Redefining Jewish Authenticity: An Interview with Eli Valley




FOR THE PAST DECADE, Eli Valley has been drawing comics unlike any other. Bombastic, frenzied, and often grotesque, Valley’s work unrestrainedly critiques American and Israeli institutional Jewish leaders and narratives. From human and animal rights abuses at a kosher slaughterhouse, to endless sociological surveys lamenting the sins of secularism and intermarriage, to widespread disregard for Palestinian lives, Valley attacks the Jewish community’s ethical failures from the inside. For this he has earned the ire of prominent figures on the Jewish right and the discomfort of many others. The Forward, a left-leaning publication that printed his work for years, eventually broke with him over the severity and specificity of his satire. Valley’s work, though deadly serious, is also raucously fun, filled with everything from a zombified Theodor Herzl to a crotchety Jewish turtle accusing his Jewish owners of anti-Semitism. He draws from the rich history of diasporic Jewish comic-making — from the comics that appeared in Yiddish socialist newspapers in the early 20th century to MAD comics — but his style and wit are all his own.

Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel collects more than 60 of Valley’s comics into a beautiful volume, complete with extensive commentaries and a riveting introduction that covers Valley’s own history and the history of Jewish self-images since the birth of Zionism, to which his work responds. The book is not only a towering artistic achievement and a disturbing chronicle of American Jewry’s relationship to Israel over the last 10 years, but also a battle cry for a resurgent American Jewish left in a harrowing time of far-right power in the United States and Israel — a time in which reality has surpassed satire in its ridiculousness.

Valley spoke with me by phone from New York City, where he was taking a break from drawing a sock puppet on Jared Kushner’s hand in what would become this comic.

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NATHAN GOLDMAN: Your comics used to appear in The Forward under the title “Comics Rescued From a Burning Synagogue in Bialystok and Hidden in a Salt Mine Until After the War.” In an interview with The Comics Journal, you explained that the title came from language about a Torah rescued during the Holocaust. Diaspora Boy is a huge book, physically, so I read it hunched over, with the book spread out on my kitchen table, following the panels with my finger. And it reminded me a lot of my experience reading the Torah for my Bar Mitzvah. So I’ve been thinking about those resonances. How do you see your work fitting into the history of Jewish texts, both sacred and profane?

ELI VALLEY: Wow, that’s quite the question. I love that idea. I have to be careful with over-self-aggrandizement, but I worship the brush — brush and ink. I have such a high estimation of that, so when I’m being more self-aggrandizing, I jokingly compare it to the Torah, creating scrolls. Actually, in the book I joke that the comics, along with the comments underneath them online, are like a page of the Talmud if the Talmud were written by lunatics. Obviously there’s acrimony in the Talmud, too, but hopefully nothing quite as nuts as the comments underneath my comics.

But even if the comics are hyperbolic and insane, I have very serious intentions with them, and I do aspire to the trajectory of Jewish literary and intellectual culture. And I know it’s a glib answer, but when people ask me who my readership is, the obvious answer is me and my friends, but the longer answer is ghosts from the past and ghosts from the future. As far as the past, I’m mesmerized by the kinds of writings and cultural output that was being created in Central Europe in the early 20th century, and I like to think that my comics are a reflection of and a debate with that. As for the future, who knows what’s going to happen — especially these days — but I like to think that future grad students will be looking at this book, along with a lot of other stuff, in order to figure out what the hell was going on (to paraphrase our horrible nightmare man in charge right now).

That’s very arrogant, obviously, but it’s not like I mean it to be literal. It’s just a reflection of how seriously I take this work, despite the seeming reckless glibness of the comics themselves.

