The Arts: Comic Relief

Arts & Books

The Arts: Comic Relief

Leah F. Finkelshteyn

What is “Yiddishkeit”? The term encompasses Jewish culture, secular or religious. Its language, Yiddish, was born from a fusion of Hebrew, German and Slavic tongues. Its attitude can be cultured and warm or folksy and abrasive.

A new, superbly illustrated anthology, Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land (Abrams, 240 pp. $29.95), edited by the late comics writer Harvey Pekar and historian Paul Buhle, seeks to describe what Neal Gabler in the book’s introduction admits is a “large, expansive and woolly” concept. With a loving eye—and emphasizing early socialist leanings—Pekar and Buhle extract moments and personalities from Yiddish history. They trace the culture from Eastern Europe, through its flourishing in American theater, periodicals and novels and to current nostalgia, influences and revival, with rich vignettes illustrated by over a dozen artists, largely using the storytelling argot of comics.

As Gabler notes, the book is “sprawling, kaleidoscopic, eclectic,” because Yiddishkeit cannot be defined neatly in word or pictures. “You sort of have to feel it by wading into it.”  Enjoy a selection of the wonderful, eclectic and evocative illustrations from the book below.

A caricature of Zero Mostel after he was blacklisted in 1952 from the story ‘The Legend of Zero,’ written and illustrated by Barry Deutsch. The actor later became famous for his depiction of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. (All images from Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, Abrams)

What do Mark Twain and Sholom Aleichme have in common? Writer Joel Schechter and illustrator Spain Rodriguez imagine the the apocryphal meeting between these two literary greats in 'Mark Twain Translated.'

Molly Picon as Baby Margaret in a illustration by Sharon Rudahl; Picon, a leading figure on the Yiddish stage, began her career when she was still a child.

In Marvin Friedman's 1976 ‘Portrait of Uncle Benny’ the artist captures his personal nostalgia for a lost Yiddish world.


Dan Archer's illustration of Isaac Bashevis Singer, perhaps the most famous Yiddish writer in America. from the short story ‘Yiddishland, Part Two: Yiddish Modernists,’ text by Harvey Pekar.


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