Rocky Mountain Rabbi
The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West
By Steve Sheinkin
Jewish Lights Publishing, 144 pages, $16.99
Could it be that the Wild West — that vast frontier immortalized by the likes of Gary Cooper and John Wayne — bears a startling resemblance to the Mild East? Specifically, the Eastern European Jewish shtetl?
It’s a question that would never even occur to most of us, but apparently Steve Sheinkin seems to think the two places aren’t so different.
In fact, he believes so fervently in their similarity that he has penned an unlikely mixture of the two, “The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West.”
The eponymous star of this graphic novel is a sallow, black-bearded rabbi who, like a latter-day Baal Shem Tov, dispenses wisdom to the prairie dwellers of Elk Spring, Colo., and who — like Will Kane, the marshal of Hadleyville in the 1952 Western film “High Noon” — throws out riffraff, such as Daniel “The Lion” Levy, “Big Milt” Wasserman and Moses “Matzah Man” Goldwater (three villains who don’t look so different from the sorts you would see wandering the streets of the Midwood section of Brooklyn).
“See here, Rebbe,” says Big Milt, grabbing Rabbi Harvey by the lapels, “I want you out of this town by the time I finish my drink. And I should warn you, I’m plenty thirsty.”
When Rabbi Harvey doesn’t move, Big Milt says, “Not leaving, huh?”
“Rather not,” Rabbi Harvey replies.
“Guess I’ll have to kill you then.”
It doesn’t sound very different from the banter of an Eastwood movie… but Rabbi Harvey’s methods of triumph and escape are a little more unorthodox (if you’ll pardon the expression) than Eastwood’s. He defeats his enemies with logic and talmudic reasoning. Big Milt asks the rabbi how he would like to die, and after a few seconds hesitation he responds, “Of old age.”
The answer flummoxes the bloodthirsty gangster. After the rabbi again makes mincemeat out of Big Milt’s next attempt to murder him, Big Milt flees town as quickly as he can.
Rabbi Harvey has a knack for trapping the town’s liars and cheats. He manages to convince a little boy who thinks he’s a chicken to begin acting like a boy again. He cannot be stumped by a question. He might go to an occasional rabbi convention in Cheyenne, Wyo., but otherwise he seems quite content taking care of his Western town, much like the shtetl rabbis. And for this reason, “Rabbi Harvey” is as much a book of Yiddish folklore as it is a book about the Wild West, wherein lies a big problem.
Aside from the first encounter with Big Milt, the Western setting doesn’t feel integral to the story of Rabbi Harvey. It just seems like background. When Robert Aldrich got a similar idea for “The Frisco Kid,” a movie about a Polish rabbi’s 19th-century journey to a congregation in San Francisco, the film worked because Aldrich threw Gene Wilder into actual Western situations — capture by Indians, robbery by bandits, hunger and death. That was a true clash between worlds.
The other problem with “Rabbi Harvey” is that it doesn’t really fit in with any demographic. Graphic novels have complex and serious stories with dialogue that is 90% grown up (well, at least as grown up as your average PG-13 or R-rated action flick).
“Rabbi Harvey” — which adamantly clings to its folktalelike stories and sunny dialogue — will never appeal to the average 11 or 12-year-old. If Sheinkin really wanted something that would have appealed to older kids (and maybe even to us nerdy adults), he would have made the book a bit grittier.
True, there are tales of theft and attempted murder in “Rabbi Harvey” — we can’t forget Big Milt — but how can anyone take gangsters like Big Milt seriously? Nevertheless, Sheinkin has produced a book that undoubtedly will appeal to a younger audience than that which generally hunts graphic novels (say, 9 or 10-year-olds). Could this be your 9-year-old’s first graphic novel? After all, Hanukkah is right around the corner. If so, it will blast down the doors of two great genres. Your 9-year-old might say something that Rabbi Harvey never says: “Yeehaw!”
Max Gross is a writer for the New York Post.