Jaffe’s Jewish Jive

By Marcia Jaffe | mjaffe@atljewishtimes.com

What do you get when you cross Joan Rivers (without the bite), Dr. Ruth (without the sex) and Shelly Berman with his Jewish angst? Roz Chast, who has published more than 1,000 cartoons (and multiple covers) in the prestigious New Yorker magazine and authored 12 books.

Chast addressed a private audience of 700 on Thursday, May 21, at the Alliance Theatre.

Sometimes I go to events anticipating a great deal and not getting much. In this case, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was entertained and touched beyond expectations.ARTS-Chats book

Chast, an unassuming only child from Flatbush, is known in highbrow circles for her intellectual and subtle illustrations of family life with a Jewish twist. She holds a B.F.A. in painting and an honorary doctorate from the Pratt Institute, but the cartoons appear basic and doodly at first glance. Chast, who has also published in the Harvard Business Review and Scientific American, often buries her humor in the borders, corners and backgrounds of drawings. Sometimes you have to actually think to get it.

She took us on an intimate, illustrated journey of her life.

Chast drew herself at age 8, frozen in bed as an anxious child reading the Merck Drug Manual to rule out leprosy and lockjaw.

As an only child of old-fashioned parents, Chast strove to be a warmer friend to her own children, drawing herself shaking her hips while dancing. In the cartoon, the horrified, embarrassed daughter oozes, “Mom, don’t do that. You are hurting me.” Chast thus labeled herself a “wussie parent.”

Among other highlights of the night:

  • Chast drew her father’s typical Sunday morning breakfast, which takes him two hours to eat. “He is not a heavy man,” she said, “but eats a little bit of everything.” The items doodled in the border are schav (a soup of “green weeds”), sour cream, Muenster cheese, ham, lox, borscht, grapefruit, gefilte fish, prunes, bagel and banana.
  • Chast had to stop to explain words to the mixed audience, such as kishkes (guts) and pippick (belly).
  • Don’t be a cartoonist, she advised. “Most of my work is rejected, and there is no pension.”

    ARTS-Chast_Roz

    Photo by Marcia Jaffe – Cartoonist Roz Chast (left) poses with Jodi Firestone, community outreach director for Arbor.

  • Her Thanksgiving dinner guests each had a label — vegan, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, vegetarian, strictly kosher.
  • She explained how we read the obituaries — “two years older than me,” “10 years younger than me.”

Because the event was sponsored by the Arbor Co., operator of senior living facilities, Chast hit the nexus of her most recent book, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” a touching, funny look at helping elderly parents navigate the end of life.

She quoted Marcel Proust about the chrysalis of aging and mused about her parents feeling like inmates or childish summer campers after being moved into an assisted living facility: “Maybe setting up a kibbutz for elderly hippies with individuality allowing LSD might be a better solution.”

Chast’s mother got “good at hospice” and lingered well into her late 90s after her father succumbed to Alzheimer’s. The artist-observer poignantly sketched her mother with oxygen tubes at life’s end. This, you think, cannot be funny in a cartoon.

Fan Sandy Bailey said: “Making light of the reality of death and its preparation brought back memories about my mother’s last few days and how important she was to me. We all go through it and must be prepared. But I really laughed at her slide about the Holy Trinity being salt-sugar-butter.”

One thing was certain: Chast made us cry until we laughed our kishkes out.