Dry Bones has been tickling readers’ funny bones for the past 40 years in The Jerusalem Post and scores of other newspapers.
The internationally syndicated editorial comic strip, featuring the affable key character Shuldig, has been ribbing politicos and their constituents for decades, taking a gentle poke at the Jewish world and the human condition.
The man behind the outspoken cartoon characters is Yaakov Kirschen, a native New Yorker who made aliya in 1971. The 75-year-old cartoonist lives near Kfar Shmaryahu with his wife, Sali, an artist who signs her paintings Sali Ariel.
Her colorful artwork adorns the walls of their sprawling two-story home in the upscale Herzliya Pituah community (“We rent it, we don’t own it,” Kirschen is quick to point out), with predominant themes of flowers, horses and Tel Aviv scenes. The couple’s home also abounds with eclectic collections that range from model trains and hand fans to magnifying glasses, food scales and exquisite Czech cranberry stemware.
One step up from the open-plan living room and kitchen is the work area, dominated by a long drafting table. It is there that the award-winning cartoonist brings his Dry Bones characters to life, imbuing them with incisive insights and social comment.
It is there, too, that Kirschen created his latest ambitious product, The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah.
Why a Haggada, and why now? Kirschen is effusive in his explanation.
“Dry Bones has appeared in the papers for 40 years. As it is an editorial comic strip, people read the news and then look to see what Dry Bones has to say about it. It as if I am having a conversation with the reader. Dry Bones is a cartoon that speaks to English-speaking Jews. It is a way of bringing people together,” he says.
“So it occurred to me that when we read the Haggadah, it is the story of our people, and we all sit together to read it. Long after I’m gone, people will still continue to do so. I wanted to make a serious contribution to the world of Judaica, so I thought I’d do a Dry Bones commentary on the Haggadah like I do a Dry Bones commentary in newspapers,” he says.
“Some 89.9 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel or in English-speaking countries. A Haggadah can talk to 90% of Jews in the world. Done in the 21st century, it is speaking to us. But I wanted to communicate in a way that if the readers look deeper, they will see that the cartoons convey many levels of meaning,” he says.
“It’s not a cartoon Haggadah,” Kirschen stresses. “It is a serious commentary presented in a subtle way, speaking to readers with the same approach [with which] Dry Bones has spoken to newspaper readers for the past 40 years. I deliver the message under the radar,” he says. “It is a Haggadah whose pages are framed with Dry Bones cartoon commentary. The layout is modeled on the way a page of Talmud is structured; a uniquely Jewish concept that allows the reader to understand the commentary as more than just footnotes,” he explains.
“The Haggadah is a real history of the Jewish people and a guide to the future. It is the one book that gets passed down from family to family, generation to generation,” says the father of three and grandfather of eight.
“It keeps tradition alive throughout all periods of Jewish history. It tells the real story of the Jewish generation. It is a legacy of continuity,” he says. “How many Jews read the Talmud or the Zohar or the Bible? But if you’re a Jew, whether you are religious or not, you will find yourself at a Seder table with other Jews,” says Kirschen.
“It is a script for the performing of the Seder ritual. It is read aloud with others and in the language you speak, so you understand it. This is supposed to be a book you sit down with and learn from so you’ll know who you are and how to teach your children. You were once the kid at the table, and now you’re the old guy leading the Seder,” he says.
“Not everyone has a Siddur or a Machzor in his home, but everybody has Haggadot,” he continues.
“The fact that it is not read in a synagogue but at a family gathering helps to define the Jewish People as an extended family. There are Four Children, four types of Jews, people – we all belong at the Seder table. And we should have the idea that we are all part of the past, the present and the future,” he asserts.
As for the timing of the 92-page Hebrew and English- language publication, 40 is the charm.
“Forty years in the desert, 40 years of my being in Israel and 40 years of Dry Bones, hence the Haggadah to mark the occasion,” says Kirschen. “We began work on it on the last day of November 2012, so our reason for printing a special first edition at the end of November 2013 is to celebrate that anniversary,” he explains.
In fact, Kirschen admits, “I [naively] thought the work would take me about a month,” but it ended up taking more like a year to complete the Passover publication.
Much more complicated than he anticipated, the process was long and arduous but ultimately extremely gratifying.
