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A review a day: The Big Kahn

A few days ago, I reviewed a book about a woman whose father has lied to her his entire life. That must be a theme in graphic novels this year, because here’s another book about a lying father!

Many years ago, I read a book called The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler. It’s a fascinating book, in which Koestler revives an old theory that the majority of Jews in the world are descended not from the Jews of the Bible but from a group of Turkic people called the Khazars, who flourished north of the Black Sea and west of the Caspian Sea in the latter centuries of the first millennium. They had some close ties to the Byzantine Empire, to the extent that one of the emperors fled to their territory after being exiled and married a Khazar princess before regaining his throne. At least one other emperor was married to a Khazar princess. Sometime around the turn of the ninth century (the late 700s/early 800s), the Khazar nobility converted to Judaism, and the extent to which Judaism permeated the lower classes has been debated ever since. Koestler argued that European Jews were mainly descended from Khazars who dispersed westward when the Khazar state broke up. This theory has been largely disproved, but it’s still an interesting book, most notably because the Khazars were a pretty freakin’ keen bunch of people.

I bring up the Khazars not to stir the pot about Jewish ancestry (I’m certainly not competent enough to discuss the genetic studies that have been done to disprove the theory), but because the idea of Jewishness as a race as well as a religion is at the heart of The Big Kahn, the gripping new graphic novel by Neil Kleid and Nicolas Cinquegrani. It’s published by NBM and is a measly $13.95. Kleid wrote Brownsville a few years ago, which was also good, so I’ve been looking forward to this since it was announced.

We begin at the funeral for David Kahn, a rabbi whose son, Avi, has been training with him to replace him at the synagogue. A strange man arrives at the funeral and demands to see the body to make sure David is really dead. This horrifies the congregation, but what’s even worse is when the man, Roy Dobbs, claims that David Kahn is really his brother, Donnie Dobbs, a con man who is, as he puts it, “as Jewish as the pope.” This, of course, is a bit of a shocking revelation. When Roy’s claim is borne out by David’s will, in which he admits everything, the characters in the book must suddenly come to terms with the fact that their father was lying to them for 40 years.

Everything changes for the family, of course. Rachel, David’s widow, struggles to understand why her husband was lying to her. Avi is devastated when the synagogue decides that he’s no longer qualified to take over as rabbi. Lea, his sister, starts to wonder what religion really means, and Eli, the youngest child, gets a gift from his father that leads him into some trouble. All of these stories intersect and break away as we follow the characters trying to move on with their lives. Avi, questioning his faith, begins to flirt with breaking some of the commandments by which he’s lived his life, while Lea, questioning her lack of faith, begins to see her father and his devotion in a new light. Rachel discovers that her place in the neighborhood has changed, and she’s not sure what to do about that.

What’s fascinating about the book is the theme of what it means to be Jewish. Avi is a devout Jew, but when his father’s lie is revealed, the people at the synagogue decide that his religious qualifications mean nothing if his race is in question. David’s 40 years of service as a Jew means nothing because his blood isn’t Jewish. So what makes a Jew? Is it the race or the religion? Obviously, the perfect answer is “both,” but Kleid doesn’t make it that simple. As readers, we understand that there’s no way that “Gentile blood” hasn’t entered into Jewish bloodlines, even if Koestler’s Khazar theory is completely incorrect. On an intellectual level, we get that the people who are condemning Avi probably aren’t “pure” either, and Kleid nicely allows their hypocrisy shine through without making Avi, for instance, condemn it. David Kahn, from what we read in the book, was a marvelous rabbi, and Avi is even more qualified. But the members of the synagogue can’t endorse his candidacy because he’s not “pure.” This leads to a crisis of faith in Avi, but Kleid is too good to allow it to be a clichéd storyline – Avi does stray a bit, but he also deals with his father’s lies, because, ironically, that’s how his father raised him. This circles back to the main theme of the book – David “converted” to Judaism because he fell in love with Rachel and because Judaism gave him a purpose in life, a foundation rock that he used to raise his children as good Jews. Avi is angry at his father because he lied to them but he never forgets the lessons his father taught. Again, it gets back to what makes a man – who he is or what he does. David might not be of the race of Jews, but he is a devout religious Jew, and that’s what made Avi a good man.

