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Graphic novel brings the Passover haggadah to life

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Jordan B. Gorfinkel

Jordan B. Gorfinkel isn’t the kind of guy who’d try to rewrite the haggadah. But he’s overseen a fresh redrawing of it, purposely designed to refine what other Jews grasp about Passover.

“The beauty of comics is that they don’t require any add-ons,” he explains. “There’s no need for a DVD player, or a smartphone. You don’t even need a group of people.”

Regardless, the ambition of The Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is to enhance a seder with a volume that allows everyone to understand what’s going on, like nobody else has attempted.

For the 51-year-old creator from Cleveland, it’s a culmination of the thinking that’s gone into multiple projects: from a cappella group singing, to a decade managing the Batman graphic novels to hosting events.

Gorfinkel will impart his passion for this form of storytelling this weekend in Toronto, including at workshops where previous drawing experience isn’t required – and, during Shabbat, not even picking up a pen.

It was a fellow Jewish editor at DC Comics who seeded Gorfinkel’s big idea, by wondering aloud how no one published a Haggadah catering to him: whether it was by enhancing it with a graphic narrative, or entertaining explanations about the structure of a seder, let alone present the text with transliterated Hebrew.

Somehow, the latter feature didn’t previously exist. Now it does, with help from Israeli religious publisher Koren. Meanwhile, other enhancements reflect one eclectic career.

Everything’s Relative, the comic that Gorfinkel launched in 1996, has taken its cast through a generation –  although their aging has been slower than his inspiration, Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse. (The weekly strips are at JewishCartoon.com.)

One of the seven characters, elderly Holocaust survivor landlord Zayds, was the focus of an Everything’s Relative storyline that Gorfinkel was commissioned to draw in 2007 for silk-screening at the entrance of the Jewish Museum in Munich.

But much as the 20-somethings he first drew have crept towards middle age, the elder characters’ mortality will have to eventually factor, too.

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Living with its deadline for the past 23 years has inspired the artist in other ways: it taught him to value the audiences it built, to cultivate a variety of voices in three or four panels, and to transcend what tends to be a solitary art.

“I’ve got hundreds, if not thousands, more ideas for what to do with the strip,” says Gorfinkel. “And it’s all inspired by being out in the world. Which means that I’m never working alone, because these characters are always alive in my mind.”

Which swings back to Batman, the credit that’s gotten Gorfinkel through many a synagogue door.

A decade of managing the franchise included conceiving the female-fronted spin-off, Birds of Prey, which was adapted for a season of TV. Another ambitious storyline, “No Man’s Land, inspired last season’s plot of the Fox series, Gotham.

But then, the Dark Knight was a character that kept him company through childhood; a constantly-relocating family meant superheroes were his own superfriends. Batman and Robin gave their future imagineer faith in what could follow for him in the future.

Now, those thoughts are transmitted to others through Gorfinkel. The Passover Hagaddah Graphic Novel seems like an ideal medium for showing how he does it.

The primary illustrations aren’t his own, though. Sequential narratives are drawn by Israeli artist Erez Zadok, who was entrusted to capture aspects of a present-day Promised Land. Gorfinkel sketched the sideshow in the spirit of Everything’s Relative, helping to explain things that can seem perplexing at the seder.

It fits with what this Jewish cartoonist considers his personal contribution to Judaism: to relate it in a way that can be appreciated through any lens.

“No one is going to mistake me for a rabbi,” says Gorfinkel. “I certainly don’t have that encyclopedic knowledge. But what I have learned is that everyone has a little bit of Torah inside of them.”

 

Jordan Gorfinkel is the Shabbat scholar-in-residence at the BAYT (613 Clark Ave. W., Thornhill, Ont.) on Feb. 22-23, including a Saturday night panel discussion, plus a Jewish cartoon workshop on Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. Also, another workshop for youths is on Sunday at 10 a.m. at Beth Tzedec (1700 Bathurst St., Toronto).