Fans of Roz Chast have chortled over the neurotic, overeducated, Jewishy characters she has created in her New Yorker cartoons for almost 40 years. In her aging, ex-hippie, public radio totebag-shlepping grandma, we might recognize our 84-year-old Aunt Sylvia, who has carped to her analyst for 50 years about the manifold ways her mother ruined her life.
But sometimes, Chast’s characters hit closer to home. In her 2014 memoir about caring for her aging Jewish parents, we might see signs of our own long-suffering, set-in-their-ways, loveable, aggravating parents. And it’s possible we see ourselves, too.
Chast’s characters have many relatable qualities — smart, flawed, funny, anxious and totally themselves — which is just how the 62-year-old artist described herself in a recent interview, speaking before the April 27 opening of “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs.” The exhibit at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum originated at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and traveled with great fanfare last year to the Museum of the City of New York.
The inspiration and source material for the show were Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” The cartoon memoir paid tribute to her quirky, egghead parents, George and Elizabeth Chast, and recounted with humor and pathos the trials of a middle-age, only child dealing with nonagenarian parents who had fallen into deep decrepitude.
The memoir, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, was lauded as groundbreaking by critics and the public alike, and it was devoured by the sandwich-generation of readers in their 40s, 50s and 60s who found themselves in a similar tear-your-hair-out predicament: how to care for their children, themselves and their aging parents all at once.
“Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs” includes all the original work from the memoir plus many of the artist-writer’s original cartoons and covers from the New Yorker and illustrations from her other books, along with personal effects from her parents and several rugs that Chast created. The San Francisco exhibit also features videos that document her life and work.
That life began in 1954 in a less-than-trendy part of Flatbush, Brooklyn, where a lonely, brooding Chast began drawing at an early age. Her artistically inclined parents, she said, did not discourage her. “They thought that I might eventually become an art teacher,” Chast told J., continuing the family’s tradition of employment by the New York City Board of Education.
Chast’s poetry-writing, piano-playing mother was an assistant principal who dominated both the household and her husband, a high school French and Spanish teacher. “You would want my mother in a crisis,” Chast said. “She could organize and tell people what to do. She had no fear of speaking her mind.”
Despite their suffering and losses, Chast’s parents were proud of their Jewish heritage, she said, and her father spoke to his mother in Yiddish. Yet they were firmly in the secular camp, eating ham, though not bacon or pork chops (“They drew very strange lines,” Chast said) and attending shul only on the High Holy Days.
Chast attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she majored in painting, and then quickly returned to New York, which has always served as both her sanctuary and muse.
She sold her first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1978, and for the last four decades, she has been among a number of Jewish artists — including Jules Feiffer, Bob Mankoff and the late Saul Steinberg — helping to define the New York cartoon and illustration scene, though, admittedly, one of the few women. That is changing, Chast said, as old-school thinking that “being funny was not something maybe women should do” is dissipating.
For more than 25 years, Chast and her husband, humor writer Bill Franzen (also a New Yorker contributor) have made their home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where they raised their two children, now in their 20s.
One of their sons, Pete, was formerly known as Nina and had identified as a lesbian. Chast was unfazed by Nina’s coming out and subsequent transition to Pete — more important to her, as a Jewish mother, she said, was where Pete’s girlfriend had gone to college. Oberlin, it turns out. Chast approved.
Chast and her distinctive wit have had a longtime fan in curator Stephanie Plunkett, who organized the original show at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
“She is a trusted commentator and guide through life,” Plunkett said. “She has a finger on the pulse of what society is like. She knows how to use humor to discuss issues that are sometimes difficult.”
Renny Pritikin, chief curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, concurred with Plunkett’s appraisal. “Chast is one of a long tradition of New Yorker satirists and humorists going back to the 1930s,” he said.
“She is one of the Jewish leaders in popular culture. Hers is a Jewish, New York-centric humor that is not political but speaks to the tiny nuances in the world and what we put up with in the preciousness and difficulties of being a part of a family.”