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Nazis Killed The Body, Soviets Killed The Soul and Other Tales of Protests, Persecutions and Panic

Eli ValleyFilmed at Limmud New York

I lost 46 pounds in two months using a foolproof diet developed by doctors in Australia. I urge you to listen to my talk so I may share the secrets of weight loss, personal growth, abundant wealth and a lifetime of inner peace and happiness.

Eli Valley, Artist in Residence at The Jewish Daily Forward, is a writer and artist whose work has been published in New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, Gawker, Saveur, Ha’aretz and elsewhere. His art has been labelled “ferociously repugnant” by Commentary and “hilarious” by The Comics Journal. A 2012-2013 LABA Fellow, Elli is the author of The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe and is currently finishing his first novel.

I want to give you, in 12 minutes or less the inspiration behind a lot of my work. Why these images? Why these themes? Why these Jews? I think it’s a good question. I could blame my parents but I’m actually mature and I don’t want to do that actually you know what I’m going to blame my parents but I’m going to credit them let’s say, ok. I could blame the pleather alone and just drop the mic and walk out of here but it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. In terms of thematic content of my work, of creating a personal narrative, a lot of it came from synagogue because my father was the Rabbi. When I was little I used to have these fantasies while he was giving the sermon. My sister and I were trapped in the first or second rows, you know if we negotiated for a week we could sit in the third row but basically he had us in the first or second row because we were his kids. One time during the sermon my sister went to use the bathroom and he got up from the pulpit, the bimah, he’s like “where are you going?” because it was the ultimate sign of disrespect and shame for the Rabbi’s own kids to leave during the sermon. The idea was, if he couldn’t keep his own family captive what good was he? And so we were trapped and I retreat into this fantasy realm, having all of these creative rushes, my mind was racing trying to avoid the words coming down from on high. And I’d be staring at the Chumash, the Hebrew English Bible, I’d be mesmerised by this magnificent blue ribbon coming down the middle and I started fetishizing that ribbon and I started fantasising that all the super friends were on one side of the ribbon, even Aquaman swimming over the Hebrew letters and all the super villains were on the other side and they were having this ‘Battle Royale’ on either side of a ribbon all while my father was sermonizing about the imminent destruction of Israel and ways that we could extend our lives through vitamins. I think this experience, the terrifying sermons in my ears not being able to pee and fantasising super-heroes having a duel to the death on top of a bible is a subtext to a lot of my work. And that’s how I grew up comics provided an escape from services but they also offered a window of taking my experience and turning it into my own kind of narrative, owning it if you will. But still, why do you want to own Jews? What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you just let it go, do some yoga and get out the ghetto already? And it’s a good question, I wish I could , let me explain one of the reasons why it’s difficult. These are normal Americans at the age of 5, this was me “Nazis killed the body, Soviets kill the soul.” This was my sister, “Red Pharoahs let my people go!” My parents got divorced around the time these photos were taken you can see me on the lower left there. I’m already caving into an imaginary universe. By the way, I don’t know who these people are but it looks like something out of a 1970’s Italian horror flick but it’s not, they’re just kids who want to spend their childhoods marching in rallies. And this is how I grew up, my father’s religious but he lives 100 miles away from us. Here he is posing with the cast of the Sopranos and when we visited him my sister and I would be observant and we’d play the role of the upright uptight children of rabbis, being molested by Disney characters. Here we are, children of a Rabbi playing doctor and I know it looks kind of creepy and perverse if you can see the image there but it’s actual, you can see the yarmulke, that’s the proof that it’s totally wholesome and legit. But then we go back to my mum and my father would be in  sort of a panic to legislate the religion from afar which isn’t easy if you’re a Rabbi, especially when the focus of so many of your sermons is the fight against assimilation and inter-marriage. And he wasn’t speaking in a vacuum actually; this is Look magazine from 1964 talking about how by the year 2000 Jews in America would comprise a tiny, tiny, tiny