A New Kind of Schlemiel

Max Greenfield Plays a Caring Clown on Fox's 'New Girl'

Fool’s Gold: Max Greenfield shines as Schmidt in “New Girl,” also starring Zooey Deschanel.
Greg Gayne/FOX
Fool’s Gold: Max Greenfield shines as Schmidt in “New Girl,” also starring Zooey Deschanel.

By Elissa Strauss

Published January 17, 2013, issue of January 18, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Move over, hapless on-screen Yids, there’s a new Jew in town. He goes by the name of Schmidt and is single-handedly changing what we think when we think of a schlemiel.

One of four main characters on the Fox sitcom “New Girl,” which is in the middle of its second season, Schmidt is the garrulous, metrosexual resident clown who is forced to put a dollar in the “douchebag jar” every time he says something uncouth. If he sounds like an unlikable punch line, well, it is because he should have been — “hair chutney,” driving moccasins and all. But instead he has flipped the whole kvetchy, desperate male Jewish character trope on its head, infusing it with generosity and warmth and attracting a whole lot of love for it.

Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series “Girls,” told New York Magazine that Schmidt is the one character on TV she wished she had created: “He just tugs at every string I have.” And Gwyneth Paltrow called Max Greenfield, who plays Schmidt, her favorite actor on television and “the kind of guy you lusted after at your cousin’s bar mitzvah.”

Thirty-two-year-old Greenfield, who, according to an interview with GQ, had a “Saturday Night Live”-themed bar mitzvah, received an Emmy nomination last year for playing Schmidt, as well as a spot on People magazine’s list of the sexiest men of the year — no small feat for a schlemiel. And on January 13, Greenfield headed to the Golden Globes as a nominee in the supporting actor category. (The Forward went to print before the award winners were announced.) Not too nebbishy, eh?

“New Girl” is about the misadventures of four late-20-somethings who live in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. Schmidt, who works in marketing, is roommates with a quirky teacher named Jess, played by Zooey Deschanel; Nick, a grumpy bartender, and Winston, a dopey ex-basketball player who works in sports radio. Schmidt’s character serves as a vain and sometimes foolishly ambitious foil to the other characters’ Generation Y-esque uncertainty.

Now it isn’t as though Schmidt has nothing in common with his various fictional forerunners; he is an oversharing neurotic who can’t shake the feeling that he is stuck outside of where he wants to be. On a recent episode, he says that befriending musician Kanye West is his idea of making it — “the most efficient way for me to jump social strata.” He also pretends to be related to Mitt Romney in order to get into a nightclub.

But unlike the many Woody Allen-inspired characters that have come before him, Schmidt seems wholly immune to self-pity and doubt. Instead he maintains a strong commitment to self-betterment, physical and emotional. And he will do whatever it takes to help. What makes Schmidt so charming is that he convinces us that this self-betterment — his, his roommates’ and ours — is possible; he is a beacon of optimism in this age of detached irony. When the character Cece, a professional model and Jess’s best friend, falls for him, we totally buy it.

Schmidt’s backstory on the show is that he was Nick’s overweight, slightly desperate college friend who majored in marketing and theater studies. Fast-forward to present day, and Schmidt has washboard abs, which he displayed by dressing up for Halloween as a character from “Magic Mike” (a recent movie about male strippers), along with a closet filled with perfectly tailored suits. He loves cleanliness so much that he sometimes sneaks into the others’ bedrooms just to tidy up. Indeed, his concern for himself matches his concern for others.

Schmidt is not Jewish in the Jerry Seinfeld sense, in which it is inferred but never explicitly stated. Nor is he Jewish in the Larry David, Judd Apatow or Adam Sandler sense. For them, Judaism serves as a punch line at best, and at worst a source of self-hatred.

Nope, Schmidt loves being Jewish. He corrects someone for mistaking his Purim costume for a Halloween costume and calls himself the “Jewish Peter Pan.” He speaks tenderly about his zayde’s egg salad and kreplach. And during the recent Christmas episode, he tells his friends how hard it is for Jewish children to keep the truth about Santa to themselves; by the end of the episode, he expresses his need to stick with his people during the holiday season.

“I am so sick of hanging out with Christians. This is my last Christian Christmas,” he tells a car full of friends after they drunkenly convince themselves that the kind, African-American cop that pulled them over was actually Santa.

Another thing that sets apart Schmidt from his schlemiel forerunners is his happy embrace of his feminine side. Besides his love of grooming and emotional vulnerability, he understands that once women-only activities like cooking and chatting are what today can make a man.

Indeed, Schmidt’s feminine side has made him more adaptable in this economy, which, according to Hanna Rosin in her recent book, “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” favors typically feminine traits, like communicating and multitasking. Of the four roommates, Schmidt is the only one who seems to be going somewhere professionally.

Earlier this season he has a competition with his cousin for the exclusive usage of the nickname “Schmidt.” They begin with typical masculine stuff, like strength-testing exercises that give his ex-Marine cousin the advantage. But ultimately they end up in the kitchen, where Schmidt explains: “Your caveman ideas about manhood are so over. Manhood today is about exfoliation, and cheese courses, and emotional honesty and Paxil.”

Maybe his sensitivity and relentless caring have to do with the fact that Schmidt was raised by his mom, and, later, her female partner, while his dad went off and had three kids with another woman.

Previous memorable schlemiels, guys like Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy or Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, have been characterized by their struggle with women, namely their mothers. But Schmidt is a guy who loves his Jewish mother just fine.

Elissa Strauss, a contributing editor to The Sisterhood blog, is a journalist living in Brooklyn.



The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.