Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An imperfectly and incomplete annotated bibliography for Jews and Comics

In preparation for my class on Jews and Comic Books, I've been asked to share a few titles on the subject, so here goes!

First step has to be From Krakow To Krypton, Arie Kaplan's history of the role Jews played in the Comic Book industry from the birth of the Golden Age until today (well, until the early 2000s). A writer for MAD Magazine, Arie gives an insider's look, often citing hard to find resources, his own interviews with the greats (Stan Lee, Joe Kubert) as well as other primary sources.

For a thinly veiled fictional account of the Golden Age and the Jewish impact thereof, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Chabon takes a lot of the subconscious Jewish elements of the early superhero stories and translates them into overt and intentional literary/artistic devices, all woven together with stories of loss, love, the Shoah, and American antisemitism.

Now, onto the actual comics:

Will Eisner's Contract With God trilogy: the Spirit's creator blends autobiography with a story of the immigrant experience in America over the course of 100 years in the first bona-fide "graphic novel'.

Joe Kubert's Jew Gangster explores the seedier, tough-guy side of Jewish life.

A. David Lewis, MP Mann and Jennifer Rogers' The Lone And Level Sands explores the Exodus story through a thoroughly modern Midrash. A story on faith, love, and power.

Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat series is a blend of Yiddish and Chasidic tale in graphic novel form.

Art Spiegel's Maus. 'nuff said.

Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.   An autobiographical story of being normal. Or not-so-normal. Or just grumpy and Jewish from Cleveland.

R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis. Okay, Crumb's not a Jew (just married to one, who happens to be a damn fine comic book writer herself), but it's hard to read this book without thinking of how it just oozes a certain Jewish view of God and the world.

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman took Jewish narrative elements, western fairy tale and myth, and absolutely blew the roof off what a comic book could do. Much like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and Art Spiegel, he helped push the genre and helped it gain acceptance as true art form.

"But Rabbi, where are the Superhero and mainstream titles?" I'm glad you asked!

J. Michael Straczynski is one of the best comics writers working today. Period. And he injects his yiddishkeit into his works (much as he did with Babylon 5) . His runs on Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman as well as his own books have gotten rave reviews. Look for Superman: Earth One, (where he re-imagines The Man of Steel's origins) and The Brave and The Bold (where he takes the idea of Superhero teamups and blows them up) for some of his best examples (and see if you can find the dialogue that I used as an illustration for an High Holiday sermon!).

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby may have birthed the X-Men and gave them their latent Jewishness, but Chris Claremont took them out of the closet, making Magneto an Holocaust survivor, giving us a strong Jewish lady as a superheroine (Shadowcat, aka Kitty Pryde),  People-of-Color as Superheroes with depth, and brought stories about the fight against bigotry to teens and college kids. While it's considered bombastic by today's standards, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is a good starting point for first-time readers.

Larry Hama's GI Joe Special Missions. No kidding. Hama took a kiddie book meant to sell toys in the 80s and used it to present one of the most compelling accounts of what it meant to grow up with a Holocaust Survivor as a grandparent, as well as present the idea of a Jew as an elite soldier. Lance "Clutch" Steinberg talks about his grandmother's horror while on a mission to recover a Nazi War Criminal. 

Howard Chaykin's American Flagg (sometimes also Amerikan Flagg!). Follow Reuben Flagg, former actor and stand-up comic, as he climbs from Plexus Ranger to becoming the first Jewish President of the United States in a terribly prescient dystopian future of corporate government control, corruption, graft, spiritually empty consumers, and blind idealism.

