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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Scriptural Education and Entertainment: Evangelism, Didacticism, and Satire in Graphic Novels (Part 2)

In comparison with the work of Robert James Luedke's rather somber scriptural didacticism in his Eye Witness: A Fictional Tale of Absolute Truth,[1] things look quite different in Steve Sheinkin's The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wit and Wisdom in the Wild West.[2] This graphic novel is a collection of ten stories, all involving the novel's title character, whom Sheinkin describes as follows: he "protects his town [the fictional city of Elk Springs, CO] and delivers justice using only the weapons of wisdom, kindness, and humor. He's part old world rabbi, part western sheriff." In his introduction, Sheinkin also describes his purpose in the book:

What I have tried to do in The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey is collect stories and small gems from a variety of sources: classic Jewish folktales; Hasidic legends from the likes of the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and Zusya of Anipol; and Talmudic teachings, like those found in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages. . . . The graphic novel format felt right because it allowed me to tell these stories the way I always imagined them. And to add plenty of gags.[3]



This last point is crucial for our discussion because one of the key ways in which Sheinkin's didacticism differs from Luedke's is that the former utilizes humor throughout his work, while the latter sets a much more somber tone, replete with violence and scheming machinations that could possibly alienate the youth whom Luedke claims as his primary audience.

 

Examples of Rabbi Harvey's humor abound. The first ("Meet Rabbi Harvey") and the final ("Bad Bubbe") stories both deal with the same theme, viz., Rabbi Harvey must solve a problem of dishonesty using only his wits. In "Meet Rabbi Harvey," a young candle maker's store burns down, and he is not able to afford a new shop. This man, named Nathan, always loved books more than work, so he goes to visit Rabbi Harvey for help. In figs. 1 and 2, we see this exchange.

            


As you can see, in the midst of Nathan's story, Harvey suddenly asks, "Quick — name the twelve sons of Jacob." After Nathan does so correctly, Harvey retorts, "Nice. I can never remember Dan. At any rate, I know of a job teaching children."[4] The job is in Utah, though, so Nathan is forced to leave his family. After he earns some money, he arranges for a traveling merchant to take the money to his family by drawing up a rather unorthodox contract with the man. Nathan agrees that if the man will take the money to his wife, he has to give her only as much of the money as he wants. Of course, the merchant thinks he's going to be able to keep all the money; when he arrives in Elk Springs, he gives Nathan's wife only one dollar, keeping the other ninety-nine dollars for himself. Nathan's wife appeals to Rabbi Harvey, who sees Nathan's clever scheme. He says, "You agreed to GIVE as much as you WANT, right? You WANT ninety-nine dollars, so it is that amount you must GIVE. Simple." To which the merchant replies, "Simple, yes. Satisfying, no."[5] Similarly, in the final story, "Bad Bubbe," a wine merchant comes to Elk Springs to buy some wine. He buries all of his money in the back of Bubbe's boarding house, where he is staying. Bubbe's granddaughter Rachel sees him bury the money, and Bubbe promptly digs it up and steals it. The man goes to Rabbi Harvey, and together they come up with a plan. In Bubbe's restaurant, the wine merchant loudly announces to Harvey that he buried a large sum of money the previous day, is expecting another large sum of money that day, and needs someplace safe to keep it. Harvey tells him that he should check his previous burial place; if the money is still there, then he will know it is a safe place to keep the money. Bubbe overhears this and then reburies the money she stole, hoping to steal even more money. Alas, the wine merchant was waiting for her to rebury the money. When she does, he recovers his lost money and takes it away.

 

In addition to the ubiquitous humor in Sheinkin's book, moral and ethical lessons abound. In the stories I just discussed, it seems clear that Rabbi Harvey is able to resolve these situations justly because of his quick wits and intelligence. Another important difference between Luedke's efforts and Sheinkin's is the availability of a Teacher's Guide to The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey. The Guide, written by Sheinkin and Ariella Tievsky, notes that the above stories stress not only honesty and the importance of learning, but also gemilut hasadim, "deeds of lovingkindness."[6] Building on both Yiddish folktales as well as Pirke Avot 1.2, Sheinkin has composed tales that seek to inculcate these core Jewish values through the use of gentle humor.[7] Similarly, in the story titled "Forgive Me, Rabbi," Harvey is faced with a man who berates and insults him on a wagon ride — then, after discovering Harvey is a rabbi, seeks his forgiveness. Harvey claims he cannot accept his apology, and they have the following exchange:

Harvey: Listen, did you know who I was when we were riding on the stage?
Man: No, Rabbi.
H.: And would you have spoken to me the way you did if you had known who I was?
M.: Never, Rabbi.
H.: So you see? It was not me you insulted.
M.: That's great news!
H.: Perhaps. Tell me, who did you think that old-timer in the wagon was?
M.: Just a regular guy. A blacksmith or something.
H.: And you dared to talk to the blacksmith like that?
M.: I guess that wrong of me. I'm sorry.
H.: Don't tell me. Remember, you have to seek forgiveness from the person who has the power to give it. Meaning the person you have wronged. You'll find his workshop behind the bakery. I suggest you hurry.



