The MAD meeting that brought cartoonist to Chabad
Well known Johannesburg Chabad rabbi, David Masinter, took a trip down memory lane when he heard of the recent passing of his long-time friend, legendary MAD Magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee.
Jaffee was 102 when he passed away on Monday, 10 April, in Manhattan. He was the satirical magazine’s longest-tenured contributor, who notably had a long-time association with the Chabad Lubavitch movement. This began with an introduction to the organisation by the Parys (Free State)-born Masinter four decades ago.
“With the passing of Al Jaffee, the world has lost a smile,” said Masinter, 64, this week of the famous illustrator behind MAD Magazine’s famous “fold-in” drawing, who, Masinter pointed out, retired at 99 years of age.
Masinter was 23 years old and filled with chutzpah and the boldness of youth when he cold-called the venerable artist and asked him to put pencil to paper for The Moshiach Times in 1983.
The freshly ordained Masinter was put to work for Chabad’s newly founded children’s organisation, Tzivos Hashem, and was tasked with revitalising its children’s magazine.
“It was an incredible publication with great content, but it had no pictures. It needed something to spice it up and attract more youth,” said Masinter.
Thinking out the box, Masinter told his colleagues he’d try to approach the illustrators at MAD Magazine and see if they’d be willing to do cartoons for the children’s magazine.
“I grew up reading MAD Magazine in the 1970s,” said Masinter, “It was popular here in South Africa, and even though The Moshiach Times was attracting new, young readers, I felt it could use an even more contemporary touch to reach a wider audience.” Today, Masinter is the director of Chabad House Johannesburg and the founder of Miracle Drive.
Masinter together with Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson, the executive director of Tzivos Hashem, approached the head honcho at MAD Magazine, Al Feldstein, and asked for his best illustrators. They were introduced to Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, and Joe Kubert, accomplished comic book artists.
“We rocked up at Al Jaffee’s Manhattan apartment one day, and asked him to come on board,” Masinter told the SA Jewish Report. “He said yes immediately.” So began a lifelong friendship between the spiritual Chabad emissary from South Africa and the down-to-earth, super talented artist, “with a sardonic sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye”.
Jaffee set to work to reinvent The Moshiach Times’ cartoon character called “The Shpy”.
The Shpy was a part-fumbling secret agent and part-Torah scholar, said Masinter, “He dressed in a trench coat with his hat pulled over his eyes, and had an attaché case filled with gadgets, tasked with doing battle against the yetzer hora [the evil inclination].”
“It was a huge success, attracting thousands of young readers who couldn’t wait for the next instalment of The Shpy, which came out six times a year,” he said.
“It was an absolute adventure to work with Al and MAD Magazine’s amazing illustrators helping to transform the Chabad magazine into a worldwide magazine which reached thousands,” said Masinter.
“The true definition of being frum is using your talents to improve yourself and the world. When he heard he could do something to help spread Yiddishkeit, he was there. This was a special, G-dly man.”
Jaffe told Chabad.org magazine he enjoyed working on The Shpy character. “He isn’t like Superman or some other hero; he’s someone the kids can relate to. He stands up to the Hamans and the bad guys of the world, protecting Jewish children.”
Masinter as well as other Chabad rabbis such as Rabbi Dovid Sholom Pape, spent a lot of time with Jaffee.
“We’d meet at his apartment or his studio, both filled with artefacts, packed with stuff from floor to ceiling. Sometimes we’d spend up to two and a half hours just talking, chatting about the world and life. There’d be some Torah insights, but mostly I learnt more from him. We were both thirsty to learn,” he said.
It was during those interactions that Masinter learnt about Jaffee’s layered childhood.
Jaffee was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1921 to Morris and Mildred Jaffee, two Jewish immigrants from Zarasai, Lithuania. “Named Abraham, he spent his childhood quite literally being shuttled between the two worlds of America and Lithuania,” said Masinter.
“When he was a little boy of six, his ultra-religious mother left the United States, taking him and his three brothers back to her birthplace in Lithuania. Life in a shtetl wasn’t easy for them. They were poor, he’d say.”
His father would send him comics from America, which left an indelible impression on Jaffee.
When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Morris managed to bring three of his four sons back to America. In 1940, the fourth son was smuggled back to America, Mildred stayed behind and tragically perished in the Holocaust.
Jaffee began drawing for MAD Magazine around 1955. He created the famous fold-in, which gave readers of MAD Magazine a satirical double-take on whatever was going on in the news.
Explained by the New York Times, the fold-in was an illustration-with-text feature on the inside of the magazine’s back cover that seemed at first glance to deliver a straightforward message. When the page was folded in thirds, however, both illustration and text were transformed into something entirely different and unexpected, often with a “liberal-leaning or authority-defying message”.
He was also known for inventing MAD’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”.
“Al was so talented, yet humble,” said Masinter. “He’d often tell me that he was fresh out of ideas for his next MAD Magazine artwork, that he couldn’t think of a thing to draw. Then, just as he was about to walk into the studio – interestingly on MAD-ison Avenue – an idea would suddenly come to him. He taught me that one should never give up.”
Jaffee is survived by his children, Richard and Debora; two stepdaughters, Tracey and Jody; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.