Book Review: Cartoons and comedy

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is it too early to buy Hanukkah presents? I know it’s difficult to think about the December holiday when we are in the midst of the extended fall holiday season, but I have two books that will make perfect presents – that is, if you don’t decide to keep them for yourself. For Jewish cartoon lovers, “Have I Got a Cartoon for You!: The Moment Book of Jewish Comics” edited with an introduction by Bob Mankoff (Moment Books) makes a great gift. Those who adore works that offer comic variations on Jewish customs and history will laugh their way through a book with the longest subtitle I’ve ever read: “A Field Guide to the Jewish People: Who They Are, Where They Come From, What to Feed Them, What They Have Against Foreskins, How Come They Carry Each Other Around on Chairs, Why They Fled Egypt By Running Straight to a Large Body of Water, and Much More. Maybe Too Much More” by Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel (Flatiron Books).
The jokes in “Have I Got a Cartoon for You” start with the book flap: the editor – who, ahem, is clearly not at all prejudiced – calls it the best Jewish cartoon book ever. Since not many Jewish cartoon books have been published, that isn’t as great a declaration as you might think. However, I have to agree with him because these cartoons are really funny. In fact, some are laugh-out-loud funny. OK, others are only amusing, but even those made me chuckle. Most of my favorites have a biblical theme: we see Abraham, Moses, Elijah and Kings David and Solomon in situations designed to make readers laugh. There are even cartoons featuring that nice Jewish boy, Jesus. Plus the December holidays (Hanukkah versus Christmas) are always good for a laugh. There are a few Jewish mother and grandmother cartoons, but they are not as plentiful as in most joke books. (And that’s a relief, even though the ones included are funny.) Of course, no book of Jewish cartoons would be complete without a few about Passover and the seder. To describe the cartoons would spoil the surprises, so cartoon fans will just have to trust me.
While the humor in “Have I Got a Cartoon for You” is clever, but gentle, “A Field Guide to the Jewish People” uses a different approach. The three authors remind me of sixth grade boys who decided to write the most juvenile and ridiculous descriptions possible. So, the question then becomes, why did I find it so funny? I mean, the book is really ridiculously, sometimes laugh-out-loud, funny. The three authors make fun of everyone and everything connected to Judaism. I felt this way even before I saw the ad they included in the holiday section for their previous book, “For This We Left Egypt: A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them.” Why would that ad make me like the book? They quote from The Reporter’s review! (Yes, our name is listed along with USA Today, The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Montreal Times and New York Jewish Week. If you want to read that review, you can find it at http://thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=4583.)
The authors – two of whom are Jewish and one who is married to someone Jewish – are unable to decide if Judaism is a religion, race or culture, but this doesn’t stop them from writing something ridiculous about Jewish history, customs, holidays and lifecyle events. One of the reasons the humor feels juvenile is that the authors sometimes make fun of each other, in addition to the topic they’re discussing. That makes the preface and the conversations with the authors (featured at the end of the work) especially funny. Some of my favorite sections include a dialogue between God, Adam and Eve that occurs on the eighth day. Since the work of creation is over, God is now bored and wants to spend time with Adam and Eve, who would prefer to be on their own. The authors compare the English section on a typical modern ketubah (wedding contract), which talks about love, and a translation of the Aramaic – well, their variation of the Aramaic – which riffs on the chickens given as part of the bride price and the looks of the bride. Their example of the talmudic method resembles Purim Torah, although dumbed down to a new, very funny, low.
The one question I do have is whether people who don’t already know a great deal about Judaism will get all the jokes. You might have to know the real thing before some of their riffs – which can go way off on a tangent – make sense. The real surprise is that once in awhile the authors hide real answers amidst the nonsense. But you have to have a keen eye to catch it because it can sound like part of the joke.
Readers with a sense of the absurd will love “A Field Guide to the Jewish People.” I already know a few people – some who loved the authors’ haggadah – who will probably grab a copy before someone can buy it for them. Of course, the same may happen for “Have I Got a Cartoon for You!” After reading so many serious works of fiction and nonfiction, these books were the perfect antidote.