‘Talmud Comics’ (at talmudcomics.net) is Yonah Lavery’s portrayal of pages from the Gemara in comic book form and it’s one of the most pure, personal and genuine combinations of artistic exploration and Torah learning I have ever seen. ‘Talmud Comics’ is the work of an artist who is steadfast in her commitment to serious study, but rather than allow her respect for the source material to reduce her work to unimaginative or overly literal depictions, these comics abound with a vision of a Talmud that is so quirky, creative and human that Lavery’s enthusiasm for Torah is almost instantly related.
Yonah lives in Toronto, but grew up in Saskatchewan, which, she explains for the benefit of non-Canadians, “is basically like being from Kansas (if the Wizard of Oz explains Kansas well).” Before attending university, her Jewish education consisted entirely of book reading and visits to a rabbi who would pepper her with questions like “You’re an old man who lives on the 18th floor, you’re in the lobby, your pills are in your apartment, and it’s Shabbat. There is no Shabbos elevator. What should you do?” and “How can Starhawk be Jewish and Wiccan at the same time?” Her degrees behind her, Yonah’s preparing to travel to Jerusalem this coming year to study at Pardes.
Aaron Roller: When did you begin to study the Talmud? How long after that did you start to do drawings of what you were learning? What was the inspiration?
Yonah Lavery: When I was young I went through English translations (esp. of Pirkei Avot) and anthologies and cherrypicked the most outrageous stories; the Oven of Akhnai was a big hit with my 14-year-old self. Only about two and a half years ago did I start to actually learn with a teacher. This is completely backwards and probably the worst way to study Shas; you should start with something more serious and earn the stories so they mean something more to you, and so you don’t get the wrong impression. I started the comics abot half a year in, to stop myself from forgetting.
AR: Is that to say that you view the drawings mostly as memory aids and not as independent artistic productions? Or do you have goals for the drawings as drawings, independent of the texts? I guess what I’m asking is, do you consider yourself an artist, or are you a Talmudic scholar who has substituted the oral memory aids of most study halls (enter a traditional study hall and you will usually find someone pacing back and forth repeating the text to himself over and over) with a visual one?
YL: I’m not smart/learned enough to use a term like “Talmud scholar” for myself… I only wish. But you’re right, there’s more to it than just retention, or it wouldn’t be in English; I have to do the creepy muttering thing too if I really want to get it down. The visuals allow me to draw certain dimensions out of the story, or to suggest things about it without actually altering the text. For example, in 18b where Zeiri is responding understandably but jerkishly to his landlady’s death, there’s a woman correctly offering comfort in the background. It also says something if the faces of people in Yerushalmi stories have less detail than those in Bavli (not that I’ve done so many Yerushalmi yet).
AR: Most of your drawings relate to Aggadata, the narrative component of the Talmud. Is that your primary interest (as opposed to the more legalistic passages), or is it just that those sections better lend themselves to illustration?
YL: I’m very interested in halachic passages. But I feel like we have lost a certain fluency in aggadah and midrash that came very easily to Chazal - it is an entirely different way of learning. In a sense, studying this kind of material lets you be a Kahana, hiding and watching how people loved Torah. It fosters a closeness to the text and those in it which I think is important.
AR: What is a kahana?
YL: I mean someone who behaves like Kahana in Berachot 61a (he hides under Rav’s bed to find out how his teacher has sex).
AR: Of course. Kahana’s response upon being caught: “It is Torah and I am required to learn it,” was my yearbook quote. As a high school senior I thought I was so subversive to have this quote that sounded so pious until you knew the source. What do you think Kahana’s motives were? Eager or voyeuristic?
YL: That is a ridiculously awesome yearbook quote. As for Kahana’s motives, what I like about that episode is how beautifully the two possibilities you mention are conflated. Especially since he was a young guy, I think he would have had a hard time separating the drive for one from the drive for the other.
AR: To keep the Kahana analogy alive just a little bit longer, your work seems to convey a serious passion for Talmud study, yet at the same time, there is an attraction to the more outlandish or bizarre episodes. Are you still cherrypicking the most outrageous stories? What criteria do you use to select your subject matter?
YL: One of my most annoying criteria is that I pick stories which I think I can tell in a single page. It leaves a lot of great stuff out, such as the important dispute between Rabban Gamliel (whom I greatly respect but can’t help resenting) and the always-awesome R Joshua. Another is that it should make sense using only visuals as commentary, i.e. without an extensive verbal explanation; there’s a heartbreaking encounter between Rava and his father-in-law on a boat which I just can’t express without a huge background brief on who died and why and what their words to each other even mean.
