It all began with Buffy

Artist turned author
sinks her teeth into new tale

Joanne Palmer

Historically, there’s nothing particularly Jewish about vampires.

Jewish folklore is filled with golems and dybbuks; Lilith and other succubi skulk at night, and nameless demons wait to be summoned.

But vampires waiting to drink a victim’s blood?

Not really.

image
Helen Maryles Shankman

But as anyone who has even the slightest connection to popular culture knows, vampires have been big for years. Their lure has crested and ebbed in ways that will keep cultural historians sated for a long time. Right now, just as we thought we were at the height of a vampire wave, as it seemed to be curling over on itself with the completion of the Twilight saga, at least three new big-budget vampire films are in the works, and television is treating us to two new series – Dracula (NBC) and The Originals (The CW). And then there is HBO’s True Blood, which is about to launch its seventh season.

But vampires are creatures of eastern European folklore, traditionally stopped by crosses or other signs of Christian faith.

One night in January 2006, though, as Helen Maryles Shankman sat in her house in Teaneck, watching an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – an artifact of the last great period of vampire awareness before this one – she was struck by an idea.

“I had all these little kids – there was always someone in diapers – and everyone had the flu,” she said. “I was up watching TV, so I could have some time by myself.”

“Buffy came on, and I realized that a vampire isn’t just a metaphor for the eternal outsider.

“It can of course be used to represent an addict or an alcoholic, someone outside society, but the whole Buffy thing really was all about what it’s like to go to high school, and to feel like an outsider; about how difficult it is to figure out what you’re going to be in life, and dealing with bullies and mean girls.

“And you rarely saw a parent in Buffy,” she said. “I found this galvanizing.”

“I had never been interested in my parents’ Holocaust background before,” she said. “But now all of a sudden it became very interesting.”

So interesting, in fact, that she has worked their background into a novel, “The Color of Light,” published this week by Stony Creek Press.

It’s not surprising that the title of Shankman’s first novel is about color and light; she trained as a classical painter and worked as a graphic artist. In fact, many of the themes that have characterized her life so far seem to combine to make this novel her logical debut.

Shankman, now in her mid-40s, grew up in what she calls an insular modern Orthodox community in Chicago’s West Rogers Park, and went to the Ida Crown Academy there. Her parents, like many of their neighbors, had been blighted by the Shoah. They’re both from the eastern edge of Poland; her mother’s family came from a town six kilometers away from the death camp Sobibor, and the locals were real eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, Shankman said. Her family, though, was lucky, relatively speaking.

Her grandfather made harnesses and saddles; he, like other Jewish craftsmen, were protected by a local official, a man named Selinger, at some real risk to himself, until they could be protected no longer. It is not clear why Selinger protected his workers, except perhaps because they were his, and he felt some loyalty toward them. “You can be shady and decent at the same time,” Shankman said.

Her grandfather took his family and slipped away into the woods and hid for two years. Once the war was over, they made their way to a displaced persons’ camp. “My mom finished growing up in the DP camp in Germany,” Shankman said.

The community in which Shankman grew up was founded on similar stories, and they surrounded her. She breathed them.

She also breathed books. “My mom has no idea how I learned to read, but I was reading by the time I was 3 ½ or 4,” she said. “My parents had had terrible experiences as children. They had no childhood. So I was reading to teach myself how to be an American.

“I loved Dick and Jane books. I was convinced that the rest of America was living like Dick and Jane.”

“My aunt left inappropriate literature in the house,” she continued. “When I was 9, I was reading ‘Peyton Place’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’ Age-inappropriate stuff, adult books with adult issues.

“I was always escaping inside my head,” she said. “I was making up stories and writing them down pretty regularly.”

And then there was art. “When you’re an artist, you know,” she said. “When you are 4, you already are drawing way better than everyone else.”

Until she was 12, Shankman wrote; at 12, “my art took off. I started doing portraits.”

She really loves portraits, she added. She’s only passable as a landscape artist, but “I can do faces.”

The desire and the ability to make art runs in her family, she added. “There is a branch where almost everyone died in the war, and a branch that came here before the war, and on both sides there always have been artists,” she said. “Someone should study us. The talent is always springing up in someone’s kids.”

Throughout high school, then, Shankman was a visual artist, but she began college with a fellowship in English at the University of Illinois. She missed art so much, though, that she transferred to Yeshiva University’s Stern College in Manhattan – where she continued not to make art – and then to Parsons School of Design, also in Manhattan, for a second bachelor’s degree. After stints as an artist’s assistant, she landed a job at Condé Nast, working for Self Magazine.

Condé Nast’s editorial director was Alex Liberman, a “fierce, courtly, and brilliantly talented man” who took an interest in Shankman. Then 82 years old – and despite his aristocratic persona a Jew who had fled Europe before the Nazis – Liberman, a legend in the art world and beyond it, “would come into the art department, and the whole department would be electrified,” Shankman said. “You’d go into the art room with him, and you’d watch Alex work.

“And there was real electricity between us.”

In that art room, Shankman was able to learn directly from Liberman; together, they specialized in collaged words, almost like which turned up in Self as headlines. It is a symbolically perfect medium for someone whose talent and interests go back and forth between making art with material objects and making it with words.

When Condé Nast had one of its regular purges and her job ended, Shankman went to graduate school, studying painting at the New York Academy for Art, supporting herself with a scholarship and occasional freelance jobs.

She was part of a tribe of artists, good friends, firm believers in then-out-of-vogue figurative art. She was also always either the only or one of two Orthodox Jews in her group.

“I have always been the only Orthodox Jew someone ever met, and so people would say remarkable things to me,” she said. “One, the director of a very famous British TV show, said, ‘Helen, is it true that Jews have to be buried with their fingernail clippings?'”

He meant every piece of stray fingernail shed in the course of a lifetime, she added.

“When I was done laughing, and he was horribly humiliated, he said, ‘Helen, just so you know, Catholics have to be buried with their pubic hair.'”

He too was joking; although more recently Shankman has learned that the Talmud does discuss burial with fingernail clippings. Another man, with an Oklahoma drawl, asked her more questions that betrayed complete ignorance of Judaism and Jews, and then said that “he had a Jew up the family tree,” she said.

“They’d bring me these stories because they just wanted to check.

“The non-Jewish New Yorkers, who of course had met lots of Jews, found all this funny, too, so we’d all laugh, and the person who asked the question would be horribly humiliated. All good!”

Right after she graduated from art school, Helen Maryles married Jonathan Shankman, a research gerontologist who is vice president of product development at AMC Health, and fairly soon they moved to Teaneck, where their four children – Gabriella, 17, Raphael, 15, Ayden, 13, and Jude, 8, have grown up. She dropped art, except for the occasional commissioned portrait and some teaching, because the demands on her time made it impossible.

And deprived of paint, her creative imagination went back to words.