What is the Difference between a Schlemiel and a Schlimazal? June 13, 2014

Summer has finally begun! Most school terms end today. Camps begin in the next week or so. Families are starting to take vacations. We observe Father’s Day this Sunday, meaning there will be a lot of dads behind hot grills on Sunday. Beginning on July 4, our Erev Shabbat service will be held at Har Sinai and the Shabbat morning service will be held right here in the Gordon Chapel. Service officiation will be split between Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai clergy, including Rabbis Berlin and Herman, our rabbis emeriti. The schedule is published on our website and in the upcoming edition of Pathways.
So, because it is summer, I thought I would keep it light tonight. So I begin my remarks with a comment on the primary election coming up just ten days from now. Honestly, I have not made up my mind for whom I am voting for governor. One race, in particular, has garnered my attention- that of attorney general. It is the only statewide race which features a Baltimore candidate- Delegate Jon Cardin of District 11, the district where many of us live. Jon Cardin is quite well known in our district and throughout the Baltimore area. He is known because he comes from a politically active family, from his grandfather, Judge Meyer Cardin, to his uncle, Senator Benjamin Cardin, as well as other relatives, including his father, Howard, having served in elective offices. Unfortunately for Jon, he has become better known for a number of gaffes he has committed over the last few years. I will just mention three of the most well known mistakes that have come to public attention:
He proposed to his fiancée, now wife, in the Inner Harbor, using police helicopters and on duty police officers as actors in his proposal. This became a front page story in the Baltimore Sun which brought Delegate Cardin much embarrassment. After an investigation, he paid Baltimore City a paltry $300 for use of the helicopter.
The Baltimore Sun recently revealed he had a less than stellar attendance record in this past session in Annapolis, missing 75% of all floor votes. He attributed his absences to the need to spend time with his wife and young child, especially since his wife was in the midst of a difficult pregnancy. Since most of us have been through this and not missed work, his excuse seems hollow at best and self-serving at worst.
Just last week, he posed for a photo with a local rapper who Tweeted the photo and his endorsement of Jon Cardin for attorney general to thousands of followers. It just so happened that this rapper is awaiting trial for human trafficking and, if found guilty, could be sentenced to 191 years in jail. Realizing his mistake, Delegate Cardin disavowed the endorsement but it was too late. The damage was done. Poor Jon Cardin!
When I read about his last mishap, I realized that this was a comedic situation. Who could make up this stuff? It seems to come directly from the writers of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two shows that continually deal with the schlemiel verses schlimazel theme. I could not help but ask the question, “Is Jon Cardin a schlemiel or a schlimazel?” What is the difference between the two?
I will answer with the classic example from Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish. “A schlemiel is one who always spills his soup, a schlimazel is the one on whom it always lands. A schlimazel’s toast always falls butter-side down. A schlemiel always butters his toast on both sides.”
A few more examples translated from the Yiddish: If a schlimazal dealt in shrouds, no one would die. If a schlimazal sold umbrellas it would never rain. If a schlimazel dealt in candles, the sun would never go down. A schlimazal falls on his back and breaks his nose. A schlemiel falls over a piece of straw. A schlemiel has a continuing argument with God. A schlemiel cannot even tie a ribbon on a cat’s tail.
There is quite a bit of scholarly literature on the differences between the two. The noted professor, Ruth Wisse believes that the schlemiel is derived from “the category of the luckless or inept, like the schlimazel. She differentiates the schlemiel and the schlimazel in this way:
The schlemiel is the active disseminator of bad luck, and the schlimazel its passive victim . . . The schlimazel happens upon mischance, he has a penchant for lucklessness . . . . The schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential.
Whereas comedy involving the schlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in its confrontation with reality.
As my professor at F&M, Sandy Pinsker wrote, “the word schlimazel derives from the German schlim (bad) coupled with the Hebrew mazel (star); in other words, “one born under a bad star.” The word “schlimazel” was common in German usage before the nineteenth century, appearing in Grimm’s dictionary as the “Hebrew word schlimazel, meaning luckless” and “traced to Jewish underworld slang.” In June 2004, Yiddish schlimazel was one of the ten non-English words that were voted hardest to translate by a British translation company.
Seinfeld was replete with story lines dealing with the schlemiel and schlimazal. George Constanza, played by Jason Alexander, was the classic schlimazal and Jerry Seinfeld was the classic schlemiel. There are countless examples of their fitting into these classic Jewish molds. You can even read scholarly literature which explains this, show by show.
I will leave it to you, dear friends, to ponder the differences between a schlemiel and a schlimazel. So I leave you with several questions. “Is Jon Cardin a schlemiel or a schlimazal?” Is he an active or passive disseminator of bad luck? Does he bring these things upon himself, as if he lives under an unlucky star, or is he a passive recipient of mischance? Is he perhaps a little bit of both? I will be interested in your responses. No talk about that over Shabbat dinner.
Amen and Shabbat shalom

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