Supermen Schlemiels

Rabbis or Rakes, Schlemiels or Supermen? Jewish Identity in Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen

by Robert Liebman

Film/Literature Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1984

Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin) holding a globe of the world.

Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin) and the world he wants to conquer.

In the topsy-turvy world of Yiddish and, later, Jewish-American narrative, the schlemiel reigns supreme, while the superhero who frequently accompanies him is largely ignored.

This larger than life-size, obviously compensatory doppelganger offers startling insights into Jewish fears of inadequacy, inferiority, and powerlessness—fears which are not necessarily unjustified.

The schlemiel/superhero usually takes the form of mistaken identity, intentional disguise, Jekyll-Hyde chemically induced transformation, or ghost, whether sighed for or in the flesh, so to speak.

Charles Chaplin’s Great Dictator (1940) contrasts the fortunes of Adenoid Hynkel, a buffoonish dictator who aspires to world conquest, and an obviously symbolic “Jewish barber” whose miseries increase as a result of Hynkel’s anti-Semitic policies. The barber and the dictator coincidentally look alike (Chaplin plays both parts), and when the barber innocently dons a military jacket, the resemblance is complete. The barber then pretends to be Hynkel, and at the film’s impassioned end, launches into an impromptu but elaborate and eloquent speech urging peace and the brotherhood of all mankind. The story’s climax involves a wishful-thinking identity change: the barber turns into Hynkel merely by putting on magical clothing, assuming Hynkel’s authoritativeness, if not his power.

But Chaplin’s story is no simple fairy tale. For one thing, the barber’s imposture will be quickly unmasked. He is also too inarticulate and diffident to be credible as a spellbinding public speaker. In fact, he delivers his speech only after extensive prodding from his friend. The barber is not believable as a pseudo-Hynkel for another reason: in that final monologue, Chaplin appeals to the audience in his own voice, not as the barber or as the barber-Hynkel. The barber turns into Hynkel, only to rapidly become Chaplin himself. Direct address replaces fictional storytelling.

To dismiss this abrupt change simply as an artistic lapse is to ignore Chaplin’s apparently deliberate shift to the documentary mode. The Jewish dilemma was serious, and he wanted to help. To effect change in the real world, Chaplin would turn to something potentially more efficacious than verisimilitude and consistency.

Although he was probably not Jewish (Chaplin’s obscure genealogy points in non-Jewish directions), his immortal silent Tramp was. To Hannah Arendt, the Tramp is a “schlemihl” and a “little Yid.” The comedian, Arendt continues, “has epitomized in an artistic form a character born of the Jewish pariah mentality.”1

As a child, Chaplin learned “the time-honored Jewish truth that, other things being equal, the human ingenuity of a David can sometimes outmatch the animal strength of a Goliath.”2

But Chaplin, the master of wily, wiry insolence, instead depicts the small man not as a resilient, rebellious figure but as a despairing one. Now his adversary is the brutal, indomitable Nazi, not the benign policeman whom the Tramp could outrun, if not outwit. This new Goliath would withstand even many well-placed stones—stones, that is, hurled by a barber-David. But mightn’t Chaplin himself be a match for Hitler?: “When I first saw Hitler, with that little mustache, I thought he was copying me, taking advantage of my success. I was that egotistical.”3

In addition to possessing sufficient ego to tackle Hitler, Chaplin underestimated Nazi villainy: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I would not have made The Great Dictator. I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”4 But make fun he did, apparently believing that the German leader, who was one of his most ardent fans, was open to reason and susceptible to ridicule.

It seems likely that Chaplin, in his self-congratulatory concluding monologue, was singling Hitler out from his vast unseen audience in an attempt to shame and harangue him out of his anti-Semitism and megalomania. A direct challenge of this sort coming from the lethargic barber-Hynkel would be neither credible nor effectual. But had Chaplin the proper proportions, morally, politically, and intellectually, he would assume the role of Messiah himself.

After the war, schlemiel/superhero approaches to the Holocaust attracted writers rather than filmmakers: Meyer Liben, “Homage to Benny Leonard” (1959), Arthur A. Cohen, In the Days of Simon Stern (1973), and Mordecai Richler, St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971). Later, the schlemiel/superhero dualism resurfaced in film, but in social rather than political contexts.

