What if I was to tell you something about your father? Something that he did, way before you were born. Something small – but something that kept rolling and rolling, until it became everything he was to this day?
That’s the story of Rabbi David Kahn.
Rabbi David Kahn is for all intents and purposes, a model Jewish man. For over forty years, he has been a respected man in the Jewish community – but that all falls apart on the day of his funeral. Startling news by way of Kahn’s grafter brother reveals that the man his community and family knew as Rabbi David Kahn was all a lie. He’s not a rabbi… he’s not even Jewish. This leads his family and close friends to examine their life and each interaction with the man they thought they knew. From the son who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a Rabbi himself, to the rebellious daughter who left the faith, and the youngest – Eli – who has more questions than anyone.
That story is told in the upcoming graphic novel The Big Kahn from NBM Publishing. Created and written by Xeric-Award winning author Neil Kleid, this book explores the ties that a family has and the true meaning of faith. Kleid works with illustrator Nicolas Cinquegrani on this riveting 176 page black and white book which is scheduled to be released this summer.
For more, we talked with the writer by email from his home in New York.
Newsarama: Neil, what can you tell us about this book?
Neil Kleid: Well, Chris, The Big Kahn is my second graphic novel for NBM Publishing and continues my "I write about Jews" theme for the publisher. Leaving the period genre I immersed myself in with Brownsville, this book explores a contemporary tale, set in suburban New Jersey, that relates the aftermath of the passing of Rabbi David Kahn.
Rabbi Kahn has lived a forty-year lie: he is not, nor has he ever been, Jewish. When at his funeral, the “rabbi’s” grifter brother reveals the truth, it forces the Kahn family to struggle with grief and betrayal as their congregation examines their every move and they question all they believe. It's a sequential drama about loss, lies, belief and renewal in this exploration of a family secret so well-hidden, it questions the very nature of faith. I came up with the idea of a few years back after getting into the HBO series Six Feet Under — the quirky Fisher family really inspired the characters, style and mood of this book, but it's also a story that poses questions I've often asked myself about religion, belief and what happens when everything you know is wrong? What would I do, as an Orthodox Jew, if I discovered that the religion I'd been raised to believe in wasn't mine?
NRAMA: Tell us more about Rabbi David Kahn.
NK: Oh, sure... pillar of the community, leader to a congregation of over 150 families. The Kahns are cornerstones of the community, having helped build their synagogue from the ground up. Rabbi Kahn, genial and engaging, knowledgeable and respected, was not your average rabbi — not only did he root himself in Torah and Yiddishkeit, but he also had his head in the real world, understood things like movies, music and the value of the internet for Judaic outreach. Rabbi David Kahn was a great, great man. It's a damn shame he was never real.
See, "Rabbi Kahn" was actually Donnie Dobbs, half of a streetwise, fast-talking pair of brothers who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, educating themselves in the nature of the grift, the sting, the con. Together, Donnie and his brother Roy worked every angle that came their way—until Donnie found himself caught in a sucker's game: love. Once Donnie (posing as a rabbinical student gathering funds for a fictional out-of-state yeshiva) fell to the demure, dazzling, delicate eyes of Rachel Freedberg, he knew there was no way out of this grift and instead of carefully extricating himself, he threw himself in as deep as he could go. Over the years, Donnie gathered the means and ways to become "David Kahn" (one can assume— his family never knew the details and once Donnie committed himself to this life, Roy cut off all ties)... forging diplomas and documents, fabricating years of education... but along the way, during the course of a lifetime, he actually learned what it meant to be a Jew; so much so, that no one assumed he could be anything but.
NRAMA: And the Rabbi’s post-mortem revelation really affects his family, who grew up all their life thinking they were Jewish. How does that affect them?
NK: Chris... let's take this a step back: what if your parent or legal guardian came to you one day and said "Chris (or 'darling Chris', perhaps—I don't know how formal things are in the Arrant household), this may come as a shock to you, but we've been lying to you this entire time: you're actually one year older than you think." Suddenly you've lost a year! What a blow! How could they do that to you?
NRAMA: Yes, definitely.
NK: Now imagine you're adopted. And your parents sit you down when you're old enough and inform you that they, the parents you've been living with for eighteen or twenty years, are not your real parents and the people who did give you life gave you up and have a completely different life than the one you've known. You could have been a completely different person.
Shocking, I know. It happens every day.
