Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In The New World

By Leonard Gill

JANUARY 11, 1999: 

The Jew of New York, By Ben Katchor Pantheon, 97 pp., $20

A curious case, Ben Katchor. A child of the ’60s, he grew up in Brooklyn the son of a Communist and had to be dragged to Students for a Democratic Society meetings. Spider Man, not radical politics, was the boy’s passion. As an art student at Brooklyn College and Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, that passion turned to narrative painting and Nicholas Poussin. Then, in 1978, Katchor and some friends drew up Picture Story, a roughed-out, underground, comic-book fanzine, which quickly dropped from sight but not before catching the eye of cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who was set to inaugurate his magazine Raw. Katchor became a Raw regular, and with the launch of the alternative weekly New York Press in 1988, Katchor’s strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer was born.

In early 1992, Katchor’s cartooning career once again crossed paths with Spiegelman, who was wrapping up a serialization of his Holocaust strip Maus II in the pages of Forward, an English-language weekly descended from the Yiddish periodical Forverts. Katchor stepped in to fill Spiegelman’s space, and The Jew of New York was born. But on April 9, 1993, it ended a 52-week run, to the disappointment of a small but devoted and oftentimes confused group of readers. According to Philip Gourevitch, then cultural editor of Forward (and as quoted in a New Yorker profile of Katchor in August 1993), “Each week, when a new installment [of The Jew of New York] arrived, we’d all gather around and try to figure out what it all meant. The drawing was magnificent; the plotting – well, it was complicated. But there were people who subscribed to the Forward for that strip alone. Others didn’t have a clue to what was going on....”

And who can blame them? You, too, at first may not have a clue to Katchor’s doubled-in-length and book-bound, text-intensive Jew of New York. So here are some key points to go with the key figures that make up its strange and intricate, multipaneled plot.

The time is 1830 and the place is New York City. A historically based attempt by proto-Zionist Mordecai Manuel Noah to establish a Jewish state on an island near Buffalo collapsed only five years before. At the New World Theatre a new comedy based on Noah’s failed scheme by the renowned and anti-Semitic Professor Solidus is slated for production, with scenic design by Samson Gergel, who wants the aroma of pickled herring piped into the New World’s auditorium during performances. The part of Major Noah has been handed to Maynard Daizy, who uses Gergel as a guide to “the New York Jew as he actually lives and breathes!” Meanwhile, Nathan Kishon, a disbarred shochet or ritual slaughterer and a former follower of Noah’s, has just returned from five years in the upstate wilderness with a trapper named Maurice “Moishe” Ketzelbourd. Kishon, grown used to sleeping at night on an open patch of grass, is approached by a former associate, Mr. Marah, who has a plan for making off with Kishon’s collection of valuable beaver pelts. (Already lost? Read on.)

Isaac Azarael is a middleman in the Oriental button trade with a recipe for that pickled herring. Septum Dandy leads a group of disciples calling themselves “free oxygenators.” Miss Patella is a world-famous actress about to embark on her third farewell New York engagement. Elim-min-nopee is an Indian who performs in perfect Hebrew before amazed audiences at Hiram’s Museum on Broadway. Hershel Goulbat is his conniving manager. And “a man in an India rubber suit” spends his time treading water and reading out of a pamphlet titled “The Ten Tribes of Israel Historically Identified with the Aborigines of the Western Hemisphere” by a Mrs. Simon.

This rubber-suited man is later identified as Vervel Kunzo from Berlin, sent by the Society for Culture and Science of the Jews “to compile a report on cultural manifestations unique to the Jews of New York City.” He’s entered Hiram’s to view its new display of a creature, “no bogeyman or mythological beast,” who crawled out of the backwoods and onto the stage of the New World. Nathan Kishon recognizes the animal, foreskin missing, as Ketzelbourd the trapper. And the fire that boils the theatre’s herring sends the New World up in flames.

Philip Gourevitch told you it gets complicated, and I’m telling you to sit up and give The Jew of New York a good second or third try. Katchor’s pen-and-gray-wash illustrations are, if not exactly “magnificent,” always winning in their variousness; his marriage of image and text, cartooning at its biting best.

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