You are here

Interview with Author/Cartoonist Ken Krimstein

Interview with Author/Cartoonist Ken Krimstein


Café Culture and Cartoons

Acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein spills on the importance of café culture and what it’s like to have his graphic biography of Hannah Arendt turned into an exhibition

By Jessica Leving for Spertus Institute

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 in the Ground Level Arts Lab at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership through August 18, 2019.

Krimstein has a lot on his plate these days with exhibition-related programs plus the roster of classes the Chicago-based author 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 the her world-changing ideas and those of her contemporaries.

Ken Krimstein

Ken Krimstein self portrait

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

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 Hannah’s works, I was learning about Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, and this whole thing that was happening in Berlin at the Café Romanisches in the 1930s. [In the book, Krimstein calls the café ‘the delivery room of the modern world’.] I was smitten with the thinking. It was like listening to great music. I wasn’t looking at it as dry thoughts… it was living ideas that were exciting to me.

Spertus: So why Arendt?

Krimstein: When I looked into her biography, I realized her life was fascinating. I felt an instant connection. I felt that this was a person I knew and wanted to know better.

Spertus: The book gives fascinating insight into Arendt’s personal life. Where did that come from?

Krimstein: I read the standard biography. Then I read everything else I could. I watched Arendt in filmed interviews. I met with people who knew her and people who had seen her speak. Interestingly, I have lived in some of the places she lived—New York City’s Upper West Side, and Chicago’s Hyde Park, so I knew a little bit of some of her worlds.

Spertus: What’s the current equivalent of the Café Romanisches?

Krimstein: 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, it’s these scenes around the world… they 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. I was taken by the richness of that culture. Somehow when there’s this critical mass of people something just happens. It is like an equation. 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 maybe tweets can get people to places where we’re actually doing physical meetups.

Spertus: Maybe Spertus can be that place in Chicago… starting with your upcoming events!

Krimstein: Maybe!

Jessica Leving is Spertus Institute's Communications & Community Relations Manager. She admits she knew nothing about Hannah Arendt before reading this book, but now, like Krimstein, she is fascinated by Arendt's visionary thinking and messy love life.


Continue the Conversation!
Attend one of these exhibition-related events

Opening Reception
Thursday, March 14 | 5:30-8:00 pm
At 6:30, Krimstein will be interviewed by Alexandra Salomon, editor of WBEZ's Curious City. Book signing to follow.
Free. Reservations appreciated >

Gallery Talk with Cartoonist Ken Krimstein
Sunday, April 14 | 2:00 pm
Book signing to follow.
Free. Reservations appreciated >

Film screening | Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt
Monday, May 13 | 7:00 pm
$18 | $10 for Spertus members | $8 for students and Spertus alumni
Purchase tickets online >

Saturday, March 23, 2019