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How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

May 4th, 2011

In March, 2007, Sarah Glidden took a Birthright trip to Israel.  The Birthright Israel program is funded by a variety of private philanthropists and provides 10-day trips to Israel for Jews around the world who have never been to Israel before.  The purpose of the trips, according to the Birthright Israel web-site, is to “diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”

Before going on the trip, Sarah felt pretty sure of her feelings towards Israel.  Though she was curious to see the country for herself, for the most part she was critical of the Jewish state’s actions towards the Palestinian people.  She went on Birthright ready to challenge the pro-Israel propaganda she expected from the  tour.  Her experiences on the program, though, were far more complex than that, and caused her to question her initial assumptions and re-evaluate many of her opinions.  Eventually, Ms. Glidden set down to write and illustrate a memoir of her experiences, and the result is the wonderful graphic novel How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, which was recently published by Vertigo, a division of DC Comics.

The graphic novel follows the basic chronology of Ms. Glidden’s trip, with each chapter focused on the time that she and her group spent in various different parts of Israel.  As the novel progresses, we follow Ms. Glidden’s experiences and get to know the various Americans on her tour and local Israelis with whom she interacts.  As the Birthright participants learns about Israel — its history and its people — we readers get to explore this history as well.  Ms. Glidden is skillful with the exposition — she’s constantly finding creative ways to illustrate the history lessons she receives, whether it’s by bringing to life the metaphor of stacks of hats to explain how a tel contains layers of the archaeological record (I laughed at the drawings of a little Sarah climbing up an enormous stack of hats) or by imagining herself talking to David Ben Gurion (Israel’s first Prime Minister) or the long-dead Zionist halutzim (pioneers) to help explain the events that led to the establishment of the Jewish state.  I know a decent amount about Israel’s history, so none of this was brand-new to me.  But the light-touch with which Ms. Glidden brought to those explorations of history kept me thoroughly engaged, and I was impressed by how skillfully she was able to weave those history lessons into the over-all narrative.

I was also impressed by how well Ms. Glidden was able to incorporate multiple viewpoints into the graphic novel.  While one might agree or disagree with some of the opinions Ms. Glidden finds herself coming around to after her experiences in Israel, the novel never becomes a simplistic pro-Israel or anti-Israel tirade.  Ms. Glidden is open about her own thoughts and opinions, and she allows characters with very different viewpoints time to express their thoughts and opinions, without her depictions of those characters giving them clear praise or condemnation.

I was also pleased by Ms. Glidden’s ear for conversation.  I certainly think it’s possible that some of the conversations presented in the graphic novel might have been tweaked somewhat, from what actually went down, in order for Ms. Glidden to allow (as I’d just noted a moment ago) different characters to voice different opinions on various matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But this is so skillfully done that all of these conversations truly feel like real conversations.  I never felt like, oh, the story has to stop now for three pages so we can hear from THIS particular point of view.  It all felt very naturalistic.

That was helped by the way in which Ms. Glidden also takes plenty of time to show us the ins and outs of her trip and her experiences, even when they have nothing to do with any lessons about politics or history.  We see her getting food on her tray for breakfast, we see her having trouble sleeping, we see her helping out some girls on the bus by drawing an illustration for their bus t-shirt, etc.  In a thousand different ways, Ms. Glidden presents a fully fleshed-out, human portrayal of herself and the others on the trip, and that really drew me in as a reader.  I wasn’t interested just in the history lesson — I was interested in how the experiences of the trip affected HER.  That the lessons in history and politics were so skillfully interwoven with her depictions of her experiences is what makes How to Understand Israel such an enjoyable read.

The graphic novel is illustrated using pen and ink and watercolor washes.  I really enjoyed Ms. Glidden’s painting style.  The use of watercolors gives the whole project a light, gentle look to it.  The characters are rendered using some cartoony simplification, but I found her way of drawing people to be rather endearing.  And the backgrounds are gorgeous.  Ms. Glidden isn’t exactly a photo-realistic painter, but the backgrounds contain a wealth of specific information to clearly convey differences of location.  There’s never any confusion as to whether we’re in the Golan Heights (in Israel’s north) or the negev (the desert down south).   The paintings do a very skillful job of capturing the distinct “look” of those different locales.  I can only imagine how long it must have taken Ms. Glidden to hand-paint each one of these teensy-tiny panels in this almost-two-hundred-page graphic novel.  My hat is off to her!

I’ve mentioned Sarah Glidden’s “light touch” several times in this review.  It is, I think, the key phrase to convey the reason that I found this project to be so successful.  Whether it’s her light touch at portraying real, human characters; avoiding stereotypes or polemics in the presentations of Israel’s history; or her watercolor-wash painting style, this project was executed with a gentle, deft hand.  There are few subjects more hotly-argued these days than the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I think How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less manages to engage with the issues while maintaining a fairly even-handed approach.  That’s an impressive achievement.

Really my only major complaint about the graphic novel is the title!  It’s a bit wordy, but more than that, it’s inaccurate.  I understand the “hook” of trying to play on the familiar “How to Accomplish X in 60 Days or Less,” but it’s jarring to anyone who knows that the Birthright Israel trip is only 10 days.  (That’s a fact noted several times in the story itself.)  When talking up the graphic novel to Jewish friends, I keep hearing the response “but wait, Birthright is only 10 days!” and I admit to having had that thought as well myself.  Oh well, nothing’s perfect!

Comics is a limitless media, and it’s a pleasure to see a writer/artist use the medium for a project such as this.  Whether you’re immersed in the details of Middle Eastern politics or you know very little about the region, I encourage you to sample How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.  I’m really pleased that Vertigo chose to publish this.

Here’s a great interview with Sarah Glidden at newsarama.com!

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