Israel isn’t known for its graphic novels. Even though Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, by Ari Folman and David Polonsky of Waltz with Bashir fame, received a lot of attention a few years ago, the genre still isn’t particularly popular within the country. But the category is growing, and in fact two of the most interesting debut novels by young Israeli women are graphic novels. The irony is that so far both of them have been only published in France, in French translation.
Les filles sages vont en enfer (published by the French publishing house Delcourt), by Tohar Sherman-Friedman, who grew up in a religious Israeli settlement in the West Bank, literally means Good Girls Go to Hell. It tells the author’s story of “yetziah beshe’ela"—coming from an observant home and choosing a secular way of life. Delcourt is also going to publish a sequel, which Tohar is hoping to turn into a trilogy. The first book is about her childhood and teenage years, the second is about becoming a woman. “I want the third one to be about kids and family, but it’s a work in progress as I’m working on my life at the same time,” she chuckled when we met in a café in Tel Aviv, where she now lives with her husband, Daniel.
The other new Israeli graphic novel making waves in France is Deux Ans (published by Cambourakis) by Aya Talshir. The title means “Two Years,” and the book tells the story of the two years the author spent in mandatory military service.
Both books are beautiful, funny, and moving, illustrating in a fresh way the hardships of growing up in Israel and gradually discovering the complex moral issues within life in the country. Despite both novels being written by up-and-coming Israeli talent, and dealing with the Israeli experience, it was only after their publication in France that they finally received interest from the Israeli publishing world. So far, Tohar’s novel has been picked up by one of the country’s largest book publishers, Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir (who also signed her to publish another graphic novel for young adults), and the Hebrew version is slated to appear in 2023.
Tohar Sherman-Friedman is a 26-year-old Israeli comics writer, illustrator, and tattoo artist, an occupation strictly forbidden by the Torah. She is originally from a settlement in the West Bank called Kedumim, founded in the 1970s by members of the Gush Emunim movement, which was the first Jewish settlement to be built in the Shomron (Samaria) after the Six-Day War.
Growing up, Tohar was exposed mainly to religious comic books, such as Shay Charka’s “Baba”—the most popular comics character in the Dati Leumi (“National Religious”) community, who is an anti-hero living during the Second Temple Period—and “Dvir,” a comic strip about a young religious boy, written by Effi Ungar Dasberg, who was killed alongside her husband at the age of 24 in a shooting attack by Palestinians. Coming from a Dati Leumi background, and not a Haredi one, Tohar did have a computer at home and was also exposed a bit to secular comic books for kids.
But her first real entry into the world of graphic novels for adults came when she was already secular, while studying at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art, where she’d enrolled directly after finishing her national service. She only began drawing comics at the end of her studies, devoting most of her time at Shenkar to illustration. She fell in love with comics while studying with renowned Israeli illustrator and comic book artist Asaf Hanuka. The moment she started drawing comics, it just clicked as a way to express her complex upbringing.
The cover of Good Girls Go to Hell, on which we see a teenage Tohar sporting hiking sandals with socks, holding up a cigarette, and exposing her Band-Aided knees, says it all. This is “Ghost World” in a West Bank settlement. The book is a memoir of the first part of her life, where she struggles to find her identity in a world where she doesn’t feel she belongs.
Tohar’s first name means “purity” in Hebrew. When she was little, her mom used to take a felt-tip pen and modify the clothes the princesses wore in her daughter’s picture books. In her mom’s hands, Disney princesses suddenly wore long sleeves and modest necklines. Tohar smiles at the memory and shows me that today she has a tattoo of a naked woman on her leg. “My brother-in-law once asked me to cover it with a Band-Aid so that his children don’t see it,” she told me with a chuckle, “but my nephews and nieces love my tattoos. They like to color them with markers, and the little ones ask me if I draw them every morning.” As mainstream as tattoos are in the secular world, a naked lady tattoo is not something you see in Kedumim.
I asked her if her “yetziah beshe’ela” was traumatic for her parents. “I always felt that I let my parents down terribly, but they deny that. Maybe I’m just being dramatic, but it’s hard for me to believe them when they say that I’m not a disappointment.” Her parents certainly struggled with some of the topics she explores. “My parents found out that I had an abortion from the book,” she told me. “I gave them the book to read. I sat opposite them and looked at their faces. I saw my mom cry when she found out about my abortion. For her, it was a major breaking of trust. She said she can’t believe I never told her. But I know that I couldn’t have told her. My life wouldn’t have developed the way it did if I would have told her back then. Today I am married to Daniel, and I’m sure our relationship wouldn’t have been able to flourish so easily had my parents known he got me pregnant when I was 16. … I’m sure it was very painful for them to find out things about me in this way, but for me it was a way of saying to my parents: Come, get to know the real me.”
