Legends of the Talmud: fantastical stories, in fantastic art

Donating to Kickstarter campaigns is like giving a gift to one's future self. I didn't come up with that idea myself -- it's Ethan's -- but I thought of it a few days ago when I received a copy of a book I had helped to fund, but had forgotten would be arriving eventually in my mailbox: Legends of the Talmud: A Collection of Ancient Magical Jewish Tales, by Leah Vincent and Samuel Katz, illustrated by Aya Rosen. (I reviewed Leah Vincent's memoir Cut me loose a bit less than a year ago.)

Here's how the project was described on its Kickstarter page:

ImagesLegends of the Talmud will introduce readers aged 6+ to one of the oldest and most influential texts of Judaism: the Talmud. Although often viewed as a collection of religious laws, the Talmud is also a cultural legacy filled with foundational Jewish ideas and magical tales.

The five stories curated in Legends of the Talmud are presented without doctrinal overlay. They are recounted exactly as they are in the original text: cultural treasures that depict earthy and frank experiences of love, suffering, hope and persistence that all humans grapple with as we move through life. 

Written by Leah Vincent and Samuel Katz and illustrated by Aya Rosen, this revolutionary book will introduce children of all backgrounds to the Talmud and allow Jewish legends to proudly take their place in the global library of ancient magical stories.

The book does what the Kickstarter promised and then some. It is stunning.


A two-page spread from one of the book's stories, "The Matron and Reb Yose."

This is a richly-illustrated collection of short stories. (I can't exactly call it a graphic novel, because it isn't a novel, but it's very much in that vein -- beautiful illustrations which are themselves the story, not just accompaniments to the story.) It contains five vignettes from the Talmud: For the Love of Chanina, Hillel the Sage, the Test of the Bitter Waters, It is Not in Heaven, and the Matron and Reb Yose.

In these tales we read about how the sage Chanina loved learning more than he loved the law (and what the consequences of that love turned out to be). How the sage Hillel allowed himself to freeze overnight on the skylight of the house of study (and his famous on-one-foot encapsulation of Torah). How the sotah ritual, the "test of the bitter waters," allowed a woman who knew she had not sinned to prove her innocence. How the rabbis reminded God that interpretation of Torah is not in heaven, but here on earth, which means that it is in our hands. And how God spends God's spare time making love matches here on earth, which is a more difficult task than we tend to think.


A two-page spread from the tale of Hillel the Sage.

These are all stories that I know, and if you have spent any time studying Talmud, you know them too. But even if they are familiar to you, this volume's sparse retelling (and especially Aya Rosen's gorgeous artwork) will bring them to life for you in a new way. And if you know someone who doesn't know these tales from the Talmud, oh, is that person in for a treat!

I want to give this book to everyone I know who loves graphic novels, because it's a beautiful introduction to some foundational Jewish stories. (I give the authors particular props for including the whole "It is not in heaven" story -- not ending with God's joyful shout of "my children have defeated me," but going all the way to the story's conclusion, which is considerably more emotionally complicated.) And I want to give it to everyone I know who loves Talmud, because it's such a lovely addition to the corpus of Talmudic lore.

Leah Vincent's website says the books will be available at our favorite booksellers in spring of 2015, and a Twitter conversation with her confirms that. Follow the book's Facebook page to get an update when the book is available to the general public. Ass soon as that happens, I'm buying a pile of these -- to give to my b'nei mitzvah students and to share with comics-loving friends, and especially one to give to our son.


Pekar & Waldman: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

Harvey Pekar was an American underground comix legend. A lot of people know him for American Splendor, a series of autobiographical comic books. He was a giant, in his own way. He died in 2010, survived by his wife Joyce Brabner.

JT Waldman is the creator of Megillat Esther, which I reviewed here several years ago. It's my favorite edition of the book of Esther, bar none. It contains -- as the saying goes -- the whole megillah; all of Esther, plus all sorts of commentary interwoven throughout the gorgeous artwork.

When Harvey Pekar died, he and JT Waldman were collaborating on a nonfiction graphic novel -- an illustrated memoir with historical divagations -- called Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. The book follows the two authors through Cleveland as they discuss Pekar's relationship with Israel, from the Zionism he imbibed in childhood through a process of beginning to question Israel's role in the world.

In Megillat Esther, JT Waldman skillfully braids classical commentary on Esther together with the text of the megillah and with his striking and beautiful visual art. He does something similar here, only in this book he's interweaving the story Harvey tells, the experience of hearing that story from Harvey, and Middle East history.

