Arts & Culture

When Jewish David Met Irish Eileen

[Like many bespectacled Jewish men, Eli Valley enjoys making things up about comic books. Unlike your average Chabon or Lethem, however, Valley prefers soap operas to Superman, which is why he’s spent years amassing a collection of genuine 1970s-era romance … Read More

By / April 30, 2007

[Like many bespectacled Jewish men, Eli Valley enjoys making things up about comic books. Unlike your average Chabon or Lethem, however, Valley prefers soap operas to Superman, which is why he’s spent years amassing a collection of genuine 1970s-era romance comics. Every pop-out page in this essay contains an authentic excerpt from an actual comic book. As for the text, well, like we said, let’s just say his graduate thesis was entitled "Casper the Friendly Anti-Semite: The Image of Jew and Gentile in American Comic Books, Board Games and McDonald’s Happy Meals In The Aftermath of the Yom Kippur War."]

Much has been written on the Jewish themes that underlie the world’s most successful comic book franchises. It is no longer a matter of debate whether Superman, Wonder Woman and Batgirl are Jewish, but to what degree they support the emergence of non-Orthodox forms of worship in the State of Israel. (In Justice League of America #224, when Green Lantern formed a giant green canopy for women to pray at the Western Wall, it was a rallying moment for prepubescent pluralists throughout the world.) Jewish themes in comics probably peaked when Lex Luthor forced Superman to drink a glass of milk twenty minutes after feeding him a hamburger. Others cite The Incredible Hulk #112, when The Hulk was discovered reenacting the liver scene from Portnoy’s Complaint (using the livers of 25 elephants).

But what of romance comics, that illegitimate half-breed of comic book and romance novel? Ignored by collectors and overlooked by critics, these titles were geared towards preteen girls facing crucial life issues: Finding a man who would marry them before they turn 20; standing by their man through thick and thin; and deciding what to do should they fall in love with a Jew.

This last theme found unique expression in a nine-part series from 1973 to 1974 in Charlton Comics’ “Just Married.” Focusing on “Jewish David” and “Irish Eileen,” the series would plumb the depths of the religious and cultural complexities inherent in intermarriages between Christians and Jews.

The 1970s were a heady time for Jews. Freed in the previous decade from the last of the nation’s anti-Semitic restrictions, Jews were finally entering the American mainstream. And yet, there were those in both Jewish and Christian worlds who insisted that Jews remain separate. What better venue to wrestle with issues of cross-cultural conflict than in the pages of America’s romance comics?

On the following pages are selections from this groundbreaking series, along with in-depth contextual commentary.

The Forbidden Love Blossoms

The story, told from Eileen’s point of view, begins when she meets David at a mountain resort. In a daring move to shatter stereotypes, the storyline gives David an atypical profession: “I’m an accountant and my firm does the books for the hotel.” Here we also meet Eileen’s close friend, Connie The Raging Anti-Semite. Charlton Comics spun this character off into her own series, KKK Connie Comics (tagline: “She Loves Her Man … And Hates The Jews”), which has become a runaway success recently in Egypt, Dubai and Malaysia.

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Meet the (Irate) Parents

In the first episode’s climax, David and Eileen fall in love, elope and honeymoon in a matter of days, whereupon both their parents barge into their hotel suite. Here we learn that David’s mother bears a suspicious resemblance to Connie The Raging Anti-Semite, raising age-old questions of identity and self-hatred reinforced by her remark that the blonde’s beauty is sufficient grounds for her son to renounce Judaism. Similarly, David’s father looks almost identical to Eileen’s father, down to the prevalent 1970s fashion of dying white the posterior portion of their hair. In his “Homoerotic Images of Middle-Aged Irishmen and Jews in American Romance Comics” (unpublished), Heschy Fornblatt of UC Berkeley cites this resemblance as a “sly, postmodern, Lacanian, pastiche, paradigm shift of the cultural metonym doppelganger I and Thou.” However, look closely at Panel Three: The Gentile speaks, quite literally, with his fist, whereas the Jew speaks with an outstretched index finger. In a single panel, the artist has ingeniously contrasted the Flaming Sword of Constantine’s Church with the Penetrating Mind of the Talmud.

