Saturday, November 28, 2009

How You Can Tell Sarah's Key is Written by a Non-Jew

At my temple book club discussion of Sarah's Key last week, I realized exactly what was so disturbing about the ending of Sarah's Key (spoiler alert!). When I got to the part where the reader learns that Sarah committed suicide, it didn't ring true to me. That a woman who was so committed to surviving the Holocaust should then run her car into a tree as an adult seemed to ring false. A depressed, sad woman, given all that she experienced, ok, that I could see, but why should she have killed herself? It didn't seem statistically true. Yes, as one woman said at the book club, Primo Levi killed himself. But as another woman said, a Jewish author would not have had the Sarah character kill herself. Sarah's Key is a bestseller and is soon to be a movie filmed in France, with Helen Scott Thomas as the glamorous lead playing the modern-day French woman who uncovers Sarah's story. As Jordana Horn wrote in the Forward last week, speaking of Anne Frank, it's as if the world only likes a "dead Jew" in their Holocaust fiction.

It's also disturbing (by the way, I did like the book, in that it is a well-crafted story, and does not shy away from depicting French involvement in orchestrating the killing of Jews in the Holocaust) that the personal problems of the French journalist are given as much weight, as much gravitas, as Sarah's Shoah experiences, just by virtue of having the chapters alternate with Sarah's story.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Schlemiels in Contemporary Film and Fiction

I'm reading "The Schlemiel as Metaphor" by Sanford Pinsker right now. After seeing the Coen brother movie, "A Serious Man", a few weeks ago, I recognized the main character as a the classic "schlemiel" of Yiddish and contemporary Jewish literature. I'm reading Pinsker to find out the significance of this.

I do think that this helps explain the Coen brothers' inclusion of the Yiddish tale at the start of the film. I haven't seen any critics analyze the film in this way.

I think that beginning story, like the entire film, is a study on the "schlemiel" as well as an attempt to bring life back to the shtetl, which today's audience is unfamiliar with.

Pinsker writes that this schlemiel chracter came out of the Yiddish literature of the East European ghettos in the late nineteenth century. The "goals of the schlemiel, like those of the ghetto Jew, were primarily socioeconomic ones and his continual defeats forced him to view life from a bittersweet perspective. Thus his humor reflected the 'laughter through tears' philosophy of life..." And Pinsker writes about how the schlemiel reappears in contemporary American literature.

I see that husband in the fake-old Yiddish tale as a schlemiel--who takes the dybbuk's words at face value just as Gopnik does with the rabbis' advice---in both stories, it's the wife that rules that roost and has all the power. And Gopnik is the Cohen's take on the modern-day schlemiel.

Pinsker writes, "the schlemiel in contemporary literature is often the one who sees his problem, but no possible solution (Gopnik!). If the traditional schlemiel adapted an ironic posture to face a world he could neither beat nor quit, . . the modern schlemiel "liv[es] on the bare edge of things, embracing thoughts of failure at the same time he is committed to systems of success." The bare edge is that midwestern prairie on which "The Serious Man" is set.