Ukraine President Zelensky and the Schlemiel in Jewish Literature

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Volodymyr Zelensky - Caricature

The schlemiel is the quintessential Jewish archetype.  He (and sometimes she) is the bumbler who spills the soup, as opposed to his cousin the schlimazel upon whom the soup is spilled.  His character has been a fixture of the Jewish tradition from the Bible’s hapless Jonah to the Wise Men of Chelm, through Yiddish folklore and theater (Menashe Skulnik, Fanny Brice) via the Borscht Belt to the present-day Jewish comics (Woody Allen, Larry David).  As a literary figure, he can assume a variety of faces: he’s the unlucky blunderer and the sympathetic kleine mentschele, “the little man” of Sholem Aleichem’s tales, the holy innocent of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel”.  But always he’s a loser with a difference; because, regardless of how many times he’s deceived by charlatans or throttled by pogromchiks, he retains what the Yiddish writers called der pintele yid.  This is that eternal drop of Jewishness, sweet but never saccharine, that compels the schlemiel to maintain a compassionate relation to his community and by extension—once he’s done licking his wounds—the rest of mankind.

The image of the schlemiel has not always been considered good for the Jews.  The early Zionists sought to erase the couple of millennia that had spawned the stereotype of the Jewish male as the soft, anemic, and bookish victim of his pitiable circumstances.  In his place they revived the idea of the Jewish warrior.  All those centuries of vulnerability and persecution were just an aberrant interlude between the Maccabees and the Arab-Israeli War.  Never mind that, during that interlude, a kaleidoscopically rich and exuberant culture had developed in the shadow of tyranny and unending oppression.  It was out of that culture, the culture Yiddishkeit, that the figure of the schlemiel emerged with his ironic what-me-worry shrug.  He’s an Old World staple, the schlemiel, the universal underdog, embodying, in the words of Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured.”  Of course, the world that nurtured him no longer exists.  But the archetype endures and continues, in its posthumous personifications, to have a paculiar relevance to the events of the day.

The seat of that culture of Yiddishkeit was the Pale of Settlement, the Eastern European portion of the old Russian Empire to which the Jews were confined by law.  Among the regions included within its boundaries was a major expanse of what is today modern Ukraine.  It’s a landscape that throughout its various national incarnations has been largely, often savagely, hostile to the Jews.  During one of the Ukraine’s earliest attempts at achieving independence—led by the Cossack hetman Bogdan Chmielnitski in his 17th century war against Russia—the Jews suffered their greatest slaughter prior to the Holocaust.  Sporadic pogroms and anti-Jewish riots persisted throughout the centuries of Czarist rule, to say nothing of the purges during the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the civil war that followed.  Then came the Nazi Occupation, when the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators murdered over one and a half million Jews, effectively eliminating the Jewish presence in the Ukraine.  One of the last recorded ritual murder trials took place in Kiev in 1912.  In all of their thousand-year residency in the Ukraine, it’s safe to say that the Jews were never able to relax.

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And yet it was a homeland.  In the rural slums of their shtetls and the teeming rookeries of their urban ghettos, the Jews may have yearned to spend next year in Jerusalem, but in the meantime, they made the best of what they had; and the best of it included—grinding poverty aside, the constant threat of pogrom and the squelching of civil liberties notwithstanding—the vitality of a culture informed by a dogged resourcefulness, an ecstatic spiritual longing, and a fatalistic and irrepressible sense of humor.

Two Jews are facing the Czar’s firing squad.  Yossel cries, “Up with the motherland!”  “Shah!” says Hymie with a finger to his lips, “Yossel, do you want to make trouble?”

After the Czar was assassinated, a government official says to a rabbi, “I bet you know who’s responsible.”  “Gevalt,” says the rabbi, “I don’t have a clue, but the government will conclude the same as always: they’ll blame it on the Jews and the beekeepers.”  “Why the beekeepers?” asks the puzzled official.  Replies the rabbi, “Why the Jews?”

And so on.

The schlemiel is the very human manifestation of that inherent humor (with which the Yiddish language itself seems to resonate), and perhaps the most emblematic schlemiel of them all was conceived by one of Ukraine’s native sons.  Tevye the Dairyman, made iconic by “Fiddler on the Roof”, was the literary offspring of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who was born in a village a stone’s throw from Kiev.  He lived awhile in Kiev then fled from there to Odessa after witnessing a brutal massacre of the Jews, then fled Odessa after having survived yet another pogrom.  There’s a woefully neglected Sholem Aleichem Museum in the house where he lived in Kiev; there are statues of him which are occasionally spray-painted with swastikas.  His life was full of frequent reversals and chronic financial embarrassment, throughout which he apparently remained as sanguine as his creation: the wry and mock-sagacious Tevye, whose bittersweet sensibility can make tragedy ashamed of itself.

“No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you.”
“Let’s talk about something more cheerful.  Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?”
“The Bible tells us to get along with our neighbor—but if his dog bites, muzzle him.”
“When the heart is full, it runs out the eyes.”

And so on.

He can barely eke out a living, is relentlessly harried by ill fortune, impending displacement, and the uncertain destinies of his daughters; and he is fool enough to keep his faith despite it all.  (“How many luxuries has the good God prepared for his children.”)  In his passive resistance to adversity, he has come to be viewed as a kind of poor man’s Quixote, the anti-hero who in the end forfeits his anti-.

