U.S. Jewish cartoonist draws in black and white, with no red lines
Some people think he is an evil, self-hating Jew who ingratiates himself with the Gentiles. But underneath his rebellious exterior, cartoonist Eli Valley is a ‘nice Jewish boy.’
When New York satirist and cartoonist Eli Valley heard about the Israeli anti-Semitic cartoon contest six years ago, he sent in the following cartoon: a grotesque Jew with two penises simultaneously sodomizing a Muslim woman and a Christian woman who are crying out to Allah and Jesus to save them. With one hand the Jew is creating massive tsunami waves and with the other he is launching a plane at the Twin Towers. On his head is a skullcap, and his testicles emit an odor of garlic, borscht and the tears of virgins.
The Israeli contest was launched in the aftermath of the uproar in Denmark surrounding a cartoon depiction of the prophet Mohammed, and after an Iranian newspaper announced a cartoon competition on the Holocaust. In response, playwright and actor Eyal Zusman approached Israeli cartoonist Amitai Sandy with an idea for an Israeli anti-Semitic cartoon contest to freshen up the world’s store of anti-Semitic images and to prove to everyone that Jews do it best. And it worked. Dozens of Jews from all over the world sent in cartoons − and Valley was one of them. At the time he was a young writer and had never planned on reviving his career as a comic book artist, which he had set aside.
“I got interested in comics when I was a kid, but it never had a Jewish dimension to it,” he recalled during a recent visit to Israel. “I drew cartoons in college, more political stuff, but I stopped after graduating. I got tired of the format of the single-panel response to current events − cartoons that relied on and reacted to the news.”
And then you heard about the contest?
Valley: “Yes, and it was the first time I’d done any comics in 10 years. Not that I didn’t doodle here and there, but I didn’t do any real art; it was just for fun. I hadn’t used brush and ink in years. For the contest I drew on cheap paper and used a copy machine and Wite-Out to fix the mistakes. It was very primitive − I had to do it fast, there was a tight deadline − but it was also visceral, and the result and the response made it worth it.”
And then you said: “Great, I’ve found a new career!”?
“It wasn’t quite like that. You don’t make a career out of drawing a Jew with two penises. At around that time a new website called Jewcy was looking for different voices, young and fresh takes on Jewish culture, and they liked what I had to say. Suddenly I had a readership. I started drawing more complicated comics. What I do today, even though it’s reactive and angry in a sense, allows me to work in a much more creative dynamic than I could with just the single panel, because I can tell a story. That’s what I love about comics: They allow a much broader form of expression than the single-panel political cartoon, despite the glorious past and tradition of political cartoons.”
‘Coming across well’
The meeting with Valley takes place at the end of a visit to Israel during which he gave presentations of his work to students in the visual design departments at Shenkar School of Engineering and Design and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and also at Beit Ha’am on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.
Valley’s comics may be crude and direct, but beneath that rebellious exterior lurks a “nice Jewish boy.” It becomes apparent that material he might consider to be fine for comics is not always suitable to be reported for attribution; a number of times he requests, “Don’t write that,” about one thing or another. It seems that even provocative artists care about “coming across well” in the newspaper.
He was born Eliezer Valley in Rhode Island and grew up in upstate New York and New Jersey. His father is a rabbi and his mother, who is no longer religiously observant, was a social worker and later a lawyer. His parents divorced when Valley was young, and he says the contrast between their two cultures had an influence on his comics. After high school, he studied English literature at Cornell University. He recently finished writing his first novel, which is as yet unpublished, and although he doesn’t want to reveal much about it, he would say that it is also related to the subjects he deals with in his comics.
After college he went to live in Prague for four and a half years, at the end of which he published a book, “The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe.”
“I wanted to try living in a different place and I couldn’t afford to live in Western Europe,” Valley says. “I gradually became more involved in the Jewish community and culture in Prague, and I became a tour guide in the Jewish quarter. In New York I felt like everything Jewish was kind of taken for granted and it didn’t interest me that much, but in Prague I was intrigued by the open-eyed way young people approached Jewish history and culture in the post-communist era. It was like a return to history in some ways − although of course Jewish culture had existed in its own way throughout communist rule.
“That’s how I became a tour guide, and then the book came out of that. I got interested in Jewish culture in college too, in the history classes I took, but living in Prague made it more real: walking the streets, feeling the history in a tactile way.”
Valley currently lives in New York, in the East Village. He is the Artist in Residence at The Jewish Daily Forward. His work evokes a lot of reactions, not all of them positive, of course.
