Drawing on Jerusalem

A wide range of perspectives on the Holy City is presented in the display "Many Faces of Jerusalem."

Michel Kichka presents his beloved Jerusalem as is – warts and all (photo credit: MICHEL KICHKA)
Michel Kichka presents his beloved Jerusalem as is – warts and all
(photo credit: MICHEL KICHKA)
Jerusalem Day, especially in the jubilee year of the Six Day War and the reunification of the east and west sectors of the city, is awash with official state and municipal events. With all the pomp and circumstance, it is easy to lose sight of street-level reality. As politicians and others make stirring speeches and people march through the city waving banners and flags, how many of us keep tabs on what it is really like to live in this ancient fair city of ours? Should you pop along to the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon, you could get just such an elemental handle on the zeitgeist at the eastern end of the Jerusalem- Tel Aviv section of Highway 1, in a definitively user friendly and smile-inducing way.
“People, in general, may have a negative view of Jerusalem – you know, all the political problems with conflict between Arabs and Jews, haredim and secular Jews, and so on,” notes museum Director of Education Amnon Silber. “We want to show that Jerusalem is full of wonderful things. It is a dynamic and growing city with lots things going on. That’s what the exhibition wants to show.”
The display in question is “Many Faces of Jerusalem,” which takes in a wide range of perspectives on the Holy City, spread across seven decades.
That, intriguingly, offers a caricaturist’s handle on what was going down in Jerusalem while the city was still split between the young state of Israel and Jordan, when a return to the Old City and, more specifically, the Western Wall, was a largely a figment of messianic Jewish imagination.
The works present a satirical view of quotidian issues of the day, as well as some of the headline-grabbing stuff.
The roster of artists who have laid pencil to paper in an effort to capture the spirit of this most disputed and socially and culturally rich of cities, includes such leading visual satirists of yesteryear as Zeev Farkash – a.k.a. Zeev – and Friedel Stern, who went by her given name, with Michel Kichka, Noam Nadav and Avi Katz offering a more contemporary angle on the Jerusalem ambiance of the day.
Kichka refers to himself as “a proud Jerusalemite” and, interestingly, as “a proud secular Jew.”
Both of those attributes come across in his two large spreads of comics. The strips show the veteran Belgian-born Jerusalemite around and about in haredi neighborhoods, happily and freely observing everyday life there, and even tucking in to some traditional Ashkenazi victuals. Although he now lives in the German Colony, the sixty-something artist says he feels an affinity with his ultra- Orthodox fellow townsfolk.
“When I was a student, I lived right next to Mea She’arim for two years and I felt fine there,” he recalls. “I never felt that out of place there, on the one hand. On the other hand, where I lived is now completely haredi. Even so, I have on occasion gone to eat at a haredi restaurant in the vicinity, and I enjoy eating the food there. I have that Yiddishkeit in me. You know, if comics don’t come from somewhere personal, it’s less interesting.”
The same could be said for any art form, although not all the items in the exhibition tell a personal tale.
There are, of course, plenty of caricatures suffused with political satire. Take, for instance, the then delightfully poignant work by Zeev from 1990. At the time, Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister and he is seen holding the Dome of the Rock, which is portrayed as a pressure cooker about to blow.
Shamir is surrounded by a large ring of dancing characters that feature many of the country’s leading politicians of the day, plus major players in the global political arena. Other pressing issues, such as aliya, construction and the economy are denoted as pans overflowing on a less than state-of-the-art gas cooker, with the words “Peace Process” on the rickety oven door.
One wonders what the late Israel Prize laureate would make of the current regional state of affairs.
The city’s multifarious religious strata are depicted in a succinct two-panel work by Shmuel Katz, Zeev’s contemporary, who died in 2010. His contribution from 1970 shows a couple with a young boy about to enter a sacred Jewish site, with their heads covered, while the same threesome are bareheaded as they enter a French church.
Kichka also incorporates some political observations with, for example, a bitingly comical critique of the regional squabbling as a weary-looking John Kerry – who, in case you have forgotten with all the Trump-era shenanigans going on stateside, used to be secretary of state – wonder- ing if he might be better off letting Bibi and Abu Mazen just get on with messing things up for themselves, instead of trying to sort things out.
In a delightful drawing from 1957 – which provides a neat counterpoint to the Kichka strip – Friedel deftly conveys the extreme disquietude felt by tourists as they gingerly make their way through Mea She’arim. The German- born caricaturist-cartoonist also alludes to the cultural and mindset gap between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, although, curiously, the capital comes out of the comparison in better shape. While a sentry in Tel Aviv has to endure incessant rain, his counterpart down the road has fun throwing snowballs.
The geographic and cultural divide between the cities also comes across in a contemporary color frame attributed to Nirmo Valenbogen, which offers a tongue-incheek view of the benefits of the relaxing but slow train ride to Jerusalem, as opposed to getting to the capital in less than half the time, although only after enduring annoying traffic jams near the entrance to the city.
While Kichka happily unfurls his undying love for his adopted hometown, he says he was also keen to display the down side of life in Jerusalem.
“I told the curators that the exhibition should not be naïve. It should also show that there is also tension in the city. There is the lofty Jerusalem, but also street-level Jerusalem.
“See, Kichka shows that haredim also read comics,” Silber notes. One of the aforementioned strips spells that out, in so many words. “Of course we’re talking kosher comics,” Silber continues, “but they are comics.”
Meanwhile, Zeev utilized his rapier wit when, in 1991, he described the sticky problem of haredim throwing stones at vehicles using Route 1 on Shabbat. A clearly haredi-style item of headgear is shown spewing out stony missiles as cars progress along the highway.
It seems there is almost no aspect of life in Jerusalem that is not given the right royal cartoon treatment, and is conveyed in no uncertain terms. The gay parade has, of course, been a highly irksome event for most observant Jerusalemites, and Katz captures the definitively contrasting viewpoints of both sides by – naturally – portraying homosexuals as a merry and colorful bunch, while incensed haredi objectors appear in monochrome, agitation notwithstanding.
Another of the younger crowd, 48-year-old Dudi Shamai, pushed the parody ante to the limit with his Miss Piggy-style portrait of Jerusalem as blonde bombshell who has seen better times, in the guise of a decaying Miss Jerusalem. The no-longer-young lady could still be an attractive proposition were it not for such uncomplimentary ailments as terrorist attacks, poverty and haredim zealously protecting the sanctity of the Lord’s rest day.
One of the most charming features of “Many Faces of Jerusalem” is the time tunnel aspect with, for example, Aryeh Navon’s 1953 cartoon – prompted by a newspaper item about “extreme religious people” demonstrating against the government and the state, the day after Tisha Be’Av. As the protesters voice their displeasure, a bystander wryly maintains that, the previous day, the same angry lot had wept over the destruction of Jerusalem, and now they were crying over its construction, presumably over some contentious state building project.
“We wanted to show all the different sides of Jerusalem, and there are so many,” says Silber. Looking back to Jerusalem of the early days of the state up to the present day, as depicted in the caricatures and comics on show in Holon, it is almost as if nothing has changed.
For more information: (03) 652-1849 and www.cartoon.org.il