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Hereville and Cairo

I've read two awesome graphic novels lately. They are very different, and yet both completely wonderful. They are Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch and Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker (words and art respectively.)

A while back I read the Hereville webcomic, which is about an 11-year-old troll-fighting Orthodox Jewish girl. I fell in love with it, so when I heard that it was coming out in expanded form as an actual graphic novel, I put it on my Amazon wishlist post haste. (You can read a preview of Hereville if you're interested -- the preview contains the first 15 pages of the book.)

Mirka is the hero of Hereville, and she is awesome: smart and spunky and absolutely convinced that someday she's going to fight dragons, even though she doesn't yet have a sword. (Oh, and there haven't been any dragons anywhere near her village in living memory. But why should that stop her?)

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Coming soon to a bookstore near you...?

Back when Radical Torah still existed, one of my favorite features there was The Comic Torah, a strip written by Aaron Freeman and drawn by Sharon Rosenzweig. The Comic Torah offers a quirky and sometimes irreverent look at each week's Torah portion, in serialized graphic novel form. (Though Radical Torah has been offline for a while now, the comic strip still exists: The Comic Torah.)

One of the most charming things about the strip is that God Almighty (a.k.a. YHVH) is clearly modeled on Sharon -- and Moses is a dead ringer for her partner (in both senses of the word) Aaron Freeman. (What this is meant to imply about the relationship betwen God and Moshe, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Seeing God depicted as a woman and Moshe as a Black man was at first startling; these days I find it delicious. There are other quirky visual decisions that I like: for instance, the Land of Israel is depicted as a voluptuous woman, her body marked into 12 tribal territories. (See above.) There's something both pointed and poignant about that.

It turns out that Ben Yehuda Press wants to publish the collected comic strips as a book -- which is great news for Jewish comics fans, fans of interesting graphic novels, and anyone who likes the idea of creative engagement with Torah. But the folks at Ben Yehuda want to be sure that there's enough interest in the project for them to print it, so they're asking the strip's readers and fans to kick in toward the costs of the first printing. This is a fascinating move, and I find myself deeply hoping that it works -- not only because I'd love to own a paper copy of The Comic Torah, but also because I think a success with this plan would say something about the power of online readership and about people's willingness to chip in to support interesting art.

If you enjoyed Natalie D'Arbeloff's The God Interviews (which I reviewed a while back), or Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat books (ditto), I expect this will be right up your alley.

Learn more at Kickstarter.com, where you can watch a short video about the project and then, if you feel so inclined, donate to help its creators reach their publication goal.

Joann Sfar's "The Rabbi's Cat 2"

On a cold and damp Shabbat afternoon I curled up on the couch with my cat to read Joann Sfar's delightful graphic novel The Rabbi's Cat 2.

Both Rabbi's Cat books are set in 1930s Algiers. The narrator is the eponymous feline, who eats the rabbi's talking parrot in order to shut it up and is thenceforth capable of human speech. Hijinks, as they say, ensue. The cat is in love with the rabbi's daughter Zlabya, and the rabbi decides quickly that a cat who can talk circles around him is not appropriate company for an unmarried Jewish girl. Majrum's solution? He asks to become bar mitzvah. (You can read that story in Volume 1: The Bar Mitzvah, which Pantheon graciously put online.) He asks not because he cares about God or Jewish tradition, but because he wants to be able to hang out with Zlabya, which would be more proper if he were, well, a nice Jewish cat. Meanwhile, there's a new rabbi in town, who is young, and smart, and French. Will he steal our rabbi's job -- or our cat's owner -- away?

I won't answer that question for you. If you haven't read the first book, it's worth picking up, and I don't want to spoil its twists and turns. (It's one of my very favorites.) Anyway, book two begins where book one left off.

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Interviews with God

Natalie D'Arbeloff is the blogger behind Blaugustine, a delightful blog filled with wit and insight. (If you are new to her blog, she suggests beginning with this introduction, which offers a trip through the archives.) Since 2004, she has been writing, illustrating, and serially blogging a work called The God Interviews, in which her alter ego, Augustine, interviews -- you guessed it -- God.

