• Arnon Z. Shorr

Ritual Objects and Lost Traditions - Themes of Loss and (Re)Discovery

I've heard over the years that it's very important to understand your own creative voice as a writer. You need to know who you are, what you stand for, what stories you're compelled to tell (or, really, what story you find yourself re-telling over and over). For a long time, I didn't really know what drove my stories. To some degree, I'm still discovering new themes and layers of narrative that compel me to write. And as I grow, the themes and ideas that animate me evolve as well - as they must!



When I first made "The Pirate Captain Toledano", and then when I revisited the story for the graphic novel, "José and the Pirate Captain Toledano", I found myself tapping into a part of me that hadn't appeared in many of my previous stories. The film revolves around a 16th century Jewish refugee from the Spanish Inquisition who stows away on a pirate ship. He brings with him a silver kiddush cup - a Jewish ritual object that had belonged to his father.

The stowaway's cup from "The Pirate Captain Toledano"

In the book, which expands on this story, the stowaway is a young teenager who only recently discovered his secret Jewish identity. He has the ritual object, but doesn't know the ritual.


José's cup in "José and the Pirate Captain Toledano"

As I've discussed elsewhere, the cup in this story was inspired by a silver kiddush cup that was given to me by my grandfather at my wedding. It had belonged to his grandfather, Rav Yaacov Schorr of Kuty (or Kitow) in what is now Western Ukraine.


My great-great grandfather's Kiddush cup

The cup was a ritual object that had been passed down through four generations, three continents, an entire century. But there was something missing in that inheritance. Although my grandfather's grandfather was a notable Rabbinic scholar and sage, my grandfather rejected the trappings of traditional Judaism when he was a teenager. By the time the cup reached me, the family traditions were mostly lost to history.

There were some traditions that my grandfather held on to in some way. The Passover Seder was always an important affair, even if my grandfather would revel in questioning the veracity of the Biblical exodus, and even if no one even remembered that the original owner of the silver kiddush cup also wrote a commentary on the Hagadda.


And Chanukah was always treated as a notable event.


For weeks before Chanukah, my grandparents would pull out their various chanukiyot - the eight-branched candelabras that hold the Festival's lights. They'd brush off the dust, clean off old wax, polish them, and display them on a tastefully-crowded tea cart in the living room. Chanukah was particularly special in my grandparents' house. It was a tradition they kept.

Although "José and the Pirate Captain Toledano" offers a subtle rebuke of my grandfather - and perhaps a bit of wish-fulfillment in the way the Captain takes on the role of religious educator for the young stowaway - I suppose I felt a subtle need to acknowledge what my grandparents did pass down to me. The story itself is a sort of liberation narrative, where the sea (split, perhaps, by the prow of a ship?) is the place to go to become free from oppression. And when José is told about his Jewish heritage, he is shown a box of ritual objects that his father had hidden - including a chanukiyah. For this image, I sent a photo to Josh Edelglass, the book's illustrator. It was a photo of a chanukiyah that my grandparents had given me - one of their own, from their collection, which I remembered from that tea cart in their living room.


One of the many Chanukiyot from my grandparents' collection

I don't know when they got this chanukiyah, or what part of the world it's from, but it's an object they used for a tradition that they did transmit to me. It felt important to somehow include it in the book.


Can you spot my grandparents' Chanukiyah?


It felt very cathartic, in a way, to process my own broken connections to a religious heritage through the "Toledano" projects, but it seems I'm not through with that thematic angle. My next series of comics - coming soon from a new Jewish imprint at Source Point Press - revolves around an archaeologist who discovers that he's Jewish just as he's about to embark on a globe-trotting adventure in search of the lost magical treasures of King Solomon. "Ben Mortara and the Thieves of the Golden Table" is yet another story of a seeker, cut off from his heritage, searching for the things that might lead to a better understanding of who he is or where he comes from.


Unlike Ben Mortara, and unlike José, I've never had any doubt as to my Jewish identity, even if the links to tradition have been weak. As we approach another Chanukah, and as I pull out my grandparents' chanukiyah to dust it off and polish it and set it on the tea cart (yes, that eventually made it into my living room, too), I'm reflecting with gratitude on my grandparents, who, even despite their skeptical view of religion, managed to hold onto enough of it to give me a thread to grasp. A thread that ties me - tenuously - to that ancient chain.


~~~~~~~

There's a whole other kiddush cup story associated with Toledano. Check out the video about it, here:

"The Pirate Captain Toledano" is available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3XcaJcH To buy the book, you can get it directly from Kar-Ben Publishing at https://www.karben.com/Jos%C3%A9-and-the-Pirate-Captain-Toledano_p_1163.html

Or you can find it Amazon as well: https://amzn.to/3g64ZQY


I'll post links about Ben Mortara and some upcoming titles from Source Point Press as soon as there are links available.

Have a wonderful Chanukah!

-Arnon


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