(Jewish Diaspora: Before Nineteenth Century-Present)
Although used almost interchangeably, the terms "schlemiel" (badly done) and "schlimazel" (bad luck) are really complementary in Jewish folklore because they represent fool figures who create laughter for others. For illustrative purposes, the schlemiel is the one who spills his drink at the dinner table; the schlimazel is the one who gets the drink on his new suit. Originating in medieval ghetto folklore, these two comic characters exemplify some of the ways in which the ghettoized Jews of middle Europe used humor and the fool figure as a means of dealing with their plight. Both the schlemiel and the schlimazel are variations of the innocent fool, one who is, for whatever reason, without self-serving motivation and thus does not easily recognize cause and effect in the behavior of others. But the unfortunate consequences of ineptness experienced by the schlimazel make him an obvious fool victim or gull as well.
The schlemiel is first mentioned in literature by the German author Adelbert von Chamisso , who wrote a story, Peter Schlemiel ( 1814), about a man who sold his shadow to the Devil in exchange for an inexhaustible bag of gold. The use of the term and its counterpart, however, is considerably earlier, if only in folklore. Opera lovers may recall the character Schlémil who is fatally wounded in a duel with the hero of Offenbach The Tales of Hoffman.
One theory concerning the origin of the Jewish schlemiel is a folktale about one Schlemiel who left his wife on a one-year journey and returned, only to find that she had given birth. The local rabbis, however, were able to convince him, using the involved logic usually mastered by rabbis alone, that the child was his.