In junior year of high school, I took an english elective course on diaspora. My original course had been cancelled so I had been randomly placed into an elective I knew nothing about. I learned that, in short, diaspora meant displacement and a lot of the stories we’d be exploring involved cultural or religious diasporas. It was then that I learned about the Jewish Diaspora through a graphic novel called Maus by Art Spiegelman. I’ve come back to what I learned from Maus several times since then in a multitude of college courses and departments.
One thing I should clarify, is that technically, the Jewish people have been displaced since their second temple was destroyed in 70CE. It could also be debated that the displacement started with the Babylonian Exile and destruction of the first temple in 516BCE. There’s a long story behind all of this, but it’s worth learning about to understand the depth and layers of the Jewish Diasporas in these works.
We’ll start with what’s familiar, A Contract with God by Will Eisner, which explores the contract Frimme Hersh makes with God. Hersh is displaced from his home country and he makes a contract with God, only to be upset when God doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain. Many arguments can be made about the validity of Hersh’s contract and how by entering the covenant with god by simply being Jewish (aka, another contract). One thing we do know, is that Hersh has two levels of displacement, possibly even three. The first being the Disapora of the Jewish people as a result of the destruction of their temple. The second, is being away from his home country and not being able to return due to the Russian persecution of Jews. The possible and wavering third, is the displacement he feels from losing his daughter and feeling separated from his God, whom he thought he had a contract with.
And now we come to one of my favorite graphic novels, Maus which explores several things. It not only follows Art Spiegelman’s father, Artie, through the Holocaust, but also explores his life afterwards and how his son and second wife are coping with it all. In the novel, which is both biographical and autobiographical, each character has their own displacements triggered by Artie’s own displacement from the Holocaust, a true rippling effect. Artie faces similar experiences to Hersh, he faces displacement from being Jewish, losing a loved one, and from not being able to return home. Art on the other hand, finds that after the loss of his mother, he faces his own displacement where his home and life feel foreign.
Jewish Diaspora is a multifaceted and complex concept explored wonderfully through graphic novels and in my opinion, it’s a medium that has managed to get across the stories from Contract and from Maus almost perfectly.