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Women’s Voices Through Comics

DD: Can you tell us about The Book of Sarah?

SL: The Book of Sarah is a project I’ve been doing since I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I called it The Book of Sarah because my namesake, the Matriarch Sarah, doesn’t have her own book, and my brother and sister are Esther and Daniel and they have the Scroll of Esther and The Book of Daniel respectively — so I had to make things fair!

I was at the Slade School of Art for my BA and MFA and I felt a bit lost. I decided I had to make work about myself and my history to help me learn who I was. At the same time I was also moving away from a more Orthodox lifestyle, because I was quite frustrated by women’s lives within it and how we were constantly asking permission from men to do things: talk in synagogues, read from the Torah. Also, I spent a year in Israel at yeshiva and I couldn’t comprehend how we only had male commentary on the texts. I wanted to know what women were thinking and how women would reinterpret the rules and stories we live by. So I decided to make my own book of the Bible and be a female commentator of my own life, rectify the silence of all those years without women’s contributions. I’ve got thousands and thousands of pages of these drawings about my life. Often they relate to Jewish moments or situations I find myself in, and I’m kind of trying to find a way to acknowledge the tension between living in a modern world and having a very traditional background.

For example, I did a series of drawings about my first year of marriage and it’s all the things I knew about in the Bible, like how a man’s not supposed to go to war the first year of marriage. He’s supposed to stay around and make his wife happy. But how does it feel to be the woman? And I want to explore the space between the inherited texts and my own lived life experiences—which included traveling and thinking about starting a family.

I make short, three-minute films with my drawings. Sometimes these are about very specific Jewish experiences, like “The Family Table,” and “The Reluctant Bride.” The latter is about feeling torn between having a traditional Jewish wedding (and finding it a deeply anti-feminist affair) and also my grandpa dying at the same time. I was caught between feeling frustrated by Jewish tradition and also finding it quite reassuring to have a set response to manage difficult times. I did another film called “Half Full, Half Empty,” where I traced my life through this half-full glass of water I draw every day. I used it as a way of knowing how my life was going and how I was feeling. If my job was going well, if my boyfriend loved me, the same glass looked full. It was amazing to use an object to tell my story for me, and that work got a great reaction. Even though it was about my life as a single Jewish woman at that time, it was really about how life has ups and downs. The object doesn’t change, but the way we look at it changes.

I like to engage with the traditional text but make sure I’ve got a feminist or alternative commentary on them. In my film “Family Table” I made a visual midrash on Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together.” In my film I reference not just brothers but also sisters, mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas. Why should the male term cover all the other people? Why can’t the others be named individually?

The Book of Sarah will be published by Myriad Editions in 2015. I also exhibit my drawings and films in art shows and I had a show last year at Oranim College in Israel. This year I had a show in London, of The Book of Sarah, so I like to exhibit my artwork as well as collect it in this book.

DD: How did Laydeez Do Comics get started?

SL: It started because I went to a comics conference with a friend, Nicola Streeten, and it was frustrating to see all-male lineups on the panels. (It is better now but it still happens!) I was looking for a reading group about comics, and the one I went to was interested in zombies, and I wasn’t so interested in zombies. So Nicola and I decided to set something up, and it’s just been amazing. It’s expanded massively. There are about eighty people attending London branch every month. There are four branches around the UK as well as Ireland, San Francisco, Chicago. It’s open to men, it’s just run by women. There are three speakers at each event, and lots of time for discussion and questions and informal networking. It’s run in a way to make it informative and friendly. The academic world can be quite critical, hierarchical, and patriarchal, and we definitely needed an environment that’s none of that. At the beginning you get a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and at break you get tea and cake, and it just changes the environment to make it much more democratic and inclusive. If you went to a university lecture, you wouldn’t get that atmosphere.

DD: If someone is not familiar with Jewish women’s autobiographical comics, where would you recommend they start to learn more?

SL: Laydeez do Comics has got a blog, and it’s a great resource and has links to people’s books and websites. It’s a great way of seeing how much is going on at the moment. If you go to the Graphic Details website, you can see all the artists in the show and they have so many brilliant comics. I just taught a course at JW3, the new Jewish Community Centre in London about Jews and comics, and I was able to introduce people to so many works they’d never seen before. What was really wonderful was to then receive all the comics the students made in response to what they’d seen. That was beautiful, a really great experience.