Latest update: June 7th, 2012
Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History 15 West 16th Street, NYC; (212) 294 8330 www.yumuseum.org Closed April 15, 2012 Next Venue: JCC’s Bronfman Gallery: June 7, 2012 in Washington D.C.
Everybody reads comics. From the New York Times to the Post there is hardly any periodical published that doesn’t sometimes feature a cartoon or comic; some kind of drawn image with text to entertain or provide commentary. Even the Jewish Press. When most people think of comics they immediately think of fictional comic books that kids read or the comic strips in the daily newspapers for adults. Comics that document personal stories dealing with political themes or traditionally taboo topics did not gain recognition until they emerged as an underground movement in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Using comics to tell personal stories can have a definite advantage over books, in that they help the viewer imagine the story as it unfolds. What is particularly striking is that Jews have always played a significant role in this complex American art form.
Reviewing the history of comics back to the 1920s when they started gaining popularity, the subject matter seemed to change in each decade. During WWII, comics focused on Super Heroes, the war and American pride, with characters like Flash, Wonder Woman, Superman, and the Justice Society of America. After the war, interest in Super Heroes declined and stories about life at home, romance and crime in the cities grew. The 1950s brought comics about science fiction, horror, and gore. Super Heroes reemerged in the 1960s with new characters like Spiderman, the Hulk and X-Men.
Surely you have been to a museum, viewed a painting and asked yourself what the meaning is, or even eavesdropped on someone else talking about it as they walked by. The artists of “Graphic Details; Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” at the Yeshiva University Museum don’t leave you guessing about the message of their art, but they do leave you thinking. The 18 brave women artists include: Vanessa Davis; Bernice Eisenstein; Sarah Glidden; Miriam Katin; Aline Kominsky-Crumb; Miss Lasko-Gross; Sarah Lazarovic; Miriam Libicki; Sarah Lightman; Diane Noomin; Corinne Pearlman; Trina Robbins; Racheli Rottner; Sharon Rudahl; Laurie Sandell; Ariel Schrag; Lauren Weinstein; and Ilana Zeffren. They were brilliantly selected by curators Michael Kaminer, and Sarah Lightman, not only for their graphic talent and writing skills, but for their ability to stimulate your thinking about the nature of contemporary Jewish life. This touring exhibition has already been seen in San Francisco and Toronto and will travel to Washington D.C. next. Zachary Paul Levine, Yeshiva University Museum Assistant Curator, was instrumental in bringing it to New York. He adapted the exhibit to include a few unique features to aid the viewer. His wall texts have added valuable commentary giving Jewish insight on the works. Additionally, Levine added interviews with the artists called “Artists in Their Own Voices.” They can be viewed on a monitor in the exhibit (excerpts can be found on youtube.com), creating a more personal and intimate connection.
Collectively, many of the artist’s works share the central theme of struggling with notions of Jewish identity while in search for their own place in society. What it means to be Jewish or how a Jewish person lives in society changes as Jews settled in different parts of the world. Jewish people adapted with each move, merging being Jewish with their surrounding culture. So when these artists needed to express something about their Jewishness, they naturally merged it with a favorite American pastime. As a result they also became commentators of contemporary Jewish life. The subjects of “Graphic Details” are wide-ranging including love, relationships, friends, growing up, marriage, pregnancy, parents, family, Israel, the Holocaust, war, and politics. Each story documents how contemporary Jews face life’s challenges. Ariel Schrag and Miriam Katin represent two types of struggle. Schrag struggles with her individual identity. Katin struggles with Jewish identity in society and with God.
Schrag is a young artist who casually addresses a common but extremely sensitive Jewish identity question faced by many in her generation: she has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. In a short comic called “The Chosen” Schrag was trying to find someone to take over the lease of her Brooklyn apartment and, after speaking to her landlord, several chassidic brokers called her. While looking around the apartment, a broker named Joseph notices her last name and asked “Are you Jewish?” Schrag tells us that before she answered she had a flashback to a past experience with a chassidic broker: “The last time I’d been asked this question was by the chassidic broker who first rented the apartment to me and my sister.” At that point, her sister had answered for both of them. “Well our Dad is Jewish and our Mom isn’t, but we celebrate Hanukkah and Passover, so . . .” After which the broker replies “Not Jewish,” walking away and ending the conversation.
