A time to kvell: ‘Menschkins’ comic strip celebrates its first anniversary

Click photo to download. Caption: The first-ever installment of "The Menschkins," posted on Sept. 29. 2013. Credit: Harvey Rachlin and Steven Duquette.

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

While this Rosh Hashanah marked the 5775th birthday of the world on the Jewish calendar, one humor-infused Jewish family of seven (including the dog) has a single year down and some serious catching up to do.

On Sept. 29, 2013, co-creators Harvey Rachlin and Steven Duquette debuted an apolitical Jewish-themed comic strip, “The Menschkins,” which has been syndicated to Jewish newspapers and websites on a weekly basis by JNS.org. The characters make up what Rachlin terms “a composite of Jewish people I’ve met over the years”: Howie, a doctor; his wife, Lori, a Jewish dating columnist; their four kids Jake, Emma, Julia, and Max; and Mazel, the cute family dog.

“We didn’t want to be a political cartoon because the field is saturated with political cartoons as well as political articles,” Rachlin says. “We wanted to give readers a respite from politics and heavy issues, and to try to get them to smile or chuckle a bit with comics that hold up a mirror to Jewish life.”

Don Harrison, editor of the San Diego Jewish World, has appreciated the comic strip’s approach.

“So often Jewish news can be very heavy,” Harrison says. “That’s why ‘The Menschkins’ comic strip is a delight, allowing readers to enjoy the lighter side of Jewish life.” 

At the New Orleans-based Crescent City Jewish News (CCJN), “The Menschkins” has become a weekly staple.

“Our readers love ‘The Menschkins’ because the quality of the writing is very keen and the Jewish humor found within its panels is universal,” says Alan Smason, CCJN’s editor. “Whether tackling thorny issues associated with formal worship or examining the pitfalls of modern Jewish family life, ‘The Menschkins’ offers our readers each week something that is both insightful and amusing. Our week’s posts are not complete without ‘The Menschkins.’”

One year after posting the first installment of “The Menschkins,” JNS.org caught up with Rachlin to reflect on the creative process.

JNS: How would you characterize your experience working on “The Menschkins”? What have been some of the personal highlights for you, and what have been the greatest challenges?

“Our experience of creating weekly Menschkins comic strips has been absolutely wonderful. To have a cast of Jewish cartoon characters who act and speak in ways that parody Jewish life can’t be anything but fun and joy for cartoonists. Right now, we’re still in the process of developing the characters, but we’ll know we’re in trouble when the time comes in which the characters start taking on a life of their own and tell us how they want to behave!

“The greatest personal highlight, I think, comes when you feel you’ve come up with a really good cartoon, and that feeling is confirmed when you show it to a few others and they share your feeling. We have a small circle of people we share our cartoons with before they are released, and they can be harsh critics, so when a cartoon falls flat on them it is a bit painful. You want to say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you get it?’ Then you clarify the gag for them. They may still not get it, but in any case, you can’t be around to explain jokes to readers of the strip if the jokes fall flat on them. The greatest challenge is, I think, coming up with fresh material each week.”

Click photo to download. Caption: "Jewish bonds," one of this past year's Menschkins cartoons. Credit: Harvey Rachlin and Steven Duquette.

How do you decide on the strip’s content each week?

“If a holiday is coming up then obviously that holiday will dictate the theme of that particular strip. Outside of that, there are no rules for particular week’s theme, although I have been thinking about developing storylines.

“I constantly come up with ideas for cartoons and write them down. Sometimes they’re just rough ideas, but more often I have the ideas and dialogue for the first three panels [of a cartoon]. The challenge, and frustration, is coming up with the punchline for the last panel. I can’t tell you how many three-panel strips I have just waiting for a punchline for the final panel!”

Since humor can be very subjective, how do you try to make “The Menschkins” something that appeals to the varying tastes of both Jewish newspaper editors and general readers?

“We look for universal themes within the Jewish experience. The range of practices and beliefs among Jews is wide, but there is still common ground especially when it comes to Jewish culture. The problem is, as you point out, that humor is very subjective. I read a lot of popular mainstream comics and often the humor flies over my head. I’m sure that happens frequently with many readers of comics, so I think it is part of the comic-reading experience. You just hope that enough of your comics appeal to enough of the Jewish newspaper editors and general readers, so that you build up some kind of following. 

“That said, I want to add that our gratitude for the support of some editors, in particular Alan Smason of the Crescent City Jewish News, cannot be overstated. But we need more Jewish papers to carry us and keep us going. Maybe we should email editors a cartoon with a Jewish-guilt theme called, ‘Would it kill you to run the strip?’”

Click photo to download. Caption: "The Menschkin Plan," one of this past year's Menschkins cartoons. Credit: Harvey Rachlin and Steven Duquette.

What have been your favorite individual Menschkins cartoons of the strip’s first year?

“One of [Steven Duquette’s] favorites is when Mr. Menschkin’s friend asks him for advice on how to get along with his wife and Mr. Menschkin, who has a great relationship with his wife, says he follows the ‘Menschkin Plan.’ His friend asks him what the Menschkin plan is and Mr. Menschkin says, ‘Whatever Mrs. Menschkin wants.’

“As for me, I have a few favorites. I like the one where the father tells his young son that his friend is coming over for dinner and he’s frum. The son asks him where he’s from, and they go back and forth misunderstanding each other. When I sent the script to Steve, he said it reminded him of the Abbott and Costello routine ‘Who’s on first?’

Click photo to download. Caption: One of this past year's Menschkins cartoons, "Chanukah or Hanukkah?" Credit: Harvey Rachlin and Steven Duquette.

“I also like the cartoon where the young siblings argue over whether the Jewish holiday is spelled ‘C-h-a-n-u-k-a-h’ or ‘H-a-n-u-k-k-a-h,’ and the mother says it’s spelled “G-i-f-t-s.” Also, the one where Mr. Menschkin says a Jew feels a bond with any other Jew he or she meets anywhere in the world, and then, thinking of his rancorous synagogue board meetings, concludes that a warm and fuzzy common-bond feeling may not apply for Jews in your own synagogue.”

What is your vision for “The Menschkins” moving forward?

“We want to develop the characters more in a way that, as mentioned before, they take on a life of their own and are really universally relatable. They cannot be two-dimensional. They need to have foibles and troubles or to have naches and to kvell—like real people, but even larger than life. They need to reflect the Jewish experience in as funny a way as possible, and their heart needs always to be in the right place, because that’s what being Jewish should be.

“Ideally, we’d love to turn the strip into an animated cartoon series, like a Jewish ‘Simpsons,’ and have books and graphic novels and Menschkins merchandise like lunch boxes and apparel. We can dream, can’t we? But for now, we’ll have to cope with being struggling Jewish cartoonists.”

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

For all installments of “The Menschkins” to date, click here.

Posted on September 29, 2014 and filed under Arts, Features, Menschkins.