‘Please explain this weird language’

‘Please explain this weird language’

Temple Emanuel of Franklin Lakes looks at the very Jewish Mad magazine on leil Selichot

Selichot — the liturgy that Ashkenazi Jews begin to recite the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah (or the Saturday night before that, if there wouldn’t be enough time between them, as happens this year) — usually is the first time that people hear the season’s regal, haunting music. Although the month of Elul is a time for Jews to begin the work of repentance and return, of introspection and resolution, often emotion is sparked high and bright on that night.

But it doesn’t have to be grim, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes said. “Our congregation has a history of introducing ostensibly light fare for Selichot, and that’s obviously very conscious.

“The holidays deal with heavy issues, sin and repentance, but it’s also supposed to be a joyful time. A celebration. So we try to introduce the holidays in a humorous, light, joyful way. You will have enough of the heavy, ornate, longer-than-usual liturgy over the course of the holidays. Selichot should emphasize the joyful aspect of the season.”

But warning — a careful reader might notice Rabbi Prouser’s use of the word “ostensibly” as he discussed what he called “light fare.”

This Selichot, he will focus on Mad magazine, the sort-of-defunct anarchic publication that had teased and thrilled its readers throughout the second half of the 20th century. (It’s no longer putting out any new content, but will republish old stuff online.) He’ll “examine the themes and the underlying message of the High Holy Days through its lens,” Rabbi Prouser said.

Mad was Jewish in so many ways. First, there are its founders, Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines; its important writers and artists included Al Jaffee, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, but spent part of his childhood in a Lithuanian ghetto. “The list of them goes on and on,” Rabbi Prouser said. “And they even had as guest contributors Sid Caesar and Danny Kaye.” Needless to say, Jew, Jew, Jew, and Jew.

“So on the most meta level the magazine is Jewish in the way that it projects an outsider attitude,” he continued. “It uses all kinds of Yiddish, both real and imaginary. In its very first issue, in 1952, there was an extended spoof on gangster movies, which were very popular then, and instead of gangsters they were called goniffs.” (They spelled it ganeffs.)

How did most of its readers know what they were talking about? He didn’t exactly know, Rabbi Prouser said, but he did know that “they got a lot of letters with complaints and requests saying ‘Please explain this weird language.’”

Mad would include “little sketches, with no texts, in the margin of every magazine,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It had nothing to do with what was on the page. It was an expression of wisdom in the margins.” He talked to a Jewish British academic, Professor Nathan Abrams, of Bangor University in the UK, “who wrote an article about five years ago, in a journal about American humor, called “Secular Talmud: The Jewish Sensibility of Mad Magazine.” “He talks about these marginalia as reflective of the spirit of the Talmud in actually copying the format of a Talmudic page,” Rabbi Prouser said. (He and Dr. Abrams have begun a correspondence about Mad.)

He will discuss at least three issues on Leil Selichot, Rabbi Prouser said. One will be about Spy vs. Spy, a “regular feature that had one spy dressed all in white, and the other dressed all in black. They never say a word to each other. There is no text and no dialogue. It is all about them trying to destroy each other. It is an endless cycle of violence and revenge. It’s at least partially about the Cold War.

“We will use it as a way of examining the painful alternatives to reconciliation.

“The second big topic is the Mad fold’ems, usually on the inside back cover. It was a creation of Al Jaffee’s. It had a wild illustration, and you folded it so that arrow A meets arrow B, and it creates a whole new picture, with a whole new text.

“We will use it to discuss what I consider to be a major theme of the holidays — that if you are willing to change your perspective and see what has been available to you all along — if you look at your situation afresh and anew and look at what you can see, you can change your perspective.

“The third is the holidays’ emphasis on the sins of the degradation of speech, of the abuse of language, and of truth. Of the trivialization of personal communication.

“There is another genre in Mad magazine called ‘Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.’ That is to be contrasted with Mad’s precision in the use of language.” That’s right. Underneath Mad’s visual clutter and splatter, there was absolute precision. “There was a sensitivity to language and wordplay in Mad that contrasts to the abuse and trivialization of language that it attacks,” Rabbi Prouser said.

He will talk about some specific Jewish content as well, he said. He’ll address a cover story in 1973 that used “Fiddler on the Roof,” “lampooning it,” to launch an “exploration of the American suburban Jewish soulless materialization experience,” Rabbi Prouser said. It parodied the songs, and the whole thing was called “Fiddler Made a Goof.” And there was also “a spoof of ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’” a sitcom about American prisoners of war during World War II, “called ‘Hochman’s Heroes,’ which is a merciless treatment of the trivialization of the Holocaust and Nazis in American media.”

Continuing with Mad’s moralistic march through modern history, “we will point out some of the moral issues — the Cold War, nuclear energy, smoking, which was a big deal, because the main readership was young teens, so that was a real service, gun violence, the environment, corruption. Mad lampooned both the right and the left mercilessly. It was kind of refreshing in a nonpartisan way.”

Mad had “a moral core that was very much part of its agenda,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It was pretty blatant messaging. I don’t think it ever escaped your notice.” He started on Mad when he was young. “I grew up reading it,” he said. “I don’t think there ever was a time when I looked at it as a comic book. It always was engaged in moral issues. One of the last issues had a thing about anti-vaxxers.”

Mad magazine famously didn’t accept advertising and refused to survey its readers. As for advertisers — “who would advertise there anyway?” Rabbi Prouser said. As for surveys, “they were afraid that their moral stance would be compromised. The temptation to pander to that group would be overwhelming, and they wanted to be true to their vision.” (Most people nonetheless have assumed, over the course of the last half-century, that most of Mad’s readers were teenage boys.)

“The real issue is remaining true to your vision,” Rabbi Prouser said.

So, yes, a light evening. A funny evening. But as with most funny things, with real truth just below the surface.

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser

What: Talks about Mad magazine before Selichot services

When: On Saturday, September 21, at 9 p.m.; services start at 10:30

Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road in Franklin Lakes

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