There are others, and I've left out Kirby's and Lee's autobiographies (among others) but this is a good start, especially for those who don't read and collect comics already.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Last Days of L'taken

On Sunday, we began with a simulation of Israel's Knesset in the Israel-Palestine peace process. Afterwords, we attended a seminar on how to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. After lunch, we learned how to effectively lobby a congressman and be a strong advocate for a cause. Then we left the hotel for the Smithsonian Museums on the Mall where we visited the Natural History Museum and the Air and Space Museum. We then had dinner in Pentagon Row where we saw the infamous Billy Cundiff put all of Baltimore into misery. Upon returning to the hotel, it was time to write our lobby speeches. We chose to advocate for bills regarding campaign finance reform (inspired by Steven Colbert) and climate change. After a grueling writing process, we finally closed the laptop and got some sleep.
On the last day, we nervously made our way up to a fancy room and ate breakfast, dressed in our suits and ties. We said some goodbyes, got in the car, and headed off to Capitol hill. We visited Senator Carper's office, Senator Coons' office, and Representative John Carney's office. We lobbied on the subjects of environmental bills and campaign finance reform. Luckily, our [Congressman's and Senator's] staffs all agreed with our views, making our day very easy. We then traveled to see Senator Carper before we left among a frenzy of "right to life" protesters. It was a hectic day, and we had to say goodbye to some nice new friends, but it was worth it. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

L'Taken Day 2

Shavua Tov! Below you'll find my students' summary of yesterday's events.

One of the things they didn't mention is the added significance of the date of this retreat. Today is the anniversary of Roe V. Wade, which means tomorrow is the Right To Live rally for the Pro-Life (or Anti-Abortion) movement. So moving in parallel with us are a couple of church youth groups and a Catholic high school, which literally was going to the same places we were, and are staying  at the same hotel. Amazing to think about the implications of that shared/parallel experience...

Hoping to post another summary tomorrow, followed by the kids' speeches for the congregational delegation. In the meantime, go PATS!

Day 2
We awoke to a breakfast as an entire L'Taken congregation, then enjoyed a Saturday morning service. Following the service, the congregation divided into two groups to simulate a lobbyist experience in which one group supported a ban on live ammunition being available to the public, while the other opposed the ban. Each side had to persuade a group of three senators to vote for their group. Afterwords, we boarded buses and traveled to the Holocaust Museum, then to the MLK Memorial, and finally to Georgetown for a fabulous dinner at il Canali. I had the pizza special, a delicious assortment of meatballs and lasagna on top of a thin-slice crust. Then we went to the Jefferson memorial and had havdalah. next we traveled back to the hotel for the shuk programs. We both took a lecture on poverty and how to deal with the recession in this country. After that we had a social end to the day in the lobby and headed off to bed. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reflections on L'Taken, Day One

Between funerals and dastardly plans I've been a little behind on blogging. I'm at L'Taken right now, the Religious Action Center's Social Justice Seminar. I won't lie, I wish I had more kids, but I'm really happy with those kids I have. They're clearly having a good time (and some of it is even related to advocacy and social justice!). I'll be posting their...unique perspective on the program throughout the next couple of days here in this blog. First day appears below. For those who have done L'Taken as a staffer, chaperone or participant, feel free to chime in on your experiences!

After finally navigating in circles through the Arlington highways, we made it to the Sheraton in one piece. We explored the hotel for a short time, then took a shuttle to a nearby mall where Michael and I learned assorted info about watches. The entire RAC congretated at 6:15 for an introduction and Shabbat service, then dinner. Afterwords, we heard two speakers from the National Coalition for the Homeless. They told inspiring tales of how they managed to overcome their addictions and bring themselves out of squalor and tell inspiring stories. Afterwards we had a social gathering during which they served bananas, cheesecake, chocolate fudge, and an assortment of other sugary delicacies. (sucrose and glucose) Then we wrote a description of our day and hit the hay.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Clemency for Robert Gattis! (Almost)

From Bruce Gilette at Limestone Presbyterian:

