Off the Shelf: Son and father, father and son

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The first, and sometimes most important, relationship in our lives is with our parents. However, rarely do we read works that show that relationship from both points of view: that of a child about a parent and then a parent about a child. That’s what made reading “What’s So Funny? A Cartoonist’s Memoir” by David Sipress (Mariner Press) and “Raising Raffi: The First Five Years” by Keith Gessen (Viking) for this review so much fun. While the two memoirs don’t completely mirror each other, Sipress’ difficulties with his parents were in some ways answered by Gessen’s issues when dealing with his young son. I could imagine Sipress’ father talking about his son in the same way Gessen speaks about Raffi, and wondered how Gessen’s son will view his father’s essays when he is as old as Sipress.

Both authors are Jewish, although religion plays a minor role in their lives. Sipress notes that “my families’ relaxed, primarily secular Jewishness was a complicated and sometimes confusing affair. As a kid, I understood that Jewish was just one thing we were – more fundamental perhaps but not all that different from our being New Yorkers, or Democrats, or Brooklyn Dodgers fans. On the other hand, we were always quick to root for and celebrate members of the tribe who broke barriers and made it big – athletes, scientists, writers, artists, actors, diplomats, and smart, talented beauty queens like Bess Meyerson.” Gessen, who arrived in the U.S. at age 6 from the U.S.S.R., writes very little about Judaism, most likely because he has less experience with Judaism than Sipress. What he seeks to pass down to his son is the Russian language and some essence of what it means to be Russian, even though he’s not exactly sure what that means. He notes his ambivalence comes from his parents’: “My parents [gave] me mixed signals: Russia was great, and Russia was terrible. After all, though we spoke Russian, read Russian, listened to Russian music, we had left Russia and weren’t going back. Of the two messages they sent – Russia great; Russia terrible – I decided to heed the second.” However, that doesn’t stop him from wanting to share the Russian language and culture with his son.

Sipress, who was born in 1947, belongs to an earlier generation than Gessen. Spiress’ father, Nathan, owned a jewelry store; his mother, Estelle, was a stay-at-home mom (not uncommon for that time); and his only sibling, a sister, Linda, about whom he doesn’t write much until the end of the memoir, suffered from depression. Nathan had distanced himself from his strict Orthodox family: not only does Sipress not wonder why the family had no connection to anyone from his father’s side, he expresses no interest in learning more. That may be because he separated himself from his parents and sister for many years: After dropping out of graduate school in Boston to become a cartoonist, Sipress lived a very different type of life than his parents. They didn’t approve his path, but Sipress ignored their questions and ideas, and pursued what made him happy. When he finally felt settled enough in his career, he moved back to New York City, although he still tried to keep a certain amount of distance from them.

While this might make the memoir sound depressing, it’s not, in good part because Sipress doesn’t seem particularly interested in plumbing the psychological depths of these relationships, even with his psychiatrist. Or he at least doesn’t want to write about them. But that means that readers can concentrate on the most fun part of the book: the cartoons that reflect on the stories he tells and often act like a punch line to a joke. Sipress began cartooning for an alternative paper in Boston and it took 20 years before his first cartoon appeared in The New Yorker, which now regularly publishes his cartoons. Even after writing about serious moments, he usually includes a cartoon that both lessens the blow and sums up his feelings. Most of the cartoons made me laugh out loud, and added a different and welcome dimension to his story.

Sipress doesn’t have children (or, at least, there is no mention of them in his memoir), but reading his thoughts about his parents made me wonder if Gessen’s son, Raffi, will have similar feelings about his father someday. “Raising Raffi” is not a traditional memoir, but rather essays Gessen wrote about his struggles with his young son. Struggles is the correct word since Gessen, at first, seems unaware that children are not miniature adults, but rather unformed creatures who think differently from their parents and have their own opinions and ways of doing things. That’s not to say the problem is all on Gessen’s side: Raffi is not an easy child, although in many ways a typical one. He’s loud, rambunctious, violent at times and has no idea of societal norms. He also knows when he is unhappy with the father who yells at him and whom he considers mean at times. Gessen reads and reads and reads books and articles about child raising, looking for the perfect answer that doesn’t exist, although he does find some of the books helpful. At one point, Gessen realizes the type of father he is: a Russian one who could also be known as a Bear Father, although not the soft cuddly teddy bear kind. 

He’s partly successful in teaching his son Russian, although he writes pages about his studies to discover whether it’s good for a child’s development to be bilingual. Deciding his son should learn to ice skate because Gessen plays hockey shows the balance parents need to take when deciding on activities for their children: pushing Raffi enough so he doesn’t give up before learning to skate and maybe coming to enjoy sports like his father, yet not alienating him by forcing to him to do an activity he hates or that doesn’t speak to his interests.

My favorite chapter discusses the books Gessen read to Raffi when he was young. His analysis of American picture books (which were not part of Gessen’s upbringing) and Russian ones (that were part of his childhood) notes differences between the two cultures. When looking at these books, Gessen once again shows his tendency to obsess about details. He doesn’t just read these works to his son; he also has to learn more about the authors and the history of their books. That does make for an interesting exploration of children’s literature. 

Sons and fathers, fathers and sons: Sipress’ father has passed away so we’ll never what he thought about his son’s version of this life, but Raffi might someday offer commentary about Gessen’s. Here’s hoping that Raffi sees that his imperfect father was trying to do his best. I hope Sipress might say the same about his father, even though they never agreed on many issues. “What’s So Funny?” and “Raising Raffi” make interesting bookends when looking at parent-child relationships.