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

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.