652: Interview with the historian who created Rabbi Harvey of the Wild West

ne reason I love Steve Sheinkin’s creativity is that he still approaches history with a child’s wonderment. This isn’t some artificial guise he pulls on to create Rabbi Harvey of the Wild West. No, Sheinkin takes sincere pleasure in the creative leaps he is making with each new volume in this series.
    Here’s a good example: In the Introduction to his latest collection of tales, “Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid,” he writes, “Unlike most Westerns I’ve seen, the story here is made up of bits and pieces of Jewish folktales and teachings,  Midrash, Talmudic wisdom, and Hassidic legends.”
    He offers that sentence as a matter-of-fact observation to readers. In fact, Sheinkin is creating an entirely new genre here of graphic novels that blend classic Hollywood Westerns, like “Rio Bravo” and “High Noon,” with the best of Eastern European Jewish culture.
    Can you envision big ol’ John Wayne settling his elbows on the bar in a dusty saloon, drawling, “Well, pardner, as the Talmud teaches us…”?
    Or, Clint Eastwood? Can you picture him, guns drawn, chewing on a thin cigar as he warns his foes, “I’m no Maimonides, but I’ve done a bit of learning”?
    On Monday, we published our review—and a general overview—of Sheinkin’s books. TODAY, if you’re like me, you want to learn more about what makes this Brooklyn-based Jewish historian tick.

Highlights of Our Interview with Steve Sheinkin
on “Rabbi Harvey vs. the Wisdom Kid”

DAVID: It’s great to talk with you again, Steve! We’ve been supporters of your Rabbi Harvey series all along—but many of our readers, I suspect, are just learning about your series this week. So, let’s start with your background: For years, you wrote textbooks for schoolkids about American history, right?
STEVE: For years, I was a textbook writer. Now, I consider myself an anti-textbook writer, because I eventually got sick of it. Over the years, I collected all the stories they wouldn’t let me put into the textbooks. Now, I write history for kids that, hopefully, they’ll want to read.
DAVID: In addition to your Rabbi Harvey books, you’ve actually produced a whole line of alternative history books.
STEVE: Right. The first one is about the American Revolution called, “King George: What Was His Problem?” Then, there’s a Civil War book called, “Two Miserable Presidents.” The newest one is on the West called, “Which Way to the Wild West?”
Now, I’m working on a Benedict Arnold thriller. That’s something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I think I can make this into a really exciting book and I finally got a publisher to agree.
DAVID: To help readers, we’ll add an Amazon link here to “Which Way to the Wild West? Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About Westward Expansion.” So, tell us: Why can’t you get the good stuff into textbooks anymore? Aren’t teachers eager for kids to read about history? What gets cut out?
STEVE: Anything good! Literally all the funny, controversial, disgusting, upsetting stuff—all the stuff an author wants to use to capture the attention of kids—gets cut out of textbooks. Publishers are worried they’ll offend someone. There are all these pressure groups out there, now, who go through every line of textbooks—and they object loudly if there’s anything they don’t like. So, publishers want to avoid even the potential—even the possibility—that someone might be offended. So, writing and editing textbooks has turned into this hypersensitive process. I think history textbooks have become boring and ineffective. Who wants to read the dry text that’s left?

DAVID: Give us an example.
STEVE: Here’s a good one: The story of the Louisiana Purchase is one of the funniest stories in history. Textbooks only give kids the dry stuff, so it sounds boring. But, American diplomats were over there in France when Napoleon decided he wanted to sell Louisiana to the Americans for the cash. He wanted to start a war.
Suddenly, these diplomats were faced with the possibility of picking up half a continent! They weren’t authorized to do that. There are these really funny scenes where the American diplomats are in these negotiations with the French—and the Americans are falling out of their chairs at what’s unfolding! It takes so long for letters to get back and forth from America that they’re on their own. There were spies on both sides trying to figure out what the other side was doing. It’s a wonderful story—funny and exciting!
Here’s another example: Lewis and Clark have a lot of funny scenes in their adventures that you’d never learn about in a textbook. One of the men in the crew actually shot Clark in the ass at one point, by accident. It wasn’t that serious, but Clark had to lie down in the canoe face down until it healed. Now, that’s funny. It’s the kind of scene kids would enjoy, but textbooks won’t include it.

