BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
How can you live with someone your entire life, be in and around his life, and not know you've been lied to almost the entire time? That's just some of what the people in Neil Kleid's The Big Kahn
are facing when their Rabbi of forty years dies and his friends and family learn he wasn't really a Rabbi at all, he isn't Jewish and that he was a confidence man, playing them the entire time. THE PULSE: What is The Big Kahn? How did you come up with the idea to do something like this? You always seem to be working on one eclectic project after another ...
Eclectic sounds much better than Attention Deficit, yes.
THE BIG KAHN is the story of what happens when Rabbi David Kahn, a New Jersey rabbi, dies and at the funeral his family and congregation of forty years discover that he's been conning them: he isn't even Jewish. The book follows the family's struggle with grief, betrayal and their faith as the town begins to examine them and they begin to examine themselves. The graphic novel is roughly 172 pages, will be presented in both hard and soft cover, and will be released this summer.
I came up with the idea of a few years back after really getting into the HBO series SIX FEET UNDER — the quirky Fisher family really inspired the characters in my book, but I also drew up various musings I was having about religion (Orthodox Jewry, specifically) at the time. It's a story that poses questions I've often asked myself, such as what makes me so sure my God is the real god when every other religion feels just as strongly? THE PULSE: As a comics creator, how important is it for you to keep pushing yourself and not repeat yourself?
As famed actor Dirk Benedict
said (right before he knocked out BA Baracus to get him on a plane, I believe), "Change is good. And in fact unavoidable." It's as natural as breathing for a writer or cartoonist to be original and push him or herself to the limits. Like actors or football coaches, we look at past projects like game tapes and critically assess how to get better, how to try something new, how to get out of our comfort zone.
This, of course, from the guy writing yet another Jewish book set in the tri-state area...! THE PULSE: I can't imagine a congregation being fooled for over forty years, yes this person, indeed, must have been a fantastic con artist. How did he come up with the idea to pose as a rabbi, and how did someone, who isn't even Jewish, know so much about their faith and ideals?
Well, Donnie Dobbs—er, Rabbi Kahn, was indeed a master of the art of grift. With his brother Roy, he employed a wealth of knowledge to con, dupe and trick nearly all of New York (or at least Brooklyn, which is the only part of New York worth caring about) out of cash, bonds, stocks, cars, girls and more. The idea for posing as a Rabbi came to the Dobbs boys when they discovered how much money actually changed hands in the Jewish community. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, holidays, guilt — if you had a good plan, some of that well-intentioned bread could find its way into your pocket, especially if you were collecting for a charitable cause. Donnie and Roy started a two-man grift in which Donnie posed as a collecting rabbinical student and started raking it in ... but there was one thing they never planned on: who knew Donnie was going to fall in love?
How did he know so much about Judaism? That one's easy. Once he decided to commit himself to the life, he committed one hundred percent — he studied. He learned. He shteiged, as the yeshiva students say. There's a scene in the film CATCH ME IF YOU CAN where Tom Hanks'
FBI agent begs con man Leo DiCaprio
to divulge how he passed the bar in order to pose as a lawyer. Leo, with his sultry, smoldering good looks (sigh) turns to him and says, "I studied for two weeks and I passed." Not every Rabbi knows everything; ask any student of Mishna or Talmud and they'll say that they process of gathering knowledge is never-ending. But 40 years is a long time, and in that time Donnie—er, Rabbi Kahn was able to pick up a thing or two.
And as for how he managed to hoodwink a loving, trusting, eager congregation into following his lead? Why didn't anyone pick up on it? Well, it isn't like people just walk up to dudes with beards, coats, yarmulkas and copies of the five books of the Bible and ask, "Hey — are you sure you're Jewish?" No one felt the need to ask; he never felt the need to tell. Something it's as simple as that. THE PULSE: Did you base this at all on any true stories you'd heard about a con artist pulling something off like this? I recall reading some of a con artist pretending to be a preacher, but haven't really recalled any where it was someone pretending to be Jewish.
No, this wasn't based on a true story, but I'll admit to being inspired by Eric Garcia's
MATCHSTICK MEN (the novel; the movie is all right but Nicolas Cage's
sullen sighs made me long to hide back in the pages of the book). THE PULSE: Are you Jewish? If so, did that help a lot with the creation of this? If not, what kind of research did you have to do so your characters and con seems authentic and true?
Orthodox Jew, FFB (Frum from birth) here. Been living it and kicking it old shul since I was wee. Obviously, a lot of the characters, locations and inspirations are based by people I know, things I've seen, places I've been. Research-wise, I did a little reading on various cons and grifts, but for the most part this is gut-level emotional writing at its best. THE PULSE: I just keep thinking, how could you live with someone for so long and not realize that he was doing something like this? I mean, was he conning his family as well?
Yup, yup, yup. Look, it's like this: people lie. They've been lying since G-d caught Adam cheating with Eve in an apple orchard, and they'll be lying until the Anti-Monitor returns and kills us all. People lie, people believe. How do so many jerks get away with affairs? How are so many out there sure that the Holocaust was a lie despite the evidence? And, dude, what about James Frey
? Lie, lie, lie. And people believe.
Sure — your family knows you best, so lying to them isn't as easy ... but I call bullshit on that. There's things kids never tell their parents, parents never tell their kids and so on. Everyone has secrets; some are larger than other, sure, but they're secrets just the same.
You've got a family, Jen — ask them ... is there some dark secret (or, hell, even a little secret) they've never told you about? I've got one: my parents still don't know (well, now
they do!) that I was a little brazen shoplifter as a kid. Comics, baseball cards, candy bars — you name it, I lifted it. To this day they did not know and now they do, and when they read this I'm sure they'll think of me a little differently (sorry, Mom).
Granted, that one's small ... but what about Bernie Madoff
? How did so many people get fooled? What about the editor who was working with me on a project for a year and a half until I discovered, after he was let go, that the project was completely fictitious, and that the publisher had no clue? The secret sickness my ex-roommate carried around for two years without any of us knowing? Micah Wright
People lie. Even me. One of the above statement is an outright lie. Good luck figuring it out. THE PULSE: Did it ever come to the point where he believed the con and thought he was a rabbi?
Live the lie long enough, Jen, and you become the lie. THE PULSE: How is it uncovered that he was a charlatan and fake?
This one's a freebie, though it's part of the book ... basically, he dies. And, after the eulogy, his long-lost brother shows up and spills the beans in front of his family, friends and congregation. THE PULSE: A lot of people have secrets and think after the person the secret is about dies, it's ok to reveal the secret. Was that the case here or is there another reason all of this came to light?
Not really ... the brother just tells them, because he wants one last look at Donnie/Rabbi Kahn before he's buried. Unfortunately, Jews don't do the open casket viewing thing and there's a minor scuffle at the funeral, leading to the big reveal. THE PULSE: What do you think about revealing secrets when the person it's about isn't around to defend him or herself?
That depends on who you're hurting, I suppose, and how desperate you are for the truth to get out. When Roy Dobbs outs his brother's non-Jew status, he doesn't realize the religious and emotional repercussions he's setting in motion. Or maybe he does, and doesn't care. Maybe he just wants one last connection with his brother and is spiteful enough to inflict the lie on the community that took Donnie from him?
Personally, I'm always shocked when I learn something like this — affairs, scandals, etc — but on the other hand, I'm always curious about it after. The Jewish community is fairly small and when scandal races through it isn't long before everyone's heard. THE PULSE: What were your biggest challenges in presenting a story like this?
The main focus for me was ensuring that the various emotional arcs intersected in a way that both sent the characters on journeys they needed to take and also pushed the story forward. The story follows the paths of the Kahn children as they deal with their father's lie and touches loss of faith, renewal of faith, strength of family and the individual. I really wanted to toss out the soul-searching one-two punch that both shocks the reader and makes them question what they might do if they were in this situation. THE PULSE: I think a lot of people can relate to The Big Kahn, with just about everyone having been lied to at one point or another by someone in their life, but how do you think a family like this could possibly recover from learning just about everything they thought was a lie?
I doubt they'll ever truly recover and the true test would be to revisit the Kahns five, ten maybe fifteen years down the road. In the pages of this book, it's simply too close. The wounds are too fresh. But time, they say, heals all wounds.
Look, I've been wronged or lied to by people close to me and it usually passes as I get further from it. But a lie this big, a lie that really affects everything you've ever believed in, everything that's shaped you and your life ... well, that's world-altering, no? Some people NEVER get over it. I doubt that Rachel Kahn, the matriarch, ever will. The kids? One day, perhaps. THE PULSE: When is your story set? How many years are covered here?
We lay our scene here and now, in present day New Jersey. There are flashbacks stretching back forty years ago, but some as recent as eleven, twelve or thirteen years past. THE PULSE: How long did it take you to get this story created exactly as you envisioned? What were the biggest challenges?
It took me six months to write. As for challenges, see three questions up. THE PULSE: Where did you find Nicolas Cinquegrani? What made him ideal to bring The Big Kahn to life?
Man, I honestly can't remember how Nico and I hooked up. I think I'd seen his site linked to by a writer friend and after playing around, I shot him an email ... But Nico brings a real immediacy to the table, a grounded style that drops us heavily into the Kahn household. His style, while definitely more in the indy/alt comix camp, perfectly captures the gritty drama necessary to tell our tale. The man's gonna break out, for sure, and I doubt I'll be able to work with him again after this due to all the offers he's sure to get once the book comes out. THE PULSE: How is working on this project different from some of your other works including your webcomics series, Action Ohio?
I generally work the same way, no matter the project. Neil write artist. Artist say yes. Neil and artist drink and craft proposal-slash-outline. Neil go away and write script. Neil cry. Cry, cry, cry. Finally, Neil has script and can send to artist who reads panel descriptions and cry. Artist cry, cry, cry. Eventually, someone dumb enough to back up truck full of money and publish book. Publisher cry, cry, cry.
But, you know, classier. THE PULSE: Speaking of other projects, what else have you got on your plate?
Besides the ongoing webcomic, ACTION OHIO, which Paul Salvi and I present weekly at www.shadowlinecomics.com/webcomics
, I've got a short story appearing in Dark Horse's
upcoming CREEPY anthology and a five-issue miniseries about celebutantes coming out from IDW some day, when the industry decides it wants to hear how Britney, Lindsey and Paris were involved in the Anna Nicole Smith
murder. I collaborated on that one with Dan Taylor
and Chris Moreno
. Aside from that, I've got several ducks in the fire and hopefully one will explode any day now. THE PULSE: How, if at all, is the present state of the economy affecting your comics production? Have you been hit hard by this?
Well, like I said above ... I'm doing a series at IDW
that was supposed to be out in early '09 but when you've got three general unknowns toiling on a masterful yet-non superhero project, you tend to wonder how big a bath you're going to take, no? Add in failing economy, rising Diamond
benchmarks and my own personal Murphy's Law
and you've got a stalled debut.
Other than that, I'm wising up — graphic novel and webcomics is it. All of my ongoing series proposals are now ongoing graphic novel series proposals. Yours should be too. THE PULSE: What advice do you have for others struggling right now with whether to keep pursuing the dream or move on to something else?
Never give up. Never surrender. Goonie
never say die.
The Big Kahn
should be in stores this summer from NBM