For a quarter century, Jewish children have hungrily followed the kooky adventures of the Shpy, the adventurous hero of The Moshiach Times, a family-friendly magazine that is published six times a year in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
A Mad Artist Works Undercover for the Messiah
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN • New York Times City Room blog
For a quarter century, Jewish children have hungrily followed the kooky adventures of the Shpy, the adventurous hero of The Moshiach Times, a family-friendly magazine that is published six times a year in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. (Think Highlights, but Jewish.)
With a closet full of disguises and more gadgets than 007, the Shpy volunteers his services when innocent people or ancient traditions are imperiled. He escapes from a giant Mixmaster when investigating a case of stolen hamantaschen, and thwarts a mysterious bee infestation that nearly spoils the fall holiday of Sukkot. In one installment, he invents a repellent to keep the sinister Yetzer Hora at bay, complete with a catchy slogan: “Let us Shpray.” (The softening of the S, when the Shpy shpeaks, so to speak, is meant to evoke Humphrey Bogart.)
The September Issue
The latest installment in the adventures of the Shpy, a series Al Jaffee has been quietly illustrating for a quarter century, has him saving Sukkot.
Young fans of the Shpy can be forgiven for skipping over the credits on Page 2 of the magazine. It is hard to fathom, though, how the rest of New York has barely noticed that the artist responsible for making the Shpy such a mensch is Al Jaffee. Yes, that Al Jaffee. The same 89-year-old bad boy whose work has been appearing for more than half a century in the occasionally rude, irreverent, and bawdy pages of Mad magazine.
“Al Jaffee’s Mad Life,” the new biography of Mr. Jaffee that HarperCollins published this week, flags the connection but even it quickly moves on without exploring how Mr. Jaffee came to work for the magazine or how the odd pairing has worked out.
Stuffed into a tiny office above a children’s museum on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, the staff of The Moshiach Times seems unruffled by Mr. Jaffee’s other pursuits and notes that the Shpy is easily the magazine’s most popular feature. The magazine has roughly 10,000 subscribers who pay $15 a year, according to the staff. Money, however, is not the point. The magazine, whose title refers to the Hebrew word for Messiah, was started in 1980 by Chabad-Lubavitch’s Tsivos Hashem arm as a way to promote Jewish values among the young. Embedded in the cover design is the proclamation, “We want Moshiach now.”
Mr. Jaffee’s association with the magazine began in 1984 and has continued without interruption, one reason why the office’s cabinets are jammed with Jaffees, 140 drawings at last count. “He’s just a genius,” said Rabbi Dovid Sholom Pape, the top editor.
The magazine also owns a trove of art by Dave Berg, another longtime contributor to Mad who died in 2002.
The idea of bringing two behemoths of the publishing industry into the Moshiach Times fold belonged to Rabbi David Masinter, now a 50-year-old leader in the Chabad movement. “When you’re young, you have chutzpah,” he said.
He said he was asked to lead a makeover of The Moshiach Times shortly after he obtained his rabbinical degree in 1983 and worried how to make it more inviting. “The content was great,” he said. “The appearance was shocking.”
Rabbi Masinter knew he needed to “get ahold of the best artists possible.” Who better, he reasoned, than two artists whose work he had enjoyed as a child in South Africa in the 1970s: Dave Berg, who did Mad’s “Lighter Side,” and Al Jaffee, the man who created its fold-in. Though the rabbi is less familiar with the magazine now, he said it “was certainly a very well-respected humorous magazine, read by educated people,” when he was young.
Gamely, Rabbi Masinter and a colleague, Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson, marched into Mad’s old offices on Madison Avenue and asked Al Feldstein, the editor, if they could hire two of his heavy-hitters on a freelance basis. They were prepared to pay the artists, but warned that their pockets were not deep.
They left with the phone numbers of Dave Berg and Al Jaffee. Soon, they were pitching Mr. Jaffee in his apartment in Manhattan. To their surprise, Mr. Jaffee not only accepted their challenge of revitalizing the magazine’s Shpy character, he also limited his fee to a nominal amount. “It certainly wasn’t more than $50 a month,” Rabbi Masinter said.
Getting that “yes” helped the rabbis land Mr. Berg and Joe Kubert, a highly respect comic book artist. “Once you had one artist, it was easier to get the others,” Rabbi Masinter explained.
The rabbis set ground rules. Immodestly attired characters were out, and depictions of animals should, when possible, feature kosher species. “In other words, they do not want to have cute little pigs romping around,” Mr. Jaffee explained.
Used to drawing superheroes, Mr. Kubert delivered action-packed stories whose occasional mayhem gave the editors conniptions. Mr. Berg’s recurring feature on ethics was tamer. Called, “The Right Thing,” it featured Pinny, as the good child, and Punky as the self-centered one. “It works,” Rabbi Pape said. “You tell your kids ‘you’re behaving like Punky’ ” and they stop.
But Mr. Berg was also sent back to the drawing board now and then. “I used to groan and say, ‘David, I tell you this so many times. The mezuza goes on the right side of the door and points in,’ ” Rabbi Pape recalled. To which, Mr. Berg would insist that he had deliberately erred to keep the rabbi on his toes.
Rabbi Pape insists that Mr. Jaffee’s submissions needed almost no tweaking.
“He’s quite a gentle soul,” Rabbi Masinter said.
To demonstrate how well their new recruit adapted to their magazine, Rabbi Pape grabbed the May 1984 issue, where Mr. Jaffee’s work first appeared. That month’s story was loosely based on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem about the Lotos-Eaters. “Secret agents were disappearing,” Rabbi Pape said, “and there was an island that made everyone very sleepy. Even the Shpy’s boat was being drawn irresistibly toward this island, and if he was going to get home in time for the holiday of Shavuot, he and the others had to work together.”
By climbing on each other’s shoulders, the agents were able to grab a rope and escape. “The idea is you all work together,” Rabbi Pape explained.
Part of the running feature’s charm, according to Mr. Jaffee, is that “it’s the same story over and over again.”
“It’s always a battle between good and evil,” he said. “The Shpy fights for good, and the Yetzer Hora fights the good.”
Speaking from Johannesburg, where he is now based, Rabbi Masinter acknowledged being second-guessed for having reached out to a secular publication like Mad.
“It was questioned,” he said. “But the argument we had back then was we weren’t associating with Mad, but with two of the best artists in the world.”
He said he yet to read the new biography of Mr. Jaffee, whose author, Mary-Lou Weisman, documents in great detail the the uneasy relationship that Mr. Jaffee has had with the Jewish religion for much of his life. She traces it as far back as the moment 83 years ago when his overzealous mother tried ordering a steamship captain to halt the trans-Atlantic ship they were on, out of respect for the Jewish Sabbath. “It was madness,” Mr. Jaffee said, still mortified.
Rabbi Masinter said he saw no sign that any of those early experiences had soured Mr. Jaffee’s faith. To him, Mr. Jaffee is “certainly a living example of what a pious person should be — he has really used his talents to educate.’’
I just started reading Jaffee's new autobiography, which seems to be very good. Look for it in your local bookstore or check it out on Amazon.com.
Illustrations: Top and left, "Shpy," Al Jaffee's drawing for The Moshiach Times; right, Jaffee's Spy vs Spy from Mad Magazine.