Who is your audience?
“You want the less serious answer? Let’s say there’s a Holocaust in America. It’s the year 2050, and some college student is going through these old newspapers and detritus of a disappeared Jewish community, and they discover my stuff and they’re just amazed − the same way I feel when I look at prewar Jewish newspapers and journals in Central European archives. That’s my audience.”
And the serious answer?
“I don’t draw for a specific audience. If you think about an audience, your work becomes contrived. You have to be faithful to your vision and hope that someone out there will relate to it. I know the audience for my comics is specific, and it helps if they understand the culture or history I’m referencing. If I wanted a mass audience, I’d be doing a different kind of comic.”
From the reactions you get, it looks like people are either crazy about you or think you’re the world’s biggest idiot.
“They don’t think I’m an idiot. They think I’m evil, consumed with self-hatred, a Jew from the ghetto trying to curry favor with the Gentiles. You know? That’s not an idiot, that’s something else.”
Do you understand why they think that? To them, the logic is clear: If a Jews says such things, there must be something wrong with him.
“I don’t see it that way. I understand why people who have a problem with themselves would see it that way, but they’re projecting: They’re the ghetto Jews, they’re the ones who are afraid to talk about problems, they feel that the Jewish community is in such a precarious position that it cannot survive any criticism, even from a cartoon. They’re the ones living in fear and panic, not me.”
‘Race with reality’
In an article published around the time the anti-Semitic cartoon contest winners were announced, Valley said: “Sexuality has never been a central theme in anti-Semitic cartoons. I admit that I deviated from the anti-Semitic tradition and borrowed images from American racist caricature that portray African-American men as terrifyingly virile. But anti-Semitism, at its root, ascribes supernatural qualities to Jews, and it seemed quite natural to me that if you ascribe such traits to Jews, you can’t omit sexuality. I didn’t want to show only virility, but also supposed sexual deviance and abnormality. That’s where the idea came of not stopping with a single act of sodomy but doubling it with a magical genital. The Jew is defiling an innocent Christian and an innocent Muslim. What more could an anti-Semite want?”
There’s a difference between saying something critical and drawing a Jew with two penises ...
“First of all, I’d like to point out that the Jew with two penises is a little atypical compared to the rest of my comics.”
Right. And yet ...
“In terms of the image, you’re right. It’s more graphic and more visceral. But at the same time, hopefully the main thing about my comics is the humor, and with humor you can say things that are harsher and more uncomfortable, and hopefully you’ll come out of it okay. I also think that with this kind of satire, there’s also love. Even if you’re saying, for example, that Israel is destroying itself. The subtext to satire is the idealization of a better world, so beneath the absurdity of my comics there’s the wish that things would be better. That’s part of where the love lies. And of course self-deprecating humor is a very Jewish trait.”
As in Philip Roth, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld?
“Yes, and much further back. My critics clearly have no sense of humor, so I’d argue they’re less Jewish than me,” he says with a smile. “Generally, it’s very hard to satirize the Jewish world, because as soon as you think you’ve done something totally outrageous and absurd, you open the newspaper and find that actual events have exceeded whatever you’ve come up with. It’s always a race against reality.”
In a January 2010 cartoon in The Forward entitled “The Odd Couple,” Valley portrayed an encounter between Brian Greenstein, a young Jew visiting Jerusalem for the first time, and Avi Klopnik, an ultra-Orthodox extremist. For Greenstein, who doesn’t understand Hebrew, Klopnik’s words sound like music to the soul, while in fact Valley puts into Klopnik’s mouth select quotations from Jewish public figures and clergy, such as: “A woman who wears a prayer shawl should be wrapped in the shawl and buried”; “It is permissible to kill a Gentile who will one day become evil”; “Homosexuality is like bird flu − a plague that threatens to destroy Israel”; and so on.
In response, Rabbi Avi Shafran, public affairs director for Agudath Israel in America, said that it was this comic that caused the earthquake in Haiti. In an October 2010 interview on The Comics Journal website, Valley commented on the reactions he receives. “There’s this tension, because in many ways the community continues to view itself through a lens of powerlessness. I like to explore this tension − the disconnect between our self-image and reality − in my comics. Stuart the Jewish Turtle [one of the characters that appears in Valley’s comics] may be a caged turtle, but most of his thoughts are the kinds of thing I’ve heard, just about literally, from reactionary elements in the Jewish community. And when reactionary elements are the most vocal, or in leadership roles, it merits this kind of response.
