Let the people in and the laughter out: Yiddish Book Center reopens with an exhibit of comic art

  • “The Shoemaker and the Gossip Peddler,” a 2019 pen and ink drawing and giclee print by Steve Marcus. The New York artist’s work is part of a new show at the reopened Yiddish Book Center. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, closed to the public since early March 2020, has now reopened to the public. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  •  “The Rebbe and his Students,” wood carvings with milk paint, tung oil and torah ink by Steve Marcus, now on display at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • New York artist Steve Marcus, once involved in underground comics, says humor is a key part of his work. Here he depicts “The Wandering Jews” in a pen and ink and giclee print.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lisa Newman, program director at the Yiddish Book Center, says the Amherst center greatly expanded its online programming the past year but is planning for more in-person events this fall. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  •  “The Salami Guy,” one of many carved figurines included in Steve Marcus’ exhibit “Through the Hat,” in which he explores memories of “bagels and bialys, pickles and green tomatoes from the barrel” and other childhood memories. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Monday, July 05, 2021

It’s taken awhile. But after 15 months of being closed to the public, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst has reopened its doors, with a new art exhibit on display and public programs being contemplated for the fall.

The reopening is somewhat limited, according to Lisa Newman, the book center’s director of publishing and public programs, with reduced hours and safety protocols, such as requiring all visitors to wear face masks, in place. Meantime, a number of virtual programs at the Amherst site, which were considerably expanded during the past year, are continuing and will remain on tap even as a gradual return to full in-person visitation takes place, she noted.

But Newman says there’s been one small benefit to the pandemic, in that shifting educational and cultural programs to an online format has enabled the book center to reach a far-flung audience. In some cases, she notes, hundreds of people, including some from overseas, have signed up to watch talks and events that normally would generate much less attendance.

“We’re thrilled to be able to welcome back visitors,” said Newman during a recent interview at the museum. “But it’s also been really encouraging to see people tuning in to the online programs and keeping touch with our mission.”

The center, opened in 1997 in Amherst but dating originally to the work that founder Aaron Lansky did in the 1980s, works on numerous fronts to, as the center’s website puts it, “recover, celebrate, and regenerate Yiddish and modern Jewish literature and culture.” The center has over 1 million Yiddish books in its collection and over 12,000 digital titles as well.

Art that examines Jewish history and culture has also long been a key part of the museum, with a number of permanent exhibits as well as traveling shows. The newest traveling exhibit is a two-part show by New York artist Steve Marcus that includes colorful pen and ink drawings and carved wooden sculptures that both celebrate and tweak Jewish life.

In crafting “Through the Hat” and “Tales from the Golden Medina,” Marcus has drawn from his background in the underground comics scene as well as his own roots. He says he grew up in a “traditional and culturally Jewish American home” and learned to read Hebrew as a boy. But in the past decade, he’s become more observant, including studying to become a sofer, a religious scribe who repairs Torahs.

In an interview by phone and email, Marcus said he went back to explore Judaism more closely after his father died 12 years ago on Rosh Hashanah and he began performing Kaddish, Jewish prayer services, three times a day in his father’s memory: “I figured I would explore that whole world of [religious] tradition, something that I wasn’t that close to growing up.”

Marcus has had a long career as an illustrator for a diverse range of clients, including High Times magazine, MTV, The New York Times, Esquire, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others. But digging back into his Jewish roots also prompted him to explore that experience through his art, and to do it with humor.

“What’s life without a sense of humor?” he said. “Everybody likes to laugh and be happy and I like to have my work inspire people to chuckle or at least smirk.”

His drawing “The Wandering Jews,” for instance, is a laugh-out-loud sketch of what could be a reference to the general Jewish diaspora, or perhaps a famous work by Joseph Roth, an early 20th-century novelist and journalist from Austria whose essay “Juden auf Wanderschaft” (The Wandering Jews) examined Jewish migration from Europe in the early 1900s.

In Marcus’ colorful drawing, bearded men in homburgs ride chopper-style motorcycles down a desert highway; a saguaro cactus and a cattle skull make up part of the background, as does a dusty gas station that advertises “chicken and gas.”

Another drawing, “The Outlaw Minyan” — a minyan is the quorum of 10 men (or in some cases 10 men and women) required for traditional Jewish public worship — depicts a crowd of swarthy, menacing looking men who wear prayer shawls but also brandish garish tattoos, spiky hair or shaved heads, and chains and sunglasses.

His small wood carvings, which are part of “Through the Hat,” also offer a sense of fun, with figurines representing rabbis, families, and vendors like “The Pickle Guy,” a chiseled-looking fellow who stands next to three small barrels labeled “Sour,” “½ Sour,” and “New.” Some of his drawings as well look back on his childhood memories of growing up in New York City, with images of Jewish bakeries and grocery stores.

In his drawings for “The Golden Medina,” Marcus offers humorous takes on Jewish proverbs by crafting his own, such as “Don’t Send a Dog to the Butcher Shop,” in which a Jewish butcher slices cuts of meat in a shop as four dogs pace nearby. So what exactly are those other types of meat in the shop, the ones behind a glass display case or hanging on hooks by the rear wall?

Marcus’ drawings have distinctive, well-articulated lines that recall woodcut prints; the artist jokes that he still draws everything by hand because that’s how he started his career and “I’m lousy with the computer.”

His exhibit, previously seen at The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU (Florida International University), is also a recognition, Marcus says, that he’s in a different phase of his life, not “the hip guy who’s 26 and thinks he’s on the cutting edge of art and what’s happening in the pop scene … someone who’s on the young side of old.”

But he’s also proud of his heritage and wants to share that with people, and to make art “that can bring people together, that can be a bridge between people, at a time when there’s so much discord in the world.”

“Through the Hat” and “Tales from the Golden Medina” are on display at the Yiddish Book Center through this fall and winter. For more information on the exhibit and other programs at the book center, visit yiddishbookcenter.org. In-person hours at the center are Thursday, Friday, Sunday, and Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.