Finally, Rabbi Harvey is made for Hollywood.
The cult hero of a generation of Jewish boys, Park Slope author Steve Sheinkin’s Talmud-spouting Wild West lawman rides again this month, in a new full-length graphic novel that is practically daring a film studio to finally make a hero out of this man in a black hat.
“Someone suggested Adam Sandler as Harvey, but I don’t know,” said Sheinkin, whose prior books in the series are the collections, “The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey” and “Rabbi Harvey Rides Again” (both from Jewish Lights Publishing). “It’s against character, I suppose, but the look is right.”
Casting aside, the latest saga, “Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid,” is perfect for the big screen because it’s a full-length, well-plotted graphic tale. Starting with a seemingly innocent act of saving a drowning man’s life and moving with quarter horse speed to the climactic (though gun-free) “High Noon”-style showdown with Rabbi Ruben (a.k.a. “The Wisdom Kid”), this plot has more momentum than a runaway stagecoach on a mountain road.
But it’s more than just a great yarn. It’s a franchise.
Take the lonesome topography of the Wild West, add in a bit of Biblical wisdom and a soupçon of Hollywood iconography and, in essence, you have the world of Rabbi Harvey.
True, the premise is absurd on its face — Rabbi Harvey inhabits a world in which none of the residents of the fictional 1840s frontier town of Elk Spring questions having a rabbi as the sheriff, spiritual leader, therapist and all-around best friend.
It’s a bit of a riff on the great Gene Wilder 1979 movie “The Frisco Kid,” but in the film, Wilder’s Rabbi Avram was only passing through the West on his way to start a congregation in San Francisco.
Sheinkin’s drawings depict Harvey is the ultimate fish out of the Colorado River — his eyes are rheumy, his beard is so thick that you can’t even see his mouth, and doesn’t do much all day except think. But Rabbi Harvey is just as much a member of the Elk Spring community as the butcher or the dry goods shopkeeper.
“Year after year, the most popular event at the Elk Spring Fair was the ‘Stump the Rabbi’ booth,” Sheinkin wrote, absurdly, in the opening of one story from his first collection.
And in another memorable sequence in the new book, a second rabbi comes to town. Instead of expressing surprise at the sudden doubling of the rabbinical population of Elk Spring, the two men are awed.
“You shoulda seen this fella, Mort,” one man says to another. “Such incredibly quick thinking.”
Even faster thinking keeps Harvey one step ahead of the bad guys, including Big Milt Wasserman and his son, Wolfie, who frame Harvey in a robbery plot and kidnap his love interest, the schoolteacher, Abby.
But it doesn’t spoil the ending to report that Harvey triumphs in the end, thanks to a enough ancient Jewish wisdom to fill the very Hebrew school classrooms that Sheinkin hated as a kid.
“I only went to Hebrew school because it was important to my father, but he could see how bored I was, so he gave me the book, ‘101 Jewish Folk Tales,’ which was so much more exciting,” said Sheinkin, who is also the author of a series of completely factual history textbooks that nonetheless make the topic fun for teenagers. “I started to read the stories, which was so clever and funny, and that’s what really got me interested.”
In that context, setting the Rabbi Harvey series in the Wild West makes perfect sense, too.
“I was a regular Jewish-American kid,” Sheinkin said. “So all the folklore gets mixed up — Jewish stories, plus the American Western myths of sheriffs and gold and bad guys. Now, I read literally hundreds of folklore stories before coming up with any Rabbi Harvey plots. The downside is the people often think that I actually have the wisdom. No, I just write the stories. Rabbi Harvey has the wisdom.”
Sharing the joy of seemingly dull topics is a personal obsession of Sheinkin. His prior history books include, “King George: What Was His problem,” about the American revolution; “Two Miserable Presidents,” about the Civil War and “Which Way to the Wild West?” a series about westward expansion.
“I was a textbook writer for years, but editors would never let me put in the good stuff,” he said.
Good stuff? “There’s a story in my Revolutionary War book about Paul Revere’s ride — at one point, he needs material, so a woman gives him her underwear. It’s totally true, but I couldn’t get it past the textbook editor. They think textbooks can’t be fun or disgusting, but successful kids books are fun and disgusting.”
Unlike his history books, Sheinkin’s rabbinical Westerns have a familiar feel. You’ve certainly seen other versions of the story in which a guilty man is tricked into confession in an honesty test — but in Sheinkin’s version, Harvey tells three men that they have to stick their hand into a “machine” and touch the Stetson hat inside. The one who is guilty of the crime, we are told, will cry out in pain.
When the villain inserts his hand, yet does not scream, an onlooker deadpans in perfect Borscht Belt style, “That’s disappointing.”
Of course, Rabbi Harvey gets his man — and the townspeople erupt in cheers for their heroic Rabbi.
A classic Hollywood ending.
Are you listening, Mr. Sandler?
“Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid” (Jewish Lights Publishing) is available at Community Bookstore [143 Seventh Ave. between Carroll Street and Garfield Place in Park Slope, (718) 783-3075] and Barnes and Noble [267 Seventh Ave. at Sixth Street in Park Slope, (718) 832-9066]. It is also available online at www.jewishlights.com.
©2010 Community News Group
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