ABSTRACT

For over 16 years I’ve been creating my own visual autobiography, The Book of Sarah, and I recently co-curated and exhibited my work in Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women-an internationally touring exhibition that traces Jewish women’s autobiographical comics from the 1970s until today. Doing so “was like finding my own creative family” (Lightman 2010: 1), though not all Jewish women artists are as enamoured. Corinne Pearlman, an artist in Graphic Details, wrote in her comic column “Playing the Jewish Card,” about her disappointment in discovering other autobiographical comics by Jewish women: “And I thought I was UNIQUE! Huh. I’m giving up CONFESSION for LENT” (2009: 2) (Figure 24.1). Why are so many Jewish women artists living and working today driven to tell their life

stories? Speaking for myself, my art is inspired by the lack of a book about my Biblical namesake, Sarah, as well as my own search for a voice and search to find an audience. Women writers, Jewish and non-Jewish, have long searched for appropriate spaces to house their life stories in the world. Virginia Woolf in her diary entry on 20 April 1919, deliberates on approaches to writing styles for her diaries, and parallel qualities could also apply to the bindings of the books themselves: “What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes to mind” (V. Woolf quoted in Anderson 2001: 95). Artists seek a physical form that can embrace them and their lives. This search for a format is about more than just material, paper, and ink; they seek a political freedom for their own experiences, as Linda Anderson has argued about Woolf: “By imagining her diary as an unbounded space, [ … ] she also created the space for something new to emerge” (Anderson 1997: 49). Visual memoir reflects the search for a physical space of memory and the drive to evolve a space for women artists and their voices. Comics offer a unique space for Jewish women to tell their life stories. The comic form

suggests an analogue to traditional Jewish learning and intellectual endeavour. Like the Talmud, the codification of Jewish Oral Law that records rabbinic discussion and development of that Law, the Talmud transforms multi-vocal verbal debate into a text (Steinmetz 2009: 53). A page of Talmud has to incorporate different voices and opinions in a construct not dissimilar to the comic page, with borders and panels (Figure 24.2). Spaces segregate texts, varying font sizes create different emphases. In Talmud the different voices and texts jostle with one another, and on a comics page, text and image pull and push against each other in a similar way, as Charles Hatfield describes in Alternative Comics: “Comics would seem radically fragmented and unstable

[ … ] composed of several kinds of tension, in which various ways of reading-various interpretative options and potentialities-must be played against each other” (2005: 36). The varying forms of comics, often changing from page to page, thereby resemble the different voices and arguments on a Talmud page. Comics similarly achieve a dialogue that ebbs and flows through collaboration between two art forms. Comics have other qualities that offer powerful metaphors for Jews and diaspora-for telling

a history of exile and of being outsiders in another’s lands. Hatfield describes comics as “restless” and “polysemiotic,” stretching and developing as “a wandering variable” (2005: xiv). In many cases comics are considered an outsider art form and often dismissed as low culture, neither literature nor fine art. The comics medium is attractive for Jewish women artists who share a history of exclusion as Jews and as women in societies that retain elements of an anti-Semitic and misogynist cultural heritage. While many Jewish women comics artists address themes of being an outsider in their comics, a particularly instructive and early example is Sharon Rudahl’s autobiographical comic The Star Sapphire (1974). In it she exploits the qualities of comics to describe her own life journey, traveling outside her religion and away from her family, into a rondo, a visualized and physical commune of security and acceptance. Rudahl’s work has been published in underground newspapers and magazines-she was part

of the collective that started Wimmen’s Comix (1972) and she contributed to Anarchy Comix #2 and #3 (1979)—and she recently illustrated A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (2007), the Jewish anarchist and revolutionary. Rudahl describes the exclusions she experienced when she was making comics in the 1970s:

I realized I had faced so much more sexism in art school and in my home community and in looking for employment, housing, etc.—that the world of comics seemed comparatively open. Certainly there was far less anti-Semitism in 1970s San Francisco than in 1950s and 1960s southern USA. Where I was raised, in Virginia and Maryland, there were still covenants against Jews living in certain neighborhoods, I was refused entrance to private schools, Jews and non-Jews did not mingle socially, and so forth. So for me, what may have been incomplete liberties were nonetheless great freedoms.