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First Person Recalling an Israeli Cartoonist Who Refused to Duck the Truth

February 22, 2005
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The first time I met Dudu Geva, he went out of his way to prove to me that the duck that made him famous was Jewish. The last time I saw him, he proved his own Jewishness to me beyond a doubt.

Geva, who died last week at 54, perpetuated perhaps the most consistently reinvented single joke in comics history. Every day, six days a week, for about seven years, starting in the mid-1980s and then intermittently until last year, Geva would draw drama from a duck’s final mortal moments.

“The Song of the Duck” — itself an absurd play on “swan song” — probably is the most impressive high-wire act in comics history. Nothing else ever was this sustained. Not Charlie Brown and his kite, not the thumpings Beetle Bailey takes from Sarge, not Dagwood’s sandwiches. Every other cartoonist settled into an array of gags, but Geva’s duck was resoundingly one-note.

But what a note it was, never off tune, always pitched to scorching.

“Is this place kosher?” the duck asks the ubiquitous beefy, bald butcher, just before the cleaver comes down. “You’ve got to try everything at least once,” he says in another, in exactly the same situation.

The duck — and Geva — helped launch Hadashot in 1984. It was a scrappy, colorful anti-establishment tabloid that helped define the 1980s as the beginnings of post-Zionism, the age when the values of the founding father were judged in new, harsher lights.

Significantly, Hadashot was the first paper to decline membership in the Editors’ Committee, the all-too-cozy meeting place where the country’s top reporters would get top secret information from government officials, on the condition they didn’t share it with their readers.

Many blamed the committee’s willingness to believe what it was told for the media’s failures in the lead-up to the disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War. Hadashot presaged the committee’s eventual demise 15 years later. A free media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded to his credit, should not collude with government.

Too late for Hadashot, succumbing as it did to poor circulation in the early 1990s, but not before it gave a name — or at least a nameless icon — to the oedipal angst of the 1980s.

That was Geva’s duck.

It appeared everywhere. In every one of my stints in miluim, Israel’s army reserves, in whatever hellhole at the end-of-nowhere base I was assigned to, I could be sure of discovering a representation of the duck plastering a wall, a remnant of some young, overwrought soldier’s need to blow off steam. The duck (he or she? who knew?) popped up in bathroom stalls, on high school walls, at community centers — everywhere.

Nothing was sacred for the duck, least of all an increasing discomfort with how Israel was handling the first Palestinian intifada. In one panel, the butcher replaces his cleaver with a huge mallet and tells the shopper, “They only understand force,” a familiar retort at the time to anyone who questioned whether Israel was applying a mallet to a problem that asked for greater nuance.

In another, a duck hops out of a truck on its way to a slaughterhouse and bites hard on the ear of the truck driver, screaming “Allahu Akbar!” which had become the standard intifada war cry. The implication was clear. The attack was hopeless, the cry was stupidly defiant — but we were meant to have a little sympathy for the duck.

In a parody of the Haggadah that graces my wall, an Egyptian watching the fleeing Israelites mutters, “Sons of bitches, this is how they thank us for all we’ve done for them?”

And so my insistent question when I interviewed Geva — who looked not a little like the big-eared grinning skinny guys who populated a lot of his work — for the Jerusalem Post in 1990: Was he a subversive? Was the duck a Palestinian?

No, he insisted, “The duck is Jewish.”

Geva was about as secular as it is possible to be in Israel, delighting in treif food, railing against the religious establishment, but he wanted to make clear his duck’s provenance. It was the angst of helplessness, of being forced to accept their fate that Israelis inherited from their Diaspora parents.

If sometimes that meant examining helplessness through a Palestinian lens, it didn’t make the duck any less Jewish.

And sure enough, the duck’s Jewish humor was everywhere. In his unrequited outsider’s love for a cow, in establishing the “Duck Civil Liberties Union,” in his occasional bursts of optimism (“Are you new here?” the butcher asks a defiantly smiling duck under the cleaver; “Wow, high-tech!” the duck says with real interest when the butcher pulls out an electric chainsaw) and especially in his defiance, however out of place.

“Lucky for you, my brother’s in the fridge,” he tells the butcher in another panel.

Geva, who never rose above a comfortable middle-class existence, understood well the artistry of less is more. His best cartoons, the ones that still stun me after repeated viewings, are his most minimal.

“Watch your step!” a smiling guard tells a line of ducks marching single file over a tricky incline into a slaughterhouse.

“When you’re older, you’ll understand,” a duck addresses a boiled egg before eating it In Hebrew slang, it’s “Kshetigdal, tavin,” two words fraught with meaning for Jewish parents and children dating back to Isaac. No, we don’t consume our own, but Jews do obsess — healthily obsess — about the sacrifices we force on our children, especially in a land of never-ending war and conscription.

No one ever put it more succinctly.

After I left the Post, Geva and I stayed in touch. A friend and I helped set up limited syndication of his panels in the U.S. alternative press. He was unfailingly generous, even-keeled and kind.

I called him a few years ago to say hello, after having been out of touch for three or four years, and he said immediately, “What happened to the novel?” I didn’t know what he meant and then realized he knew I’d started a novel. His question embarrassed me into dusting it off and finishing it.

Last summer, he was fired from his last employer, Ha’ir, a Tel Aviv weekly, with profuse apologies from the Schocken family, the publishing magnates that had nurtured him for decades. He talked them into starting something new, a multipaged supplement to Ha’ir.

The last time I saw him, in September, he told me how excited he was about the new project, how it would galvanize a new generation of humorists. Israeli artists cherished the kind, unsolicited notes he would send them. According to his obituaries, Schocken ultimately decided against the project in December.

He had no other regular income. He had a daughter in university, a son in high school. But most of all, he had no voice. He declared the duck dead in December. I wonder what his plans were.

The last time I saw him, he opened the door to his apartment wearing a black yarmulke, closely watching my face for reaction. I knew he had divorced — had he totally changed his perspective?

He played me along for a few minutes, and then explained that a clerk had plonked the spare, felt yarmulke — in Israel, a sure marker of affiliation with the fervently Orthodox Shas Party — when he walked into religious court for a divorce hearing, and he had forgotten to take it off on his way out. He noted the different reactions he got on the street, and he said he felt empowered by the fear he seemed to inspire.

“Now I role down my window and curse at other drivers with impunity,” he said.

Dudu was still exploring every corner of being Jewish, but then I knew that he would always be looking for another angle, channeling it into the Israeli zeitgeist.

In the darkest days of the second intifada, a time when buses-blew up with apocalyptic frequency, I got a mass-distributed e-mail jammed with cartoons about the conflict,. Like an old friend, there was Geva’s familiar signature: the two-word sentence summary of what everyone felt.

A couple just off a bus kiss the ground: and intone “Shehehayanu shehiganu,” an impossible-to-translate prayer invoking thanks for the unprecedented — but this time applied to the most mundane everyday act, a bus trip.

Impossible to translate, and impossibly Jewish.

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