The Nutty Professor (1963), written by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond, is a parody, but with a highly revealing twist, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic of double identity, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Lewis’ protagonist is the aptly named Julius Kelp, a schlemiel in the extreme, a meek, myopic, gawky chemistry professor who is so severely buck-toothed as to constantly endanger his lower lip. To win the affections of Stella Purdy, a gorgeous coed (Stella Stevens), he invents a potion which converts him into Buddy Love, a suave, preternaturally strong ladies’ man.

Although religion and ethnicity are never specified in the film, Lewis (ne Joseph Levitch, 1926) creates traditional Jewish stereotypes. In name, profession, and behavior Kelp is an academically successful, socially retarded Nice Jewish Boy, complete with domineering mother, docile father, and shikse fixation. Buddy Love, more corporeal than cerebral, lives only to love, fight, and drink; he is less a gentile stereotype than a Jewish male’s fantasy of the redskin goy perpetually indulging in sensual delights. In effect, Kelp and Love compete with one another, and the insecure Jewish male believes that the Buddy Loves of the world are irresistible to women like Stella. In fact, the Buddy Love type was admired by many young Jewish males.5

Kelp and Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy’s Complaint, 1967) have much in common. Portnoy, who wants to take the oy out of goy and put the id back into yid, is an obsessive shikse-chaser who feels handicapped by his Jewishness, which is a religion having to do more with surnames and noses than with Abraham and the Talmud. Portnoy feels “crippled” and cries out, “Make me whole!” Jews are incomplete, diseased, and deformed, and Lewis’ farcical Kelp is among the more gravely afflicted.

Kelp is a reversal of Dr. Jekyll, who is a respected and basically content member of society; he becomes both ugly and miserable after he changes identity. In fact, Stevenson uses the term “deformed” to describe only Mr. Hyde. Both Dr. Jekyll and Julius Kelp change identities to pursue physical delights, but only in Dr. Jekyll is the impulse regarded as universally human. Kelp, on the other hand, is fleeing physical handicaps which are Jewish in origin. Not merely inconvenienced by his disabilities, Kelp is lame and lacking in vital parts, condemned therefore to involuntary Puritanism and sensual deprivation. The hormonally active Jewish youth indulges in a Super-goy fantasy not as a luxury but to vicariously compensate for biological deficiencies.

The Jewish self hatred, however, is far from total. When Kelp’s potion wears off prematurely, exposing Buddy Love’s true identity, the heroine announces that, in any event, she preferred the professor to the swinger. We should always be ourselves, she opines.

But the plot contradicts her: Kelp’s parents manufacture and sell the wondrous potion, and business is brisk. Lewis’ “Be yourself” moral is not, however, entirely insincere or inconsistent. He disapproves of Buddy’s callousness and violence, and, conversely, he has given Kelp some endearing qualities, even if they are those of a wounded puppy. More lamentable than appealing, he engages our sympathies more than our affections.
Buddy Love is therefore not the perfect antidote to Kelp. But in criticizing Buddy, Kelp-Lewis repudiates the fantasy-stud in which he revelled, and he gets the girl anyway.6 Through schlemiel-superhero doubling, Lewis has his cake and eats it too—and the pastry is patently not kosher.

A similar demonstration of self-hatred yielding to grudging, partial acceptance receives fuller and more recognizably Jewish treatment in Play It Again, Sam (1972), which Woody Allen adapted from his 1969 play of the same name. Mr. Allen plays Allen Felix, a film critic who, suddenly separated, has a less than auspicious re-introduction to being single. Phoning a girl whom he dated eleven years earlier, he hears her mother declare that the daughter is not interested. How recently could the daughter have warned her mother, Felix wonders, given the many years that have elapsed? “Last week,” the mother replies.

Later, entertaining a date in his apartment, he swaggeringly announces that he’ll have bourbon—only to discover that he has none. His problem is simple but all-consuming: “Why can’t I be cool?” Mr. Allen immediately addresses the dilemma in religious terms by rhetorically asking, “If you gotta identify, whom I gonna pick, my rabbi?” Felix derisively dismisses Jewish role models.

