Campus Only Senior Thesis
Bachelor of Arts
© 2013 Aliza C. Kellerman
One of the most fundamental ways of understanding the struggles and delights of an ethnic group is to study the art the group produces. Art –visual, literary, auditory– functions as an expression of the history of the group. Often, what is considered great art in one culture is disparaged in many others. In my thesis, I will be examining how comics function as an expression of simultaneous pride and shame among Ashkenazi Jews, particularly comics created in the 20th century. Perhaps comics do not seem like an obvious expression of Eastern European Judaism. After all, there are far more renowned, and even sophisticated works to look at, such as the whimsical art of Marc Chagall and stately rabbinical paintings of Isidor Kauffman, or even the heady philosophical work of Theodor W. Adorno. “Ashkenazi expression” and “comics” do not seem intuitively connected.
This disconnect is precisely why I want to explore the relationship between comics and Ashkenazi Jewry. In addition to many of the most prominent comic creators being Jewish, I posit that there is something inherently yiddish, Jewish, about American comics.
The purpose of this essay is not to name individual comic artists in an attempt to prove the Jewishness of the the comic-book industry. Rather, I will explore why Jews of Eastern European descent gravitated toward the comic-book industry in the early to mid 20th century. I posit that American comics acted as an expression of a pride-shame tension found in American Jews of Eastern European descent. To explore this connection, I will first examine the origins of simultaneous Jewish pride and shame by tracing the roots of Eastern European Jewish self-hatred. Next, I will delve into why comics encapsulate this balance of self-deprecation and self-glorification. I will analyze both the nature of the medium itself, and the circumstances grounding the formation of American comics.
Ashkenazi Jews, or Jews of Eastern European, specifically German descent, have been at the center of much scholarly literature. Although an extremely small percentage of the world's population, the bulk of Jews are Ashkenazi, as opposed to Sefardic. Much literature has been devoted to Ashkenazi Judaism, as the ethnic division has produced an impressive body of scientific and literary accomplishment. Although the countries from which Ashkenazi Jews originate are diverse, the key words surrounding Ashkenazi discourse are reoccurring. Concepts such as “exile,” “self-hatred,” and “Jewish humor” all arise. Another central concept is Yiddishkeit.
Yiddishkeit literally translates to “Jewishness” in none other but the language of Yiddish. Yiddish has been the subject of both outward Ashkenazi expression –there is a great deal of Yiddish literature and art– and scholarly examination. Perhaps most recently, Michael Wex published a book called Born to Kvetch, an in-detail study of the history of Yiddish, and how it embodies Ashkenazi culture. Within this book, a particular theme appears: the theme of simultaneously occuring pride and shame. Jews created Yiddish as a result of the primary culture's rejection. However, after this initial dismissal, great pride emerged out of Yiddish, manifesting itself in rich Yiddish culture.
Other scholars have explored the concept of Jewish self-hatred, and the fine line this self-hatred straddles between bona fide self-hatred and isolationist pride. Sander Gilman, who writes extensively about the topic, discusses how language and literature embody this dichotomous tension of pride and shame. While conducting research for the connection between comics and class in 20th century American, I came to the understanding that many of the founders of and participants in the American comic industry were Jewish. I dug up analyses of specific comics/graphic novels (usually Maus) exploring certain Jewish themes in comics, yet I had a hard time finding extensive research asking the question as to why comics and Jews have such a strong connection. In my thesis, I hope to further this question by not only investigating the circumstances surrounding comics that made Jews turn to the industry, but why comics themselves embody Jewish pride and shame. On a much humbler scale, I hope to accomplish what Wex has in Born to Kvetch, a linguistic analysis that provides insight into the greater ethnic group engaging with it.
In chapter one, I will establish the pride-shame dichotomy found in Ashkenazi Judaism. I will first explore several biblical passages, including Lamentations, Micah, and Isaiah. By exploring these instances in the tanach, I will try to establish the uniqueness the Jews feel due to their personal and punitive relationship with God. Throughout these passages, we will see the Jews taking pride in the punishment God doles out for them, because such pain is indicative of the Jews' superiority among other nations.
