Earlier this week, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story and the second story in Farm 54. In their final post, they share the background behind “Houses,” the third story in their graphic novel. They have been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Galit: This story is the most autobiographical of all three texts, the most true-to-life. I was drafted to compulsory army service in 1989 during the first Intifadah and, after basic training as an educational non-commissioned officer, I was assigned to a base near Bethlehem. Already on the first night I asked for a transfer away from the occupied territories but, while my request was being processed, I had to remain there for about two weeks. As in the book, on the very first night I went on a nocturnal house demolition mission, replacing another female soldier who did not want to go. The night left its mark on me and for many years I repeatedly retold the events, until I decided to write them as a short story. With the hindsight of a writer I realized that, beyond the actual events, what was perhaps worse was revealed by the way I described the heroine – as a person completely insulated from the situation and from the suffering of the others. While this dovish character manages to refrain from directly and deliberately harming the Palestinian residents placed under her responsibility, I now think that her (that is, my) decision to obey such orders with little protest is almost as harmful as keen participation.
An egg-sorting warehouse used as reference for “Houses”:
Gilad: There were parts in this story that I found to be too direct or dramatic, too loud. As I approached it, I decided to lower the volume by giving several scenes an understated quality, which is more characteristic of my work, as opposed to some of Galit’s writing that often tends to be more explicit. One of these scenes was the part where the female officer takes the rabbit from the Palestinian boy. In the original text (and, according to Galit, also in reality during that night in 1989) the boy was crying, asking the officer to give the rabbit back to him. Instead of showing the boy crying I drew him sitting quietly on the stairs, staring at how the officer hugs the animal, holding it close to her chest and cheek. The picture of that lone rabbit took me the greatest number of drafts by far. It was meant to facilitate calming the scene while introducing a charged and frozen silence that captures the moment with all its fear, resentment, and banality.
Early sketches for the scene in which the Israeli female officer is taking the Palestinian boy’s rabbi:
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I became Orthodox under the guidance of someone who advised me to run from it. Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel, the rabbi of the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington D.C. — whose name you might recognize from the 2000 presidential election, when he was constantly quoted as “Joe Lieberman’s rabbi” and asked deeply-thought questions like, “If a nuclear war breaks out on Shabbat, will Senator Lieberman be allowed to help out in the ensuing battles?”
In addition to being a rabbi, he holds advanced degrees in chemistry and biology, and is a fiendishly rational thinker. While many people are attracted to religion through mystical stories and supernatural powers, for me the draw was the exact opposite. I was already totally nuts. I needed something to ground me, a rational set of rules to lead my life by. I started by going to Rabbi Freundel’s weekly halacha shiur — a three-hour class about everything from washing your hands before getting out of bed to whether one needs to tie tzitzit on a rain poncho to what happens if you start eating a ham sandwich, realize it’s not kosher, then get a craving for macaroni and cheese — are you allowed to? (Yes: because ham doesn’t fall under the category of kosher meat.) “Run the other way,” he said. “We are competists.” I’m a masochist. It just made me hungry for more.
Anyway. Rabbi Freundel has a new book, Why We Pray What We Pray, and it’s a doozy. The book is an excellent field guide to Jewish prayers, perhaps the most well-conceived and fully-realized book on the subject in English to come out in years. (And just so you don’t think my opinion is weighted, he is also the man who forced me to type up 112 pages of notes about tefillin. Five times.) What the book lacks in scope, it makes up in depth — choosing just six different prayers, giving their history, previous incarnations,
Which might sound boring under someone else’s wing. The first chapter is dedicated to the Shema — and Freundel picks apart its history step by step, discovering that, in its 3000-year lifespan, the prayer once included several other parts of the Torah — and things that didn’t even come from the Torah, including the second line of its present incarnation — as well as one whole Torah portion (this part was ultimately excised, on the grounds that it would take too damn long for normal people to get through) and the entirety of the Ten Commandments. Later chapters go through other prayers, some of which (like “Nishmat”) have just become known as long and sort of meandering in the present liturgy, others (such as “Alenu”) have become sing-songy and equally meaningless for us. This book is an adventure in the best way, a book that makes us love words again.
Reading Why We Pray, I sometimes wished that Freundel, and not some boring dictionary-like rabbi, wrote the lines of commentary underneath the prayers in my normal old prayerbook. Then I changed my mind. Those little two-line insights are good for ignoring on a day-to-day basis, and jumping right back into the prayerbook. These stories are at their best for actual reading, for paying attention to and for diving into. As Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Lord Sacks says (in this superb video), Jewish people are great at being kind to others and at studying, two of the three pillars on which the world rests. The praying part — taking these words that we say every time we set foot in a synagogue* and giving our prayer meaning, a life beyond our lips, and a meaning above the dullness of mundane routine — is what we need to work on.
