Saturday, February 24, 2007


Mad #1

Years ago, as a young Snot-Nosed Lad, I discovered MAD magazine.

It was April of 1962 and I was not yet ten years old. My mother, brother, and I were about to embark on an Adventure: we were going to take the Florida Special from New York to Miami.

The Florida Special, it should be noted, is a train. An honest-to-Gawd choo-choo, complete with Pullman cars. The trip would take 25 hours – a long stretch, but faster than driving, and way cheaper than flying.

In order to ensure that I would not go out of my mind with boredom, I bought a copy of MAD. The June 1962 issue was on the newsstands; it featured Alfred E. Neuman’s ridiculous phiz at the center of a bull-eye target. The joke was that a bulls-eye was worth zero points, the values increased as you moved toward the edge of the target.

It was a fateful purchase. Beginning with that issue, I became a MAD aficionado of sorts, eventually amassing an uninterrupted run of twelve years. Geeky? You bet.

I figured a few things out about MAD fairly quickly. One was that a lot of the artists and writers were Jewish. It was obvious not only from their names, but also their general comic sensibility. The presence of numerous Yiddish expressions was another clue. (Can you say “fershlugginer”?) Another was that the pages of the magazine were replete with inside jokes, or jokes that would be slyly inserted into every issue on one place or another.

If you’re old enough, you may remember some of these recurring jokes and catchphrases:
  • The “Arthur” avocado plant, an illustration of which would be buried in every issue at least once.

  • It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.

  • The MAD Zeppelin.

  • Osgood Z’Beard.

  • Moxie. The logo for this obscure New England soft drink would crop up randomly.

  • Halvah.
This last is a Middle Eastern confection with (thanks to MAD) a name that borders on the ridiculous. But it’s nothing more than a wet brick-like mass of sweetened, ground sesame seeds, available in any reasonably urbane delicatessen.

I had never had halvah. It was well after I had discovered its existence in the pages of MAD that I actually tasted the stuff. Not bad, but nothing that would compete with a good hunk of Swiss milk chocolate.

The topic of halvah came up today at the luncheon following Shabbat morning services. One of our friends had just returned from Israel, where she had purchased a good-sized chunk of the sweet delicacy. This led to a conversation about halvah: why, for example, is it pronounced “ha-la-vah” by so many Northeasterners. Random crap.

And yet, here was another Mystical Connection.

At this morning’s service (of which the first half, comprising the Birkot ha-Shachar, Pesukei d’Zimrah, and Shacharit prayers, I had the privilege of leading from the pulpit), we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of a young lady with a familiar last name. After services, as we filed into the Social Hall for the Oneg Shabbat luncheon, I asked the father of the Bat Mitzvah:

“Are you, by any chance, related to ______?”

“Why, yes,” was the response. “He was my uncle.”

And so, when the topic of halvah surfaced at our table, I could only marvel at the connection. Halvah, the confection I discovered in the pages of MAD years before I actually tasted it. And the Bat Mitzvah girl, whose great-uncle had edited some of the classic comics of the pre-Code era, including Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat – but whose description by the New York Times as “one of the most important figures in postwar America” was based on the impact on American popular culture of his greatest creation. That creation, of course, was MAD, which was born in October of 1952 (same as Yours Truly) as a comic book. The great-uncle? Why, Harvey Kurtzman, his ownself.

1 comment:

Jeff Tyzzer said...

Enjoyed this post, which I found by searching for "halvah," a search prompted by some meandering daydreaming about those selfsame obscure words that, like you, I first came across in the pages of Mad.