Sex, Violence and Growing Up On a Farm in Israel

A Sister and Brother Team Up To Produce a Lyrical and Innovative Graphic Memoir

Line, Time and Space: A panel from the Seliktars’s graphic novel.
Courtesy of Fanfare Press
Line, Time and Space: A panel from the Seliktars’s graphic novel.

By Josh Lambert

Published June 22, 2011, issue of July 01, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Farm 54
By Galit and Gilad Seliktar
Fanfare/Ponent Mon, 136 pages, $25

Why is it that graphic novels are so much more interesting these days than their prose siblings?

It’s not simply because they can be read more quickly and so better accommodate our diminishing, Twitterized attention spans — it’s also because contemporary comics artists seem to care deeply about aesthetic and formal innovation.

Every excellent comic book, and even the occasional half-decent one, invents its own graphic idiom, forging for itself a relationship among line, time and space — between narrative and the page — in a way that novelists haven’t been doing consistently since the heyday of modernism a century ago. There’s just something electrifying about watching artists create original visual grammars tailored to the narratives they have to tell, as sister and brother Galit and Gilad Seliktar do in their lovely “Farm 54,” a series of short graphic stories set in the rural Israel of the 1980s.

Each story begins with a banal moment in a kibbutznik’s teenage years: We see glimpses of a Saturday afternoon barbecue; of a birthday party; of her job in the co-op warehouse, sorting eggs. Four subtle pages distill her first evening in a military camp into a series of almost silent moments in the bathroom and the women’s bunk.

The narratives aren’t just slices of life, though: They build to intense moments in which eroticism and death intersect. In “The Substitute Lifeguard,” the main character, Noga, flirts and experiments with a boy in a swimming pool, and neither notices when her baby brother, unsupervised, falls into the water alongside them. A couple of years later, in “Spanish Perfume,” she asks two boys to help her bury a dog that her mother has run over, and in the process they discover her dad’s porn cache. In the final story, “Houses,” she’s old enough to be inducted into the army, where, on that first night of her service, she’s asked to sub for another girl and accompany a squad evacuating a house of Palestinians. “All you’ve got to do,” she’s told, “is follow the soldiers and make sure they don’t touch the women.” Virtually every page of the book is fraught with the possibility of sex, or violence, or sexual violence.

Juxtapositions of sex and death aren’t anything new, and there’s something in the quiet, detached, sometimes grim tone of “Farm 54” that echoes Rutu Modan’s 2007 graphic novel, “Exit Wounds,” and Nir Bergman’s 2002 film “Broken Wings.” Like those works, the Seliktars’ graphic novel evokes Israel’s military and security embroilments obliquely, mostly through absences. “Spanish Perfume,” for example, takes place while Noga’s father is gone — presumably in Lebanon — and her mother is left to play cards with “Fat Nachum and Limping Shlomo… men that no one wanted in the war.” Though the final story concerns the demolition of a Palestinian house, it focuses on little details and fades to white before the explosion, letting pigeons taking flight from the roof signal the destruction to come. The Seliktars are storytellers who know the subtle power of omission and elision.

Each page is divided into three horizontal, usually borderless, panels, and it’s not unusual for Gilad to change the perspective radically in each panel on a page, to keep the center of narrative action off in the distance or out of the reader’s sight. For instance, in “The Substitute Lifeguard,” while the textual narration has Noga’s mother realizing that her baby has disappeared, and so she’s frantically screaming, “Where’s Amnon? Where’s Amnon?” what the reader sees in the panels are the empty and sedate rooms of the family’s home, where nothing is happening. The effect is unexpected and chilling, a sharp evocation of that feeling of eerie disembodiment that occurs in the first moments of a panic.

If “Farm 54” is more intricate than most contemporary novels, that’s partly thanks to the process through which it was made. Galit, a poet who lives in Princeton, N.J., first wrote these semiautobiographical anecdotes in lyrical Hebrew prose. Gilad, her younger brother, teaches in Jerusalem, at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design; he describes, in a series of explanatory notes, how in adapting his sister’s stories to comics, he had to “‘translate’ almost all of the narrative and descriptions into a graphical language.” In doing so, he limited himself to two inks: black, which he applies in fine, precise lines to render detail, and something else, a matte chestnutty color that he washes over pages for shadow and dimness. Working carefully with negative space and a brilliantly Eisnerian sense for panels and pages, he puts this relatively small palette to maximal use, creating a wide range of atmospheric effects.

“Farm 54” was first published in French in 2008, to critical acclaim, and later followed in its Hebrew, Spanish and English editions. Like any literary translation, this one faces a few challenges: Footnotes awkwardly explain what a shiva and a Krembo are, and when the narration says that “the fluorescent light burns cold,” it loses the Hebrew allusion to the burning bush. Still, because so much of Galit’s prose has already been transformed by Gilad into visual images — indeed, many of the most haunting and effective pages here are entirely wordless — “Farm 54” loses less in translation than prose usually does. Which suggests one additional reason that the graphic novel is more the medium of the moment than its prose analog: It travels more easily in our global culture.

Josh Lambert is a Dorot assistant professor at New York University and author of “American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide” (The Jewish Publication Society, 2009.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.