And here, folks, is where it starts.
* — every time we set foot in a synagogue and it’s not for a disco Bar Mitzvah party, I mean.
On Monday, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story in Farm 54, “The Substitute Lifeguard.” Today, they share the background behind “Spanish Perfume,” the second story in their graphic novel. They will be blogging all week of the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Galit: In 1982 my father was enlisted in the First Lebanon War and my mother was left on the farm with four young children. Communication with the northern frontier was carried out through rare phone calls, messages from those who came home to the village for a short vacation and censor-approved green military postcards that my father would send each one of us. When I found some of those postcards several years ago – my mother’s, Gilad’s and mine – I recalled those chaotic days on the home front and this triggered the writing of “Spanish Perfume”. I was reminded that when my father was away in Lebanon, my mother hit our German shepherd with the car and then asked me and two of my siblings – Sharon & Oren – to take the dead dog out of the basement and bury it outside. Gilad, the youngest, was forbidden from going down to the basement. I also remember that my mother used to pass the stressful wartime evenings playing cards with “men that nobody wanted at war”.
“I am feeling quite well despite the fact that I’m abroad”– A postcard from the First Lebanon War, August 16th 1982
Gilad: If generally most of my work with Galit’s texts involved boiling down, and if the clichés about one image equaling a thousand words have much to sustain them, then there are also many instances where the opposite was the case. Galit’s prose version of “Spanish Perfume” began with two brisk lines:
“In the morning Mom ran over our German Shepherd.
In the evening we celebrated my birthday.”
This may work powerfully in a short story, but graphically such transitions, between day and night and between different settings, seem artificial. Eventually I devoted five pages to drawing only the first line, replacing the abruptness of the transition in the original with a gradual entry into the graphic narrative. When I first visited the basement for references after years of avoiding it, I was shocked to discover how neglected it was. Filled with piles of rusted tools and other forgotten items, including the wheelbarrow in which the dog was carried for its nocturnal burial. When I was very young my father used the basement as a firing range and I even had the chance to shoot a gun there, a nine millimeter pistol. I remember this basement as being very well organized and dry, as opposed to the neglect and water puddles characterizing it today. I chose to draw the basement as I saw it when working on the book, to capture the atmosphere I recognized in Galit’s texts.
“The forbidden basement”
Check back on Friday for Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s final post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog. Their graphic novel, Farm 54, is now available.
The graphic novel Farm 54 is based on three stories written by Galit Seliktar. The stories were first published in Israeli literary magazines and then adapted into a graphic novel by Galit’s brother, illustrator Gilad Seliktar. Farm 54 is a real place where both siblings were raised, an actual farm in Ganei-Yohanan – a small village located in Israel’s agricultural periphery, which was founded by Jewish immigrants from Russia, Yemen and Libya in the early 1950s. All the stories in Farm 54 are based on true events which took place between the mid-1970s and late 1980s. Farm 54 has been published so far in five languages, and was nominated for the 2009 Angoulême book award in France.
“THE SUBSTITUTE LIFEGUARD“
Galit & Gilad: This story was the first collaboration between us and the cornerstone of Farm 54. It was first published in 2007 as a short graphic story in an Israeli literary magazine, Masmerim, and included a framed narrative which is omitted in the book. In that earlier version the story starts with the heroine visiting her brother’s grave where she relives his drowning in her mind.
Panels from the first version of “The Substitute Lifeguard” in which Noga visits her brother’s grave:
Galit: One afternoon, when Gilad was about two years old, our family was barbequing in the backyard. It was a hot day and my father went to look for one of our dogs he had seen disappear at the far end of the yard, a part covered with high grass and infested with snakes. On his way he passed by our blue fiberglass wading pool and heard heavy spattering. He thought he had found the dog, but it was Gilad, fighting for his life in the half-meter-high chlorinated water. I saw him in my father’s arms, fully dressed in his toddler clothes and wet to the bone. Both of them were quiet. The silence broke when my mother started screaming. Only then did we stop eating.
I don’t write about Israel much because writing about Israel is about as fun (for me) as kneeling on the floor and butting my head up on the bottom of my desk. But every once in a while you get a nice story coming out of Israel, and perhaps because of the contrast, it’s especially fun to draw attention to something awesome, like a call center in Israel staffed by mentally and physically challenged adults. Some are Jewish, some are Arab, and all are productive. It’s great to see ways that Israel innovates in the workplace, and supports people with mental and physical disabilities.
According to the No Camels blog:
An Israeli psychologist, Gil Winch, has founded a call-center staffed mostly with disabled Israeli and Arab adults, who otherwise have difficulties finding work. Winch says the worker’s productivity is very high and the amazing business-model, based on parental support, has attracted interest from people all around the world.