Now what if I came to you, Chris, a god-fearing man (assuming you are—feel free to substitute any deity, animal, solar body, cartoon or Gene Simmons you like for "god")... what if I came to you at a vulnerable moment, when you're hurting and morose and dark, looking for a sign from above, and revealed that the one thing you place your faith and trust in doesn't belong to you. Your roots, your beliefs, lie elsewhere. The god you know and all his rules and regulations, teachings and sacrifices, all of those could have been ignored at any time without any fear of repercussion. You didn't need to observe God's Law— you didn't need to wear those clothes... you could've had that cheeseburger... you could've married that girl. But you didn't because you devoted yourself to a belief system that your parents instilled in you. A faith your father handed down.
Thing is. Chris... your father lied. And all those sacrifices? You might never had to have made them. You might have been a different person altogether.
Now, how do you think that would affect you?
People lie. They've been lying since Eve pretended she never met a snake, and they'll be lying until Darkseid enslaves each and every one of us. People lie, people believe.
Yes, your family knows you best so lying to them is that much harder ... but I call bullshit on that due to the number of affairs and secret bank accounts spouses hide from one another. There's things kids never tell their parents, parents never tell their kids and so on. Everyone has secrets; some are larger than other, sure, but they're secrets just the same.
Look at Bernie Madoff; how did that dude fool so many people, so many schools and organizations? What about the editor who was working with me on a project for a year and a half until I discovered, after he was let go, that the project was completely fictitious, and that the publisher had no clue? Look what happened when James Frey or half a million other lying liars were revealed to the cold light of day.
People lie. Even me. Even you.
But when it’s your family… when it’s your role model or the person that taught you everything, raised you to never lie… yeah, it affects you.
NRAMA: You cut right to the core, Neil. But I think there’re more to this – especially about how the faith of Judaism and being Jewish are so intertwined. Can you tell us about the faith and the heredity of being Jewish?
NK: Well, this is a conversation that can start here and last a millennia, so I'll give you my personal experience as I've seen it these past 34 years.
I'm an Orthodox Jew—but to be clear, I'm what’s known as 'Modern Orthodox.' What this means is that while I drape myself in the trappings and teachings of the observant Jew—skullcap, kosher, Sabbath, corned beef— I also plant myself firmly in what's known as 'the secular world', the world as you and I know it. The world that rocks to our iPods, DVRs episodes of 'House', clothes ourselves in Old Navy hoodies and devours all things pop culture. I work in corporate America, I fully relax in dark Irish pubs and give myself over to the multicultural melting pot that is this country by having as many different kinds of friends from as many different kinds of ethnicities as I know. But at heart, within my soul and the very essence of who I am, I am a Jew and that means I live a much different, much stricter lifestyle.
Judaism is not for the faint-hearted. It is a religion that advocates devotion to God, his Torah, his Avodah (service) and commandments. There are 613 commandments, and many sacrifices we make in order to mold ourselves into being perfect, ethical, moral human beings. We cling to our beliefs and commandments —handed down from generation to generation, an unbroken chain of Jews that connects backwards through the ages to those who witnessed Moses bringing God's tablets down off of Mount Sinai to deliver to the Jewish people. It is due to this chain that some of our beliefs keep us apart: intermarriage, for instance, is frowned upon as is any romantic involvement outside the Jewish people.
Being Jewish... being born to it, raised in it or in some cases actually converting to it... it's like belonging to a global community that looks out for one another, guards each other's backs and loves, supports and strengthens Jews all over the world. Yes, the sacrifices are great—but when you're in it... when you can understand what it is to be part of the unbroken chain... you truly know what it means to be outside of it.
And you definitely know what it means to lie about being a part of it... even if you can see why that person would.
NRAMA: Getting back to the story of The Big Kahn itself, is this entirely fictional, or were there some true events that inspired it?
NK: Fictional. I was really inspired, like I said earlier, by the Fishers of Six Feet Under but also from Eric Garcia's book, "Matchstick Men," a quirky, riveting book (adapted into a forgettable Nic Cage film) about two con men—one living with OCD—and the long-lost daughter that comes between them. That book, and the con artist sections of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" hooked me into thinking about big stings, grifts and how far in you can get before you become the con.
NRAMA: Several of your books have been steeped in Jewish culture. What do you think keeps bring you back to this subject?
NK: Well, you know the old acorn, Chris: write what you know.
Honestly, I think one of the things that drags me back might be that I'm the only guy out there really doing it. See... you know the comics industry, right? That insecure little medium that flies into a hysterical tizzy anytime someone mentions comics or something related to it on television, in movies, etcetera? The victimized, oppressed literature that's been looking for respect for so long that it clings to moments when the 'mainstream' acknowledges its existence, pointing and shouting and thrilled when someone makes a Justice League reference on the news or drops Doctor Doom's name in a novel or flashes a Hellboy poster in a movie? Remember comics?
