Yiddish culture brought to life in comic strips

Chayale Ash was literally born backstage. Her parents were Romanian Yiddish theater actors, and as a child in the 1920s, she acted alongside them in a touring group.

When Romania was taken over by Soviet troops in 1940, she was forced to work in a labor camp in the Ukraine. After the war, she went on to star in Yiddish theater across Europe and in Israel.

Eventually, she moved to San Jose, where the 89-year-old still lives.

Now her life has been immortalized — in large, graphic panels.

Joel Schechter, a professor and author of Yiddish history, recreated Ash’s story in one of the many comics he’s written in collaboration with the infamous underground comix artist “Spain” Rodriguez. Each strip created by the San Francisco duo focuses on a different Yiddish actor, writer or political activist.

Their creations can be viewed in a new exhibit at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. The 11-by-17-inch reproductions and original drawings are on display through July 26.

The title strip, “Rivington Street,” follows the Moishe Nadir poem of the same name, about New York’s Lower East Side during the Great Depression. Rodriguez drew Schechter’s reaction to the poem inside their comic to demonstrate Schechter’s proximity to and fascination with old Yiddish culture.

Ayiddish comics

The title strip from the “Rivington Street” exhibit at the BJE Jewish Community Library explores New York’s vibrant Yiddish culture during the Great Depression.

In addition to the jumbo-sized comic strips, there’s also a mockup of the soon-to-be-published comic book by Schechter and Spain, also titled “Rivington Street.” The comic is the culmination of more than five years of work between Schechter and Rodriguez, as artist and writer.

Schechter has been a student and teacher of Yiddish history, literature and theater for the past 10 years. He’s presented programs, plays and classes — along with his book “Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity Through Satire.”

Raised in a suburban Jewish home in Maryland, Schechter became fascinated with Yiddish culture while attending the Yale School of Drama. Snooping around the library, he unearthed a dusty treasure trove of Yiddish theater history.

While learning about the history of Jews in American theater, he discovered a Federal Theater Project that in 1930 published an anti-war catalog in Yiddish. He would later turn this finding into a comic titled “The Return of the Anti-Milkhome Zamlung.”

Decades later, as a theater history professor at San Francisco State University, Schechter got the idea to write the series of comics about the lives of Yiddish artists. It was only natural for him to turn to his friend Rodriguez for the illustrations.

“I’d admired Spain’s work for many years, from his days as an underground comix artist in the 1960s,” Schechter explains. “I wanted Spain to [illustrate] because he is a master of the art.”

Schechter began giving Rodriguez scripts and stage directions for the comics, similar to the process of writing a play. He also included Yiddish and Hebrew words, something Rodriguez had no prior experience with, but took a shine to.

While Rodriguez isn’t Jewish,  his wife is, so he is familiar with the traditions. And writing those seemingly difficult words and phrases didn’t turn out to be so tricky.

“I’m just a bad speller in general, so we have to go over my words very carefully,” Rodriguez laughs. “I seem to make fewer mistakes in Yiddish, but that’s probably because Joel spells it all out.”

After Schechter wrote and Rodriguez illustrated a sample comic, they sent off the idea to the literary journal “Jewish Currents.” The editor liked it and asked for more. Since 2004 the comics have appeared in nearly every issue of the magazine. It is those collected works that will appear in Schechter’s upcoming comic book.

Over the years Schechter has spotlighted dozens of Jewish performers and activists in the pages of his comics. The BJE exhibit includes stories of comedian Mel Brooks, Yiddish actor Leo Fuchs, black singer Paul Robeson (who often sang in Yiddish) and, of course, actress Chayale Ash.

“Rivington Street: Yiddish Culture in Comic Strips” is on display through July 26 at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. For more information, visit www.bjesf.org/library.htm.