Lea also has to deal with her feelings about her father and what it means to be Jewish. The first time we see her, she’s having sex in the broom closet at her father’s funeral. She’s a complete secular Jew, rejecting her family’s religion and immersing herself in the Gentile world. Through flashbacks, we see that her father tried to instruct her in Jewish teaching, but she also had to strike out on her own, and that meant putting aside her family’s religion. When she finds out about David’s actual antecedents, she begins to wonder how he could have embraced a foreign religion and culture so completely, and it leads her to a spiritual awakening of her own. While Avi struggles to accept a religion divorced from race, Lea begins to see the spiritual aspects of Judaism and how much it meant to David. It’s fascinating how Kleid highlights the two aspects of Judaism – the “racial” and “religious” – and shows both the good and bad aspects of them. Is Judaism too rigid in its tenets? Should the good works of the “religious” man trump the “race” component? Does Avi’s adherence to the rules of Judaism cripple him emotionally, or does it allow him to flourish spiritually, or both? Is Lea a better Jew than Avi, because hers is a faith determined by an epiphany rather than upbringing? Kleid brings all of these issues up, very subtly, and leaves it for the reader to mull over them.

The Big Kahn is an excellent book. Kleid eschews narration, preferring instead to tell the story through dialogue and the art, leaving sentences unfinished and allowing Cinquegrani to show the characters’ emotions on their faces rather than through words. Cinquegrani does a nice job setting the mood, and although I don’t love the art, he does a fine job showing the characters suppressing their pain while still hinting at it. The book takes on a funereal quality, mainly because Kleid refuses to allow any characters to break out of their shells, which we want them to do. But the chill that settles over them throughout most of the book is alleviated by the brief triumphs that the characters experience as they slowly work out their feelings about David. Kleid does a marvelous job making sure that this book, which could have easily devolved into a truly depressing work, rises above that. He raises many questions in the book about faith, but the comic is also, ultimately, about realizing what’s important to you and sticking by it.

I enjoyed Brownsville, Kleid’s last book, but thought there was room for improvement. With The Big Kahn, he’s made a big leap in mastery of the craft. It’s a powerful comic that makes you think about faith and family and hypocrisy, and Kleid deals with his themes in a mature and assured way. This is a comic for adults, and it’s definitely in consideration for best graphic novel of the year.

Tomorrow at noon: Who doesn’t love historical comics? Besides Bill Reed. But that dude is weird.

6 Comments

I haven’t read The Big Kahn, though my curiosity is piqued.

Just a note, from the description of Avi’s situation, under Jewish law, Avi would be Jewish since his mother, Rachel is Jewish; the issue is that he would not be a Kohain– a member of the one of the priestly tribes, since David took the name “Kahn” in a fraudulent manner. Rabbis do not have to be either Levites or a Kohains, but the tribal membership has some ritual significance depending on to which branch of Judaism the congregation is affiliated.

(I’m going to have to assume from the review, that David never undergoes a formal conversion.)

Koestler’s Khazar hypothesis regarding the ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews though has been largely disproven by the analysis of mitochondrial and y-chromosome DNA which instead indicate a mostly Levantine ancestry to the world’s Jewish population. The Khazars are generally agreed to be in the mix, but they are only a small part of that mixture.

Ian: Kleid, through Lea’s character, mentions the matriarchal descent of Jewish law; the issue is whether Avi can be the rabbi of the synagogue. Kleid, however, expands it to include Avi having a crisis of his entire faith, but he does make the point that it’s more that he’s not suitable to replace David as a rabbi. And David never does undergo and formal conversion, you’re right. Thanks for the information.

I picked up a preview of this at MoCCA, still need to read it.

This sounds good.

And I’m sure I’ve liked an historical comic before. Like, uh, you know. That one with the history.

[...] Greg Burgas at Comic Book Resources’ “Comics Should be Good” blog claims that THE BIG KAHN is “definitely in consideration for best graphic novel of the year.” [...]

[...] with Neil  – CBR interview of Neil – Graphic Novel Reporter – Sequential Tart – Comics Bulletin – CBR review -  Pop Candy – Ich Liebe Comics – [...]

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