How many people do you know who love Latin as a language and include the expression “Oy Gevalt” in their artwork? It is that paradox, or rather, wide perspective, which makes Julius Kaplan (better known as “Jules”) so captivating. Another anomaly is his charismatic smile and relaxed disposition, despite the severe illness with which he lives.
As a youngster, Jules moved around the hinterland of South Africa, until the Kaplans eventually landed in Cape Town. His father, Dave, was a remarkable, fearless, charismatic leader of men. An outstanding sportsman, war hero and agnostic, Dave was “the proudest Jew” Jules ever knew. Jules was a laat lammetjie (an Afrikaans term for a child born years after his/her siblings), the youngest of four children. Although Dave passed away when Jules was only 25, they were very close, and in the course of our chat via Zoom to Melbourne, I find echoes of his father in Jules’ persona including a fresh, unconventional way of looking at the world.
I discovered Jules by chance when a mutual friend sent an essay to me that Jules had written about his dad. We all get to read a lot of stuff, but here was an articulate piece by a devoted son bringing an exceptional life to life, in the warmest, most evocative way. I soon discovered that I had just scratched the author’s creative surface.
The birth of a connection to Judaism
Julius Kaplan had no connection to Yiddishkeit until at the age of 23, he befriended a couple of guys in the Kollel at the Rondebosch Shul in Cape Town. One was the Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Steinhaus, and the other, a dedicated follower of Rav Shach and ex night clubber! Two years later he found himself at Kfar Chabad in Israel, studying and growing a long beard.
He happened to be back in Cape Town when his father passed away. His brother Morris, who was taking their mother Lee back to his adopted country Australia, suggested that Jules join them for a couple of months. Ironically, Morris and Lee are now in Israel and Jules has been in Australia ever since.
Jules had worked in a wide range of jobs, including kashrut supervisor, copywriter, luggage salesman, web designer et al until he found his calling in teaching English as a second language, which he did for eight years. For a further 10 years he managed language schools. He loved the teaching, “which was all about helping people and having some fun,” but the business side was “corporate and duplicitous.” Then corona kicked in. Ever the improviser, Jules offered his services as a content writer and editor. A number of his clients were rabbis who needed help articulating their spiritual messages.
But Jules found that he had time on his hands and stress in his system. He had a love and aptitude for drawing. “I would have studied art at school but by the time I got to class, all the seats were taken and I had to settle for German!”
Doodling: Anxiety relief-turned-weekly cartoons
He found that doodling was a great way to relieve his anxiety. He loved the dichotomy of Australian accented hassidim and began to sketch characters like the “Melbournishe Rebbe” and superhero, “Shtreimel Man.” Then his wife, Talya, came up with the idea of creating a weekly cartoon based on the Torah Portion, and Jules found focus for his creative mind and skillful hand.
Using a variety of markers, brush pens, pencils and fine liners, he developed a loose set of human and animal characters, with “speaking parts,” set against vividly colorful backgrounds, to create what he calls, “visual satires,” with a refreshing, humorous look at the weekly reading. They reflect a healthy knowledge of the sources, tell a story, and impart a message. He also incorporates popular culture. For example the “Behar” drawing features Freddy Mercury with side locks singing “I want to break free!”
One of my favorites is Va’eira, with Pharaoh wearing Nike shoes captioned, “Just do it!” Not confined to Parasha themes, his works include a hassid asking both a Beefeater at Buckingham Palace and the horn-hatted guy storming the White House, “Nice shtreimel. What kind of hassid are you?!”
Little did Jules know at the time that his levels of stress were soon to rise exponentially. That same year he turned 50, at which age the Australian health system sends a bowel cancer testing kit to its citizens. His father had died of the disease, so he took the test, and it returned positive. Further investigation revealed that the cancer had spread to his liver. You would never know, speaking to this laid back man with a friendly demeanor that in the past two years he has endured bouts of chemotherapy, multiple operations, shingles, corona and more. And through all this time he found the emotional, cerebral and physical energies needed to create his vibrant images.
Jules takes his religion seriously, but not so much himself. “God must have a sense of humor,” he says, “He created mankind!” He and Talya have three teenage daughters, all creative in their own ways. They attend a Lubavitch school and have come home with pictures of Moshe Rabeinu wearing a black hat. “How much more inspiration do you need?!,” he laughs.
Jules has a freewheeling, out of the box imagination, which Talya helps to balance with her sensibility.
Each of his images feature a character saying, “Oy Gevalt!” He explains that the “speaker” is looking at the scene from the outside. “Gevalt” may be a response to something awful or awesome, and Jules uses the expression to great effect. He signs his pieces, “Yudl,” inspired by his Hebrew name, Yehuda. (I had assumed that Yudl was derived from a Jewish Doodler. He takes the point.)
Jules likes to make people laugh, and through our conversation I find myself doing that time and again. “Even when you are in a dark place, it’s important to laugh,” he says. And he has been in many black holes, somehow retaining his sense of humor and philosophically positive outlook, all the while appreciating the small pleasures in life. “I have so much to live for,” he says. Future plans include publishing a book that includes midrashic- and hassidic-based commentaries, modern insights and cartoons.
His works are available for viewing on Instagram at “oygevaltcartoons,” and he has a dedicated group of followers who receive the weekly edition via Whatsapp.
It is common knowledge that much of the great works across all forms of art are born out of hardship and suffering. Jules Kaplan found his inspiration in adversity. Here’s hoping that he continues to amuse and enrich us with his colorful insights, in great health. ■
The writer is the author of Poetry in the Parasha, an anthology of poems inspired by the weekly Torah readings.