Jessica Tamar Deutsch, 27


Deutsch’s senior thesis assignment at the Parsons School for Design five years ago was open-ended — basically, a project about anything that caught her interest.

Many of her classmates turned to traditional art and illustration subjects.

Deutsch, who had grown up in a Modern Orthodox family in New Rochelle, had a Jewish day school education and lives in a kosher apartment and calls herself “a really passionate Jew,” turned to Jewish tradition. Pirkei Avot (literally “The Chapters of the Fathers,” usually translated as “Ethics of the Fathers”), a collection of rabbinic maxims about moral behavior in the Mishnah.

Deutsch, inspired by a commentary she had read by the Maharal, the 16th-century scholar in Prague best known for creating the Golem, had already illustrated part of Pirkei Avot.

Now she would complete the task.

The result was “The Illustrated Pirkei Avot: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Ethics,” 128 pages of black-and-white drawings, in addition to her meticulously calligraphied text of all six chapters of Pirkei Avot. And a teacher’s guide.

She had the good sense, she said, to “pick a book that was already a Jewish best-seller.”

It’s not a “novel” in the classic sense — there is no plot beyond mini-stories she develops on some pages to literally illustrate the rabbis’ themes. Rather, it is a collection of whimsical characters who act out the moral teachings. Her free-wheeling style is reminiscent of Robert Crumb, the cartoonist of the 1960s’ counterculture movement known for Fritz the Cat and the high-stepping Keep on Truckin’ figure.

Her work is like Crumb’s, but “in PG style,” Deutsch said.

She calls her book the first illustrated version of Pirkei Avot designed to be used in religious schools and to be read by non-Jews – in addition to the predictable Jewish readers.

The book has sold several thousand copies, good figures for a specialty book like hers. She had the good sense, she said, to “pick a book that was already a Jewish best-seller.”

Breathing free: Deutsch is a certified yoga instructor, specializing in the Vinyasa style, which features seamless shifts of position, using one’s breath. “There’s something about movement that makes us free, more connected to what we’re experiencing,” she said.