Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold


“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) www.fantagraphics.com .

“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.

Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.

Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.

“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.

He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)

“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.

Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.

“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”

So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)

To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)

Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.

— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.

“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”

— Menasha Skulnik?

“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”

— Joseph Seltzer?

“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”

— Abraham Kalish?

“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.

— While he mocked them?

“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”

— Sounds like what Borat does!

“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”

— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…

“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”

— He used a thick Jewish accent?

“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.

— Who played him?

“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”

— No.

“I’m surprised.”

Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.

Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.

Thrown For A Loop


“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

A Super ‘Schmooze’ Move


The unforgettable superheroes of comic strips became the stuff of endless Hollywood big-budget sequels. But more often than not, they began in the fevered imaginations of struggling young Jewish guys, whose wildest dreams could be hemmed in only by four panels and black ink.

“In June 1938, Superman appeared,” Michael Chabon writes in his 2000 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.” “He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical Publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys who had imbued him with the power of a hundred men, of a distant world, and of the full measure of their bespectacled adolescent hopefulness and desperation.”

It’s not an insurmountable leap from those days to these, from the pioneers like “Superman’s” Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel to masters like Art Spiegelman, to the talented Jewish comic strip artists of today.

In that spirit, we premiere this week, “Schmooze or Lose,” our first, weekly serialized comic strip. Read more about the creators, writer Jake Novak and illustrator Michael Ciccotello at www.jewishjournal.com, and follow the further adventures of their very L.A. Jewish characters in this space each week.

 

Fundraiser to Benefit Storm Victims


This Sunday, September 18th!

LALA & MOE’S

Jewish Experience & The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Present:

LA Jewish Katrina Benefit

All Proceeds To Benefit Jewish Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund

Featuring:

The Moshav Band

Comic Relief by:

Edgar Fox
Avi Leiberman
Plus Special Guests

Silent Auction, Special Prize Drawing, Kosher Food, And More!

Sunday September 18th 2005
3:00 – 7:00 PM
Westside Jewish Community Center
5870 W Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles Ca, 90036

$25 Adults
$15 Students & Families
Space is Limited

For More information Contact:

Danwitz@LMJE.org

Community Sponsors Include:

Anti-Defamation League
Aish Ha-Torah
Ashreinu
Congregation Beth Jacob
Congregation B’nei David Judea
Congregation Mogen David
Isralight
Jewish big brothers
Jflicks
Los Angeles Hillel Council
The Chai Center
The Westwood Kehilla
Young Israel of Century City
And Many More

 

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, June 4

Today, galerie yoramgil launches “introductions,” a three-month endeavor to present six new artists to the public. View the diverse works of painters Zeev Ben-Dor, Yuri Katz, Nona Orbach, Paul Abbott and Mary Leipziger, and the bronze sculptures of Immi Storrs in mini solo shows throughout the large gallery.

Through Sept. .5. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 462 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-2641.

Sunday, June 5

Storyteller and actress Vicki Juditz is used to infusing heart and humor into difficult subjects like infertility and anti-Semitism. Today she performs her highly praised monologue, “Teshuva, Return,” for Child Survivors of the Holocaust in a private Beverlywood residence.

2 p.m. $25. For more information, call (310) 836-0779.

Monday, June 6

It’s a hodgepodge of celebrities and wannabes at tonight’s annual Vista Del Mar and Family Services’ Sports Sweepstakes Dinner. Comedian Paul Rodriguez and Olympian Mitch Gaylord co-emcee the event that includes an appearance by the Playboy Bunnies but not Hef himself. Tommy Lasorda will be honored, cocktails will be drunk and thousands of dollars will be raised for troubled and at-risk youth. Drop a cool 1K to do your part.

5:30 p.m. $1,000. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-1223, ext. 225.

Tuesday, June 7

Israeli group Mashina has had a long and, sometimes, rocky past. But the band is now back together, touring to promote their 12th album. For the first time in a long time, they’re back in Los Angeles for one night only. Catch them tonight at the Avalon while you can.

8 p.m. (310) 273-2824.

Thursday, June 9

Laughing for charity sounds like a pretty good deal. Tonight, StandWithUs and Pups for Peace co-sponsor “LaughWithUs,” a comedy night featuring funnymen Wayne Federman (“Legally Blonde,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lenny Schmidt (“Joe Dirt”) and plenty of others. Proceeds will help send comedians to Israel for comic relief and also benefit Israeli charities.

7:30 p.m. $75 (includes 2 drinks). Improv Theater, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140.

Jason Alexander becomes the latest star to try his hand at children’s book writing with his new release “Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy?” (Which would perhaps be better titled, “Dad, Since When Are You a Writer?”) Still, we’ll grant you Alexander’s a pretty funny guy, and you can size up his literary talents for yourself tonight. He reads from his book and signs it at Barnes and Noble at the Grove.

7:30 p.m. 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-2070

Friday, June 10

Author Maggie Anton does the book tour circuit in Los Angeles this week, promoting her new work of historical fiction, “Rashi’s Daughters.” The book explores the stories of Jewish scholar Rashi’s daughters, who, unlike his sons, were largely ignored. She appears at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on June 8, and as scholar-in-residence at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills this weekend.

Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644. Shomrei Torah: (818) 346-0811.

Q & A With Lewis Black


 

Lewis Black is back. The New York Jewish comic with a razor-sharp tongue and even sharper social and political observations returns to the Southland Feb. 5 at the Wiltern LG after selling out The Grove of Anaheim last year. Black, a commentator on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and author of the upcoming book, “Nothing Sacred,” said he can’t wait to get on the road and vent to an audience. His trademark rasp rising with anger, he shared his thoughts on L.A. traffic, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, gay marriage and other subjects.

The Jewish Journal: You’re coming to L.A. Are you excited about that?

Lewis Black: No, I’m never excited about coming to L.A. I like L.A., but I don’t know how you people can live there. Mudslides all the time. Houses on stilts. You live on a fault line. Good move. What I really like is when I come in and they say that we’re going to go down to Irvine. ‘Cuz, you know, when you’re going to travel two and a half hours to get there — five hours round-trip from L.A. — you should be somewhere else. Maybe in a different state. To sit in that traffic, you’ve got to wonder what people are thinking. What, do they like the illusion of walking? That’s what I like to do, sit in my car and feel like I’m walking. On the other hand, maybe they can listen to tapes and learn five, six or 10 foreign languages a year.

