The art of Kaddish

Art book records writer’s mother’s death as an act of saying Kaddish, via the graphic medicine genre.

'Life Support Marriage,' oil on gessoed arches paper (photo credit: JUDITH MARGOLIS)
'Life Support Marriage,' oil on gessoed arches paper
(photo credit: JUDITH MARGOLIS)
Big bookstores are divided into traditional sections, yet I don’t recall seeing a section for graphic medicine, a growing niche in the field of publishing.
Life Support: Invitation to Prayer, by Israel-based American artist Judith Margolis, is an autobiographical account of an adult woman who is catapulted into her mother’s progressively complex end-of-life conundrum as she slips into the abyss of advanced diabetes. It is not a pretty picture that Margolis paints, but a truthful and compelling one.
Life Support, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press, is part of the expanding publishing genre of graphic medicine; a mash-up of drawings and personal medical narrative. Where the big questions, big truths, religion, life and death all join in a kaleidoscopic tumble is the juncture where graphic medicine sits. The illustrations ease the way into difficult and important material.
Margolis is an artist whose long years of exhibitions took turns through feminist perspectives, social and political action, spiritual and personal introspection, and through her relationship to practicing Judaism both from the view of an observant Orthodox woman and through thoughtful revisiting of her earlier choices, leading her to reduce ritual and add back the freedoms she sensed she required as an artist. Since 1996, Margolis has been art editor for Nashim, Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues. She also was a co-curator for the Jerusalem Biennale 2015 when she presented the Women of the Book exhibit by women artists, each of whom addressed a specific chapter of the Bible from their viewpoint.
Margolis found herself in a knot of conflicting roles as mother, wife and daughter with the additional layers of demanding art and writing careers, a university teaching position and completing her MFA. She chose to spend some of the long hospital hours documenting her mother’s ordeal and her father’s care of his wife of more than 50 years.
She photographed and wrote notes and journal entries during her mother’s slow passing. I particularly appreciated hearing her artist’s voice observing wryly, “A large collection unit sits under her bed with quarts of freshly suctioned, bloody lung fluid settling like a Tequila Sunrise... I control the panic I feel by writing a careful list describing every piece of machinery and hardware in the room. Then I draw the most complicated gadgets with a .01 Rapidograph pen. This all takes hours.”
Two amputations later the end drew near, and her parents – with differing religious attitudes – reached the decision to cremate her mother’s physical remains. Margolis found herself in a faith dilemma: no body, no funeral, what about sitting shiva? Though women in her circles recited Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) after a relative’s death, Margolis devised her own way to enact a mourning ritual. This book is the result of that effort in which Margolis has thoughtfully provided a glossary of Jewish terminology, making it accessible to anyone.
Margolis spent the next year performing the essence – to her – of honoring her mother. She rented a studio with a room which became the place she worked from her amassed records of multiple hospitalizations. The drawings and delicate ink or water-color paintings in the book go beyond cartoon figures or comics that are more typical of graphic medicine books.
Graphic medicine publications offer one person’s experience on a road that no one chooses to take, but where life may thrust a person. For the patient in the center of the all-too-real drama, these books may give access to what their family members are experiencing. It would be the rare very sick person who is so self-aware that they are able to step outside of themselves to empathize with their caretakers or be willing to visualize what is coming next.
A publisher’s note at the book’s end adds, “For healthcare practitioners, patients, families and caregivers dealing with illness and disability, graphic narrative enlightens complicated or difficult experience. For scholars in literary, cultural, and comics studies, the genre articulates a complex and powerful analysis of illness, medicine, and disability and a rethinking of the boundaries of ‘health.’”
These books are for the times when one is faced with the harshest and heaviest of what life has in store for us, our worst nightmares – the things we may think happen to others but not to us – until we find ourselves in those spots and poorly equipped to deal with them. Reading such books becomes like being given the chance to walk around in another person’s shoes and see the reality of a personal medical crisis through the writer’s eyes.
Margolis’s brief book tackles a hard subject by facing the unpretty reality head-on, giving the reader a window into a world usually whispered about in hushed tones, if at all. Beyond being a sensitive tribute to her parents, there is much to consider for families similarly situated. The deft title Life Support can be understood both as the physical machinery used in critical care and as the act of the book’s creation serving as an emotional life preserver buoying the book’s author, while benefiting us all.
Life Support: An Invitation to Prayer will be available at In Print Art Book Fair. It has been listed on Amazon as the #1 New Release in hospice & palliative care. Margolis will also be displaying her work Countdown to Perfection, Meditations on the Sefirot in the collector’s edition (NIS 12,000) and reproduction editions (NIS 600).