But being gentile provides no airtight guarantee of coolness either. Felix’s best friend, Richard (Tony Roberts), is handsome, intelligent, successful, married to a beautiful woman, and obsessively, ridiculously attached to his telephone. Richard is also clearly not Jewish; his surname is Christie. (Students of nomenclature in Woody Allen films may note that Allen Felix’s surname means “happy.” Manhattan had been tentatively titled “Anhedonia,” which means “without happiness,” or “incapable of pleasure.”)

Felix’s ideal of coolness is Bogey, the Casablanca Bogey in all his trench-coated, cigarette-smoking, tough-guy glory. As luck would have it, Bogey actually appears to Felix (and to him alone, like Macbeth and the ghost of Banquo). Bogey is all that Felix would like to be: cynical, tough, sexy, glib, and underneath it all, very decent—the kind of man who never runs out of bourbon. Bogey presumably likes bourbon, whereas Felix is doubtless more at home with egg creams. Felix’s alienation from that which he professes to admire is an important consideration, because it paves the way for Felix, like Julius Kelp, to repudiate his role model. Thus, when Bogey advises Felix to slug the dame, he refuses. He prefers his own methods and values in such matters. Both Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis admire emotionally what they deplore morally. Bogey on the wall is a more attractive ideal than Bogeyism in the flesh. The superhero is not all that the schlemiel imagines him to be.

The schlemiel, too, is not a total loser. Felix loves Richard’s wife Linda (Diane Keaton), and he eventually discovers that she reciprocates the feeling. Why shouldn’t she? Unlike Julius Kelp, Felix is charming and funny. And since much of his appeal arises from his being a schlemiel, she loves him not in spite of that fact, but in part at least because of it.

Nor is Linda the only woman Felix attracts. Near the film’s end, another woman is impressed when she learns that an essay she admired was written by him. In short, Felix will succeed with women largely by virtue of his intelligence. The cerebrality that renders Julius Kelp a basket case provides sex appeal for Allen Felix. Smart is sexy! The play version of “Play It Again, Sam” concludes with the heroine declaring, “Be yourself. The girl will fall in love with you.” As sentimental as its echo in Nutty Professor, this maxim is less jarring and inconsistent because Allen Felix is genuinely attractive.6

Ultimately, Jewishness may be nourishing, but Woody Allen’s reconciliation is ambivalent, for what else is the Bogey alter ego but an emblem of a profound self-hatred, of the notion that rescue from one’s insufficiencies is possible not through gradual improvement or growth but only via a drastic identity change? Despite the “We’re all okay” ending, if Allen Felix were to encounter Kelp’s elixir for sale, he might purchase a bottle. He’d certainly be tempted.

James Thurber’s “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” provides a contrast to Allen which suggests that non-Jewish doubling is considerably more moderate. Clumsy, henpecked Walter Mitty escapes monotony and his nagging wife by lazily drifting into self-glorifying daydreams: he’s a fearless pilot, brilliant surgeon, gun expert, and so on. He’s unsurpassed in each activity, but his achievements are all humanly possible, and he never changes his fundamental identity. Mitty alters what he does, not who he is.

To be sure, the actor portraying Mitty in the 1947 film version was a Jew, comedian Danny Kaye. But the film lacks the urgency, moral if not physical, of the typical schlemiel-superhero narrative. Mitty is bored and badgered, but he’s never in physical danger (in fact, this lack is part of his problem; he vicariously courts the very danger that unsettles the Jew). Mitty never attributes his misery to his basic identity. Superheroes being more or less mirror images of their schlemiels, Mitty’s mere monotony doesn’t warrant the radical remedy of a superhero.

Thurber is of a piece, whereas Woody Allen is divided. For example, Allen insists that he is humiliated by his Jewishness, but he constantly identifies himself as Jewish; he often, as in his reference to his rabbi, accomplishes both purposes simultaneously. (In Annie Hall, be assumes a Hasidic appearance to dramatize how he thinks he appears to Annie’s midwest family.)