minority as opposed to the tiny, tiny minority we were then. So I’d see my dad every three weeks and id have this intensive Jewish communal experience but then I go back to America at my mom’s and he’d still be there, a phone call away, urging me to avoid assimilation at all cost. It might make you wonders as it has made me wonder what would happen if Batman and Robin worked in the American Jewish community? So, Batman and Robin is a comic I did, which kind of turned my personal experience into a different kind of narrative, with Batman and Robin protecting little Johnny; “Are you aware that American Jews are on the verge of vanishing completely?”, “Holy ethnic dissolution Batman!” From sitting with gentiles in the cafeteria in school, “do you want Hitler to win Jonny?”, “Sit with the Jews Johnny!” you know, that kind of thing. The comic continues like that and we’re not going to do the whole thing today because it’s 12 minutes. Batman was pulled, actually, out of my childhood, my sister who God bless her, has assimilated more thoroughly than I have, she doesn’t understand any of my comics but with this one she was like, “Oh my God, that was us, we were that kid that was our childhood.” And it really was and a lot of it came to ahead when I went to high school, by the way I’m doing my entire life story today, when I said 12 minutes, 12 hours right? That’s cool, thank you, thank you. So I decide to go to public school but that caused kind of a cataclysm between my father and me because he wanted me to take the bus into Philadelphia for the only Hebrew day school in the area so that I would continue my Jewish education like that. I held my ground but there was a lot of tension as there will be if your name is Eliezer. I actually loved high school because it was my first taste of real diversity and therefore real America but the fear was what my father would think, he wanted to know who my friends were and whether they were Jewish. In my yearbook, for instance, this was the breakdown [shows image]. And then there’s me actually, you know what Holly, I believe Holly was Jewish too, so, ok two Jews, you see that? I know it sounds ridiculous to be counting Jews to even care but that’s how I felt when my father would ask, ever so nonchalantly, what people’s last names were, what their mother’s maiden names were, what town in Poland did their grandparents come from. It made me feel like I was hiding, not so much from my classmates but from my father, less he know that I was assimilating. I felt just like Anne Frank, no I didn’t, easy, easy. But the Holocaust is relevant because the reason for my Father’s panic was the concern and fear that the Jews were dying out and we needed to recreate what the Nazis had destroyed. I remember learning at a young age, too young of an age to be learning these things, that all my sperm was precious because it contained enough cells to replenish all the lives lost in the Holocaust. Seriously I don’t know if it was per ejaculation, per week of masturbation or what but you can imagine the pressure this put on me. Not to mention the way I started thinking about sex and this adolescence when I was discovering women and when I say discovering women I mean masturbating to Betty and Veronica. But that’s how it all comes back to comics because sex, death and comics are the Jewish trinity. But that synthesis has always interested me, the popular, the sacred and the profane and the personal sifted through the communal and global. And that’s the kind of comics that interest me, whether it’s Luke Skywalker who prefers to sleep with his sister than with a gentile or a liberal who turns right wing bat-shit insane on the solitary issue of Israel. But I should emphasise, it wasn’t just this tortuous thorny stuff my father was fun too. You can see that in this letter he wrote me in summer camp, he wrote on a torn piece of paper taking on the persona of super villain; “I am holding your father hostage”, he wrote, “he is my prisoner, I torture him sometimes but in general his health is ok. I will release him on one condition; that you turn over all your comic books to me.” So that’s funny and creative, you can see how that would be a source of inspiration, right? Now, on the other hand it involved my father being kidnapped by outside forces, gentiles no doubt and asking me to save him through my comics, it had no effect on me at all. Alright, now let’s talk about my mum, its public psychotherapy, and its fine. I never really understood or experience the Jewish mother stereotype because my mother is nothing like it, in fact, with my father as both reverent and controlling my mom was sort of the opposite. Visiting my father these are the books I would see; “Sermons For The Seventies”, “Sermons the year round”, “Best Jewish Sermons OF 5719-5720”, a personal favourite. “Best Jewish Sermons of 5725-5726”, not such a good year. And then