A fresh look at Jewish folktales—wise, witty, hilarious.
After finishing school in New York, Rabbi Harvey traveled west in search of adventure and, hopefully, work as a rabbi. His journey took him to Elk Spring, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains. When he managed to outwit the ruthless gang that had been ruling Elk Spring, the people invited Harvey to stay on as the town’s rabbi. In Harvey’s adventures in Elk Spring, he settles disputes, tricks criminals into confessing, and offers unsolicited bits of Talmudic insight and Hasidic wisdom. Each story presents Harvey with a unique challenge—from convincing a child that he is not actually a chicken, to retrieving stolen money from a sweet-faced bubbe gone bad. Like any good collection of Jewish folktales, these stories contain layers of humor and timeless wisdom that will entertain, teach and, especially, make you laugh.
THE ADVENTURES OF RABBI HARVEY
“With a blend of concise illustrations and snappy banter Steve Sheinkin pioneers Jewish folklore in novel directions. A friendly starter for readers of all ages wishing to explore Judaic parables of logic and wit. A jovial read that left me smiling.”
—JT Waldman, author of Megillat Esther
“Imparts so much memorable, useful and enjoyable wisdom. And you gotta love the cartoons that deliver homey Jewish Yiddishkeit in a post-modern format. Move over Aesop’s Fables, make room for Rabbi Harvey’s tales.”
—Shulamit Reinharz, PhD, Brandeis University, coauthor of The JGirl’s Guide:
Jewish Woman’s Handbook for Coming of Age
“Rabbi Harvey tames the West with wisdom on one hip, humor on the other.”
—Stan Mack, author of The Story of the Jews: A 4,000-Year Adventure—A Graphic History
Book and Janet & Me
“Sheinkin has a comedian’s flair for the ridiculous (and I mean that in a good way). That, coupled with his whimsical illustrations, makes The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey a hilarious read!”
—Arie Kaplan, author of Masters of the Comic
Book Universe Revealed!
“For every kid who ever sneaked a comic book into the synagogue, there is a new hero—Rabbi Harvey, who tamed the Old West with Jewish wisdom and humor. I’m hiding a copy of this book in my tallis bag, hoping my kids will find it!”
—Rabbi Edward Feinstein, author of Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life
“When I was a kid, my father told me tales of The Wise Men of Chelm, and Steve Sheinkin’s The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey could be right out of those stories, except that Rabbi Harvey is too smart. It took me all of five minutes to get used to some of the strangest art I have ever seen in a comic, and then I started chuckling and couldn’t stop until I finished the book. Read this book for the humor, for the wisdom, for the great old cowboy songs, for the strange art.”
—Trina Robbins, comics critic and historian,
author of The Great Women Cartoonists
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Rabbi Harvey is HILARIOUS!!! This book has changed the way I think about comics—and being Jewish!!!
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STEVE SHEINKEN BIO
I always dreaded Hebrew school. “Great,” I remember thinking every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. “I just finished a long day of school and now I have to get on a bus and go to a whole other school and sit there and memorize more stuff and get ignored by a whole different set of kids.” I learned everything, though, and did very well at my bar mitzvah, mostly to impress my father. When he died less than a year later, my Jewish education came to a sudden end.
Jewish stories brought me back, though it took a while. After college I began a series of mini-careers, working for an environmental group in Washington, D.C., making low-budget movies in Austin, and writing history textbooks in New York City. The common theme was my desire to write. Always on the lookout for stories, I remembered the Jewish folktales I had loved as a kid. And as I began reading every book of stories I could find, I finally started to see the beauty of Jewish wisdom and ethics. Soon I started working on these Rabbi Harvey comics, with no plan for what I would do with them, no idea if they would be marketable.
I’m still working on Harvey, and still learning about Judaism though stories. After years of writing history textbooks, I’m also writing Storyteller’s History, a series of very untextbooky history books for kids, packed with all the true stories and real quotes textbook editors never let me use. I live in Brooklyn with my wife, Rachel, and our baby girl, Anna.
Q&A WITH STEVE SHEINKEN
Where do these stories come from?
The stories include bits and pieces of classic Jewish folktales, Hasidic legends, Talmudic wisdom, and other rabbinic teachings. For example, “Rabbi Harvey: Bearded Chicken” is based on a story called “The Rooster Prince,” one of the famous tales of the eighteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman. The “Juice Princess” is adapted from a tale in the Talmud in which Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah teaches a lesson to the daughter of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Many of the stories, including “There’s a New Rabbi in Town” and “One Hungry Rabbi”, combine several traditional tales.
