Reprinted with permission from
The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction
(Southern Illinois University Press).
Perhaps Jewish “humor” began when somebody wondered if maybe, just for once, God could choose someone else! Or, perhaps, Jewish humor was never really humor in the ordinary sense of the word; rather, it was a weapon in the uphill battle for survival. With no land or army of its own–with none of the rights normally given to citizens–staying alive as a people was a decidedly open question.
Nathan Ausebel claims that “as identifiable types, schlemihls and schlimazls must have sprung into being with the first drastic economic discriminations against Jews by the Byzantine emperors, beginning with Justinian (530-56).”
Powerless by any conventional standards, Jews became masters in the arts of self-mockery. However, rather than merely turning the sharp edges of their humor against the oppressor, they tended to turn it inward, to establish their own humanity by comic extensions of universal follies. In Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Freud makes the following observation:
“The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may explain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes… have grown up on the soil of the Jewish popular life. They are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics…. I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”
Stories of Chelm
It is from these roots that the schlemiel gradually became a stock figure of Jewish anecdote. In some stories, he seems to be a citizen of Chelm [a mythical village populated, according to Jewish folklore, by fools] and, like each of its citizens, a misrepresenter of reality. For example, the medieval story of Shemuliel is often retold as if it happened in Chelm–with the schlemiel getting the sort of “explanation” he deserves.
A young scholar of Chelm, innocent in the ways of earthly matters, was stunned one morning when his wife gave birth. Pellmell he ran to the rabbi.
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