With an artist’s hand and word balloons

With an artist’s hand and word balloons

Jordan Gorfinkel retells the haggadah as a graphic novel

Graphic novels are not just for kids.

And perhaps to drive that point home, the first narrator Jordan B. Gorfinkel introduces in his “Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel” is not a kid, but rather a fully grown anthropomorphic goat. The goat wears a newsboy cap from out of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a vest reminiscent of the one Art Spiegelman wore in his groundbreaking graphic novel “Maus,” and large floppy ears that recall, sadly, those of Jar-Jar Binks. The goat serves an important function in this haggadah, in which even the directions are explained through drawings and word balloons.

Yes, it’s a comic book. But it’s also a complete, traditional haggadah, featuring the full Hebrew text and transliteration on the right hand page of each spread. On the left, however, the English translation appears only in comic book format — the words in balloons, each phrase with its own image. This haggadah is visually denser than other illustrated haggadahs with their one-picture-per-page format.

The pictures capture the excitement and drama of the Exodus from Egypt in a way that Cecile B. DeMille would have appreciated. If the traditional haggadah were a straightforward retelling of the story of the Exodus, a comics version would be no big deal. But the haggadah is not straightforward. It’s a mixture of ritual, midrash, psalms, and prayers that circles around the story of Jewish slavery and redemption in ancient Egypt, with stops by Abraham and Rabbi Hillel. “One moment we’re in the Roman period,” explains the goat in the haggadah’s introduction, “the next we’re back at the Exodus, and then we’re back to the future…. And on and on through all of recorded time. Whew!”

Which makes turning it into a flowing graphic novel quite the accomplishment.

Credit for that goes to Mr. Gorfinkel.

Jordan B. Gorfinkel

As writer, Mr. Gorfinkel wasn’t responsible for the actual dialogue — that came from a new haggadah translation by David Olivestone of Teaneck, a former Orthodox Union official who translated the text for the NCSY bencher. “I wanted it to be authentic and true to the original writers and editors of the haggadah,” Mr. Gorfinkel said. Yet all of the pictures that surround the words, all the plot that moves the story forward, all the comic touches, were his.

Mr. Gorfinkel is a comics veteran who spent nine years as an editor at DC Comics, shepherding the stories of billionaire Bruce Wayne and his adventures as the Batman. In a field founded by Jewish publishers, writers, and artists (among them Batman creator Bob Kane), Mr. Gorfinkel was the first to wear a yarmulke to work. After managing Gotham City, he left New York and moved to Cleveland, where he has lived a freelancer’s life. He has written graphic novels and continues to write and draw a weekly Jewish comic strip, “Everything’s Relative.” He runs workshops on cartooning at Jewish schools and camps and synagogues. (See box for details of his workshop at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck next Sunday.)

His haggadah was years in the making. Not only did he write and revise the script, he raised funds to pay the illustrator, Erez Zadok, an Israeli graduate of the Bezalel Academy.

“I knew I wanted an Israeli artist, who would have instincts in his kishkes for drawing this authentically,” Mr. Gorfinkel said. “If you get an Israeli artist and call for an exterior of Bnei Brak or Jerusalem, all he has to do is walk outside. He’s living the history.”

Mr. Gorfinkel said that Mr. Zadok started off talented, and just kept getting better and better as the project continued. “He was a true collaborator, worth his weight in creativity and ideas.”

There was no one ah-ha moment that sparked the haggadah. Rather, “if you’re going to choose the most impactful and important project to develop into a graphic novel, this is the one. You have a book that is like the SparkNotes or Wikipedia page of Judaism, that encapsulates all of our history and philosophy and rituals and theology.”

Mr. Gorfinkel’s haggadah “is the synthesis of all of my experience in comics and Yiddishkeit,” he said.

As a storyteller, he was challenged to impose a narrative on the haggadah. He is particularly proud of the result, the framing device featuring the vested goat.

“I wrote the haggadah in a George Lucas way,” he said, referring to the Star Wars franchise’s creator. “I started in the middle and wrote out to the extremes. It wasn’t until I finished that it hit me what the framing sequence should be.”

Mr. Gorfinkel said his haggadah is not just for children.

“Some of the subject matter might be too intense for the youngest,” he said. “Chad Gadya is not for the fainthearted. It’s really a project for families and adults. It works like a good Bugs Bunny cartoon: The kids can enjoy the haggadah as the story coming to life and if you’re an adult you can dig into it and see deeper layers. By fusing the images with the text I could bring out multiple layers of meaning.”

He also is proud of his presentation of the passage that follows Dayeinu, the song that praises God for a multitude of miracles, any one of which would have been enough. “All the more so,” the haggadah continues, should God be praised for doing all of them, and then it lists all the miracles again.

“It’s an afterthought in most haggadahs,” Mr. Gorfinkel said. “It seems like all we’re doing is repeating what we said before.”

Lots of haggadahs pass over passages like this by putting them in small type and omitting illustrations. But by the rules of the graphic novel that Mr. Gorfinkel had set for himself, the words demanded illustration.

“I had to find a raison d’etre for this particular section,” he said.

“I was able to reflect on history, and how comics can show the progression and compress time; on interpersonal relationships and multiple cultures and Jewish diversity; on different religious practices and observances. The list just goes on and it’s all there on one page. It’s a sequence that propels itself, has real momentum — the last two thousand years of Judaism on one page.”

Mr. Gorfinkel designed his haggadah to be accessible to people unfamiliar with the story — hence the transliteration. “The pictures give a window and jumping in point that otherwise has never been available,” he said. “For those who have the erudition, this is a new perspective on what they have known and loved their entire lives, and will hopefully drive them to more conversation, more discussion, and more insights.”

Mr. Gorfinkel hopes the haggadah will enable him to launch a line of Jewish graphic novels. “I would love to do a Tanakh like this, taking the original text and bringing it to life,” he said. “I want to do Jewish history, telling the stories of Zionism and great and inspiring Jews, to inspire the Jewish people.”

Who: Jordan B. Gorfinkel, comic book writer, artist, and editor
What: Jewish Cartoon Haggadah Workshop
When: Sunday, March 10, 10:30 a.m.
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck
How old? Grades 5 and up. Younger children can come but must be accompanied by adults. Teens and adults are encouraged to attend.
How much: Free

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