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Graphic novel depicts Jewish immigrant life in New York’s Lower East Side


Graphic novel review—Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Graphic novel review—Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

One of the great jokes in, or on, American pop culture is the infiltration of Yiddish idioms into American culture.

Harvey Kurtzman, as editor of Mad, dropped terms such as “Fershlugginer” (“confounded”) in those early issues of Mad. Thus, millions of gentile readers got a crash course in Yiddish. According to a Wiki entry, this prompted at least one reader to write in and ask, “Can you please tell me what in the world furshlugginer [sic] means?” Kurtzman’s reply: “It means the same as Potrzebie.”

I was reminded of Kurtzman and those old issues of Mad while reading Unterzakhn (Schocken/Pantheon, hardcover, $27.95Cdn).

“Fershlugginer” is in the new graphic novel, as is “schlemiel” (a dolt) and “petzeleh” (“little one” or “dear”). Corman’s liberal use of Yiddish words in the dialogue adds a verisimilitude and colour to this story of early Jewish immigrant life in New York. It is also is a reminder of the long tradition of Jewish talent in the comics medium.

Unterzakhn is about women first, and Jewish culture second. It takes place (mostly) in New York’s Lower East Side toward the beginning of the last century where two sisters, Fanya and Esther, are coming into womanhood. They end up taking very different paths in their lives, but both shed light on the options that girls had at the time. Spanning decades, the story also takes us back to Russia in the late 1800s, where the experience of the sisters’ father adds an extra level of both humour and pathos.

Graphic novel review—Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

If I have a complaint it’s that Corman’s art doesn’t always serve the story. The artist’s brushstroke can be too broad for nuance. Her line is often graceful but can also be crude. Some panels are confusing. At times I had difficulty telling who was who, or what was happening. And I’m still not sure what happens to one of the sisters at the end, though that may simply because of my own obtuseness.

But the story itself is moving and, for the most part, smartly told. Unterzakhn is Corman’s first graphic novel, and we should look forward to her next one. Mazel tov!

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