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Showing posts with label Shulamith Levey Oppenheim. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shulamith Levey Oppenheim. Show all posts


Iblis (1994)

Retold by Shulamith Levey Oppenheim

Illustrated by Ed Young

Designed by Michael Farmer

Display type hand-lettered by Judythe Sieck

Pastel and watercolor on Canson paper

Text set in Deepdene

Harcourt Brace and Company

This is the story of Adam and Eve in the gardens of Paradise. This is the story of the Serpent, of the Devil, and of the Fall. This is not based on the first book of Moses, however, but on the Islamic version which was written by Jarir-at-Tabari in Baghdad in the 9th century.

For five hundred years Adam and Eve had lived in Paradise. And for five hundred years Iblis, the great Satan, had been trying to get in.

It is the angel Ridwan who stands guard outside the garden, and the first image of the book is of his clenched fist and flaming sword.

Trying to figure out a way to sneak in, Iblis tricks the serpent, promising to tell her the three magic words which will save all who hear them from illness, old age and death. The serpent - both beautiful and vain - allows Iblis to shrink to the size of a speck of dust and sit himself "between her teeth, making them poisonous for eternity."

From this perch, Iblis can then speak as the serpent, and is thus able to address Eve incognito.

"Dearest serpent, in this garden of God, have we not all that can be desired?"
"It would seem so. But are you not troubled that the noblest fruit of the garden is denied you by God?"

He goes on to tell her that the fruit gives eternal youth and health. Eve is indeed curious.

"How do you know this?"
"An angel told me as I lay under the forbidden tree."
"I must see this angel!"

Iblis is a master shapeshifter. In a moment, he has flown out from the serpent's mouth and transformed into "a perfect young man with wings like clouds."

"I am a man made into an angel," Iblis told her. "I become an angel by eating the fruit that God has denied us. I was near death, ill and infirm. I ate and lo, you see me a thousand years later."

Eve needs no more convincing. She takes and she eats. She gives to Adam and he eats.

It is not clear why the fruit is forbidden. There is no mention of "the Knowledge Between Good and Evil," which I always found to be one of the most compelling aspects of the Biblical story. Neither is there any mention of Adam and Eve suddenly realizing their nakedness and attempting to cover themselves.

At that moment, the tree comes to terrifyingly life. Young spreads it out over two pages, the terrible, twisting branches of that hideously overgrown tree, like a hundred dark snakes, the form of the humans writhing from within, trying to escape. This is the manifestation of God, and He is not pleased.

"Depart from Paradise, thou Adam, thy wife, Eve, and the animals that led ye into disobeying my command."

It is now, at God's command, that leaves are given to Eve and Adam, and they are expelled. It seems a slight distinction, but I'm certain in the Biblical version they fashion the fig leaves before God comes to find them.

Adam is banished to the island of Serendib, which is now - Oppenheim tells us - present-day Sri Lanka. Eve finds herself exiled in Jeddah. I'm trying to figure out how they went on to produce the human race between them if God sent them to opposite ends of the bus like this.

And Iblis - the star of the book - is flung into the River Eila, which flows into Hell. We see him, screaming, now transformed into his true form, falling into the roaring flame of eternal hellfire.

And they all lived eternally cursed ever after!


The Golem (1976)

Golem by Beverly Brodsky McDermott Retold and Illustrated by Beverly Brodsky McDermott
Gouache, watercolor, dye and ink on watercolor paper

J.B. Lippincott Company

The Golem rises again in this splendid, beautifully chilling picture book. I say 'rises again' because of this enigmatic passage as the Golem slowly awakens:

The Rabbi stretched himself over the Golem and gave him the breath of life. The Golem's eyes opened wide. His memory awakened. There had been another time and another Rabbi long ago.

There is never mention of this again, but I like that it casts the tale in a continuum of tales. This has happened before, this will happen again.

McDermott's interpretation of the tale is very simple, yet filled with symbology. The Hebrew alphabet appears on nearly every page in different forms... on an ancient book clutched by an aging rabbi, on the forehead of the great beast itself, above the synagogues and in the angry mobs. Letters are not just letters in this cabalistic tale, of course. Each character of the Hebrew alphabet is imbued with deep, resonant mysticism.

She begins with a quote from Martin Buber:

The origin of the world is dust, and man has been placed in it that he may raise the dust to spirit. But his end is dust and time and again it is the end where he fails, and everything crumbles into dust.

That, of course, is the basic story of the Golem, but gives it such a large context its almost staggering.

The Golem itself is large and nearly shapeless. She gives it only the very minutest of form. Once it is given life, it spends it days in relative peace.

As the days passed, the Golem became a familiar presence everywhere. He often went to the synagogue and heard the songs of the people.

Every Sabbath he visited each house in the ghetto and lit the hearth fires.

He watched over the preparations for the Seder, the Passover feast that celebrates the time long ago when God helped Moses free the Jews who were slaves in Egypt.

Whence wakes the golem?
This peace does not last, and soon the Golem is called upon to pursue his true purpose. In a sudden rage, the Gentiles turn on their Jewish neighbors, accusing them of killing their children and using the blood to make their matzos. (This is a concept which I've seen come up time and time again, most recently in Will Eisner's The Plot). "The Jews are a plague on our lives!" shout the angry mob. "Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!"

McDermott now completely alters the look of the Golem. He grows larger, resembles a towering pillar of sand, his face distorts in rage. He is surrounded by burning buildings and tiny humans... whom he crushes with powerful blows. Then he levels their houses, he rips trees from the earth. He is seen as a fierce maelstrom moving through the city, larger than any Godzilla, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake. It is only when he begins lifting powerful boulders and throwing them at the fleeing survivors that the Rabbi Lev runs after him and commands him to return to dust. "His mouth opened wide and the Name of God tumbled forth."

That is all it takes for the Golem to be destroyed, to return to the dirt of the earth.

"As I explored the mysteries of the Golem an evolution took place," McDermott writes in the introduction. "At first, he resembled something human. Then he was transformed. His textured body became a powerful presence lurking in dark corners, spilling out of my paintings. In the end he shatters into pieces of clay-color and returns to the earth. All that remains is the symbol of silence."

From the 1915 film, Der Golem:

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