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Harvey Pekar’s ‘Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me’ Is Fascinating And Frustrating [Review]

It’s hard to overstate Harvey Pekar’s impact on independent comics. His work on American Splendor and other autobiographical comics made the mundane workings of everyday life as much a part of the comics medium as fantastical stories about extraordinary, super-powered people.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (Hill and Wang), the last of Pekar’s works to be published following his death in July 2010, isn’t about anyone with superhuman powers, unless you count Moses. But it does reach beyond the realms of file clerking and doctor visits toward something much bigger: Nothing less than the history of the Jewish homeland itself. With artist JT Waldman, Pekar explores his frustrations with Israel and its leaders in a way that’s often engrossing and occasionally stymieing.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me isn’t Pekar’s first crack at a graphic retelling of history. Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland explored the past of the writer’s hometown, largely focusing on his upbringing and life there. The Beats was a collection of mini-biographies of Beat Generation writers. Still, Not the Israel goes a good distance beyond what Pekar had attempted in a graphic novel before. The majority of what he covered in his other works was concurrent with his lifetime; his last book aims to cover a story that spans the entirety of human history in a brisk 172 pages.

Really, it’s fewer pages than that, because Not the Israel isn’t just about retelling Jewish history — Adam and Eve don’t show up until page 16 — the book is also, as the title implies, a personal story about how Pekar came to view Israel in a very different light than his politically Zionist mother and religiously Zionist father.

There’s a third part, too, a frame story in which Pekar and Waldman visit a famous used bookstore in Cleveland, grab some lunch and head to a local library branch to do some research. Everything in Not the Israel is presented as conversation, sometimes just between Pekar and Waldman, other times with additional participants who don’t really do much but serve as sounding boards. All the history being packaged as casual chit-chat takes a lot of what could be dry, textbook-style, didactic material and gives it some welcome punch. It also makes it easier for Pekar to keep things moving quickly. In just a handful of pages, he jumps from the founding of Islam in 610 AD to the Middle Ages and the Crusades, hitting all the essential touchstones he needs to make his point.

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This brisk format also stretches disbelief a bit, though. The idea that Waldman, who lived on a Kibbutz and wrote/illustrated an adaptation of the book of Esther, would need to learn anything about Roman rule over ancient Israel or the 1948 Arab-Israeli War is tough to believe.

Speaking of Waldman, his art here is nothing short of jaw-dropping at times. He jumps from one style to another every few pages. In the frame sections, it’s Splendor-style realism, but in the history retellings he’s emulating cave paintings, recreating mosaics, honoring ancient Islamic art, aping propaganda posters and telling stories in a pop-art style.

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As Pekar and Waldman drive along in one section, all the panels are laid out as if they are the road. Waldman’s visual techniques are endlessly inventive.

There are certainly moments in the historical parts where, as a reader, it’s hard not to think, “Who wouldn’t know that?” But then again, there are tidbits that certainly struck me as eye-opening, such as Pekar’s explanation of the roles of militant groups (Pekar calls them terrorists), the Stern Gang and the Irgun in the formation of modern-day Israel.

Even so, the most compelling parts of the book are easily those about Pekar, his parents and his shifting ideas about Israel. As I was reading, I found myself often trying to blow through the historical summary to get to the personal stuff, and being disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. Pekar’s parents were clearly fascinating people. His mother was a communist during the Second Red Scare, for crying out loud. I wanted to know more about them. I wanted to know more about the leftists Pekar fell in with in his 20s, the ones who convinced him that displacing Muslims might cause some problems. I wanted to get a better conception, right upfront, about what he really thought about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the final pages, he explains his position: He wants a two-state solution in which the Israelis and the Palestinians just plain cut off all interaction with one another. He was a pragmatist to the end.

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Near the end of the book, Pekar talks about an opinion column he wrote for The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1978, in which he said Jewish Nationalism was encouraging a cycle of violence, and a letter to the editor responding to it. The back-and-forth really encapsulates why these conflicts — between Arabs and Jews, and among Jewish people themselves — are so intractable. And there’s a little extra bit about the letter’s writer that gives the anecdote some added kick. It’s one of the small-but-big moments that make Pekar such a powerful storyteller.

Perhaps the fact that I was hungry for more of those types of moments — mixed with Pekar tackling a topic that couldn’t be more of a powder keg without ever seeming like he was hoping to be pegged as a controversial figure — is even further proof of just how important he was and how much he’ll be missed.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is on sale now in finer comics shops and bookstores.

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