The certainty that deep down we are all schlemiels is perhaps what makes America love an inept ball team or a Woody Allen who unburdens his neurotic heart in public.
In this unique, revised history of the schlemiel, Sanford Pinsker uses psychological, linguistic, and anecdotal approaches, as well as his considerable skills as a spritely storyteller, to trace the schlemiel from his beginnings in the Old Testament through his appearance in the nineteenth-century literature of Mendele Mocher Seforim and Sholom Aleichem to his final development as the beautiful loser in the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Horatio Alger might have once been a good emblem of the American sensibility, but today Woody Allen’s anxious, bespectacled punin (face) seems closer, and truer, to our national experience. His urban, end-of-the-century anxieties mirror—albeit in exaggeration—our own.
This expanded study of the schlemiel is especially relevant now, when scholarship of Yiddish and American Jewish literature is on the increase. By sketching the family tree of that durable anti-hero the schlemiel, Pinsker proves that Jewish humor is built upon the very foundations of the Jewish experience. Pinsker shows the evolution of the schlemiel from the comic butt of Yiddish jokes to a literary figure that speaks to the heart of our modern problems, and he demonstrates the way that Yiddish humor provides a sorely needed correction, a way of pulling down the vanities we all live by.