Al Jaf­fee’s Mad Life: A Biography

Mary-Lou Weis­man; Al Jaf­fee, illus.
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
This slight biog­ra­phy of Al Jaf­fee — long­time car­toon­ist for Mad” mag­a­zine and only beget­tor of the Mad Fold-In”— feels more like an extend­ed mag­a­zine arti­cle than a book-length biog­ra­phy. Jaf­fee him­self admits that while as an artist he did many things well, he was nev­er suf­fi­cient­ly out­stand­ing at any one thing to suc­ceed as a seri­ous” artist. His biog­ra­ph­er does lit­tle to counter this self-assess­ment, pre­fer­ring instead to use the facts of Jaffee’s life to jus­ti­fy his eter­nal ado­les­cence. 

Not that the facts of Jaffee’s life need to be pressed into any such ser­vice, for they are fas­ci­nat­ing in their own right. Jaffee’s youth was spent being bounced back and forth between var­i­ous locales in Amer­i­ca, his father’s pre­ferred res­i­dence, and the ances­tral shtetl of Zara­sai, in Lithua­nia, to which his moth­er had a deep attach­ment. This por­tion of his biog­ra­phy con­tains sharply-etched por­traits of life as a Jew in both worlds, from a child’s unique per­spec­tive: Was there any dif­fer­ence between being chased and beat­en by goy­im in Lithua­nia and goy­im in Far Rock­away? Appar­ent­ly, Jaf­fee felt he had the bet­ter of it in Lithua­nia, though he is grate­ful that his father spir­it­ed him back to the Unit­ed States before World War II broke out (he nev­er saw his moth­er again). 

Told almost exclu­sive­ly in Jaffee’s own words (few, if any, oth­er sources still exist), this por­tion of the tale leaves us with a poignant sense of how chil­dren come to accept even the most extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances as nor­mal. Despite years of ther­a­py, Jaf­fee seems con­tent to leave many of the deep­est ques­tions touch­ing his exis­tence— what was the rela­tion­ship between his par­ents like? what exact­ly moti­vat­ed his moth­er to sac­ri­fice her family’s hap­pi­ness, and ulti­mate­ly her­self, on the altar of tra­di­tion?— not only unan­swered, but in many cas­es unasked.
Bar­bara Bietz is a free­lance writer and children’s book review­er. She is cur­rent­ly a mem­ber of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Com­mit­tee. Bar­bara is the author of the mid­dle grade book, Like a Mac­cabee. She has a blog ded­i­cat­ed to Jew­ish books for chil­dren at www​.Bar​baraB​Book​Blog​.Blogspot​.com.

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