On Religion: Jewish Women in Comics

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October 24, 2011

8:21 PM

Imagine you are a woman. A Jewish woman. Who writes or otherwise likes comics. You probably think you’re pretty alone, right? First of all, how could these things possibly go together? Secondly, what a niche! Surely there couldn’t be more than two or three people fitting those elaborate descriptions!

Alas, there is indeed such a community. I’m fairly certain that it must be common knowledge that there is actually quite a Jewish presence in comics. I’ve noticed this, maybe because I read autobiographical indie comics so you don’t really have to look for clues because the character just tells you directly or mentions it in passing. Too often, this Jewish presence takes the form of a randomly Jewish character—perhaps someone the writer knows personally—reluctantly admitting to and utterly embarrassed by Judaism. But there is a brighter side. For some Jewish women, comics and graphic novels are like an entirely new outlet.

“Consciously or not, those women drew on a Jewish tradition of truth-telling, outsider umbrage and Yiddishy bawdiness with cartoons that felt like a slap in the face,” wrote Michael Kaminer for the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-kaminer/jewish-women-in-comics_b_1010852.html). “Not just to the men who’d objectified them and berated their work, but to smug, sexist counterculture.”

Older comics—think Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Will Eisner—mostly focus on those subjects that probably worked well to incite people back in the day; such as, overwhelmingly, the Holocaust, living in tenements, and other highly depressing topics. But younger Jews today likely don’t feel a strong connection to their archetypal Yiddishe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Yiddishe_Momme) forebears (it’s like when commercials keep insisting my grandmother made biscuits like theirs…my grandmother actually made kielbasa and sauerkraut, thanks).

And Jewish women—dare I say it—likely aren’t interested in promulgating the popular but aging idea that Judaism, like comics, is men’s territory, wherein the men get to have all the adventures (yes, even in Judaism), while women still don’t quite count as an entire person (yes, sadly, occasionally even in Judaism). The graphic novel is a canvas to show that this idea is wholly illusory.

That’s why I like graphic novels such as Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, for example—it’s about Glidden’s own experience as a student on the 10-day Birthright trip (http://www.birthrightisrael.com) offered to Jewish young adults in hope that they will either immigrate or otherwise later give money to Israel. Glidden painstakingly records her internal struggle to understand the Palestinean-Israeli conflict while in Israel. It is a very personal journey—it’s neither about being a woman or about being Jewish, because it doesn’t need to be.

Other comics have nothing to do with Israel, such as one of my favorite artists, Ariel Schrag, and her frighteningly realistic series portraying her years in high school (http://www.amazon.com/Awkward-Definition-School-Chronicles-Schrag/dp/1416552316/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1319148983&sr=8-1), in wihch Judaism is merely in the background. But there seems to be one thing that binds all these artists together no matter the subject matter.

“In their mostly autobiographical structures, they also reflected a decidedly Semitic tendency toward self-reflection and extreme self-revelation,” writes Kaminger. It’s inwardly Jewish as opposed to outwardly, in the case of all the Holocaust comics out there, for instance, how could someone even dare to say that’s less genuine?

If you feel similarly and you happen to be near New York City in the next six months, you’re in luck! Yeshiva University has an ongoing exhibition (http://www.forward.com/graphic-details/) of Jewish women in comics, going on until April 15, 2012.

Laura Cooper also writes for New Voices Magazine (http://blog.newvoices.org/), Crystal Decadenz (http://crystaldecadenz.wordpress.com/), and—naturally—is in the process of drawing a comic series for PunkTorah.org (http://punktorah.org/).

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