coming back to my mom’s these are the kinds of books I would see, “The Joy of Sex” and not on a high shelf either mom! Or “The Complete Letters of Van Gogh”. My father would give me gifts like this; (Chanukiah) and my mom would give me gifts like this; which is a dildo apparently from a trip to Jamaica and if there are kids here I’m sorry, sex toys, but whatever. She actually went there with her African American boyfriend whom she met in jail as his case worker and it’s actually a long story,  a sweet story or maybe not, semi-sweet, bittersweet I guess but I feel like it gives me all kind of multi-ethnic edge and I wanted to bring a picture of that to show you because if you look around you can see it’s such a multi – ethnic environment today and I figured you’d be really impressed and everything but unfortunately it was an acrimonious breakup and she destroyed all of the photos so I was going through Vibe, XXL. The Source looking for pictures of Lil’ Wayne or Kanye West to Photoshop in with my mom but I figured that was disingenuous and you like truth here so I got her to say it into a tape recorder; “I’m Eli’s mother, I had a black boyfriend when he was growing up.” Thank you very much, thank you very much. You all feel that? Alright, back to the family tree. This is my dad, standing ‘Dirty Harry’ style, in front of his synagogue defaced by a swastika, and this is my mum after feeding up Peyote, teaching us ‘Kum Ba Yah’. But my mom was not always like that, in fact when they were married they were both balai teshuva which is a Hebrew term, it’s hard to translate, loosely translated it means borderline psychotic. Here she is in the synagogue sisterhood brunch on the lower left there, the rebbetzin in the newspaper. But the difference, my dad stayed with it and my mom didn’t partly because being a Rabbi’s wife was too constraining and of course the irony or paradox is that the obsession with continuity actually destroyed the marriage. But whatever, I’m over it, I don’t pity myself, I don’t Photoshop my parents into old magazines because that would be a sign of mental illness. Anyway, when my mom left she left it all and apparently became a government spy. And after the divorce they went their separate ways, my dad continued his religious life; here he is organising services on the Long Island Railroad, no joke actually and my mom became a social worker working with under privileged kids in Albany and that’s how she met her boyfriend, she was his case worker in jail, it’s a very sweet story actually. So in some ways I was caught between the two with these very different backgrounds competing for my attention and if you don’t mind the melodrama, my soul. You can see my mom was really excited to be at this family reunion.  But ultimately if I had to choose between going to services on the Long Island Railroad and hanging out with black kids in Albany, I prefer hanging out with black kids in Albany. And yet, this is something that the ardent defenders of the faith don’t understand, it is still my culture and I’m still fascinated by it and fixated on it, it is a great reservoir of narrative and artistic inspiration and I refuse to let it be defined by the schmucks. And I should add, that it’s not that my mom stopped being religiously observant, she also bought me up with a certain unique perspective, you can see that in a letter she wrote me in summer camp the same year that Bar Mitzvah photo was taken, this is how she ended it: The 4th of July is approaching a time when we must remember the struggles that our forefathers endured to establish on this continent a nation independent of the Queen and King of England which land was to subsequently become a far greater threat to and violator of human rights both here and abroad than the parental England ever was. However, we must perform our patriotic role and light a sparkler, my son I know you will carry on the family tradition and fart on the flag, all my love Mommy. Aww, thank you mommy.  So it should be clear how indebted I am to her. But anyway, if I am fascinated by and fixated on this Jewish stuff then the question becomes; am I going to go my father’s route and draw it as adorable kittens singing the Israeli national anthem?  Or am I going to go my mother’s route and draw it as violent chimpanzees warring for tribal territory? Or, to put it another way; this? How much is your father worth? Or this fart on the flag. But to be honest, isn’t that a false dichotomy? The truth is, both are my narrative, both are my culture, both are my experience, they are my tradition, my history and although the term is overused and sometimes ambiguous and meaningless, my identity. They both inform my work. Why is that? Because transformations and reinterpretations of personal and collective experience is the cornerstone to the creation of art.

Thank you


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