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Beloved comics allude to many favorite Jewish (and non-Jewish) history stories

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First seen in 1960, the comic about a heroic duo evolved into a modern form: the video game Asterix And Obelix: Slap Them All! takes place in 50BC when Gaul, with the exception of a single village, is occupied by the Romans. (Screencap: YouTube)

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Asterix is a legendary French comic that has been translated and distributed across the world in many different languages.

The titular character and protagonist is a Gaul who constantly fights Roman invaders. He also hunts wild boar (not kosher) and worships the pagan God, Toutatis – so, what could be Jewish about him? In an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London in 2018 which celebrated the life of cartoonist, René Goscinny, his Jewish roots were acknowledged. On closer observation, one notices that there are many nods to this Jewishness throughout the series!  

Asterix was originally conceived and published by Goscinny and Uderzo in the 1959 Pilote magazine. Albert Uderzo was an ethnic Italian and very much aware of Goscinny’s admiration for both Israel and his Jewish roots – Goscinny had Polish Jewish ancestry. Many in my generation probably got a better history lesson from Asterix than we did at primary school, where most would say they probably “fell asleep in class”.

In 1961, the first book was published Asterix the Gaul. From then on, books were released annually. Goscinny passed away in 1977 and Uderzo initially wanted to cease writing the series, but he ultimately continued thanks to popular demand by readers. 

Asterix comics have your typical slapstick humor that centers around caricatures and stereotypes. 

He lives in a Gaulish village around 50 BC – all of Gaul (except his village) is occupied by Romans – a parallel to Nazis occupying the rest of Europe and who murdered many of Goscinny’s relatives. The resistance alludes to partisan holdouts fighting the Germans.

Asterix and the village draw their strength from a magic potion, which gives the drinker super strength for a limited period of time (unlimited for his gigantic sidekick and secondary protagonist Obelix) – this could be a metaphorical reference to the Torah or the rumor that Israel has nuclear weapons.

Getafix, who brews this potion looks like a chief-rabbi with the long beard and a wise sage look that will remind you of Gandalf or Obi-Won Kenobi. Goscinny also once reportedly once said that he was inspired by the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire. It is simply amazing how multiple concepts were combined to give relatability to a very wide readership. And everyone across the board definitely loves to root for the underdog! 

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The four Roman camps on the periphery of the village likely represent the four Arab countries surrounding Israel – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. So, Romans are conflated with both the Arabs and Nazis, two groups which gave Jews a hard time in the 20th century. Asterix and the Great Divide (1980) portrays a Gallo-Roman culture, a reference to Nazi collaborators and the puppet Vichy French regime or maybe Hellenized Jews – the source of the tale of Hanukkah! The Great Divide is also based on the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany. 

In Asterix and the Goths (1963) the novel does not portray the Goths (based on Germans) positively at all. Goths wear German World War I helmets and chief Metric is a caricature of Otto Von Bismarck. The authors later claimed to have regretted portraying Germans entirely negatively and subsequently, in the 1967 Asterix the Legionary, portrayed some German characters in a more positive light. If you understand French, the comics are funnier in their original, untranslated format. In fact, much of the humor in the initial books was so French-specific that translation releases were constantly delayed out of concern that they would lose in-jokes and flow in the storyline. 

In Asterix and the Black Gold (1980), Saul ben Ephishul (sounds like so beneficial), is a Jewish guide who escorts Asterix and Obelix from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and is a caricature of Goscinny. Their voyage is full of Biblical references, such as spending the night in a Bethlehem stable and the mention of David and Goliath.

In Uderzo’s memoir, he reminisced: “Not very long before René left us, his wife and I spent several days in René and Gilbert Goscinny’s apartment in Cannes. And one morning I astonished René, telling him about how I had dreamt that I was hovering and flying over Jerusalem, bathed in golden sunlight under a brilliant blue sky, even though I had yet to visit this city. When I later visited for real, it was as if I recognized everything.”

When Druid Getafix sends them to get oil, an ingredient for the magic potion, they travel to the Middle-East but return empty handed. Getafix subsequently realizes that beetroot was a worthy substitute to make the potion. This is a nod to the aftermath of the 1973 Suez war when the Arab world’s oil embargoes were countered by the West diversifying their oil sources, resulting in new sources being extracted in places such as Alaska, the North Sea and Caucasus. 

Asterix comics used slapstick humor centered around caricatures and stereotypes, but softened the depiction of the Goths in later storylines. (Screencap: YouTube)

Many funny comedic references give the tale a ‘timeless element’. In Asterix and the Great Divide, for example, in the original French edition Chief Vitalstatistix’s opponent is called Aplusbégalix (A plus B equals X). In the English version, his name, Cassius Ceramix is a nod to boxer Mohammed Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay.

In the publication, Asterix and the Great Crossing, Asterix and Obelix end up in North America and eat turkey. Obelix suggests that this bird might taste better if stuffed, a reference to Thanksgiving. Asterix and the Black Gold also features a Roman spy named Dubbelosix, a caricature of Sean Connery and a clear parody of 007, better known as James Bond. In Asterix and Son (1983), Julius Caesar says to Brutus “Et tu Brute” (French for “And you Brutus”); the words he uttered in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when stabbed by him. 

In Asterix and the Big Fight, the Druid Psychoanalytic resembles Sigmund Freud and the bards in Asterix in Britain look like The Beatles. Many more humorous/comedic elements pepper the novels that will make you laugh and re-read them countless times. 

Therefore, when one reads about a Gaulish village holding out against Romans, we root for the underdog just like we do for those who resisted the Nazis ; Or the lone Jewish state of Israel vs a sea of hostile nations that tried and still try to destroy it to no avail.

Goscinny and Uderzo are no longer with us, but their work will be in our hearts forever, even as other writers continue the series. The comics allude to many of your favorite Jewish and non-Jewish history stories from anachronistic places, set in a fictionalized world of around 50 BC: And so, Asterix is truly French and yet also very Jewish in its core and something to be cherished by all demographics.

Avi Kumar is a historian of Sri Lankan descent who lives in New York.

He has a unique spin on current affairs.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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