JJ: What in your opinion of Gov. Schwarzenegger?

LB: You’ve elected a guy who shouldn’t have been elected anything by any standard at any time in the history of the country. And he’s your governor. What’s his qualification for leadership other than “Terminator 3?” What? When he was elected, that’s when I decided democracy doesn’t work. The good news is anybody can be elected. The bad news is anybody can be elected. You guys proved it. And they should take away your statehood if you vote for him again. After he wins, he said, “The last thing we should be doing is borrowing,” and then he borrows. You need to elect him to borrow money? On top of that, he got a bad deal. I’ve given up on you.

JJ: How did you feel the morning after President Bush won reelection?

LB: The same way I would have felt if the other idiot had won. There’s no pain for me. It was painful for me when the nominations came in. As soon as they nominated these two guys I knew we were in trouble. You had a guy who went to war running against a guy who voted for war. You had no choice. Kerry ran with a “special child”: John Edwards, a man who smiled so much that part of his brain had to have been scooped out. And Cheney was a psychotic homeless person, who, during the [vice presidential] debates, was like talking to his microwave oven. Really, it was disgusting from beginning to end.

JJ: Ohio has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years but still went for President Bush. What, if anything, is wrong with Ohio?

LB: If Bush had lost Ohio, he would have lost the goddamn election. Don’t think I didn’t punish them. I’m not going back. I was in four cities in Ohio after the election and asked them how they could do this, and they couldn’t give me an explanation. Right now, I’m done with them for awhile.

JJ: Any thoughts of moving to Canada or Mexico?

LB: No, they’re not as funny. And this is my country.

JJ: Is the United States winning the war in Iraq?

LB: If you think we’re winning the war in Iraq, then you have to be in a coma. I’m just watching TV and I know we’re not winning. You don’t win when we’re losing that many people. I know we can’t be winning because I have more people in the military coming to my shows. If young soldiers are paying attention to me, then something’s not happening that should be happening. Something’s wrong.

JJ: If you were president of the U.S., what would your Iraq policy be?

LB: My Iraq policy would be to say to the rest of the world: “We made a big mistake and could you help us? I don’t know how this happened, but we’re sorry.”

The bottom line is that I don’t want to lose any more kids. You know what this war is like? It’s like watching Vietnam speeded up. I’ll make a prediction. The [Iraqi] election will be like the Tet Offensive. There will be total chaos and violence. And why would we try to sell democracy to anyone when we don’t even like it ourselves? When almost half your country doesn’t go to the voting booth, what are you selling? What are you saying? You’re saying, “Well, you’re going to love democracy because you don’t have to do it.”

JJ: A higher percentage of Jews are voting Republican. Do you think Jewish Republicans are visionaries or blind?

LB: If you’re a Jewish Republican, the level of stupidity is beyond belief. It’s like being a gay Republican or a black Republican. You’re f–ing kidding me. Do you need your money protected that badly? Look, the rightwing Christians voted for [Bush]. Shouldn’t they [Jewish Bush supporters] have taken a moment and paid attention to that? Oh, [Republican Jews] say those Christians are big on Israel. F— you!. Yeah, the Christians love Israel. They do. That’s because that’s where they’re going to send us. One of the great joys of being Jewish is to understand and appreciate the concept of uniqueness. Well, Republicans don’t. Democrats vaguely do. Uniqueness scares the Republicans.

JJ: Let’s talk about Jewish Democrats. Are they progressive or regressive?

LB: If you’re Republican, you’re depressive. And if you’re a Democrat, you’re a regressive. The only way you’d become a progressive is if you spent the energy trying to start a third party. I’m a socialist. Hello, that’s where all the Jews started, most of the Jews. That might be progressive.

JJ: What’s wrong with the Democrats?

LB: I don’t know. I never was really into the parties. With Democrats and Republicans you basically have people who didn’t have the energy to join a bowling league. And neither of these teams is any good.

JJ: What are your thoughts on gay marriage?

LB: Who cares. On the list of the things we have to worry about as a people gay marriage is on page six, after “are we eating too much garlic?” If you’re actually worried about gay marriage, then you need a hobby. After Sept. 11, if gay marriage is even on your radar, you’re an idiot.

JJ: What do you think about the possible privatization of social security?

LB: Nobody knows what it means. Nobody knows, not even him. I know what it means. You should set up shop as a financial adviser, because that’s where the money’s going to be. You can screw anyone you want. Social security is supposed to be a safety net, and now they’re taking that away.

Lewis Black appears Saturday, Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. at The Wiltern LG, on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. $29.75-$37.75. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com or call (213) 480-3232.

 

Lewis Black Hits It Big by Seeing Red


Lewis Black is pissed off.

In his HBO special, “Black on Broadway,” the black-clad Jewish comic from New York with the tobacco-tinged rasp unleashes a torrent of four-letter words and razor-edged observations about the world around him — a world that could be so much better, so much kinder, so much gentler. But isn’t.

Stalking the stage like a panther at times, Black, 55, trains his sights on Democrats, “a party of no ideas;” Republicans, “a party of bad ideas;” bottled water, which is manufactured “by a couple in Pittsburgh sitting in a bathtub”; and New Zealand, which is so far from civilization that “if they want to be a part of our world, I think they should hop off their islands and push them closer to the rest of us.”

His fury building, the spittle-spewing Black reserves his most cutting remarks for the politicians who led us into Iraq.

“If they couldn’t find the weapons [of mass destruction], which is the reason we went to war, then why couldn’t they make something up?” he asks to roars of laughter. “Why did they stop lying? My government has always lied to me, and I’m comfortable with that. They could have done it so simply. Just send two kids to Kinko’s and say you wanted a picture of a camel with a nuclear weapon on his back.”

Several times during his hourlong HBO broadcast, Black checks himself to stifle a grin. Apparently, it’s uncool for a comedian to smile on stage, even if he now routinely sells out 2,000-seat theaters after years of toiling in obscurity, and has won legions of fans for his take-no-prisoners political commentary on Comedy Central’s Emmy-winning “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

The curmudgeonly Black has much to be happy about. His HBO special, which debuted last month, won solid ratings. It also put him in pretty elite company. Superstars Chris Rock and George Carlin are the only other funnymen who have their own HBO showcases this year.

