Yaakov Kirschen has been drawing “Dry Bones” cartoons for The Jerusalem Post for 45 years. Now his humor and art have become Seder table companions. First published several years ago as a limited edition work, The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah has just been released by Menorah Books, an imprint of Korean Publishers.
Kirschen recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background?
Kirschen: I would say “normal Jewish.” I grew up in a home where you would never eat butter with meat – not because of kashrut but because it was disgusting.
Where did you grow up?
Like a normal Jew, in Brooklyn!
And you went to public school?
I went to P.S. 67, and after school I went to cheder. The way it was then for normal non-religious Jews was that you took lessons a couple of years before your bar mitzvah. So my parents brought me to a Conservative synagogue, but I wanted the real thing, not some sort of Americanized version. So I switched to a really Orthodox, old-world European cheder where the teacher was – well, we called them aliens in those days because they came from Europe.
You write in the introduction to The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah that you are a “survivor” of the 1960s. What do you mean by that?
Well, the whole drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s was really wonderful. I liked the promise of a new future, but I didn’t understand why it had to be anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish. For example, it was cool for blacks to lobby for a separate black school system in Harlem and to study black history. Well, if so, it should also be important to study Jewish history. There was a disconnect there, and I was very sensitive to that. So I fell in with radical groups like the Radical Zionist Alliance and the Jewish Liberation Project.
You served as a delegate at the infamously rowdy 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What was that experience like?
I thought I should be out on the street with the 15,000 demonstrators – my ‘60s mishegass – so I left the convention and joined them. There were mercury lights on the street giving everything a sort of orangey hue, along the curb were national guardsmen with guns, and down the street were tanks spewing gas. I suddenly realized, “I’m in the middle of a revolution.” And although I was talking intellectually about 40,000 American victims in Vietnam, I was really emotionally connected to the 12 Israelis who had been taken prisoner by the Syrians.
When I came back to the convention, as one of the leaders of the New York delegation, I made up a list of 10 questions about Vietnam, black separatism, etc. and one of the questions was “Should we be supplying Israel with Phantom jets?” All the Jews answered no. Only Shirley Chisholm, who was a black representative from Brooklyn, said, “Of course we should support Israel.”
So when I got back from Chicago, I looked up “Zionist” in the phone book, discovered there was something called the Zionist Organization of America, and went down to their offices. By 1971 I had moved my family to Israel.
For purely nationalistic reasons?
It was more than that. I graduated from Queens College with a major in art and knew I could go into any bookstore and find books on African art, Eskimo art, Greek art, American-Indian art – whatever. But there was no book on Jewish art, so I decided to write such a book, which would be divided into two parts: 1) objects, like sukkahs and Seder plates and 2) symbols, like the Magen David and menorah.
I spent a lot of time working on it, and learned about a really important symbol that you’re not supposed to talk about: the merkavah [chariot]. That took me to reading Yechezkel and I saw that a guy 2,600 years ago wrote exactly about what was happening in our modern world. I was totally taken by it.
People would ask me, “Are you religious?” I’m not religious, but imagine we’re on a bus that gets lost. And then we hit a low-hanging branch, roll down a ravine, cross a stream, and come to a giant rock in the middle of nowhere. And then, under my seat I find a map. People would ask, “Who wrote the map?” I don’t know, but the first thing you have to recognize is that there is a map.
It’s not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of simply understanding that it’s all there. Everything we’re going through has been written down. If you read Yechezkel, you’ll learn about the Third Temple, you’ll learn about a river that has been dug from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, etc. Every few years when Israel discusses digging a channel from the Red Sea up to the Dead Sea to replenish the water, I say to myself, “These idiots, don’t they know it’s supposed to be dug from the Mediterranean?”
So I’m waiting for Gog and Magog and everything else that I know is coming.
So for you it was that simple: Yechezkel prophesied a certain future in Israel and you had to be part of it?
It was: How can I be a Jew in the 20th century and not come home? How would I explain that to my ancestors? Imagine if I were to meet the spirit of my great-great-grandmother and said to her, “Jews have come home, and we have our own country in Israel with Jerusalem as our capital.” She says, “Do you live there?” I say, “No, actually, I still live in Brooklyn.” She says, “Well, is it difficult to get there?” and I say, “No, I just need to buy a ticket.” I couldn’t live with that.
Two years after you moved to Israel you started your Dry Bones cartoon. What was the genesis of that?
Well, it’s called Dry Bones after Ezekiel’s famous prophesy. But it started when I was in an absorption center, which is a place where people who come to Israel are put up for a while. As I was confronted by Israeli reality, I started doing cartoons and posting them on the bulletin board. From there people found me and I ended up at The Jerusalem Post.
One of your cartoons a few years later played a role in Israel-Egypt peace talks. Can you discuss that episode?
When Begin went to meet Carter for the first time, we knew Carter was going to attack him about occupied territories. So I went to a library in Jerusalem, took out all kinds of history books and maps, and did a full-page cartoon about the territories America occupied, which was then personally handed to Carter by a member of the Israeli delegation.
Carter signed a copy of it and sent it back to me with the words, “To Dry Bones: This would make my job much easier!” – in other words, if America were still 13 little colonies.
Do you have other stories of your cartoons playing a role in world politics?
There are lots of stories. Historians and politicians regularly call me to ask if they can use a cartoon to explain what’s going on.
I’ll tell you another story. When Begin was elected, Time magazine [referring to the archetypical Jewish villain in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist] noted that that “Begin rhymes with Fagin,” so I did a Dry Bones cartoon in which one character says, “A news magazine wrote that Begin rhymes with Fagin,” and the second character said, “Oh, what magazine?” to which he responds, “Time – it rhymes with grime and slime.” Two days later, I was contacted by Time through a third party and told that if I ever thought they would reproduce a Dry Bones cartoon, I could forget it.
Any other interesting stories?
In the late ‘70s I think, there were rumors that Israel was doing a deal with China, but newspaper were not allowed to write about it. So I did a cartoon called “Hollow Chopsticks,” which explained that the Chinese eat with wooden chopsticks and drink their soup with little porcelain spoons. So, according to the cartoon, we had a cut a deal whereby the Chinese were going to send us hundreds of thousands of chopsticks, and every Israeli family would drill holes through the chopsticks which would allow the Chinese to use them as straws to drink their soup. I thought it was pretty funny, but the censor forbade The Jerusalem Post from running it. I thought it was crazy.
What led you – a newspaper cartoonist – to publish a Haggadah?
I wanted to give something to the Jewish people, and the Haggadah is the way we transmit our civilization; it is the secret book of the Jewish people. And it’s interesting: this most important way of passing on our culture doesn’t take place in a Chabad shul, a Conservative synagogue, or a Reform temple. It takes place in the home among family sitting around the Seder table. I wanted to add a commentary that would speak to people at the Seder – whether they were old or young, frum or totally secular….
We exist and continue to exist because of the messages in the Haggadah. People ask, “Why is the UN against us?” The answer is in the Haggadah. The Haggadah teaches in every generation they rise up against us. We need to remember who we are and who we will be, and that’s what the Haggadah is.