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The First Kosher Comic Book Blazed a Trail for Orthodox Outreach

It wasn’t as big as Batman, but ‘Mendy and the Golem’ gave Jewish kids a taste of pop culture—with a rabbinical seal of approval

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(Photo courtesy of Leibel Estrin)
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We live in exciting times for comic-book fans. Batman, Spider-Man, and Avengers movies rake in box-office gold; even Marvel’s obscure Guardians of the Galaxy (a raccoon marksman! a sentient tree!) will have a big-budget film debut on Aug. 1. Mild-mannered Life With Archie stirred up buzz this summer by having its titular character killed off by a homophobic gunman. Thor is being re-introduced as a woman in comic books this October, while Captain America is being replaced by his black partner Sam (a.k.a. The Falcon), who will don the iconic red-white-and-blue suit himself.

Comics have changed with the times, but they’ve always made for gripping storytelling. And, as Tablet has previously discussed, most of the early superheroes were created by Jews and packed with Jewish subtext—brainiac/wimp persecution, the need to “pass,” the possession of hidden strength, the urge to do tikkun olam and fix a broken world. Jews created the first comic book (Max “Charlie” Gains, ne Ginsburg, produced Famous Funnies, a compilation of newspaper strips sold as a book in 1933), the first graphic novel (Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, which featured Orthodox Jews), the first Comic Con, and the first comic-book direct-distribution network. Check out Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero for a more extensive overview.

Personally, I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to comic books. I’m fascinated by sequential art as a way of telling stories, and as a former folklore and mythology major, I like the history and common themes of quest, loss, and isolation. But I’m annoyed at the sexism, misogyny, and stupidity on display in so many superhero stories. I tend to prefer alternative comics by women that play with genre conventions and are funny and personal. (Oy, I gotta name names? Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner, Roberta Gregory, Diane Noomin, Mimi Pond, and Vanessa Davis, to name just a few.)

There’s a saying, “start as you intend to continue.” And I think my earliest exposure to comic books set the tone for what I still enjoy (and want to give to my children) today. The first comic book I ever read was Mendy and the Golem, an Orthodox Jewish kids’ comic. It was goofy and funny; its gender politics were (perhaps surprisingly) evolved; it had tons of sly pop-cultural references. And it was personally approved by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who knew a surprising amount about comics.

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I remember the excitement that greeted the appearance of Mendy and the Golem in the lunchroom of Providence Hebrew Day School in the early 1980s. We went nuts. PHDS was a serious place. We studied serious Jewish texts. Pop culture was frowned upon. But here we were allowed to read a comic full of jokes, adventure, and silliness. The issues were drawn with the rounded, bubble-letter-filled, Ziggy-esque style of comic art popular in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Each issue had a story about siblings Mendy and Rivkie and their pet golem, Sholem. They foiled cattle rustlers at the O.K./O.U. Corral (get it? O.K. and O.U., two different designations of kashrut?), battled the evil robot Oy Vader, and confounded Captain Video, a criminal mastermind who controlled children’s minds through video games. In addition to stories about Talmudic sages and facts about Judaism, the books included coloring pages, connect-the-dots, mazes, pun-filled Q&As with Mendy, and word-find puzzles (one installment, in which you had to circle the names of kosher animals, included the options “Chevrolet” and “enchilada”).

I can’t think of any other truly fun religious Jewish kids’ media from my years at day school. Today, though, there’s a ton of clever outreach and playful pedagogy out there in a variety of media—Orthodox Jewry, and Chabad/Lubavitch in particular, has been great at using the Internet to its fullest: There are umpteen music videos online, downloadable Passover coloring pages, and even dreidel apps for smartphones. But Mendy was a real trailblazer.

I tracked down Leibel Estrin, the original writer for Mendy. He now works primarily as a chaplain for a supermax prison in Pennsylvania and for the Aleph Institute—a religious organization that provides social and spiritual services to the military and incarcerated people and their families. When Mendy began in 1981, though, Estrin was a freelance copywriter. A Chabad community leader named Rabbi Shneur Zalmen Zirkind had the idea of promoting Jewish values to kids using a comic-book format. Zirkind approached a wealthy businessman, Rabbi Yaakov Pinson, about funding the project. Pinson hired Estrin, and Estrin brought in artist Dovid Sears. Sears and Estrin were both baalei teshuvah, people who’d become increasingly religious as adults. Both were also well-versed in mainstream pop culture. In fact, Estrin had studied it in the country’s most famous academic program in popular culture, at Bowling Green State University.

Estrin worried he didn’t have sufficient moral authority or religious heft for the gig. “I liked the idea of helping to introduce mitzvahs in a non-threatening, non-didactic way, but I didn’t think I was qualified,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “But they said they’d have everything reviewed by rabbis and teachers to make sure the content was kosher.” Indeed, the Mendy team submitted every issue for approval by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), Chabad’s longtime leader.

With his background, Estrin knew from superheroes. But, he told me, he didn’t want to create one. “I did not want kids jumping off couches screaming, ‘I’m a NinJew!’ ” he recalled. Then one day, sitting on the train, Estrin had a brainstorm: He’d create a baby golem, a hero instead of a monster, who would help two regular kids do mitzvot. As a baby, the golem wasn’t scary, and he was as much a hindrance as a help. Comedy gold.

