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Arts & Culture Oy Vey! Comic-book Novel Offers a Humorous Glance at Jewish Life

February 19, 2002
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Ken Eichenbaum’s comic book for adults began as cancer therapy.

In 1999, Eichenbaum was diagnosed with colon cancer. While undergoing treatment, he began to come up with a 16-page thank-you card for those who had helped him through the ordeal.

He was so encouraged by the response to that story,”The Medical Journal of B.M. Derschlog” — which lampoons his experience with the medical establishment — that he decided to write more illustrated tales.

“I would lie in bed and there would be this shadow of illness. And I would come up with things that would make me chuckle to myself,” says Eichenbaum, 70, who’s hesitant to talk about his cancer for fear of being seen as looking for sympathy.

The result is a “graphic novel” — as these booklong comics are called — filled with sometimes funny, sometimes bawdy tales.

Eichenbaum considers cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Ben Katchor to be two of his role models, but “Hoppel Poppel” is less heart-wrenching than Speigelman’s “Maus” and more slapstick than Katchor’s elliptical humor.

In one strip, “Don’t Call Me Herschel,” a man who performs ritual circumcisions struggles with his profession, despite his attempts to make himself into a superhero.

In another, “Kosher Rabbit Re-Do,” two would-be Jewish entrepreneurs get caught up in interfaith struggles and “mad rabbit disease” when they try to set up a kosher rabbit farm in Arkansas.

The black-and-white drawings are amusing, but for most readers, the text will be the thing. Yiddishisms are strewn throughout, as when Herschel, the mohel, tells his wife, “We’ve got tsooris, mine liddle byalli” — meaning, roughly, We’ve got trouble, my little cupcake. “In this business, all the people are meshuganeh,” or crazy.

Thankfully, there’s a glossary in the back for the Yiddishly challenged.

Eichenbaum grew up on Milwaukee’s West Side, where he remembers he and his brother, the only two Jewish kids in their school, “accepting” anti-Semitism.

Indeed, he drew his first comic book, “Ant Man” — about a man who could listen through walls using his antennae – – when he was in junior high school.

“I am nonconfrontational,” he says. “I can handle things with wit more than I can by being angry or radical.”

The stories are not for everyone. Some readers might be offended by the irreverent way that Jewish figures, including rabbis, are treated. Yet Eichenbaum, who has served on a synagogue board of directors, is an equal opportunity offender.

As he puts it, “Jews have been making fun of themselves for generations.”

Others might be offended by some of the sexual references: “I said I shtaupped the Patchefsky girl,” one character says in a piece about the travails of the shtetl of Ludmir.

This is not the first time Eichenbaum’s work has been in the toilet — literally. Long involved in advertising, in 1989 he published a book called “The Toilets of New York,” which rated New York bathrooms similar to the way some guidebooks rate restaurants and hotels.

Eichenbaum also has published a book on newspaper advertising — his longtime career — and a children’s book, “The Imaginals,” that turned inanimate objects into real creatures, such as the forkupine.

His latest project, he said, gave him newfound freedom.

“When you’re doing a comic book, it’s almost like you’re a god,” he says. “You can say anything you want and about anything you want.”

For more information, contact Litteratti Books, 414-352-5070.

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