In addition to the usual prayerbooks, more than 30 North American synagogues, including half a dozen in Toronto, are adding a new publication to their High Holiday repertoire this year – a comic book titled The Book of Jonah (www.jonahcomic.com).
The dramatically illustrated story – adapted from the Haftorah reading for the Yom Kippur service – is the creation of 24-year-old Dov Smiley, a third-year student at the New Jersey-based Kubert School of cartoon and graphic art. His work also appears in the recently published Jewish Comix Anthology (www.jewishcomicsanthology.com).
A graduate of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto and OCAD University, where he studied drawing and painting, Smiley told The CJN that he’s been trying to bring Jewish themes into his artwork. He has worked with youth at several synagogues, most recently Toronto’s Adath Israel Congregation.
Smiley, who describes himself as an observant Conservative Jew, was born in Detroit and moved to Toronto in 2003 with his family at age 14. Although he was “a big comic book reader” as a kid, he didn’t get serious about art until his final year of high school, he said.
Because of his experience working with youth groups, he knew that informal Jewish educators have been looking for new resources. Having found support among educators he consulted about the Jonah comic, he says now, “What’s really cool is that I think people saw all the value of the book.”
Among those educators were his parents, Mark Smiley, director of education at Associated Hebrew Schools, and Aviva Silverman, co-ordinator of the Tanakh Curriculum Project. However, Smiley approached them only after he had fleshed out his ideas, he said, adding that his mother looked at the wording of some of the study questions at the end of the book.
Michael Ferman, director of programming at Adath Israel, told The CJN that the synagogue will use the comic book at its Grade 5 service this Yom Kippur. “With this comic, we are looking forward to enhancing the High Holiday educational experience for our youth and making the story of Jonah more accessible.”
Smiley self-published the hand-drawn, digitally coloured comic book through Ka-Blam Digital Printing. The project grew out of several shorter class assignments.
In addition to the study questions at the back of the book, Smiley included part of a sermon about the Book of Jonah that was given by his late grandfather, Rabbi Israel Silverman, in 1994. Rabbi Silverman served Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton from 1966 to 1996.
Another rabbinic relative – Smiley’s cousin, Chicago-based Rabbi David Russo – served as a consultant on the comic book.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism helped Smiley publicize his book, and he is now into his second printing after an initial run of 650 copies. Prices range from $2.99 to $3.50 per copy, depending on the number purchased. United Synagogue Youth helped with the educational materials, Smiley said.
He hopes to follow The Book of Jonah with another High Holiday comic book.
Long-term, he would like to expand on the type of work he’s doing now, and perhaps produce a graphic novel based on his grandfather’s Shoah memoir, part of which he has already adapted for a class assignment. It can be found on his blog at dovsmiley.blogspot.ca/p/survivor-preview-comic.html.
Like the Book of Jonah, his grandfather’s memoir has “a strong dramatic narrative,” making it a natural choice for the medium.
Comics are “a growing medium that educators are taking seriously,” Smiley said. “The response I’ve gotten so far tells me if it’s not a trend right now, it’s going to be.”