Behrman House Blog

Gevalt! "Dinner for Schmucks" Gets the Yiddish Wrong

Dinner for Schmucks, Director Jay Roach’s remake of the 1998 French comedy Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game), opened last weekend to mixed reviews. Starring Steve Carell, the talented actor who has established himself as Hollywood’s most loveable loser, Dinner for Shmucks begs for attention from Jewish educators. As you prepare for a new school year, don’t overlook this film’s ability to stimulate discussions about Jewish humor and the way comedy helped Jews survive an often tortured history.


1. Ask for a volunteer to summarize the plot.

 [Tim is an ambitious executive who sets aside his moral compass in pursuit of a promotion.  To achieve his dream job, he accepts an invitation to an unusual dinner party that his boss hosts. In actuality, the party is a contest to determine which executive can bring the biggest idiot to the dinner. Tim has second thoughts about participating in the mean spirited joke, but after he stumbles upon Barry—a sweet, dimwitted IRS agent—he decides that this affable loser could be his ticket to the executive suite. Unfortunately, Tim learns that Barry (the Steve Carell character) is more than a naive simpleton; he brings chaos wherever he goes.]

2. Play the trailer


3. Begin the discussion by examining the title of the film.

  • Yiddish words such as mensch and chutzpah have crept into American vernacular.  Do you know what these words mean? [Define them for those who don’t] What does the popularity of these Yiddish terms say about American culture? What does it say about the American Jewish experience?
  • The Yiddish word schmuck is a vulgar term for penis. It is frequently used as a pejorative for someone who is contemptible, wicked, or obnoxious. Do you think it’s appropriate that the word schmuck appears in the title of a feature film?  Do you think the producers of the film have used the Yiddish correctly? Who are the real schmucks in the film?

4. Ask students what role they think humor and comedy play in society.

5. Introduce the following idea: The main virtue of comedy is that it shines a spotlight on life’s incongruities; in other words, comedy allows us to laugh at the gap between our life experiences and our highest expectations.  By doing so, we make disappointments more bearable. Tell this classic joke to make this idea clear.

Elazar, a poor Jew who lived during the Roman occupation of Israel, found himself at heaven’s gate. The patriarch Abraham greeted him and said, “Before you can enter heaven, you must describe a personal example of bravery during your lifetime.”

Oh sure,” said Elazar, smiling confidently. “I once stood before the Roman emperor and called him a camel’s rear-end and then scolded him for occupying our land.”

“When did that happen,” Abraham asked, obviously impressed.

“About 10 seconds ago,” responded Elazar.

  • What incongruity is the joke highlighting? [The helplessness of average people in the face of brutal oppressors; living honorably might require self-sacrifice; indeed, it might be impossible to live honorably and remain alive.]

6. For centuries, Jews lived with one central incongruity. Ask students to speculate what it has been. [Our tradition teaches us that we’re God’s chosen people, and yet, our history has been filled with persecution.]

  • How has classical Jewish theology addressed this inconsistency? [Our suffering is caused by our sinful behavior.]
  • Jews also used humor to reconcile the inconsistency. A central character in Jewish folklore is the schlemiel. Write the Yiddish word schlemiel on the blackboard.  Ask if anyone knows the definition. If no one answers correctly, tell the following anecdotes and challenge the class to define schlemiel.

Medieval Jewish poet Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) created a schlemiel in several stories. This character once said of himself: “If I should undertake to sell candles, the sun would never set; if I should deal in shrouds, no one would ever die.”

Jewish folklore recalls the following incident: A poor schlemiel once approached the richest man in the village and asked for money. When the wealthy man refused, the schlemiel said:

“But you’ve just got to give me money!”

“Why?” demanded the rich man.

“Because if you don’t, I’ll go into the hat business!”


“What do you mean, ‘So….?’ If a man with my luck goes into the hat business, everybody in this country from that day on will be born without a head!”

[According to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, a schlemiel is someone who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner or is dogged by an ill luck that is more or less due to his own ineptness.”]

7. Make sure students understand this last point.  Schlemiels cause their own bad luck. They are different from schlimazels –another Yiddish word that describes unfortunate people whose bad luck comes through no fault of their own. Tell this anecdote to distinguish between schlemiels and schlimazels: When a schlimazel drops bread, it invariably lands on the buttered side; when a schlemiel drops bread, it always lands on the buttered side because schlemiels butter both sides of bread.

8. Close the discussion by studying the following excerpt from Ruth Wisse’s book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero:

“Since Jewry’s attitudes toward its own frailty were complex and contradictory, the schlemiel was sometimes berated for his foolish weakness, and elsewhere exalted for his hard inner strength. For the reformers who sought ways of strengthening and improving Jewish life and laws, the schlemiel embodied those negative qualities of weakness that had to be ridiculed to be overcome. Conversely, to the degree that Jews looked upon their disabilities as external afflictions, sustained through no fault of their own, they used the schlemiel as the model of endurance, his innocence a shield against corruption, his absolute defenselessness, the only guaranteed defense against the brutalizing potential of might.”


  1. The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction, Stanford Pinsker; Southern Illinois University Press
  2. Laughing at the Inscrutability of God: Judaism, Comedy, and the Schlemiel as Holy Fool, Richard Stromer, Ph.D.
  3. The Wise Men of Helm & Their Merry Tales, Solomon Simon, Behrman House


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Tell this anecdote to distinguish between schlemiels and schlimazels: When a schlimazel drops bread, it invariably lands on the buttered side; when a schlemiel drops bread, it always lands on the buttered side because schlemiels butter both sides of bread. Bmorn V15 3G PowerChic A10