Black, who will appear at the Grove of Anaheim on Saturday, June 19, can earn more from a single show than he used to make in an entire year.

“It feels great getting recognition,” Black said in a telephone interview. “I’m happy that it didn’t happen after my death.”

The graying Black has achieved a level of popularity at an age when many of his contemporaries have burned out, faded away or quit the profession and landed grown-up jobs to avoid starving to death. Black’s willingness to confront ugly truths about two-faced politicians, greedy CEOs and deficit-busting tax cuts for the rich have struck a chord, just as Richard Pryor’s attacks on racism and Lenny Bruce’s assault on the establishment’s hypocrisy did a generation or so ago.

Even Judaism makes a ripe target. As a child, Black said he developed an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust and a fear of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. He so worried that God would write his name in the Book of Death that he stewed over every misstep.

Black said his concerned parents ended up sending him to a shrink to deal with his neurosis. It’s hard to know whether he’s kidding.

As a graduate student, Black and a friend attended services during the High Holidays. The rabbi used the occasion to raise money for Israel. “I was thinking, ‘No, not today. You idiots,'” he said in his trademark growl.

On the other hand, Black said he dreamed of becoming a religious leader until his early teens, when his temple hired a rabbi who turned him off. Black has fond memories of his bar mitzvah, which netted him “the big bucks.” He said his Jewish background gave him a strong moral foundation and empathy for the less fortunate.

Still, Judaism, like other Western religions, holds little appeal for Black.

“The Jews created guilt. The Catholics codified it. And the Protestants transformed it into tension,” Black said with a chuckle.

Combining Rodney Dangerfield’s self-deprecating wit with hero Carlin’s astute social critiques, Black hopes to leverage his stand-up popularity into a television sitcom. So far, TV has treated him less kindly than the comedy world. Networks have declined to pick up the three pilots he’s made, including a recent one in which he played a high school principal. Apparently, Black might be too hot for the cool medium.

Slightly embarrassed by all the adulation, he characterizes himself as an “acquired taste.” Others call him flat-out hysterical.

Playwright and composer Hollye Leven first met Black four years ago at a casting call for her well-received play, “Funny Business.” After auditioning 20 comics, Black took the stage last.

“I just fell down laughing, and said I had to have him for this show. He was so far and away more intelligent,” Leven said of Black, a voracious reader who holds drama degrees from the Yale School of Drama and the University of North Carolina, where he graduated with highest honors.

Black’s growing obligations prevented him from starring in “Funny Business,” although Leven said he might make a guest appearance in the future. Even though Black was unavailable, he opened his Rolodex and put Leven in touch with a musical director and comedian who ended up working on the play. Black’s kindness and humanity set him apart from many other celebrities, Leven said.

Kindness and humanity are not words usually associated with the irascible comic. But behind the scenes, he has done much to make the planet a little better.

Black has served for years as a volunteer mentor for inner-city youth at the 52nd Street project in New York. He has also taught at and raised money for the Williamstown Theatre Festival and contributed to cystic fibrosis research.

Unlike many stars, he hasn’t forgotten his roots or his manners, said comedian John Bowman, Black’s opening act and a close friend for 20 years. Whenever the pair go out for a meal, they often include their tour bus driver, with whom Black shares glasses of red wine regularly.

Bowman, who has guest-starred on “Seinfeld” and “Ellen” and hosted MTV’s short-lived show, “Kamikaze,” said he appreciated Black taking him out on the road and exposing him to a huge audience. Conan O’Brien recently asked for a tape of Bowman’s new routine.

“You could call any friend of his and all will testify that there couldn’t be a better friend than Lewis,” said Bowman, who joked that he lets Black beat him at golf to keep his boss happy. “He’s sincere, caring and interested. He’s been that way since I’ve known him.”

Black’s ranting and raving notwithstanding, he said he is less angry than he is frustrated at the gap between what is and what should be. A self-described socialist, Black remains an idealist who continues to hope for change.

“He is, at heart, an educator,” said Black’s manager, JoAnne Astrow. Through his comedy, “he is hoping that we’ll look at things differently and see that we can affect change.”

Born in Silver Spring, Md., near Washington, D.C., Black’s mother, Jeannette, worked as a substitute teacher, and his father, Sam, was a mechanical engineer who worked on sea mines. His father retired when the mines were used during the Vietnam War, a conflict he opposed.

Growing up, the young Black wanted to become a playwright and, to a lesser degree, an actor. He considered comedy a side gig, although he snapped up new albums by such comics as Bruce, Pryor, Bob Newhart and Mort Sahl as soon they appeared in record stores.

Black lived hard in the psychedelic ’60s, a period he remembers fondly for its anti-materialism and counterculture.

“I did the drugs. I did the music. I did the anti-war movement,” he said. “It was good for me.”

At 21, Black made his professional debut as a stand-up comic. He bombed. Ever the fighter, Black got back on stage the next week and did comedy off and on for nearly the next two decades.

Comedy took center stage in his life in 1988, after a disastrous experience with a musical he staged in Houston. He said the show’s backers wouldn’t allow him to do a rewrite, reneged on their promise to allow him to hire six actors from New York and forced him to take a pay cut.

Fed up with the theater world, he went across town to a comedy club. Black liked the pay, the crowds and ended up going on a monthlong tour.

Then came the heavy dues-paying. Black struggled for years on about $500 a week and slowly found his comedic voice. Whereas once he shrieked at audiences like the late wild-man comedian Sam Kinison, he learned that toning things down worked better for him, his manager Astrow said.

In the mid-1990s, he began making semiregular appearances on NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” That led to “The Daily Show” in 1996. He has never stopped writing, and has penned 40 plays to date.

Along the way, Black got married and unmarried after a year, an experience that has soured him on matrimony. More painfully, his beloved brother, Ronnie, died at 46.

Black said comedy remains one of the greatest jobs around. He gets to see the country, constantly learn new things to keep his act fresh and make enough money to spend lots of time on the links.

“Golf just allows me to hate myself more than I do in my daily life,” he said. “It’s just an impossible sport. You mess up at it, and you blame yourself. It’s a great game for obsessive-compulsives.”

