Rediscovering the Friday funnies of yore

Rediscovering the Friday funnies of yore

Long-time readers of this paper may well remember “Dayenu,” the comic strip that ran in Jersey City’s Jewish Standard and dozens of other such publications from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Credited to “Henry Leonard,” they were in fact a collaboration between Rabbi Harry Rabin, who wrote the cartoons, and advertising and art director Leonard Pritikin, who drew them.

Between 1960 and 1969, Crown Publishers collected the cartoons and published them in four volumes, with titles like “Open Your Mouth and Say ‘Oy!’” and “Bagel Power.” Those books now have been reprinted by About Comics, along with an omnibus volume gathering all four called “Dayenu Dayenu.

At a distance of five or six decades, the cartoons provide a mixture of laughs and museum wonder. They are a window to an era when grandparents, if not rabbis, reliably could be assumed to speak Yiddish; when children were lured from the proper Jewish path offered by their synagogue Sunday school by the varying seductions of Davy Crockett, sock hops, Beatniks, and charismatic Indian gurus; and when Judaism was migrating to the strange new worlds of suburban temples and televised services, so that even the prospect of astronauts encountering “The future home of Congregation B’nai Mars” didn’t seem all that outlandish.

Some of the strips have aged well; some have not. Some are bitingly critical of the ignorance and apathy of suburban American Jews at the dawn of the Space Age, and some were never all that funny in the first place.

Expect plenty of variations on Borscht Belt standards that were old during the Eisenhower administration.

And expect some that will require many levels of explanation to today’s kids, such as the cartoon featuring two men standing before a giant machine — labeled “U.S. Census Bureau Electronic Computer” — looking over a printout. The caption reads: “What did I tell you! In that part of Jersey, Litvaks DO outnumber Galitzeaners two to one.”?

There’s the one with the label “When the Messiah Comes,” which features a couple talking at a table at a teenage dance. The young woman is expounding on the Talmud while her date listens and drinks his soda. We’ve reached out to a couple of New York’s co-ed batei midrash — Talmudic study halls — to see if they have plans to hasten the Messiah’s arrival by introducing social dancing to their schedule; we’ll let you know if we hear back.

And then there are those that have taken on renewed meaning of late — the ones about televised synagogue services. In this age of covid-induced Zoom davening, we imagine plenty of rabbis who can relate to their colleague, pictured in a big boxy television, whose message is captioned: “It’s good that you’re watching, Epstein…. But it would be better if you came to shul once in a while.”


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