You mentioned the part of the book in which you discuss the idea of the comics, with the comments sections being the Talmud as written by lunatics. Most of the comics in Diaspora Boy are accompanied by detailed commentaries that establish political context and explain publication histories and do other things. That also got me thinking about the history of Jewish thought as explicit interpretation and critique, from the Talmud on. And as I was thinking about that, I suddenly started seeing that all over the book — from those commentaries, to the comics themselves (in which you often are directly quoting the Jewish figures you’re lampooning), to your introduction and Peter Beinart’s foreword, to the publisher’s use of blurbs from your conservative critics, to the note on sources at the end — you cite the influence of scholarly books. There’s a lot of such intertextual stuff going on. I was wondering if that resonates with you — that Jewish history of commentary and intertextuality — and if you see that as something that has to do with your work.

Yes, but I see it more when you point it out. I think it’s more of an intuitive thing when I’m actually working. The nature of my work tends toward the obsessive, in terms of both the art and the research, so that’s just the way it ends up. It’s not a conscious thing on my part, because that would probably become self-conscious.

But on that note, in the book I talk about a comment on my “Photo Stroll” comic that was one of my favorite comments, because it actually questioned me, and it questioned my romanticization of earlier periods of Jewish history. That’s, like, meta on meta, but I think it might also fit in with what you were saying about intertextuality.

In that interview with The Comics Journal, you mention that at one point you were thinking of going into a PhD program. I was thinking about when I read the introduction, which includes a pretty thorough account of the history of Zionism and its influence on images of diaspora Jewishness, and then with the books you discuss in the note on sources. I’m wondering what your relationship is to scholarship on the topics that your work addresses.

Todd Samuel Presner’s Muscular Judaism was one of the first works I saw that really grappled with this stuff. It’s academic, and it gets very specific, but it also gives you an overview, and it talks about people like Ephraim Moshe Lilien, who was, visually, one of the sources that I’m grappling with. Also, the image of the teuton machine, from the introduction, I found in a book by John Efron on the history of German Jews and medicine. So I’m really indebted to academics for their archival work and analysis.

I think the best academics — obviously, because I’m self-centered — are the ones who can appreciate my comics. But I also know that a lot of academics, they just don’t understand comics, and they don’t understand how they fit into the intellectual tradition. There are people, I’m sure, in academia, who are in love with these Jewish cultural journals from Prague in the 1920s, but who would look at my work, and it would be a total cuneiform foreign language to them. And obviously I don’t respect those people. I do respect the ones in academia who see my work as not necessarily equivalent to the stuff back then, but contributing to the same trajectory. Those are the cool academics.

Could you talk a little bit about that comics history you see yourself drawing on — both that particularly Jewish history, with these early 20th-century Yiddish newspapers, and also any other comics history you see as being important to your development and your work?

I found MAD comics from the 1950s very informative and influential, and also obviously the independent comics from the ’60s and ’70s, which emerged partly because MAD comics had to be suppressed, as a result of Congressional hearings and the self-censorship of the comics code in 1954. That sort of led, indirectly, to the independent comics explosion in the ’60s, which were almost all influenced in some way by the MAD comics. But also, I see MAD comics as one of the pinnacles of diaspora Jewish culture — not just because they were throwing in Yiddish words everywhere, but because they were, in many ways, anti-establishment at a time when Jews had not yet been accepted by the mainstream in terms of culture and politics. So MAD is, a lot of the time, mocking consumerism and red-baiting and conformity in 1950s America, and it was largely the product of these outsider Jewish kids in New York, who were the children of immigrants.

And then, my sense was, by the time I started drawing these comics 10 years ago, that Jews had already entered the mainstream, entered all echelons of American society, and I was just wondering about that satirical energy. It seemed like there was a need to direct that satirical energy inward at a time when Jewish political culture had become the mainstream and there was very little dissent. There was certainly not harsh satire. But it’s funny, because if you go too far — MAD went too far, not in my view but in the view of American culture. In their spin-off, called Panic, they went after Santa Claus, and that got the issue banned in Massachusetts. Partly because of the strictures of the comics code, they eventually became a magazine, and the comic in some ways got neutered.

