Dedicated to Jewish grandmas everywhere, Alte Zachen by Ziggy Hanaor kicks off with a Yiddish proverb, which declares that ‘A person’s heart is like a sausage. No one knows exactly what’s inside.’ In this wonderful Carnegie-shortlisted graphic novel, we attempt a peek into the heart of Benji’s grandmother, Bubbe Rosa. The story charts their walk through Brooklyn and Manhattan as they buy ingredients for a Friday night dinner, an expedition that will uncover aspects of Bubbe’s chequered past and her struggle to accept the inevitability of change.
Aimed at teenage readers, Alte Zachen (Old Things) explores the experience of Bubbe as an immigrant New Yorker who’s lived through turbulent times. Her journey has taken her from a childhood in Nazi Germany to old age as an American citizen. As they wander the streets in search of gefilte fish, brisket, and a certain gentleman baker, memories come flooding back, along with a bitter realisation that her city has changed. It will fall to the infinitely patient Benji to help Bubbe reconcile past and present.
Headscarved and scowling, Bubbe cuts a formidable figure. Harumphing at her grandson’s eco-conscious comments, she also has plenty to say about the scantily clad youth of today, with their obnoxious music, tattoos and vaping habits. There’s no doubt about it, she’s a prickly character.
Benjamin Phillips’ finely detailed illustrations depict Bubbe’s past as multihued, her account of school days, girlhood dancing and flirtation presented as a warm blush of colour. By contrast, her present is sepia-toned and muted. One compelling monochromatic illustration depicts scores of bare forearms, branded with numbers.
‘I know people with tattoos,’ Bubbe says.
In this multi-layered tale, Bubbe has much to impart to Benji, but what can she learn from her 21st century grandson? As her prickles subside and she meets a face from the past, there will be babka, dancing, and reappraisal.
A captivating imagining of a fading but unforgettable generation.
Alte Zachen by Ziggy Hanaor and illustrated by Benjamin Phillips is published by Cicada, 72 pages.