Tickling the Religious Funny Bone

Good guys vs. bad guys, `Supermen' vs. the forces of evil, rabbis vs. missionaries - the colorful world of ultra-Orthodox comics fills a void for youngsters denied the pleasures of TV, and is a means for recounting historical events.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

A monkey-clown is the star of the comic strip "Between Two Raindrops" that is currently appearing in the children's supplement of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Mishpacha ("Family"). Moka, as the monkey is called, provides comic relief within a twisting plot that is reminiscent of Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." The monkey is a secondary character, but, as sometimes happens in Walt Disney movies, he definitely steals the show. But what is a monkey doing in an ultra-Orthodox tale anyway? Is it possible that he is a distant relative of Kofiko or Chipopo, the ridiculous easy-come-easy-go characters on whom Israeli children were raised in the 1960s and the 1970s?

Eli Got half of the creative team that calls itself "Ali and Gold," and its spokesman, denies any connection with these characters. His objective is higher: the immortal Belgian comic strip series, "Tintin," in which the dog steals the show. Got, who writes the stories, and his friend David Goldschmidt, who does the illustrations, are both graduates of the prestigious Mir Yeshiva. During their childhood in Switzerland, they were avid fans of the Tintin books. The monkey, who is integrated into a historical plot that is well-anchored in the ultra- Orthodox ethos, serves as a kind of "greeting" from an exotic and unknown world, and at the same time an element that provides the reader with adventures, a bit of naughtiness and humor.

The phrase "ultra-Orthodox comics" sounds like an oxymoron. And indeed, Eli Eshed, a researcher of popular culture in Israel who has also studied popular culture in the ultra-Orthodox sector, says that "the ultra-Orthodox are people of words. The last thing that interests them is the visual." This absence of the visual can be explained by the profound inhibition derived from the prohibition on graven images, but in the case of comics it would seem that the reason for opposition to them derives mainly from their humorous aspect. The wild and anarchistic dimension in comics is perceived as dangerous to innocent young minds.

The pioneer in this field was the children's newspaper Zarkor ("Spotlight"). Since its first appearance in the 1960s, generations of ultra-Orthodox children have read the paper from back to front because of the comics. But this publication is read only in moderate households; the news is identified with the seam-line between ultra-Orthodox and national religious society. This was the only Hebrew ultra-Orthodox comic strip in those days. Today the comics illustrator at the paper is Ruth Beifuss. It is also not surprising that the Chabad movement has enlisted the genre for its own needs in its various publications. In the United States for years, there was a comic strip called "Mendy and the Golem." Mendy was a boy who combated the forces of evil with the Golem at his side - the real Jewish answer to Superman.

Only during the past eight years have comics penetrated the ultra-Orthodox mainstream. One after the other, both the independent and the party-affiliated ultra-Orthodox newspapers in which there is a supplement for children began to print comic strips. This happened in Yated Shelanu, the children's supplement of Yated Ne'eman, the organ of the Degel Hatorah party; in Hamodia Hatsair of Hamodia, the Agudat Yisrael organ; and in the Shas movement newspaper for children, Yom Leyom Tsair. In Mishpacha's Yeladim ("Children"), which has been renamed Mastik ("Chewing Gum"), there are two comic strips on the back page and inside the issue. The newspaper Hashavua Leyeladim ("This Week for Children") put out by Bakehila ("In the Community"), an independent ultra-Orthodox newspaper, also has a comic strip. In ultra-Orthodox comics there are no female characters, not even mothers, but all of them have heroes who fight an arsenal of evil- doers and win.

Playful but pious

Many of the comic strips that have been published in the newspapers also came out this year as comic books. "The Adventures of a Mezuzah" is about a pair of playful but pious twins, Zerah and Peretz. The two come to Jerusalem from the Galilee at the time of the major earthquake that occurred in Safed and Tiberias in 1837 and find a precious mezuzah that was lost in the destruction. Along the way they manage to outwit a pompous Reform Jew and a fat and stupid apostate. Another book from the house of Hamodia, "The Double Rescue" (written by A. Bat Melekh and illustrated by Miri; the writers and illustrators use pseudonyms), tells the story of the rescue of Torah scrolls and the saving of the soul of an American Jewish boy who is distant from religion. On the shelf there are also Mishpacha newspaper's "Shikupitzky Family" series about a family that reflects "our human weaknesses in a humorous way that combines education with a smile," as it says on the back of the book.

