July 18, 2024
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Why ‘Ted Lasso’ Is the Most Yiddish Television Series Ever

In Ruth Wisse’s first book, based on her PhD thesis, “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero,” published in 1971 by the University of Chicago Press, she incisively describes one of the most famous Yiddish archetypes to have appeared and reappeared throughout Polish and German literature for centuries: the schlemiel. A longtime Harvard professor and winner of the Presidential Medal for Arts and Humanities, Wisse is considered one of the world’s leading experts on Yiddish literature.

During and since the first lockdown, I have been watching the Apple TV+ series “Ted Lasso” and discussing it with my friend Lauren. We have watched it and rewatched it, finding more humor, warmth and positive moral lessons the more times we discuss it. Last week, Lauren, who is not Jewish, casually mentioned that she thought she recognized some of the qualities of the schlemiel in the character of Ted Lasso, and I simply couldn’t believe that I had not made the connection.

Having the annoying journalistic audacity to have kept Ruth Wisse’s phone number from when I interviewed her last year for her book release “Free as a Jew,” I called her up, asked if she could spare a few moments, and asked if anyone had yet made the connection between Lasso and the archetypal schlemiel. She graciously spent a few minutes speaking with me, noting she had not seen the series but from my brief description suspected my instincts were right.

“Schlemiels are defined and redefined by whatever culture creates. The archetype has developed differently in the Polish, German and American contexts,” Wisse told me.

“In the book, I defined him [the schlemiel] as ‘the loser as winner.’ The way it develops in Yiddish joking and in certain stories is that he is the loser, but morally he comes out ahead.”

In another American television series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Wisse noted that creator Larry David touched on this archetype, and in the past created schlemiel-style characters in “Seinfeld.” “But the character in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ is not morally a winner. He loses out in many situations, but is also morally in the wrong,” she said. The schlemiel always turns out, in the end, to have been correct, however ridiculous his or her initial impressions or actions may have seemed,” Wisse explained.

We first meet Lasso, the character created by Jason Sudeikis, a comedian formerly of “Saturday Night Live,” on an airplane. In a matter of moments, we learn he is an American second-tier college football coach from Kansas on his way to London to accept a job as manager of a Premier League British football team.

In the tightly scripted first minutes of the pilot episode, it becomes clear that Lasso is certainly not even remotely qualified for the job for which he has already been hired, sight unseen. This American is planted in the U.K. complete with an outlandishly disarming mustache and a “howdy, how ya doing?” Midwestern accent, whose expertise as a “football coach” is obviously not even in the same sport as European football, which in America is called soccer. His loyal assistant coach, with whom he is traveling, has chosen “Soccer for Dummies” as his airplane reading.

We learn, however, by the end of the second episode, that Lasso is a moral hero, that he has a singular and innate talent for team building, in bringing people together toward a common goal. His compass consistently points north and he makes fatherly coaching choices that promote the mental health of the young men in his charge rather than “winning,” although in the end it turns out that everyone who knows Lasso, and everyone around him, have won quite a lot.

How and why Lasso has even been hired as the manager for the fictional AFC Richmond football team is in itself a lesson in pain and how people lash out in anger before understanding the effects of their choices. After a contentious and painful divorce, millionaire Rebecca Welton (played by a masterful veteran of London’s West End stage Hannah Waddingham) has become the owner of her former husband’s pride and joy, his football team. She sets the stage for her plan in the first episode: “My ex-husband truly loved only one thing his entire life: this club. And Ted Lasso is going to help me burn it to the ground.” This moment and the storyline is illustrative of the words of the Iggeret haRamban, the Ramban’s famous letter to his son, which cautions him never to lash out in anger, lest he provoke the anger of Gehinnom.

“When you will have freed yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart which is the best of all good traits, as is written (Mishlei 22:4), “The return for humility is fear of God.”

Later, the Ramban writes that anger is actually a form of avodah zara (idolatry), and that to put down others is to rebel from God himself.

And now, my son, understand and observe that whoever feels that he is greater than others is rebelling against the Kingship of Heaven, because he is adorning himself with His garments, as it is written (Psalms 93:1), “The Lord reigns, He wears clothes of pride.”

From the sublime back to the ridiculous, Lasso has just appeared to take a long look around his new digs and says to his trustworthy assistant, Coach Beard, “I love locker rooms. They smell like potential.”

Over the course of 10 masterfully written, beautifully filmed and acted episodes, Lasso proceeds to identify the leaders of the football club and determines their needs and goals to help the rest of the team succeed, as both young men and football players. He uses and misuses an array of inspirational and funny quotes, develops rapport with new people, and honors every person he meets (even his taxi driver, the football goons at the neighborhood pub who sling insults at him like darts, and the guy who mows the lawn of the football field) by making them feel special and not just necessary to his life, but critical.

While everyone initially sees him as a ridiculously outlandish American idiot, he begins to win them over, one by one, starting with a tough-as-nails sports reporter, a character who introduces himself in a press conference as “Trent Crimm, The Independent,” who states in Lasso’s first newspaper profile on British soil that while he thinks Lasso is shockingly unqualified to coach a football club, will be rooting for him anyway.

At another point in the series, Lasso quotes American football coach John Wooden, by suggesting to the angry team owner, Welton, “Hey, let’s make today our masterpiece.” This evokes another Jewish thought to me, that when a day passes when we do not give charity or an act of chesed, it is as if we have not prayed or honored Hashem at all. “Don’t waste a moment of this one precious life,” Lasso seems to say.

At the final episode of the first season, the team sits, shattered and shocked, in the locker room as they have been relegated to a lower division due to the stunning loss in the last moments of the game, sidelined by a single goal made by a former teammate who had been returned to the opposing team from which he had been borrowed earlier in the season. The details of how the star player, Jamie Tartt, was even taken from AFC Richmond initially seemed to be a confluence of factors designed to bring the soccer career of Lasso the schlemiel to a catastrophic end.

But instead, Lasso delivers an incisive and inspirational sermon worthy of a Jewish communal leader. He congratulates his team on giving their all and spotlights two players who performed amazingly well. He tells them they should be proud of their accomplishments and that they succeeded even if they had not won the game or prevented their team from being relegated.

“Look, this is a sad moment right here, for all of us. There’s nothing I can say, standing in front of you right now that can take that away, but please do me this favor, would you? Lift your heads up and look around this locker room. Look at everybody else in here. And I want you to be grateful that you are going through this sad moment with all these other folks. Because I promise you: There is something worse out there than being sad. And that is being alone, and being sad. Ain’t nobody in this room alone.”

Ted Lasso, the schlemiel, at the first season’s finale, has won the respect and admiration of his teammates, colleagues, the sports journalism community and even the notoriously tough football thugs and fans of his team. And the second season is even better.

Ted Lasso seasons one and two are available for streaming on Apple TV+, but is recommended for adults-only viewing due to its innuendo and incredibly “salty language,” which for British football players, is apparently part of their job description. Season three is expected to be released this winter.

By Elizabeth Kratz

 

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