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Comic belief

Local Jewish cartoonist finds following his faith leads to a successful strip and a museum honor

By Michael Sangiacomo
Plain Dealer Reporter

Monday, May 21, 2007

CLEVELAND -- When Jordan B. Gorfinkel got a call from the Munich Jewish Museum asking whether his comic strip on Jewish life could permanently grace the entrance, he was taken aback.

At first, he thought the museum wanted Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his Holocaust graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor's Tale.

“I'll give you his number,” Gorfinkel said.

But the museum didn't want Spiegelman. They wanted Gorfinkel, also known simply as “Gorf.”

“I was stunned and honored,” Gorfinkel said. “Long story short, I wrote and drew a story about my elderly Jewish character going to Munich to see the new Jewish museum. And now the whole story, 38 panels, is silkscreened on the wall of the museum's entrance.”

Seeing it for the first time this year, he said, was exhilarating.

“In Munich, my wife stood next to me looking at my comics and she said she was proud of me,” he said. “That was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Gorfinkel's comic strip, Everything's Relative, has appeared in Jewish newspapers in the U.S. and Europe since 1996. The comic is set in an apartment building in an unspecified American city run by an elderly Jewish couple, survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. The young people who live in the apartments are the couple's unofficial family.

Gorfinkel's comic strip -- and the one the Munich museum wanted to display -- explores the idea of a Jew returning to Germany through the character Zayde, who visits Munich for the first time since his liberation from a concentration camp.

Gorfinkel, a Chicago native, didn't exactly set out to draw comic strips. After graduating from Boston University in 1990, he moved to New York to attend the New York School of Visual Arts because, “I had no idea what to do with my life.”

He was raised Jewish, exposed to a “wide spectrum of Jewish practices.” As an adult, he decided to follow the “traditional Jewish faith” in which he finds “meaning and comfort.”

His parents moved frequently as he grew up, causing the young Gorfinkel to seek companionship on his own.

“Comic books were my most constant companions,” he said. “Batman was my friend growing up.”

So when he heard that Batman editor Dennis O'Neil was teaching a class in comic-book writing, he was the first in line.

“Dennis was great, still is,” he said. “I took an internship at DC Comics, and two months into it there was an opening to be Dennis' assistant editor on Batman. It was a dream job.”

Gorfinkel, who is in his 30s, lived his dream from 1991 to '99, eventually coming up with an idea in which Gotham City gets cut off from the rest of the United States and is declared “No Man's Land.” The story line lasted a full year, and Gorfinkel was at the top of his game.

Then he quit.

“The business had changed,“ he said. “I changed. I had a family and I wanted a place for my kids to grow up. We talked about it, and then it was decided for us when my wife's mother got ill. We dropped everything and moved to Cleveland. We never left.”

Gorfinkel sells entertainment properties to Hollywood, using the relationships he made in the comics world. His other sideline is producing Jewish music, particularly Jewish a cappella.

“I'm the king of Jewish a cappella,” he said. “During the Jewish season of Sefirah, we are not to listen to music. We are permitted to listen to songs without instruments, so I produce CDs and concerts by groups doing this music (without instruments) for that time. It's a niche market.”

After he left DC Comics, he tried his hand at many things. The idea of a comic strip that dealt with a Jewish couple's “adopted” family came to him one day. He pitched it, and in 1996, the first episode of “Everything's Relative” appeared in New York's Jewish Week.

Part of the story explores the role of Jews in modern Germany.

“Jews are put on a pedestal there,” he said. “There are few there, since most left after the war. Before I went to Munich, the only picture I had in my head was black and white, … Nazis. The reality is very different. There is still a small anti-Semitic influence, it's small. The people there now want to learn about Jews and what happened.”

One strip describes three generations of Jews and their feelings about Germany. The “Survivor Generation” fled. Their children are called the “Anxious Generation,” and their grandchildren are the “Assimilated Generation.” In the strip, a young woman says, “Germany is good for the Jews. Nothing bad can happen here.”

Zayde, who is based on three people in Gorfinkel's life, looks at a watch and is asked, “Checking the time?” and he replies, “No, the date.”

Gorfinkel hopes to bring his work to museums, churches and synagogues across the country.

“I see it as a platform to educate and enlighten people about Judaism,” he said. “I would love to make a presentation at a Catholic Church. I think it would be meaningful.”

This article originally appeared on the The Plain Dealer website at