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Sarah Palin: Schlemile?

Max Gross, author of From Schlub to Stud: How to Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City, will be blogging all week as one of Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers. Gross is a real estate reporter for the New … Read More

By / October 28, 2008

Max Gross, author of From Schlub to Stud: How to Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City, will be blogging all week as one of Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers. Gross is a real estate reporter for the New York Post, and also one of Jewcy editor Michael Weiss’s closest friends. Weiss can attest to Max’s being both a schlub and a mensch.

Since she first went on the campaign trail, Sarah Palin has been called many things, but I think Judith Warner might have come up with a new one in her op-ed in Sunday’s Times

She essentially calls Palin a schlemile. (Sort of. Warner quotes the great Bella Abzug saying, "Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemile to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemile." And then she applies that to Palin.)

It’s a mostly fair characterization.

In fact, it’s worth one’s time to look at the classic definition of a schlemile, going by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish) which goes something like this:

1) A foolish person; a simpleton. "He has the brains of a shlemile." [MPG: Rosten very rarely uses the "c" in his "sch" Yiddish words.]

2) A consistently unlucky or unfortunate person; a "fall guy"; a hard-luck type; a born loser; a submissive and uncomplaining victim. "That poor shlemile always gets the short end of the stick." A Yiddish proverb goes: "A shlemile falls on his back and breaks his nose."

3) A clumsy, butterfingered, all-thumbs, gauche type. "Why does a shlemile like that ever try to fix anything?"

4) A social misfit, congenitally maladjusted. "Don’t invite that shlemile to the party."

5) A pipsqueak, a Caspar Milquetoast. "He throws as much weight as a shlemile." "No one pays attention to that shlemile."

6) A naive, trusting, gullible customer. The usage is common among furniture dealers, especially those who sell the gaudy, gimcrack stuff called "borax."

7) Anyone who makes a foolish bargain, or wagers a foolish bet. This usage is wide in Europe; it probably comes from Chamisso’s tale Peter Schlemihl’s Wunderbare Geschichte, a fable in which the protagonist sold his shadow and, like Faust, sold his soul to Satan.

Obviously, not all of these things fit precisely with Sarah Palin. I would be hard pressed to think that someone who has come so far on so little is in any way "unlucky" or "unfortunate." Quite the opposite.

Nor is Palin a social misfit — if anything, her social status is her greatest strength. (Her only strength, when you get right down to it.)

But she certainly fits in with the first definition. (You really couldn’t ask for better words than "Foolish" and "Simpleton" to describe her.)

The third definition I could go either way on. Who knows if Sarah Palin is handy around the house (I’m sure she is) but she definitely strikes me as more than a little gauche.

And I think definitions five, six and seven are all very fair. (Certainly if you watch Tina Fey’s portrayal.)

Which leads me to believe: Warner is right. Sarah Palin is, for the most part, a genuine schlemile. Which, I hate to say, does inspire some pity and sympathy for her — even in a yellow dog Democrat like myself. For a long time now Sarah Palin has clearly been in way over her head — and this has made me wonder if she woke up every morning praying that this non-ending parade of ridicule and media scrutiny were just some dreadful nightmare.

Moreover, the worst you could say about her (until she started playing viciously) was that she didn’t quite appreciate how unqualified she was. It’s not easy being self-aware (most people aren’t) and Palin clearly was not. That’s not her fault, exactly. It’s a reason to vote against her — not to hate her.

But sympathy only goes so far…

Rosten adds something important to his entry on schlemiles: "It is important to observe that shlemile, like nebech [nebbish], carries a distinctive note of pity. In fact, a shlemile is often a nebech’s twin brother. The classic definition goes: ‘A shlemile is always knocking things off a table; the nebech always picks them up.’"

After eight years of picking up after George W. Bush, personally, I’ve had enough schlemiles in the executive branch. Demorcrats were always the much more nebbishy party. Vote nebbish in ’08!

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