In Schrag’s “Artists in Their Own Voices” interview, she says she took advantage of the simple black and white of the comic and cast her sister and herself inside a shadow, outside of the broker’s circle of light, expressing her feelings of being left out. Schrag feared a similar reaction from the new broker. She wanted to feel accepted by him. So she cuts out the details her sister previously offered and replies with a simple “Yes!” Schrag reveals to us what this whole experience was like for her. Her simple yet meaningful message is that everyone wants to feel a part of his or her chosen group, even if it’s for a short while. After Schrag told the broker ‘yes,’ she says her “whole body tingled with the narcotic feeling of belonging.” In an earlier interview by Leah Berkenwald (Jewish Women’s Archive: Jewesses with Attitude, March 21, 2011), Schrag is asked, “How does your Jewish identity influence your work?” She answers, “It doesn’t especially. I’m half Jewish, the wrong half at that, but I look Jewish (imagine what you will) and I have a Jewish name (first and last) so I FEEL very Jewish. And actually have quite a strong Jewish identity for myself.” The comic ends with the cartoon character of Schrag smiling inside the circle of light, instead of the shadow: her role has been reversed. She is looking up at a Menorah on a shelf of her apartment and says, ”… for at least those two weeks, I had been one of The Chosen.” It is clear that no one was going to take away her “half” Jewish identity.
Miriam Katin survived war-torn Europe during WWII to immigrate to Israel in 1957 and served in the Israeli Defense Forces as a graphic artist from 1960-63, which is the setting of her comic titled, “Eucalyptus Nights.” It was commissioned in 2006 by a Jewish publication: “Guilt & Pleasure” for their “Fight issue.” When Katin was asked in an interview by Leah Berkenwald; “What’s its story” (Jewish Women’s Archive: Jewesses with Attitude, March 21, 2011), she says, “…tension between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews of that period.” This tension is expressed in the story of an encounter she had with Sephardic solider named Obadiah. In her “Artists in Their Own Voices” interview Katin tells us that she met Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin for the first time in the IDF. After becoming, as she put it, “romantic” with Obadiah, she was horrified that her Ashkenazi family and IDF supervisor who survived the Holocaust, looked down on “these Jewish people of the Middle East” and discouraged her from the relationship. Katin feels that this issue has not fully been resolved and that Israeli society needs a way of coming to terms with this conflict that dates back to the founding days of the country.
The comic artwork from Katin’s book, We Are On Our Own, was not on the walls of the exhibit, but it was in the reading area. The book details her experiences escaping the Holocaust as a child with her mother. Katin writes, “And Then One Day God Replaced the Light with Darkness.” A series of 6 images peering out a window show the view of a beautiful blue sky over the city, slowly being eclipsed by the red and black Nazi flag. By the 6th image all you see is the black of the swastika through the window. Katin is referencing the verses from Genesis 1:4-5, “And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.” Katin’s window is our world; by saying “one day” she is connecting to “day one” of Creation. By telling the viewer that “God” is replacing light with darkness, Katin is questioning God’s actions. Katin was asking God the same question many have asked for centuries: why do bad things happen to good people?
Jewish people need Jewish art to inspire them, to make them think, to help them connect to their heritage. When a Jewish person can relate to art because it has Jewish content, they connect. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, of The David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, frequently lectures around the world on what he believes is the key to the survival of the Jewish people. Rabbi Cardozo emphasized that without constant discussion of what it means to be “Jewish” our beliefs would become a static, frozen religion. He believes the discussion should not only be about Jewish Law; rather it must examine the very essence of what it authentically means to be Jewish and what the Jewish people’s impact on the world should be. By sharing their personal stories of struggle, the “Graphic Details” artists have made a significant contribution to keeping the discussion of what it means to be a contemporary Jew going.
Jacob Mezrahi is a New York based artist, educator and writer. Contact him at email@example.com.
About the Author: Jacob Mezrahi is a New York based artist, educator and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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