DAVID: In your own family, your father helped you get past the boring stuff in your schooling—is that fair to say? You went to Hebrew school dutifully, but your heart wasn’t in it—at least at first, that is.
STEVE: My father was from a stricter, more-Orthodox background, so he was quite serious about this when I was a kid. It was important to my father that I go to Hebrew school three days a week for two or three hours each time. To me, it felt endless. Think about it from a kid’s perspective: I would finish my normal school day, then get on a bus and go to another school. That was tough to take.
This was a serious Hebrew school. It wasn’t just a little training on the side to breeze through a bar mitzvah. There was a whole lot of memorization and they didn’t explain a lot about why we were learning this. It probably was my fault more than theirs, but I didn’t know why I was doing this. What I knew was: My father wanted me to do it. He thinks it’s important. I idolized my father, so I did this. But secretly I didn’t know why I was learning all of this.
I don’t think my father would have ever fully understood what I was thinking, but he did start to give me these books on Jewish folk tales and that was a major turning point for me. Those stories were so clever and so funny that I didn’t even care that I was learning Jewish ethics as I read them. I was hooked! My education started there. I still have the first one he gave me, “101 Jewish Folk Tales.” These were such clever heroes! They outwitted the bad guys, but they didn’t beat them up. I had nothing against beating up bad guys, but I was amazed at how cleverly these heroes outwitted the bad guys without violence. This was a whole new idea! Then as an adult, I went back to those books and read more and more.

DAVID: There never was a specific “Rabbi Harvey” like the one in your book, right?

STEVE: Right. There is no specific source. The story evolved more than it sprang from some sudden light bulb moment. Harvey has changed over the years. He’s always had that basic look: the uni-brow and beard. But, I’ve realized over time that he’s a little younger than I thought, at first. Ironically, he’s gotten younger as the books have gone on.
DAVID: I see a bit of Clint Eastwood in him—or maybe Henry Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” that classic movie about Honest Abe.
STEVE: Yes, there is an Abraham Lincoln look about him.
DAVID: And Clint Eastwood?
STEVE: I’m a big fan of Clint Eastwood, but the Westerns I drew from most directly come from an earlier period in Hollywood. These are classic Westerns in terms of themes and the visuals, too. I actually look back at movies like “Rio Bravo” and others I’ve liked over the years and I capture pictures from the movies and use them as a reference for the scenes I create. For this new book, I looked at “High Noon,” in particular. It’s got that classic man in the street bravely facing his foe. I had screen captures from “High Noon” around me as I worked on this.

DAVID: Harvey has evolved a lot through these three books. He’s now getting serious about Abigail, his love interest. I enjoy the fact that Abigail is not a school teacher or a saloon hostess. She’s a tough and resourceful miner in the Rockies, where the story is set. I don’t want to spoil this new book for readers, but early in the story, Harvey does get a ring for Abigail and hopes to ask her the big question. What happens next isn’t exactly a straight path toward marriage, though. And I won’t say more.
STEVE: We don’t want to spoil the story, but the ring shows up early in the book.
DAVID: I have to say that I know of ReadTheSpirit readers who are big fans of your work. Joe Lewis, another Jewish writer, Emailed me recently that he plans to order this new book—then enjoy reading it cover to cover—before he lets his kids know he’s got it! If he let them see it, first, he’d never get to read it.
STEVE: I’m glad there are readers out there like that. I think many of my readers are boys about the age I was when I first discovered Jewish folklore.
DAVID: Are you glad that’s the case?
STEVE: Yes, I’m glad the books attract young readers. But there’s a lot more here that adults can enjoy.
DAVID: Oh, I agree completely!
STEVE: Harvey uses thousands of years of Jewish ethics to solve these problems and hopefully people will enjoy the action, the suspense and also all the jokes along the way.
DAVID: I know it takes a year or two produce each new book, at the pace you’re going with other work along the way. Are you pretty sure there will be a fourth volume in this series?
STEVE: Yes, I do hope to continue the series. But I always want to keep them fresh. I think of all the readers out there who know Rabbi Harvey now and have high expectations of our hero.

(CLICK HERE to visit Jewish Lights Publishing and order copies of the Rabbi Harvey graphic novels.)

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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