Comedian Lewis Black plays the Grove of Anaheim on Saturday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, which cost $32.50 before fees, can be purchased by phone through Ticketmaster at (714) 740-2000 and (213) 480-3232, or at the Grove box office at 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. For more information, call (714) 712-2700.

A Towering Achievement


At a willowy 5-foot-10 1/2, Jennifer Rosen ticks off the quandaries of growing up supertall, female and Jewish: At her Miami Beach religious school she scraped her knees on the desk, which practically stuck to her backside when she stood up. At her Conservative bat mitzvah, she danced with boys who had to lean their heads on her chest. While reciting her Haftorah, she even towered over the rabbi: "He was wearing a bad toupee, and I was looking down on it," said Rosen, now in her 20s.

Her height felt all the freakier because Jews are generally more vertically challenged than, say, Swedes.

Rosen, who now wears high heels, eventually embraced her stature. It’s a journey she recounts in her debut monologue, "Tall Girl," a visiting production at The Groundlings Theatre, directed by Groundlings founder Gary Austin. The tall tale is a more G-rated version of the kind of comic monologue, celebrating the liberated self, epitomized by shows such as Margaret Cho’s "I’m the One That I Want."

In the highly physical piece, Rosen plays herself and a variety of characters, such as classmates who called her Big Bird and Daddy Long Legs. Throughout her childhood, she said, "There were stares and people pointing at me and thinking I was older. I felt extremely awkward, unsure of what to do with my limbs."

Her mother shlepped her to endocrinologists and also to acting class, which helped draw the painfully shy teenager out of her shell. After graduating from Stanford, she studied at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square theater school and with Austin, who taught her to use her long limbs to comic advantage.

"Initially, Jennifer was more self-conscious," recalled the director, who has also coached stars such as Helen Hunt. But as he helped her develop "Tall Girl," she "became much more committed to using her whole body, not just while playing herself but in the extreme character work."

These days, the poised Rosen still stands out at Jewish singles events such as Friday Night Live, where she’s taller than many of the guys. "But that no longer bothers me," she said.

"Tall Girl" runs Tuesdays through March 30. $15. 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-4747.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Interact Theater Company takes “Our Town” beyond the school play, with a rare professional production, playing this weekend only. See Thornton Wilder’s classic all grown up, brought to you by the University of Judaism’s performing arts department.
8 p.m. (Saturday), 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (Sunday). $32-$38. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1547.

Sunday

Chick rock it’s not. But tonight’s “Kolot Hanasheem – Voices of Women” concert honors women of a different genre who’ve earned it all the same. Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s Noreen Green conducts the program featuring works by six contemporary female Jewish composers, including Maria Newman’s “The Book of Esther,” and excerpts from Andrea Clearfield’s “Women of Valor.” Performers will include actress Laraine Newman, soprano Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Diana Tash and the Valley Beth Shalom Congregational Choir.
7 p.m. $10-$36. Valley Beth Shalom, 17539 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-9311.

Monday

It’s a fine line between the fluffy pareve kosher-for-Passover dessert and a gritty leftover even the dog won’t eat. Students doing their own seders for the first time, as well as adults who learned their lesson the hard way, find the wisdom they desperately seek today, as UCLA’s Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life presents a class in Passover confections. Godspeed.
7-9:30 p.m. $5 (UCLA students), $55 (general). 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. R.S.V.P., (310) 208-3081, ext. 100.

Tuesday

Political and gastronomic enthusiasts find book signings to suit their niches today. For Bush bashing, head to Sherman Oaks for the last in Valley Cities JCC’s Provocative Speaker Series, where Robert Scheer will discuss and sign his latest book, “The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.” Those who prefer to save their appetites head to the Jewish Community Library, where sisters and co-authors Phyllis and Miriyam Glazer present and sign their recent cookbook, “The Essential Book of Jewish Cooking: 200 Seasonal Holiday Recipes and Their Traditions.”
Robert Scheer: 7:30-9 p.m. $20-$25. 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 786-6310. Miriyam Glazer: 7:30 p.m. 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8648.

Wednesday

Circle Elephant Art’s “Joel Hoyer: An Exquisite Surface” exhibition continues this week. Moving beyond the medium’s tradition as a purely decorative art, Hoyer’s pieces remain the sort of thing you’d want hanging in your living room, while provoking thought and imagination.
Runs March 5-27. Noon-6 p.m. (Wed.-Sat.). 4634 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 662-3279.

Thursday

A senator, a rabbi and some leading medical authorities walk into Temple Beth Am. Rather than the start of a bad joke, however, they’re hoping it’ll be the start of a healthcare revolution. Tonight, various Jewish organizations co-sponsor a forum on healthcare titled “Zay Gezunt: The Jewish Coalition for Healthcare for All Californians.” State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, Rabbi William Cutter as well as medical authorities discuss the hows and whys of universal healthcare.
7 p.m. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Friday

The Skirball turns comedy lounge tonight for another session of “Say the Word,” a showcase of writing and comic talents in Los Angeles, complete with the requisite cocktails and snacks. Tonight’s show for the 21-and-over crowd features George Meyer (“The Simpsons”), Rob Cohen (“The Ben Stiller Show”), Gary Janettie (“Will & Grace”) and Merrill Markoe (“It’s My F—ing Birthday: A Novel”).
8 pm. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 655-8587.

Purim Briefs


Run and Deliver

Unless you are actually running the Los Angeles Marathon, the marathon and the myriad street closures are likely to inconvenience you. This year, as the marathon falls on Purim (March 7), it may inconvenience Jews delivering mishloach manot, or food packages traditionally delivered to friends and family.

The city has found a way for Purim revellers to run around the marathon. Adeena Bleich, the Jewish community liaison for City Councilman Jack Weiss, organized access through “soft closures” — not the actual marathon route, but close by — which will allow people delivering shalach manot to go through. The main street closures are going to be staggered from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., so deliveries could be times for after 2 p.m.

Copies of the marathon map and street closure times were sent out to area synagogues to ensure limited interruptions in shalach manot giving.

For more information about street closures in your area,call Adeena Bleich at (310) 289-0353 or send e-mail to ableich@council.lacity.org . — Gaby Wenig, Staff Writer

Megillah for the Deaf

It is a mitzvah on Purim to hear the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll that tells the holiday’s story. In fact, some rabbis say that if you miss hearing one word of the megillah, then you have not fulfilled your obligation.

