Noah Bee, JTA Cartoonist, Dead at 76; Designed Israel’s Money, JNF Blue Box
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Noah Bee, JTA Cartoonist, Dead at 76; Designed Israel’s Money, JNF Blue Box

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Noah Bee, longtime cartoonist for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and designer of the Jewish National Fund blue box and Israel’s first currency, died Sunday in Bethesda, Md.

He was 76 years old and had been hospitalized with cancer.

Bee lived in Encino, Calif. Burial and shiva were to be held there.

Bee had an intimate involvement with the Zionist movement and the Jewish state from his youthful days as a member of the Betar movement in Poland, as a citizen of Palestine and as an artist whose work was inextricably tied to the state of Israel.

Bee chronicled Jewish history during some of its most tempestuous decades. In an interview earlier this year with JTA, he estimated he had created some 2,000 cartoons.

But his contributions to the Jewish state went far beyond cartoons.

In March of 1948, when Bee was living in New York, he received a puzzling phone call asking him to meet with Eliezer Hoffien, who was chairman of the Anglo- Palestine Bank (later Bank Leumi). The banker needed an artist to design a bond that the bank planned to float in the United States.

A few months later, shortly after his daughter’s birth, Bee received a congratulatory letter from his parents in the reborn Israel. Included in the envelope were two freshly minted Israeli pound notes, the first official Jewish currency in 2,000 years.

The design looked strangely familiar to Bee. It was the “bond” he had designed.

Two years later, Bee was asked to do another design which would also be of historical note.

The familiar blue charity box, or pushke, of the Jewish National Fund had been embellished from its beginning with a Magen David. Now that the Jewish state had been established, Mendel Fisher, longtime JNF executive director, decided that the blue box should display a map of Israel.

Bee made two sketches, all hand-lettered, and what would become a familiar staple of Jewish homes and offices was created.

He was an illustrator for McGraw-Hill Publishers in New York for more than three decades. After retiring from that firm in 1977, he moved to Los Angeles.

One person who recalled Bee’s influence was Wolf Blitzer, now Pentagon correspondent for Cable News Network and previously Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a syndicated columnist for Jewish newspapers.

Blitzer, who wrote the foreword for Bee’s book “Israel at 40 — Years of Triumph, Trials and Errors,” remembered his own attempts to make sense of breaking events in 2,000-word articles, and noted that “Noah Bee, very often, could make the very same point better with only one drawing and a handful of words.”

Ernest Barbarash, editor emeritus of Bnai Zion Voice — for which Bee also created cartoons — and a night editor for JTA in the late 1920s, wrote about Bee in his own memoirs, “If I Am Not for Myself,” published in 1981.

In “Noah Bee: Artist and Rebel,” Barbarash wrote, “On May 15, 1948, on a Friday, when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel,” he wrote, “the door opened and in burst Noah Bee. In a state of excitement, he gave me a cigar and said, `Ernie, have a cigar. Our baby was born.'”

Barbarash, who called Bee his best friend, recommended the cartoonist to the late JTA editor Boris Smolar in 1959.

Noah Mordechai Birzowski was born on Sept. 25, 1916 in Warsaw. His well-to-do father represented a German manufacturer of bouillon cubes and also owned a Jewish-Polish newspaper.

At the age of 14, Noah drew a comic strip for the paper’s children’s page. At around the same time, Noah joined the Betar youth movement. He sketched caricatures of a rising young leader, Menachem Begin, and other Revisionists who spoke to his group.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the elder Birzowski lost his job with the German firm. Early the following year, he moved with his wife and only child to Palestine. There, the teen-ager joined the underground Irgun Z’vai Leumi, and then the Haganah, which assigned him to work as an auxiliary policeman during the Arab riots of 1936-39.

Augmenting his military work, he got a job as a commercial artist with a Tel Aviv advertising agency. At the same time, he began drawing political cartoons and caricatures for the Hebrew dailies HaBoker and Ha’aretz, and from 1940 on, for the English-language Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post), where his first cartoon celebrated the Greek resistance against Mussolini’s invading troops.

An editor felt that the signature “Birzowski” was too cumbersome and suggested the initials B.I., a biblical abbreviation for Ben-Israel, “son of Israel.”

He liked the idea and became “Bee.”

Also in 1940, he met and married Marian, a young immigrant from South Bend, Ind., who was working as secretary at the King David Hotel for the British 9th Army. When the British needed an interpreter who knew Polish, English and Hebrew, Marian recommended her husband.

Marian Bee’s parents had returned to the United States, and as Rommel’s Nazi troops neared the Suez Canal, the worried parents urged their daughter and son- in-law to join them in Los Angeles. After an 86-day journey aboard an Egyptian ship, the Bees arrived in New York and then traveled by bus to California.

Bee unsuccessfully sought employment as an animator at the Walt Disney Studio, which was known for not hiring Jews. He also tried Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios.

Unsuccessful, they left for New York, where he was hired by a job agency for a group of trade magazines which was later taken over by McGraw-Hill. He stayed on for 33 years.

Over a 32-year span, Bee’s weekly cartoon became a fixture in the Anglo-Jewish press. About 75 percent of his cartoons dealt with Israel and the Middle East, and the remainder mainly with American Jewish problems.

Bee acknowledged that his cartoons were influenced by his own political perspective, which he described as “center, leaning to the right.” Sometimes, his cartoons elicited strong protests, such as one, “Final Solutions,” with one panel showing a death camp smokestack, the other a church wedding, labeled “Intermarriage.”

When Bee retired from McGraw-Hill, he continued to send his cartoons to New York from Los Angeles via express mail. In late 1991, he resigned as official JTA cartoonist, but agreed to provide 12 cartoons a year.

He published four books, “Faces of Tel Aviv” (1939), followed by three collections of his JTA cartoons: “In Spite of Everything” (1973), “The Impossible Takes a Little Longer” (1983) and “Israel at 40: Years of Triumphs, Trials & Errors” (1988).

He was at work on his fifth book at the time of his death.

In 1987, his colleagues in the American Jewish Press Association established the annual “Noah Bee Award for Excellence in Editorial Cartooning” to encourage new talent to follow in his large footsteps.

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this obituary.)

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