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

Cover art for A Minyen Yidn created by Barbara "Willy" Mendes

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

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? 

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.