Portnoy’s Complaint and The Zohan’s Answer: Israel, America and…the Schlemiel


You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Columbia Pictures, 2008

by Menachem Feuer

Today, millions of Americans watch reality TV shows which, more often than not, broadcast episode after episode of comedic scenarios. Instead of watching the news or reading newspapers, millions of people get their take on political events by way of comedians like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. To be sure, comedy has become so popular that it is more than obvious that American identity is wed to humor. But jokes don’t come out of a vacuum and neither does American identity. We often forget that in America a lot of the comedy enjoyed today has ethnic roots and that, for many, even today, it is still hyphenated (African-American, Asian-American, Italian-American, etc).

Jewish-American comedy, in particular, has Eastern European and Germanic roots. It came over from Europe; and in many ways, as Jews became more and more assimilated, Jewish comedy became… American comedy. It lost a lot of its ethnic particularity and has, to a major extent, become generic. Nonetheless, Jewish-Americans still identify with humor and see Jewishness as inextricably connected to it. While over 80% of American Jews in a recent Pew Poll found that the memory of the Holocaust was essential to Jewish identity, and although 43% of Jews said that “caring for Israel” was essential to Jewish-American identity, 42% thought a “good sense of humor” was of equal importance. The fact that humor and “caring for Israel,” in the Jewish-American population, are of equal importance (nearly to the percentage point) is thought-provoking. What do we make of this?

First of all, it shows us how humor, for American Jews, is in competition with Israel. I would suggest that this can be thought of as a problem and can be the basis, so to speak, of a complaint. But this is not so much an American complaint as a Jewish-American one which may have to do with the fact that Jewish-American identity is fundamentally different from Israeli identity. Rather than see this complaint about the tension between humor and Israel in a negative sense, I suggest that it be read by way of the Yiddish word, “kvetch” since this word – like many Yiddish words – makes fun of the complaint and makes it something that can be addressed publicly. This kvetch, I would argue, is not just about American-Jews versus Israelis; it is also about the schlemiel (a figure central to Jewish-American identity) and its defiant relationship to the Sabra (a figure central to Israeli identity).

The Schlemiel and the Sabra

Although many comic types came over from Europe, the most popular Jewish comic character to become a part of the American mainstream is the schlemiel. While Hannah Arendt defines the schlemiel as an “innocent” character, a “lord of dreams” who “turns to and entertains the common people,” Sander Gilman defines schlemiels as “fools who believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.” This innocence and populism, coupled with her charming belief that she is in control when she is clearly not, makes for an American kind of schlemiel. But with the American schlemiel – as opposed to the European schlemiels that are the subject of Gilman and Arendt’s definitions – there are a few added elements; namely, the schlemiel as the less-than-masculine man-child, the schlemiel as neurotic and hypersexual, and the schlemiel as socially awkward. In America, as in Europe, however, all of the schlemiel’s victories are ironic. And they are won, in all cases, by way of a language or plot that is defiantly comical.

The proof that the schlemiel is an American comedic character is in the pudding: when one thinks of the American schlemiel one might think of Woody Allen as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Jason Alexander as George in Seinfeld, Ben Stiller as (name any character in any of his movies), or Seth Rogen as Ben in Knocked Up or, most recently, as Mac Radner in Neighbors. These films are so much a part of the American mainstream that a Jewish Studies scholar like David Biale has argued that when one sees the schlemiel in this or that film or sitcom viewers don’t identify him as a Jew so much as an American. Without a doubt, the schlemiel has gradually become an American icon.

Although many of us may be familiar with schlemiels in Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, or Seth Rogen’s films, what many of us don’t know is that the American schlemiel has been seen by some scholars, writers, and filmmakers (some who call themselves “diasporists” and some who do not) as a challenge to the main figure of Israeli culture; namely, the native born Israeli, the Sabra. And while, for some, this tension between the schlemiel and the Sabra reflects American stereotypes, myths, and projections, for still others it brings out fundamental differences between American Jews and Israelis. At the root of this tension is the insistence that Jewish-American identity is comical and ahistorical while Israeli identity is serious and historically grounded.