Another son of the Ukraine, the Russian Jewish writer and lifelong devotee of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, also traded in characterizations of the schlemiel.  His version, however, tended to anticipate the Zionist “muscle Jew” in his admiration for the schlemiel’s antithesis, the virile and ruthless warrior.  Expressing a self-deprecating disdain for the Diaspora Yid with “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart”, Babel himself (the most abject kind of schlemiel—a literary artist) joined a Cossack regiment during the Russian Civil War.  The Cossacks had been the historical worst enemy of the Eastern European Jews for generations, and many of the stories in Babel’s Red Cavalry collection, the book that made him famous, show his four-eyed narrator attempting to prove himself the equal of his comrades in violence and cruelty.  The stories are unique in the annals of wartime chronicles, describing as they often do cold-blooded atrocities in a lapidary, unbiased, and even forgiving language.  The incompatibility of the prose with its bloody subject make the stories somehow that much more disturbing.  They underscore in their poignancy what is necessarily lost in the transition from schlemiel to warrior—that is, an essential measure of one’s humanity, let alone your sense of humor.  Later on, before he was executed by Stalin for no particular reason, Babel returned in his stories to the Moldavanka slum of his Odessa childhood, where his narrator’s catalog of humiliations was portrayed with a gentle and forbearing irony.  

While Babel’s schlemiel traveled far from the dense Jewish enclave of the Moldavanka, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stayed put in Boiberik until he was compelled to leave, but both sprang from the same milieu that Hannah Arendt once designated as “worldless”.  What she meant, I think, is that in the ghetto or the shtetl the Jew lived in a space defined less by the events of the historical moment than by the timeless myth of a people.  Enter the world beyond the myth, regardless of its possibilities—enter that world, which is called history, at your peril.  Philosophical as always in the face of expulsion from his home, Tevye acknowledges, “It’s an old Jewish custom to pick up and go elsewhere at the first mention of a pogrom.”  The Jew Volodymyr Zelensky, however, contradicts Tevye in his now-legendary quip: “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo.”  

It turns out we’re not the only nation with a tendency to view real life through the lens of make-believe.  In the TV sitcom “Servant of the People” in which he starred, Volodymyr Zelensky played a classic schlemiel, bumbling but good-hearted and well-intentioned, with his nose often literally in a book.  Through an improbable series of events, he stumbles from a high school classroom into the presidency of his country.  Our nation also had a president who stepped out of make-believe—in his case reality TV—into the Oval Office, then tried, with disastrous consequences, to drag reality back into the asphyxiating, two-dimensional confines of a television show.  Zelensky hasn’t had that option.  At first, his leadership wasn’t taken awfully seriously by his citizens, though everyone seemed to enjoy the meta-fictional joke; it was a hoot to have an authentic funny man in the office rather than the evil clowns who had preceded him.  But then came the war which forced him to rise to the occasion, to enter history and behave as the kind of leader whose resolute attitude calls into question his credentials as schlemiel.  The media, borrowing another Jewish trope, was quick to seize upon the predictable association: he was like a nebbish Clark Kent who, having entered a figurative phone booth, swapped his briefcase and soup-stained tie for a military T-shirt and fatigues, and emerged as a full-blown superhero.

I like the drama of sensational metamorphosis as well as the next, but I would suggest that, in the case of Zelensky, there was no transformation at all.  Though if not, the question arises: Was he always a hero disguised as a clown or is he now a clown disguised as a hero?  The answer is of course neither and both.  The hero is always potential in the schlemiel; the qualities that make him funny make him human and vice-versa; his sense of irony is a source of irreverence that finds opportunities for laughter even in the interstices of the tragic.  Without the laughter, there’s no human component, and without the humanity no real courage; the warrior is an automaton, a hollow man.  Meanwhile, the fight remains what it’s always been: a contest between humanity and the lack of same.  

I regard myself as a political naïf.  In my life I never saw a war I believed worth fighting—so what if, in this one, the line between good and evil has never been so clearly drawn.  The horror trumps the moral stakes.  The metaphors are all reductive: Zelensky is not David (or Charlie Chaplin or Leopold Bloom) vs Goliath; he’s not Frodo vs the Dark Lord Sauron.  He’s a politician and we all know better than to put faith in politicians.  There’s always an element of raw ambition.  I suspect even Gandhi had an ego.  Still, it’s thrilling to see the tyrant, the one boasting his hypertrophied testicles, opposed by the little man with the humility to admit to an ordinary pair of beytsim.  In a recent interview, Zelensky was asked if he thought he could make Putin laugh.  He answered “Sure” then qualified the remark.  “Laughter,” he said gnomically, “is a weapon that is fatal to men of marble.”  I imagine—if only to relieve a little the feeling of helplessness—that Putin, after dozens of failed attempts to assassinate him, finally captures Zelensky.

“I’ll let you choose how you are to die,” he says.

And Zelensky: “How about from old age?”

Putin laughs, no doubt a sardonic laugh—after all, he’s been challenged by a clown; he laughs and the cracks begin to appear in the marble; the laughter persists, the cracks widen, and the statue (forgive the metaphor) comes apart and crumbles to dust.


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