On Harsh Realism, Ethical Hope, and the Meaning(s) of Jewishness in Saul Bellow’s Herzog

The tension between Eastern European and Western European Jews (before the Holocaust and not long after) can be understood in many different ways. One of the most interesting ways to approach this tension can be found in their approach to life itself. Growing up I bore constant witness to a good friend of my father who saw Jewishness, like many American Jews of Eastern European descent, in terms of community, language, and moral goodness. He contrasted Eastern European approach (which he called “Yiddish”) to that of many German or Austrian-American Jews (which he called “Goyish”) who, he believed, were lacking all of these and who, in becoming Germans or Austrians, abandoned their Eastern European ways.

Daniel Boyarin, in his book Unheroic Conduct, echoes these views when he contrasts Sigmund Freud to his Eastern European father. The latter, in Boyarin’s view, is the paradigm of the traditional moral Jew while Freud is a paradigm of the more militant and “Goyish” “new Jew.” (Boyarin entitled a key chapter of his book, which illustrates this contrast, “Goyishe Nachas.”)  According to Boyarin, the latter, “new Jew” is foreign because s/he is more German, masculinist, and Romantic than Jewish, traditional, and pre-masculinist. Another way of looking at this tension is by way of the contrast between harsh realism and optimism which, according to Ruth Wisse, informs the Eastern European schlemiel character. While the German-Jewish skeptic scoffs at the schlemiel for not being realistic and being blind to the world, the Eastern European Jew finds a point of identification with the schlemiel’s heart-felt, and optimistic way of life. Despite the fact that the world is evil, the schlemiel maintains some glimmering of ethical hope and moral dignity.

In Saul Bellow’s Herzog, we see this kind of contrast by way of his characterization of Nachman, an old friend of Moses Herzog, and his view of life to Herzog’s family and way of life. The differences between them give us a strong sense of what, according to Bellow, informs the life of the schlemiel in general and Moses Herzog in particular. The comic character, as Bellow constructs him, provides American readers with an ethical post-Holocaust schlemiel. He shows us that this character is not some absent-minded fool but a caring, reflective, and relevant individual who, though comical, comes from a good place.

In the midst of an angry letter full of satire and invective to a scholar he vehemently disagreed with, Herzog reflects on something closer to home. He goes from self-conscious wit to compassion when he remembers his childhood friend “Nachman.”

When we first meet Nachman, we see a ragged person who is stumbling through the streets of New York. When he sees Herzog, he runs away:

In a beatnik cap, on the razzle dazzle street of lion bearded homosexuals wearing green eye paint, there, suddenly, was Herzog’s childhood playmate. A heavy nose, hair white, thick unclean glasses. The stooped poet took one look at Moses and ran away. (129-130)

From Nachman’s name, one can guess that, before he was a poet, he was raised as a religious Jew. The narrator starts in the present and moves his way backwards to his religious roots. He describes a moment when the poet he knocked on Herzog’s door in Paris, where Herzog was researching and writing a book. Nachman is “wrinkled and dirty, his nose red from weeping, his creased face the face of a dying man”(130).

Nachman tells Herzog that the father of his girlfriend, Laura, had been taken away from him by her father in New York. And now he needs money: “Lend me dough or I’m ruined. You’re my only friend in Paris” (130).

Reflecting on this, Herzog starts differentiating central Europe from America and notes that Nachman and Laura read Rilke and Rimbaud and accustomed themselves to sickness, absurdity, and poverty.   Then, reflecting on himself, he wonders how “altruistic” he appears or if he has lost this quality of kindness. This brings him back to his memory of Nachman as a religious boy and Nachman’s father, Reb Shika, who was Herzog’s Torah teacher:

Reb Shika had a yellow color, Mongolian, a tiny handsome man. He wore a black skullcap, a mustache like Lennin’s…The Bible lay open on the course table cover. Moses clearly saw the Hebrew characters – DMAI OCHICHO – the blood of thy brother. Yes, that was it. God speaking to Cain. Thy brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth. (131)

This scene, which he reflects on, is of the harshest realism. In it, we find the theme of betrayal and murder; and what’s worse, it is the most unlikely kind of murder, which goes against nature: the murder of one brother by the other.

However, Herzog doesn’t stay on this theme (which returns later in the chapter). He turns, instead, to a memory of Reb Shika’s harshness. The Rabbi was tough with Herzog:

You watch your step, Herzog, Moses. Your mother thinks you’ll be a great lamden – a rabbi. But I know you, how lazy you are. Mothers’ hearts are broken by mamzeirim like you! Eh! Do I know you, Herzog? Through and through. (131)

Herzog remembers how this harshness spurred him to run away. But Herzog didn’t run away like Nachman did. While Herzog retained the memory, his Jewishness, and his questions about its meaning, Nachman did not.   Nachman stayed away from Herzog most of his life because Herzog “remembers” their shared past. Nachman wanted, like many Jews who left the ghetto behind, to start anew and without any memory.   Herzog, in contrast, “persecuted” everyone with his memory (131).

