Ever since Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize, no apologies need to be made for the aspirations of comic book artists to enter the realm of literature. R. Crumb, for example, recently rendered nothing less exalted than the Book of Genesis as a graphic novel. And Marjane Satrapi applied the same techniques to a best-selling work of memoir in “Persepolis.”
“Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” (Hill and Wang: $24.95) is a new contribution to the genre by the late Harvey Pekar, the outsider-artist who gave us a masterpiece of social observation and cultural criticism in the “American Splendor” comic series. His work is brought to life here by JT Waldman, author of the graphic novel “Megillat Esther,” and by Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, who collaborated with her late husband on the “American Splendor” series.
The point of Pekar’s posthumous book, as the title reveals, is the crisis of conscience and identity that Pekar experienced when it came to the Jewish homeland. Pekar was raised in Cleveland by an observant father and a Marxist mother, both of whom were ardent Zionists, each in his or her own way. However, Pekar was troubled by what he saw when he looked deeply into Jewish history, so he set out to provide us with “the history of Israel through the eyes of Harvey Pekar,” starting in distant antiquity and moving through the crucial events that brought Israel into existence, pausing now and then to describe his own upbringing in Cleveland in the ’40s and ’50s, and always confronting us with the tough questions that he asked himself.
Both Pekar and Waldman speak to us from the pages of the book, allowing us to eavesdrop on their conversations and sometimes glancing at us from inside a comic-book panel and addressing us directly. “Isn’t the Bible full of stories about God punishing some people because they weren’t subordinate enough to him?” Pekar muses. “I ask these questions because some readers believe in God.”
‘Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me’]
Pekar, however, does not. He acknowledges the role assigned to God in Jewish texts and tradition, but he’s not buying it. Indeed, he challenges most of the pieties and true beliefs of Judaism and Zionism, and he frankly shows us how and why he was booted out of Hebrew school because of his oppositional ways. “Harvey, there’s a thin line between genius and crazy,” his exasperated teacher scolds him, “and you’ve crossed it.”
For Pekar, as for Abraham, Jacob and Moses, struggling with higher authority — and even the highest authority — is itself an authentic Jewish tradition. “I guess we’ve always been a thickheaded people who enjoy disagreeing with one another,” says Pekar, and Waldman is shown to correct him: “I believe the term is ‘stiff-necked,’” says the young man, putting air-quotes around the word.
The qualms and quandaries that afflicted Pekar, of course, are neither original nor profound, and the experiences he describes are common to his entire generation. But Pekar and Waldman express themselves with a striking visual inventiveness that deepens and sharpens the story. When Pekar shows us the history of Judea during the Roman era, the illustrations are rendered in mosaic patterns; when he describes the emergence of Islam, the panels are drawn to resemble illuminated pages from the Koran, decorated only with calligraphical and geometrical patterns. And when he depicts his abortive effort at aliyah — he never actually makes it to Eretz Yisrael — the faces are blurred out as if to show how alienated he felt when he showed up at the Israeli consulate in Chicago.
“Well, maybe I could work on a kibbutz,” says Pekar. The consular official confronts him with the harsh truth: “They wouldn’t take you, and if they did, they’d throw you out.” Explains Pekar, no less harsh and no less truthful: “What the guy was saying was that I was a loser, and Israel had no time to rehabilitate shmucks.”
Pekar may not believe in God and Torah, but he definitely shares the Jewish habit of mind that allows many of us to see both sides of every question. “The Arabs have a legitimate beef,” he insists. “Ben-Gurion admitted it. Dayan admitted it. Sure, the Jews tell everyone that God provided them the land because they are his people. But every ethnic group thinks they are his chosen people.”
By the end of “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me,” Pekar readily confesses that he is clueless about practical solutions — “Yeah, I know I’ve never been to Israel, but…that doesn’t mean we’re not entitled to an opinion” And he insists that he knows the difference between right and wrong. “I’ve got no idea how to resolve this thing,” he says, “but if the main issues — like Jerusalem, the right of return, and possible reparations — aren’t discussed, it’s hard to imagine any progress being made.”
So the book fits neatly into the literature of hand-wringing resulting from the current stalemate that has stalled the peace process and gridlocked the governance of Israel. “I do not hate myself,” Pekar announces to those who pronounce him to be a self-hating Jew, “and Jews who criticize Israel aren’t necessarily mentally ill.”
Indeed, as he catches the reader’s eye from within a cartoon panel, Pekar comes across as thoroughly and authentically Jewish, a man who knows the weight and volume of tragedy that afflicts the history of his people but insists on aspiring to a better world than the one in which he finds himself.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan, will be published under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton during the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht in 2013. Kirsch blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.