“It would have been much easier for me to stay religious,” Tohar adds. “If I would have believed in God, my life would have been much easier. I wouldn’t have felt like an outsider in my own community, I would have belonged to my group of friends, and at 18 I would have married a beinish (a slang term for youngsters studying at a yeshivat hesder—a program which combines Talmudic studies with military service) and had lots of kids. My life would have been much easier if I didn’t have all these doubts and questions.”
I wondered if she thought her friends from high school asked less questions. “Maybe not,” she contemplated, “but they are satisfied with the answers given to them, while I wasn’t. and maybe they don’t obsess about it like I did. At the end of the day, when talking about belief, it all boils down to a feeling. And I didn’t feel it. I felt that everybody keeps telling me that there is something around me, and I just didn’t see it. It drove me crazy. It made me feel very different and very lonely. I always felt like I had more questions than answers. The original title of the book was I Have a Question.”
Tohar knows very well that she isn’t the only one growing up with doubts in a religious community.
“When the book comes out in Hebrew, I would love it to reach religious communities, and I would love it if after reading it religious girls will feel the courage to open up their issues to their mothers. Every teenager goes through this kind of soul-searching, whether it’s about religion, sexuality, body image, relationships or any other aspect of your identity. I truly hope that my book will contribute to this discourse. Sadly, many people from where I came from totally missed the point. I was trying to open things up and get a dialogue going, while they saw it as airing my dirty laundry in public. They thought I was doing it as a means of self-therapy. People told me: ‘Why do you have to publish this? Go talk to a shrink’. They didn’t understand why I would expose my personal story and my family. Asaf Hanuka told me that when he writes about personal things, he changes names and faces, and I didn’t feel I can do that. I wanted to tell the story exactly as it was, for me, without changing anything. And I feel that this decision helped people identify with my story, even if they come from a totally different background. I received messages from women from different places who felt like outsiders or marginalized growing up. Even Muslim women wrote to me to tell me they identified with my story. In general, most of the responses I got about the book came from women.”
As much as she would have liked to, Tohar knew that writing about her childhood in a politically controversial place like Kedumim meant that she couldn’t dodge politics altogether.
In the summer of 2004, her parents took her in the car to join the huge rally against the Israeli disengagement from Gaza—the dismantling of the 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of the Israeli settlers and army, which was proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, approved by the Knesset in 2005, and implemented that same year. At the age of 8, Tohar found herself joining the “Human Chain,” a rally of tens of thousands of Israelis to protest against the plan. Little Tohar sensed something dramatic was going on, but didn’t understand what.
This scene is told in the book through the eyes of an 8-year-old. We don’t really get grown-up Tohar’s take on the matter. “I left my political views vague and ambiguous in the book on purpose because I’m still struggling with this,” she explained. “The political aspects are all tangled up in my personal story and when it comes to politics I am still confused. I know now that the reality is much more complex and problematic than what I was taught growing up. It would also be deemed hypocritical if I say my opinions are on the left side from a social point of view, while my parents live in a settlement and I still go there and visit them.
“I’m still young and unsure politically, which is why I didn’t want to get into it too much. I’d rather this be a story about growing up, than a political story. Obviously, politics can’t be ignored in a problematic place like the one I come from, but I don’t feel I have anything meaningful to say as far as politics go.”
The moment she left Kedumim for Tel Aviv, she found herself in a world that considers “settlement” a dirty word, so much so that for a long time she felt the need to hide where she came from. “Nowadays when I tell people, they are shocked,” she said. “But I never felt part of the occupation. Me and my friends weren’t like the Hilltop Youth, we weren’t political. … Nowadays when people accuse me of being part of the occupation, I say that my parents live there and I love my parents and it’s a beautiful place. I didn’t choose where to be born and it saddens me deeply that it’s such a controversial place.”
Aya Talshir is almost the same age as Tohar Sherman-Friedman, but her background is very different. She grew up in Ramat HaSharon, a city bordering Tel Aviv, and studied in a high school specializing in arts. She created her first comic book, about a mean dwarf that steals a diamond ring, at age 7. She then abandoned the medium for quite a few years and mainly painted, but she fell in love with comics again when taking courses with Rutu Modan and Michel Kichka at Bezalel. That’s where she developed her own style, influenced by the animated series she saw on TV growing up, from Japanese anime series to Cartoon Network.
