By Derek Royal
Many of the comics and graphic novels containing overt Jewish-related subject matter usually fall into one of three different camps. The first is centered around a conflict between between Jewish culture — familial relations, social customs, gender roles, communal expectations — and the demands of the nation in which a Jewish community resides. We see this within the context of the United States in works such as Will Eisner’s To the Heart of the Storm (1991) and Neil Kleid and Jake Allen’s Brownsville (2006), but there are also numerous comics that explore this dynamic in other national settings, such as Joann Sfar’s Klezmer (2006) and James Sturm’s Market Day (2010). A second kind Jewish comic concerns matters of religion, legend/history, and faith. Into this category would fall such works as J. T. Waldman’s Megillat Esther (2005), Barry Deutsch’s Hereville books (2010, 2012), the series Mendy and the Golem (1981-1984, 2003-2005) and Steve Niles and Matt Santoro’s recent Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem (2013). A third type of Jewish comic, which is a subgenre in and of itself, focuses on the Holocaust. There are the well-known examples by Art Spiegelman and Joe Kubert, of course, but there are also the lesser known works by Pascal Croci, Auschwitz (2003), Miriam Katin, We Are on Our Own (2006), and Trina Robbins, Lily Renée, Escape Artist (2011). (I’m aware that these three categories aren’t exclusive or even clean divisions, but they do provide a general starting point when distinguishing trends in Jewish comics. I am also aware that they may not take into account books that might be considered Jewish because of the background of their creators, but contain no overt or direct Jewish content.)
A fourth kind of comic related to Jewishness is based on the nation of Israel, and this is a relatively recent and growing phenomenon. There are comics by Israeli creators, such as those produced by Actus Tragicus and Rutu Modan on her own, but I’m referring to books (primarily by American creators) that take Israeli nationhood or culture as their subject. There are earlier examples of this with Miriam Libicki’s Jobnik! (2008), Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2010), and Harvey Pekar’s (art by J. T. Waldman) posthumously published Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (2012). But the most recent example of this kind of comic, Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi’s Jerusalem: A Family Portrait (published by First Second), truly stands out among its kind, both in its narrative reach and through Bertozzi’s art. It is the story of the Halabys families — those of two estranged brothers, Izak and Yakov — as they endure the conflicts surrounding Jerusalem between 1945 and 1948, the last years of British Mandate and the founding of the nation of Israel.
The subtitle of the book, “A Family Portrait,” is an apt one. The narrative has a panoramic feel as it follows the lives of the various Halabys. The central family is that of Izak, his wife Emily, and their five children. Each of the older siblings strikes out on a different path in their quest for self-fulfillment, and in many ways each represents a political avenue for the emerging Jewish state. The oldest son, Avraham, fought for the British in the Second World War, and he returns home disgusted with violence and chooses instead a socialist approach to brotherhood and solidarity. His brother, Ezra, becomes a radical (and violent) freedom fighter for the Zionist cause, first against the British occupiers and then against his Arab neighbors. The second-oldest son, David, steers more of a middle course. During the final days of World War II, he helped Italian Jews find their way to the Holy Land, and then returning home in late 1947 works with the Palmach to combat the Arab siege of Jerusalem. What happens to each of these brothers, along with their dedication to their respective causes, can be read as a competing facet of early Israeli identity.
Yet while the struggles of these three brothers — along with the hardships endured by their parents and neighbors — drive the action of the book, the larger narrative is primarily centered around Izak’s youngest son, Motti. Unlike those of his older brothers, Motti’s life is unanchored, meandering, and episodic. He plays the role of a model student, a petty thief, a dedicated son, a street hooligan, a sympathetic family member, and even arguably a terrorist. However, the role that he eventually plays is that of an artist figure, falling in with a theater collective bringing Shakespeare to a beleaguered and frightened community. He can be read as a symbol of Israel’s promise, and its pitfalls, as it defines itself in the post-World War II years.
At the same time, the cast of characters in Jerusalem isn’t limited only to the male members of Izak Halabys’s family. Other figures populate the narrative landscape and provide added dimensions to the face of post-war Palestine: Motti’s self-doubting sister, Devorah, and her enamored friend, Tsipi; Izak’s coldhearted brother, Yakov; Motti’s close cousin and Yakov’s only son, the headstrong Jonathan; Avraham’s fellow socialist and Arab friend, Elias; and the down-to-earth family that the Halabys take in as boarders in order to make ends meet, the Nehmads. Given the ambitious reach of this story, a “family portrait” in the fullest sense, Jerusalem has a novelistic feel not found in other comics based on the Israeli experience.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this book is the creators’ refusal to stake out any one position or align the narrative with a singular political imperative. As expressed through the conflicting actions of the Halabys brothers, Yakin maps out the options open to the young Israeli nation and then leaves it up to the reader to come to any conclusions. This ambiguous tone is born out especially through the character of Motti. His final actions in the book — and they’re not entirely clearcut — underscore the quandaries facing Israel at its birth…and at the same time, Israel as it stands today. We end the book asking ourselves, where does Motti end up and what might he represent? And along with that, how might we as readers sympathetic to Motti’s plight be complicit in his questionable actions?
Check out Jerusalem as well as other books by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi: