By Trevor Abes
In “Golem” with Robert Crumb, David Zane Mairowitz writes that a “golem is, in effect, the Jewish Frankenstein monster, a heap of clay imbued with life by its creator, having immense power, but only able to use this power within prescribed limits.” It is given life by writing ‘Emeth’, the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, on its forehead, and its life is taken away by removing the first letter to spell ‘Meth’, Hebrew for ‘death’. In Mairowitz’s words, the golem is “a servant and protector” of the Jewish people but “can also easily change into a destructive force.”
He may as well be talking about stories, the most efficient technology to bring people, places and ideas to life with a built-in kill switch—burn the draft, delete the file, or forget, the choice is yours. Stories can be kept alive long after funerals and demolitions for commercial development, or until time catches up to their brilliant new ways of looking at the world. They can protect the beliefs we should hold on to, and serve our best interests by inviting us to new cultures and the people that practice them. But at the same time, stories can get out of hand if left unchecked by fair interpretation. Such is the responsibility of cracking open a book.
The root of the word ‘anthology’ translates as ‘a collection of flowers,’ a resonant phrase which, in this case, refers both to the authors and the works contained in the Jewish Comix Anthology: Volume 1. Published thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign by Alternate History Comics Inc., and launched at the Koffler Centre of the Arts, the JCA is a love letter to a culture whose faith is but one essential part of its identity. It features 47 artists from Canada, Israel, the U.S. and the U.K., who apply their wealth of styles to Jewish legends and folk tales, reinterpreting them through their own eyes for the devout, skeptical or simply curious. A few of the names like Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman and Joe Kubert are instantly recognizable, but their cachet matters less than how they come together with the others, who count them as influences and pioneers.
As a golem, or collection of them in its own right, the JCA is a store of strength and resiliency that knows its purpose from page one. Each story is an act of preservation, a safe haven for life lessons for you to hang your soul on. But a caveat sets the book apart: the guidance the stories provide is never to the exclusion of others. The JCA goes out of its way to make it clear that everyone is welcome regardless of what they believe.
In his forward to the anthology, writer Clifford Meth puts it best when he says being Jewish is “all in the ish.” He means that what counts as Jewish isn’t limited to bloodlines, traditions, the Torah and its decrees, because the culture is so widespread that anything could become a part of it. He goes a step farther and reckons that everything probably already is, depending on who you ask.
When Meth shares comedian Lenny Bruce’s Jew-goy taxonomy, he is betting that yours would be longer or shorter, and read a little differently on account of your uniqueness. Who you are can affect what it means to be Jewish just as that meaning can change you. He is also hoping you’ll notice how Bruce lists things Jewish by association, implicitly asking us to compare them to what’s considered fundamentally Jewish and tease out the differences.
According to Bruce, “Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes—goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish—very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.”
The JCA’s Canadian roots couldn’t be more appropriate. Just like anyone might be Canadian—their last name and propensity to apologize and play hockey notwithstanding—so too anyone might be Jewish without having to play a part. On another level, there is a sense in which being Canadian isn’t blood-, country- or citizenship-specific. The writer Mavis Gallant famously said, “I would be Canadian even if Canada ceased to exist, because it is a part of being myself.” A similar point can be made about being Jewish: it can stand on its own, beyond ties to blood, religion or nationhood.
So then, what makes the stories in the Jewish Comix Anthology Jewish? To quote Meth once more, “What a stupid question. I’m sorry I asked it.” One answer is that there are myriad answers to the question, none of which are definitive or particularly satisfying. As an example of the literature of a persecuted people, this is no small victory. Sure, we could make a list: the selflessness of the woodcutter in “The Bleeding Tree”. The stoicism of the titular character in “The Chaste Maid”. The value of living with a clear conscience in “A Grave Matter”, “The Forgotten Loan” and “Pillow of Feathers”. But there’d be no end. We would fall short, disagree, add stuff one day, and nix it the next, prey to a desire for easily digestible definitions that replace complexity—of history, character, and spirituality—with the illusion of complete knowledge. As if such a thing were possible. The JCA golem protects the Jewish community by reminding it that it is inimitable and inexhaustible, determined only by its glowing openness to the rest of the world.
Trevor Abes is a writer and editor with a penchant for conceptual art.
By Trevor Abes