“The Menschkins” are your typical nice Jewish family. There’s Howie, a doctor; his wife, Lori, a Jewish dating columnist; their four kids Jake, Emma, Julia, and Max; and Mazel, the cute family dog. There are bubbies and zaidies, and they have a wide circle of relatives and friends. They could be your friendly neighbors, except they are cartoon characters—and they all have their mishagos.
“They’re a composite of Jewish people I’ve met over the years,” says Menschkins co-creator Harvey Rachlin. “Friends, neighbors, people from the different synagogues I’ve belonged to. You get a real sense of a Jewish kop from talking with people, whether at school meetings or a Kiddush.”
Rachlin came up with the idea through what he calls “notion association.”
“From writing so much over the years, I’ve trained myself so that when an idea comes to mind for one thing, I can maybe sometimes cross-pollinate it and see its possibilities for something unrelated,” he says.
Rachlin, who has written essays for Jewish newspapers, aspired to write a personal essay column for a Jewish newspaper. So he wrote nine sample essays that ranged from serious to quirky to humorous, and one of them—“Jewish Books I Want to Write”—spawned the idea for the cartoon. In the essay, a spoof, Rachlin muses about what the topic should be for his next book. He says he was stumped until he spotted a literary trend and knew he had found his answer. He noticed a bestselling book called “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and marveled over the cleverness of taking a classic work and adding a contemporary twist to it. He thought people would be drawn to a title they knew, and would be intrigued by the modification.
For his next book, Rachlin decided that all he had to do was add a Jewish twist to a classic novel. Some ideas he came up with were “Moby Fleisha-Dick”; “Plotz and Prejudice”; “Don Chutzpahxote”; “The Bubbala in the Rye”; “Frankenstein and the Matzoh Ball Martini”; “Jane ‘Oy Veis’ M’Eyre”; “The Three Mitzvateers”; and “The Tzaddick of Oz.” The plot of the last title, he explained, was that after a cyclone uproots young Miriam’s house on a Russian shtetl, she finds herself alone and lost in a dark forest but eventually comes across an assortment of characters, including those good-hearted little people—the Menschkins.
Soon after writing this essay, Rachlin had his “aha!” moment: Why not create a humor-oriented comic strip series about a Jewish family who try to live a Jewish life in today's complicated world? These well-intentioned but fallible do-gooders would dwell in both Jewish and secular worlds and always (or at least often) try to do the right thing, not always successfully.
To see if his idea had any commercial merit, he contacted Cathy Herring, an executive at the American Jewish Press Association, of which he is a member. Her response was encouraging and motivated him to pursue the cartoon. “I absolutely think your idea of the Menschkins cartoon strip has the potential to be published in a Jewish newspaper!” Herring emailed back.
Rachlin can’t draw, so he contacted a cartoonist he knew, Steven Duquette, and together they developed the strip. They wanted to create a comic strip that reflected Jewish sensibilities and offered affectionate parodies of Jewish life. The strip, they envisioned, would incorporate Jewish themes and humor, and occasionally use Yiddish or Hebrew words (the meanings would be apparent or inferred, so even readers who didn’t know these words would understand them).
Right now, the cartoons are offered as weekly strips, but if a demand for the cartoons arises, the creators would like to develop full-page cartoon stories for Jewish newspaper magazine sections or single-panel daily cartoons for their Web sites.
The cartoonist, Duquette, immediately embraced the idea for “The Menschkins” even though he is not Jewish. He asked Rachlin all sorts of questions about how religious the family was, and what they looked like, but the images are all his creations.
Duquette has more than 50 years of experience drawing strips and cartoon portraits. After drawing his way through high school, the U.S. Navy, and several art schools, he left Los Angeles to go to New York, where he worked as a freelancer for art studios, ad agencies, and publishing houses. He specialized in cartoon portraits and is a recipient of the Commercial Award from the National Cartoonist Society.
JNS.org is releasing a new installment of “The Menschkins” each Monday.
“It is our hope that as readers see themselves and others they know humorously reflected in the strips, they will become attached to the characters,” Rachlin says. “Our dream is for ‘The Menschkins’ to develop a devoted and loyal following who look forward each week to the latest happenings in their lives.”
Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of thirteen books and has written for The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Press, the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Long Island Jewish World, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times (London), and numerous other magazines and newspapers. His book, “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” was adapted for the long-running History Channel series History’s Lost and Found, narrated by actor Edward Herrmann. He is also a lecturer in Music Management at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.
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