I love that Jewish women abound in the artwork of children’s book author and cartoonist Syd Hoff. I was a fan of his classic “I Can Read” books in my Cold War-era childhood. But when I read the quirky stories to my sons I began to see a whole different message about gender that had escaped me in my own youth.
Hoff’s zaftig mama is everywhere in his made-in-Miami children’s books and the New Yorker cartoons he produced from 1929 to 1975—as are other archetypal female characters. There are young and innocent girls, tenement-dwelling street toughs, eligible maidens, sexy molls and buxom Bronx Jewish mothers. Hoff was portraying Jewish women realistically and unapologetically for a general readership.
The artist and author is most famous for the 1958 HarperCollins “I Can Read” book Danny and the Dinosaur. (Hoff bent to the times. In the 1970s age of equal opportunity he published Amy and the Dinosaur.) Now, on the 100th anniversary of King Features Syndicate, it is an occasion to remember Hoff’s two long-running cartoon strips: “Tuffy,” a four-frame strip which ran from 1939 to 1949 and “Laugh It Off,” a one-frame gag cartoon, which ran from 1950 to 1970.
Tuffy was a tough female tenement urchin. “Laugh It Off” was similar to Family Circus with its anecdotal, humorous, domestic scenes. Looked at as a whole, it becomes apparent that Hoff used this platform to explore and appreciate Jewish women as Jewish Americans were asserting themselves in general culture.
Most of Hoff’s storybook characters are animals and underdogs. In his 1959 book Sammy the Seal, Sammy is unhappy at the zoo until he sees some children going to school. Sammy says: “I will go too.” It’s up in the air whether the teacher will let a seal stay in school. Hoff put his zaftig mama striding across the cover of Sammy the Seal!
Hoff’s are stories about quests for belonging, a classic theme of the minority Jewish experience. Search deeper and you will find images of Hoff’s family and neighbors from his childhood acting out that search for belonging.