I’m not drawing direct comparisons, but my stuff does not appear in The Forward anymore. If you fly too close to the sun or whatever, if you keep mocking these institutions — I mean, it’s necessary, but the institutions will find ways to limit it. I’m not trying to make myself out to be some kind of a persecuted dissident at all. But there’s a parallel both in terms of the satirical impulse and the censorship that results.

I want to talk about that, because I think that’s an interesting thread in the book. The majority of the comics in Diaspora Boy were published in The Forward, but a good number of those that were not were ones that you tried to publish in The Forward, but for various reasons that you detail, they wouldn’t run them. And because the comics are ordered chronologically, the reader sees your relationship with The Forward changing until the point at which they weren’t going to continue publishing your work. Your commentaries reveal how difficult it was for you to get a lot of your comics published without changing them, and one thing that came up over and over was that it was difficult to publish comics that criticized specific leaders or organizations in the Jewish community. So I’m curious about the struggle to get those kinds of criticisms published in mainstream Jewish publications. What do you think is going on in our American Jewish culture that this kind of internal criticism is so often silenced?

It’s hard to say, because I don’t know to what degree The Forward is emblematic of wider trends. But the problem with wanting to be an outside, critical source while also playing internally in the politics is that it’s a contradiction, and you’re always going to run into walls. There are people on their board who loved my work, and I’m sure there are people on their board who hated my work. And when I say board, I mean donors as well and people who are influential in other Jewish institutions that I was mocking. Not mocking frivolously, but with specific points and critiques based on actual policies.

So it’s hard to say. But, for example, there was a person at The Forward who mentioned going to some benefit for Abe Foxman [the former director of the Anti-Defamation League], and he was concerned with what Foxman might say about my work. And those kind of stories, and then seeing them speak publicly with other actually really toxic figures in the Jewish community … there’s this buddy aspect. And we’re talking about the Jewish world, but it’s the same thing going on with, like, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I mean, literally, journalists palling up with people in power, who are often horrifically corrupt. Or people like Mort Klein [the president of the Zionist Organization of America], who is an unhinged bigot, who is accepted as a standing member of mainstream Jewish communal institutions. It’s horrifying, actually, at this point. It was horrifying before Trump was in office, but now it’s … you lose your speech trying to comprehend how this is possible. 

In your commentary on the comic “Abe Foxworthy,” which lampoons Abe Foxman, you discuss your disagreement about that comic with The Forward’s editor-in-chief, who objected: “There’s no balance in this cartoon.” You write, “This was the core of many disagreements that would follow — not so much the level of tastefulness but the inherently unbalanced nature of satirical art.” I want to hear more about what you mean by “the inherently unbalanced nature of satirical art,” and how that plays into both your conception of what you do and the difficulty you have had getting your work published in certain kinds of places.

In that particular commentary I mention that the editor once suggested getting a quote from the other side. This whole “both sides” needs of journalists, it’s so outside the parameters, or even the metaphysics, of satire. I’m not here to present both sides. I’m here to make an argument. It also gets to the whole idea of punching the downtrodden, you know? It’s like, “Let’s try to understand why the person in power is supporting policies that are disenfranchising entire communities. Let’s try and see their point of view — for our satire.” No, actually, we don’t need to do that for our satire.

I’ve been asked how I could have dialogue with the people I’m criticizing. How could we get them at the table to discuss these issues? And I’m like, I’m beyond dialogue. We’ve been trying to have dialogue for a decade now, and in that decade, look where we’ve come: the people in power continue to have power, and they continue to disenfranchise — I mean literally — voices in the community. And I’m not even talking about Palestine right now, but Jewish voices of dissent. You can see that with what’s happening with David Myers right now at the Center for Jewish History. The things they’re doing — they’re spearheading this McCarthyite campaign, and the things they’re saying about one of the preeminent scholars of Jewish history in the United States today, they’re so unhinged. I don’t want dialogue with these people. 

Speaking of that, you get a lot of shit from the Jewish right: Commentary’s John Podhoretz called you a kapo, meaning a Jew who cooperated with Nazis; The New York Times’s Bret Stephens called your work “grotesque” and “wretched.” How do you feel about those kinds of remarks? 

