Cover art for A Minyen Yidn created by Barbara “Willy” Mendes.

How I Turned My Father’s Yiddish Book Into a Graphic Novel

I will never know what possessed my parents to move to South Ozone Park, Queens. Perhaps they thought it was a step up from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they had lived and met, or perhaps they liked the fact that our house was across the street from a school and within walking distance of another school, where my mother taught second grade. But it was an Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood in which we were the only Jews for miles, and as a result I grew up always feeling like an outsider, always wanting to belong. I wanted to be like the little girls on my block who dressed up like little brides for their confirmation!

Holidays were the worst: Easter, when all the other girls dressed up and went to mass at Saint Theresa’s, right around the corner; Christmas, when all the other houses—especially the Italian houses—piled on the decorations: Santa and his sleigh and reindeer on the roof, the entire holy family on the lawn, all outlined by colored lights. How could mere candles compete? 

I loved both my parents very much—but I wanted nothing to do with the Jewish part of them.

To make matters worse, my father wrote in Yiddish. Brought up speaking Yiddish and Russian, he had come to America on his own at the age of 16, from a little shtetl in what is now Belarus. He’d learned English in night school and was a fluent English speaker and reader, but he wrote in Yiddish—articles for the Yiddish language newspapers that proliferated in New York in those days—and in 1938 he had written a book, titled A Minyen Yidn un Antere Zacken, loosely translated as A Bunch of Jews and Other Stuff

I loved both my parents very much—my mother had taught me to read at the age of four, and my father regularly took me to museums and, despite his hay fever, to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden—but I wanted nothing to do with the Jewish part of them. So, although I knew about the book, I ignored it, had no idea what it was about, and didn’t care.

Years pass, and some people finally grow up, even ungrateful daughters. Almost half a century after my parents’ deaths, my grown daughter, much more interested in our heredity than I had ever been, searched the internet and found A Minyen Yidn, which by then I had decided was lost forever. By then, the years had put some sense into my head and, coincidentally, I was taking Yiddish classes. No, I didn’t translate the book myself—I’m a complete failure in written Yiddish, though I now love speaking it—but with the aid of the Yiddish library, I found Hershl Hartman, a translator living in Los Angeles, who translated it beautifully.

For the first time in my life, I read my father’s book – and I liked it. The guy was a good writer! It’s a collection of short stories, most of which take place in his little shtetl of Duboy. The others take place after he got to America, in the 1920s and 30s, but the ones I liked best were the ones from Duboy, almost verbal snapshots of people he’d known there, and verbal snapshots of early 20th century life in the shtetls. He had a sense of humor! The people he writes about are for the most part dreadful, yet very funny. They reminded me of the mythical Yiddish village of Chelm, populated by a bunch of hilarious dimwits. And there’s an unplanned sadness to the stories too, tales of a way of life that nobody knew would disappear completely with the coming of the Nazis.

And I thought: this would make a great graphic novel!

Like my father, I’m a writer: of comics and graphic novels, and books about comics. My father liked comics. He liked to tell me about comics he had read in the 1920s and 30s, newspaper strips with titles like “S’matter Pop?” and “Reg’lar Fellers.” So I decided he would approve.

For adaptation into comic form, I picked the 12 stories that I felt would work best visually, and I made a wish list of the 12 cartoonists I felt would do the best job of drawing my scripts. To my delight, most of them agreed to do it! For the cover, I asked Barbara “Willy” Mendes. There had been a time, in the early 1970s, when Willy and I were the only two women in San Francisco creating comics. Now she had become a fine artist, and had a gallery in Los Angeles filled with her exuberant paintings. She’d also become an Orthodox Jew, though a very unorthodox Orthodox Jew, who referred to God as female.

There were times, while working on the adaptation that I had to phone my big sister with questions. Five years older than me, Harriet knew more about the book than I had ever known. My father had belonged to a social club made up of fellow immigrants from Duboy, called “The Duboyer Young Men’s Progressive Club,” though by then they were hardly young men any more. Harriet told me that my father’s renditions of the denizens of his village infuriated some of the “Duboyer young men,” who were the sons and nephews of the guys he wrote about, and that for a while he didn’t dare show his face at the club. So, a troublemaker. I’ve been one, too.

For the most part, I’ve had good luck with publishers, and Hope Nicholson, of Bedside Press, is one of them. I met Hope at a Toronto comic con. She’s a Canadian small press publisher of feminist graphic novels. She wears bright red lipstick and vintage frocks, and has published Margaret Atwood. When I told her about my project, she immediately responded that she’d like to publish it. Small presses are hardly rolling in dough, but we put the book up on Kickstarter, and got the funds we needed to publish it. 

When I held the first advance copy of A Minyen Yidn in my hands, sat down with it and read it from cover to cover, I realized something. With the help of a good translator, 13 artists, and a lovely publisher, I finally knew my father, knew the questions I had never thought to ask him, and knew myself too, as my father’s daughter, writer and troublemaker. 

Wherever he is, I hope he likes the book.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

One comment on “How I Turned My Father’s Yiddish Book Into a Graphic Novel

  1. Janet Williams on

    Trina, that is a wonderful story! I did not know that about your background. In my father’s belongings, I came across a handwritten memoir by a Jewish relative I never knew. It took place in what is now eastern Europe, before the story shifted to NYC. It also tells of a forgotten time. How lucky for you that you created a memorable work. I wish you well with it. Bravo!

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