The differences between the American schlemiel and the Sabra as envisioned by Philip Roth, in his most popular novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1967) and as later re-envisioned by Adam Sandler, in his movie Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008), show us how meaningful this stark contrast between the schlemiel and the Sabra might be for American Jews. Roth’s book and Sandler’s film span four decades, and they figure the schlemiel and the Israeli in fundamentally different ways. These different figurations show us that Jews in America may understand themselves, as American-Jews, in contrast to Israelis. The Pew poll, coupled with these two works, suggests that there may be an identity crisis within American Jewry that is split between a Jewishness that is based on humor and the schlemiel – a Diasporic Jewishness – and one that is based on Israel as a Jewish homeland.

What Roth shows us is that, after 1967 (the year he published the book and the same year Israel fought and won a major war against it’s regional enemies that Marc H. Ellis suggests, in one of his books, changed Israel from a “David” to a “Goliath”), the schlemiel, a fundamentally Diasporic and comic character, enters into a larger Jewish identity crisis than it had experienced before. With respect to Jewish-American identity, if the schlemiel – and the Jewish American identity it is connected to – is to be consequential, Philip Roth (arguably the greatest living Jewish-American novelist) believed it had to be put into a position – in fiction, film, etc – that was in stark contrast with Israeli identity.

Roth’s insistence on the schlemiel and its tension with Israel is also in dire contrast to the image of the Sabra that was built up by Leon Uris in his bestselling book (published in the 1958, with over 30 re-printings and also made into a popular film), Exodus. Regarding the book’s image of the Sabra, Biale writes of how Ari Ben Canaan, the main character of Uris’s novel, “fits the Zionist stereotypes: he is ascetic and fanatical but as a prototypical Sabra…has his hidden romantic side…Zionism, it seems has not only liberated the Jews from sexual neurosis but has turned him into a quasi goy.” Roth’s schlemiel, Alexander Portnoy, is clearly a challenge to this “quasi goy.” For Roth, Portnoy – an un-heroic comic character who stands in contrast to Ari Ben Canaan, the heroic Sabra – informs the meaning of post-67’ American Jewishness.

But Roth’s novel was written in (and for) the generation that experienced Israel’s battle with its regional foes in 1967. What about now? While Woody Allen, Ben Stiller and Seth Rogen don’t figure Israel in any of their filmic American portrayals of the schlemiel, Adam Sandler does in Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2012). But, since Sandler casts Zohan as a Sabra-slash-schlemiel, he complicates Roth’s portrayal of not just the schlemiel but of the Sabra. Regardless, Zohan, like all schlemiels, has to take a journey to America (or, in Portnoy’s case, back to America) because, as the book and the film suggest, the identification of humor with Jewish identity can only happen on American soil. This insistence on place is rooted in the contrast between the schlemiel and the Sabra that Roth insists on; but it is also rooted in the contrast Sandler brings out when he has Zohan leave for America to become a hairstylist and discover himself. To be sure, America is the schlemiel’s home because it is the land of “discovery” while Israel, as Sidrah Ezrahi puts it, is the land of “recovery.”

The schlemiel, given these distinctions, shouldn’t just make us laugh; it should make us think. How, after all, does humor relate to Jewish-American identity and how does it create the basis for a distinction between an American Jew and Israeli? Is this distinction based on mythic projections or something more fundamental? To argue that the distinction is fundamental is to suggest that the schlemiel may be necessary for American Jews but unnecessary for Israelis; while to argue that the distinction between the schlemiel and the Sabra is mythical and purely stereotypical, is to argue that the schlemiel has no necessity whatsoever and that the connection between Jewish humor and Jewish-American identity is purely arbitrary. By way of Roth’s book and Sandler’s movie, we can see that while Portnoy has a complaint or rather kvetch about this distinction and maintains the tension between the schlemiel and the Sabra as a problem, the Zohan attempts a resolution. Nonetheless, Roth and Sandler would agree that, for American Jews, humor is the basis of Jewish-American identity – although, of course, it is at odds with what it finds equally important to Jewish-American identity; namely, Israel.

