Updated: Oct 27
My grandfather, who I knew as Sabba Yaacov, had very old wounds.
In May, 1948, early in Israel's War of Independence, he was part of the battle for kibbutz Ramat Rachel. That is where he was shot in the knees. That is why, when I was young and he was old, there were days when my grandfather's knees would hurt.
Several years ago, I turned my creative thoughts to my grandfather's stories. The story I chose to tell — initially as a short film script called "Brother's Keeper" — described his experience at the battle of Ramat Rachel, and in the makeshift field hospital in the basement of a monastery where his leg (and his life) would be saved.
I shared the script with my grandfather. He declared that although it was very much a 'Hollywood version' of events, he really liked it. In the years since, my grandfather passed away, and the script remains unproduced.
It sat on a hard drive for several years, until this summer, when an opportunity arose to collaborate once more with Joshua M. Edelglass, the illustrator of José and the Pirate Captain Toledano. I shared several story ideas with Josh, who immediately gravitated towards "Brother's Keeper". We decided we'd work together to reimagine the story as a single-issue (or 'one-off') comic book. The goal was to have something ready to debut in mid-November, at the Jewish Comics Experience, a new and exciting convention of Jewish comics at the Center for Jewish History in New York. So, in August, with only a few months to get the job done, I began to write.
I went back to old interviews that my uncle Yoav had recorded. My grandfather's accounts of the battle and its aftermath are riveting, and revealed surprising details that I had forgotten over the years. I also found this very detailed description of the battle. I drew from every account that I could find to create a composite representation of this small piece of that old war.
But I found myself facing a dilemma. What was my grandfather's story really about? Like most stories that are drawn from real life, it follows a sequence of events that took place without regard for message or meaning. The story was deeply compelling to me, but I wasn't sure why. It didn't seem to impart a lesson. It certainly wasn't expounding on war or saying anything profound about the human condition. It was just stuff that happened. Remarkable stuff, but not meaningful, as far as I could tell.
And I don't think my grandfather found it particularly meaningful, either. He loved telling these stories for the reactions he'd get, but he never concluded them with a moral or a lesson. For that reason, I felt comfortable to simply tell the story, without trying to force some profound meaning into it. In the book, my grandfather even admits, it's "just a story from a war."
Ramat Rachel is a small kibbutz on a strategically-significant hilltop just south of Jerusalem. In 1948, its residents found themselves surrounded on three sides by three very powerful Arab armies. The Egyptian army approached from the west, the Arab Legion came up from the south, and the Jordanian army, along with local Arab fighters, applied pressure from the east. They all wanted to drive the Jews out so they could attack Jerusalem from this high ground.
My grandfather was sent to help defend this kibbutz, and when that appeared impossible, he oversaw the evacuation and retreat.
When I wrote these scenes, they were fascinating pieces of history. It was hard to imagine an army attacking a kibbutz, with bullets and artillery shattering the bucolic quiet.
And then, I was confronted by the grim horrors of October 7, 2023.
What I wrote as history had suddenly become current-events. A terrorist army rampaging through Israel, attacking kibbutzim along the Gaza border. Residents, once again, forced to flee.
The book was already written, and Josh was working hard on the illustrations. For him, the experience was even more surreal. He was drawing an attack on a kibbutz while watching one unfold on the news.
Initially, all of this seemed like a horrible coincidence. "Brother's Keeper" is supposed to be historical. It's supposed to reflect on something that happened long, long ago. Never in my darkest nightmares did I imagine that it would become contemporary again.
And yet, here we are.
We continued our work on the book. With the Jewish comics convention about a month away, we had some hard print deadlines to meet.
But I felt as though the book we were working on had fundamentally changed. I wasn't sure exactly how, but it seemed suddenly more significant. A friend who stopped by for coffee one morning was able to articulate what I couldn't. When he saw a few of the illustrations, he declared, "we need this. Now!"
He went on to explain. Most of us weren't born the last time a kibbutz was attacked. Many of our parents weren't born yet, either. Part of the pain of the October 7 attacks was that we had never experienced anything like it before.
Then, my friend pointed at the illustrations I had shown him. He said "But we have been through this before. We've survived this before."
The moment he pointed that out, I realized that my grandfather's story was no longer "just a story from a war." It suddenly had meaning.
It wasn't the meaning I intended. It certainly couldn't have been my grandfather's meaning. How could we have imagined we'd need such a reminder again?
And yet, there it is.
My grandfather, surviving an attack on a kibbutz in 1948, reminds us of what we can overcome in 2023.
Josh and I had no plans for an immediate wide release of this comic book. We expected to print a bunch of copies to sell at the convention, and then to figure out a release plan from there.
But now, the story carries a new, urgent purpose. We are working very hard to make the book available as broadly as possible when it debuts in New York on 11/12/23.
To that end, I've set up an online store, where you can pre-order the book, especially if you can't make it to the Jewish Comics Experience to buy one in-person. We'll mail out the first wave of orders around the book's release date.
We're also making the book available at a discount for bulk orders, to make it easier for schools to utilize it. A friend is developing an educational guide that I will make available here to help educators incorporate the book into lessons about Israel's War of Independence and about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Eventually, we hope to make the book available digitally through digital comics platforms. Plans are also in the works to release the book in Hebrew later this year.
While I hope that this book helps those who read it take some comfort and courage from its story, I remain painfully aware that a book cannot stop a rocket. It cannot defeat a murderous enemy. It cannot free a hostage.
And there is one particular hostage who I think about, who I pray will have the freedom to read this book some day. His name is Ofir Angel. He is seventeen years old — nearly the same age as my grandfather was in 1948. Ofir was kidnapped on October 7, while visiting his girlfriend in kibbutz Be'eri. He is from Ramat Rachel.
As of this writing, he remains in captivity.
I wish I could do more for him — for all of them — than write a book.