Zaftig Mamas, Tenement Toughs, Suburban Strivers: Syd Hoff’s Unapologetic Jewish Cartoon Women
Hoff (1912-2004) himself was born and raised in The Bronx. While an art school student, he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker as the Great Depression hit. “Keep drawing those Bronx types,” his editor at The New Yorker told him. Hoff specialized in portrayals of working class tenement dwellers.
Hoff moved to Miami Beach with his wife and two daughters in the 1950s. To put together a centennial exhibition of Hoff a few years ago, I dug into archives at the University of Minnesota and the University of Southern Mississippi, where Hoff’s work is held. I had just moved to Miami from urban Chicago and I was struck by the opulence of Jewish life in my newly adopted tropical city. The Syd Hoff centennial project was a pleasant escape from the materialistic world I found myself in. In Hoff’s portrayal of early Jewish American life I found a welcoming world, albeit with its share of bickering and kvetching.
Boxes upon archival boxes house Hoff’s artwork for his dozens of children’s book titles and “Laugh It Off” cartoons. Most of the Tuffy strips are lost or were destroyed. Fingering through the classically trained cartoonist and author’s work history was like absorbing a visual depiction of Jewish history from tenement to suburbia.
While Hoff often put male characters front and center, his images are full of women—Jewish women. I felt affection for the zaftig tenement mamas, striving suburban Jews, street toughs, molls, and sexy love interests. Hoff’s images portrayed Jews’ working class, immigrant, striving past.
There was an earnest, striving sense to Hoff’s early women. They accepted their bare-bones tenement life even in the pages of The New Yorker. And in Hoff’s “The Ruling Clawss” one-frame gag cartoons on the pages of The New Masses, Hoff’s women march to bring down capitalism during the Depression.