Portnoy’s Kvetch

Alexander Portnoy is the main character of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. The entire novel is a recording of Portnoy’s conversation with his psychotherapist. This recording evinces a kind of psychohistory of the American schlemiel. First of all, we learn, from the outset of the conversation, that Portnoy was over-weaned by his mother. Like many Jewish mothers, she wanted her son to be a success, give her grandchildren, etc. However, Portnoy recalls how, because of this over-weaning, he became a man-child of sorts. This comes out in a set of questions asked by his mother and his responses to them in the wake of his refusal to eat food one evening:

Do I want people to look down on a skinny little boy all my life, or to look up to a man?

Do I want to be pushed around and made fun of, do I want to be skin and bones that people can knock over with a sneeze, or do I want to command respect?

Which do I want to be when I grow up, weak or strong, a success or failure, a man or a mouse? (14)

After his mother sees that these questions have no effect – and he still refuses to eat – he projects an image of her waving a knife at him for being a schlemiel. In the midst of this reflection, he turns to the trope of “discovery” by way of noting that, one day before the incident, his mother “applauded” him “as I stormed around the kitchen rehearsing my role as Christopher Columbus in a third grade production of Land Ho!” However, after this event he learned that his “teacher later confided in my mother that it had been second rate.” In other words, his attempt at passing as the American explorer, par excellence, was a failure. His Jewish version of being an American explorer comes across as a kind of parody.

Perhaps in rebellion to this failure, Portnoy describes his discovery of things that were hidden away from him and society. For this reason, his discovery of America includes his discovery of masturbation, sex, and, last but not least, humor. These inform his identity as an American-Jew. Contrary to many readers of this book, his greatest discovery is not the discovery of perverse sexuality but the discovery of comic wit and its connection to being an American Jew. However, this discovery comes later in the novel.

Like many schlemiel characters, his substitute for physical and sexual power is the power of wit. And this substitution is, to his mind, Jewish, not “goyish.” But this doesn’t mean he is in love with all the Jews. He spreads his hatred evenly across all groups. And, like a stand-up comic, he enjoys defiling everyone. Each defiling is a kind of self-discovery for him. And while the “shikses” he sleeps with put the “id back in the Yid, I put the oy back in the goy”(208).

When talking of his sexual exploits, he comically refers to himself as Christopher Columbus and recalls his most American adventure, on American Thanksgiving; with a girl he calls “The Pumpkin.” He likens his discovery to manifest destiny and transposes it to a drive to battle and “conquer America” through wit and sexuality:

What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls so much as I stick it up their backgrounds – as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America – maybe that’s more like it. Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthrop, General Washington – now Portnoy. As though my manifest destiny is to seduce a girl from each of the forty-eight states. As for Alaskan and Hawaiian women, I really have no feelings either way, no scores to settle, no coupons to cash in, no dreams to put to rest. (234)

Portnoy goes on to parody the American pledge of allegiance (“I pledge allegiance to the twat of the United States of America”) and give details of how he sexually exploited blue blood American women.

But his discovery of what it means to be an American-Jew comes when he remembers his Jewish community heckling and telling jokes at the baseball field rather than at the synagogue. In this memory, he discovers that the ballpark, to his mind, is not about baseball so much as about Jewish humor. It is his home and the humor he finds there with his Jewish community makes him proud of being Jewish:

I tell you, they are an endearing lot! I sit in the wooden stands alongside first base, inhaling the sour springtime bouquet in the pocket of my fielder’s mitt…and laughing my head off. I cannot imagine myself living out my life any other place but here. Why leave, why go, when there is everything here that I will ever want? The ridiculing, the joking, the acting up, the pretending – anything for a laugh! I love it!…Putting on a show! How I am going to love growing up to be a Jewish man! (243)

Strangely enough, Portnoy remembers this while flying over Tel Aviv: “I look down from two thousand feet in the air upon the Land of Israel, where the Jewish people first came into being, and am impaled upon a memory of Sunday morning softball games in Newark.”