Certainly, deaf people would have a hard time fulfilling this mitzvah. The Orthodox Union has responded with a way that deaf people can “hear” the megillah.

The Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for the Disabled (NJCD) came up with the “PowerPoint Megillat Esther Program,” a CD-ROM that can be loaded into a computer and then projected to the front of the synagogue. A hearing person operates the equipment, following along with the cantor and pointing out the words being read using the mouse of the computer, which are the highlighted, karaoke-style, on the screen. Every time the name Haman comes up, the word is clicked and a graphic of stamping appears on the screen to simulate what should be going on in the synagogue at that moment.

Frank Duchoeny, the Montreal coordinator of Our Way for the Jewish Deaf, a division of the NJCD, developed the program two years ago. This year the CD-ROM, which is available to synagogues for $100, comes with a number of additional features.

“This year’s version has new graphics for Haman and the blessings recited before and after the megillah reading, and it also highlights the psukim [verses] that are recited by entire congregation,” said Batya Jacobs, Our Way’s program director. “The mitzvah of hearing Megillat Esther is a requirement for every Jew. Using our PowerPoint program will facilitate the inclusion of our fellow Jews who are deaf or hard of hearing within the community in this mitzvah.”

For more information or to place an order, call (212)613-8127 or send e-mail to arielib@ou.org . — GW

The Comic Esther

Think your kids watch too many cartoons with no educational value? Have them check out “The Queen of Persia,” a feature-length animated video about the story of Purim, and a graphic novel of the same title based on the video’s screenplay. The novel reads something like a Purim version of the “Asterix” comics — a guilty pleasure with a lot of humor and color on every page.

Shazak Productions, a Chicago-based media company, produced the Purim media to teach children in a fun way, said Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, the company’s founder. A teacher for two decades, Moscowitz wants the book to spice up classroom learning, and therefore kept the book and video faithful to the authentic biblical sources.

“I want to give teachers new tools that really excite students,” he said. “Whenever learning material is presented in an exciting way, people will learn better. Our goal is to capture the fancy of everyone. Everybody, regardless of background, could pick up [‘The Queen of Persia’] and have a blast.”

For more information or to order “The Queen of Persia”CD, book or video, go to www.shazak.com or e-mail njpmail@mindspring.com . — GW

The Set Up


I just received e-mail today from a former Akiba Hebrew
Academy classmate letting me know that she tried to set me up with an
“attractive, Jewish writer” from our hometown, but she
unfortunately just moved back to New York.

The Zoloft must have finally kicked in, otherwise I would
probably be sitting on the shower stall floor, head down and broken like
Elisabeth Shue in “Leaving Las Vegas,” staying in there until the hot water ran
out.

Still, I am pleased that someone other than my parents tried
to hook me up with anyone. They last attempted to pair me up with my own
cousin.

“A second cousin,” my father yelled at me on the way back
from their seder. “They’re complete strangers. We don’t even know them.” (He
later e-mailed me an article on how it was recently discovered that second
cousins can procreate with zero worry of genetic abnormalities.)

So I was somewhat hopeful when my buddy’s gorgeous, blond
ex-girlfriend told me she was “on the market” looking for nice single guys;
apparently, that didn’t include me. She called all her friends, who immediately
lined up guys for her to date every night for the next two weeks. I was less
jealous of those guys than the fact that she had this little network of
romantic possibilities to tap into.

For some reason, it’s rare that anyone sets me up. You would
think being a thin, employed, Jewish heterosexual with a full head of hair,
long eyelashes and a great sense of humor would be a gimmie.

Not so.

Admittedly, there have been a handful of female friends of
mine who have expressed an interest in fixing me up with their single
girlfriends, and although well intended, they have never come through. A good
friend, very active in synagogue events, knows a ton of Jewish women, but as a
self-employed actress and the mother of a 6-year-old, she is usually too swept
up by the dramas of her own life to work as my matchmaker. Her recent messy
separation put my love life further down her to-do list. Talk about priorities.

Apparently, married people are only allowed to fraternize
with other married people, severely limiting their use to me as matchmaker or
interesting dinner guest. But yet they do have contact with separated couples —
broken halves still recovering from the break. “I’d introduce you, but she’s not
ready yet,” they tell me. Inevitably, when I soon after bring up that possible
set-up, that 48-hour window has already closed.

Why don’t people set me up? Are they worried about
themselves?

Sure, you could lose a friend by making a bad match,
actually bringing the entire friendship into question. (“She thinks I’d be good
with this loser? Maybe I shouldn’t be friends with her.”)

Case in point: My neighbor didn’t talk to her friend for
months for setting her up with someone missing an arm, because she forgot to
mention the severed limb beforehand.

Or maybe people don’t set me up because they’re worried it
will go well at first, but later things might sour and they’ll get caught in —
to borrow a military term –Â relationship crossfire. Like a divorce, but less
immature, breakup parties often turn on the matchmakers: “He cheated on me and
it’s all your fault!” In the nasty aftermath the matchmakers will have to
decide which side to take (i.e., who gets whom in the friend-custody battle).

My ex-girlfriend still cannot attend a party thrown by her
good friend “Marsha,” the woman who fixed my ex up with the ex-boyfriend, who
caused her post-breakup breakdown a few years back. It’s as complicated as it
sounds.

And my male friends? They’ve never expressed the slightest
interest in setting me up. I have a theory that men never want you to date
someone they might want to go out with sometime in their lifetime. And, trust
me, there’s nothing more emasculating than asking your buddies if they know any
women you’d hit it off with. The few times I’ve done this, I’ve gotten a look
as if a wild animal asked another, “Know where I can find any food?”

Alphas eat. Betas go hungry. Fend for yourself. We’re all
hungry, the look says.

Maybe in the old days you had some loving and concerned
families and friends watching your romantic back. But these days it seems like
everyone is watching their own. I guess I’m on my own.

So I called my father to check on that second cousin of
mine. Turns out I missed my window — she’s now engaged to a doctor. Â


Dave Kessler is a writer,
director and stand-up comic. To find out when he is performing or to set him up
on a date, e-mail him at DavidKKessler@aol.com

Eight Crazy Delights


1. No Nostalgia for Waxing

This Chanukah, there is no more scraping, boiling water, melting with a hair dryer or freezing to remove wax drippings from your menorah because Wax-Off prevents wax from sticking to any candle-holder surface. Visit www.wax-off.net or call (800) 334-9964 for more information.