I think they’re despicable, but they’re entitled to their views. “Grotesque” and “wretched” is fine, actually. “Kapo” is inexcusable — although I’ve been using it lately. However, I think when I’ve been using it, talking about people who are normalizing Nazism in the United Staes, it has much more relevance and accuracy than calling me a kapo for doing a comic that was a cry of anguish after a Palestinian boy was burnt alive. That’s literally why Podhoretz called me a kapo.

But the larger issue is, these are the people who have been defining Jewish authenticity for the past decades in the United States, and they’ve been complicit in narrowing the boundaries of authenticity vis-à-vis non-Zionist or non-Orthodox Jews — particularly non-Zionists, or even critical Zionists, using terms like “self-hatred” and even sometimes “anti-Semitic.” And that’s been the norm. It’s been more extreme in the past 10 to 20 years, but it has roots in the stuff I talk about in the introduction, which is the denigration of the diaspora in place since the origin of Zionist thought.

In terms of goals for the comics, I want to pillory these kinds of people so people know they have zero legitimacy to be telling the majority of Jews that they are not worthy and that they are not legitimate. If these people are going to be saying these horrific things, I’m going to be coming at them and essentially demanding that they stop being trusted with the ability to define the rest of us.

Because you’re critical of Israel and Zionism and you critique Jewish figures — often harshly, and often representing them in physically grotesque ways — you’ve been accused of self-hatred and even anti-Semitism, which are charges the Jewish right likes to lob at the Jewish left. But you suggest in the introduction to Diaspora Boy that your work is, in part, a product of pride in Jewishness and what you call “Jewish confidence.” Could you speak about that tension between these accusations of self-hatred and your experience, in your life and work, of just the opposite?

I think one of the things that infuriates my critics is that I refuse to let them define Judaism for me. The whole idea of “self-hatred” is that you know what my self is, and already you’re defining my self as Zionist and, ultimately, Orthodox. That’s basically the subtext to the slur. If I say that authentic Judaism is secular, early 20th-century socialism, then John Podhoretz and Abe Foxman are self-loathing. If you just look at the majority of American Jews, they are more like Bernie Sanders than Joe Lieberman, in terms of secular versus Orthodox, or non-nationalistic versus nationalistic, or moral versus corrupt. There are all these articles that keep coming, saying that Bernie Sanders isn’t talking about his Judaism enough, or contrasting him with Joe Lieberman as the American Jewish icon, because — because why? Because Lieberman wears a yarmulke? Because he lends his name to extremist movements, like Christians United for Israel?

To me that’s not Judaism, and for the press and even the Jewish community to implicitly assume that these extremes are our norms — that is what is self-loathing, that is when we become self-hating. We’re not self-hating naturally. We’re only self-hating when we borrow the view of Judaism of the John Podhoretzes of the world. And so I think one of the things that just pisses them off, and it’s why they have to grab at all of their ad hominems, is because I refuse to let them define me. And not just me — I refuse to accept their definitions of American Judaism. And when they do try to define us, I pillory them.

It really is absurd. It’s just amazing to me that the vast majority of American Jews are progressively inclined, and our spokespeople and our arbiters of authenticity are on the right side of the spectrum. They’re not elected — they’re just self-proclaimed leaders. It’s like that quote from Abe Foxman in the comic “It Happened on Halloween,” saying, “I don’t represent. I lead.” That’s damn true, because none of these people represent us.

It’s like, if Clarence Thomas — it’s a faulty analogy, but just for the sake of an unrepresentative person — if Clarence Thomas was considered, you know, the “lead” African American, the embodiment of what it means to be African American. That’s preposterous, in terms of voting patterns alone. But that’s the way it is in the Jewish world. John Podhoretz is our Clarence Thomas.