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Going to the Chapel Again — and Again

Although they have already eloped, David and Eileen get remarried, twice, to please their parents – first in a church, and then in a synagogue. In the storyline’s solitary visit to a Jewish house of worship, we glean fascinating insights into Orthodox Jewish customs – the burning incense, the rabbi wearing a circular necklace, the resemblance of the rabbi to Jesus, the prayer book inscribed with a Jewish Star drawn to resemble a Pentagram. It is as if the comic book is asking, are not all religions the same? Especially if they all look like Christianity? Finally, the comic book reveals that in Orthodox Jewish weddings, it is customary for the rabbi to make out with the bride, particularly if she is a Gentile.

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Honeymoon with Jesus

Soon the narrative tackles the inevitable religious divide between a Jewish husband and a Catholic wife. Naturally, the story emphasizes the Jew’s enjoyment of mental exercise, as indicated by his chess matches with the priest. But what about matters of the spirit? Here we must note the artist’s brilliant use of the color yellow to depict Eileen’s hair, Jesus’s halo, and the divine light that blankets Eileen and David as they pray. One might conclude that yellow is the color of salvation. But look closely at the first panel. Next to a slumbering David lies a yellow ashtray and a yellow urn: a blatant reminder of his eternal damnation in Hellfire should he not accept Christ as his Savior. This is reinforced by Eileen’s admission, in a yellow caption, that “My prayers were all for him!” and by the yellow car in the corner of the final panel, which contains the Devil.

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The Newlywed Game

Here we see David’s mother stopping by with her brother, who happens to be a rabbi. The rabbi is delighted to see Eileen offering him tea and cake – crucial qualifications to become an Orthodox Jewish woman. Another interesting note: In the last panel there is an old-fashioned clock and a gun on the wall. Professor James Longhorn of St. John’s University has associated these items with issues of mortality as Eileen and David struggle with their spiritual divide. But actually, clocks and guns were common furnishings in intermarriage households of the 1970s – the clock because, historically speaking, Judaism emphasizes collective memory, and the gun because, historically speaking, Christians like to shoot things.

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The Seven-Week Itch

After meeting with her priest to discuss a possible conversion to Judaism, Eileen offers prayer to all of the Saints who have been a buttress in her life. It is perhaps the most spiritually transcendent moment in the series. At the end, she cryptically blurts “I hope David is enjoying his bowling.” Scholars have parsed this frame for decades to determine what it might mean for the narrative and for interfaith understanding. Is it a contention that Judaism values earthly pursuits over Christianity’s bodiless Spirit? Or is it a sarcastic, almost hostile rebuke to her husband for idling around while she considers changing her very identity? As is the case with the Dead Sea Scrolls, we might never know the author’s intent.

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Key Differences Emerge

Tension emerges when David – in a habit entirely foreign to Jews – thinks everybody around him is an anti-Semite out to kill him. Eileen humors him, recognizing that paranoid neurotic outbursts are the inevitable downside to that quirky Jewish humor she’s grown to love. Privately, though, she begins to worry. We subsequently learn that the neighbors belong to a culture that in the 1970s was far more pernicious than anti-Semitism. They are free-loving swingers.

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Shalom, Santa

The story of David and Eileen concludes at Christmas, a time of often pronounced religious and cultural differences among intermarried couples. Try as she might, Eileen cannot bring herself to pronounce the word “Shabbat” because, on a subconscious level, she cannot fully embrace David’s religion. In a fit of embarrassment that sears her every Friday, she settles, in humiliating defeat, on “Sabbath Shalom.” (Note David grinning maliciously.) By the end of the meal, Eileen, who has steadfastly cooked, cleaned and shopped for her husband throughout the series, is shocked to learn that “women’s lib” has not permeated Orthodox synagogues.

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I’m Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

In the story’s climax, we learn that when all is said and done, Orthodox Jews pine for Christmas trees too. We see in these pages that David’s mother, in a fit of self-loathing revealed, in previous issues, by her habit of cutting herself, has begun her final descent into crushing depression. Wracked by guilt over her son’s embrace of the Christmas tree, she has resorted to Yiddish inflections (“You shouldn’t mind?” “So stop already the kissing.”). In Panel Two we see her portrayed in the early stages of a schizophrenic breakdown. Willem de Kooning used this panel as the model for his masterpiece, Orthodox Jewish Woman and Christmas Tree XVII.

The entire story ends on a heartwarming note: America is a melting pot that embraces people from the most diverse backgrounds, all united in the redemptive power of love. And Christmas.

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