The schlemiel is the guy who can’t help but screw things up. The ancestor of Seinfeld’s Kramer, of Curb Your Enthusiam’s Larry David, the schlemiel can’t stop from getting involved and, by being such a first-class schnook, cracking us up. It’s hard not to feel fond of schlemiels, as long as they keep their distance. The following selections are reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, compiled and edited by Henry D. Spalding (Jonathan David Publishers).
Once upon a time there were two brothers, Zelig and Leo. Zelig was a clever and alert young fellow, but Leo was a dolt–a first class schnook [simpleton]! Zelig, as might be expected, was welcomed wherever he went. He could tell witty stories and fascinating parables with intelligence and high humor. But poor Leo was never invited anywhere, for obvious reasons.
Now the boys’ mother was very unhappy about Leo’s plight, so she pleaded with Zelig to teach him how to become popular.
“Tell him some of the riddles, the stories and funny anecdotes you know so well. Teach him something, so that people will at least listen to him and maybe even pay him a compliment.”
“All right, Mama, I’ll teach him,” sighed Zelig. So he took his brother aside and said, “Listen to me carefully, Leo. I am going to teach you a riddle. Tomorrow night at the meeting house you are to stand up and say ‘What am I?’ Some will answer ‘You are a fool!’ Others will reply ‘You are an idiot!’ To each one you are to answer ‘Wrong–guess again!’ Finally, when they have all given up, you are to answer the riddle by saying ‘I am hungry!’ Isn’t that clever, Leo?”
“Wonderful! Wonderful!” enthused Leo, doubling up with laughter.
All that day and the next he practiced the riddle, rehearsing every word Zelig had taught him. In the evening he went to the meeting house which was packed with the townspeople. He stood up and called loudly for silence. When the hubbub subsided, he shouted, “A riddle! What am I?”
As Zelig had foretold, everybody laughed. “A fool!” cried the tailor.
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