January 21, 2019

The Gift of the Magi

One measure of the success of R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” is the fact it makes such a lovely gift for both Chanukah and Christmas.  And therein lies a tale — a cross-cultural variant of O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”

For the last several years, ny wife, Ann, and I have spent Thanksgiving in St. Paul at the home of our cherished friends, Raye Birk and Candace Barrett Birk.  One of our favorite traditions is to bundle up and head over to Minneapolis on the night after Thanksgiving to see Raye on the boards at the Guthrie Theater, where he customarily plays Scrooge in the annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”  This year, however, Raye was featured in a powerful production of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” a play that is no less suitable for the Christmas season but one with a considerably less upbeat ending.

Raye has an impressive list of stage, movie and television credits, and one of my favorites is one of his most recent roles — he plays the physician who figures so crucially in the plot of “A Serious Man,” a wry and darkly ironic depiction of Jewish life in the Twin Cities in the 60s by Ethan and Joel Coen. I like to boast that Raye acquired his facility for Jewish roles by spending so much time at our seder table over the years, and he is surely one of the few non-Jewish actors who owns a yarmulke. 

It’s another Thanksgiving tradition for us to bring gifts for Raye and Candace to open on Christmas morning.  Now that Christmas has arrived, I can disclose that the present we left behind in St. Paul for Raye was a copy of the R. Crumb’s comic-book version of Genesis. 

And when I opened the Chanukah gift that the Birks sent to California, I discovered that they had picked the very same book for me.

Raye, I hope you will enjoy your gift as much as I will enjoy mine!  Merry Christmas!

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, participated in a discussion of R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” on a recent broadcast of The Politics of Culture on KCRW hosted by Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin, and the program is archived the