2. Fiddler-mania!

Question: What would your Chanukah be without your hand-painted “Fiddler on the Roof” Figurine Music Box ($45), “Fiddler” Chess Set ($300), “Fiddler” Chip n’ Dip Set ($50), “Fiddler” Teapot ($36) and set of “Fiddler” Shmear Spreaders ($45)? And the answer: Much less expensive. (www.jewishsource.com ).

3. A Big Blow to the Jewish People

Hebrew Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum Box of 100 ($10.95). If you can’t read Hebrew, don’t sweat it — the comic strips are probably funnier when you don’t understand the gags (www.jewishsource.com).

4. Rabbi Said Knock You Out!

Boxing Rabbi Puppet ($9.50). Finally, a way to one-up your neighbor’s Fighting Nun Puppet (www.mcphee.com ).

5. Ark for Ark’s Sake

The Ark of the Covenant ($11.95). Indiana Jones nearly lost his life searching for his. So why not pick one up for yourself and see what all the hubbub is about? (www.mcphee.com ).

6. Giving You Plaque

Gefilte Fish Plaque ($5.95). A Jesus plate parody for your car. In all honesty, this plaque probably tastes better than the fish that inspired it. Unclear whether it comes packed in jelly. (www.mcphee.com ).

7. When the Golem

Gets Tough…

Share with your children the legend of the Prague protector with a copy of “Golem,” an award-winning children’s book by David Wisniewski. (Clarion Books, $17) (www.amazon.com ).

9. Winnie the Jew

Winnie the Pooh in a yarmulke with dreidel in hand. Nobody saw this one coming, but then again, the lovable bear perhaps makes a more convincing Jew than a boy named Christopher Robin. ($8.50). (The Disney Store. For locations visit disney.store.go.com ).



Bonus Shamash Gift: The Jewish Version of The Spinners?

The Draydelettes, a chorus line of Chanukah tops created by designer Susan Fischer Weis, grace a light set ($19.95) and mug ($7.95) (www.jewishsource.com ).

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday

Puppets, paupers, pirates and poets — especially poets — are invited to the Workmen’s Circle tonight for Slam Shirim, a competitive performance poetry event for the Jewish community. Anyone can sign up to perform, judges are chosen randomly from the audience and the rest of the audience is encouraged to share their reaction to the poetry, so expect a raucous evening. The flyer says it’s “like an amusement park adventure of spoken word.” We say it’s good, artsy fun.

8 p.m. $7 (members); $10 (nonmembers). 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Sunday

Chanukah comes early this year, but it can’t come early enough for the kids. Universal Studios understands, and they’re bringing out the chanukiah — and the stars — a few days early for a big park-wide celebration today. Spider-Man spins the dreidel, the Rugrats characters light the candles, Mayor James Hahn will lend an official air to the proceedings and Jerry’s Famous Deli will present “The World’s Largest Latka.” Plus, the performances range from the sweet Mallory Lewis and Lambchop to Jewish rapper Remedy of the Wu-Tang Clan. This Chanukah celebration, co-sponsored by The Journal, has something for everyone — it’s Universal!

10 a.m.-6 p.m. With coupon it’s $35 (adults) and $25 (children).
100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. (800) 864-8377.

Monday

“When you’re a Hip Hop Hoodio, it’s Chanukah-time 24/7, 365 days a year.” So say the members of Hip Hop Hoodios, the Latino-Jewish rap supergroup, and listening to their music, you believe them. In addition to a beat-heavy version of “Hava Nagila,” the group’s album, “Raza Hoodia,” includes their attitude-heavy Chanukah track, “Ocho Kandelikas.” UCLA Hillel and Yiddishkayt L.A. bring this free concert tonight, with multiethnic samba-funk-rockers Bayu and an afternoon discussion panel on what all this fusion means.

2 p.m. (panel). 2408 Ackerman, UCLA. 8 p.m. (concert). Bradley International Hall, 417 Charles E. Young Drive West, UCLA. (213) 389-8880.

Tuesday

Set in the near future, George Larkin’s new play “Perverse Tongue” portrays an America ruled by an absolute literalist interpretation of the Bible. Follow the story of two sisters, the younger of whom must flee the Soldiers of God, enforcers who want to put her on trial for having been raped.

8 p.m. $15. Mon.-Wed., through Dec. 18. No performance Wed. Nov. 27 or Mon. Dec. 2. MET Theater, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. (323) 957-1152.

Wednesday

< She may be better known for her decades of social activism, but Betty Sheinbaum is also recognized for her art. When she's not filling banquet halls with friends for a fundraiser, Sheinbaum fills galleries with her paintings. Now at Santa Monica's The Artist's Gallery, her collection "Bullfighting" examines the dramatic tension between man and beast.

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Nov. 30. The Artist’s Gallery, 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 829-9556.

Thursday

Sculptor Keith Edmier doesn’t claim to be the only artist inspired by an angel, but he may be the only one to collaborate this well with a Charlie’s Angel. Edmier began a collaboration with Farrah Fawcett in 1999 and the fruits of their labor are on display now at LACMA. Fawcett, an art major in college, contributed equally to the six-sculpture, multiple-photo exhibit, which set out to examine the relationship between artist and muse.

Through Feb. 17, 2003. $7 (adults); $5 (seniors and students); $1 (children).
5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000.

Friday

Light one candle, have some latkes, then head out to celebrate the first night of Chanukah with a few laughs from Eric Schwartz, known to listeners of KIIS-FM as Smooth E, the Suburban Homeboy. The Thousand Oaks-raised comic will be sharing the stage with some big names next week at The Jewish Federation’s Vodka Latka gala, but you can also catch “Lose the Gelt,” “Welcome to the Valley” and other hip-hop ha-has this weekend.

8 p.m. Also Sat. Hornblowers Comedy Club,
1559 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura. (805) 658-2202.

Still Got ‘Game’


Like Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other milestones of Jewish American literature, Will Eisner’s “Name of the Game” explores the depths of Jewish self-loathing and assimilation. But what separates “Name” — a tale chronicling two immigrant families that merge through marriage for social advancement and then suffer destructive consequences — from the others, is that Eisner’s work is a comic book.

