After consulting numerous websites, I’ve self-diagnosed myself with the eleventeenth variety of terminal cancer that’s afflicted me ever since I could first Google disease in 1999. I don’t know how long I’ve got, so if this column seems rushed, it’s because I’m typing as fast as I can before I simply keel over.
My susceptibility for cancer coincides with another condition I’ve suffered from birth. You see, despite my ye olde English name, I am … JEWISH! An inordinate number of Jews are prone to self-diagnoses. Some refer to us by using the Yiddish word “kvetch,” which translates as “a whining complainer.”
We’re an odd race or religion or tribe or whatever it is we are. I’m agnostic, yet I know I’m a Jew because I can’t fix things, I love chopped liver, I self-diagnose a new cancer monthly, I have inordinate pride in fellow tribesmen Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Woody Allen, and Lenny Bruce, and I am brutally honest. The latter trait gets me in big trouble with some fellow Jews because they don’t like it when I say I believe the Palestinians deserve a homeland. They call me a “self-hating Jew,” which means that I have an opinion at odds with rabid Zionism and, because of my reverence for honesty, I publicly express it. As Paul Krassner once told me, I’m thinking of having my foreskin sewn back on in protest.
Three of my recent favorite books of collected art are by fellow Hebes. Old Jewish Comedians and The Fun Never Stops! both by my friend Drew Friedman and published by Fantagraphics, and Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir by Aline Kominsky Crumb, pubbed by MQP. We Jews are not as circumspect and self-controlled as the goyim (look it up, I’m not a dictionary). We are also contrarians (see prior parenthetical). Both Drew and Aline sprang from the world of comics, yet for my taste they are finer artists than any pretentious scamster selling 30-foot oil paintings of oversized refrigerators to rich marks. Though their work is apples and oranges–or gefilte fish and kasha varnishkes–Friedman and Kominsky Crumb share the Jewish penchant for being blunt. (Note: Spellcheck is anti-Semitic. It does not recognize kasha varnishkes.)
Friedman became popular in the 1980s with his perfectly realistic caricatures of the fringe folk of show biz like character actors and the fourth member of the Three Stooges, as well as anonymous and downright ugly people. In an increasingly politically correct world where pointing out physical defects is not kosher, Drew used his artistic license to celebrate ugliness. He’s moved on to contemporary celebrities, including portraits for the New Yorker, and can identify the over-the-top eccentricities in celebrities merely by taking their traits one step beyond reality and, in the process, highlighting their essence. One example is a three-part makeover of Crosby, Stills & Nash as hip-hop, rave and hardcore punk ensembles. It’s not only technically brilliant portraiture and hysterically funny, but it captures truths about the shallowness of pop trends.
Kominsky Crumb has balls. She is utterly fearless in describing her pathologically neurotic Jewish upbringing, her relationships with her husband Robert Crumb and daughter Sophie Crumb (who is a fine artist too), her sexual habits, her narcissism. Some of her most fun works are autobiographical collaborations with her husband, who is inarguably the greatest living artist in the comics medium. Robert lovingly but uneuphemistically refers to Aline’s “grotesque scratchy style of drawing.” A more timid human would avoid being compared to a master like Crumb, yet his wife is comfortable being herself. Her relentless moxie is just one of her artistic strengths, along with her wild wit, decorative Frida-like kitchen sink aesthetic, and–like Friedman, like her husband–her trick of over-exaggerating exaggeration itself, so that the line twixt parody and truth disappears.
Not to say that there haven’t been Hebrew con men and liars, but honesty is a hallowed virtue amongst Jews. Wasps sweep truth under rugs, Catholics are dishonest until they go to confession, Buddhists answer a plea for transparency with a Zen koan, Muslims are apparently selective. All of these statements are generalizations, but then all stereotypes contain neutrons of accuracy. Jews are a royal kvetching pain in the ass. I know because I am one. But I recognize our never-ending Talmudic questioning in order to reach the heart of any given matter. Drew Friedman and Aline Kominsky Crumb are two Jews who–through art–cut through the screaming noise to tell it like it is.
MICHAEL SIMMONS is an award-winning journalist and currently filming a documentary on the Yippies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from the September 2007 issue of Artillery.