Yaakov Kirschen has been drawing Dry Bones (Drybones.com and Drybonesblog.com), a cartoon that frequently takes a barbed view on politics and other issues around the world as they pertain to Jews, for close to 40 years. Born in Brooklyn in 1938, he moved to Israel in 1971 and makes one of his regular trips back to the States this month. Among his appearances will be as guest speaker at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David, West Orange, on Sunday evening, Oct. 17.
Prior to his departure from his home in Herzliya Pituach last week, Kirschen participated in an e-mail interview with NJ Jewish News.
NJJN: What’s the significance of the name you chose for your cartoon?
Yaakov Kirschen: Ezekiel 37 is the biblical vision of the “dry bones” — a 2,600-year-old dream that details the rebirth of the Jewish people, their return to the land, and the ensuing political woes of the newly reborn state. What better name could I have picked?
NJJN: Do you consider Dry Bones political/editorial, or does it vary from drawing to drawing?
Kirschen: I think of it as a political comic strip. I use this graphic form to explain what I believe to be the truth in a time when, for various reasons, the truth is often hard to find.
NJJN: What were you doing prior to creating Dry Bones?
Kirschen: Back in America in the 1960s, I was a gag cartoonist for Playboy and other magazines. The goal back then was, of course, to make people laugh without the need to communicate social or political “truths.”
NJJN: Where did you get your training?
Kirschen: Drawing and distributing insulting pictures of school teachers while a pupil in P.S. 67 in Brooklyn.
NJJN: Are the politics depicted your own, general public opinion, or a combination?
Kirschen: My own.
NJJN: Since Dry Bones is syndicated, do you get feedback from readers?
Kirschen: When I meet folks, they’ll often go on and on about how they read and love the cartoon. In my experience, people write when they’re upset or angry. So far I have not been deluged with complaints.
NJJN: You’ve been doing this for so long, does it ever get to a point where you think you just can’t come up with anything more to draw about?
Kirschen: I’m dealing with Jews, the Jewish state, and the time we live in. My problem is that there’s just too much to draw about!
NJJN: Where do you get your ideas? I imagine they come easily at times — like drawing holiday greetings, for example — and with greater difficulty at others. Have you ever suffered “cartoonist’s block”?
Kirschen: My ideas are simply my reaction to the news. There’s always news, and I always have a reaction.
NJJN: You offer three drawings a week. Aside from the financial bookkeeping, do you pay attention to which sorts of themes get picked up most often? Do you find some newspapers stay away from controversial topics and use “lighter” themes more often?
Kirschen: I try to give editors a choice. I don’t track what they choose to print. That’s their job. I don’t, and would never, adjust Dry Bones’ content to make it “more marketable.”
NJJN: So how is business these days, considering the toll the economy has taken on print journalism? Are you maintaining the same clientele or has it decreased — or increased — over the past couple of years?
Kirschen: There’s been a huge blossoming of Dry Bones readership on line. DryBonesBlog.com is wildly popular, but the newspaper industry has been hit both by a public gravitating to the Internet and by a fall in advertising revenues…. A few months ago I was a speaker at the National Cartoonists Society’s annual awards weekend. The woes of the newspaper industry and its struggle to survive was a major topic of discussion.
NJJN: Let’s talk about the blog for a minute. Why did you decide to do it? Is it just another item that falls into the artist’s ever-increasing job description these days?
Kirschen: Dry Bones in a newspaper like NJ Jewish News is speaking to the community. Folks who read the Jewish News are “insiders.” But when the cartoon appears on DryBonesBlog.com, it’s read by an audience that includes “outsiders” like Egyptians, Iraqis, Australians, Indians, etc. I refused to water down the cartoons so I decided that to make Dry Bones understandable to everyone I’d have to supply the background information to go with it.
NJJN: If an artist has to explain the meaning of a drawing because the reader doesn’t “get it,” is that a failing on the artist’s part?
Kirschen: If an art lover does not understand a painting, it shows his lack of understanding. If a cartoon reader does not understand a cartoon, it’s the cartoonist’s fault, period!
NJJN: Where in Israel do you live?
Kirschen: I live in the gorgeous little seaside town of Herzliya Pituach. It’s just north of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean (soon to be renamed the Sea of Flotillas).
NJJN: Do you get back to the U.S. much?
Kirschen: With the insane rise of anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel, I’m setting up a few speaking tours each year. I’ll be speaking at CAMERA’s conference on the delegitimization of Israel at Boston University, Oct. 10-11; on Oct. 21, I’ll be giving a seminar at Yale University. In between will be family time, I’ll be hanging out with my daughter and her family in Tenafly and appearing at Congregation AABJ&D, and, yes, I consider a New Jersey congregation to be “family.”
NJJN: So, I see the photo of you with the ukulele. Is that just a prop, or do you play? What do you do to unwind?
Kirschen: Ukulele playing is the way I unwind. And I’m a compulsive collector of the fascinating instruments, with about 14 ukes at present. I’m trying not to buy any more.