A few years ago, Jason Katzenstein’s grandmother began telling him how much he reminded her of her own grandfather, Max. Beyond their shared stature (short), the 31-year-old cartoonist wasn’t sure exactly what he had in common with the bricklayer who had immigrated to America a century prior.
While he’d heard some stories about that side of his family, Katzenstein’s real journey of discovery began on Ancestry®, where he found census and immigration papers, photographs, and other documents shedding light on Max’s life. His 2nd great-grandfather, he found out, was born in Ukraine and arrived in New York City by ship in 1912 with $25 in his pocket. By the time he applied for citizenship in 1930, he had settled in Detroit with his wife and three children and had saved enough money to buy a home.
For Katzenstein, seeing these records helped him form a fuller picture of Max, not just as a myth but as a real person. As a gift to his mother and grandmother, he created a cartoon inspired by an amusing detail from the Ancestry® research: Max’s height was listed as five-foot-eight on his arrival record, but five-foot-six in his citizenship application and five-foot-five on his WWII Draft Registration Card.
“I can’t help but tell autobiographical stories,” says Katzenstein. “Even when I think I’m making jokes or putting thoughts into inanimate objects, I’m kind of just telling my story. In that way, I hope it’s also an act of empathy to turn somebody’s life into a cartoon because… it’s his life, but through my life.”
Read on for Katzenstein’s reflections on finding art and humor in family stories:
What drew you to cartoons as a medium?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. But also for as long as I can remember, my mom, my dad, my stepmom, my stepdad have signed me up for classes and paid attention to my work, and taken this thing I love to do very seriously. There’s a door in my childhood home that I just painted over one day and my mom walked in and was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is amazing.’ I knew that I could just do that and that she would be cool with it.
In addition to all this drawing, I also was sort of the only 10-year-old with a career plan. I loved reading books about the business of comics and where you pitch your portfolio and which editors to write. My grandma used to take me to San Diego ComicCon every year, and my mom signed me up for figure drawing classes at a really young age. My mom and stepdad took me on a tour of Mad Magazine. My dad took me on a tour of the San Francisco Art Institute when I was applying for colleges. They just, every step of the way, encouraged this thing that I love to do. I didn’t realize that was a gift that they gave me.
Why did you want to learn more about your 2nd great-grandfather, Max?
I didn’t know much about him, honestly, until a few years ago when my grandma brought him up. I don’t know why — maybe because I had grown into an adult, and that’s when I began to remind her of him in affect and in look. She told me a few stories about him, but I think that looking through the pictures and getting these dates and handwriting from Ancestry® really helped her to go into way more detail and to kind of play around in that memory palace.
Jews are really concerned with posterity and with future generations. There’s the Hebrew phrase l’dor va’dor, “from generation to generation.” You hand the Torah on down to signify that. I think that it’s important to my grandma that I remind her of her grandfather because that also shows her that we kept going. We lived. Jews love to keep going.
What is your thought process in creating a cartoon?
I think that over the years, I’ve decided for better or worse to trust myself a little more. When I was first starting out, I would be very aware of, ‘Okay, what are the conventions of cartooning? What is the angle? How do you put this on the page? Who’s going to laugh? What will people’s reactions to be?’ et cetera, et cetera. I’ve been trying to be a little bit more intuitive about the whole thing now that I’ve been at it for a while. I’m not good at relaxing generally, but if, in the process of making work, I can relax for a bit and go, ‘Okay, what feels like the right line? What feels like the right way to tell this story?’ Then I can let it be a little more autobiographical because you just have to take for granted that whatever you make is going to end up expressing what’s going on with you. If I’m going to tell the story of my great-great-grandpa, I’m also telling the story of myself in how I tell that story.
What stood out to you from the documents and photos you found on Ancestry®?
The handwriting is so interesting. That’s something that ties into drawing, too; I think the way that your hand moves across the page is always autobiographical. Not that I know much about handwriting analysis, but just seeing handwriting is evidence that there’s a real person there. And so I thought it was super interesting to see actual documents that he’d written on.
With all the information you found on Ancestry®, how did you settle on this image as the one you wanted to turn into a cartoon?
I let it all wash over me and tried to construct a story out of those elements. And inevitably, as is my impulse, that tends to lead to a joke. I didn’t even know if it was going to be a joke necessarily. I imagined there was going to be a lot of serious stuff there, and there was. And I think it could have been enough to do an illustration just about the journey. I wasn’t necessarily chasing after that punchline, but then it felt like it was right there and so it felt almost inevitable.
What do you think Max would think if he were able to meet you and see your work?
I have so much trouble explaining to my living relatives what half my cartoons mean that I can’t imagine a man who mostly spoke Yiddish, what his reaction to the actual cartoons would be. Although maybe some of the silent ones he might get. Everything I’ve learned about him leads me to believe that he was a really funny guy. As far as seeing that I can make a living as an artist, I’d like to think that would make him proud. It’s very cool that he built houses so that I could sit here like a prince drawing cartoons all day.
How did your mom and grandmother react when you gave them your gift?
They are both meticulous record keepers. They both have every photo that’s ever been taken of every family member. And they both have been so supportive of my art and have gallery walls of my work, and so they are always excited when I give them art. It’s nice to be able to make a thing that I can give them. But to be able to give them art that also has to do with family — man, that’s the magic potion I never knew about. That is the sweet spot for my mom and my grandma. That’s what they want.
Discover more inspiring stories of how artists have used Ancestry® research to create unique gifts honoring their family histories at nymag.com.
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