Steve Sheinkin, the creator of the “Rabbi Harvey” graphic novel series, rolled through town on the last weekend of February to talk to local synagogues and schools about the popular Wild West wiseman. Seven-year-old Ben spoke with Sheinkin about this new take on Jewish folklore in the unique town of Elk Springs.
Ben: Is everyone Jewish?
Steve: Yes. When I came up with the idea for doing the book, I decided to make up my own town, because when you do a book one of the cool things is you can make up whatever you want. I said, Let’s make it in a real place, in Colorado, in about the 1870s, and for some reason everybody in the town was Jewish. I never explained that or why that happened, but it’s just the way it is. And I wanted the bad guys to be Jewish as well.
Ben: It’s really cool.
Steve: Thank you. When I started researching the book, because I had just made up the idea, I didn’t realize that there really were…a lot of Jewish communities in what we called the Wild West in those days. Because I’m from New York, and when you’re from New York everyone thinks everyone came to New York and settled in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. But it turns out there were, as you guys know, Jewish communities everywhere in the West.
There’s this book that I read called Pioneer Jews, and one of the things that I love about it is when you look at these pictures — look at all the different crazy beards and moustaches — that’s really fun to draw all that stuff. So I try to use a lot of that in the book.
Ben: That’s kind of what it looks in Elk Springs.
Steve: Yeah, exactly. And I look at old Western movies. These movies are before my time, even, back in the ’50s. But again, doesn’t that look like Elk Springs? Those old buildings, that little walkway that they built out of wood. I like to draw things like that.
Ben: How did you decide it was Elk Springs?
Steve: I knew I wanted it to be my own place that I made up. I don’t even know where the name came from. Sometimes you make up stuff and you don’t even know where it came from. Or when you’re drawing, you just make it up. Actually, one of the books I have here is a book I got from my dad when I was a little bit older than you, maybe 10 or so. It’s called 101 Jewish Stories. I read it and a lot of the stories that are in the Harvey books I first read in here. I just loved them so much that they just really stayed with me that whole time. When I was older and I wanted to retell my own versions of these stories, that’s when I made up the whole Elk Springs idea. This is a place where I could set them. When you make the stories it’s fun to make up the bad guys. He faces off against this rabbi—
Ben: Rabbi Ruben, who people call The Wisdom Kid?
Steve: I think he made that up for himself, calling himself The Wisdom Kid. But he’s very wise too, he just misuses all these teachings that he knows to try to make money and take over the town.
Ben: Big Milt and Wolfie also try to take over the town. Like they eat huge meals.
Steve: Yeah, they’re pretty obnoxious. It can be fun to write the bad guys.
Ben: Did Rabbi Harvey ever get married?
Steve: At the end of the first [book]…a lot of people told me Harvey seems kind of lonely. Did you get that feeling when you read it? Does he seem lonely to you? He lives alone, he works alone.
Steve: I never even thought about it. That’s his role, that’s just his life, his calling to do this work. But everybody, including my wife, told me, “I think he just seems kind of sad, he seems so alone.” So I said all right, I’ll listen to that advice. So I created this character Abigail.
I think they’ll probably get married, though it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t want to give anything away. Actually, I haven’t decided, but I think they will.
Ben: How did you come up with this idea?
Steve: Well, it was based on these [Jewish folktales] stories. Do you ever read a book and you wish it would just keep going? That’s how I felt about these. I wanted to write my own and make them have dialogue, you know where people were talking, even add jokes. That would be funny. And why I set it in the Wild West? I think it was because I loved those Wild West stories as a kid. And I loved that setting, I thought it was very exciting.
Ben: How long did it take you to write the stories?
Steve: The books take about a year, a year and a half altogether. Which is funny because you read them, it doesn’t take long at all. How long did it take you?
Ben: Like three or four days.
Steve: It takes a long time, but that’s because there are so many drawings in it. I spend most of the time doing the drawings, as you can image. You know how the background, there’s always the wood in the background everywhere? Those wood grains? It’s silly, but that’s half the time. I’m glad I did it, but some days I’m not glad.
Ben: Are there going to be anymore Rabbi Harvey books?
Steve: Yes! I think so. I’m not working on any right now. I’m actually working on a different comic right now. But I feel like there should be more.
Ben: What comic are you working on right now?
Steve: It’s a new story, it takes place in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Ben: And what’s it about?
Steve: There’s something called Crypto-Jews. It’s families that didn’t realize they were Jewish. If you go way, way back to the 1400s, people who were living in Spain and other countries — a lot of countries in Europe expelled, or kicked out, Jews, or forced them to convert to be Christians, and so a lot of families did that and then forgot over the generations that they were actually Jewish. But they had these traditions like lighting candles or not eating pork that they kept even though they didn’t know why. So this is a story that takes place in modern times in New Mexico, where a lot of these people ended up settling. It’s sort of a mystery-thriller story. It’s pretty different from what I’ve done before.
Ben: Do you have any other job?
Steve: My main job is actually not writing these comics, but writing history books for kids, too. They’re aimed at kids who are middle school age, and they’re U.S. History books. I used to write textbooks for many years. I hated it because you couldn’t say anything good in them. I couldn’t tell any of the stories. So I started writing my own books to tell the stories I wasn’t allowed to put in textbooks, and that’s become my new career.