Dear Friends, The News Journal’s Sunday afternoon online news is “In a historic 4-1 decision, the Delaware Board of Pardons today announced it was recommending that the death sentence for convicted killer Robert Gattis be commuted to life in prison, according to his attorneys.Gattis, 49, is scheduled to die by lethal injection early Friday morning.  It will now be up to Gov. Jack Markell to decide whether he will accept the board’s recommendation – and spare Gattis’ life – or whether he will allow the execution to go forward.”
See below for the official statement from the Pardons Board.Thank you for all of your prayers, your phone calls and notes to the Pardons Board and your encouraging other clergy and church members to join in the appeals for clemency.
Together we have made history for never before has the Pardons Board recommended clemency for someone facing execution in Delaware.
Thank you for your faithful witness that has made a real difference.Our work is not yet done.  We still need the Governor Markell to accept the Board’s recommendation to commute Robert Gattis' sentence to life in prison without parole.
Please pray for our Governor to be merciful and grant clemency.Please contact the Governor Markell and urge him to accept the Pardon Board’s recommendation (email or phone):     http://governor.delaware.gov/connect/
If you see the Governor at the Martin Luther King, Jr.’s celebrations tomorrow, please remind him of Dr. King’s teachings on the death penalty (below).Please send a thank you note to the Pardons Board:  Pardons@state.de.usThank you again for all that you are doing to save a life and making a more merciful and just Delaware .
Blessings on you and your ministry

If you're so moved, please email the Pardons board to thank them, and please write to the Governor to encourage him to accept the recommendations!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Books read

You might remember from last year around this time I mentioned that I was getting a Kindle to try to read more. I had hoped to read a nice mix of classics and new work, fiction and nonfiction, Jewish and not-explicitly Jewish, and just read more than the half a book I'd read in 2010. I can safely say that I was successful this year in that goal. Here's a list of the books I read (some of which were reviewed in this blog). These are presented in no particular order. 29 books (well, 28 and one 'single'; that is, longform essay). A nice mix of quality and 'fun' (read: junk), serious and lighthearted. I've put an asterisk next to the Jewish books, but hopefully you'll find the list helpful, or at least illuminating about me. How about you: what did you read this year?

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Man in the Iron Mask
The Count of Monte Cristo
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
American Gods
Civil Disobedience
Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka*
"Comic-Con Strikes Again!"
Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History*
Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us...*
The Finkler Question*
The First Men in the Moon
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition*
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel
The Hundred Years War: The English In France 1337-1453
The Imperfectionists
Inventing Jewish Ritual*
Just Kids
Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition*
Ready Player One
The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time*
Silver Canyon
Super Sad True Love Story
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un'taneh Tokef*

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Share your voice! What is the Future of Reform Judaism?

The URJ is conducting a survey about their future, and our voices count! Please share your thoughts at www.urj.org/biennialvision. And, if you’re interested, share your answers to these questions with me here: 

What will it be like to be a Reform Jew in the year 2020
What unique contribution is North American Reform Judaism making to the world?
What is it about Reform Judaism that gives you energy?
What aspects of Reform Judaism nourish your soul?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Seeking Clemency for Robert Gattis

The following is a letter I sent Governor Markell last week, co-signed by my Conservative colleague Rabbi Michael Beals, asking for clemency for Robert Gattis. I've also signed onto a joint, interfaith clergy letter asking for clemency. If you are so moved, I welcome you to take similar action and contact Governor Markell's office.

CORRECTION: You can go to this site to sign a petition to go before the Governor and the state clemency board