Next, I will provide a brief explanation of why I am choosing to focus on the act of conversion in the Medieval time period as an indicator of Jewish pride and shame. In specific, I will focus on infamous Johannes Pfefferkorn, who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Pfefferkorn is the perfect example of a Jew who both detested his Judaism, yet used it to his advantage to speak authoritatively about Judaism to Christians, as his professed textual knowledge gave him clout.
Next, I will give an introduction on the connection between Otherness and language, explaining how Hebrew and the Talmud spurred both fascination and disgust toward Jews from their surrounding neighbors. After segueing into the origins of Yiddish as a language created out of exile, I will explain how though Yiddish originated out of spurning, the language became a source of pride of its rejected roots. I will consider the statements of various Yiddish authors, in particular American immigrant Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Through both an analysis of Singer's self-reflection of his own life and an analysis of his short story, Gimpel the Fool, I will establish the pride Ashkenazi Judaism takes in its outsider status. Singer himself remarks of the positivity of being lonely and different. His character, Gimpel, is a foolish outcast. Much like the Jews in the biblical passages explored earlier in the chapter, he suffers constant misfortune and mockery, yet his very pain is what lends him favor in God's eyes.
In chapter two, I will explore how 20th century American comics reflect the Ashkenazi dichotomy of pride and shame. Much like Yiddish is not a mainstream language, the idea of comics as mainstream art or literature has been greatly contested. I will try to determine which circumstances surrounding 20th century comics, and the comics themselves, connect with this pride-shame tension. I will use Paul Buhle's Jews and American Comics as a frame of reference, since the book often links comics and Yiddish.
I will first give a brief history of the American comic-book, starting with the Hogan's Alley comics strip, and exploring up until the mid 20th century. By understanding the working-class origins of comics, we can better understand the low-brow perception of them from the standpoint of both their readers and their critics.
I will then explain how American comics in the 20th century contained Jewish themes of pride and shame, despite their characters not being explicitly Jewish. I will more closely explore this idea through an analysis of the character Superman, drawing on both the commentary from the character's creators and the content clues of the character himself. A true foreigner, Superman masks his real identity, his superhuman powers. While his alias is what makes him exceptional, it is also the thing he abhors the most. Will Eisner, a giant in the world of comics, denies inserting Jewish identity in his own characters. However, his assistant, Jules Feiffer, half-jokingly claimed that his character, Denny Colt, featured in Eisner's The Spirit series, is in actuality a secret Jew.
Instead of focusing on Colt and The Spirit, I will do a close reading of one of Eisner's other works, A Contract with God, which is an exemplary work of Jewish pride and shame. Contract contains a motif that is similar to that of the biblical passages analyzed in chapter one. The protagonist, Russian-American immigrant Frimme Hershe, has a personal relationship with God that leaves him demoralized and punished.
I will then explore the use of visual stereotype in Contract, comparing it to that of Art Spiegelman's Maus, and contrasting it with that of the film Inglorious Basterds. I will argue that through engaging with Jewish visual stereotypes, the first two reveal them as falsehoods. Thus, through an admittance of these shamed images, the comics mock them. The latter film chooses to ignore stereotypes, thus leaving them extant.
I will conclude the chapter by positing that Jews have coped with their constant exile through through the self-deprecation of comics. Buhle mentions that comics about Jewish-American gangsters turned into a source of pride, presumably for Ashkenazi American Jews. The trope, hated by others, was lauded by those it was forced upon. Much like Yiddish, comics may have been born out of exclusion, but they came to be a source of pride among Ashkenazi Jews.
Kellerman, Aliza C., "Kvetching with Comics: How 20th Century American Comics Reflect the Ashkenazi Ethos of Pride and Shame" (2013). CMC Senior Theses. 750.
This thesis is restricted to the Claremont Colleges current faculty, students, and staff.