Artists on Artists: The Eclectic Inspirations of Jeremy Dauber


We’re delighted to bring CANVAS Compendium readers another installment of Artists on Artists, when a creative Jewish person whom we admire talks about the creative Jewish people they admire. This time it’s Jeremy Dauber, a writer, historian, and the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University.

Dauber grew up in an Orthodox community in New Jersey. At Harvard, he first read authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth “and got hooked.” He earned his doctorate at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship; at Columbia, he now teaches about Dostoevsky, Mel Brooks, graphic novels, and Sholem Aleichem, “among other things.”

Dauber’s books include Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, American Comics: A History, and most recently Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew. Below, he relates the Jewish artists who helped formulate his own sensibility.

Featured image: Writer, historian, and professor Jeremy Dauber. Photo: Tilly Blair. 

Mike Nichols and Elaine May

Elaine May and Mike Nichols in An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, 1960. Photo: NYPL.

There’s tons of funny Jews I admire. But I’m not sure that there are two funny Jews whose act I wished I’d seen more, in person, than Nichols and May on Broadway, in their salad days, when these impossibly young, impossibly gifted improvisationalists mashed together high and low culture with abandon, portraying rocket scientists and Jewish mothers and necking teenagers and telephone operators and making the audiences rock with laughter and bringing the awareness, at a time when people still dressed for the theater, that they were in the presence of something utterly urbane and yet intensely new.

Harvey Kurtzman

Detail of the cover of the first Mad Magazine, 1952. Image: Lambiek Comiclopedia

Jews have had a seismic impact on comics and the range is enormous: consider Siegel and Shuster, Neil Gaiman, Brian Michael Bendis, Art Spiegelman, Trina Robbins, and Harvey Pekar. Kurtzman isn’t necessarily the Jewish comics creator whose work I like the most. But, in many ways, his manic and obsessive imagination is the one that seems to harness the spirit of Jewish cartooning: funny, protean, parodic, and yet, when he wanted to be, grounded and intensely moral. 

Miriam Karpilove 

Miriam Karpilove. Image: Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

Unlike the others here, this was a recent discovery. It’s thanks to my former student, Jessica Kirzane, who published her translation of Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, which is something like if Sex and the City was written in the early 20th century, and in Yiddish. Karpilove—whose literary reputation, until very recently, was non-existent, thanks to the twin forces of sexism and marginalization of American literature in languages other than English—is a major talent, and the novel is resonant for anyone out there who wants to know about finding love, and the struggles to do so.

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison in 1982. Photo: Pip R. Lagenta via Flickr.

Ellison opened a vein and bled all over the page. His fantastic stories—in both senses of the word—were always shot through with personal indignation, anger, and pain. He was controversial, for the best of reasons and the worst; but he was responsible for some of the most pungent images in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror in the latter half of the twentieth century—to say nothing of one of the best Jewish science fiction stories ever written (“I’m Looking for Kadak”) and perhaps the funniest Jewish mother story ever written (“Mom”).

Stephen Sondheim / S. An-sky (tie)

Stephen Sondheim in 1976. Photo: Wikipedia. S. An-sky in 1910. Photo: Wikipedia.

My two favorite Jewish play-makers. (Sorry, Neil Simon and Tony Kushner; you both come very close.) Maybe it’s because they’re both alchemical masters, gifted at the act of transmutation: Sondheim picks up the things around him in New York (Company) or bits of fairy tales or terrifying legends (Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd) and turns them into magnificent oceans of song. An-Sky (born Solomon Zanvel Rappoport)takes legends from a wide swath of Jewish history—from pogroms, from Hasidic tales, from folk stories, from ethnographic encounters—and turns them into The Dybbuk, perhaps the most important Jewish ghost story in a history full of them. 

See previous Artists on Artists curated by visual artist Tiffany Shlain and Tom Haviv and Eden Pearlstein, editors of Ayin Press.

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