How One U.S. Jew Stopped Worrying, Began Drawing, and Started Loving Israel

Sarah Glidden always avoided traveling to the Jewish state. She knew what she thought about it, and it wasn't very positive. Then she agreed to join a Taglit-Birthright tour which led to a 200-page graphic novel.

"Before coming here, I read on the Internet the impressions of people who had visited here on a Taglit-Birthright tour," says the cartoon-character version of Sarah Glidden, standing at a Golan Heights gas station with a camera, on her first day in Israel. "Many of them wrote that from the moment they set foot on Israeli soil, they felt a genuine connection to this place. Some even said that they felt as though they had 'finally come home.' But my feeling is that it's more like spotting a celebrity in the middle of a busy street, someone whose crazy life has been spread all over the tabloids for years, and then suddenly he's here, right in front of me."

Three years ago, Glidden - the flesh-and-blood version of her, of course - did indeed join a group of American Jews on a 10-day Birthright trip to Israel. A young Jewish woman from Brooklyn, Glidden was looking at the time for a subject for a comic strip. She was an enthusiastic novice cartoonist, with firm opinions about Israel and about the conflict between it and the Palestinians. A chance conversation with her mother gave her the idea, which eventually led to the publication of her first graphic novel, "How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less," which arrived in bookshops in the United States this week.

Glidden comic

"I always knew that I would come to Israel," says the 30-year-old Glidden in a phone interview from New York. "As a Jewish American, although I'm not very religious - I'm secular - I kept hearing about Israel and the conflict."

One day, she says, she was having an argument on the subject with her mother. This time, however, her mother said, "Why don't you just go there before you start having such strong opinions about it." She suggested Birthright, which for the past decade has been bringing groups of young Jews for 10-day, all-expenses-paid "roots" tours of Israel, in order to strengthen their identity and their ties with Israeli peers.

"She said that time was running out," continues Glidden, "because I was just about to turn 27," the upper age limit for participation. "She said: 'This could be your last chance.'"

Glidden admits she had never seriously considered such an excursion before, because, "how shall I put it? ... When there is an expensive trip offered for free, there is always bound to be a downside to it."

Although she was afraid that the Birthright trip, paid for by Israel and Jewish organizations and philanthropists, was liable to present a tendentious and one-sided narrative, Glidden decided she should embark on the adventure. She would maintain her critical eye by creating a comic about it, she figured, "and I could see whether it was propaganda or not." The trip, she believed, "would be my final stage of learning about Israel." That idea, she says now in retrospect, "was very naive."

In her first graphic novel, which unfolds over more than 200 pages, Glidden describes the spiritual and emotional upheavals she experienced during the trip. Through a combination of text and illustrations, she contrasts the information she and her fellow tour members received from their local guides with facts she gathered by herself about Israel and the region. She also documents the landscapes and sights she sees during the tour. Glidden's book is a serious discussion, but one which is carried out with humor and imagination. The author doesn't try to conceal her critical attitude toward Israel, but admits that she has developed an obsession about the country.

"I think there are a lot of American Jews who are similarly obsessed. Part of the reason, I think, is that if you are an American Jew, whether you are secular, Reform or Conservative, you are raised being told that Israel is your country too, and you can move there, and be a citizen, so it is a place that somehow is important to you. I always had this feeling that I have to have a relationship with Israel, and sometimes I didn't want to have this relationship, when I would hear the news and get upset, or people would be talking about Israel and I was wanting to defend it, and I would be ashamed about what the government there was doing, much in the way that I'm ashamed about the United States sometimes, when it does things I don't agree with."

When Glidden visits the Golan Heights in the book, she is shocked by the Zionist propaganda awaiting her in a visitors center there; she visits Kibbutz Degania and is angry that the stories of the pioneers' heroism ignore the Palestinian residents who were there before them; she is rescued by the skin of her teeth from the frightening crowds at the Purim parade in Holon ("Stereotype No. 142: Israelis love to push. Status: confirmed" ); and in Jaffa she is angry that the tour guide prefers to present the mixed city's history via entertaining tales, rather than by discussing difficult incidents in its past.