Estrin also wanted to focus on Rivkie as much as her brother Mendy. “People look at yiddishkeit as a male-dominated way of life,” he told me, “and I wanted to impress upon everyone that it’s a team-dominated way of life. Everyone has roles and responsibilities.” Mendy and Rivkie’s mother is seen fixing a car in one issue; in another, she rides off with the menfolk to save the world.

The original intent was for the comic to serve as outreach for nonobservant kids. “But we found there was a need—or at least an audience—in the religious community for something that looked somewhat like non-Jewish stuff, but with Jewish content,” Estrin said. “Instead of yelling, ‘I want Batman!’ they’d make do with this.”

Estrin emphasized that Mendy was not an authorized production of Chabad but an independent attempt to support the Rebbe’s promotion of Jewish education. (“People identified Mendy as coming from Chabad, but we had no affiliation—we were just a loose cannon on a rolling deck, hopefully pointed in the right direction,” Estrin told me.) The series ran from 1981 to 1986, encompassing 19 issues, each with a print run of 5,000. Estrin estimates that 80 percent were distributed in the tri-state area, but Mendy got excited letters from kids in Cleveland, Miami, and Providence, too.

Despite the comic’s popularity and the Rebbe’s seal of approval, not everyone was thrilled. “Some of the observant community felt this was one step above heresy,” Estrin recalled. “Especially since my characters were not serious. The idea of humanizing and personalizing sages, as opposed to glorifying them beyond recognition, seemed to them flippant.”

Eventually, Chabad came out with its own officially sanctioned comic strip, “The Adventures of Yaakov and Yosef,” which ran in its own children’s magazine, Moshiach Times. It was drawn by veteran artist Joe Kubert, who did the secular comics “Sgt. Rock,” “Hawkman,” and “Tarzan.” Moshiach Times was free to audiences, and Mendy cost money … and before long, Mendy folded.

It’s not surprising that Chabad struck out on its own. The Rebbe was always savvy about reaching American Jews steeped in pop culture. He had a significant secular education, studying math and philosophy at the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin. And according to Joseph Telushkin’s book Rebbe, he knew from comics. Shortly after the Rebbe arrived in America on one of the very last passenger ships to get out of Europe during the Holocaust (the Serpa Pinta, which left Lisbon in 1941), he was appointed to run the social service, educational, and publication divisions of Chabad. In 1942, he told the editor of Talks and Tales, the Chabad children’s magazine, that “Curiosity Corner,” a column of little facts about Judaism “zol oys’zehn vee Ripley”—should look like Ripley. (As in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.) In 1951, he suggested that Talks and Tales introduce a recurring adventure-story hero to teach moral lessons, and “ess zol oys’zehn vee Dick Tracy”—he should look like Dick Tracy. (Rabbi Jack Abramovitz, the Torah Content Editor for the Orthodox Union as well as a comic-book fan, wrote a fascinating piece for the O.U. about the history of the use of comics in Orthodox education, pointing out that Christian publishers have long done similarly, with efforts like chick tracts and licensing Archie characters for a comic about Christian faith and values.)

Mendy was dormant until 2002, when the comic book was revived by Tani Pinson, the son of the original publisher. Rather than a goofy, funny educational tool, the new venture was envisioned as a straight-up action-adventure comic, much more polished and professional (and conventional), without the educational focus. To do the art, Pinson hired comics legend Stan Goldberg. Goldberg, who was inducted into the National Cartoonists Society Hall of Fame in 2012, worked on “Spider-Man,” “Fantastic Four,” and “Ironman,” but is best known for Archie Comics, where he drew 250 consecutive issues starting in the mid-1960s. (In the grand tradition of comic-book publishers treating comic-book creators badly, he was forced out in 2011.)

Goldberg laughed, remembering the challenges of drawing an Orthodox comic. “I had to watch myself,” he told me, “making sure the skirt was below the knee and Mommy and Daddy weren’t holding hands when they were walking.” Goldberg worked on a concurrent newspaper “fun page” starring Mendy that was syndicated in 40 Jewish newspapers in North America and Australia. “I think we did a good job,” he said. But he wasn’t convinced that Mendy comic books were a smart economic move, what with the vagaries of distribution and sales. “I liked the newspaper,” he said. “It was puzzles, it was ‘find the bagel,’ it talked about Jewish holidays and taught Hebrew words. I had a Zayde who read the Forward, and we kids sat with him while he read. I liked the idea of creating something a grandfather could share with his grandchildren.”

But Pinson really wanted a comic book. So, Goldberg gave up the artistic helm to Ernie Colón, who worked on “Casper the Friendly Ghost”, “Richie Rich,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Green Lantern,” as well as the official Anne Frank House graphic biography. Still, the revamped Mendy lasted only a few issues, quality of the artwork notwithstanding.

Today, Mendy is in limbo. Estrin is working on a book called The Wisdumb of Sholom the Golem, a takeoff on Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Chabad runs other comics on its website. But the original kosher comic book has had lasting impact. Estrin pointed me to Camp Gan Israel, the Lubavitcher movement’s summer camp, founded by the Rebbe in 1957, where Mendy and the Golem (the original version) was the theme for last year’s Color War. Orthodox schools still use Mendy in their curricula. “In an age of graphic and hyper-realistic violence,” Estrin said, “there’s something about innocence and silliness that people of all ages find refreshing.”

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The First Kosher Comic Book Blazed a Trail for Orthodox Outreach

It wasn’t as big as Batman, but ‘Mendy and the Golem’ gave Jewish kids a taste of pop culture—with a rabbinical seal of approval