Hey, I have a question for you: How important is it for you to identify as a Jew? As a liberal or conservative one? As a Zionist or anti-Zionist? As religious or secular? How important to you is your tribal identification? How much room does it inhabit in your psyche? How much power does it hold in those parts of your mind that employ language and structure and iconography to help you situate yourself in the moment and provide you with a map, a compass, a barometer, so that you might feel you know who and where you are at any given point in time? Do you question it much, or do you simply accept it as a useful base from which to operate? And speaking of usefulness, how’s it working for you? Is it helping you? Bolstering your strength, both inner and outer, aiding you in achieving warmth and intimacy and connection in your personal relationships, allowing you to live your life as fully as possible? Or is it hurting you? Giving you something easy and pre-fabricated to fall back on and identify with rather than making an effort to expand yourself outward, limiting your relationships, circumscribing your life? Is it just a useful or unuseful label to stick on yourself, or is it much more than a label, an entire ecosystem of biology and behavior both born and bred that comprises what makes you you as truly as the particular composition of atoms into molecules into cells etc etc etc that define your shape, as mutable and impermanent as that might be? Is it a comfortable niche to sit it, because niches are comfortable, even when they might subject you to all manner of torture and affliction, because despite all that, nothing is less comfortable than standing in the middle of a vast nothingness with no landmarks or architecture to give you a sense of place or belonging?
I’m asking you this—but it’s actually a question that, on the occasion that I think of myself as a Jew, which occurs often enough, I tend to ask myself. And I can’t say I’ve come up with any kind of definitive answer for it, or believe that I ever will.
In New York City, in our Upper West Side apartment, my little brother and I watched my father act out the events and characters of his youth in British Mandate Palestine. He was a pantomime by trade and a teacher of physical acting, and when he told a story he didn’t just relate it with words— he performed it with every muscle in his face, with every physical gesture in his vast repertoire. And even then, though I thrilled and laughed at his exploits, I suspected that perhaps there was something exaggerated, slightly of the grotesque, in his portrayals of the multifarious denizens of that remote, ancient city; a city on the one hand so tiny and provincial, on the other so vast and timeless and redolent of eternity. A city against whose harsh, stony face the human dramas enacted by my father stood out in sharp, colorful relief, like a commedia dell’arte performance. Tragic, hilarious, and surely daubed with a huge dollop of fancy.
Then my parents would pack up for the summer and we would fly to spend several months with my father’s family in Israel… Get in the taxi from Tel Aviv and make the hour and half drive up to Jerusalem… Arrive at the corner of Jaffa Street across from the shouk, where my uncle lives with his huge family in the house that my great grandfather built over half a century before, in the precincts of what was then British Jerusalem… Get out of the cab, and breathe the suddenly dry, elevated air… Take in the sunlight glowing pink on the stone buildings, the strange, grotesque faces and postures of the city’s colorful, multifarious denizens… and then… realize, once again… that it was all true.
The truth of my father’s every gesture, every exaggeration, every outright lie, was borne out by the details of the real city I found myself in. And when I wrote this story I tried to put myself in my father’s shoes, as he told stories to my brother and me in our little apartment in New York City— mimicking voices, adopting postures, prancing, slouching and posing. Recreating what was into what is.
It seems to me that it’s hard for a feeling, empathetic person to know where to place himself in the midst of conflict. Since most people possess some degree of feeling and empathy, in order to live with themselves they don’t necessarily divorce themselves from these senses as they make decisions as to how and where to direct them. These decisions are determined by a host of factors—different in each individual and situation.
The bravest among us, of whom there are few, courageously allow their empathetic sense to extend outward in a manner that generously encompasses a wide variety of people, perspectives and feelings that might be in violent, seemingly intractable opposition to one another— and even more courageously allow their practical behavior and decisions to be strongly influenced by that understanding. The least brave, who number many, allow their empathy to encompass their family, their friends, their tribe— however far they choose to extend the net— and then shut themselves off to everyone and everything else in order to justify behavior that is born of the most primitive fears, anger, and desires. The rest of us, well, we live somewhere in the middle, constantly extending and withdrawing our empathy and understanding like a snail poking its antennae out of its shell as we try to balance our desire for openness, brotherhood and freedom with our anxieties, anger and fears.
Jerusalem, a graphic novel I wrote, inspired by the multitude of myths, stories, diatribes and musings I have been exposed to throughout my life by family, friends, enemies, and teachers, is an attempt to explore this struggle in others and within myself.