As an American Jew who was raised in a liberal Reform congregation and who’s engaged to someone who wasn’t raised Jewish, I shared on a visceral level what I felt was your anger at those limited representations of Jewish authenticity. Your work is very analytical, but do you see it as coming out of that emotional space as well?

Yeah, and we haven’t really talked about the art itself, but I think it reflects that emotion. I’m not saying it’s deliberate, but the packed panels and the intense black-and-white art reflect that emotional and visceral approach, as well as the shtetl environment that I’m trying to capture, in terms of the multiplicity of voices and the cascading bodies and forms.

What was it like to compile 10 years of work and see it all together? Did thinking of the comics as all part of a book, rather than spread out across various issues of various publications, make you think of the body of work as a different kind of thing?

Yes. As much as I might have conceived of it as a single body of work when I was working on it, it was only when it came out in book form and I actually held it in my hands and went through it that I could note certain aspects that I might not have seen otherwise, in terms of evolution, or just changing … I don’t know, ideology? Early on in the comics, I was much more optimistic — not optimistic, but I believed more in the possibility of a workable solution to what’s happening in the Middle East. And I noticed that a lot of my early work was intra-communally Jewish, but it started getting more and more about Israel itself. And except for, like, “Dawn of the Chimpanzee,” it wasn’t really exclusively about Israel itself so much early on. But especially with the Gaza War in 2014 — those were all about Israel. And I know a lot of people became activists during that period. That’s actually when IfNotNow [an American Jewish anti-Occupation movement] emerged.

So it’s interesting, that kind of evolution. I was in this whirlpool of events, and they seem to have crescendoed during the Gaza War, and then my comics were largely about what was going on there. And then there was the aftermath, and the continuing shock and outrage that Netanyahu has been normalized by American Jewish leaders for his entire history in office. And the book kind of ends with that.

The other thing that’s interesting is that I wrote the introduction and put everything together during the election cycle but before the actual election. I thought Trump was a buffoon who wouldn’t win, but I still saw him as dangerous. I also saw any Jewish support of Trump to be a total shonda [disgrace], but I didn’t know how far it would go — that he would actually come into office, and there would be people like Mort Klein who are trying to normalize this stuff. But I did realize, once the book was out, that it was coming out at this precarious moment in American and Jewish history. It sort of expresses horror that American Jewish leaders were normalizing the same kind of bigoted demagoguery in Israel that we now see in the United States today. And there was responsibility there, and we have not accounted for it. And we need to account for it. And I feel like my book captures and reflects what led up to this in terms of the Jewish community. And again, it’s like: What the hell was going on?

I’m pretty young, and maybe it’s a vice of youth to overestimate the importance of one’s time, but it seems to me that, following the rise of the right and Netanyahu in Israel and Trump here, this is a major moment of reckoning for liberal Zionism in American Jewish communities. Reading Diaspora Boy, which felt like reliving the last decade of the relationship between American Jews and Israel, reinforced that feeling. Does it seem that way to you? 

To me it’s a reckoning, but there are many sub-reckonings going on, and liberal Zionism would be maybe one of them. But to me it’s a much, much larger and broader reckoning. We’re in a cataclysm right now, basically. And that’s one of the reasons that, for some people, discourse might be important now. But for me, it’s horrifying that people who helped pave the way toward where we are are still in leadership positions. So the reckoning I see is this fissure. I think of Gershom Scholem’s On Jews and Judaism in Crisis. The subtitle of my book — Comics on Crisis in America and Israel — is a nod to his reference to crisis.

This is a huge rupture, basically. I really think that in crisis comes opportunity, and we have an opportunity now to set things straight, but it takes some serious work and ferocity. We finally have a moment of clarity now of where we’ve been heading, and we need to take advantage of that moment to stop normalizing fascism by the most definitive measures possible. That’s why when people say, “Can you convince your opponents?” I’m like, “We’re beyond that.” We’re in a crisis right now. This is not the time to all sit down and try to hear each other’s voices. Because the other voices brought us to this horrifying point. I don’t know if I’m sounding too insane right now …

No, I don’t think so.

