Review: How to Understand How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
Much like writer/artist Sarah Glidden’s attitude at the beginning of her Birthright Israel trip , I approached her graphic novel How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less with trepidation. As someone who was born in Israel, who has a name about as Israeli as they come , who has spent a great deal of time in the country, and as someone who has had a rigorous education in the country’s history, Israel is a very important part of my life. However, I also like to think I know a good deal about it. So a graphic novel about Israel initially made me wary. Once I started reading, however, I found myself deeply immersed and emotionally invested. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is a beautifully-illustrated book. Yet while it succeeds as a memoir, it falls short as an analysis of the country and conflict as a whole.
One Woman’s Internal Struggle
At its core, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is really about Glidden’s trip to Israel and how it affected her. She begins in New York saying goodbye to a boyfriend who fears that she will “come back a brainwashed raging Zionist.” This scene sets the tone for Glidden’s initial misgivings. The beginning of the book is marked by Glidden’s active struggle to maintain her original perspective. She constantly questions whether or not what she hears from her Birthright trip is propaganda. On the one hand, this gets a little tedious; on the other hand, she is very self-aware and critical and is often concerned with her initial close-mindedness. The fear of being closed-minded weighed against the fear of having your beliefs pulled out from beneath you is a struggle many of us have had to deal with. It’s an internal struggle that Glidden portrays beautifully. In one sequence, Glidden listens bitterly to early Zionist poetry from the First Aliyah , and imagines herself speaking to an early settler about her annoyance. She makes a remark that she dislikes poetry and specifically dislikes poetry that has a “moral”. Her imaginary settler replies: “Maybe you just don’t like poetry about Zionism.”
Glidden gradually sees more of the Israel and, most importantly, she sees more of its citizens. She sheds many of her preconceptions and allows herself to see a side of the story that she hadn’t really considered beforehand. One notable scene where we see Glidden’s expanding perspective on the country is during a Purim parade, where she gets her first real taste of Israelis. She also begins to enjoy her experiences and sees Israel as more than just a controversy: she begins to appreciate its vibrancy and diversity. As she begins interacting others on her trip as well as Israelis she meets during her travel, she begins to finally appreciate them for their individuality.
The climax of Glidden’s trip is in an incredibly emotional scene in Israel’s Independence Hall , where her internal conflict comes to a head. From this point, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Specifically, Glidden addresses what the conflict means to her, how she defines herself around it, and how she lets it define her. She struggles with the politics of it as well as with her changing concept of her Jewish identity.
The Better of Two Faces
How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less attempts to work on two levels: as a narrative memoir and as an analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be nice if it could simply be the first and not the second; however Glidden’s story is all about her own views of the conflict and how they affect her.
How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less shines in its portrayal of the various characters Glidden meets on her trip. From Glidden’s self-portrait to the random Israelis she meets on her short visit, each one rings true and pops out of the page. Each character has a very distinct personality and political view. Generally the book’s point of view is confined to Glidden or her Israeli friend Nadan who serves as her foil. However we also see characters ranging from Arab vendors in the shuk  to Israeli soldiers. Most are portrayed very accurately, though there are a few that Glidden clearly doesn’t comprehend. For instance, she often identifies Chasidic Jews  as Orthodox Jews , which isn’t accurate as Orthodox Jewery is an entirely different movement. Her portrayal is also skewed about the actual Orthodox (and non-Chasidic) Jews, with an almost hostile view towards keeping the hallacha .
Glidden is exceptional at portraying the Israel’s landscape, as well as the various cities and locations she visits. One of the pleasures I had was recognizing the locations depicted in the illustrations. One of the great things about Israel is that it’s small, and people are bound to visit many of the same places and share similar experience of those places of those places. Many of the sites and activities that Glidden sees and participates in are universal for visitors in Israel.
Everybody goes to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and everybody visits the Dead Sea. Her portrayal of these locations and experiences is accurate, and she never shirks from writing in Hebrew when the story calls for it.
