Cartoonist Ken Krimstein spills on café culture and his new graphic bio of Hannah Arendt

'The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: The Tyranny of Truth' inspired a new exhibition at Spertus.

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A self-portrait of author Ken Krimstein. Image courtesy of Spertus.

This interview didn't happen over coffee. That's something that acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein deeply laments.

His new graphic biography of Hannah Arendt, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: The Tyranny of Truth (Bloomsbury 2018), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, is the inspiration for a new exhibition now on display on the Ground Level Arts Lab at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

Krimstein, a Chicago-based author, has a lot on his plate these days with exhibition-related programs plus the roster of classes he teaches at DePaul University. Still, he was kind enough to chat by phone about how he became enamored with Hannah Arendt and the café cultures like the one that gave birth to her world-changing ideas and those of her contemporaries.

Jessica Leving: You bring Hannah Arendt to life in a way that dazzles even non-philosophy buffs. What brought you to this topic? 

Ken Krimstein: I was curious to see if I could take a complicated thinker and show where her creative ideas came from. Even before getting into Arendt's works, I was learning about Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, and what was happening in Berlin at the Café Romanisches in the 1930s. I was smitten with the thinking. It was like listening to great music. It wasn't dry thoughts… it was living ideas. 

So why Arendt?

When I looked into her biography, I realized her life was fascinating. I wanted to know her better.

The book gives insight into Arendt's personal life. Where did that come from?

I read the standard biography. Then I read everything else I could. I watched filmed interviews. I met with people who knew her and people who had seen her speak.

What's the current equivalent of the Café Romanisches, in which you call the "the delivery room of the modern world" in the book?

I wish I could find it and get a table there! Today… the Internet isn't really that place. I think sitting around, with smoke and food and talk, being with people, these scenes around the world could be anywhere. They pop up and are usually discovered afterward. Greenwich Village in the 1950s and '60s was a scene. Paris' Left Bank in the 1920s. That social space where people challenge each other.

They probably are in every city, little pockets where scenes are happening. But I think as we retreat into the strange space of the Internet, maybe we aren't going to places where we can hang out and talk. Unless tweets can get people to places where we're actually doing physical meetups.

Jessica Leving is Communications & Community Relations Manager of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

Spertus Institute is a partner with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community.


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