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For Harvey Pekar, the outsider-comics legend who died in 2010, his last project was Yiddishkeit, a book published by Abrams Comicarts that he co-edited with Paul Buhle. It’s fitting that this book was what he spent his last days working on for many reasons. For one, his voice and views are an integral part of so much of what makes the book tick; his take on the greats of Yiddish literature and theater acts as something of a primer on the genre’s history. But more than just that, Pekar’s status as a working-class outsider who turned the struggles of his everyday life into literary and artistic achievement mirrors the journey of the Jews and Jewish culture thatYiddishkeit depicts. I can think of no better presenter of the world ofYiddishkeit than Pekar.

For the uninitiated, Yiddish is a language that evolved as Jews occupied regions in Europe over the last several centuries, and is mostly comprised of German and Hebrew with other languages mixed in for good measure. Throughout the 20th century, Yiddish’s ubiquity among Jews—at least in America—has severely declined, despite the fact that there was a popular and important Yiddish literature and theater movement in the early 1900s. These days, Yiddish is mostly only spoken by Orthodox Jews or older matriarchs and patriarchs of Jewish families, and the language—and the culture that went along with it—is in danger of being forgotten.
Combatting that ethnic amnesia is where Pekar and Buhle’s Yiddishkeit comes in.
The book starts out trying to define just what, exactly, the word Yiddishkeitmeans. Literally, it can be translated to mean “Jewishness,” though the book tries to find a more specific meaning through the pieces it anthologizes. For Pekar and Buhle, Yiddishkeit is a cultural idea and feeling, personified in the authors, actors, artists, and audiences who participated in the Jewish artistic renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and America. In order to help readers find out about this strange yet familiar word and idea, Yiddishkeit provides sequential storytelling adaptations of famous Yiddish plays and important Yiddish history, while even offering illustrated artifacts of the Yiddish newspapers of the time.
The book’s introduction, written by Neal Gabler, also points out, rightly, that comics are an appropriate method of representing Yiddishkeit for both their emphasis on visual storytelling as well as their status as an outsider artform. Jews, it should be known, occupy some of the most important and influential positions as creators of the comics art form in America. As such, it makes sense for the circle of ethnic and cultural heritage to be completed with comics being utilized to explore this important but forgotten period in Jewish history.
Some of the rough edges—such as partially erased or cramped text—in the comics are still visible in some spots in the book. But rather than detract from the experience, these portions actually do much to remind readers of the hands working to create the comics. Just as the Jewish writers put so much of themselves and their unique culture into the stories and plays they created, the comics creators contributing to this anthology are in the book along with their contributions, adding their own essences to the legacy of Yiddishkeit in ways that the original writers discussed probably never imagined.
Informative and imaginative, Yiddishkeit is an important and intriguing look into the past of Jewish culture, while providing inspiration for Jewish culture’s future.

Reviewed by Brian P. Rubin on September 1, 2011

by Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2011
  • Genres: Graphic Novel
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
  • ISBN-10: 0810997495
  • ISBN-13: 9780810997493