By using these terms in a witty manner, Bellow is suggesting that the schlemiel’s memory keeps him thinking about Jewishness. The narrator points out how, without memory, Nachman destroys himself and so does his girlfriend, Laura (who attempts suicide and ends up in a mental asylum).   He points out she brings her “French literature” into the institution with her and talks “only” of it (132).   Meanwhile, Nachman becomes more and more paranoid and angry. He suggests that his cynical view is based on the harsh realism of power and its designs. He speaks of it in a poetic manner and romanticizes his suffering and Laura’s captivity in a mental institution. His descriptions of Laura echo descriptions one might find of Swede’s daughter, Merry, in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral:

The persecution of her family. What do you think? The bourgeois world of Westchester! Wedding announcements, linens, charge accounts, that was what her mother and father expected out of her. But this is a pure soul that understands only pure things. She is a stranger here…In New York we were wanderers too. (133)

Herzog’s reflections on Nachman’s ranting show us that he finds this romanticism and harsh realism to be “unreal, fervent, and dull”(133).   In one of these rants, we see that Nachman would rather die (he capitalizes “Death” as something desirable) than be subjected to American “meanness.”

After this reactionary tirade, Herzog says “It isn’t as bad as you make out, Nachman…Most people are unpoetical, and you consider this a betrayal”(134). Nachman tells Herzog that he has “visions of judgment” while Herzog has “learned to accept a mixed condition of life”(134). He calls Herzog “blind” for not seeing how bad reality is.   And at this point, the reader can see two distinctly different views of life: one cynical, the other less so.

However, immediately after condemning Herzog, Nachman has a change of heart and remembers the good that Herzog’s mother did for him when he was down. Herzog may be “blind,” but because of his mother he is a blind “but a good man.”

“But a good man, Moses. Rooted in yourself. But a good heart. Like your mother. A gentle spirit. You got it from her. I was hungry and she fed me. She washed my hands and sat me at the table. That I remember. She was the only one who was kind to my Uncle Ravitch, the drunkard. I sometimes say a prayer for her.” (134)

Bellow suggests that the memory of goodness – and Herzog’s goodness – help to bring Nachman back to his senses. And since goodness is, for Bellow, the key quality of the schlemiel, one can see how it is also a challenge to a bleak European view of life.

Herzog goes on to remember Nachman’s drunken uncle and how his mother and father cared for him when no one else did. And all of these memories, taken together, remind Herzog of why it matters most in life to be kind to those who are rejected and downtrodden. He associates Jewishness more with this than with the harshness he experienced with Nachman’s father.

The schlemiel is a moral figure. In Yiddish literature, there are many examples of the schlemiel’s generosity and kindness to others. However, even though the schlemiel is kind he or she is often laughed at. Think, for example, of the famous schlemiel joke about the schlemiel, the schlimazel, and the nudnik. The schlemiel is the one who wants to feed the schlimazal but, right when he is about to give him soup, he spills it on him. And in the schlemiel classic, I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” the main character, Gimpel, is a very kind character. He trusts people. And even though they repeatedly betray him, he keeps on trusting them. Although this blindness to their betrayal (Ruth Wisse, however, does not think it is blind) may seem foolish and comical, it underscores the importance of the schlemiel’s goodness.

Unlike any Jewish-American writer at his time, Bellow, in his novel Herzog, was the first to give an extensive genealogy of a schlemiel’s moral character. To this end, Bellow includes a large section on Herzog’s mother, father, and brothers. This section follows in the wake of a section on his childhood friend, Nachman.   As I pointed out in the last blog entry, Nachman is a troubled man who cannot come to terms with his father, a Rabbi, and his upbringing. He intentionally forgets it all and when he sees Herzog he is painfully reminded of it. For this reason, he “runs away.” By way of Herzog, Bellow suggests that the reason why he is so reactionary is because he didn’t grow up with a family that was good to the downtrodden. His father is more bitter and cynical than caring and optimistic.

Although Nachman runs away from his past and Herzog’s memory, he does remember that Herzog may be “blind” (to how bad things are) but he is “good.” Nachman remembers the schlemiel’s moral quality and he does this by way of remembering how good Herzog’s mother was to him and how kind his mother and father were to his “Uncle Ravitch,” a “drunkard”(134).   It’s because of these deeds that Nachman says that he “prays” for “her” and for “Moses.” In other words, goodness is contagious and can pierce through even Nachman’s trenchant cynicism and alienation.

After saying this to Herzog, Nachman gets on a bus and leaves him. They never speak again. And Herzog is left with their memories, which oppress him: “But I, with my memory – all the dead and the mad are in my custody, and I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten. I bind others to my feelings”(134).