For one thing, Kirschen discovered that there was there was no standard copy of the Haggadah, let alone a standard English translation. To secure a kosher Ashkenazi Hebrew text, Kirschen collaborated with Jerusalem-based Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein, and then proceeded to translate the material into English.
“Making the Haggadah relevant for today doesn’t mean changing the text but creating a commentary that draws everybody into it,” says Kirschen.
As he wanted his Haggadah to be appropriate for all Seder participants, Kirschen took great pains to make the text as gender-friendly as possible or, as he puts it, “not gender biased but not gender neutral, either,” including the references to the Almighty. So, for example, instead of the Four Sons in the text, he talks about the Four Children.
And when referring to God, he uses such terms as “Ruler of the Universe” rather than “King of the Universe.”
But, as he explains, “I did what felt right.” His prime objective is for participants at the Seder to enjoy the experience and have the Haggadah be a fun and interactive tool rather than a mundane manual to rush through so they can get to the meal.
To that end, his Haggadah is filled with entertaining Dry Bones cartoons that stir the imagination and, hopefully, stimulate conjecture and conversation.
To get the ball rolling, on the cover of The Dry Bones Haggadah (designed by Jerusalem book designer S. Kim Glassman), Shuldig is sitting at the head of the Seder table and a question from offside reads: “Why is this night different from all others?” To which he replies, “I’m glad you asked!”
Although the Hebrew word seder means “order,” Kirschen says that many people don’t realize that the Seder has a specific number of steps (15), so he itemizes them on page 11 of the preface so the participants can see exactly what stages they have to pass through (and not pass over!).
“This should be the Haggadah for the next generation,” says Kirschen. “In it, I speak to everyone at the table – the wise, the wicked, the simple and those who just want to get to the food. In the cartoons, I am appealing to all of them. This Haggadah is for everyone,” he says.
“Whether they are religious or not, they are sitting at the Seder table and need to feel like they belong,” he elaborates. “They are part of the people, part of the story. By using the cartoons as commentary, I want people to be drawn into the experience. Everything is designed so that every person at the Seder table will feel included,” he reiterates.
“Cartoons are much more complex than they appear,” he adds. “People think that cartoons are for kids, but in this era when people are reluctant to even read an article or a commentary, cartoons can say a lot in a little space. And my cartoons have more words than most,” he says.
To that end, every word, idea, symbol and graphic in his Haggadah is meticulously thought out, down to the last detail. Even the colors of the cartoons were carefully considered. With Ariel as his color consultant, and with S. Kim Glassman, the book’s talented graphic designer, Kirschen coordinated the tones and hues of the text and the images on each page to complement each other.
“This Haggadah is graphically coherent,” says Kirschen. “Every page is like a painting.” Bringing the ancient text into the digital age, The Dry Bones Haggadah will be available as a PDF as well.
“That way,” says Kirschen, “children can bring their iPads to the Seder table and follow right along.”
At a time when the print medium is losing its appeal, this format is a lot more practical and alluring, he explains. And if that means bringing an electronic device to the Seder table, so be it, he reasons. Even if a family’s sole Jewish observance is to have a Seder once a year, then let it be a convivial and meaningful experience, he says. No stranger to the cyber universe, the cartoonist has designed and devised a number of innovative computer games.
In its first print run, The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah is available only by ordering it in a pre-publication sale through the online Dry Bones store
. Each Haggadah of this first series will be signed by Kirschen and costs $36.
There is a reduction for bundles of multiple copies.
Kirschen raised the money to create the manuscript through a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign and is hoping to raise the funds to print it by pre-selling it online on the website. At this point more a labor of love than an entrepreneurial enterprise, the Passover publications will be packaged and posted by the couple themselves, no matter what part of the world the orders come from. When there is a second run they may engage the services of a distributor, but for now they are taking it one step at a time.
For people interested in Jewish continuity, The Dry Bones Haggadah could well be the most important book they read or give as a gift this year. Kirschen’s main concern in creating his kosher for Passover product was “How can I influence people who are reading this to have fun?”
For participants using Kirschen’s colorful, comprehensive and thought-provoking Haggada, there will be nothing dry about their Seder, thanks to Dry Bones.Yaakov Kirschen will be a guest speaker at the annual Animix Tel Aviv Festival on August 12 at 8 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, 2 Sprinzak Street. NIS 30. Tickets can be purchased at the door or by calling (03) 606-0800 ext. 1.