Thursday, December 3, 2009

R. Crumb's Genesis

I suppose the cleaning staff they hire to tidy up at the Louvre after hours must get used to dusting off the Mona Lisa as though it weren’t the world’s most famous painting, but it doesn’t always work that way. During the several years in the early 1980s that I worked as assistant to the Library at JTS, for example, I never quite got to the point at which I barely noticed the indescribable treasures just sitting around in display cases and on open book shelves. Actually, just the opposite was the case for me: each time I entered the Rare Book Room I felt amazed at where I was, at where I was somehow allowed to enter not as a sightseer or as a scholar but just as a regular person doing his regular day’s work who just happened to do that work in the company of the world’s most famous—and, in many cases, most beautiful—Jewish books. Readers who have been to my home easily see the evidence of my life-long love affair with books. But there are books and there are books…..

I think the single biggest shock I had when I began work at JTS had to do with my personal discovery of the illuminated manuscript. Obviously, I had known that there were such things in the world. Here and there I’m sure I had read about them, but my own field of scholarly research was completely unrelated to the topic and I was therefore more than just a bit green about the whole concept. So there are books with pictures in them, I would probably have said—so what? Growing up in a culture that encourages children to feel good about growing past picture books, I never paused to imagine just what it could mean for a book to be illustrated by a true master, by someone so skilled as an artist and so equally insightful with respect to the meaning of the text at hand that the result is illumination in the literal sense of the word: the shedding of light, the making deeper and clearer of meaning, the drawing of (living) readers and (long since deceased) authors together in a way they would probably never be able to manage absent the artist’s skill, talent, and insight.

But there I was nonetheless working day after day in the company of volumes that by their existence alone wholly contradicted whatever I might previously have thought about the reasonability of letting artists draw in books. I remember having once to retrieve the Rothschild Machzor, created in Florence in 1490 and possessed of the most gorgeous illumination I had ever seen (take a look for yourselves at, and pausing to open it for a long moment while still all alone, then feeling drawn into the prayer book in a way that I hadn’t ever experienced, that I hadn’t even known could be experienced. I had a similar experience with the Prato Haggadah, another JTS treasure. Written in Spain somewhere around the year 1300 and for some reason left unfinished, just the experience of peering briefly into the Haggadah (and especially while holding it in my own hands) helped me begin to formulate the ideas I ended up putting forward in the introduction to the Shabbat and Festivals volume of Tzur Yisrael about the ability of liturgy to create a world outside of time in which human beings anchored in an unstanchable flow of moments can encounter a God who by definition exists without reference to time past and time future. (You can check out the Prato Haggadah on-line as well at

And now I come to the real topic I wish to write about today, R. Crumb’s edition of Genesis published earlier this year by W.W. Norton. I’d just finished reading it when I mentioned it from the bimah last week, but I didn’t pause to explain why exactly I was so enamored by the book. And that is what I’d like to write about here today.

Readers of my specific generation know Robert Crumb primarily as the originator of 60’s icons like Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, and as one of the originators of the so-called “underground comix” movement. Crumb was the “Keep on Truckin’” guy and the illustrator of 60s album covers by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company, the artist whose erotic drawings—explicit almost to the point occasionally of bordering on the grotesque—offered an entire generation a new way (or so they thought) to think about sex. And he’s endured and remained creative and productive over all these intervening years as well. He’s in the New Yorker all the time. You can see a few images from the Genesis volume here:

By all accounts, he’s an unlikely candidate to provide much insight into the biblical text. And, indeed, I ordered the book when it first came out more out of curiosity than any real conviction that reading his book would deepen my understanding of Scripture. But I was wrong. I was completely wrong, actually. Reading Genesis as a graphic novel—and, at that, as a graphic novel with (as the banner on the book’s cover says) “nothing left out!”—has allowed me to understand some of the tales we all know almost by heart in novel, interesting ways…including in ways that now seem to me essential for any reader eager to encounter these famous stories in their own context and specifically not as they feel when encumbered by centuries upon centuries of after-the-fact interpretive baggage.

