Cartoonist draws out life in 19th-century New York

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It's a mere footnote in Jewish history books, but an intriguing one: the attempt, in 1825, to establish a Jewish state on an island between Canada and New York.

The endeavor failed, and with it went the hopes of Mordecai Noah, who created the island state to boost his flagging career as a public figure. Almost two centuries later, Noah is enjoying some belated fame as a character in Ben Katchor's wonderfully strange comic-strip novel, "The Jew of New York."

Katchor, himself quite a character, is the subject of "An Evening with Ben Katchor" at this year's Jewish Film Festival. The program comprises two short films: "Pleasures of Urban Decay" and "Urban Doodles," as well as Katchor's slide-show performance "Carfare City."

Sam Ball, director of "Pleasures of Urban Decay," likens Katchor to Art Spiegelman of "Maus" fame and describes Katchor as "someone who's taken the comic strip and turned it into a complicated, Jewish art form."

Katchor will appear at all venues, along with the other filmmakers.

During a recent San Francisco stop for his book tour, Katchor said he was fascinated by written accounts of the abortive Jewish state.

"They never said whether two people showed up, or a hundred. I thought, someone must have come. I wanted to trace that story, of the person who showed up at the canceled event."

In his book's richly imagined 19th-century environment, that person is Nathan Kishon, a disgraced shochet (ritual slaughterer) who travels to the island state. Finding nothing there, Kishon takes up with a wandering fur trader named Moishe Ketzelbourd, becoming "a fellow, lost Jew."

But this is only one of the book's many stories. Characterized by its author as "an insanely dense little narrative," the book weaves itself around a multitude of colorful characters, evoking early Jewish life in New York City and its environs.

For Katchor, who grew up in Crown Heights, nothing comes more naturally than drawing and describing his home city. His previous strip, "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" told the story of a roving photographer, but it was really an ode to the city and the stories harbored in its old, run down buildings.

Likewise, "The Jew of New York" is full of quirky details about a vanished urban environment. Drawn in Katchor's trademark pen-and-ink washes, it combines historical accuracy with the artist's own whimsical sense of 19th-century daily Jewish life.

"I read everything I could find, but at some point I said that I'd do the strip from what I grasped intuitively about this period," Katchor recalled. "History stops at the collection of facts, but fiction and poetry begin where the facts end."

Like Knipl, Katchor is an urban rover. Accompanying him from his Civic Center hotel to a nearby cafe is an adventure in its own right, as he declaims over everything from the exterior of an earthquake-proofed building to the cafe's palette-shaped menu.

With his hunched shoulders, flyaway hair and open, round face, the artist could easily be a character in one of his own strips.

His new book delves into the beginnings of the market economy in New York. Many of its characters are entrepreneurs — from Francis Oriole, who dreams of carbonating Lake Erie and piping its water into New York, to Yosl Feinbroyt, a spiritualist whose celestial visions provide him with designs for popular "kabbalah-style" handkerchiefs.

"Jews were very assimilated then, out of touch with the main streams of European culture," said Katchor. "You might find part-time rabbis who'd also be oyster merchants — insanity and obsession were the driving forces of business and the world at that time."

It's a world to which Katchor can relate. His father, a Polish immigrant, traded in his Orthodox upbringing for communism. Katchor never celebrated a bar mitzvah, but he grew up steeped in Yiddish culture, which informs all his work.

Certainly, there's nothing simple about "The Jew of New York."

"I didn't want it to be a neat narrative," Katchor explained. "In the real world, things don't add up in a neat way."

In addition to his Jewish Film Fest appearances, Ben Katchor will discuss his work at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Information: (415) 441-6670.

"The Jew of New York" by Ben Katchor (104 pages, Pantheon, $20).