As this page explains, the early strips (episodes 1-14) are now no longer archived at Blaugustine -- because they're in print! I just picked up a copy of The God Interviews, volume one. (If you'd like a preview, Natalie has published the book's brief foreword, and a preview of chapter six, here.) Here's a little taste -- one of the early pages, in which Blaugustine and God discuss the interview's implications for Blaugustine's blogging career:

I suspect the name of Natalie's alter ego isn't coincidental, though this Augustine could hardly be less like the famous church father. (They both have pivotal relationships with God, I guess, but there the similarities end.) This Augustine is by turns funny, poignant, petulant, and inquisitive -- and the God to whom she speaks is delightfully personal, personable, and wise.

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The whole megillah

Last summer I posted about a new graphic novel, Megillat Esther by JT Waldman. It retells the story recounted in the scroll of Esther, and since I am both a Judaic geek and a fan of good comics, I badly wanted a copy. I bought one a couple of months later, at the Biennial last November. Since I like to read things at appropriate times of year, I decided to save it to read during the wind-up to Purim. Now that we've gotten our belated Tu BiShvat observance out of the way, it's officially the wind-up to Purim, so this afternoon I curled up with the book and devoured it.

I am really impressed with this book. First of all, it's a good graphic novel; each page is striking, the pictures collaborate with the words in a way Scott McCloud would surely applaud, and I would like to spend time contemplating the visual prosody of every page in the book. (The art is also a style that really works for me -- black-and-white, like woodcuts, but elaborate and detailed. Apparently the iconography is largely drawn from Persian art from 600-400 B.C.E.) Secondly, it's a faithful retelling of the original: the whole megillah is in here, in Hebrew and in English. Most often the English words are boxed and the Hebrew calligraphy is woven into the frame, but one way or another, Waldman's respect for the text is clear.

And thirdly, there are these wonderful digressions. Between the acts of the primary drama, there are vignettes, other stories, subplots, fanciful dips into midrash. Oh, and did I mention the part where this is such a topsy-turvy tale that midway through, one has to flip the book over and read it right-to-left like Hebrew text (or, to make a genre-specific analogy, like manga)?

It's possible I am the ideal reader for this book. I've been reading comics voraciously since 1993, when my friend Cynthia plunked a volume of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman into my hands. And regular readers of this blog don't need to be told how much I dig Jewish texts. So putting the two together is pretty much designed to make me bounce around in glee. But I'd argue that if you're a fan of Jewish texts, or a fan of comics, you ought to read this -- if you're not a fan of both before you begin, I'd wager you will be by the time you finish.

Seriously, this book is stunning. I count myself incredibly fortunate to own an original page from Howard Cruse's glorious classic Stuck Rubber Baby; I've got to admit, some part of me is wondering how exorbitant a page from JT Waldman's Megillat Esther might be. Anyway, original artwork aside, buy the book and read it before Purim. And be sure to say the blessing for Torah study before you crack the spine. Even if you think you know the whole megillah, you'll learn something new reading it this way.

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Reading Palestine

I'm a big fan of comics and graphic novels. And I've known for a long time that the medium, despite its reputation for shallowness, can tell important stories: look at Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby. So I suspected I was in for a powerful experience when I picked up Joe Sacco's Palestine.

Sacco spent two months with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in 1991 and 1992, travelling and taking notes. Upon returning to the States, he wrote and drew Palestine, which recounts his experiences there. He's a journalist, basically, but instead of writing prose, he writes comics. Sacco appears in the book (we see him, notebook in hand, travelling through the Territories in search of people to interview), and leavens the story by poking fun at himself. His voiceover frequently exults at getting the vicarious thrill of engaging with tragedy, even as it's clear he knows he can only handle it because it's not really his life.

He doesn't shy away from the ugliness of this story. There's a lot of hatred over there, and Sacco doesn't flinch from it. Many of the Palestinians in this book hate the Israelis or hate Jews, so if you're a Jewish reader, let me warn you that reading this book is really difficult. It may make your chest tighten with anger and fear. It may make you feel threatened and attacked.

The thing is, almost everyone in this book has been beaten. Arrested for no discernible reason. Held for days or weeks in a prison cell with too many people and not enough toilets. Many have been shot. Many have been tortured. Many have had their olive groves chopped down because molotov-cocktail-throwers might try to hide in them. Most are out of work. All have lost loved ones. And while I do not argue that this list of sorrows justifies suicide bombings (and, to be clear, I don't think Sacco's book argues that, either), it sure puts Palestinian anti-Israel sentiment in context.

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