The man then goes and apologizes to the blacksmith, who, even though confused by the entire incident, accepts his apology and agrees to play a game of cards with the man. Again, the Teacher's Guide connects this story to two sources: in this case, Lev 19:18 ("Love your fellow as yourself" [JPS]) and Maimonides' admonitions regarding forgiveness in his Hilchot Teshuvah ("The Laws of Repentance"); it also provides study questions and an additional activity to help students understand the message of forgiveness in the story.[8]

 

When compared to Luedke's work, several interesting features of Rabbi Harvey stand out. First, the art is much less realistic. This could allow the reader more opportunity to ruminate on the concepts and teachings offered by the book than if the art were more realistic; that is, since the reader is not focused on the surface level of the figural representations, attention is more likely to be paid to the ideas and the example expressed by Rabbi Harvey. Second, by using humor and metalingual comments (in this case, instances in which characters speak out of the story to the reader, as Harvey does when he speaks to the reader in "Bad Bubbe"), Sheinkin is able to engage his young readers using techniques that are far less alienating and more age-appropriate than Luedke's novel. Speaking of audience, my last point deals with Sheinkin's intended audience. Even though the novel itself does not mention an age-specific audience, Rabbi Harvey himself, speaking in the Teacher's Guide, notes, "These discussion questions and activities are aimed at students ages nine to twelve — the perfect ages, I think, for children to really begin digging into these stories."[9] However, in his review of Rabbi Harvey for the Forward, Max Gross critiques Sheinkin's work for a lack of demographic specificity. He writes that one of the main issues he has with Harvey is that:

It doesn't really fit in with any demographic. Graphic novels have complex and serious stories with dialogue that is 90% grown up (well, at least as grown up as your average PG-13 or R-rated action flick). "Rabbi Harvey" — which adamantly clings to its folktalelike stories and sunny dialogue — will never appeal to the average 11 or 12-year-old. If Sheinkin really wanted something that would have appealed to older kids (and maybe even to us nerdy adults), he would have made the book a bit grittier. True, there are tales of theft and attempted murder in "Rabbi Harvey". . . . Nevertheless, Sheinkin has produced a book that undoubtedly will appeal to a younger audience than that which generally hunts graphic novels (say, 9 or 10-year-olds).[10]





Gross' assessment is a tad too cynical, as I found Rabbi Harvey to be a charming and educational novel. With the availability of the Teacher's Guide, it seems obvious that Sheinkin's didactic goal has been reached. After all, as Harvey himself notes in the Teacher's Guide, "These stories are meant to be entertaining and funny. But they also help remind us of precious ethical teachings."[11] This combination of humor and more serious reflection on ethical concerns can be seen most easily in the story titled, "Stump the Rabbi," from which figs. 3-6 are taken. Final confirmation of Sheinkin's success though, can be found in the February 2007 issue of Moment magazine, in which children were invited to submit book reviews of their favorite recent Jewish books. Bradley Klein, age 10, wrote the following about Harvey:

[It's] a fabulous, awesome, and most of all hilarious book. . . . This is one of the only books that I rate a 10.0 out of 10.0! I give it this rating for the words, the true meaning and how the author, Steve Sheinkin, introduces a rabbi who can follow the mitzvot and still be funny and clever.[12]





 

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Sheinkin has produced a work that transmits essential Jewish ethical values. At the same time, the reader is encouraged to laugh with and at Rabbi Harvey.

Dan Clanton, Denver, Colorado

Notes
[1] My analysis of Luedke's work can be found here .

[2] Steve Sheinkin, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wit and Wisdom in the Wild West (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006). I would like to thank Kate Treworgy and Amy Wilson from Jewish Lights Publishing for their help and kind permission to reprint text and images from the graphic novel discussed in this article.

[3] Sheinkin, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, v.

[4] All quotes from Sheinkin, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey.

[5] Interestingly, this first story represents a beit din, or a rabbinic court of sorts, similar to the famous beit din conducted by Isaac Bashevis Singer's father in Singer's classic memoir In My Father's Court (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962).

[6] See Steve Sheinkin and Ariella Tievsky, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey Teacher's Guide (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006), 5-6 and 28-29.

[7] For Avot 1.2, see Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), 2-3, especially their comment on gemilut hasadim: "Religious commitment to God was to be manifested in one's behavior directed toward other persons. When an individual performed these acts of kindness . . . that person brought himself closer to God."

[8] Sheinkin and Tievsky, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey Teacher's Guide, 21-22. For a range of rabbinic teachings on the subject of forgiveness, see C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, "Pity, Forgiveness and Love," in A Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 460-69.

[9] Sheinkin and Tievsky, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey Teacher's Guide, 4.

[10] Max Gross, "Rocky Mountain Rabbi," Forward, 10 November 2006, sec. B p. 13; online at http://www.forward.com/articles/rocky-mountain-rabbi/

[11] Sheinkin and Tievsky, The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey Teacher's Guide, 4.

[12] See "Publish-a-Kid," in Moment, February 2007, p. 103.

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Click here more information on Steve Sheinkin's The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey.

Citation: Dan Clanton, " Scriptural Education and Entertainment: Evangelism, Didacticism, and Satire in Graphic Novels (Part 2)," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=683

 
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