AL102 The Schlemiel in European Literature and Culture

Most of us are familiar with modern cinematic schlemiels: Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Larry David, and Seth Rogen. Where does this archetype come from? The Schlemiel – often described as the “odd one out” – is a popular Jewish comic character that originated in Eastern Europe. In the early 20th century (and in the wake of the Holocaust), the archetype migrated over to the United States. Its literary roots can be found in the Hasidic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. But soon the Schlemiel became secularized through Yiddish literature and theater. While the reception of the Schlemiel by Eastern Europeans was warm and embracing, its reception in Western Europe was completely different. In Germany, the Schlemiel was often thought to be a symbol of the ghetto and what not to be; while in Eastern Europe, it was thought of as a figure of goodness and hope. It was situated, as Ruth Wisse argues, between hope and skepticism. In this course, we will be reading literature and watching videos that take the schlemiel as their subject. The primary task of the course is to delve into the Ashkenazi history of this archetype, to analyze its significance and its impact on contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish society.

  • Course Specifications
  • Type: Elective
  • Lesson type: Lecture
  • Hours: 28 (5 credits)
  • Category: LITERATURE
  • Requirement: 1 quiz & 1 essay
  • Instructor: Dr. MENACHEM FEUER
  • Course Readings 4
  • Shalom Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories (Schocken, 1996)
  • Mendele Moykher Sforim, The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third (Schocken, 1949)
  • Ruth Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago, 1971)
  • handout, to be announced (Ashkenazium, 2021)