New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff tonight (3/24) is kicking off a New Center For Arts and Culture series with a talk on cartoons about Judaism. He was featured in Saturday's Globe talking generally about cartooning, but for the religion blog, I wanted to hear more about his thoughts about making fun of Jews, so I gave him a call:
Q: What distinguishes cartoons about Jews?
A: There arenít very many cartoons about Jews. If you look back at the history of the New Yorker, you will see, especially in the '20s and '30s, when New York was changing, there were a number of, shall we say, interesting cartoons showing that change. I don't think the cartoons were anti-Semitic, but they would perhaps be looked at now in that way -- they recognized the changing nature of the city and the increasing place, especially in commerce, that Jews had in the city.
Q: What are cartoons about Jews like now?
A: In general cartoons poke fun at generic religion. So I have one with a guy leaving church, who says to the pastor, "I know he works in mysterious ways, but if I worked that mysteriously, I'd get fired.''
Q: Is there a special sensitivity to cartoons about Jews?
A: I think thereís a special sensitivity, in general, to cartoons about specific religions. New Yorker cartoons, in general, are not mean cartoons. Much of the humor in society is the humor of ridicule. But our cartoons are not the cartoons of self-satisfaction, but of self-dissatisfaction, and that makes them almost unique now in American culture, which is so polarized, and in which humor is basically a form of mockery in which the other is the fool, or the person whose balloon has to be deflated. We do that too, but most of the cartoonists do cartoons that are in some sense autobiographical. When you look at Jewish humor, for the most part, the jokes are quite layered -- they build up and eventually show some sort of logical inconsistency -- and a lot are philosophical. (In the broader culture) a majority of jokes have an aggressive component, a scatological component, or a sexual component, but Jewish jokes work through understanding the absurdities of the logic.
Q: Are there a lot of Jewish cartoonists at the New Yorker?
A: Jews are a tiny portion of the population, but are very well represented in the humor industry. Many of the cartoonists at the New Yorker are Jewish -- Iím Jewish, there's Roz Chast, and David Sipress. A classic cartoonist who represents certainly a Jewish sensibility is Roz Chast -- a real inward-looking sensibility, and the world as a worrisome, neurotic, yet humorous place, a sensibility which combines anxiety with humor.
Q: There have been several controversial covers depicting Jews.
A: I'm not involved in the cover, so that's not my controversy. But one thing everybody has learned is how intersected all media are. And to some extent, covers are different than cartoons -- they make much stronger satirical, even editorial, statements than the cartoons do.
Mankoff's talk takes place at 7 p.m. tonight at Temple Israel in Boston.
(Cartoon ©Robert Mankoff/The New Yorker Magazine.)