The First Real Schlemiel in Jewish American Literature

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The First Real Schlemiel in Jewish American Literature

Eniko Maior, Partium Christian University, Oradea

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story "Gimpel the Fool" (1953) appeared in English translation in a 1953 edition of the Partisan Review. The story is considered one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's most notable and representative work of short fiction. With this story, Bellow launched Singer on a career that would result in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Singer wrote the story, as he did most of his early works, in Yiddish, and its Jewish themes of the individual's search for faith and guidance in a cruel world are explored in a parable form with exaggerated details common to folktales. The character of Gimpel has been praised by critics as an example of the schlemiel—a foolish, unlucky man—common to Jewish lore, whose follies are delineated in order to present a moral lesson. At the same time, Singer himself writes in the end of the short story that he has presented the figure of the schnorrer and not that of the schlemiel “Another schnorrer is waiting to inherit my bed of straw” (Collected Stories 14). But, after analyzing the short story, we will see that the writer actually presents a schlemiel who happens to be a schnorrer, too. The schnorrer in Yiddish denotes a beggar or sponger. Through this figure, the Jews could show their charity and this was widely accepted in the shtetl. A schnorrer is not a homeless or a beggar in the modern sense of the word. Gimpel is not a real schnorrer because he works for a living and he is not simply a beggar waiting for charity.

It was "Gimpel the Fool" along with the translated novel The Family Moskat (1950), that first brought Singer to the attention of American audience. The story has been called a masterpiece of short fiction and has been praised for its depiction of Jewish life, its emphasis on spirituality, faith, and morality, its sympathetic portrayal of ordinary people and its examination of universal themes. The story is set in an indeterminate time in the fictional Jewish shtetl, or village, of Frampol, in Poland. Like many of the settings in Singer's fiction, the shtetl of Frampol is presented as a place where life has a mystical quality, the people are superstitious, survival is difficult, and everyday events and concerns revolve around the Jewish Law. The main character is Gimpel, a baker, who is continually heckled and tricked by those around him. Since its publication, critical reaction to “Gimpel the Fool” has been positive, with most reviewers praising its blend of tradition, spiritualism, and realism. Singer was caught in a web of ambivalence, he wanted to have back that God fearing old shtetl world and be a modernist at the same time. He relied on the cultural heritage of Yiddish in drawing his characters.

Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe have pointed out the existent similarities between Singer’s short story and Y. L. Peretz’s “Bontshe the Silent”. Bontshe is a victim of poverty and degradation who never complains about his miserable lot in life. The most important motif of the short story is silent suffering:

He lived unknown, in silence, and in silence he died. He passed through our world, like a shadow. When Bontshe was born no one took a drink of wine; there was no sound of glasses clinking. When he was confirmed he made no speech of celebration. He existed like a grain of sand at the rim of a vast ocean, amid millions of other grains of sand exactly similar, and when the wind at last lifted him up and carried him across to the other shore of that ocean, no one noticed, no one at all (Treasury 223).
So that when he dies, he goes straight to heaven, greeted by a chorus of angels, and is invited by the highest judge of the heavenly tribunal to ask for anything he wants as his just reward. And what is Bontshe's greatest wish? He wants a warm roll with fresh butter every morning. Hearing this, the judges and angels hang their heads in shame, while the prosecutor breaks out in contemptuous laughter. Bontshe came to symbolize the passive, ignorant, hopeless condition of the typical shtetl Jew.

The short story is “a study of passivity grown grotesque” (Schlemiel 59) in Sanford Pinsker’s opinion. Gimpel differs from Bontshe because he is not silent. Bontshe sees the others as a necessary condition of life:

When Bontshe was brought to the hospital ten people were waiting for him to die and leave his narrow little cot; when he was brought from the hospital to the morgue twenty were waiting to occupy his pall; when he was taken out of the morgue forty were waiting to lie where he would lie forever. Who knows how many are now waiting to snatch from him that bit of earth? (Treasury 224).

Bontshe’s humility is something unknown even to the schlemiels. Gimpel believes in what the others say, but he is not silent like his predecessor. He believes even the most absurd lies and his foolishness comes from his naivete. The story starts with Gimpel, the narrator:


I am Gimpel the fool. I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still at school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax – head, dope, glump, ninny and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in (Collected Stories 3).
His only folly was to believe what the others had said. Faith is one of the primary themes in “Gimpel the Fool”. Despite being teased and deceived mercilessly by the other villagers, as well as by his wife Elka, the village whore, Gimpel maintains his faith in life, in others, and in God. When Elka continues to nag and bully him, Gimpel simply says: "I'm the type that bears it and says nothing. What's one to do? Shoulders are from God, and burdens too" (Collected Stories 8). Gimpel has consciously decided to choose faith over skepticism; through his faith he finds consolation and peace. Throughout the story, Elka commits numerous infidelities and eventually has ten children, none of whom is Gimpel's. On her deathbed she admits her infidelities to her husband and asks him to forgive her.

Toward the end of the short story, he is tempted by the devil who convinces him to put filth in the bread of the inhabitants of Frampol. Gimpel cannot believe that there is no God ““Well then, “I said, “and is there a God?” He answered, “There is no God either.” “What,” I said, “is there, then?” “A thick mire” (Collected Stories 13).

