Ruth Wisse—a professor of Yiddish at Harvard and the author of Nextbook Press’s Jews and Power—gave a special commencement address last week to the 13 Jewish cadets who graduated this year from West Point. It’s well worth your time.
Speaking to the college grads, she recalled her own doctoral dissertation, titled, “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.” The schlemiel—the quintessential bumbling Yiddish everyman (who, as Marissa Brostoff observed, continues to find new incarnations)—is, Wisse notes, “a man so naïve that he doesn’t understand the premise of the fight into which he has been conscripted.”
Hence the following joke: During World War I, an officer announces to his troops, “The moment has come! We’re going to charge the enemy. It’ll be man against man in hand-to-hand combat.”
A Jewish solider responds: “Please, sir. Show me my man! Maybe I can come to an understanding with him.”
“We now know,” Wisse continues,
what happened to the people who created those jokes. They were slaughtered in the millions. What we call the Holocaust targeted precisely the population that created schlemiel comedy. We learned from that episode that sweetness was no laughing matter and that joking—which momentarily releases tension—offered no defense against real belligerents. The schlemiel who initially made us laugh also taught us to raise our guard.
Her point? “In this season of convocation, we your relatives, friends, and well-wishers honor you who have trained for the armed forces, acting on the knowledge that radical innocence is no match for radical evil.”
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.