Culture

Book Review: Harvey Pekar’s ‘Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me’

Culture

Book Review: Harvey Pekar’s ‘Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me’

+

If you’re like me, a child of the ’90s weaned on pop-up video, you have neither the desire nor the patience for rote learning. As a result, it’s likely that the most you know about history is Mark Corrigan’s summation of Stalingrad in the first episode of Peep Show. So how on earth could such a generation know absolutely anything about the Israel-Palestine conflict, itself one of the most complex and polarizing historical quagmires in recorded history? For one thing, its chronology is impossible to follow even as summarized in Exodus? Or on Wikipedia, for that matter.

It’s a tall order. In light of this, it’s good to find a concise retelling in Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, the posthumous work of cartoonist legend Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame). The new graphic work, illustrated and compiled by JT Waldman, is based on a series of interviews between Pekar and Waldman about the ever more frustrating, ever more violent state of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Pekar coming out at last firmly but tormentedly on the opposite side of Zionism.

While some of the best art being produced these days tends to come out of Israel, (Joseph Cedar’s award-winning film Footnote and Etgar Keret’s recent collection of stories, Suddenly, a Knock at the Door come to mind), that very same art is notorious for skirting—or at least, obstructing, in the case of Keret—portrayals of the political climate in favor of oblique and non-political themes. It’s not exactly a criticism: does any art that comes out of the States, with the exception of HBO’s Girls, ever get criticized for not being political enough? But it’s something that’s always pointed out as a sort of curiosity, if nothing else. Because to the basically ignorant denizen of the United States, the idea of Israel conjures up a picture of exploding bombs on buses and scattered dead bodies, and even as time progresses and its creative output becomes more widely distributed, that’s unlikely to change.

What’s lovely about this collaboration is that it gives us all the pleasure of a straight narrative, violence included, bundled up in the more intellectually pleasing format of a conversation. It’s mostly a monologue, of course, as Pekar is allowed to do most of the talking. Waldman’s voice comes out in a more pervasive and satisfying way as he illustrates the two of them driving around Pekar’s native Cleveland, interspersed with flashbacks to Pekar’s childhood and adolescence, where he was taught by his fiercely Zionist parents that Israel as in independent Jewish state could only be a good thing. He also flash-forwards to Pekar’s young adulthood, where the creeping disillusionment with Israel that would constitute his final opinion first takes hold.

While Waldman’s illustrations, fluent in jumping between styles and points of view, is impressive throughout, it is during a graphic illustration of Israel’s history where it is especially effecting. The panels showing the history of the conflict in war and bloodshed are of a breathtaking, Biblical scope and detail, as Waldman moves from hieroglyphs to mosaics to little tapestry-like illustrations of the crusades, somehow making cartoon severed heads flying across the page seem as disturbing as the real thing. This stand-alone history could easily—and effectively—be substituted for scholarly analyses of the conflict in college curriculums, and most likely students would leave their classes having a much more solid idea of what actually went on there.

The other quite remarkable aspect of the book is how it, despite all odds, never even thinks about getting sentimental about the fact that its primary author is dead. Again: Waldman’s choice, and a wise one. The last panel depicts Pekar in a Cleveland library, left by Waldman as he goes off to find more books, his mute grumpiness expressed by a speech bubble with a dark squiggle inside of it. Oddly, it does more to solidify appreciation for Pekar’s legacy than a more maudlin note would have. Even the epilogue, written by Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner, steers clear of this somehow, despite picturing Brabner laying flowers at his gravesite in the last panel.

But none of this is surprising, in the context of the people we’re talking about, both Pekar and Waldman alike: they have laid out the groundwork for a long-existing discussion in an informative way that will most likely spark further discussion, and despite the epic lifespan of the conversation, to have made it new somehow. This has always been the first object of art. It’s nice to see it applied to history for once.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is issued through Macmillan’s Hill and Wang imprint.