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Look Out!

Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask and Noah Baumbach’s movie Greenberg breathe new life into the figure of the shlemiel

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(iStockphoto)

Whither the shlemiel? According to a smart and much-discussed New York Magazine article last May, American Jewish prosperity has all but killed off the “neurotic, depressive, abrasive, excluded” antiheroes that once animated a comedic tradition running from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen. Larry David, entertainment critic Mark Harris argued in his essay, is keeping their brand of humor on a ventilator, introducing the shlemiel and his sidekicks to “a generation to whom it’s now almost completely foreign.” What Harris did not take into account was that young Jews born to privilege, like other Americans their age, are facing the very real prospect that they will never be as affluent as their parents. Praise God for the tanking economy: At least in the hands of novelist Sam Lipsyte, old-school Jewish humor has come back.

Lipsyte’s satirical novel The Ask, released last week, concerns the transformation of Milo Burke, an overeducated, underemployed wannabe art star, into a truly down-at-the-heels schmo. When we first meet Milo, he is a man in socioeconomic limbo: In early middle age, with a wife and a young son, he has a “good shitty job” in the development office of a so-so university but still dreams of becoming a great painter; he is poorer than he was growing up but of a higher social class than his neighbors in Astoria, Queens. As a result, he has contracted an au courant malady: a case of white liberal guilt exacerbated by the dread that the privilege he loathes himself for is about to be taken away. Milo’s condition deteriorates significantly after he gets fired (for lashing out at a trustafarian art student, natch), only to be rehired on the condition that he can coax a major donation from Purdy Stuart, a former college friend and now a sleazy millionaire who needs him for a job just slightly less compromising than that of a Mafia bagman. All this is quite grim, though hilarious in Lipsyte’s telling, but there’s also a redemptive aspect to the novel that’s easy to overlook. When Milo slips down the class ladder, there is something waiting for him at the bottom: an ethnic identity that had eluded him when he was a just-average hipster. By the end of the book, he is a grade-A shlemiel.

'The Ask' by Sam Lipsyte

Milo is half-Jewish—on the side that halachically counts—but he primarily identifies, at the outset of his unfortunate journey, as a wannabe art star, which in his world amounts to a demographic category. Newly fired, he spends his days wandering the streets of Astoria and, employing the classic bohemian inversion of “there goes the neighborhood,” worrying that people just like himself will move in and ruin its heartening mixed-income multiculturalism. “They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s,” he thinks on one of his walks. “The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.” Milo’s shame-faced identification as the aggressor keeps his own ethnic affinities at arm’s length. “I never said gypped, or Indian giver, or paddy wagon, or accused anyone of welshing on a bet,” he reflects wistfully on the sincerity of his own liberalism. “I never even called myself a yid with that tribal swagger I envied in others, though I had a right, or half a right, from my mother’s side.”

But once Milo has been knocked from the creative class into a milieu that includes laborers, Iraq veterans, and underworld types, other people start, in effect, calling him a yid, and—through having to contend with the slur—he becomes one. A doltish neighborhood carpenter offers him a deck-building gig and takes the opportunity to pitch him a concept for a reality show, predicting (wrongly), “You seem like the kind of college boy who may be a broke screw-up but is ultimately part of the vast conspiracy of movers and shakers who move and shake our society. Jewish, right?” Meanwhile, Purdy’s shady attorney Lee Moss (“a hardworking shark, a true Jew lawyer” of “the old breed,” Purdy calls him) immediately recognizes Milo as a landsman. “I can tell you’re a no-account putz,” Moss says, “but you and I, we’re on the same side of the fence.” Soon enough, Milo is having paranoid dreams about being insulted by an anti-Semitic Benjamin Franklin and regretting his decision not to have had his son circumcised.

