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Wil Eisner's _A Contract with God_

This graphic novel features caricatures, sentimentality, melodrama, irony, and parable. Not so different from the tales of the Hasidic masters of eastern Europe, and the early Yiddish stories of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Bronx in the 1930s is, as Eisner draws it, a successor to a shtetl in Jewish Poland; “a noisy neighborliness not unlike the life-style the newcomers had left on the ‘other side,’” he wrote. While the American immigrant did not share the "old country" danger of pogroms and yearly attacks on good Friday (“the iron night”), he and she—Jewish, and even more so Irish, Afroamerican, Polish, Italian)-- had more anxiety about what to do to avoid a helpless and despairing immersion in poverty.

The story begins in a flood and ends with searing lightning and wind. God is in the storm, and in the head of Frimme Hersh: the God of Sinai, terrible in His glory, which not even Moses was allowed to see. In Eisner's first panel, Hersh lumbers through the deluge and climbs the tenement steps, which are overflowing like a steep hillside with runoff. He has returned from burying his daughter. A devout young man in Russia (“God will reward you”), just before leaving for America, he asks a tzaddik the wrong question (“If I am good, will God know it?”). The wise man tells him “God is all-knowing.” Frimme writes out a contract with God on a piece of stone, his own personal One Commandment.

Arriving in the Bronx, he continues his piety and charity. For this reason, a despairing mother leaves her baby at Frimme’s door. (The God of Sinai is everywhere in this story, even more so b/c it is Eisner’s genius to be able to put draw his reader into his personal vision of the mundane world of the depression-era Bronx.)

There passed many years of joy. Then the girl dies “in the springtime of her life.” Frimme spits on the contract he had written in stone, as the entire tenement block rocks with the timbre of this justice-demanding Dropsie Avenue Job.

*spoilers ahead*
The heavy rain continues for the whole Shiva mourning period for his daughter, but Frimme is done with trying to interpret what might be God’s sympathy. He becomes an implacable, wealthy landlord, takes a trophy mistress, seduces a congregation of synagogue elders (with a promised donation) into writing a new contract between himself and God. Of course, this kind of “covenant” is no covenant, which must be made in the spirit of prayer. That is only accepted by God if the person offering it knows the incomprehensible power of the monotheistic Adonai who controls history, and equally the nature of a human made in the mold of a David (capable of manslaughter), Jacob (who got his father’s blessing by deception), Joshua (who told his cohorts to kill every man, woman, and child in Jericho, but to touch nothing but precious metals in the ruins), or a Moses (who, in anger, struck the rock to bring forth water instead of praying over it is the name of the God of Sinai). Justice: David’s son dies; Jacob must spend years in the wilderness, then wrestle with an angel all the dark night; Joshua loses his next battle; Moses never enters the promised land. And Frimme Hersh is going to bribe a congregation to write up his contract with God. Kine-ahora (don’t tempt the almighty).

Here really is a key moment in a Hasidic tale. It is always possible for a human to find redemption through sin. "Where are you?" God asked Adam after the fall. Adam heard "the still small voice" within. David bowed his head. Jacob glimpsed a ladder by which both angels and people climbed and descended. Then God changed Jacob's name to Israel.

Not Frimme. Contract in hand, the real estate mogul raises a hand to the ceiling and tells God He will not “this time” violate the contract.

Lighting and wind.

That is not the end of the story. Later, a brave, kindly yeshiva bocher (“God will reward you”) finds Frimme’s first contract, the one written in stone not parchment, in the alleyway of the tenement where Frimme had lived and suffered. Impressed , he sits on a stoop under a street lamp (you gotta see this panel), and signs his name below Frimme’s.


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