Well, Judaism is the religious equivalent of the comic book industry. We puff our chests out with pride and make sure everyone knows when the X-Files features a golem lore or some sitcom has a 'very special Passover episode' or Ben Grimm turns out to be a Yid. Jews are never the action heroes—we're Bruce Willis' lawyers, Indiana Jones' accountants and sometimes, if Adam Sandler is having a good day, we're comedic relief.
It's changing now. Besides the guys who inspired us, Eisner and Spiegelman, there are plenty of independent comic book writers like me—Sammy Harkham and Lauren Weinstein and Rutu Modan and Sarah Glidden and many other talented Jews putting out well crafted comics and graphic novels. But we're few and far between. We need more Jewish comix.
Three years back, I sat on a "Jews in Comics" panel at NYCC (attended, of course, by a roomful of Semites who immediately ended the discussion to assemble the evening prayers—you don't see THAT at 'Cup o' Joe'!). Joining me on the panel were five other authors — three of whom were there to discuss their latest books, books that explored whether Superman was Jewish, Cap was a metaphor for the oppressed yid, and all sorts of inferences about who in the superhero community might be Jews. I mean, these were complete books that dedicated themselves for 150 to 200 pages about the Semitic origins of Thor, for heaven's sake! And these men could write— there's no doubting that. One was penning a licensed series for a publisher at the time, another had served as an editor for one of the Big Two for many, many years. But rather than dedicate their talents to creating new stories, well-written comics and graphic novels set and surrounded by Judaic themes, issues, dilemmas and such... they'd rather sit at home and tap out another chapter about Ant Man's possible microscopic Bris.
NK: Why do I keep writing comics and graphic novels about Jews? Why do I explore my religion, one that doesn't often have a light shined on it and very rarely via the medium of sequential art? Why, Chris?
Because somebody has to. Why not me?
NRAMA: OK, we’ll let you. Continuing on that train of thought – does your work get a lot of response in the Jewish community?
NK: The Jewish community is somewhat resistant to the mainstream comic book, but starting to turn around. Most of the books you or I would devour that explore Jewish themes through alternative sequential expression might be too fraught with off-color scenes or language to thrive on the shelves of a Judaic book store. But when I do talk about my work within the community walls — when I go to synagogue or tell people what I do — there's an excitement, an interest I wouldn't get if I told them I was a day trader or lawyer.
How many Orthodox graphic novelists can you name? How many dudes do you see rocking a skullcap behind a table in San Diego or at MoCCA, selling his wares next to names like Talbot, Rall and Trondheim? I'm unique and the Jewish comic fans tend to gravitate my way, which is great. And those who are interested —maybe via movies like Watchmen or who knows?— can be convinced to try a book from my collection depending on their tastes.
Of course, still a nobody. Little anecdote: I was sitting at the Image Comics booth during NYCC, signing copies of Comic Book Tattoo in which I had a short story, gabbing the hour away with some fellow contributors when I noticed a scrawny Hassidic bloke pacing back and forth in front of the table, glancing my way and at the booth in general. I turned to a friend and said “See that? That’s the ‘hey, you’re Jewish and write comics? I’m Jewish and READ comics!’ look. Any minute now that guy’s gonna come over and say ‘sholom, yid’ or something.” Sure enough, after five more minutes of pacing the guy did hesitantly approach me… to ask when Joe Kelly would be signing.
Ego? Let me know when you’re ready for me to pick you up off the floor.
My work does fairly well with Jews. Brownsville moves pretty nicely outside the direct market and in Judaic stores due to the taboo nature of its criminal theme. Big Kahn? I think it'll do nicely... but as it's fictional rather than historical I'm expecting a lot more critical debate and probably some level of backlash at various scenes and characterizations.
But, hey—I’m no Joe Kelly.
NRAMA: Sir, Joe is no Neil Kleid. Speaking of talents, you’re working with artist Nicolas Cinquegrani on this book. Can you tell us what that collaboration is like, and how it came out?
NK: How the hell did Nico and I hook up? I think I'd seen his site linked to by a friend and after gazing at his awe dropping work, I shot him an email to see if he'd like to work together.
As I've said elsewhere, Nico brings a real immediacy to the table, a beautiful, heart-wrenching style that grounds us in the Kahn kitchen, carefully frames a shaky world in the suburbs of New Jersey and drags us over the bridge and out of the bubble of the Kahns' isolated community. His style, while definitely tinged with alternative flavor, perfectly captures the gritty drama necessary to lay our scene. The man's a talent, for sure, and as with my Brownsville collaborator, Jake Allen, I doubt I'll be able to work with Nico again due to all the offers he's sure to get once The Big Kahn comes out.