Harvey Pekar harbored dark attraction to Yiddishkeit

He was irascible, neurotic, self-obsessed and socially inept; a brilliant misfit and misanthropic dilettante forlornly absorbed in jazz and avant-garde short stories.

Upon his death in July 2010, Harvey Pekar’s few close friends insisted that the underground comic-book writer also was a gem in the rough, an out-of-date socialist naif, a sweet, sincere everyman.

They had every reason to believe they knew all there was to know about Pekar, who obsessively chronicled his life in the comic book series “American Splendor” (later adapted as a film of the same name).

Now, however, more than a year since his passing, there appears a posthumous — and by no means minor — revelation: Pekar secretly harbored an obsession with Yiddishkeit — the title and subject of his final work, co-edited by Paul Buhle in collaboration with 24 cartoonists and writers. Subtitled “Jewish Vernacular and the New Land,” the book is a stunningly colorful but dizzyingly messy comic bouquet to secular Yiddish culture.

Paul Buhle illustration/paul buhle

Who knew that Pekar, cloistered in the Cleveland hospital file room where he worked as a clerk, used every spare moment to devour volumes of Yiddish literature (albeit in English translation)? His reading bespeaks the undisciplined enthusiasm of the autodidact, ranging from Joseph Perl’s 19th century anti-Chassidic satire “Megaleh Temirin” to the late 20th century works of Isaac Bashevis Singer. But Pekar identifies most strongly with the socialist, anarchist and communist strains of late 19th and early 20th century Yiddish literature, from the “sweatshop poets” in New York to Stalin’s Yiddish stooges.

Pekar often depicts himself scratching his head and puzzling out loud over the reasons for European anti-Semitism. The poor, powerless Jews whom he adores, in their mythic “Yiddishland” — why were they not accepted? And here lies the difference between his secular Yiddishist heroes and their contemporaries, the Zionists: The latter group broke decisively with the mentality of impotent bafflement at Jewish oppression, turning their backs on Europe in favor of Jewish national self-determination, historically the only successful antidote to anti-Semitism.

Given Pekar’s self-defeating personality and radical convictions, it is not terribly surprising that Zionism proved so distasteful to him. In one particularly disturbing panel in “Yiddishkeit,” an Israeli tank emblazoned with a cross looms over a hilltop, while soldiers wearing Stars of David and wielding long knives attack indigenous Arabs.

While Pekar possessed a finely tuned ear for the aesthetics of Yiddish literature, his was the acute hearing of a blind man. Thus, his assessments of I.L. Peretz and Chaim Grade reveal both a gaping ignorance of the enduring power of religious Yiddishkeit and a deliberate disregard of the strong influences of traditional Judaism and Jewish nationalism in the works of Peretz and his circle.

Compromise and phony reconciliations were, for Pekar, signs of weakness. Misery, anger, feuding and endless bitterness comprised his version of the examined life. This is precisely what he finds so darkly attractive about the now-defunct and defeated secular left Yiddish political culture.

Pekar was raised in the nationalist Yiddish Labor Zionist tradition. But, he once told the Toronto Star, “I’ve had to go through a kind of change in my view of Israel because, when I was a kid, my parents were ardent Zionists … and, at one point when I was a school kid, I was a Zionist too.”

He goes on to say his mother was also pro-communist and used to defend the Soviet Union.

“But when push comes to shove,” Pekar said, “and Israel and Egypt had a conflict in 1956 and the USSR went with Egypt, she never talked about the [Soviets] anymore. Nationalism once again triumphs over ideology. Nationalism is something I really cannot stand.”

Given the choice between supporting Israel and supporting the Soviet Union, Pekar would have gone with ideology.

Paul Buhle, co-editor of “Yiddishkeit,” will speak at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. www.bjesf.org.

“Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land” edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle (240 pages, Abrams ComicArts, $29.95)

This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.