About wackiness, ehh, it’s kind of true. But you know what, outrageous by whose cultural standards? Clearly not theirs; I mean, dreams, dead people, visions of Elijah, these things were davka a part of their everyday vocabulary for explaining the world. Also, if you were to come across most of these texts on a daf of Talmud, I’m not sure you would pick them out for being especially unusual, but in my case I want to make art out of them. Lastly, I want people to be familiar with the gemara’s intense, beautiful imagination, not just its impressive legality, which I think a lot of observant Jews know already. Why disown important material just because it is initially strange to our modern minds?
That said, I’m not a fan of sensationalist Torah commentary. Whatever you do, you should do it with knowledge, respect, and love. Knowledge I need to work on but I hope the other two come out in my work. Also, what I’m formally studying right now is an extremely legal perek of Bava Metzia, which probably nudges me towards choosing contrasting material in Berachot.
AR: Relating particularly to your desire for “people to be familiar with the gemara’s intense, beautiful imagination, not just its impressive legality,” is there a political or ideological element to your work? Does your work constitute a critique of the way that Talmud seems to be currently taught or understood? Are current students missing an important aspect of the Talmud that it might be easier for an artist to reintroduce than your average rabbi?
YL: Noooo, if only everybody studied the traditional way! I, for one, find my imagination constantly engaged by it. I’m talking more about popular conceptions of the Talmud - people who haven’t studied at all who think the whole thing boils down to 3000 laws about the proper placement of a bucket in your storehouse.
Not to downplay the importance of proper bucket placement. Seriously, I feel like I’m coming across as anti-halachic or like I think halachah is boring. I don’t! But I have even less to contribute in this area… what could I possibly say that would add to generations and generations of scholarship?
AR: I don’t think you’re coming across as anti-halachic at all, though I wonder if some readers will take issue to your suggestions that there is a “traditional way” to study Talmud and that gemara learning has a history of diverse teachers and students (as opposed to arguing that it has been essentially a male thing). In any case, I wasn’t going to push it, but since you do express a concern with halacha, I think it’s worth mentioning how surprised I was to see that you portrayed God as having a physical arm in the comic about God’s tefillin. In terms of Jewish law, imagining God as having any type of physicality is generally considered heretical, and portraying that physicality would be idolatrous.
YL: By “traditional way,” I mean with a teacher and with partners, in a religious rather than academic setting. About, for lack of a better term, diversity: I’m not saying that Gemara study hasn’t been male-dominated, as it has been so quite clearly (although far from completely), but rather I mean to show a possibility of it being more open. As far as diversity of background goes, I do think that has been more open than most people realise.
As for portraying the hand of God, in my mind at the time this was so much metaphor and flowed out of the idea that the Holy One could even wear tefillin in the first place, but I would not draw that panel again.
AR: Moving away from issues of law and theology, have you always been interested in the comic book as a form? Is this your first time drawing comics? What sort of art training do you have?
YL: I have always been interested in visual art, as it was a normal method of communication and expression in my family. That’s my training.
Comics can punch you in the face with a message or emotion and still leave you feeling like it was subtle; the line between explicit and implicit is blurred, and that’s what I like about them. There are many comics which I love (like the Tamakis’ Skim, Unterzakhn, Crumb’s biography of Kafka, Watchmen, or anything by Ben Katchor), but I don’t feel a huge amount of loyalty to the genre as a genre. It breeds some brilliance, but also an overwhelming level of stupid - like right now I think there must be 80 billion autobiographies of dorky white boys exploring their sexual coming of age and blah blah blah blah. It amazes me that some people can spend an entire book’s attention span on their own literal masturbation (i.e. Joe Matt’s ‘Spent’) - please, get a hobby already! Maybe narcissists are drawn to the form? But also some people who are intently absorbed not in themselves but some aspect of the world around them - those are the authors I like.
AR: Obviously the way you’re relating to the Talmud is quite unique, but do you see this as a method of remembering the Talmud and expounding upon it as a precedent for others? Would you like to see more people creating their own Talmud Comics in the future?
YL: Haha… I think it probably only works for my stupid little mind. But I would like to see Torah and midrash becoming part of more people’s storytelling, no matter how they express it; not just where we labour but also where we play. Actually, more storytelling in general would be good, no?