What’s funny about professional shlemiels from Groucho to Woody is their insistent and absurd contrariness in the face of the obvious bounds imposed on them (“I would never join a club that would accept me as a member”). Left by his wife, the anchor of his shaky existence, Milo finally reaches the sublime heights of negation mastered by his comic predecessors. He comes to take a certain pride in his Jewishness if for no reason other than to mock those real and imagined enemies who see him simply as a yid. “Come kill me as a Jew, flog me to death in a desert quarry, bayonet me in the Pale, gas me in your Polish camp, behead me on your camcorder, I still would not believe. To me that was the true test of courage: to not submit to the faith they assume you possess and will kill you for.” It is in this quixotic spirit that Milo ends up, despite himself, what he always kind of wanted to be: an unapologetically bitter, authentically ethnic guy with no more need to worry that he is gentrifying Queens.

With The Ask, Lipsyte surely wins this month’s if not this year’s award for deftest reworking of this tragicomic, supposedly superannuated comic material, but he’s not the only one who still finds it funny. It appears in a different form in the film Greenberg—the latest from director Noah Baumbach, who at 40 is just a year younger than Lipsyte—which comes out in two weeks. Like The Ask, Greenberg is a sharply attuned comedy of social class, though in this case, the shlemiel at its center is Roger Greenberg, a middle-aged, emotionally disturbed scion of a wealthy Los Angeles family (played by Ben Stiller) who has an affair with his brother’s personal assistant (Greta Gerwig). Woody Allen fans will notice nods to Annie Hall in a moment when Stiller becomes momentarily indistinguishable from a crowd of Hasidim, and in Gerwig’s charming but genuinely awkward character who, like Annie, shyly sings at a local nightclub. But beyond these references, there is little overt Jewishness in Greenberg, save for an early scene when Roger’s Semitic looks are mentioned in jest by a fellow guest at a pool party.

“I’m not even … I’m only half,” Roger protests.

“You look full,” the guest says.

“That’s not what I usually get,” Roger says. “People think I look Italian. And since my mom is Protestant I’m actually not Jewish at all.”

The joke’s on Roger—not just in this scene, which ends with his interlocutor mimicking his expressive hand gestures—but in the entire movie, because Baumbach has given his film such an unavoidably Jewish title. This is slightly cruel, given that Roger can’t answer back, but it’s a brilliant deconstruction of the Jewish joke par excellence: Greenberg, one assumes, wouldn’t want to be in a movie that would accept his name as its title.

The shlemiel is alive and not too well, which is just the way he should be.

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Jim Przedzienkowski says:

The following comment ‘gas me in your Polish camp’ is not funny at all and needs to be corrected. Seems you can’t even get the joke correct. The Germans Nazis established the camps on occupied Polish soil. They a were not Polish. At least get history correct then ridicule it. Please post a correction to this disgusting remark.

Julie Subrin says:

Jim, the statement you object to is a quotation from the novel Brostoff is discussing. You’ll have to take it up with the novelist himself.

dusan kahan says:

Poles are so touchy on this subject yet there’s no denying that when it comes to betraying and murder of their Jewish neighbors they were willing helpers of the Nazis. Instead of protesting such ridiculous minor mishaps they should start to ponder on their role in the realities of the Shoah.

Nobody need’s to be pondering their roles in the “Shoah” so much anymore,unless they were themselves actively engaged in this terror.If one’s nationality or predecessors were evil, one should not spend an inordinate time on self guilt or self hatred.Everyones deserves a chance to have self esteem and feel proud of their heritage.Perhaps you would call this pollyanish multiculturalism?Some would have certain groups forever castigated for horrendous acts of the past.This too, is prejudice and stereotyping, without more nuance and context history is merely me against you, and the survival of the fittest.The “Holocaust” is not a “get out of jail card” to be applied to all occasions.Yes, indeed many Poles were guilty of oppression to the Jews and Hungarians and Serbs too.So don’t be so self righteous.None of us are perfect. or descend from perfect people.The Shoah was a horendous catastrophe, and all the perpetrators should be punished, but not all of the survivors to the last generations.