At the same time, adventure stories about heroes with religious characteristics have begun to appear, illustrated in comic-strip style. One such is "The Hidden Treasure on the Island of Mending Faults," by the creative team of Rabbi Baruch Chait of the Ma'arava ultra-Orthodox high school yeshiva and artist Gadi Pollack. Pollack's comic book "The Proverbs of the Maggid of Dubnow" has been published recently. It is not by chance that the people who have given legitimization to comics have come from outside of Israeli ultra-Orthodox society. The illustrators Pollack and Ruth Beifuss are newly observant, Eli and Gold are immigrants from Switzerland and Rabbi Chait immigrated from the United States.

Pollack, an immigrant from Russia and a sculptor by profession who lives in Kiryat Sefer, relates that he began the process of becoming religiously observant after a gentile asked him to make a comic strip about the Bible and he began to delve into the subject. He and Goldschmidt study in the mornings at the kollel (yeshiva for married men) in Kiryat Sefer, which Pollack smilingly calls "the artists' lane." The flowering of comics has created a demand for good artists in the ultra-Orthodox community; about a year ago, when Pollack was overwhelmed by offers, he started a course for comics artists in Kiryat Sefer. One of his students is Beifuss. Yoni Gerstein, the cartoonist for Yated Ne'eman, who is also newly observant, has taken a group of comics creators under his professional wing.

Advertising element

Shai Cherka, whose comic strip appears in Otiot ("Letters"), the newspaper for children and youth put out by the national religious newspaper Hatsofeh, believes that the ultra-Orthodox have discovered that comics can be an alternative to television, not only for children but also for advertising. Indeed, in the ultra-Orthodox press there is quite a lot of advertising in the form of comic strips. In other words, he says, from the point of view of acceptance, comics have reached the point of no return. His plots are the antithesis of ultra- Orthodox pathos. His character, Baba, is an anti-hero and all-time loser who introduces a comic dimension into a plot that is based on the Mishnah. So far, in the ultra- Orthodox comics this level of self-humor or combination of the sacred and the profane does not exist.

Like Cherka, Asher Eshed believes that ultra-Orthodox comics are more than just a curiosity. In the U.S., he says, comics are on the decline because television and the Internet have taken their place. But among the ultra-Orthodox the opposite is the case: "Ultra-Orthodox children are not exposed to many stimuli and therefore they are still impressed by pictures. And anyway, ultra-Orthodox children still have the patience to wait for the next episode next week, which is something that can't be asked nowadays of a secular child who is accustomed to immediate gratification."

When the ultra-Orthodox neutralized the wild element in comics, they were left with an educational story in pictures. Eshed sees a real parallel between the way the plots of the comic strips that were published in the secular newspapers Davar Leyeladim and Haaretz Shelanu in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s reflected and reinforced the national ethos and the plots that serve the sector's goals in the ultra- Orthodox children's newspapers today. According to him, ultra- Orthodox comics are realistic in a way that is reminiscent of Hebrew comics in their early years. The stories that Pinhas Sadeh wrote in the 1950s starred the heroes of those times: kibbutzniks, members of the youth brigades and of course soldiers who fought the British and the Arabs.

Distinct from them is Sir Moses Montefiore, who has apparently sparked the imagination of many. Eli and Gold have done at least two stories that are based on his character. Comics deal with marking the "other." There are good guys and bad guys, Superman versus the forces of evil, and in the ultra- Orthodox world, the rabbis versus the missionaries.

In the comics in Davar Leyeladim and Haaretz Shelanu, Arabs were usually depicted as ugly and stupid. But usually the Arabs were generalized as a group rather than depicted as individuals. This also applies to the ultra- Orthodox comics, from which modern day Palestinian or Israeli Arabs are completely absent. In the "Stones of Justice" strip in Hamodia Hatsair, the bad guys are two foreign workers from Romania who are planning a terror attack. The modern day secular Israeli is also pretty much absent. There is hardly any head-on confrontation with Zionism or with the State of Israel, as one might have predicted.

Apparently the world of ultra-Orthodox comics is still the old Diaspora world. The ultimate bad guy is the apostate, or at most the Reform Jew, and of course the missionary. The ultra-Orthodox still have quite an obsessive attitude toward Christianity. According to Prof. Menachem Friedman, a researcher of the ultra-Orthodox population, this is what makes it possible for them to see foreign workers as a threat. According to him, when the boundaries between ultra- Orthodox society and secular society become blurred, the ultra- Orthodox commissars on the spiritual committees of each newspaper feel a need to stress them more.

In the comic strip "The Secret of the Violin," which has also come out as a book, the kibbutz is depicted as a threat to ultra-Orthodoxy. In the strip (written by Hannah Regev and illustrated by Miri) there is the story of Meir Weiss, an ultra- Orthodox Holocaust survivor who is raised on Kibbutz Nir and ends up in Bnei Brak. Enchanted by what he sees, he wants to get closer to religion ("fought for his right to live as a Jew," in the language of the summary). However, the bad kibbutznik, Yosskeh, is represented as not allowing the boy to return to his roots. Also figuring in the plot is a violin that is bequeathed to Meir by his parents, who perished in the Holocaust.