I just get really angry, even thinking about this shit.

How do you see your work fitting into that response to the crisis? I totally get the idea of not being interested in dialoguing with the people you’re critiquing. But are there people you’re interested in persuading? Or are you more interested in provoking and inspiring? Who do you hope to be speaking to, and what do you hope to be doing for them? 

I don’t hope to convince the other side at all. With these kind of comics, I don’t even think it’s within the tools of the medium, at least the way I use it. Since we’re in this moment of clarity, if this collection can shine a light on the past 10 years and help us see how we got here, and it can be a galvanizing force for either younger people or people who are already stunned by what is going on and want to find a way out of it, then that would be a success for me. That’s what I would aspire to. Because I’m not interested in convincing the other side, but I am interested in inspiring and giving strength to our side. 

In his foreword to your book, Peter Beinart writes, “Eli Valley’s cartoons are outrageous and absurd. That’s because we’re living at an outrageous and absurd moment in American Jewish life.” That seems truer by the day. The president is a white supremacist who won’t condemn Nazis; meanwhile, major Jewish groups didn’t speak out against Steve Bannon so as not to upset donors, and Sebastian Gorka, who backed an anti-Semitic militia, is touring Israel and praying at the Western Wall. Going beyond the Jewish world, Trump is a caricature made flesh. We’re living in this truly absurd, caricaturish time … 

Dystopia.

Yeah, absolutely. So how does a satirist — and particularly a Jewish satirist — work in this environment?

It’s a good question, and it’s difficult, because reality keeps exceeding satire. It used to be that it was mildly like satire. But now it exceeds it in cartoonish form. Cartoonish almost in a negative sense of the term — it’s like a cliché cartoon. Veep writers have complained about that, that there’s no way to be any more hyperbolic or satirical than reality is now. And so, it is difficult.

The other thing is, you know, when I would use swastikas — there were only, like, two comics in my book where I actually made references to Nazism. And now it’s all over my work. But back then, it was an extreme example, and you wouldn’t want to go there, because it would deflate the satire. But at this point … It started in July 2016, when I drew Trump drawing a swastika on himself and saying, “Now you’re gonna misinterpret this too.” That was after he pillaged white supremacist websites for campaign materials, like the one with Hillary on top of the pile of cash. So then I was stretching it to make a point. But now, especially after Charlottesville, the swastika is not very hyperbolic. That which was once used for satirical effect is now literal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in terms of the purpose of a comic — you just have to go in a slightly different direction with it. Reality is more horrifying now, so satire of reality will be more horrifying. Not because it’s hyperbolic, but because it’s literal. 

In his review of Diaspora Boy in Haaretz, Josh Lambert writes, “For more than a decade, Valley has self-consciously drawn on the history of caricature to portray specific Jews as repulsive grotesques.” I think that’s astute, and I’d add that you also seem interested in caricaturing caricatures, as in the titular Diaspora Boy, who’s based on Zionist ideas about Jews in the Diaspora as physically, spiritually, and culturally deficient. This seems related to the right’s criticism that your comics are anti-Semitic. How do you think about the history of representations of Jews in your work?

That’s a big question. There’s a lot of ways to approach it. One of them is: I refuse to let the Jewish figure be defined by anti-Semites.

I have a book of Doug Marlette’s cartoons from the ’80s, Shred This Book, in which he talks about how there were complaints after he did a comic about Israel and Lebanon. Jewish groups were in his office, and they were literally comparing the sizes of the noses in his comics, the Jewish ones versus the non-Jewish ones, to determine whether he was anti-Semitic. And so I joke about that, because I have gotten that, people claiming that my comics are anti-Semitic caricatures, and/or measuring the noses … actually, I am a little bit self-conscious about making the noses more diminutive, to be honest, because I don’t want to give them ammunition. But that’s the only reason. I don’t want to deflate my point because they’re able to say it’s [Nazi newspaper] Der Stürmer.

