Telling Israel’s story in comics

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NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (JTA) — Glimpsed from certain angles, the wild tufts of white hair that leapt skyward from David Ben-Gurion’s head looked like wings. Even so, the diminutive first prime minister of Israel seems an unlikely comic book character. But if William Rubin has his way, Ben-Gurion — along with Moses, Theodor Herzl, Golda Meir, Ariel Sharon and a host of other historic Israeli heroes and heroines — will grace the pages of a new graphic novel set to tell the story of Israel from the Bible to statehood and right up through the present day. “People today aren’t reading the great works of Zionist history,” says Rubin, executive director and CEO of the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago. “We require ways to teach this magnificent living history for the general and Jewish marketplaces in a real engaging and exciting framework.” That’s where “HOMELAND: The Illustrated History of the State of Israel,” comes in. Its creators hope the book will tell Israel’s story in an accurate and entertaining way, educating both Jews and non-Jews about the Jewish state, encouraging readers to visit Israel and answering one overriding question: Why is Israel relevant in the modern world? “I happen to love comics and I think it’s a form of storytelling that returns stories to where they belong — to the people, not just experts,” says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “HOMELAND” will target an audience ranging from sixth-graders through adults. It seems a wide swath at which to take aim, but Rubin sees the enormous success of the “Harry Potter” books as instructive. “My 9-year-old son reads ‘Harry Potter’ before he goes to bed,” Rubin says. “Then my wife takes it and reads it, too.” The text is being written by Marv Wolfman — an award-winning comics and cartoon writer who created “Blade The Vampire Hunter” and co-created the very popular Cartoon Network show, “The New Teen Titans.” He is aided by members of the foundation staff. Mario Ruiz, an evangelical Christian and president of Valor Comics, is composing the art. Scheduled to hit the presses in May, “Homeland” — the first title by Nachshon press, an imprint of Chicago’s community foundation — will become available to the public the following month. The story will be told through narration by a female professor teaching a Middle East studies course at an American university. Students’ questions will serve as jumping-off points for Israel’s narrative. The project is being funded largely by the Rosenwald School Initiative, and the Chicago foundation has backed it with significant use of its staff’s time. Information is available at Nachshon’s preliminary Web site, www.nachshonpress.com. Some 10 percent of the 120-page book will focus on the biblical period; another 10 percent will deal with the post-biblical period; and 80 percent will tell the country’s story from the 1860s through today. It will include 24 pages of archival photographs. Aware that Israel’s history is controversial and hoping to take the rug out from under those who might challenge the book on a factual basis, the creators are making a point of depicting Israel in its entirety — warts and all. It will include, for example, episodes dealing with Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish U.S. Navy analyst imprisoned for spying for Israel, and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian militiamen in Lebanon, for which many blamed Israel. “This is a look at Israel with its blemishes, because it has to have academic integrity,” Rubin says. Jacob Lassner, a Jewish Studies professor at Northwestern University, has been engaged as a consultant to check the book’s historical accuracy. The authors have also included a poem on Page 1 that, Rubin says, acknowledges that the Palestinians have their own narrative about the region’s history. Eventually, the foundation hopes to translate the book into Hebrew and other languages, and plans to write a teaching curriculum to accompany it in both formal and informal Jewish educational situations, from day schools to adult education classes. Comic books began to appear in the late 1920s and early 1930s. At that time, they were essentially compilations of strips that had appeared in newspapers. Will Eisner, a Jewish writer and artist and a father of the modern comic book, later coined the term graphic novel to refer to longer collections comprising self-contained stories. Today, Charles McGrath wrote in a New York Times Magazine article in July 2004, comics are “enjoying a renaissance and a newfound respectability.” “In fact,” he went on, “the fastest-growing section of your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels.” As editorial and creative director for the American Bible Society’s Metron Press, Ruiz — the “HOMELAND” artist — drew 2001′s “Samson: Judge of Israel” and 2003′s “Testament,” a compilation of stories from the Hebrew Bible told in a pub. Their popularity was unexpected, he said. “Who would have ever thought that comic fans would get excited over Bible stories?” he asks. But graphic novels have addressed Jewish themes in the past, from Eisner’s semi-autobiographical “A Contract with God,” considered the standard-bearer for the genre, to the extremely successful “Maus,” a Holocaust book by Art Spiegelman. CLAL’s Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi who wrote the introduction to the Bible society’s “Testament,” says he “made the shidduch,” or match, between Ruiz and the Chicago foundation. “You can tell a story for a particular audience that people beyond that audience want to hear about,” says Hirschfield. Israel’s story is “both dear to Jews and important to Christians,” he says. Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said he hadn’t been familiar with the “HOMELAND” project. While he thought it was potentially a good idea, he wasn’t sure that it would achieve the desired effect. “There’s a reason why the Hebrew world hasbarah cannot be translated into English,” says Mekel, using a Hebrew word that means something like public relations. “This unique word deals with the unique situation which is called Israel. By and large, what we have found out over and over again is that what you might think of as regular techniques do not necessarily apply to hasbarah because the situation is unique. Experiments may not work here.” Nevertheless, Rubin says, “We are going to find a way to really nail this — for us, for our children and for our grandchildren.”

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