The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction

The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction

The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction

The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction


The certainty that deep down we are all schlemiels is perhaps what makes America love an inept ball team or a Woody Allen who unburdens his neurotic heart in public.

In this unique, revised history of the schlemiel, Sanford Pinsker uses psychological, linguistic, and anecdotal approaches, as well as his considerable skills as a spritely storyteller, to trace the schlemiel from his beginnings in the Old Testament through his appearance in the nineteenth-century literature of Mendele Mocher Seforim and Sholom Aleichem to his final development as the beautiful loser in the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Horatio Alger might have once been a good emblem of the American sensibility, but today Woody Allen's anxious, bespectacled punin (face) seems closer, and truer, to our national experience. His urban, end-of-the-century anxieties mirror- albeit in exaggeration- our own.

This expanded study of the schlemiel is especially relevant now, when scholarship of Yiddish and American Jewish literature is on the increase. By sketching the family tree of that durable anti-hero the schlemiel, Pinsker proves that Jewish humor is built upon the very foundations of the Jewish experience. Pinsker shows the evolution of the schlemiel from the comic butt of Yiddish jokes to a literary figure that speaks to the heart of our modern problems, and he demonstrates the way that Yiddish humor provides a sorely needed correction, a way of pulling down the vanities we all live by.


Rereading the first edition of The Schlemiel as Metaphor twenty years after I had written it, I am reminded of what Benjamin Franklin says about the errata one collects over a lifetime: "I should have no Objection [ Franklin writes in the opening page of his Autobiography ] to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantage Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the First."

This revised and expanded version affords me the opportunity not of repeating my "life" but of tempering an excess here, a misimpression there -- and of bringing the saga of the schlemiel up-to-date. in considering sentences written so long ago and in what now seems entirely "another country," I was surprised to discover how many of them still please me, how many of them fasten around a topic I continue to regard as important. That I chose to concentrate my discussion of the schlemiel in American Jewish literature on the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow made sense at the time, and their subsequent careers have confirmed my hunches. in other cases, what I now see as "omissions -- Philip Roth, Woody Allen -- fall neatly into that part of me that insists on "more schlemiels!"

When I was working on the original version of this book, American Jewish literature was neither as established nor as respectable as it is now. and while it is true that there were senior professors who encouraged my pursuit of a comic figure that they much enjoyed, there were others who asked me privately and in whispers if a writer with the unlikely name of Mendele the Bookseller actually existed. For a graduate student to invent such a writer might be daring -- even funny, in a way -- but it . . .

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