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
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.
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.”
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