An even cruder caricature of the character of the kibbutznik is presented in another comic strip, "The Mystery of the Parchment" (by A. Re'em), which was published in the weekly Hashavua Leyeladim. This comic strip creates an equivalence between bloodthirsty Muslim Arabs, who appear at the beginning of the story, and evil and stupid kibbutzniks who appear later on. The comic tells of the kidnapping of a boy who has immigrated from Iraq by two kibbutzniks with pointy noses and the traditional kibbutz hat, the kova tembel. The story once again rewrites the affair of the Yemenite children, a myth that is deeply rooted in the ultra-Orthodox rhetoric that attacks the evils of Zionism.

"Kibbutz," Rabbi Shahar asks Nissim's father in one of the panels in the strip. "Is there kosher food there? And a synagogue?" And he answers himself: "Nissim is in danger. It's impossible to remain a Jew there." And indeed at the kibbutz they change Nissim's name to Erez, they give him rabbit meat to eat and when he doesn't eat it, the kibbutz children harass him. Finally the ultra-Orthodox manage to outwit the stupid kibbutznik (whose name, naturally, is Yosskeh) and smuggle Nissim out of the kibbutz.

The vast majority of the stories in the comics recount historical events that stress the ethos of the persecuted Jew. The period of the Inquisition is a favorite of the writers, as are the Cossacks in Russia.

Nevertheless there are differences. Today the comics deal with topics that are more on the ultra- Orthodox agenda, such as bringing people closer to religion. In the comic strip "Secret Information," which was published in Yated Shelanu, a group of fund-raisers on behalf of an organization called "And the Lost Came" go to the United States to raise money for a school for immigrants from Russia, and in Hamodia Hatsair, a Russian crook is exposed at a values seminar. And within all this, the comics raise the banner of the uniqueness of the Jews as the chosen people, stress Jewish intelligence in contrast to the stupidity of the gentile or the apostate, and presents religion in rosy colors.

Ultra-Orthodox mythology

Most of the ultra-Orthodox comics are fairly primitive. The writers and the illustrators in the newspapers change with nearly every series. The drawing is childish and meager, the plots are weak and they are not always logical. The level of the comics in Yom Leyom Tsair is especially low. However, "Eli and Gold" stands out as a very sophisticated strip: It is very detailed, done with impressive technique and combined with quite an interesting plot that flows in a logical way. As compared to the abysmal seriousness with which the ultra- Orthodox depict themselves in comics, the reader between the lines of Eli and Gold will discern that in their stories they allow themselves a bit of self-humor, even if the subjects are strictly ultra-Orthodox.

Their first story, "The Golem of Prague," was published in Mishpacha about five years ago. The serious-looking Gold also writes exegetical articles, under a pseudonym, in the Torah supplement of Mishpacha, and it is not surprising that he depicts the writing of comics as a sideline. It will take quite a while before comics will be accepted as a legitimate means of expression in ultra-Orthodox society but it is evident that even for Got this is not just a hobby. Got is self-taught, and channels his curiosity into acquiring knowledge of the world, and his attraction to encyclopedic facts and trivia into his comics. He relates that as a child he was a bookworm. Today, too, he is fascinated by ancient cultures, enchanted by sinking empires and believes that the Golem of Prague is still alive.

Before writing a new story, Got spends long days in the national library in Jerusalem and does detailed research. He sees comics as a source of information and therefore at the bottom of the page there are annotations about concepts and difficult words (that are marked in the text with an asterisk - borrowed from the Asterix comics). Got takes responsibility for the smallest details in the drawings, like the facades of houses and buildings, clothing and more. He shows the relevant photographs to the illustrator. He can find his way around in 10 different languages.

He sees history and the literature of the past as an unending source for the stories in his comics. But he also invents his own plots, on the basis of obscure books of memoirs or old manuscripts. Most of his stories are based on his favorite historical period, from 1848 until the end of the 19th century, because the period of the "Spring of Nations" and the Industrial Revolution fascinates him. It seems that he is inventing an ultra-Orthodox mythology for children. However, along the way he does not forget that they are children. The children, for their part, repay him with their interest and according to him, he receives ideas and drawings of comics from many children. The comics that were sent to him by the children of the R. family, for example, bear typical titles: "From the Fangs of the Nazis" and "Yankeleh the Kidnapped Child." In all of them the children are soldiers fighting a bitter enemy - and in all of them, they manage to emerge victorious.



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