Drawing on millenniums of Jewish history

Stan Mack, formerly of the Village Voice, presents the people and events - from Abraham to today's Middle East - in a book of cartoons.

January 03, 1999|By Elizabeth Benjamin | Elizabeth Benjamin,ALBANY TIMES UNION

It took a lot of chutzpah for Stan Mack to do what he has done.

To attempt to consolidate 4,000 years of Jewish history - from Abraham's first discussion with God in the desert to today's turmoil over peace in the Middle East - into a 265-page book and, of all things, in cartoons.

But that is exactly what Mack, a 62-year-old New York City illustrator, set out to do in his new book, ``The Story of the Jews: A 4,000-Year Adventure.''

``I concluded that there was room for a popular overview of Jewish history that put everything into perspective,'' said Mack. ``There are a lot of books out there on this subject. But they are deep and heavy and only offer a slice of the pie without context.''

``The Story of the Jews'' is wryly humorous and a little irreverent, consistent with the style Mack used in his well-known Village Voice strip, ``Real Life Funnies.''

From 1974 to 1994, Mack lurked and eavesdropped his way around the city, reporting on New Yorkers at their neurotic best and worst through drawings and captions in his weekly Voice dispatch. A disclaimer stating ``All dialogue guaranteed overheard'' appeared at the bottom of the strip, and to this day, Mack swears by it.

While working for the Voice, Mack also illustrated several children's books, and in 1994, he wrote ``Stan Mack's Real Life American Revolution'' - a cartoon book of American history.

While working on that book, Mack found he had a knack and a love for research. Soon after he completed ``Real Life Revolution,'' he started to think about spirituality, mortality and family. He said he links this in part to the fact that his children were getting older.

Although he never considered himself very Jewish, Mack began to wonder about his ancestors. Around the same time, an editor asked Mack if he had ever considered writing a Jewish history book. Slowly, the concept of ``The Story of the Jews'' came into focus.

True to form, Mack takes a lot of poetic license in ``The Story of the Jews.'' He calls Paul, a Jewish man who broke from traditional Judaism to encourage others to accept Jesus Christ as their savior, ``a press agent for Christianity.'' Paul is depicted carrying a sign that reads: ``Monotheism Made Easy. Gain Without Pain.''

Further along in his book, Mack explains the evolution of Hasidism, whose founders saw the sacred in everyday life and encouraged ecstatic prayer, singing and dancing. Above a small village of reveling Jews, Mack draws this dictum issued from on high: ``Shake it, but don't break it!''

Mack describes the tone of his book as ``fatalistic and ironic, but far less sarcastic than my strip.'' Its easy-to-read style, he said, grew out of drawing ``Real Life Funnies'' for so long.

``I am practiced at having a conversational tone with my readers,'' Mack said. ``After all, I've been talking to Voice readers for years.''

Limiting himself to 265 pages was not easy, Mack said. The book's original manuscript stood several feet high. Mack jokes that he simply ``cut from the bottom.''

For example, Mack addresses the Holocaust only briefly. Under the tally of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis, Mack drew a stark, smoking skull. He chose not to dwell on the Holocaust because he was afraid it would overshadow the rest of the book.

``I didn't want it to blot out the entire tapestry of Jewish history, but to be able to take its place within it,'' Mack said. ``So what I drew is bold, simple, black and raw.''

In trying to encompass 4,000 years, Mack glances over other events in the ``The Story of the Jews,'' such as the famous tale of Moses returning from Mount Sinai with God's Ten Commandments only to find the Jewish people worshiping a golden calf they had constructed while he was gone.

The story of Hanukkah is absent, although the battle that is its precursor, in which the Jewish Maccabees fought to take back Jerusalem from the Syrians in 162 B.C.E., is included.

Mack said he would like to work on a companion book to ``The Story of the Jews,'' which would

include a detailed history of Jewish holidays and customs. For the moment, however, Mack is content with this completed book, which gave him the chance both to use his creative talents and delve into his personal history.

``I didn't even know the history of my own last name,'' he said. ``Growing up, there was no way to find out where my grandparents came from - my parents were too interested in assimilating to ask. I was curious; I wanted to know.

``That's why I did the book. But also to have an adventure and a good time.''

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