Make that a “graphic novel” — the term attributed to ambitious comics with mature themes and a traditional bound format. Graphic novels have become a multimillion-dollar cash cow. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” revolutionized comics in 1986 with its brooding, cynical interpretation of Batman. Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction Holocaust opus, “Maus,” won the Pulitzer Prize.

“I was frankly enthused when Spiegelman got the Pulitzer,” Eisner told The Journal from his Florida studio, “because it gave the medium the credit it deserves.”

Eisner’s latest is a 160-page saga in which the destinies of two social-climbing immigrant families collide. It’s a stunning study of disconnect, in which characters choose money over love, practice infidelity in the bedroom and in the boardroom, and embrace assimilation over identity. “Name” comments on the American Dream, and the lengths some will go to deny themselves in their quest to obtain and maintain it. It was inspired by folk tales, as channeled through the prism of Eisner’s Jewish American experience.

“Jewish and Russian folk literature, they had a similar thread to all of them,” said Eisner, married to wife Ann for 52 years. “Everybody succeeded in elevating themselves, and that’s through marriage — certainly in Yiddish folklore. Nobody succeeds in fairy tales unless they marry the prince or the princess.”

Eisner, who has been writing and drawing graphic novels since the 1970s, actually created this genre. The first graphic novel, his landmark “A Contract with God,” was originally published by Baronet Books in 1978. The Jewish-themed, Bronx-set story depicted protagonist Frimmer Hirsh’s relationship with his Maker.

Eisner also authored a seminal textbook, “Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling,” and taught popular cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Pat McDonnnell at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Since 1988, the Eisner Awards, named in his honor and held annually in San Diego, have become the industry’s Academy Awards.

However, his major contribution to his industry is his classic strip “The Spirit.”

Conceived in 1939 for a newspaper comics supplement, “The Spirit” told the tale of Denny Colt, a policeman reborn as a Stetson-wearing masked detective superhero. Eisner used the strip to redefine the medium by employing cinematic compositions and pacing, noir design sensibilities and a cartoon realism unseen in comics back then. His storytelling style reflected the moviemaking of his day — Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, bringing to comics what Orson Welles brought to movies with “Citizen Kane”: sophistication.

Both “The Spirit” and its creator were a product of what is now called the Golden Age of Comics — a time when New York Jews ruled an industry that was beneath most non-Jews; the same era explored in 2000 by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” for which Eisner was a consultant.

Since 1978, Eisner has explored his most personal art through his graphic novel format, works that capture facets of his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in 1920s-30s New York. “The Heart of the Storm,” for example, tells his parents’ story — his father was a fine artist from Vienna; his mother of Czech descent.

The Jewishness of Eisner’s tale was never an issue for his publisher.

“They were very supportive and never attempted to make editorial content,” Eisner said, singling out his longtime DC editor Dave Shriner.

Unlike DC’s flagship characters “Superman” and “Batman,” “The Spirit” never materialized in Hollywood, save for an unaired 1984 TV pilot produced by DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Eisner doesn’t believe “The Spirit” translates to other mediums.

Nor does he even want to return to his iconic character in his own medium. His list of upcoming project ideas has grown too long for him to look back.

“There would only be two reasons I would revisit ‘The Spirit,'” Eisner said. “To prove that I could still run a quarter mile and to make money. I don’t need either.”

Learn more about Will Eisner at www.willeisner.com.

Boys Wonder


Joe [incredulous]: Jewish superheroes?

Sammy: What, they’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick up a name like that for himself.

A day after Yom Kippur, Michael Chabon, with his telegenic looks – long dark locks, piercing clear eyes – does not stand out amidst the young and the beautiful circulating through Chateau Marmont. However, as a writer, the 37-year-old – best known for the 1995 novel “The Wonder Boys” – has stood out in the publishing world since graduating from college in the mid- 1980s.

Chabon’s latest, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (Random House), chronicles the rise and fall of Sammy Clay and his Czechoslovakian refugee cousin, Joe Kavalier – cartoonists who create, then lose control of their biggest creation: the Escapist. Set in the World War II-era Golden Age of comic books – when Jewish American males thrived, conjuring up dime store escapism – the story echoes the real-life tragedy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish teenagers who concocted Superman, only to naively forfeit the rights.

Five years in the making, Chabon’s novel not only encapsulates the author’s childhood-forged passion for superhero comics, but also his recent rediscovery of his own Jewish culture. The book’s strength lies in its rich universe of Jewish characters and metaphors, as the Golem of Prague, Harry Houdini and Europe at the dawn of World War II all figure prominently. And while some publishers might consider a saga containing the double whammy of overtly Jewish themes and comic books as an elixir for disaster, Chabon was surprised by how receptive his associates were to his concept.

“I was sort of talking initially to my agent about various book ideas,” Chabon told The Journal, “and it was the one she jumped on right away. My editor had the same reaction. She’s not Jewish, she never read a comic book in her life.”

Researching “Kavalier & Clay,” Chabon conducted firsthand interviews with legends of the field: Marvel Comics’ guru Stan Lee, “The Spirit” creator Will Eisner, Martin “Green Lantern” Nodell, and on and on. As Chabon learned, “Almost all of the major characters – with the possible exception of Wonder Woman – were created by Jews. I wondered, ‘What was that about?’ As soon as I started thinking about it and doing some reading into the history of comics, especially superhero comics, it’s immediately apparent.”

Indeed, the Golem of Prague looms large in Chabon’s book, as symbolic of the Jewish storytelling tradition; as precursor to the modern superhero idiom; as a reminder of Kavalier and Clay’s Ashkenazi roots. While Chabon originally included the Golem in a passing reference, his chat with Eisner, who referenced the legendary champion of the Jewish people, led Chabon to reevaluate the clay giant. Several drafts later, the Golem had insinuated itself into a greatly expanded role. Like the original Golem rising in a besieged medieval shtetl, Chabon said the character “popped into my life kind of right when I needed it.”

The link between the Golem and the American superhero is clear to Chabon, who cites the “messianic” component of early Superman editions, when the Man of Steel – with powers less godlike and more earthbound (Superman originally did not fly) – served as a champion of the oppressed.”It was not about fighting supervillains,” said Chabon, “but rescuing people from bosses that were exploiting them.”