Watch the video:
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. Like brooks are they turned, like gardens by the river, like cedars beside the waters the waters flow from God’s buckets… Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed.”
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.
How much of my book is true? I could say ‘all of it,’ I could say ‘none of it,’ and both answers would be correct.
In order to create real characters that you, the reader, will believe, I must make them as true as possible. That does not mean basing them on anyone in particular, though I happily borrow snippets of stories and characteristics from friends, family and total strangers. But ultimately, the more I work with those characters, the more they evolve into themselves, which means they spin away from me, beyond what I knew or thought I knew about them to a place where it seems that they are in control of who they are and I am merely charged with capturing them on paper. If I seem mysterious about it, I don’t mean to be, but I myself cannot completely understand how it all works so I can’t expect anyone else to.
A case in point is Teo Levin, the eighty-five-year-old protagonist of my new novel, When We Danced on Water. He is a choreographer and former dancer, but even the company he directs – the Tel Aviv Ballet – is a product of my imagination. I provided him with a history, a career, lovers, a creative spark, a range of emotions and reactions, a face, a body, and in turn, he has kept me in line, checking some of my crazier or duller impulses. (He was originally far more cantankerous than his final, in-print version; but the grouchily perfectionist ballet master was too much of a cliché, and I am grateful to Teo for pointing that out to me.) To my delight and my frustration, however, people keep asking me to reveal on what real person he is modeled. That is delightful because it means I have made him real enough to believe, and frustrating because it should be of no consequence.
Similarly, I am flattered when people ask how long and where I danced. (I didn’t.) Dance, which is Teo’s medium and art form, takes a prominent place in the novel, and I had the task of describing it from without, as an observer, but also from within, from what Teo experiences when he moves his body to music. For the former I interviewed a marvelous dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, and for the latter I took dance lessons and learned the basics of ballet so that I could know what Teo was feeling when he stretched his toes into a sharp point or floated his arms above his head. I made the lie real for myself; only then could it be real for the reader.
It feels impossible to plot the course of my life, with all the reversals and vicissitudes and surprises and changes. But perhaps this one element – my joy of embellishing the truth – has its own continuum, from those detail-rich stories I made up for grammar-school classmates willing to listen, to the detail-rich novels I write for readers willing to read.
In my life as an adult I have tried to remain scrupulously truthful, largely, I suppose, as a reaction to all those childhood lies. And yet, when I tell stories that really happened, I cannot seem to control the impulse to elaborate, to add color and texture to the picture I’m drawing for my listener. It is an occupational hazard I can live with, and one that has served me well.
Evan Fallenberg’s most recent novel, When We Danced on Water, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
I am probably a writer of fiction (as opposed to nonfiction) because from a very early age I loved to tell elaborate lies with convincing details. In the first grade I affected a British accent to tell the story of my birth in the back of a Volkswagen in London; in the seventh grade I concocted a potion of hand cream and food coloring to give myself a tan following a non-existent family trip to Hawaii, where our family (according to the extended version of my lie) was going to be relocating.
I was a child with curiosity and wanderlust and a colorful, lively imagination. My lies were not malicious and were only vaguely self-serving; mainly they existed to add glamour to a life that felt too ordinary. In bed at night I spoke to myself in faux French, puffing out my lips and making a lot of zh sounds. It follows that during the daylight hours I would wish to spice things up.
It is important to note that my lies never contained magical elements. No one ever flew or was transported in time machines. Instead, I took the everyday materials of real life (we actually had a little Volkswagen when I was six) and reworked the story, the surroundings. I took my real self and removed him from Ohio (and usually America), gave him the ability to speak many languages, dressed him in fancy clothes and then…well, then, my imagination could take me only as far as books and television had brought me by that time.
My lies brought attentive audiences, from whom I learned the art of brevity, and the need for credible plot twists and satisfying surprises. I was keenly aware of eyes glazing over or people wandering away, so I did my best to rivet them to where they were standing. My lies got me into trouble – one such lie caused my demotion from valedictorian to salutatorian of my high school graduating class – and out of trouble as well, as when, in the fourth grade, our substitute teacher found a nasty poem I had penned about her circulating in class, and in order to gain her sympathy I told her a horrifying story about cancer and death and sadness in our family, none of which was (yet) true.
I am lucky to have found a healthy channel for my need to invent. And like those early lies, much of what I make up for my books has elements of truth to it. Which is why I am both bothered and sympathetic when asked how much, or what, in my novels is true.
Come back all week to read more of Evan Fallenberg’s post. His new novel, When We Danced on Water, is now available.