First Person / sIngular Jewish
February 17, 1998 / 21 Tevet, 5758

A Shmendrik's Luck

You never know how things are going to turn out

By Yaakov Luria

YOU MAY RECALL the distinction the great lexicographer, Al Capp, once made between two folk types, the shlemiel and shlimazel: A shlemiel, he explained, is a waiter in a Jewish restaurant who spills soup over a shlimazel he is serving.

However, there is a third type, a close relative of the shlimiel and the shlimazel and a distinguished member of the wimp family in his own right. Since Professor Capp overlooked him, I have undertaken the scholarly obligation of dealing with the shmendrik.

The shlemiel and the shlimazel are foregone losers. Though they may put up a fight against their unlucky stars, they struggle in vain. Not so the shmendrik. He only seems to be unlucky, but he often comes up with a surprise. He may slip on a banana peel but don't bet on him falling. Of the three types, not only is the shmendrik likely to recover his balance, he will find a $10 bill under that peel.

I once knew a shmendrik named Boris Garfinkle.

I met Boris 40 years ago at the summer session of a university in upstate New York. Ostensibly I was taking graduate courses in English lit; actually I was hoping to find a wife. Boris, who taught physics at a small Midwestern college, was completing his research for a Ph.D. in astronomy and spent much time in the university observatory trying to discover new heavenly bodies. We became fast friends, even though my interests were earthly while his were celestial.

Boris was a small man in his mid-30s with thick-lensed glasses and wisps of blondish hair straggling over his balding head. An emigrant from Kamentz-Podolsk in Ukraine, he spoke English with a comic Slavic accent and sang soulful Russian folk songs to the strumming of a mandolin.

His clothes suggested not only that he slept in them but that he was a restless sleeper. He usually wore wildly mismatched socks (blue and yellow seemed his favorites) and coins and keys jangled from holes in his pockets as he dug into his memory for the spot where he had parked his car.

Boris was never sure whether he was supposed to meet someone somewhere on Tuesday evening or someone was supposed to meet him on Thursday morning. Yet, he never forgot his packet of commendatory letters from famous scientists, among them one from Albert Einstein praising Boris for a difficult mathematical calculation which helped support the Theory of Relativity.

Incorrigibly romantic, Boris would suddenly break off heavy astronomical computations to dash off grandiloquent love letters, some of them to, I suspected, imaginary young women. I sneaked a peek at one letter which read: "Why has the bird been so silent of late? Her golden voice no longer trills the air. Dark clouds overcast the sky and the spirit of man broods in sadness. The altar flame which erstwhile burned so bright is grown dim and cold. Who can stem the avalanche or turn the ocean tide?" He told me that the girl to whom he was sending the letter was tuned in to his soul wave, so she would understand the allegory.

One evening he told me of his affair of the spirit with a young lady named Hazel Holzappel, an English instructor with whom he shared a classroom. Being too shy to speak to her, he left riddling rhymes on the blackboard for her to find. One rhyme panned on her name:

"What is the nut beloved from coast to coast
I love the best?
What delicious fruit, baked in a pie or not.
Do I eat with zest?"
Another rhyme melted in tenderness ...
"You will not find me when you appear,
But I swear to you my soul is here."
Finally, grown bold, he wrote:
"I'm tired of being just plain John Doe;
If you know who I am, please tell me so."

One afternoon Hazel told him that she knew all along who the anonymous black-board poet was and invited him to visit her the following Sunday. His visit began with a disaster. While he waited for her to get ready, Boris inadvertently sat down on the apple pie he had brought as a gift to Hazel.

Boris was so flustered, he remained seated on the apple pie even when Hazel appeared. Too embarrassed to reveal his predicament, he pretended nothing was amiss. He was just too comfortable to move from Hazel’s sofa. Only after he had backed out of her apartment did Hazel discover the disaster that her furniture and Boris’ trousers had shared.

Strangely -- there’s the luck of the shmendrik for you -- far from turning Hazel off, Boris’ misadventure evoked a gush of tender feelings for him. She told him that she was bored sick with competent, masterly men; only a genuine poet with starlight in his eyes could be oblivious to trivial things like a squashed apple pie on his bottom. Boris was too modest to stress the point, but I gathered that she began to pursue him so ardently that she frightened him off.

It was shmendrik’s luck all the way that summer. Boris was a horseshoe, a rabbit’s foot and a four-leaf clover rolled into one. Take the time we ran out of gas in the wilderness.

That was the Saturday night I persuaded Boris to drive to a square dance in a nearby town. We started for our destination with only the vaguest of directions. Not surprisingly, we lost our way, driving aimlessly through countryside that looked more rugged and uninhabited mile by mile. Suddenly the car coughed and stopped dead. We had run out of gas on a lonely back road. For all we knew, we would be stuck there for the night.

I considered walking into the darkness to try to reach a service station, not a pleasant prospect without a flashlight. I was even more anxious about leaving Boris, who insisted he wanted to stay with his faithful car. He seemed to have no sense of our predicament. A beam from the headlights of the car caught his beatific smile. His eyes were twinkling -- at the stars. “Look, there’s Pagasus!” he chortled. “And Cassiopeia! And Andromeda! And Perseus!” He was as happy as a kid sucking a stolen lollypop.

“What should we do? Boris, put your scientific mind to work!” I demanded.

“What should we do?” Boris repeated in a Talmudic sing-song, then fell into a long silence. Finally he said, “We should enjoy the constellations. Look how brilliant they are in the darkness.” I could fret as much as I pleased. Boris just craned his neck at the stars and hummed Russian folk songs.

He had just discovered Sagittarius when a shaft of light stabbed the blackness behind us. A car pulled up and the driver got out. Let me skip the details: We ended up as guests at a party at a summer cottage by a lake. Boris entertained the party with his folk songs. Since his audience had been mellowed by food and drink, he was a great hit, amusing the men and charming the women. We were finally sent on our way with handshakes, kisses and a full tank of gasoline.

Well, you know how it is with summer friends. For a quarter of a century, I lost track of Boris, then one day rediscovered him. At least, I found his name in an article on space scientists who had researched the moon shots.

Boris, who seemed lost in the stars, had guided our men to the moon. Boris, who could never find where he had parked his car and ran out of gas in a black wilderness, had helped thrust a capsule a quarter-million miles from earth. What’s more, the capsule and the men returned to earth without a slip-up.

How was this accomplished? By billions of dollars? By precious teamwork? Nonsense! The luck of a shmendrik -- probably more than one did it.

PS: Both Boris and I found what we were looking for that summer 57 years ago. He saw stars -- many of them. I found a girl named Miriam and she became my wife.


Yaakov Luria is the dean of Jewish-American columnists. With this issue, he becomes a regular JWR columnist.

©1998, Yaakov Luria