folk who have literally built their own homes, she has a scathing estimation of my DIY capabilities. On one occasion I drilled a hole through a door when attempting to put up a coat-hook. On another, while putting up a shelf, I turned round to speak with her with the drill still turning and she claimed she felt the drill on her arm. I am now prohibited, for all time, from using any such electrical equipment. After many years of living with me the Yiddish word ‘Schlemiel’ is not unknown in her vocabulary.
I am indebted to my Harpendon Reader who, when I mentioned that I was writing this article, lent me a copy of A Treasury Of Jewish Folklore that she had gained as prize (The Raie Freeman Memorial Prize, noch – or should that be ‘och’) at her Glaswegian Sunday School. This worthy compilation informs that the first mention of the term ‘Schlemiel’ occurs in the story of Peter Schlemihl (1813), a man who sold his own shadow. The informative tome goes on to describe a Schlemiel as one “who has absolutely no skill in coping with any situation in life … forever getting in his own and everybody else’s way and spoils everything he attempts”. Yup, I can relate to that!
Fortunately for the Schlemiels of this world, that descriptor is not one entirely imbued with deprecation. There is a lot of sympathy for Schlemiels; after all their affliction is depicted as being much more of a genetic kind rather than one acquired through choice and neglect, as per Jackie Mason’s generalisations. Now, I don’t entirely buy into this, as I believe that if my own dear father – or mother, for that matter – had possessed a tool shed in which they pottered about and included me in such occupations I, no doubt, would have a far greater understanding of the difference between of wood-boring drill bit and and a masonry one. Surely the association of practical incompetence is much more a result the historical consequences of the Wandering Jew who resorted to commerce as a result of restrictions and imprimata placed upon him?
I would contend – and do so, strongly, as will be my wont – that, in almost every case, humour is a mask for something else. The current plethora of stand-up comedians speaks to this. These are mostly quite a different ilk to Norman Wisdom & Harry Worth whom I loved so much in the 1960s. I may be doing a mis-service to Wisdom & Worth, but if they offered us some form of social comment it was very coincidental to their role as humour producers. On the other hand, the next decade brought us Tom Lehrer and Lenny Bruce, who were in the business of offering us something quite different: humour derived from pointed social and political comment. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Lehrer and Bruce were Jewish in origin. Though quite different comedians, both of them espoused and expressed the very essence of ‘Schlemieldom’ – that truths have precedents and consequences. The Schlemiel can be nothing but what he is, because of his past. But that to see him solely on that dimension, is to fail to see – wittingly or unwittingly – what his character really has to offer. This observation deserves to be treated with a certain amount of gravitas and I am not surprised to find, from digging around the Web, the existence of some academic consideration on this topic:
Perhaps Jewish ‘humour’ began when somebody wondered if maybe, just for once, God could choose someone else! Or, perhaps, Jewish humour was never really humor in the ordinary sense of the word; rather, it was a weapon in the uphill battle for survival. With no land or army of its own–with none of the rights normally given to citizens–staying alive as a people was a decidedly open question.
[Source: The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Fiction]
Seen in this light The Schlemiel – restricted and under-powered – turns themself into a figure of self-mockery in order to take a swipe at his oppressor. The above study continues to suggest that this is an act of turning inwards in order to establish one’s own humanity by comic extensions of universal follies, leaning on Freud’s observation:
The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may explain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes… have grown up on the soil of the Jewish popular life. They are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics…. I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.
[Source: Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious]
Some have gone even further in their attachment of importance and consequence to the character of The Schlemiel, seeing its notion within the very bedrock of the State Of Israel. This line of reasoning suggests that the dialectic tension inherent in The Schlemiel evidences the twin poles of the Jewish historic reality: the Diaspora Jew and the Zionist. This line of thinking has its parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement with its referencing of the colonial past to support 21st century demands. In both of these phenomena the sources of contemporary strengths are born from the embers of disempowerment.
Just this Friday when perambulating in fine weather with my Alexandra Palace Reader, I mentioned to him that I have a bagel-cutter on my Amazon wish list. His incredulous reply was: “Good grief, why don’t you just get yourself a sharp knife”. Clearly he is not a Schlemiel! (He also isn’t Jewish. Strange that?). Talking about bagels and Schlemiels, I will end with this bit of humour I found in A Treasury Of Jewish Folklore:
Business was going from bad to worse for the baker of bagels. He began to lose his appetite and he worried so much that he could not fall asleep. One night, as he and his wife lay in bed, he asked, “Sarah, are you asleep.” “If I were asleep would I hear you?” “It looks bad, Sarah. The bagel business will be our ruin yet”. “What’s the trouble?” “There is no profit in bagels. If I make the hole big – my, what a lot of dough it takes to go round the hole!” “Nu, so you make the hole small.” “It’s easy for you to say!” snorted the husband. “If I make the hole small, what a lot of dough it takes to fill the bagel!”
Oy Vey Iz Mir!