It is Portnoy’s journey to Israel, which he sees as motivated by Jewish guilt, that brings up his greatest challenge. This memory, born out of his first sight of Israel from the air, shows us that he sees himself as an American Jew whose identity is primarily rooted in humor, and that Israel may present the greatest challenge to this identity. When he gets to Israel, he meets up with a people that are grounded in history and “recovery” rather than humor and “discovery.” Nonetheless, he is astonished by what he discovers in Israel.

To his mind, Israel is like a “dream.” Everything he sees is Jewish: Jewish policemen, workers, taxi drivers, people in the cafes, etc. Here, anti-Semitism, which he suffered back in America, is non-existent. Here, there are no blue-blood Americans to discover or defile. And in this kind of context, his Jewish-American identity, with its basis in acerbic wit, is compromised.

However, when, near the end of the novel, he meets Naomi (a Sabra) his Jewish-American identity comes face to face with its greatest challenge. But what he discovers, through a failed attempted sexual tryst with a Sabra is that, as an American schlemiel, he is fundamentally different from the Sabra. This difference emerges when his sexual advances are rejected by Naomi.

Defending herself from his advance, she hits him and then he hits her back…but with words. But before he does, Naomi brings out how his Jewish-American identity is based on humor and is too self-deprecating. While he sees his wit as a “classic form of Jewish humor,” she sees it as “ghetto humor.” In their final volley, she has the last word and that word is “shlemiel” (spelled with an “sh” rather than with the anglicized “sch”):

“Mr. Portnoy,” she said, raising her knapsack from the floor, “you are nothing but a self-hating Jew.”

“Ah, but Naomi, maybe that’s the best kind.”



Shlemiel!” (265)

Notice that “shlemiel” is in italics. To be sure, this word and what it means marks Portnoy off as an American-Jew and not a Sabra. And while Naomi sees the term in a negative sense, he reads it in an opposite manner. When Naomi leaves, he proudly and comically sings his coda, which Naomi correctly sees as yet “another joke”: “Im-po-tent in Is-rael, dad a daah,” to the tune of “lullaby in Birdland.” After singing his song and hearing Naomi’s response, he comically (and perhaps sadly) realizes that he needs to go home, “back into the exile.” And, following this account, which he recalls to his psychiatrist, he exalts his “endless childhood” and his sense of humor. These things, in distinction to Sabra who recovers her identity and history by living in her homeland, make him an American Jew. Nonetheless, his complaint (his kvetch), framed in a comic manner, remains. This complaint is based on the discovery that, in Israel, the Sabra objects to a Jewish-American life that is based on self-deprecation and “ghetto humor.” Yet, the visit to Israel was not for nothing. It helped Portnoy to discover that the basis for Jewish-American identity is humor and how it and the schlemiel who speaks it are in stark contrast to Israeli identity and the Sabra.

The Zohan’s Answer

Writing on the topic of what he calls the “new” American schlemiel, Daniel Itzkovitz argues that the American schlemiel goes through a transformation in the 1990s. In that decade, he sees two new models for the schlemiel. He is either transformed from a nerd into a hypermasculine character, as in Jeff Goldblum’s transformation in Independence Day (1996), or he lives on by way of American schlemiel characters played by actors like Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller or Jason Biggs.

In the latter version, the schlemiel becomes the everyman and loses its Jewishness. The schlemiel becomes the American. Sidrah Ezrahi, in Booking Passage, seems to agree with Itzkovitz. But she adds one element that hearkens back to Portnoy’s Complaint; namely, that the American schlemiel cannot be thought of outside of the relation to Israel. The tension between the two informs what she calls the “modern Jewish imagination.”