If Tohar’s formative experience was leaving religion behind, Aya’s was the two years she spent in the IDF from 2012-14. Today 29-year-old Aya Talshir lives in Jaffa. She graduated from the Department of Visual Communication at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in 2018, and it was during university that she fleshed out this formative experience into art.
Her debut novel tells the story of endless Israeli girls who found themselves in the army, even though they never wanted to contribute to the security effort, didn’t fantasize about a meaningful position or heroic acts of bravery, and lacked any genuine motivation.
For most of the book, Aya describes a sort of camaraderie of misfortune. Like she says in the book: “It’s the first and last time people from all over the country, all ethnicities, all economic statuses, and religious beliefs are mushed together in sub-human conditions and treated in an equally bad way. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist whose grandparents survived the Holocaust and you live in a mansion or if your grandparents journeyed by foot from Ethiopia and you lead a traditional Jewish lifestyle—in the army you’re going to be scrubbing the same toilets.”
But while most of the novel is about girls smoking on the toilet together as an attempt to battle army constipation, throwing up together because of the cheap booze they drank at the advanced training graduation party, and getting a UTI from the dirty plumbing, things get more serious toward the end. The book mentions the fact that Aya served in Unit 8200, the Central Collection Unit of the Intelligence Corps, but she never conveys what exactly she did there.
“I want to tell you about the actual job I did, but to this day I don’t know if I can,” she writes in the book. “I do know it was morally wrong and marketed as top-secret. If I wasn’t an 18-year-old girl, terrified of causing any trouble, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Growing up, she never felt she had a choice on the matter. “When I was in high school, everybody went to the army,” she told me. “At least in my school and in my area. I didn’t feel like I had an option not to enlist. These are the messages that I’ve been fed growing up. I think that if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have enlisted. I’d do national service instead. I’d go feed hungry people instead of sitting in an office and playing Solitaire all day. I would have done something much more meaningful and come out less traumatized.
“I’m not a politician and don’t know enough to discuss what the IDF does. All I can say is how it affects a young girl, aged 18, 19, and 20, to be part of this,” Aya said. “While I was in the army, I could only see that I wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t eating and that people were mean to me for no reason. Later on, after boot camp and training were over and I started doing the real job I was supposed to do, my basic needs were more or less fulfilled, but my emotional needs were neglected in a way that would take me years to recover from. Only years later, while at Bezalel, I started realizing what I actually went through. I started understanding that there was a bigger problem than the corn schnitzel, the disgusting bathroom, and the girl who stole my bed.”
Two Years hasn’t found an Israeli publisher yet, and Aya is only slightly apprehensive of the reaction she might get when the book is published in Israel. “It worries me a bit but not enough not to do it.” Her main inspiration for this book was the Israeli black comedy Zero Motivation, written and directed by Talya Lavie: “The film came out just as I finished the army. I went with my family to see it at the cinema and it totally changed my perception. This was the first time I heard someone talking like this about the army. There are many movies and books about boys in the army, but this was different. It was about what girls go through in the army, which is a totally different thing. So later, when I worked on my project and got a little scared, I kept reminding myself: If Talya Lavie can do it, so can I. I really don’t think that my little graphic novel will call the IDF spokesperson’s unit into action.”
Both of these debut graphic novels were adapted from the artists’ final year projects at art school. And although these schools spawn lots of fresh talent in the field of comics, the market in Israel is very limited.
“Comics got to Israel very late,” Israeli comics artist Shlomi Charka (brother of aforementioned Shay Charka) told me. “In the ’50s and ’60s we had patriotic comics, in the ’60s there were also adventure comics for kids. In the ’70s the satirical comics genre arrived in Israel, helmed by Dudu Geva. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that comic books for grown-ups, that weren’t comical or funny, started appearing, thanks to a group of Israeli comics artists called Actus Tragicus, founded in the mid-’90s by Rutu Modan and Yirmi Pinkus.”
Now there are about 10 graphic novels published each year in Israel on average, including the ones published independently, and this is considered an uptick in production. Israelis still don’t buy a lot of graphic novels, and Israeli publishing houses hesitate to publish them. So how will audiences react when Tohar’s and Aya’s novels finally land in Israeli markets? And what will Israelis think of their provocative subject matter? Just like the authors processing their experiences, it may take a while for readers to figure everything out.
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.