Chelm Stories & Motke Habad

Where the lovable fools of Jewish humor came from--and what they mean.

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In the face of world's injustice--and, at times, even God's--the shtetl Jew solidly maintained his innocence. As a people, they often charac­terized themselves as luckless schlimmazzels.

At the same time, however, they also saw the schlemiel's inepti­tude in socioeconomic matters as an extended metaphor of their own. Far from being a symbolic shorthand for the masochistic preoccupations of the Jewish psyche (as Freud and Reik tended to see it), the schlemiel was a point of reference for the community which surrounded him. As the acknowledged "fool," he was free to criti­cize in a way that those with more vested interest in the "realities" could not. Because he was a character of ineptitude, a humbling misrepresenter of reality, his comic victimhood helped to sustain those who were only partially schlemiels. Jewish humor is often described as a "laughter through tears," and in both the recognition and definable distance between the schlemiel and the average shtetl dweller there was plenty of room for both possibilities.

In some sense, every shtetl Jew was a schle­miel--at least to the extent that he could identify with those who had a hand in their own undoing. Max Nor­dau's term luftmentsh (literally "air-man") suggests that such shtetl residents lived on "air," continually hatching up schemes that had no substance.

On the other hand, the schlemiel is often portrayed as a character who is totally unaware of his folly and, in this sense, he allows for a sort of one-upsmanship on the part of his audience. After all, it is nobody's fault if a man is a schlimmazzel. He is genuinely deserving of pity. But a schlemiel--well, him you could laugh at!

Originally published in The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction, Revised and EnlargedEdition, by Sanford Pinsker. (c) 1991 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University, reproduced by permission of the publisher.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.