Jan Niechwiadowicz says:

I always find it strange that the very minor role played by Poles can be portrayed as being major.

First the correction is regarding the running of the camps. The Holocaust was planned by senior Nazi Germans at the Wannsee Conference without a single Pole being present. Likewise it was Germans tried at Nuremberg not Poles.

The Poles didn’t work as guards in the death camps. They were Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians and Latvians in the main. Poles were the largest group of victims in slave-labour camps and the second largest group in death camps such as Auschwitz.

Therefore the statement is misleading. Any journalist using quotes of this type should make it clear this refers to German camps in occupied Poland.

As David Peleg, The Ambassador of Israel to Warsaw, Poland said: “We, being Jews and Israelis, with reject resolutely terminology such as “Polish concentration camps”. These prejudicial and erroneous phrases represent primarily testimony about ignorance and lack of understanding of fundamental historical truth. Every thinking man knows that it was the Nazis who selected Poland for central site for dreadful genocide of extermination of European Jews. On the Polish soil the Germans built terrifying camps where they systematically murdered 4.5 million Jews (including 3 million Polish Jews) and other nationalities including thousands of Poles.”

Second, to Dusan Kahan claim about Poles betraying Jews. If this is correct then why Poland did not collaborate with Nazi Germany rather than fight them? They could have done a deal the way Hungary, Italy, Finland, Bulgaria and Romania did.

Why could the Germans not find senior Poles willing to collaborate unlike in Slovakia, France, Norway and Denmark with puppet governments?

Why were no Polish Waffen-SS? After all there were Spanish, Estonian, Finnish, Danish, Latvian, Croatian, Ukrainian, Albanian, Dutch, Belgian, Russian, Belarusian, Hungarian, and French Waffen-SS units.

Again the Poles didn’t round up Jews in the ghettos. This was done by the Germans, with the support mostly of Ukrainians and Jewish collaborators. Instead Poles fought alongside the Jews during the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Why did the Polish government want to bomb the concentration and death camps? Remember it was the Americans and British vetoed the idea.

Why did the Polish government spread knowledge of atrocities committed against Jews when the American and British governments tried to suppress it?

Why do Poles make up the largest number of righteous (i.e. those who aided Jews)? Poland have as many righteous as Belgium, Lithuania, Hungary, Belarus, Slovakia, Germany, Italy, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Latvia, Austria, Moldova, Albania, Romania, Norway, Switzerland, Bosnia, Denmark, Bulgaria, United Kingdom, Armenia, Sweden, Slovenia, Spain, Estonia, United States, Ireland, China, Brazil, Chile, Turkey, Japan, Luxembourg, Portugal and Georgia COMBINED.

Why was it only in Poland the Germans found it necessary to introduce the death penalty for aiding Jew?

It is true the Blue police played a minor part but they were under Germans control. Further they had German officers and the ranks were filled with many ethnic groups especially Ukrainians. Amongst the Poles, Jewish historians estimate as many as half were double agents as they worked for the Polish resistance.

There were some pogroms in occupied Poland but there were much larger/more numerous ones in other countries. The pogrom at Kaunas, Lithuania saw around 4,000 Jews murdered, in Rumania at Laşi at least 13,000 Jews and at Lviv maybe 5,000 Jews were murdered by Ukrainians. Anyone of these pogroms resulted in more deaths than all the pogroms by Poles COMBINED.

Perhaps if you can explain this to me then maybe I would believe you but otherwise I think it is Dusan Kahan who needs to do some research and not listen to Nazi/Soviets lies which are repeated so many times that they now are accepted by some as the truth. The Poles may not be perfect but their record as the above shows it is better than most.

I can see that you are an expert in this area. I am launching a website soon, and your information will be very useful for me.. Thanks for all your help and wishing you all the success in your business.

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Look Out!

Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask and Noah Baumbach’s movie Greenberg breathe new life into the figure of the shlemiel

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