Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.
By James Sturm
Hardcover, 96 pages, $21.95
Drawn & Quarterly, http://www.drawnandquarterly.com
Greek and Roman mythology envisioned the fates — the Moirae or the Parcae — as spinners of thread. Clotho (Nona) wove life’s threads; Lachesis (Decima) measured; and Atropos (Morta) cut. To the Greeks and Romans, the cosmos was artfully woven by deities, but was also unstable and liable to fray or to unwind piece by piece. Given the Greco-Roman gods’ tendencies to act like children, the pattern of life was particularly chaotic.
In Judaism we understand that God weaves the various strands of life together. Many readers will recall the famous story of the heretic who approached Rabbi Akiva asking for proof that God created the world. Rabbi Akiva counters with his own question: “Who made your cloak?” The heretic is forced to admit there was an artist involved in the manufacture. By way of theological induction, Rabbi Akiva argues the same could be said of the world, which implies God the Weaver.
In its examination of the increasingly difficult life of an Eastern European Jewish weaver in an early 1900s shtetl, James Sturm’s new graphic novel Market Day (April, 2010) is part of a larger religious and literary tradition of examining the intersection of faith and the loom. But Sturm’s bleak narrative is unique in its introduction of a sort of “reader response theory” into the mix.
In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Harvard UP, 1967), Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, argues that John Milton intended readers of Paradise Lost (1667) to undergo an experience of reading that paralleled Adam’s experience. Readers, according to Fish, discover themselves unconsciously sympathizing with Satan’s character, and upon realizing their “sin,” they (like Adam) seek to repent. Readers don’t passively read about Adam’s story so much as they “experience” it — thus the theory of the reader’s response.
Sturm offers readers the same sort of close identification with his character Mendleman. Mendleman is a master rug-maker, who leaves his eight-month pregnant wife Rachel at home while he travels to the market to hawk his woven wares. Echoing what is doubtless a common sentiment among artists who spend most of their time in the studio, Mendleman observes, “For one who spends the majority of his time working in solitude, the market is intoxicating.”
Although he enjoys the anonymity that the market offers — a drastic change from the prying neighbors’ eyes and ears in a small village — Mendleman also likes meeting up with acquaintances like Rabbi Soyer. Sporting a new pair of eyeglasses, the rabbi observes, “My son and I should both study the Talmud with the same devotion and thoughtfulness that you apply to your rugs.”
It turns out that Mendleman’s rugs have helped the rabbi and his son in their religious observance. One particular rug he made of black and deep purple helps the rabbi determine when the Sabbath starts; when he cannot distinguish between the two colors it is dark enough for the Sabbath to begin. (This seems to be an adaptation of Berachot 9B, where one can tell when to say a morning prayer based on one’s ability to differentiate between blue and white wool.)
“Something as common as a rug,” Mendleman continues, “can indeed embody the gifts and miracles of God — the first steps of one’s child, the moment Sabbath begins, or the glorious bustle of the market day.” One is reminded of the women who spun the goat hairs for the Tabernacle in Exodus 35:26 with “wise hearts.”
Unfortunately for Mendleman, if God resides also in rugs, the divine does not sell. The specialty shop that has sold Mendleman’s rugs in the past — the sort of shop every artist hopes for, where the man behind the counter has such a discerning eye that the artist confuses him with a critic — is under new ownership. The new management is a businessman who is more interested in lucrative kitsch than art that will stick to the shelves, so Mendleman needs to choose between settling for a cheaper price for his rugs and returning home without any sales.
But seen through Fish’s reader response theory, even as Mendleman loses his clientele and his patron-critic, he gains a new set of viewers for his work: Sturm’s readers. Sturm draws Mendleman’s experiences in the marketplace and his frustrations not only from a removed, objective perspective, but also through Mendleman’s perspective. On several occasions, Sturm shows the rugs Mendleman is imagining as he looks at the rising sun or the busyness of the marketplace. Even if Mendleman’s rugs fail to sell, the graphic novel is perhaps his greatest work. (Unfortunately, the advanced reader’s copy of the book I received is black-and-white, but it cautions, “Please note that final book will be full color.”)
Sturm is also a master of suggestion. On the first page, as Mendleman is leaving his house before dawn to head to the market, Sturm shows the mezuzah filling one cartoon frame. Although Mendleman does not appear in the frame, Sturm suggests Mendleman reaching out his hand to touch the mezuzah and then to kiss his finger in reverence. I find it interesting that this implication is probably lost on readers who are not familiar with what a mezuzah is, so perhaps Sturm has an intended, initiated Jewish audience. Needless to say, this is a rare and risky sort of move from a publisher like Drawn & Quarterly.
Although I do look forward to seeing the final color version, I suspect I may end up preferring the black and white version in the end. A quick glance on the publisher’s website reveals a PDF version of some of the colored pages, which are effective mostly because they rely on very little color. Mendleman’s world is too dreary to admit too much color. And in the black-and-white version, his masterful rugs become more ironic or Absurdist, almost like the emperor’s new clothes. Could there be a better metaphor for the struggles of the shtetl than a rug maker, so proud of the gorgeous detail of his black, white and gray rugs?
All images are courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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This past summer was a powerful one for the Jewish people. I will always remember where I was on June 12th when I found out that Gilad, Eyal and Naftali were kidnapped. I will always remember the look on my sister’s face on June 30th when she told me that they were found. I will […]
Avromi often put other people’s interests before his own: he would not defend people whom he believed were guilty (even if they were willing to pay him a lot of money).
How can I help my wife learn to say “no,” and understand that her first priority must be her husband and family?
My eyes skimmed an article on page 1A. I was flabbergasted. I read the title again. Could it be? It had good news for the Miami Jewish community.
Students in early childhood, elementary, and middle school were treated to an array of hands-on projects to create sukkah decorations such as wind chimes, velvet posters, sand art, paper chains, and more.
Each student received a brachah and a handshake.
It is important for a therapist to focus on a person’s strengths as a way of overcoming his or her difficulties.
Sadly, there are mothers who, due to severe depression are unable or unwilling to prepare nourishing food for their children.
Michal had never been away from home. And now, she was going so far away, for so long – an entire year!
The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”
It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.
One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)
Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.
It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.
Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.
The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?
Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/unraveling-jewish-threads-james-sturms-graphic-novel-market-day/2010/03/03/
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