The thing about comic strips, said Yaakov Kirschen, is that "it's really hard to do, but it looks easy."
Kirschen should know — he's been the pen behind The Jerusalem Post's strip, called Dry Bones, for the last 35 years, and he brought his incisive wit and piercing pen to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley Monday night.
Jokes and comic strips, he said, are both very Jewish concepts, "and I have put together these two very Jewish means of communication." While Jews have always had their own particular brand of humor, Kirschen said part of the importance of jokes to society — and to Jewish society, in particular — is that they "mean we can say all kinds of things with humor," regardless of their unpleasantness.
As an example, he offered a joke (one of many that night): A driver is stuck in a traffic jam, when he sees a man walking from car to car. "Olmert has been kidnapped by terrorists who promise to burn him alive if they don't get $100 million," the man says. "How much is everyone donating?" the driver asks the man. His reply: "About a gallon."
"Humor is a really sophisticated way of communicating messages the person receiving them can't defend against," said Kirschen. "It's an unfair aggression."
The Har Zion event, which was co-sponsored by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, and the Center for Israel and Overseas of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, was part of a nationwide tour Kirschen is currently completing.
Kirschen has a long history in his field. Though the Brooklyn native has been penning Dry Bones since 1973, he logged time before that with Cracked magazine (an offshoot of Mad) and drawing comics for Playboy, before moving to Israel, where he's based. The strip has previously run in the Jewish Exponent and is available on Kirschen's blog, www.drybonesblog.com.
"Through the blog, the cartoons are now able to reach a huge audience," he said, citing as evidence a cartoon he drew during the first intifada, which was later used by CNN to explain Hamas' election.
They've Come Back to Haunt Him
"I'm in a funny position, in that I've been doing this long enough that some of these cartoons have come true. They've come back to haunt me," he said.
Regarding the Jewishness of comic strips, Kirschen noted the Jewish roots of Superman — created by Jews and imbued with Jewish themes, including a Jewish profession (journalism), a Moses-like escape from home and a foreign name changed for purposes of assimilation.
He said that, oddly, despite Dry Bones' popularity around the world, he's only rarely done the strip in Hebrew. He said Israelis don't understand comics, in part because comics have never been part of their culture.
Kirschen kept the crowd of about 50 in stitches for much of the evening, and he said "one thing comedians always discuss is, when you hear a joke in the street, how did that joke come to be? Did somebody write it? So I decided to see if I could write a joke."
He told that (mostly unprintable) joke out in the street one day, and, eventually, someone he met told him the joke. Later on, Kirschen told the joke again, only to be reprimanded for telling it incorrectly!
"We have to understand that humor is the Jewish means of communication, and, if you really look into it, you'll find jokes even from German Jews in the Nazi period — and some of it is really funny stuff."
But, he joked, "Anytime you tell a joke to Jews, they'll tell you that there's an older joke that's better, because older is always better."
He said, after a long search, he's discovered what must be the oldest Jewish joke — since it's in the book of Exodus.
After Moses leads the Jews from Egypt and they reach the Red Sea, they look behind them to see they're being pursued by Pharoah's army.
Kirschen said, "And the children of Israel say to Moses, 'Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us into the desert to die?' "
"That, to me, is clearly the oldest Jewish joke, because clearly it's a joke, and it's clearly so Jewish."