But they’re going to say it’s Der Stürmer no matter what. That’s the thing. I can draw teddy bears. One of my comics is kittens as the IDF. They would say that’s Der Stürmer. Their point is not that my images are anti-Semitic. Their point is that I am anti-Likud, and to them anything that is anti-Likud comes out of Nazi propaganda. Those complaints are much more reflective of the people making them than anything else, because the only people who make those complaints are people who have normalized the rise of authoritarianism in Israel.

So, that’s one way to approach it. But, you know, I am inspired by grotesque art. I like it. It’s just the way I draw. My visual style is my visual style, and anyone who has seen my drawings of Trump knows that it’s not directed, visually, at Jews more than at anyone else. I don’t even like saying that, though, because it sounds like I’m being defensive, and I don’t think I should have to be defensive about this at all.

As a side point, I have noticed that I just draw Trump so ridiculously now that often I don’t have room for a nose. The lips just go so high, and then I have to throw in two eyes, and there’s really no room for a nose after that. So there’s a few comics where he just doesn’t have a nose. That doesn’t help my point, because he’s not Jewish. But still.

I’m curious about one more minor thread in your work, concerning Kafka. Two of the comics in Diaspora Boy, “Metamorphosis” and “The Trial,” reference Kafka stories, and one of them has a reference, also, to “Before the Law.” And on your Instagram, you pointed out that Diaspora Boy’s cover is modeled on Kafka cover art by Ottomar Starke.

Yeah. The Metamorphosis cover, actually. The title page.

Right. So I’m wondering about Kafka’s importance to you personally and as an artist. 

Kafka is enormously important. Years ago I wrote a Jewish travel guide to Prague and other cities in the region. At the time, I was really into Kafka. It comes out a little in my work now, probably more subconsciously than it did then. Then I was reading all of his Letters to Felice, I was nuts, literally, when I was living in Prague. It’s a cliché, I know. But to this day, everything we say about Kafka’s a cliché, since his writings are seen, with 20/20 hindsight, as a horrifying prediction of what was to come, both with the Holocaust and Soviet tyranny, living in a police state. But in terms of influence, there’s the horror and the grotesquery, the allegory and hyperbole, the elevation of pulpy narrative, the Jewish obsessions, the generational tensions, but also the humor. I mean, Kafka’s stories were also meant to be funny, which is something that is not often appreciated today. Philip Roth called him a “sit-down comic.” If you read The Metamorphosis, it’s insanely funny that Gregor’s just trying to figure out how to get to work when he’s in insect form.

That being said, it’s dangerous to compare my comics directly to Kafka, as they’re much more influenced by MAD comics than by Kafka himself. But it’s possible that on some subconscious level, certain aspects owe a debt. Culturally, working in this period of enormous transformation for Jews and in Europe more broadly, I found Kafka a sort of guide to turning history and memory into a narrative, into art that becomes even more compelling than the tradition it replaces.

And there are specific things, like authenticity. Kafka was obsessed with Galician Jewish refugees in Prague at the beginning of World War I. He considered them to be the embodiment of authenticity. And in his diaries, he writes about them. He talks about how if he could be anybody in the world, he’d just want to be this little Jewish boy he remembered seeing, seemingly free of worry. He idealized them as true Jews, essentially. And that definitely stuck with me, because I’ve done similar things. I’m not proud of that, but we’re always trying to deprogram ourselves from what we have learned as authenticity when we were young. That’s one of the reasons I love that comment on “Photo Stroll,” where she calls me out for romanticizing “an earlier breed of Jew,” as I called it in the comic. It’s the same kind of thing, just thinking that they’re the authentic ones, because implicit in that is that we are somehow deficient. And honestly, if there’s no other point to Diaspora Boy, it’s to say we are not deficient. We are authentic. Honestly, it’s crazy that that should be a radical thought. That should be self-evident. But it needs to be said.

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Nathan Goldman (nathangoldman.com) is a writer whose work has appeared in Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review OnlineThe Millions, and other publications.


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