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Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Illustrated histories of New Mexico and Israel

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Ell Iluminado, A Graphic Novel (Basic Books) is a humorous yet informative look at the history of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.

Written by Ilan Stavans, who’s known primarily for his funny translation of Don Quixote into Spanglish – the Spanish-English hybrid spoken by many Americans – the book reveals how the region’s roots are far more Jewish than most people think.

The main character in this story is the author himself, a real-life professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The story has him visiting New Mexico to deliver a lecture on Crypto-Jews, Jews who were force converted to Christianity but continued to practise in secret during the Inquisition.

After the lecture, he is approached by a woman who tells him about Rolando, her cousin, who died under mysterious circumstances recently. Rolando, she tells him, believed he was Jewish and was slowly unearthing a mystery that would prove it.

Ilan is drawn to her story and slowly gets pulled into an ever-widening mystery.

Rolando, he learns, was obsessed with the history of Luis de Carvajal, a 16th-century Spanish man who learned of his Jewish ancestry, and started the Crypto-Jewish community in Santa Fe, before being killed during the Inquisition.

Ilan learns that before he died Rolando was in possession of some secret documents that could shed light on the history of New Mexico’s Crypto-Jewish community.

With the help of Rolando’s Spanglish-speaking cousin, Ilan tries to trek down these documents, all the while being thwarted by hecklers, detectives, priests and a rival academic.

Illustrated by Steve Sheinkin of the popular Rabbi Harvey graphic novels, El Iluminado is a quirky tale with enough conspiracy, church history and secret documents to fill a Dan Brown novel. At the same time, it illuminates the little-known true history of New Mexico’s Jewish past.

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In his final work before he died in 2010, Harvey Pekar also used himself as the protagonist of his graphic novel, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (D&M), illustrated by JT Waldman.

Pekar was born after World War II to immigrant parents. His mother was a left-leaning secular Zionist, his father was a religious Zionist.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me intersperses a quick retelling of Israel’s history with events from Pekar’s own life, all in the form of a conversation between himself and Waldman.

It starts off with Adam and Eve, Abraham and the Canaanites, and moves swiftly through the emergence of rabbinical Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple.

It’s sort of a primer on Israeli history, touching upon Islam, Spain, the Crusades, Israel Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidim, the Enlightenment, Herzl, the world wars, the birth of the nation and the conflict with the Arabs, all the way to the present.

All you wanted to know about Israel in less than an hour.

But the retelling of Israel’s history is only the setting for the real aim of the book, which is to show the events that pushed Pekar from being a devoted Zionist to an outspoken critic of Israel.

Over the course of a single day in Cleveland, Pekar (well-known for his graphic autobiography American Splendor) and Waldman wrestle with the mythologies and the realities surrounding the Jewish state. Waldman, who in his mid-30s was half Pekar’s age, serves as a bit of a counterpoint to Pekar’s viewpoints – or at least giving the book the feel of a debate.

Pekar’s main argument is that the Arabs have a legitimate beef, something that David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, and Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan both admitted. “They see but one thing – we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?” he has Ben-Gurion saying.

He is critical of the “my country right or wrong” attitude that a lot of Jews have toward the government of Israel.

For a long time, he argues, Israel was the darling of the West, especially during the 1967 and ’73 wars, but all this evaporated by the 1980s. Since then, it’s all been downhill for Israel in terms of world sentiment. The occupation is the main reason for this, Pekar believes.

Pekar died before this book was completed, and it was left to the illustrator and friend Waldman to finish it. Pekar’s late wife, Joyce Brabner, wrote the epilogue.

The historical parts of this book offer nothing new. It’s Pekar’s own stories that make it interesting. Obviously, this book has a strong left-leaning bias and preaches to the choir. While it is unlikely to change people’s minds, readers open to discourse will find it worth reading.

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