Comic strip goes kosher for Pesach

Abby searches the Internet for ideas on how to make the seder more meaningful. Len, her husband, gives his input, which means asking, "Which one is the shortest?" Meanwhile, Abby's father lets it be known he prefers the "traditional" seder, the one in which they skip half the ceremony and eat.

Abby and Len Ardin are not real people — they're characters in a comic strip called "Edge City," which is syndicated by King Features Syndicate and runs in 33 newspapers nationwide, including on the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site — — and in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Beginning Monday, the Ardin family will discuss and celebrate Passover in two weeks' worth of comic strips. As far as its creators know, this is the first time a comic-strip family will sit down around the seder table.

But are Abby and Len Ardin the first Jewish family to appear in the daily comic pages?

Tom Heintjes, editor of Hogan's Alley, a magazine for comics aficionados, could not say with certainty. But he did venture, "I would surely think that very few, if any, comic strips have celebrated Jewish holidays. The medium has historically taken a very middle-America approach to subject matter, and although religion is rarely mentioned in the comics out of concern of alienating a segment of the readership, the implication is that everyone is Christian."

Created by Chicago-based cartoonist-illustrator Terry LaBan with creative input from his wife, Patty, "Edge City" began running in January 2001. With its dual-career, two-child couple, it is meant to be a satire on the modern, busy family. And although Len has dark curly hair, a mustache and goatee, and glasses, Terry LaBan didn't consciously set out to create Jewish characters. But at the same time, he said, "I've always considered all my characters to be Jewish."

When Christmas was approaching, the LaBans didn't know how to handle the holiday. They knew that come December, characters in nearly every strip on the comics page would be celebrating.

"It's really hard to ignore Christmas," said LaBan, who creates each strip with one month of lead time. "If you're going to be doing a strip about modern American families, Christmas is a huge thing."

LaBan said he and his wife mulled over several options for the Ardins. "They could celebrate Christmas by default, or we could ignore the whole thing. But we felt strongly that we didn't want to have them be our vision of typical Christians."

In the end, the family hinted at having a holiday dinner and exchanging presents, but there was no tree or any other religious symbols of any kind.

And then the holidays came around, and just like every year, every other comic strip had some reference to Christmas. "That really pushed us over the edge," said LaBan. "We said, 'This is silly; we should make them be Jewish.'"

When no mention of Christmas was made in the strip, members of the LaBans' Conservative synagogue began asking them whether the Ardins were Jewish.

Since they work in advance, the LaBans thought Passover would be their first opportunity to bring up the characters' religion.

In the week before Passover, Abby, the wife, will broach the subject, saying she wants the holiday to be more meaningful this year, while other family members appear less than interested.

In one strip, Abby asks Len whether she should write some questions to prompt discussion, like "Do we all have an inner Pharaoh that oppresses us?" Len says the kids won't relate to that. A better option would be "If Pharaoh was a [World Wrestling Federation] bad guy, what would his costume look like?"

"We wanted to approach it as a universal issue, as Christmas is," said LaBan. "It's a big family holiday when families get together and there are issues about family dynamics."

With Abby searching for the true meaning of the holiday, LaBan said, "It's universal, one only has to watch 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' to see that."

Keeping with a broad theme seemed like the best approach, said LaBan. "We didn't want to get too arcane for people, but we figured most people know a little about Passover. Everyone goes to the grocery store and sees matzah."

LaBan said that Mell Lazarus' comic strip "Momma" was an example of a character that everyone knew was Jewish, although it has never been mentioned.

Although furthering Jewish pride was not part of their motivation when they began the strip, LaBan said Jewish ritual is not respected in the mainstream media, especially on television. Instead, it is made fun of, or portrayed as a burden characters are trying to escape. Noting that interfaith relationships are a favorite topic on TV, he said Judaism is usually "approached from an outsider's standpoint, and there is implicit criticism of Jewish rituals. It's something old people do, and can't be done with any sincerity."

On the other hand, comic strips are meant to amuse the reader, and LaBan didn't want the Jewish theme to impede the humor. "We didn't want to make it a deadly serious thing," he said. "Funny things happen during a seder, but we're not criticizing the notion of the seder itself."

"Edge City" will remain mostly about the busy American family, but now that the fictional Ardin family is being outed as Jews, the LaBans plan to reintroduce Jewish themes periodically.

"Every once in awhile, we would like for them to go to a bar mitzvah," said LaBan. "Maybe we'll do something on religious education for the kids, and something around getting out of school for Jewish holidays. That's never appeared in a comic."

Then, LaBan added, "not long after that, it will be Christmas season, and we'll definitely do something on that. Every couple months, we'd like to have it come up, depending on how it goes."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."