Jewy McJewJew, by Martha Thomases
About a year ago, I wrote about The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West. A series of short stories inspired by Jewish folklore and set in the Old West, the book was charming, light and funny – a great way to introduce young children (and their grandparents) to graphic storytelling.
Now, artist/writer Steve Sheinkin has created a sequel, Rabbi Harvey Rides Again: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Folktales Let Loose in the Wild West. It’s an unusual book. There are plenty of disagreements, but no fighting. The most action takes place on a baseball field. The women can be differentiated from the men, not by their massive cleavage, but by their lack of beards … and occasional dresses.
So why do you want to read it? Or, more precisely, why do you want to read it if you are neither a young child nor a grandparent? What if you aren’t Jewish?
Don’t worry. Rabbi Harvey, although a rabbi, does not proselytize, nor does he spend much time in his synagogue. He’s the kind of rabbi Andy Griffin would play, if he played a rabbi instead of a sheriff in Mayberry. This isn’t surprising when one considers who created the show and its characters.
The art style is not in the least bit sophisticated. There isn’t a lot of detail in the drawing, nor perspective. Heads seem to be a bit large, and shoulders are small. Most people are about the same height. The effect is actually quite charming, working well with the gentle intelligence of the stories.
Harvey settles disputes among the townspeople of Elk Springs, a Colorado community full of gold miners turned schoolteachers, merchants, and villains who see the error of their ways and become barbers. As I mentioned above, he doesn’t do this with his fists, or his superpowers, but with the smarts he’s developed from studying Torah, Talmud, and human nature.
This book introduces Abigail, the previously mentioned gold miner turned schoolteacher. Sheinkin says in his introduction that she may be a romantic interest for Harvey in future stories. They talk, they eat, and they walk through the forest. The courtship is as low-key as the stories. Abigail is refreshingly smart and practical.
Sheinkin takes his inspiration from Jewish folklore (lovingly cited in the Story Sources section at the back of the book), but he combines the tales with wit, substituting San Francisco and Colorado for Middle Europe, Russia and Poland. I loved reading these stories when I was a kid, and I’m glad they’re here for a new generation.
The source material is what makes the stories Jewish in heritage, but there is nothing in them that depends on an understanding of Jewish law, or a belief in God. The rabbi solves problems by noticing how people behave, how they talk, and what they want. Whether he is testing coins for oil to find out who owns them, or fooling a bad guy into surrendering his guns, nothing gets past Rabbi Harvey. It’s like a mental martial art, where he uses his opponents self-interest to get them to do the right thing. It’s like a combination of Columbo and Encyclopedia Brown smooshed together to make the menschiest guy in the universe.
You don’t have to be Jewish to love Rabbi Harvey.
Martha Thomases, Media Goddess of ComicMix, thanks Jon Stewart for this week’s title.