“It always surprises me when people are outraged by drawings, but not by the reality they’re based on. That’s why I think cartoons are necessary, and why they can actually comprise the most serious parts of our culture − but unfortunately, the anger is often directed at the satire and not at the subject. This goes back to the question of satire. You can’t satirize the powerless. It’s like a rich person mocking a beggar in the street. It might be humorous to some, but it’s not satire. And I don’t see my community as beggars.
“The issue is complicated by anti-Semitism, and by Jews who equate criticism, whether satirical or not, with Jew-hatred. But if we allow anti-Semites to define the parameters of Jewish critical inquiry, then we’re basically surrendering Jewish civilization to the nutjobs and proclaiming our culture to be dead. It’s like the relativist defense of Israel: Israel is faultless because unlike Iran, it hasn’t criminalized homosexuality. Really, is that the standard Herzl dreamt of? Or should the fact that Iran is governed by Jew-haters mean we should prohibit all self-criticism? What does that say about our confidence in Jewish sovereignty?
“No culture can thrive when it contorts and constrains itself like that. And honestly, I think some in our community wouldn’t mind if that were to happen − their ideal Jewish world is one in which questions aren’t asked and authority isn’t questioned. But that’s not a Jewish world that interests me, because it’s basically an Orwellian nightmare. Call me an idealist, but I hold Judaism up to a higher level than that.”
Israelis don’t like to be told what to do, certainly not by Jews who live in America. “And I’d reply fine, but you can’t say that and then in the same breath ask for $4 billion.”
What kind of reactions did you receive in Beit Ha’am, at Bezalel and Shenkar?
“Honestly? I expected more of a reaction at Beit Ha’am, but it felt somewhat muted during the presentation itself. But at Shenkar and Bezalel they reacted a lot more, maybe because they were design students. I’m glad that young people liked what I showed them, even if they’re not considered my target readership. It gives me more hope for the future. It’s nice to know that you Israelis have hope.”
I’m not so sure about that.
“Well then, it’s nice to know there’s someone more cynical than me.”
Proud Jewish mother
This was not Valley’s first visit to Israel. He has been here a number of times, including one five-month stay in Safed during the period he was living in Prague. “I wanted to avoid the Prague winter. I was 22 or 23 and it seemed like a very romantic idea to me. I tried to write every day, to get the experience of that world. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy,” he says.
Well, it’s not the most normal thing for a guy that age to do.
“Yeah,” he sighs in resignation.
What do you remember from that time?
“There was a Bratslav Hasid who was extremely happy to hug me whenever he saw me. Like, beyond appropriate in the hugging department. I’d heard rumors about goings-on in the mikveh (ritual bath) there. All kinds of crazy shtetl stuff happens in Safed. There was an American community there, lots of Californians who brought a mix of New Age spirituality and Judaism. It was interesting, but also psychotic.”
Why do you even get into that kind of stuff?
“I find it fascinating. It’s part of the Jewish narrative, and I love working with and playing with this narrative, or even with themes that aren’t necessarily Jewish but have cultural contexts or relevance. That’s what interests me when you get down to it; there’s so much richness to the narrative, I love it, it’s kind of an obsession. But it’s a similar question to, like, why do I work in black and white? I’m self-taught ... and never learned computer illustration, so I go with the most natural form of expression and the most natural medium. Do you choose your craft or does your craft choose you? You can say the same about the themes I’m working with.”
Do you feel like you’re a part of the young generation of Jewish-American writers like Jonathan Safran Foer or Nathan Englander? Is there such a thing as contemporary Jewish literature?
“In the past, it was common for Jewish writers to not want to be called Jewish writers. They were just writers, capital W. I think that’s changing, though. I like the term Jewish writer, I have no problem with it. I’m proud of my culture and heritage. See, maybe that’s a sign I’m not so self-hating after all,” he laughs.
You talk about obsession.
“Yes, all artists have an obsession of one kind or another. You have to be obsessive, there’s nowhere else for you to go. Or at least that’s how I explain my mental problems.”
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
“A comic artist.”
What did your parents think about that? And what do they think now?
“My mother is proud of me. My father is proud of me, too. I think he may not agree with the comics, so although he loves me and supports my doing what I love, he can’t really relate to them. It’s probably not something he talks about with his friends in synagogue, but we don’t need to get into that. Life is complicated.”
Do you have any red lines? Is there something you would never write about?
“It’s hard to say. What’s a red line today is something else entirely tomorrow. My general rule is that if it’s not funny, there’s no reason to do it. In any case, if you start out with a Jew with two penises, it’s a little hard to talk about red lines.”