At the same time, however, Glidden is also surprised to discover that the Israeli guide is willing to answer tough questions too and to deal with criticism; indeed, she conducts conversations with Israelis that often surprise her. When she sees a group of soldiers up close, she is astonished to discover how young they are. And in the middle of the trip, in Tel Aviv, without advance warning, she has a sort of emotional breakdown.

"When I came here I wanted to receive confirmation of the fact that Israel is the bad guy in the story. I wanted to know that I could remove it from my life once and for all," her comic incarnation confesses in the book, under the monument built by sculptor Yigal Tumarkin in Rabin Square, to one of the Israelis accompanying the group. "But now I don't know any more. Suddenly I understand why Israel did some of the things it did. You're good people. At least some of you. Or maybe I'm simply getting brainwashed here, just as everyone warned me would happen!"

The man from DC Comics

"How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less" is the glass slipper that eventually turned Glidden into a Cinderella of sorts on the American comics scene. As a child, she says, she used to draw comics occasionally, but as an adult she abandoned the art form. She studied at an art school, where she worked in painting and photography, and rediscovered comics only at the age of 26, six months before she decided to join the Birthright tour.

"I thought about making little comics and xeroxing them, and selling them for $3. I didn't have a publisher, and I didn't think I'd end up with a book that someone would publish or read. I thought that for me it would be a personal project, a way to explore [creating] a longer comic," she says.

Once Glidden returned from Israel, she began working on mini-comics, which she printed up herself. Like many independent cartoonists, she rented a booth with several other cartoonists at the MoCCA Festival at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, and sat down to sell her mini-comics to passersby. When a man wearing a badge identifying him as representing DC Comics, one of the giants of American comic-book publishing (owned by Time Warner ), showed interest in her mini-comics, she didn't get excited.

"I thought there was no way DC Comics was going to be interested in someone like me. I'm a beginner; [I thought] they only publish comics about superheroes and fantasy. But I told him what it was all about and he bought a book and went away. Two days later, I got an e-mail saying that he was an editor at Vertigo publications [a division of DC specializing in comics for adults], and that they wanted to publish it. Only then did I realize that Vertigo does many things that are political. It was a dream come true."

In 2008, Glidden received an Ignatz Award, which is given to cartoonists who publish their works independently or through small publishing houses, in the "promising new talent" category. Immediately after signing the contract with Vertigo, she left her job and began to invest all her time in rewriting, redrawing and hand-coloring the book using watercolors. It took her two years to complete the work.

"I know that I only touch the tip of the iceberg about" the Arab-Israeli conflict, she says. "I'm just one person who was there, and I'm not an expert. I struggled a lot [with] how to write about it in a respectful way, and I decided to be as close as I can to my emotions and feelings at the time of the trip. As long as I say this is my own truth."

She admits that "it was hard to think that someone might see it and get angry. As long as one knows that it is my own truth and I'm not trying to impose any kind of truth on him, I guess it's okay.

"My character is there in almost every frame. It is a constant reminder that it is a personal journey, and not a textbook. I wanted to make myself very simple," explains Glidden, "so that anyone could identify with the character. I think that a comic has a special power to take people on a journey like that. A lot of people don't know anything about the conflict, and they are afraid to take a look at it because it is so complex. They can go into a bookstore and there are so many giant books about Israel, about the Middle East, and a lot of people get intimidated. I think that looking at comics, people can get an introduction." Her book is not intended to be anything like the final word on Israel, she adds, "but it will make people interested and they can explore on their own."

A day before her book went on sale at U.S. bookstores earlier this week, Glidden was planning to embark on a new journey, accompanying a group of journalists to northern Iraq, Syria and eastern Turkey. In the book she will publish in the wake of this trip, she will try to explain how the press works and how journalists work. Didn't she feel a need to take a breather and to distance herself from areas of conflict, after three years of intensive preoccupation with the Middle Eastern conflict?

"I know that it may sound strange, but I believe that this [new] journey will be a mental vacation for me," she laughs. "I don't have the same complex relationship with those places that I had with Israel. So that for me, this journey will be more of a journalistic experience and less of an emotional one. It's true that this time I'll visit areas of conflict again, but I assume that this time I won't experience inner turmoil as I did in Israel."