Glidden’s art is simple, yet effective. Her style is slightly cartoony, but this only magnifies the emotional weight of the story rather than detracts from it. The real beauty comes from the gorgeous watercolors, the texture of which adds to the book’s subdued power.
I also enjoyed some of the techniques Glidden used to show her interiority.
For instance, she illustrates a tribunal in her head to determine whether or not Birthright is trying to brainwash her. She dramatizes imaginary discussions with historical figures like early settlers or the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Most effective for me, however, are the wordless pages in which Glidden sits on the bus looking at the scenery around her.
They reminded me of my own trips across the country, weary from a flight, a day of walking around the city, or from a hike in the desert, just lazily looking out the window at the beautiful country. It made me very homesick. Once I picked up the book I was quickly absorbed by Glidden’s journey—so much so that when I finished I felt completely disoriented, I had forgotten I wasn’t actually in Israel.
If Glidden’s book weren’t called How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, I would probably end this review here. Though the book isn’t being sold as guide to the conflict, nor does the book claim that it is an actual explanation for the situation, many people will turn to this text hoping to understand the political situation. The bottom line is that you can’t stay in a country for a week or two as a tourist and understand it, or its various controversies. Glidden hasn’t experienced key parts of Israeli culture, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect her to understand the totality of the situation. Of course Glidden doesn’t claim to have the answers and doesn’t claim to be telling the reader what to think.
Still, the book is a little one-sided. Glidden is quick to point out the flaws and mistakes of the Israelis, which is fine, but she leaves out any criticism of the Palestinians. Glidden’s reproach centered only around Israel disturbed me profoundly. Glidden either doesn’t think that she has to question both sides of the argument or she has omitted one side. Either way, the absence detracts from many of the great points that the author makes.
Glidden also misrepresents some events. Take her depiction of the customs process with traveling to Israel. Because her trip is part of Birthright, the questioning process is unique and rigorous. Customs asks thorough questions about the participant’s Jewish background, so thorough in fact that when the author’s friend doesn’t know the answer to one she is pulled aside for extra security. This is certainly not the norm for most people entering the country on more mundane circumstances. But Glidden doesn’t address this and twists an important security measure into a racist inquiry. Perhaps Glidden isn’t aware of the difference as she has only been to the country on that one particular instance. But acknowledging her inexperience in matters like this, a more accurate portrayal is important when presenting the culture to readers unfamiliar with it.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
For all the problems I have with Glidden’s approach to analyzing Israel, her views are still valid. Like Glidden’s book, Israel can be interpreted many different ways. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is an emotional and involving read that doesn’t offer any single conclusion. As cheesy as it sounds, it really is about the journey rather than the destination. This is a book that will undoubtedly be attacked for being too Pro-Israel by some and too Pro-Palestinian by others, but it’s emotionally honest. Quite frankly it’s refreshing to read a graphic novel that covers controversial topics like this even if you don’t agree with it.
How to Understand How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less will be available in book stores and comic book stores November 3.
 Birthright is a Jewish organization that offers free trips to Israel for Jews in their late teens or early twenties, who live outside of Israel that have never experienced Israeli culture.
 Zev is Hebrew for ‘wolf’ and is found predominantly in Israel, as it is one of the rare non-biblical Hebrew names.
 Aliyah is the Hebrew word for moving to Israel. The First Aliyah specifically refers to the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Israel in the 20th century.
 Independence Hall is the now a museum inside the building where the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed
 A shuk is a Hebrew word for an Arab, or Arab-style market, and comes from the Arabic ‘souq’.
 Chasidic (or Hasidic) Judaism is a sect founded by the Rabbi Ba’al Shem Tov. Members of this sect are notable for their traditional attire of black suits and black hats.
 Orthodox Judaism is very loosely defined as Jews who hold a stricter following of the Torah and the rules within it. Mostly, this means following laws and customs like keeping Kosher, wearing a Kippa/Yarmulke, and observing special laws and restrictions on the Sabbath (Saturday).
Jewish laws from the Torah, and/or the subsequent Rabbinic teachings.
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