It was perhaps inevitable that Hanoch Piven would bring his graphic playfulness to the words of the Hebrew Bible. After he had lampooned many of the great leaders of our own time, it seemed only appropriate that he would focus his attention and his wit on the great figures of the past, in this instance on his collective Jewish past in Dream Big, Laugh Often: and More Great Advice from the Bible.
After all, there are, alongside all the serious words of the Bible, moments of pure merriment. There are even times when God Himself joins in. He calls Abraham and Sarah’s child Yitzhak meaning “One who laughs.” Although what Isaac had to laugh about is a moot point.
Whatever the reasons, Piven, with the accompanying commentary by Shira Hecht-Koller, finds material aplenty to illustrate in his unique style, taking found objects and creating an image from them. It is a form of graphic association (like Freud’s free association, only with visuals). Some of these associations are easier to grasp, such as the beard of Moses made from a matza, or the mouth of Balaam which is a miniature toilet, appropriate for the foul language he uses against his suffering donkey.
Satirical art alongside biblical advice
Neither does Piven forget his skill in rendering political figures and integrating them into a biblical story. His take on Balaam is a figure very much like the late and unlamented Libyan dictator colonel Muammar Gaddafi, here given, in addition to his signature sunglasses, a deflated balloon for a nose, and the said toilet bowl for a mouth.
Similarly, the prophetess Devora takes on the persona of a lady who resembles the late judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, complete with a gavel and lit candles for hands, suggesting that she was able to light the way in many of her juridical decisions. She has a knife for a mouth, pointing to her sharp, incisive judgments.
When it comes to David, the text reads “David the shepherd wasn’t big or strong, but he walked with confidence. When the giant Goliath came looking for a fight he seemed unbeatable... So tall. So big! All the things that David wasn’t... But David knew he didn’t have to be Goliath... He just had to be David... And he knew he had at least one talent that Goliath did not have....”
Goliath in this crucial scene is depicted as a man made out of clunky bits of stone and iron, his feet comprised of hammers that presumably assist him in treading all over his opponents. His mouth is a fret saw with which he excoriated the Children of Israel prior to his final battle. Red-headed David is supplied with red peppers (the ones that burn if you bite them) as his hair and a nose made of an inner-brain structure suggesting how, when it comes to a contest between brains and brawn, it is no contest. A very Jewish take on human conflict, past and present.
Piven’s Jonah is an interesting compilation of bits and pieces – a flipper constitutes his body, while his limbs are measuring tapes – perhaps references to the 40 days in which the wicked city of Nineveh is to be destroyed, plus the three days and nights during which the forlorn prophet is incarcerated in the belly of the big fish, which itself is formed out of a fishing net.
Jonah’s mouth, moreover, is an anchor – pointing to the fact that the decamping prophet is tied to his fate whether he likes it or not.
And so on, each page brings forth further puzzles and food for thought in such a delightful way that, although aimed at younger people, adults can also derive much pleasure and knowledge from it. A great way of introducing the Bible at any age. ■
Dream Big, Laugh Often: And More Great Advice from the BibleHanoch PivenFarrar, Straus, Giroux (New York)48 pages, $19.99