The Art of the Schlemiel


In his comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, former Voice cartoonist Ben Katchor wrung poetic poignancy out of the simple charms of anachronism and obsolescence. With a keen eye for urban phenomena beyond the reach of renewal, Katchor created a dead-end-street theater of the absurd full of pocket-hole repairmen, calendar salesmen, and apartment-house lobby designers, the lost souls of small-time commerce who can get everything for you wholesale except their own fulfillment.

Considerably more complicated narratively than the one-page short-story format of his 1996 book of Knipl strips, The Jew of New York is a graphic novel that expands upon the comic strip of the same name that ran in the Forward from 1992 to 1993. Set in 1830s Manhattan, Katchor’s winding yarn centers around the impending theatrical production of The Jew of New York, a “Hebraic comedy” poking fun at the true exploits of Major Mordecai M. Noah, a politician and playwright who in 1825 attempted to establish a Jewish homeland called Ararat on an island between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The transformation of the historical Major Noah into the the fictional Major Ham has made the play a decidedly unkosher undertaking; similarly trayf is Katchor’s protagonist, Nathan Kishon, a disbarred shoykhet (ritual slaughterer) who was a follower of Noah’s in the failed Ararat venture before enduring a rugged purgatory in “the wilderness of northern New York State,” home to all manner of religious and utopian oddballs.

Kishon’s upstate saga, told largely in flashback, dominates the novel, though Katchor’s intricately plotted tale pauses to consider such tangents as whether or not American Indians are the lost tribe of Israel and the ins and outs of beaver procreation. Along the way Katchor interweaves the feverish dreams of such supporting players as Yosl Feinbroyt, a kabbalist attempting to catalogue all the phonetic approximations of digestive sounds to create a dictionary of “pre-linguistic American expression”; Francis Oriole, the would-be soda magnate who dreams of carbonating Lake Erie; and Professor Solidus, the anti-Semitic pamphleteer and Jew of New York playwright who fears that assimilation and intermarriage will diffuse the Jews’ basic traits within the general population, thus depriving him of his subject matter and forcing him to go back to operetta.

Visually, Katchor pens this roster of con men and false messiahs with jittery lines that make them seem perpetually nervous, as if fearing that their schemes of grandeur will fall apart in the next panel— which, of course, they ultimately do; call it the art of the schlemiel. Possessing a devilishly dry wit, Katchor seamlessly blends footnotes from historical obscurity with his twisted imagination to create his own unique literary form— “megillah à clef”— that packs a sizable comedic punch. It’s not for nothing that a handkerchief embroidered with kabbalistic designs reappears throughout the book— there’s a magical quality to Katchor’s imagery that transports The Jew of New York beyond the world of our fathers into the realm of timeless fiction.