Crumb is a literalist. Therefore, he depicts the text as written. He does not bother asking himself what the text “really” means if that “real” meaning fails to correspond to the simple meaning of the words. The Bible says that Adam and Eve were both created in the divine image, so God is depicted fully anthropomorphically. (I should add that I’ve also just finished reading Benjamin D. Sommer’s terrific book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press, and that my thinking about biblical anthropomorphism has been drastically revised by the experience. Ben was my student in the JTS Prozdor program for high school students a million years ago and has gone on to become an exceptional scholar. I want to write about his book in detail on another occasion, but will pause here only to say that if there were ever two books to read simultaneously, it would be Ben’s book referenced just above and Crumb’s Genesis.) More to the point, however, Crumb sees things in the text that we generally nod to without really considering too carefully. But reading is reading…and although it is paradoxically entirely possible to read with your eyes closed, seeing things depicted graphically forces you to open those shut eyes and, to use the Talmudic expression, to let your eyes see what your ears have already heard.

The story, for example, about how Lot’s daughters, taking themselves and their father to be the sole survivors of a conflagration that they believe to have destroyed all humankind, conspire together to get him drunk and then to seduce him into impregnating them has always struck me as a kind of a literary bagatelle, a way for the text to say something vulgar and nasty about the Moabites and Ammonites who descend from this unholy union. (We generally skip this story in Hebrew School.) But when Crumb captures the image of ancient Lot, drunk, disheveled, and demented, in flagrante delicto with his own scheming daughters the picture is far more about Lot’s daughters than about the Ammonites…and the pathetic image Crumb draws leads me to think about that story in a different light, as a story not so much about the neighbors but about ourselves and our endless ability to self-delude and self-justify.

Similarly, we all know that Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born. The text says as much explicitly at Genesis 17:17 (“Then Abraham fell upon his face and, laughing, said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah bear a child at ninety?’”), but it was only when I got to Crumb’s version of Genesis 21—the chapter we read in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and mostly know by heart—and I saw his image of a ninety-year-old nursing a baby that it fully dawned on me just how the text almost demands to be read. (Yes, of course, I know Rashi’s comment that Sarah retained her youthful beauty throughout all the days of her very long life. But Crumb isn’t illustrating Rashi, he’s illustrating the text as written and as received. And we Jews have a long history of venerating the pshat, the simplest layer of meaning, above all else when interpreting a biblical story.) It was while looking at Crumb’s drawing, in fact, that I felt for the first time that I really got that whole story. And the same could be said about the devastating picture of Simeon (or maybe it’s Levi) preparing to kill a defenseless child while his mother flees in terror when the brothers choose to avenge their sister’s disgrace on the entire population of Shechem—that’s also a story I know inside out, but never forced myself to imagine clearly in terms of what it would actually have looked like, what it would have felt like to see such a thing happen and not just to read about it in a book.

Those are just three examples among many that I could mention. Reading Crumb’s Genesis was rewarding precisely because he depicts the text as written, thus insisting that, before all else, readers consider what the text says…and only then (if they must) what it means. The idea is not to ignore the work of our venerable ancient, medieval, and modern commentators, but to start not with their insights and observations but with the simplest meaning of the text. What Rashi would make of Crumb’s images—and especially his erotic ones—I have no idea. Or maybe I do have some idea…but what the father of all commentators would have to say about an effort to force readers first of all to encounter the pshat and only then to move on to the interpretative level, I think I also know. My guess is that he would have endorsed that concept wholeheartedly. As do I. As, I think, will most readers willing to take a leap into a kind of pshat-based commentary that truly is unlike any other.

The Israelites in Crumb’s Genesis are sturdy types, as have been so many of his characters over the years. These people—most of whom, if they were only dressed up in shul clothes, look as though they could be found in the pews of any synagogue on Shabbos morning listening to their own stories—are not prettified, not gussied up to look like “biblical” heroes. They are clearly real men and women. The men have broad backs and hairy legs. The women have bellies and breasts. Some are attractive, but most are not…or at least not in the Hollywood sense. But they are real. And that reality—and the clarity of the artist’s vision—makes reading this book a worthy undertaking for all who love the first book of the Bible and its vast pageant of history, myth, and saga. If any of you reads it, let me know what you think. I’ll be eager to hear!

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