You know, for a “tiny, strategically and economically insignificant desert hamlet” (as the frontispiece to this book calls it), people sure do love writing about Jerusalem. I wonder why?
Jerusalem: A Family Portrait is a big slab of comics from Boaz Yakin (the writer) and Nick Bertozzi (the artist), and several other artists whom Bertozzi thanks in the back of the book but aren’t listed except in tiny print on the last page. Seriously, there’s 12 “additional penciling and inking” people and 10 “additional art assists and toning” people. Yowza!
The book comes to us from First Second, and it’s a nice $25-hardcover coming in at almost 400 pages.
Yakin’s previous graphic novel, Marathon, was one of the better ones of last year, and Bertozzi is always an interesting artist, so it’s not like I was going to skip this, but Jerusalem turned out pretty damned great. Yakin tells the story of the Halaby family, two branches of which live in the city during the 1940s. In a prose introduction, we learn some things about the family, including that the older son, Yakov, was extremely jealous of Izak, the younger one, because the family considered Izak a bit of a miracle (which makes no sense, because they already had a son, but people, as we know, aren’t rational). The book focuses on Izak’s family, but Yakov’s life-long hatred of his brother is a very important part of that life.
The book takes place in the years 1945-1948, when the Jews in Palestine were living in a precarious position: The British were about to leave the region, and they had promised both the Jews and Arabs that they could have their own state. This doesn’t work out too well, as you might expect, and it leads to the War of Independence of 1947-1948, which ended with both sides unhappy even though the Jews got their own state. They didn’t manage to seize the Old City of Jerusalem, however.
The Arabs, meanwhile, rejected the United Nations’ idea of two separate state, gambling that they could destroy the Jews and take all of Palestine. The fact that they failed is a major source of contention between the two sides today.
By focusing on one family, Yakin follows the path laid down by many, many other writers, as it’s easier to make sense of the grand scheme of history if you can follow a small group’s navigation of those events. So we get two Halaby brothers – first Avraham and then David – leaving to serve under the British in World War Two, a third – Ezra – getting involved with the Zionists who wanted to seize Palestine by force, and the youngest, Motti, trying to be a good student but also realizing that his childhood is ending far too soon. Yakin doesn’t spend too much time with the fifth child, Devorah, until the end, when she allows herself to be courted by Jonathan, her cousin and Motti’s best friend. It’s a strange subplot that doesn’t go very far, and I wonder if Yakin should have left it out. Meanwhile, Izak is having his own problems, as his brother, Yakov, has become rich and is pressuring Izak to pay rent on the house in which Izak lives, which once belonged to their father. It’s clear that Izak has justice on his side, but not the law, and he is sent to jail for failure to pay Yakov, who believes that he prospers by God’s grace. This idea of placing his entire life in God’s hands when things are going well will of course be tested later when things aren’t going so well, but Yakov fails the test miserably.
Izak’s wife, Emily, is a horrible shrew of a woman who shows only one bit of kindness throughout the entire book – it’s an important bit of kindness, to be sure, but the fact that she openly pits her brothers against each other and treats her hapless husband like crap is a bit annoying, especially because it seems to come out of nowhere. With every other character, we understand why they act that way – we might not approve of it, but we can understand it. Emily just seems like the stereotypical Jewish mother who is disapproving of everything. A newcomer to the family, an Italian Jew named Sylvia who married David in Europe and was sent on ahead because she’s pregnant, sees all this with disbelieving eyes until she can’t take it anymore. All of this drama plays out in the shadow of the war and the knowledge that Jews are being killed in Europe (Emily tells her family that Sylvia, whose entire family was wiped out, is part of the “leftovers from people allow themselves to be killed like dogs in the street,” which is an indication of what kind of person Emily appears to be) and the impending civil war. Avraham becomes a communist, and then later a soldier in the Haganah, David returns to Palestine but can’t get through to Jerusalem (it’s under siege) and so he too joins the Haganah, while Ezra gets involved in the Stern Gang. Things don’t go well for the family, as you might expect.
I don’t want to give too much away, but Yakin does a nice job taking his time getting the characters through the story. He never pushes them, allowing the events to play out in a naturalistic way – the journey the family takes feels like just something that happened. He also doesn’t linger too long on events, because the family members tend to be fairly stoic, so they’re not going to break down too often. When they do – Sylvia’s outburst is a good example, but Emily’s act of kindness is another – it has a much greater impact. When Yakov speaks to Izak about not allowing his vendetta to poison Jonathan’s and Motti’s friendship, it’s a moment fraught with irony, considering what Yakov has spent his life doing, but Yakin doesn’t linger on it.
Motti and Jonathan don’t always stay friends, but they also always come back together, which makes the problems in the city that keep intruding on them all the more tragic. The final moments of the book are handled well, as Yakin juxtaposes moments of joy and triumph with moments of disappointment and tragedy, and while the ultimate tragedy in the book could have been melodramatic or even maudlin, the way Yakin has set it up keeps it from sinking into that realm and it remains a heart-wrenching event.
Bertozzi, meanwhile, does his usual stellar job on art. He’s working with a large cast, all of whom look similar, so it’s impressive that he manages to keep everyone unique. Avraham and Ezra are particularly impressive, because they have the same, kinky hair, but Ezra is clearly younger than his older brother, and he gets his head shaved when he goes to jail, anyway. Yakin wisely lets Bertozzi tell a lot of the story through facial expressions and body language, which makes the events even more compelling, as the characters often keep quiet and let their eyes or stances do all the talking. While Yakin does some nice things to show how our perceptions of some characters might be different, Bertozzi does even more, especially in the relationship between Emily and Izak, which Emily seems to dominate. It’s clear that Izak cares deeply about certain things, and he’s willing to let everything else go, but when he brings Sylvia back to their house after she’s the only one willing to bail him out of jail, Bertozzi wonderfully shows how he’s not going to back down to his wife in this matter. There’s a lot of action in this book, too, probably more than Bertozzi has drawn in previous books, but he does a marvelous job showing both the actual violence and the horrific aftermath of it. Late in the book, Avraham and his soldiers ambush a group of Arabs, and Bertozzi lays out the action very well, as it’s both exciting and terrible – it’s a massacre (not the first one in the book), and Avraham’s face as he realizes what he’s done is wonderful, especially when we contrast it with Ezra’s face after his first act of terrorism earlier in the book. Yakin sets up the idea that as similar as these people are, the way external forces, from Emily to the fact that Avraham and David both served in another war, work on them makes them who they are, and Bertozzi does a superb job showing that in the reactions to their experiences.
Ezra, for instance, is more upset by the fact that the Jews won’t get a chance to take the Old City than he is by any deaths he’s caused. Avraham is more concerned with the human cost, especially as he was friends with several Arabs who joined the communists with him. I don’t know what the other artists who helped Bertozzi out with the book drew, but it’s a seamless book, so they must have been good at what they did.
There’s so much going on in Jerusalem – it’s really a packed book. Obviously, there’s a family drama, with Yakov and Izak as feuding brothers, which has many parallels in world literature, but there’s the idea of passing that hatred on to the next generation, which Motti and Jonathan do their best to overcome. There’s the war, of course, and the divisions within Palestine, where Jews and Arabs lived side-by-side for generations but could never overcome their prejudices. Yakin sprinkles some Shakespeare into the book, as Motti ends up playing Ariel and Yakov tells Jonathan that he must leave behind his Prince Hal persona when he has his bar mitzvah. It’s a complex book, full of fascinating characters and powerful storytelling, and I encourage you to check it out.