The Comics of Asaf Hanu­ka: Telling Par­tic­u­lar and Uni­ver­sal Stories

  • Review
By – March 25, 2024

Amer­i­can Jew­ish per­cep­tions of Israel are often con­flat­ed with polit­i­cal and reli­gious affil­i­a­tion. The comics of Asaf Hanu­ka offer a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent and more nuanced approach to the coun­try and its peo­ple. Through his work, as Matt Rein­gold explains in this detailed study, Hanu­ka explores what it means to be Israeli, Jew­ish, and Mizrahi. At the same time, Hanu­ka speaks to uni­ver­sal themes, includ­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of par­ent­ing and the chal­lenges of per­son­al lim­i­ta­tions. Large­ly free of jar­gon, Reingold’s study engages crit­i­cal­ly with the incon­sis­ten­cies — includ­ing inten­tion­al ones — in Hanuka’s analy­ses of his country.

Most of the book focus­es on two essen­tial works inspired by Hanuka’s own life. In The Real­ist, a series of week­ly car­toons that were fea­tured in an Israeli busi­ness mag­a­zine from 2010 to 2021, Hanu­ka con­fronts the mar­gin­al­ized sta­tus of Jews from Arab coun­tries and their alien­ation from the dom­i­nant Ashke­nazi cul­ture. The series also med­i­tates on Hanuka’s fam­i­ly his­to­ry and his self-image as an imper­fect hus­band and father. Hanu­ka has a bit­ing humor that doesn’t spare either his coun­try or himself.

Rein­gold uses the term fan­tas­tic auto­g­ra­phy” to cat­e­go­rize Hanuka’s meld­ing of auto­bi­og­ra­phy and fan­ta­sy. Some car­toons employ the tech­nique of mir­ror­ing,” with each half of the page depict­ing an oppo­site real­i­ty. In Under­world,” an Israeli child plays hap­pi­ly with a new toy, while, in the low­er half of the com­ic, child labor­ers pro­duce the same toy under inhu­mane con­di­tions in anoth­er part of the world. In Who,” Hanu­ka illus­trates stark divi­sions in Israeli soci­ety. He draws a face based on his own, adding payes and a kip­pah and tape over his mouth. The image sug­gests that he is a reli­gious Jew, his piety an object of both com­pas­sion and cyn­i­cism: I’m the silenced minor­i­ty, the tra­di­tion­al infe­ri­or­i­ty, the Recy­cled whin­er, the bit­ter com­ic book writer.” Anoth­er image shows Hanuka’s own tongue encir­cling his head like a ser­pent. The cap­tion reads, I’m a harass­er for life, but only toward my wife. I’m an ardent father, I’m an absent father.” If Hanuka’s work sounds exhaust­ing, it is delib­er­ate­ly so. At times, sim­plis­tic divi­sions between reli­gious and sec­u­lar Jews col­lapse, as when the artist alludes to his own sin­cere, if incon­sis­tent, par­tic­i­pa­tion in rituals.

Dur­ing 2020, Hanu­ka released a new series, The Jew­ish Arab. Jux­ta­pos­ing his grandfather’s immi­gra­tion to Israel from Kur­dish Iraq with his own return home after study­ing art in France, Hanu­ka con­fronts the myths that sim­pli­fy and dis­tort Israel’s nation­al nar­ra­tive, at times equat­ing the sit­u­a­tion of Pales­tini­ans and Mizrahi Jews. He nev­er ques­tions Israel’s right to exist as a coun­try, but he deplores what he sees as the forced adher­ence to one par­tic­u­lar def­i­n­i­tion of being Jew­ish or Israeli. Rein­gold point­ed­ly remarks that Hanuka’s view of Manda­to­ry Pales­tine as a kind of par­adise lost” is ide­al­ized, and he con­cludes that Hanuka’s work rep­re­sents a per­son­al truth, not a com­plete pic­ture of Israel’s history. 

Asaf Hanuka’s work is an open book, not a closed one. Read­ers unfa­mil­iar with this unique writer and artist will be drawn to his vision of the world.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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