Herzog learned this practice of binding “others” to his feelings from his parents. He suggests this when he reflects on “Uncle Ravitch” and how his parents helped the drunkard:

He drank his pay – a shicker. No one judged himself more harshly. When he came out of the saloon he stood wavering in the street, directing traffic, falling among horses and trucks and slush. The police were tired of throwing him in the drunk tank. They brought him home, to Herzog’s hallway, and pushed him in. Ravitch, late at night, sang on the freezing states in a sobbing voice.


            “Alein, alien, alien, alein

            Elend vie a shtein

            Mit die tzen finger – alein”(135)


            (“Alone, alone, alone, alone

            Solitary as a stone

            With my ten fingers – alone”)

After hearing this song, the narrator tells us that “Jonah Herzog,” Moses Herzog’s father, “got out of bed and turned on the light in the kitchen, listening”(135). All of his children, including Moses, watch the father as he listens to the song and moves to act. Herzog’s mother urges the father to help the drunkard:

Mother Herzog spoke from her room, “Yonah – help him in.” (135)

The narrator details all of the movements and hesitations that go on before he helps “Uncle Ravitch.” And the children witness this. It has a great affect on them, especially Moses Herzog, the schlemiel:

It amused the boys to hear how their father coaxed drunken Ravitch to get on his feet. It was family theater. “Nu, landtsman.” Can you walk? It’s freezing. Now, get your crooked feet on the step – schneller, schneller.” He laughed with his bare breath…The boys pressed together in the cold, smiling. (136)

Following this, the narrator points out how, in Russia, “father Herzog had been a gentleman” and wealthy.   Now he was reduced to poverty and taking care of a drunkard in the middle of the night. None of that mattered in this moment.

The narrator goes on to tell us how Yonah Herzog’s life became the life of what Hannah Arendt – in her essay “The Jew as Pariah” – would call the “schlemiel as suspect.” To support his family, he would run alcohol in an age of prohibition:

He sold a bottle here and there and waited for his main chance. American rum-runners would buy the stuff from you at the border (of Canada), any amount, spot cash, if you could get it there. Meanwhile he smoked cigarettes on the cold platform of streetcars. The Revenue was trying to catch up with him. Spotters were after him. On the roads to the border were hijackers. (138)

Herzog recalls his childhood poverty and the dirtiness and crime around him. At the same time, he recalls how, in the midst of all this, he and his brothers prayed and his parents persisted despite the circumstances. And with all this, they still felt it was necessary to help out others such as “Uncle Ravitch.”

The chapter ends with the children bearing witness to Zipporah, Yonah Herzog’s successful sister, berating him – in from of Moses Herzog and his family – about working with criminal types:

“You think you can make a fortune out of swindlers, thieves, and gangsters. You? You’re a gentle creature. I don’t know why you didn’t stay in Yeshiva. You wanted to be a gilded little gentleman…You can never keep up with these teamsters and butchers. Can you shoot a man?” (145)

To be sure, there are many schlemiel jokes about how the Jew can’t be violent (or, rather, doesn’t know how to). The schlemiel is a humanist. But this is the question. The sister keeps on asking Yonah whether he can be violent. Yonah’s wife goes along with his sister.

Herzog admits that he is “no weakling” but, says the narrator, “all his violence went into the drama of his life, into family strife, and sentiment”(146). He can not hurt others in order to survive.

This all comes to a head when Moses Herzog recalls how his father, one night, came home beaten up:

We were all there. It was a gloomy March…It was like a cavern. We were like cave dwellers. “Sara!” he said. “Children!” He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters…Then he turned his pockets inside out – empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him – a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes he was a king to us. (147)

The reduction and humiliation of Moses Herzog’s father have a deep impression on him of the kind of evil that exists in the world. But at the very end of the chapter, Herzog notes that his father’s suffering, after the Holocaust, is not exceptional:

What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog’s claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. (148)

Given the long sections on Nachman, the reader can see that Herzog is now faced with a choice between being or not being a cynic. And this is where Bellow gives his reading of Jewishness and its relationship to comedy and suffering the stage:

Personalities are good only for comic relief. But I am still a slave to Papa’s pain. The way Father Herzog spoke of himself! That could make one laugh. His I had such dignity. (149)

Irving Howe was very attracted to Bellow’s reading of humor. In the midst of suffering (tears), there is laughter and a sense of self remains…despite all of the humiliation. Moses Herzog recalls the “two figures” of his father: one beaten and humiliated and the other self-mocking and dignified. He acknowledges the dead and the suffering and at the same time remembers how…there is still hope.

And that is what informs the schlemiel’s genealogy. His hope, suggests Bellow, is not born in a vacuum but out of Jewish history and in response to violence and needless suffering. The moral quality stands out against this backdrop. And the schlemiel carries all of this with him in all of his interactions.

Without comic relief, Herzog would become a cynical and self-destructive Nachman.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory

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