One eye-catching item in “Kavalier & Clay” comes at the end of the lengthy acknowledgments, where Chabon dedicates not only this comics-themed work but every story he has ever written to Jack Kirby – co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, and hundreds more. Chabon never did meet the prolific cartoonist, a tough Depression-era New Yorker born Jacob Kurtzberg who died in 1994.

“The greatest thing about Kirby that I ultimately find so inspiring,” said Chabon, “is the sheer fecundity of his imagination. The way he could just toss off, in a throw-away story, seven or eight different ideas that other writers would be happy to have an entire series built around. He was such an unstoppable force.”

For years, Chabon was somewhat disconnected from his own Jewish heritage.”As I had children, I found myself coming back to it and looking at it in a whole different light,” said Chabon, who lives in Berkeley.

With his novelist wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3, Chabon actively attends a Jewish Renewal congregation called Kehilla Community Synagogue and sits on the synagogue’s board.

“It is through Kehilla that I see myself, at least in the foreseeable future, defining my Jewish identity,” said Chabon.

Like many young men of his generation, Chabon’s entry into literature began with comic books, particularly the steady diet of Marvel titles he avidly consumed in the 1970s. By his own account, his childhood was “a standard suburban Jewish upbringing in Columbia, Maryland,” where his family occasionally attended synagogue. Chabon’s parents have Polish, Lithuanian and Russian roots. His father, a former pediatrician and lawyer, now works as an executive for Mutual of Omaha, his mother as an attorney. The family name is either Moldavian or Belarussian and means “shepherd.”

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, Chabon attended the University of California at Irvine, where his professor, MacDonald Harris, forwarded Chabon’s thesis to a literary agent. That project became Chabon’s well-received 1988 debut, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and that literary agent, Mary Evans, represents the writer to this day.

In the early 1990s, Chabon agonized over, then abandoned his original follow-up to “Mysteries” after amassing thousands of pages. His critically acclaimed sophomore novel, “Wonder Boys,” hit movie theaters earlier this year starring Michael Douglas and directed by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”). While the film version failed to find its audience, Paramount believes in it enough to rerelease the movie this month, in time for Oscar consideration. And producer Scott Rudin has tapped Chabon to adapt “Kavalier & Clay” as a motion picture.

“It’s going to be incumbent on me not to be too protective as a screenwriter,” said Chabon, who was pleased with Steven Kloves’s “Wonder Boys” screenplay.

By translating his book to celluloid, Chabon hopes to direct new interest to the long-maligned medium he cherishes.

“Comics had already existed for 40 or 50 years as this art form that nobody had paid attention to,” said Chabon. “There was never a critic who stood up and had the guts to say, ‘I read comics. I like comics.'”

Fortunately for comic book fans, one writer has.

Rye Humor


The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen and, of course, Seinfeld. The history of American comedy is the history of America’s funniest Jews. But while being Jewish and funny has never been mutually exclusive, comedians in days of yore mostly kept their Jewishness offstage. Times are changing, and with multiculturalism comes a new brand of Jewish comedian.

Recently, The Journal caught up with three comics whose Judaism informs their act and whose career informs their Judaism. Cathy Ladman quips about her intermarriage; Mark Schiff brings his comic pals to perform at an Orthodox shul fund-raiser; and Larry Miller views stand-up as Talmudic discourse.

“People think Jews are funny because we’ve been oppressed, but I shake my head very quickly and very firmly at that,” Miller says. “I say, ‘No, comedy is intrinsically Jewish and something Jews are very good at and really right for. Because we’re people of the book, word and thought.'”

Jews don’t lift weights. They ask other people, ‘Would you help me pick those up, please?’

Every New Year’s Day for the past 20 years, comedian Mark Schiff has flown to New York to have lunch with his comic best buddies Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Larry Miller.

“We have a club that meets once a year,” Schiff explains. “It’s called ‘The Funniest Men in America.'”

Schiff has known Seinfeld and Reiser since the three hung out together every night in the comedy dives of New York in the ’70s. Like his friends, Schiff went on to regularly appear on “The Tonight Show” (he was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite comics) and to create an act that kvetches about the irritating minutia of life.

He complains about parents, grandparents, his wife. He imagines a set of “unmotivational tapes,” dispensing such advice as “Get a bottle of whiskey and a pie and go back to bed.” He describes the frustrations of shopping at a supermarket: “I can never find people who work in these stores. I was in the meat department. I saw a guy in a white coat –blood all over the thing. I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He goes, ‘I don’t work here.'”

Schiff, an observant Jew, also makes comic observations about Jews. “There are no Jewish bank robbers,” he says. “The reason is that they’d have to say, ‘Put your hands up and get on the floor.’ But Jews can’t handle that. They’d say, ‘No, no, get up, you’ll get dirty.'”

Schiff decided he wanted to become a comedian at age 12, when his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield perform stand-up comedy in the late 1960s. “I was mesmerized by all the laughs, the love, the attention Dangerfield was getting,” says Schiff, who grew up in a Bronx sixth-floor walk-up where “Everyone was always complaining and yelling and threatening…I never felt heard when I was a kid. I never felt understood. And I had to find a way to be understood or go crazy.”

Stand-up comedy provided the outlet, and so did Schiff’s first Showtime special, “My Crummy Childhood,” in 1993. “My mother always used to say, “Do socks belong on the floor?'” he recalls, in his act. “I can’t wait until my parents get old and they come to live with me. I’ll say to them: ‘Do teeth belong on the floor?'”

Schiff began his journey to observant Judaism 12 years ago, when an Aish HaTorah Bible class convinced him that there was a better way to fill his inner emptiness than with the fleeting attention he received onstage.

Since then, he has joined two Orthodox synagogues, Anshe Emes and B’nai David-Judea, and he has convinced the Funniest Men to perform at an Anshe Emes fund-raiser. More recently, Schiff, a former staff writer on “Mad About You,” co-wrote an episode in which Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt observe Shabbos — sort of. In the episode, the characters meet an Amish man and are inspired to experience 24 hours without electricity.

“Words are important in Judaism, so I try not to slander anybody in my act,” Schiff says. But gently complaining about his wife is OK. “I don’t see it as LaShon HaRah. I see it as a bit of kvetching so I feel better.”

+