Iencountered Miriam Libicki’s work for the first time in fall 2014 at the University of Kentucky as I was finishing up my undergraduate degree. As a returning adult student, I often felt like a fish out of water, and my experience in Dr. Janice Fernheimer’s course, Comics and Conflict in Israel/Palestine, made me feel doubly so. Not only was I the oldest student, I was also one of just a handful of Jews and in a near-constant state of awareness of my otherness in that small subterranean classroom.
Enter Libicki, first via Toward a Hot Jew, then jobnik!, and finally as a guest lecturer in Fernheimer’s class. The experience of having one’s expectations violated can take a lot of directions, but I’ve only ever been delighted when, time and again, Libicki’s work surprises, confuses, and challenges me—while also offering unexpected moments of comfort and self-recognition. Starting in 2014, and just as much now, I am captivated by the parallel challenges she poses to both form and content in her work. Graphic novel as memoir? Sure, but as a format for scholarly interrogations or the presentation of rigorous academic research—that was something new and rare. When I found myself installed in the cozy director’s office at Washington and Lee University Hillel, the campus organization for Jewish Life, just a few years later, I was eager to introduce my students to Libicki’s beautiful boundary-busting work. (For those unfamiliar: founded in 1923, Hillel International is the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, enriching the lives of Jewish students at more than 550 colleges and universities around the world.) As fate would have it, Chris Gavaler, W&L English professor and Shenandoah’s soon-to-be comics editor, was preparing to co-teach his Creating Comics course during my first spring in Virginia, and his enthusiasm for Libicki’s work was the final push I needed to bring her to campus.
“So what is a Jew?” Miriam Libicki’s narrator character asks in this excerpt from Glasnost Kids. “What is Jewish community?” I’d argue that those are two of the animating questions of the book as well as two of the questions that provoke and enliven Jewish communities everywhere, and especially on college campuses.
I’d also argue that Libicki’s work is at its most successful and provocative when we readers are forced to ask ourselves, “So what is a comic?” Libicki’s genre-bending work enlivens communities of readers, comics fans, and even scholars. For anyone with more than a glancing familiarity with the world of comics, it is a given that the genre is diverse and expansive. Libicki, though, dwells and works within formal questions that echo the identity questions articulated in Glasnost Kids. Can an academic paper include the use of the first person? What about the author’s personal experiences and connections to the subject? How about visual depictions of the author, cleavage and all? And comics? Can they really be explicitly about contemporary sociological questions? Are they a vehicle for sharing rigorous scholarly research? Given the depth and integrity of Libicki’s research and her mastery of both narrative and graphic, the answer can only be a resounding yes, and thank goodness. We need her stories, but most of all we need her questions and her provocations.
Exquisitely personal, vulnerable, and raw, Libicki’s work is instantly credible and legible to many comics fans in both form and content. Beginning with her comic memoir, jobnik!, Libicki unflinchingly shares her own personal inquiries and investigations into the foundational questions of identity and community. From Toward a Hot Jew and jobnik! onward, readers with some familiarity with the formal concerns of comics can trace a simultaneous deepening and broadening of Libicki’s facility with the genre as her work expands to encompass a diversity of visual tropes and referents that operate in concert with her text and narrative. Pages eleven and twelve in this excerpt, for example, bring to mind the illustrations of R. Crumb, as does the panel in the middle of page nine, on the right; the former due to the shift to sharp black-and-white images overlaid with a sense of physical and sexual threat, and the latter, thanks to the adults’ bulging eyeballs and behinds as we glimpse them in a most unflattering and atavistic moment. Libicki’s use of multiple artistic styles—everything from gentle watercolor-esque panels to etching-like imagery and her selective use of color on otherwise black-and-white panels and pages—evidence an artist now comfortable employing the full range of techniques her medium allows. We as readers reap the reward as we rise to the challenge of reading pages dense with text and illustration and find ourselves (perhaps even unconsciously) synthesizing the two into an act of active readership and meaning-making.
At the same time, Libicki has proven herself a serious scholar of the contemporary Jewish and Israeli experience, creating a body of work that is as meticulously researched and forcefully argued as it is personal and accessible. Those questions “So what is a Jew?” and “What is Jewish community?” undergird and catalyze much of her work and fuel a sustained and complex intellectual engagement. Libicki’s nuanced exploration animates and nourishes a very personal response that so many of Libicki’s readers, particularly her younger and Jewish readers, cherish.
For many of the Jewish undergrads that I work with, and a great many more of the Jews that populate my world, college is the first time they begin to interrogate their Jewishness on their own terms, begin to grapple with the twin questions of what it means to be a Jew and what Jewish community means. What do we do, think, and believe, what experiences do we have in common, where are we from, what do we value, where are we going? To hear your questions asked by a character in a book who, though perhaps quite different from you on the surface, resonates with you on a deep level, is a powerful experience for any reader, but I think particularly so for young adults, and especially for Jewish young adults who find themselves on their own and confronting similar issues independently for the very first time.
The answers to those questions lie far beyond the scope of what I or any Hillel director could offer, so instead I try to fan these question-sparks into a fire that will fuel students’ Jewish adulthood. As students find themselves presented with the complete freedom to choose whether or not to involve themselves with the Jewish community on their own terms, the question of what precisely a Jewish community is looms large. Who is included and why? What makes a group of people a community? Is it a shared history? Genetics? Common beliefs? Language? Values? Or is community as simple—and as complicated—as a group of people who all show up at the same place at the same time to do the same thing? And if that time, place, or activity is Jewish, does that make a Jewish community?
My students grapple with these questions, just as I do and so too do many of my friends. If you’re honest, probably a good many of you Shenandoah readers are asking those questions in your own ways. The answers are elusive and slippery, but the very act of seeking them caries a tremendous power. Probing our understandings of identity and community are at the very heart of the developmental (and perhaps also spiritual) work that so many of us begin to engage with in earnest in the liminal moment of our late adolescence and early adulthood. They are the questions of becoming and personhood, and we are lucky indeed to have Miriam Libicki as a guide and fellow investigator as we embark on the quest of meaning-making and identity and community building.
In the end, Libicki’s core questions have a multiplicity of answers. What matters is that we find ourselves in the questions, and in the questioning, begin to find ourselves.