Her distinctions between Israel and America are fascinating. But while a scholar like David Biale thinks they are mythical and stereotypical projections, she argues that they are fundamental (or ontological) and suggests, like Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint, that in Israel a schlemiel is impossible (or at least unnecessary). Given this claim, how is this distinction put into fare in relation to a film like the Zohan?

What Sandler does in Don’t Mess With the Zohan is to mix the two types that Itzkovitz sees emerging in the 1990s into one character: the hyper-masculine transformed schlemiel and the effeminate schlemiel. To be sure, “The Zohan,” as the hypermasculine Sabra is represented (or rather caricatured) from the very start of the film. Beautiful women love him; he multi-tasks ping-pong and barbequing fish, and, upon a moment’s notice, can catch hacky sacks and fish in his anus.

On the other hand, The Zohan has a secret, effeminate desire, to cut and style hair. The two come into conflict when he is asked by the IDF to track down and kill a major Palestinian terrorist played by John Turtoro. The fight scenes between the two are comical and parody the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians.

Nonetheless, it is the journey to New York which marks the beginning of Zohan’s journey of discovery.

In coming to America, he styles hair and leaves war and Israel behind for a new life. He falls in love with a Palestinian woman who also happens to be in America. Nonetheless, when confronted with the terrorist in New York, he steps up to the plate. But instead of killing him, he saves his life and accomplishes a quasi-peace between Jews and Palestinians. He and Turtoro fight side by side with him against a contrived Middle- Eastern crisis in New York City.

The Zohan comes to discover wholeness and peace in America, “the land of dreams,” and not in Israel. Compared to Portnoy, Zohan’s sexuality is not abnormal. He has few qualms with Israeli life save for the fact that, as a schlemiel, his secret, childlike, desire is to cut hair in America. In America, he discovers his dream and lives in accordance with this discovery. However, instead of using the schlemiel to kvetch about Israel, Sandler finds a way to use the schlemiel to reconcile Israel and America. But this reconciliation, as I have noted above, is on American soil and is meant for American audiences. It addresses the tension between American humor and the Sabra by suggesting an American solution.

America’s relationship to Israel has changed dramatically since Roth’s novel was published, and as the recent Pew Poll shows Jewish-American identity teeters between humor and Israel. While Roth shows that the two are antithetical, Sandler shows that they need not be. But the only way for that to work would be if the audience were to imagine a hypermasculine Sabra as a schlemiel who needs to discover America if he is to become whole and solve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

However, even this resolution retains a problem that may, as Sidra Ezrahi suggests, be ontological. The Zohan and Alexander Portnoy are on a journey of discovery; the vehicle of discovery is humor, and the character of choice for this journey is the schlemiel. In contrast, an Israeli poet like Yehuda Amichai is on the path of reclaiming Jewish identity by way of recovering a land and a history that was displaced by the Diaspora. And this path is very serious. His poem, “Jerusalem, 1967,” written on the same date as Portnoy’s Complaint, is lacking in humor, the voice is certainly not that of the schlemiel, and it is not American.

I’ll end with an excerpt from “Jerusalem, 1967” so as to bring out the possibility that Jewish-American identity may be perpetually at odds with Israeli identity if, and only if, it is defined primarily by humor and the discovery of Jewish identity rather than its recovery. While an American-Jew can remain a schlemiel and, like Portnoy, enjoy his anti-heroic gestures and comic discoveries, Amichai tells us, as an Israeli, that Israel is the land where things are at stake, where one can, in the face of danger and war, make a heroic or… a tragic decision. Unlike the American-schlemiel, who lives far from danger and chooses comedy over heroism, the Israeli lives in the wake of a “warning” that remains “in everything”:

I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus routes
but: 70 After, 1917, 500
B.C., Forty-eight. They are the lines
you really travel on.

And already the demons of the past are meeting
with the demons of the future and negotiating about me
above me, their give-and-take neither giving nor taking,
in the high arches of shell-orbits above my head.

A man who comes back to Jerusalem is aware that the places
that used to hurt don’t hurt anymore.
But a light warning remains in everything,
like the movement of a light veil: warning.