Long before I started writing Rabbi Harvey, I began collecting these stories and gems in notebooks, always telling myself: “I’ve got to do something with these.” When writing these comics, I obviously took some liberties with the traditional stories—adding characters, dialogue, jokes, and setting them in the American West. But if my book offers any insight into Jewish wisdom and ethics, that’s due entirely to the richness of the source material.
Why did you set these Jewish tales in the Wild West?
It just seemed like a natural fit, and I’d been working on these comics for several years before I even wondered why. I think what I was doing was subconsciously combining aspects of Jewish and American storytelling traditions. This makes sense for someone who has always been Jewish and American, and who has always loved Jewish folktales and classic Western adventures. Also, the setting is less of a stretch than some may realize. Years ago my sister gave me a great book called Pioneer Jews, which introduced me to the rich history of Jews in the Old West. In the mid-1800s thousands of Jewish immigrants came here with nothing, and many moved west to try their luck as miners and peddlers. So maybe some of these people show up in the Rabbi Harvey stories.
What inspired you to set the stories as comics?
I just always pictured telling these stories in the graphic novel format. The use of drawings really allowed me to give it a Western feel, which I think is important. And I think Rabbi Harvey’s deadpan humor works much better when you can see his face as he delivers his lines. Also, drawing is more fun than writing.
How long did it take to write and draw the book?
I started drawing early versions of Rabbi Harvey stories while living in Austin, Texas, in about 1996. I didn’t know they were “early” versions, but soon after finishing them I realized they weren’t that good. So I kept working on the stories, rewriting and redrawing them. Every few months I’d send some out to publishers, and wait for a new round of rejection letters. Usually they were form letters, though sometimes I would get short, somewhat encouraging notes saying something like, “this is great, but it’s not quite what we do.” After many years of this, I got a call from Jewish Lights. They said, “This is great, but it’s not quite what we do.” Then they decided to take a chance on it.
Does the book have an overall message?
I didn’t write the book to deliver a message, and I’m certainly not qualified to hold forth on Jewish wisdom. I began with the goal of putting my own twist on classic stories, and hopefully making people laugh. The book does end up presenting an overview of ethical teachings, but I hope it does so subtly. Harvey’s not one to lecture folks.
Has Rabbi Harvey appeared in any other stories or books?
Just in hundreds of pages of rough drafts and stories that I decided didn’t work. Harvey has only appeared publicly in one other setting: for my wedding two years ago, I drew a Rabbi Harvey wedding program. Harvey introduces the main participants, and explains some of the Jewish wedding traditions and symbols.
What’s next for Rabbi Harvey?
I’m still reading books of Jewish folklore, collecting stories for what I hope will be future volumes of Rabbi Harvey’s adventures. I’m also always taking suggestions for stories and bits of wisdom (see below to e-mail me if you feel like sharing). Several people—most importantly my wife, Rachel—have told me that Harvey seems a bit lonely, and that I should have him meet a nice woman. So I’m taking that into consideration.
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- This book combines Jewish and American folklore and storytelling traditions. Can you think of other ways to combine these elements in stories or other art forms? Do you find yourself combining elements of Jewish and American culture in everyday life?
- One common theme in Jewish folktales—and in Rabbi Harvey’s adventures—is that the hero often triumphs over evil using wisdom or trickery, rather than physical strength. How might the realities of Jewish history have contributed to the prominence of this theme in Jewish stories?
- Discuss the ethical teachings in these stories. Do you think these teachings are still relevant today? Is there one story that seems particularly relevant or useful to your own life?
- In the story “Forgive Me, Rabbi” (p. 77), Harvey bases his actions on his belief that when one wrongs a fellow human being, asking God for forgiveness is not good enough. Do you think he’s right about this?
- In the story “Stump the Rabbi” Harvey answers some tough questions with the help of bits of wisdom from a variety of sources. The “Why weren’t you Harvey?” question (p. 104) comes from the eighteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Zusya, who, on his deathbed, was struck by the realization that in the world to come he would not be asked, “Why weren’t you Abraham or Moses?” He would be asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” Do you ever have this concern about yourself?
- The final exchange in this story (p. 107) comes from recent times, as some have wondered how God could have permitted the Holocaust to occur. “Where was God?” many have asked. One response—which has been suggested by Eli Wiesel among others—is: “Where was Man?” Do you find this answer at all satisfying?
- In the Talmud Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva debate this question: Which is more important—learning or action? Rabbi Akiva insists that learning is more important. Rabbi Tarfon makes the case for action, arguing that study and wisdom are valuable only when they are put to practical use. The other rabbis listen to the debate, and finally decide that learning is more important—but only when it leads to action. How would you have ruled on this question? Do you see any evidence that this might be one of Rabbi Harvey’s favorite Talmudic passages?
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The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey