From humor to Jewish connections and back again


The timing was perfect: daylight saving time ended, giving us back a lost hour.  I went to Columbus, Ohio, to visit the homestead of my favorite American humorist, James Thurber.  

My freshman roommate at Yale had handed me Thurber’s children’s book “The Thirteen Clocks,” illustrated by Marc Simont, and it changed my life! I would read his funny little memoirs, mixed with Aesopian fables, aloud to whoever would listen – my brother, my mother and her friends, my dates. Nobody quite loved his sentences and scribbles as much as I did.

So I made my literary pilgrimage to the home of the popular 20th-century cartoonist and writer for the New Yorker, purchased a few souvenirs in the gift shop and snapped memento shots of his fabulous town house, saved from a wrecking ball by a band of dedicated antiquarians. 

I stayed at the Westin Hotel, which has a bar dedicated to Thurber that features his first and last illustrations, before he went blind and hired some Jewish artists to illustrate his words with their own gorgeous interpretations. Louis Slobodkin drew “Many Moons” for the 1943 version of that collaborative storybook.

The logo of this Westin pub is simply an image of the myopic writer’s eyeglasses. 

I had many adventures in Columbus, all with a Jewish connection, at least in my mind.  The longtime art director of the restored rooms and displays of memorabilia in Thurber’s home is Michael Rosen. Columbus, Ohio, of course, has a number of statues of Christopher C., and I have been pursuing the variety of ways painters, poets, sculptors and scholars have depicted the admiral: admirable or abominable? He once personified the American Dream of bravely discovering new lands, or perhaps only fresh opportunities. Simon Wiesenthal in “Sails of Hope,” on the other hand, saw Columbus as a rescuer of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, seeking freedom from fear. Today, mostly, our mood and mode of thought emphasize the cruelty and oppression of his era and even his personal motivation: Was it greed for gold, lust for power and celebrity, contempt for the conquered? I focus only on what the artist projects about the meaning of the explorer’s voyages and quest. 

The Statehouse in Columbus boasts a unique and most impressive Holocaust Memorial Monument, at the very center of town. When I walked into the heavily guarded lobby, a  young man in uniform told me, “The governor is most proud of this display, it’s the crowning glory of his political term of office.”  

There is a large star cut into a stone wall that bears the life story of a survivor. Many words, like a gigantic page not of paper but of enduring granite. Along the pathway to this carved message, there is a low ledge with an inscription thanking the Ohio soldiers who helped liberate the camps and fought for our freedoms and liberties, not only for the Jewish souls but for all those who were oppressed by the Nazis. 

I was only in Columbus, Ohio, for one day, 24 short hours, but they loom larger than that for me.  

My all-time favorite line from all of Thurber – and the one with a sort-of Jewish theme – closes the aforementioned “Thirteen Clocks.” The “golux” – a wise Hasidic elf – declares: “Remember laughter. You’ll need it even in the blessed isles of Ever After.” 

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.