But if Woody Allen uses Jewishness as a shtick, he is also sincerely concerned with Jewish victimization and paranoia. In a nightclub routine he wrote several years before Play It Again. Sam, a different schlemiel/superhero pairing engaged his attention. He relates that, as a child on his way to a costume party, he fried to save five-year-old Hermina Jaffe from the molestations of Guy de Maupassant Rabinowitz, whose parents, in the Roosevelt-Dewey election, voted for Hitler. Woody’s rescue attempt was unsuccessful, even though he was wearing—and was emboldened by—a Superman costume.

In embracing both Superman and Bogey, Woody Allen links political insecurity with social inadequacy. Put another way, different though the Great Dictator may be from Nutty Professor and Play It Again, Sam, the impotence depicted in each is generic, traceable to the pariah status of the diaspora Jew. In choosing Superman as a defender against anti-Semitism, Woody Allen was selecting a more “Jewish” figure than he perhaps realized, despite the Man of Steel’s meager proboscis, muscular physique, and square jaw.

Superman was devised by two Cleveland youngsters, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in the early 1930s (the actual debut was 1988) in response to beatings they received during their high-school years. In the feral vastness of Depression-era urban America, Jews weren’t alone on the receiving end of beatings, but their pacifistic upbringings assured that they would receive more than their share.7 Siegel and Shuster solaced and vicariously avenged themselves by creating a timid weakling who, for all practical purposes, is Omnipotence itself.

Superman and Clark Kent are one individual (the identity change involves disguise, not conversion), but each has a distinct persona: two fictional characters, but one birth certificate. In fact, although Superman disguises himself as (that is, turns into) Clark Kent, the primary illusion is of Clark Kent becoming Superman. The fundamental identity seems to belong to Clark Kent.

Siegel and Shuster have, in effect, foisted a traditional schlemiel onto an unsuspecting public. They have also, as Leslie Fiedler points out, transmitted other recognizably Jewish values. To Fiedler, “Superman” is the “lowbrow equivalent of science fiction,” the latter being a “largely Jewish product,” one which reflects “the urban outlook, the social consciousness, the utopian concern of the modern, secularized Jew. The traditional Jewish waiting-for-the-Messiah becomes, in lay terms, the commitment-to-the-future which is the motive force of current science fiction.”8

Superman also, however, incorporates certain frontier values. Like the Lone Ranger, he uses only minimal force to subdue his adversaries. He is also sexually neutral, at least uninterested: Lois Lane bemuses rather than arouses him. The cowboy hero was also chaste, but he at least had his horse for company.

In short, “Superman” offers something for everyone. Siegel and Shuster in comic-book land were paralleling the Jewish movie moguls who were stoking “the fantasies of America, indeed of the entire world—a universalism of taste which shaped the century and which they could shrewdly exploit because they innocently shared it.”9

In 1978, with the film version of Superman (written by, among others, Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz), cinematic history basically repeated itself. Superman has a Yiddish antecedent of a sort in the centuries-old Golem legend. In the I.L. Peretz version, the chief rabbi of Prague thwarts a major pogrom by unleashing an indestructible, rampaging goyim-killer.

Significantly, the Golem doesn’t appear out of the blue or someone’s head (or rib). It emerges from a clay statuette animated when the Chief Rabbi blows into its nose and whispers the Name into its ear. This puny statuette represents the Jewish population at large, a populace which, in pogrom-ridden Prague, was aptly symbolized by a small, inert, vague, totally feckless figurine; that is, Prague’s Jews collectively are the schlemiel, and this savage tale of revenge perfectly suits a people who can achieve vengeance only in their dreams. The Golem is an explosion of enraged id, the inevitably disproportionate response to severe, chronic oppression and repression.

However, in recent years the schlemiel’s lot has apparently improved. Traits which are shameful in one context (or era) can be adorable in another. For example, in Annie Hall (1977), clumsiness is revelled in, not hidden from. Preparing a lobster dinner for Annie, Alvy (Woody Allen) drops a live lobster and is afraid to pick it up. A later scene, however, reveals Alvy handling lobsters with casual, proficient, fearless ease. With Annie, he was only pretending to be maladroit and afraid.

