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Modern couple draws from old text

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10/08/2009

Modern couple draws from old text photo

For a recent article I wrote for Triblocal, I interviewed a Jewish couple living in Highland Park that is about as nontraditional as it gets.

The two met later in life after previous marriages, already had their own children and are now enjoying their marriage of only about five years.

The husband is an African American male who converted to Judaism in his 30s; the wife was born Jewish and scarcely identified with her roots.

Together, they’ve found Judaism in perhaps an unusual place—a comic book.

Chicago native Aaron Freeman is an author, blogger, public radio personality and stand-up comedian. Some of his routines have taken on Jewish significance, such as his involvement with a traveling show called The Israeli/Palestinian Comedy Tour.

His wife and Glencoe native Sharon Rosenzweig is a painter and printmaker who has recently taken to being a cartoonist.

For those of you loyal Oy! readers who are scratching your heads and wondering why something sounds familiar, Oy! blogger Jane Charney actually wrote about Freeman once before. In her article, “Torah Tales,” Charney discussed Freeman’s performance work as a Torah maven, or storyteller/translator of Biblical Hebrew into vernacular. I am going to focus on another of Freeman’s Jewish endeavors.

Freeman discovered the program called Comic Life on his computer and in three years, he and Rosenzweig have joined forces and decided to make a graphic novel of the Torah called “The Comic Torah, Re-imagining the Very Good Book.”

Each week they went through translations of the weekly Torah portion and together developed a two-page comic based on their discussions of the portion. They would post it to their Web site and sent it out to a list serve comprised of friends and interested parties.

Rosenzweig said the project even evolved into thematic Shabbat dinners with friends based on the portion they had completed.

Rosenzweig said being with Freeman has given her second chance at being a Jew.

She explained that growing up, she didn’t identify with the religion. She married a non-Jewish man and “shelved it.”  It was only after her divorce that she realized she and her daughter might have been missing out, she added.

“I had been doing Jewish studies in college and it really seemed intriguing and wonderful, but not without a community,” Rosenzweig said. “I didn’t know how to do it. So, I just really put it away.”

When she got divorced, she said her daughter complained about her own lack of exposure to the religion.

“My daughter said the worst thing I had done to her was to not give her a Jewish education and that the other kids complained about how boring Hebrew school was, but they didn’t know what it was like not to be in class.”

Rosenzweig said she took her seriously and enrolled her in a program.

“I went with her and I re-kindled my interest, which was really just dormant,” she said.

She synagogue hopped and found a community of her own, and her interest grew even more after meeting Aaron.

Once they began their comic book, their lives began to revolve around Torah, Rosenzweig said.

Rosenzweig and Freeman said they spent their weekends mulling over text and translations. They took their job very seriously. But, they also had fun with it.

In earlier versions of their comics, for instance, Pharaoh was George Bush and the Egyptian magicians were Rumsfield and Cheney. Even Obama made it in there.

Rosenzweig said some of the timely insertions were removed when they got more serious about making a book of the work.

However, they left in other elements, such as personifying the holy land as a woman, whom some may recognize as Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.

The God character, called Yhwh—a phonetic translation of the Hebrew word—looks a lot like Rosenzweig, she admitted. And Moses has a strong resemblance to Freeman. Some of their friends also have small appearances in their version of the Bible.

Marc Slutsky is the president of Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living of the North Shore, the congregation to which the couple belongs and where Freeman performs his maven work.

Slutsky said Torah has to be modern for it to have value.

For Jews in the generation after the Holocaust, when centers of Jewish culture were wiped out and populations were reduced, they felt the need to hold on to what was lost, he said.

But, for a culture to survive, it has got to use the tools of the culture to speak to the problems faced today, Slutsky said. The Torah, for instance, could be used to discuss modern issues such as medical ethics or dealing with children.

“Jews have always been interpretive with regard to the Bible,” Slutsky said. “Torah has a way of saying, ‘Let’s put this in a broader perspective.’”

When I asked Freeman what response he hoped others would have to his work, his answer reflected a desire for continued dialogue.

“The best thing that would happen is they would see this and they’d go, ‘What? This is nonsense. I can write a better Torah than that,’” Freeman said. “And they’ll do it. And then we’ll get to look at theirs.”

Freeman and Rosenzweig haven’t published their comic book yet. They’re working with a small publishing company in New Jersey called Ben Yehudah Press. The company can’t afford color printing. The couple is soliciting donations on a site called Kickstarter.com. The couple has the goal to raise $12,000 in 90 days by Nov. 18. If they don’t meet the goal by that date, none of the pledges made will be charged through the site. For more information, go to  www.thecomictorah.com .

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