Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar and J.T. Waldman

13166589Nonfiction — print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 176 pgs. Library copy. 

Over the course of an afternoon in Ohio, Pekar interweaves the history of Judaism from Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac on the alter for God to expressions of the Jewish faith in 2011 with his own personal history as a Jew and a critic of Israel. Panels are devoted to depicting both histories — the personal and the publicly shared — as well as the time Pekar and Waldman spend at a used book store and the Cleveland Public Library during Pekar’s monologue.

Raised by a Zionist and communist mother and a conservative Jewish father, Pekar grew up revering and blindly supporting Israel. It wasn’t until he became involved in anti-war and communist activities in the United States during the 1960s and the 1970s that Pekar really began to question the beliefs that had been instilled in him.

His disillusionment becomes more pronounced over time, and this development coincides with his history lesson for Waldman on present-day Israel’s struggles over its identity as a Jewish, democratic country with both the rise in the number of Arab citizens and a more Orthodox clergy defining who counts as Jewish. This back and forth helps to encapsulate the reaction an individual will have on the micro-scale to macro-level events.

As the events of Pekar’s life and the history of Judaism march towards the present-day, this reaction starts to fade and Pekar begins to list out his grievances towards Israel. Whether that is because Pekar long made up his mind about Israel or because he was running out of time on that particular day in Cleveland or because Waldman was unable to follow-up with Pekar to expand on the story due to his unexpected death that year, it remains unclear. But this shifts the fulcrum of Pekar becoming a critic of Israel from what the country has done on the global stage to one particular moment in the 1970s when the country rejected him.

When Pekar becomes disillusioned with life in America after being declared unfit for military service and unable to find a job, he seizes on the idea that Israel must accept him because he is Jewish and makes inquiries into how to immigrate at the local Israeli embassy. He is immediately and swift rejected by the Israeli authority who laughs at him and points out that Israel has no need for a wannabe music critic or a disabled person. That moment, it seems, is the real moment when Pekar decides he can no longer support Israel.

A valid reason for his disillusionment with Israel? I think that’s too personal to comment on, although I do understand how bitterly disappointing this rejection would be if one grew up hearing about Israel is the homeland for all Jews (and it fits really well with the title of the book). Given the way other issues are seemingly listed out rather than addressed in detail as this moment was makes this a more personal story than a jumping point for the reader to have a philosophical and/or political debate with themselves.

I loved the variation in the panels by Waldman. At one point, he and Pekar get into the car and drive from the used book store to the public library. This could have been an odd lull in the story yet Waldman keeps the transition interesting by styling the panels like the dashed lines of an old map leading to treasure under a large ‘X’. (You can see an example of this above.) And the pop-up of Harvey and his critic on the newspaper clips of their words? Genius! It brings the writers and their words alive in the way a reprint of the columns could never.

There is a short epilogue written and drawn by Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner, following his untimely death. Stylistically different from the rest of the book, the epilogue nevertheless encapsulates the story and how Pekar viewed himself  — a Jewish artist uninterested in fame whose homeland is Cleveland not Israel.

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