Lobster, a quintessential treyf (unkosher) food, holds an esteemed place in Jewish culinary-literary affairs. No less an authority than Alexander Portnoy’s mother Sophie asserts that lobster “can kill you! Because I ate it once, and I nearly died.” An apt symbol, lobster emphasizes Alvy’s Jewish­ness; he is posing as a greenhorn in gastronomy that is specifically goyish.

The schlemiel is now self-reliant and in full control, no longer yearning or needing to be someone else, whether superheroic or not. More to the point, the schlemiel is not even a true schlemiel. The direction of Jewish fantasizing has been reversed; the ordinary Jew feels that he’s more attractive as a schlemiel than as a smoothy.

For the actual or would-be schlemiel, the practical ramifications of this social shift are considerable. It’s not easy to mesmerize armies, quaff a potent alcoholic beverage in one enormous gulp, or leap tall—even short—buildings in a single bound. But klutziness is within the reach of us all. Jewish dreams no longer need to be fulfilled only vicariously.

Schlemiel/superhero fantasizing is not barred to Gentiles, but it is of special appeal to Jews, for it incorporates both messianism and the fluidity of identity that abounds in Jewish life and literature. For example, in his story “M. Zuckerberg’s Heart,” Richard Berczeller describes a Jewish family’s desperate stratagem to exempt the last of their eight sons from the Czar’s army: “They would raise the youngest, Moishe, as a girl.” Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick (What Makes Sammy Run?) colorfully denies his Jewishness: “Oh Jesus, everybody’s always takin’ me for one of them goddam sheenies” Even Barry Goldwater, in the gospel according to Lenny Bruce, illustrates this phenomenon: “He did a switch, man. He says, ‘frig it. I’ll keep my name and I’ll change my religion.’

Few aspects of identity are permanent. Gender, name, religion, noses— almost anything can, and will, be changed in the interest of safety and survival. Still other elements of identity may not be knowable: any Jewish male can be one of the thirty-six sainted men—lamed vovnik—who inhabit the earth at any given time, their saintedness a well-kept secret, even from themselves.

The Woody Allen who creates Allen Felix and Alvy Singer is an artist, but so too is the Allen Felix who tries to make himself over as Bogey, and the Alvy who simulates clumsiness. The Jew who fails to consciously make himself over into someone else may find that some other agency has accepted the assignment. Indeed, the famous story of a man who turns into an insect was written by a Jew.

The schlemiel may have recently come into his own, but Kafka’s horrifying parable of metamorphosis has not lost its relevance. Despite greater social, political and military security for worldwide Jewry, precariousness remains. We’ve not seen the last of the schlemiel—or his superheroic redeemer.


1 “The Jew as Pariah: (1959), in Arthur A. Cohen. ed., Argument and Doctrines: A Reader of Jewish Thinking in the Aftermath of the Holocaust (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), pp. 29ff.

2 Cohen, p. 39.

3 Lillian Ross, “A Reporter at Large: Moments from Chaplin,” New Yorker, May 22, 1978, p. 107.

4 My Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), p. 392.

5 Seymour Krim, referring to Norman Mailer’s alter ego, has observed that “the persona of the Irish fighter-cocksman” was “one that practically every New York Jewish boy of Mailer’s and my generation once dreamed of being.” Shake It for the World, Smartass (New York: Dial, 1970), p. 97.

6 The attractive-repulsive split found in both the schlemiel and the superhero reflects, as Pauline Kael observes, the tugs and twists within the filmmaker himself. Buddy Love is “. . . a cartoon of Dean Martin. Lewis has reconstituted his former team but now plays both halves.” Kael adds that Lewis plays Buddy “for hollow-man Las Vegas loathsomeness; yet in his TV appearances in the years that followed he moved even closer to Buddy Love—even down to singing loudly and off-key, and being aggressively maudlin as he milked the audience for approval.” 5001 Nights at the Movies (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), p. 421.

7 Cf. James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan: “Killarney had a pepper cellar, and they went over to the park to look for Jews and throw pepper in their eyes.” Lenny Bruce: “You and I know what a Jew is—One Who Killed Our Lord. Two thousand years of Polack kids whacking the shit out of us coming home from school.”

8 Waiting for the End (New York: Stern and Day, 1964), pp. 68-9.

9 Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 165-66.


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