JT Waldman loves Jewish history. So much so that the third-generation Philadelphian dedicated more than four years to his latest work, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, published this past July. But Waldman is not a scholar, at least not in a traditional sense. He is a graphic novelist.
Although out only a few months, Waldman's book has already become the focus of a new exhibit, "Pekar's Israel," which opens Sept. 13 at the Borowsky Gallery of the Gershman Y.
The Pekar in the title refers to Harvey Pekar, the graphic memoirist best known for Our Cancer Year and his long-running autobiographical series, American Splendor, and immortalized by Paul Giamatti in the film of the same name. Pekar wrote Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, while Waldman did the art and completed the project after Pekar's death in 2010.
So how did an artist with only one graphic novel to his name wind up working with one of the most influential figures in the worlds of comix and graphic novels?
Waldman explains that Pekar "took a shine to my work" when they met as Waldman was promoting his first work, Megillat Esther, a critically acclaimed retelling of the Purim story, in 2005. After working together on the foreword to Ari Kaplan's From Krakow to Krypton, a history of Jewish involvement in the comics industry, Waldman recalls, "a couple months later, I got a call." It was Pekar, telling him, " 'I've been offered to do this book, and I think you're uniquely situated to pursue it with me. Do you wanna do it?' "
The book, which ultimately became Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, is a dense, multilayered work that explores the evolution of Pekar's feelings toward Israel. It internalizes the ardent Zionist views of his father, a Talmudic scholar, and his mother, a communist. It reflects his questioning of some of Israel's policy decisions, as he wrote in an opinion piece for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reprinted in the book, and his disillusionment about the lack of progress toward a two-state solution.
But the book is not simply a first-person memoir. Pekar elucidates his growing disappointment with modern-day Israel through his prism of the history of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham's move to Canaan and moving inexorably through milestones like the Crusades, the kingdom of Khazaria, the Inquisition and the battle for Palestine.
For Waldman, illustrating a few millennia of Jewish history that just happens to be the last work of a celebrated writer was no small task. But he succeeded admirably, shifting styles and tones from page to page, depending on the era and Pekar's memories.
As Miriam Seidel, the curator for the Gershman Y, explains, Waldman decided to treat each aspect of the book — "the memoir, the conversation between Harvey and JT and the history — in a different visual way. Harvey's childhood is done in a soft pencil and wash, the dialogue that takes place in the present is more sharper-edged black-and-white ink work and the history is a lot of different media — there's some charcoal, some ink, etc."
For Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, Waldman had a very specific agenda, inspired in part by The Karate Kid, he says. "I call it the Mr. Miyagi form of education — you're teaching people without them knowing it. I was like, 'OK, I have an opportunity in these historical moments to show people how did Jews depict themselves and what was the aesthetic style of the period they were in.' I wanted to reward the reader so that each time you read it, there's something new for you to discover."
"Pekar's Israel" provides that sense of discovery writ large, thanks to Seidel's ability to blow up the intricately rendered pages from their 6-by-9-inch book size to more gallery-friendly dimensions — and thanks to Waldman himself, who will be going into detail about the process of creating the book at the exhibit's opening.
"Pekar's Israel" opens Sept. 13 at the Borowsky Gallery of the Gershman Y. JT Waldman will be speaking and signing books at the event, which begins at 6 p.m. For more information call (215) 545-4400 or go to www.gershmany.org.