Alte Zachen by Ziggy Hanaor and Benjamin Phillips (Cicada Books, 2022) is a thoughtful graphic novel about a boy and his Bubbe (grandmother) going shopping in New York. His grandmother fled Europe during WWII as a child and as she has aged, she’s started to become confused. As a result, throughout this book, she mixes past and present, showing both the pain and the joy of memories and old friends.
The cover teaches that “Alte Zachen” means “Old Things” and that the Yiddish title seems appropriate for this graphic novel. Throughout the book, Jewish culture, traditional food, and the Yiddish language permeate the grandmother’s words as they walk through town. The front and back papers show the many “old things” illustrated throughout the book: books, spectacles, the Jewish Star of David, vases, cars, clocks, candles, a pipe, and Jewish symbols like the menorah. Even the old woman is included in these images.
The cultural differences between grandson Benji (on his cell phone and later carrying a shopper and bags to be better to the environment) and his grandmother emphasize her failing memory. She uses Yiddish words; he does not. She sees herself and her friends as young adults; he sees them at their present age. He wants to take the subway; she insists she knows how to get around. Then, she is shocked by the idea of a taxi; he calls the Uber driver “his friend” to convince her to ride.
The pain of the past, such as being turned out of school the week before the school play, brings her to tears as they walk, although Benji has no idea why she seems not okay. She is confused by the store she cannot find. She is confused by a young woman’s “disgraceful” revealing outfit. She is offended by tattoos because this too reminds her of the horrors of war.
She also delights in some memories. Living her Jewish culture seems a big part of that. “It was easier back then I suppose. You knew who you were,” she says to Benji. The image on this page and the next show a streetscape with small family shops, some labeled with Hebrew letters, and people speaking to each other in Yiddish. She remembers courting her husband and dancing the polka.
In one ending scene, one of Bubbe’s memories has finally proven accurate: her friend’s bakery is still there. Together, the friends dance.
“You’re just the same as you’ve always been, Gershon,” she says.
“Some things don’t change, Rosa,” he responds.
The illustrations alternate between gray, black, and white (present day) with the old women’s memories (subdued color). When she feels confused, Bubbe’s frames show a sepia tone. This so perfectly captures the feelings of this book, from the beginning to the end. Benji’s presence keeps this book in the present, but this is a book about memory, past versus present, friendship and struggle, and also the unknown difficulties of old age. The epigraph at the beginning captures Bubbe’s confusion, and brings the whole story in a circle by the end.
A person’s heart is like a sausage. No one knows exactly what’s inside.
This book is shelved under Juvenile graphic novels. It seems more appropriate for adults because youth mostly likely will not appreciate the subtleness of both the story and the message. I highly recommend it. And yes, it brought me to tears.