While he waits for the bread to rise Elka appears to him in a vision and reinforces the existence of the afterlife and the idea that, because she has been a sinner, Gimpel does not need to be one “I never deceived anyone but myself. I’m paying for it all, Gimpel. They spare you nothing here” (Collected Stories 13). Gimpel realizes that there were really no lies. If something does not happen today, then it would tomorrow or next year or in the next century. He acts “as the wandering wiseman/storyteller, the artist-as-Lamed Vovnik (one of the thirty-six Righteous Men whose humble, and secret, piety sustains the world), the schlemiel who props up the world with fantastic stories instead of humble deeds” (Pinsker Schlemiel 62 ).

Gimpel formulates his own philosophy:

the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night […] No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world. At the door of the hotel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away. The gravedigger Jew has his spade ready. The grave waits and the worms are hungry […] When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived (Collected Stories 14).
Through the character of the schlemiel, the postwar author tried to offer an alternative. Gimpel’s passive responses and finally his consolation in faith may have been strange to the modern man. If we remember the historical events of World War II, we can hardly believe that this alternative could have been accepted as a viable one.

Gimpel tried to avoid reality, to deny appearances. Raul Hilberg said that this technique of denial and avoidance could be traced among the European Jews:

People do not easily accept the fact that they are going to be killed; if they have the know-how to resist, they will defend themselves as best they can. If, on the other hand, they have unlearned the art of resistance, they will repress their knowledge of the true situation and will attempt to go on as though life could not change. The Jews could not resist. In complying with German orders they therefore tried, to the utmost of their ability, to ignore all evidence of danger and to forget all intimation of death. They pretended that nothing unusual was happening to them, and that belief became so crucial that they did anything to perpetuate it (667).

But, if we think about Gimpel as modern man, we are not likely to be able to behave in the same way. From the point of view of psychoanalysis he is a total failure. As Theodor Reik contends: “Psychoanalysis would characterize the schlemiel as a masochistic character who has strong unconscious will to fail and spoil his chances” (41). But the whole short story’s irony lies in this ability to perceive his failure as success. Gimpel does not react to the evil that envelops him, thus he will be chosen for eternity. He does not suffer because the others make fun of him. His faith saves him. At the same time, we can affirm that Gimpel’s success or failure depends on our perception whether to interpret his actions and choices as success or failure. We have to accept that even small people with their foolish interpretation of life, due to the historical events, can be considered heroes. Gimpel was challenged and he could remain faithful to God. He will be rewarded in afterlife.

His hardships and misfortunes prove to be useful. Gimpel preserves the integrity of his soul without submerging his fate.

The traditional schlemiel is unaware of his comic difficulties, but Gimpel leaves the doors of imagination open. Hearing the lies of his fellow villagers, his response is just “everything is possible” (Collected Stories 4). He thinks that the most important idea in life is to keep his belief in God.

In the coming years, Jews gained more ground in American literature, finally getting to the center of it. As Leslie Fiedler points out:

The background is familiar enough: the gradual breaking up of the Anglo- Saxon domination which makes rural myths and images no longer central to our experience; the exhaustion as vital themes of the Midwest and of the movement from the provinces to New York or Chicago or Paris; the turning again from West to East from our own heartland back to Europe; and the discovery in the Jews of a people essentially urban, essentially Europe-oriented, a ready-made image for what the American longs to or fears he is being forced to become (qtd. in Malin 2-3).

The outsider became an insider. And, of course, a new type of schlemiel appeared. It was no longer a symbol of a people or of a faithful community. But it became the symbol of an individual. He has become an individual in search of his own identity. As Ruth Wisse says: “The American schlemiel declares his humanity by loving and suffering in defiance of the forces of depersonalization and the ethic of enlightened stoicism” (82). He learned to live in continuing tension between his humanity and his persistent frustration. He is aware of life’s traps but he continues to dream, to seek love and the authors sometimes reward him, sometimes make him fail.

As we can see from this analysis the schlemiel here does not want to turn his back to God, either. He praised God besides all hardships. I have mentioned, at the beginning of this chapter, the differences between the American and the European type figure. In the case of Singer, the concept carries the same characteristics as in Europe. It has the role to remind Jews that religion and their belief in God could save them from all hardships and the final reward would be attainable. This idea is quite strange because, after the events of the Holocaust, I think that it was not possible for the Jews to believe in a God that let millions of children and adults die. We will see in the next chapter that the idea suggested by Wisse in respect to the Jewish-American writers and their usage of the type figure is true. I will show that the four different configurations of the schlemiel actually express one thing: the most important idea is to live for the others, to overcome the individual’s own needs and to help their human fellow-beings. The schlemiel “continues to dream, or to fight for love, or to seek it, and according to the bias of his author is either ironically rewarded or satirically deflated for his efforts” (Wisse 91).


Works Cited

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: U Chicago, 1961.

Howe, Irving and Eliezer Greenberg, eds,. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. New

York: Viking, 1954.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Kazin, Alfred. New York Jew. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Malin, Irving. ed. Contemporary American-Jewish Literature: Critical Essays. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in the Yiddish and American Jewish Novel. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1971.

Reik, Theodor. Jewish Wit. New York: State U of New York, 1962.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.


Wisse, Ruth. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.


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