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Jewish Ethics and Morality Like You’ve Never Seen Them

Jessica Deutsch’s illustrated Pirkei Avot—a graphic novel of the Mishnaic compilation—provides a gorgeous introduction to one of Judaism’s key texts

Armin Rosen
February 28, 2017

Pirkei Avot is a greatest hits of Jewish wisdom. Even if you think you don’t know its ethical scholarship, you probably do. The Mishnaic compilation’s most famous lines are questions that everyone asks, even if they aren’t consciously aware that Rabbi Hillel asked them a couple thousand years ago, too: If not now, when? If you aren’t for yourself, who will be for you? Even over the course of six slim chapters totaling barely 20 pages in Hebrew, Pirkei Avot is comprehensive to the point of reminding its students and admirers not to grow overly complacent, warning them off of a dependence on memory or reflex in their relationship with this classic of Jewish ethics. The work, after all, is not yours to finish—but you are not free to desist from it, either. Pirkei Avot is a book you will never really be done reading.

Illustrator Jessica Deutsch’s reimagining of Pirkei Avot invites readers to take a fresh look at one of the greatest and most familiar of Jewish texts. The Illustrated Pirkei Avot: A Grapic Novel of Jewish Ethics by Jessica Deutsch is a celebration of the source material’s wonders and difficulties, published in black and white. Originally from Westchester County, Deutsch attended orthodox day schools, Midreshet HaRova Beit Midrash in Jerusalem’s Old City, and The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York. Her illustrated Pirkei Avot creation began as a series of projects at Parsons over four years ago and, as she explains in a hand-written introduction, her book came into focus partly as a result of her reading a commentary on the Pirkei Avot written by the Maharal, the 16th-century Prague rabbi and the creator of the golem. Illustrating the entire Pirkei “just seemed like it would be a really fun challenge for me,” Deutsch explained. She imagined her book could be an educational aide, too. “I liked the idea of making something that I can maybe get into schools.”

Her Pirkei Avot is the product of a self-driven Jewish scholar who is also a recent secular art school graduate—it was “the perfect education to be in a very not-Jewish kind of spiritual atmosphere,” she said of her time at Parsons. Deutsch’s aesthetic has a whimsical cartoon literalism. She draws all 120 Men of the Great Assembly, and her “fence around the Torah” is an actual fence around an actual Torah. But nothing from the text is trivialized or ironized, and Duetsch’s Pirkei Avot strikes a tone of giddy amazement—a result, perhaps, of “reading the same book for four years,” as Deutsch put it.

Whether it’s quoted off of the top of one’s head, delivered in intimidating rectangles of Hebrew text, or brought to life inside of comic book-type paneling, Pirkei Avot is inevitably a compilation drawn from the Mishnah—something that’s meant to be studied, rather than simply read. “Before I even call it a graphic novel or comic book, I tell people, this is a sefer,” said Deutsch.

Although the main text is in English, the original Pirkei Avot appears as an appendix, reproduced in elegant, handwritten Hebrew script for the benefit of Yeshiva students, chevruta partners, armchair philologists, and curious Jews. One hope underlying this new Pirkei Avot is that the 128-page visual riot preceding the Hebrew text will make this last category of reader even more curious than they were to begin with. Deutch said her book “could be helpful for people who feel like they want to start taking their learning to the next level but want to do it in a way that’s fun and understandable.” She raised the possibility that parents and children will study her Pirkei Avot together. Synagogues and religious schools have put in bulk orders. “I try to make every teaching super easy to understand, but there’s also just so much in it that I’m hoping that each time someone goes to learn they find something different,” she said Deutsch.

Deutsch’s Pirkei Avot clarifies a complicated and often-obscure text. For Deutsch, Pirkei Avot’s ambiguities—all those floating skulls and evil eyes—presented a welcome challenge. “There’s something really encouraging for artists about this vague language that kind of expects and demands the creativity of people who want to engage with it,” she explained. Those demands were heavier than she thought they would be when she started on the book over four years ago—a near half-decade of work on a single project has taught her that there’s “something really powerful about being naive with artwork and expectations of projects.” She said that “everything” in the book has been reworked “five to seven times.”

The persistence has paid off. Had she spent less time on her Pirkei Avot, she might have run the risk of selling the source material short. After all, there are lines of Pirkei Avot that one could maybe only start to understand after a few years of thinking them over. What does it mean, for instance, when Rabbi Yaakov says in chapter three, Mishnah nine that “someone who walks down a road studying but interrupts their study and says ‘what a beautiful tree, what a beautiful field’—they are now considered to have taken their life into their own hands?”

“That was one I definitely grappled with initially learning,” she said. She’s now read “four or five” commentaries on Pirkei Avot, and according to one of them, Rabbi Yaakov is trying to explain that Torah and nature don’t exist in separate spheres, cautioning students from the false or even dangerous assumption that a tree or a field are somehow unrelated to or apart from their study of Torah. Deutsch’s depiction should provide an interpretative spark for any reader, regardless of how knowledgeable or confused they may be: She has drawn a young woman discarding a book in the middle of an open field, while anthropomorphized hills and clouds beam down wide-mouthed looks of worry. The Mishnah feels a little less obscure thanks to this figurative suggestion of the spiritual kinship between nature and Torah, but its words haven’t totally lost their mysterious or elusive quality. Maybe this Mishnah is an even harder nut to crack, now that it comes with an illustration to mine for meaning—it’ll surely be harder for some readers to ignore a screaming mountainside than it would be to skip past a block of ancient Hebrew next to a corresponding block of approximated modern English.

One of the easiest things for an interested layperson skip over in an ancient Jewish text are the rabbis themselves, that endless list of So-and-so Ben So-and-So of So-and-So whose words, deeds, and arguments comprise the classical rabbinic canon. In Deutsch’s book, all of the sages float on billowing beards—think the Ice King from “Adventure Time”—but they still have little flourishes that hint at their backgrounds and personalities. Deutsch hopes that her scores of rabbi sketches will serve as a learning device for students. “Their brain will recall, ‘Oh, I remember Rabbi Akiva, he has heart-shaped glasses, he’s the nice one; rabbi Yannai, he was the really paranoid one,’ ” she said.

In chapter 5, Rabbi Alisha of Avuya appears as a leather-strapped, motorcycle-riding roughneck. Rabbi Alisha is one of Deutsch’s personal favorites. Of the four rabbis said to have entered Paradise, Alisha was the one who became a heretic as a result of his experience there. Alisha still makes it into Pirkei Avot in spite of his eventual heresy, and Deutch gives his Mishnah an entire page of its own. “I find it really beautiful and inspiring that Jewish books are like, OK, this person had a difficult spiritual journey but like we’re going to include them in our text,” she said.

If Rabbi Alisha can make it into Pirkei Avot, then the rabbinic tradition is broader, more inclusive, more welcoming, and less daunting than it might seem at first. After all, Deutsch has proven that Pirkei Avot is perfect graphic novel material. What a missed opportunity for the Jews that the entire rabbinic tradition wasn’t just transmitted this way. What if the Zohar looked like Deutch’s Pirkei Avot, with its flying rabbis and its text unfurling in billowy arcs and spirals? As Deutsch explains, one of the goals of her project is to get readers thinking about how their own traditions, cultures, or beliefs can be brought to life. Said Deutsch, “I’m hoping that this will inspire people both inside and outside of Judaism to invite their heritage and their religion into their artwork and realize that it can exist in all forms and spaces.”

The volume, which will be published in the next couple of months by the Philadelphia-based Print-O-Craft, is currently on pre-order.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.