Dear Governor Markell:           
I write to you in support of the clemency application of Robert Gattis.  There are compelling reasons to grant Mr. Gattis clemency, reasons which have nothing to do with belief in, or opposition to the death penalty.  Rather, they relate to Mr. Gattis's horrific background which damaged him profoundly and which was never disclosed to his trial jury; and his demonstrated redemption and rehabilitation over the course of his 21 years of incarceration following his death sentence.   I am asking you to show him mercy, because mercy is warranted. 
    As a child and adolescent Mr. Gattis was sexually molested by a series of perpetrators beginning at an age so young it is disturbing to consider.  The molestations were often quite brutal.  Mostly they occurred when he was left in the "care" of others who had no interest or ability to protect him.  Mr. Gattis was also physically abused by the men in his mother's life, in one case a step-father who was a violent drunk with little regard for a child not his own, and in the other, his natural father, who abused his son as severely as the step-father.  Mr. Gattis's mother did not provide him with even the most basic protection that one would expect from a parent.  Her absence from the home allowed much of the sexual abuse to occur; and although she witnessed many of the acts perpetrated by her husband and paramour against her son, she did nothing to intervene or protect him.   
             This background does not excuse Mr. Gattis's crime during which, in a jealous and irrational rage, he went to the home of his former girlfriend, Shirley Slay, kicked in her door and shot and killed her.  The crime was terrible, as are all murders, and Mr. Gattis's life history does not make it any less terrible.  But it does provide some insight and understanding of the man, and how he arrived at a place in his life where he could commit such an act. Our society has made great strides in recognizing that a background of sexual and physical abuse and trauma profoundly damages a child's ability to grow into a healthy adult, and our state has demonstrated a commitment to dealing with this issue.  It strikes me as quite troubling that we in Delaware would put to death a man who suffered from the same terrifying childhood sexual and physical abuse that shocks us in the headlines today.  Mr. Gattis's many abusers included trusted family members who took advantage of him while no one – not a parent, not a teacher, not a doctor or clergy person – came to his aid.  Much of this abuse occurred on our watch, as he passed through our schools unnoticed. 
             I understand that Delaware’s Constitution creates a role for grace in the administration of the death penalty, and allows you to grant mercy to the condemned.  I am aware of a number of recent instances in which the Governors of Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma have exercised this grace on behalf of other inmates facing the death penalty.  The stories of these cases share a common thread with Robert Gattis, in that deeply troubling information about the tragic lives of these individuals came to light long after their original trials.   One governor (John Kasich of Ohio), in language that echoes the terror of Mr. Gattis's life, found that as a child the condemned "was destined for disaster," having "suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him."  Mr. Gattis too was destined for disaster considering his background. 
             None of this tragic story was ever presented at Mr. Gattis's trial.  While the courts have had opportunities to look over Mr. Gattis's case, it is my understanding that because this evidence was not presented earlier, Mr. Gattis faced legal hurdles that prevented the courts from giving this evidence their full consideration.  The lawyers who handled Mr. Gattis's trial and appeals have acknowledged their errors in not telling this story at the earliest opportunity.  I understand why in the interest of bringing the legal case to a close the courts have the right to say this evidence was provided too late to be considered, but the fact that Mr. Gattis's lawyers failed him in this respect makes it all the more important that you take his horrifying life story into account in determining whether Robert Gattis is worthy of mercy. 

            Another fact that no court or jury would have had a chance to consider is Mr. Gattis's remarkable rehabilitation during his 21 years under a sentence of death.  Several former Delaware state correctional officers have come forward and attested to his good conduct in custody, and the positive influence he has played in the lives of other inmates.  His two sons, successful and thoughtful young men, have strong and enduring relationships with him.  They speak of his positive influence on them and their families.  Mr. Gattis is keenly involved and interested in their lives.  Over the years of his incarceration, through letters, visits and telephone calls, Mr. Gattis has counseled them not to repeat the mistakes that he has made.  He has provided similar mentoring and guidance to other young people, including nieces and nephews, who also attest to the positive influence he has had over them.  Mr. Gattis has accepted full responsibility for the terrible crime that he committed, and has repeatedly and consistently expressed remorse and contrition for his act. 
             I would be grateful for the opportunity to meet with you regarding this extraordinarily important matter.   I am motivated by my belief that, even accepting the legitimacy of the death penalty, Mr. Gattis is not a man who needs to be removed from the human community.  The crime he committed 21 years ago was committed by a different person than the person he is today.  Although limited by his confinement, his contribution to society today is a positive one, and it is my hope that you will allow him to continue to live in confinement for the rest of his natural life. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

As Britain Seeks a New Chief Rabbi, Extremists Rise

As Britain Seeks a New Chief Rabbi, Extremists Rise: "There is a common thread uniting these stories. Religious extremism festers when decent lay people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely believe to be more religious than them. But there is nothing holy about Rabbis refusing to teach 2500 young Jews who are pining for Jewish knowledge. More importantly, it is an abomination to faith for men to treat women abusively. A black coat will never redeem a dark heart and a long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled soul.


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