Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Jerusalem: A Family Portrait

When I was in 6th grade, my father took a sabbatical in Jerusalem, so I finished elementary school there. I was an awkward kid at the time, had been bullied pretty heavily throughout the last years of elementary school, so it was great to get away from that. In Israel, I found a classroom dynamic that was radically different from the one I experienced back home, with a lot more freedom (walking to school every day, exploring the city on my own, pretty much organized chaos at recess). It was almost unreal how much kids were allowed to get away with, and it didn't make much sense to me until we took a field trip to the Cinemeateque to see the film Roveh Choliot (The Wooden Gun).
There were no subtitles in that showing and my Hebrew was weak at the time, but I understood it was about children growing up in 1950s Tel Aviv, in the shadow of the Holocaust and the War of Independence. With every adult scarred from their experiences and unable to talk about them, and with memories of childhood cut short by both conflicts, kids were given free reign, parents and teachers both incapable and unwilling to stop them until things turn deadly. 

The film was a sucker punch. While I'm sure it was meant to provoke a discussion about the Shoah or the War of Independence, instead I found myself processing everything through my own situation back in the US, where I knew I would have been the one on the receiving end of the beatings, never part of the gang, the bullied, not the bully, unable to understand his parents' brokenness. 

That same feeling came back to me as I read Jerusalem, A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi. Set in Jerusalem in the late 1940s in the transition from Wartime British Mandate through the War of Independence, the graphic novel in aching black-and-white takes us through the lives of the Halaby family. Two sons fight for the Jewish Brigades in World War II; one, Avraham, becomes a communist, and because of his friendship with Arabs is labeled a traitor.  The other, David, after rescuing Jews from the Shoah and smuggling them to Palestine, becomes a Palmachnik, and is assigned a command on the assault on Latrun. A third son becomes a member of the Stern Gang and participates in the bombing of the King David Hotel and the massacre at Deir Yassin. The fourth son, Motti,  is too young for heroics, but is filled with anger that he takes out on schoolyard kids, british soldiers, his teachers, and succeeds in becoming quite the thief who brings home whatever the family needs, all the while watching his classmates die violently during the siege. We see the riots of 1947, the venomous antisemitism of the British soldiers, the daily sacrifices and compromises Jews and Arabs made to survive. 

It's not all history lessons: we're introduced to the Halaby brothers in their French class at the Ratisbone, a monastery in Jerusalem I used to walk passed every day on my way to class. There's flirting with girls, Avraham (the communist brother's) friendship with Elias from Deir Yassin, those same British soldiers in the pub missing home, and a city straining under the weight of it all. The shuk in Machane Yehudah comes alive as we see the most senior Halaby try (and fail) to sell sweets. Kids are given free reign, as their childhood may be cut short--either by having to bring home wages, being pressed into service as a courier for one of the Jewish groups, or a bomb attack by either side. The characters are portrayed in a clear-eyed fashion, and the atrocities are put into a context that takes none of the horror away while avoiding false equivalency or attempts at fair portrayal. The anger is real, the despair is real, the blood is real, the joy is real, and it leaves one with both a clearer and messier understanding of what went on in that first war for Independence.  Finishing a chapter leaves you gasping for air. We are given exactly what the title promises: a family portrait, filled with the complexities of one family's life, but also the complexities of living in Jerusalem at the violent light of the beginning of the Jewish state. In an era where we look for easy answers to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, this book--like the film I saw in Sixth Grade--reminds of of how many intricacies and ghosts remain from the very beginning. 

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