Established in 2009, Cicada Books set out to publish and celebrate beautiful books and new talent. In Alte Zachen (Yiddish for Old Things), founder and publisher, Ziggy Hanaor, takes the leap from penning picture books to writing graphic novels with Benjamin Phillips providing the poetic charcoal, pen and watercolour illustrations. This intergenerational story follows Benji and his grandmother, Rosa, as they journey through modern-day Brooklyn and Manhattan to collect ingredients for dinner. It becomes a multilayered, journey that juxtaposes the new with the old and sees Benji gently and lovingly guide his Bubbe as she reveals her memories of growing up and falling in love.
As we begin our own journey into the story, we encounter the Yiddish proverb: ‘A person’s heart is like a sausage, no one knows exactly what’s inside’. It is a touching precursor to our encounter with the rather cantankerous Bubbe Rosa who may seem sharp-tongued and acerbic to her grandson and fellow Americans but whose memories show her to be brimming with love and kindness.
As the ever-patient Benji aids and guides her through the city, whose residents and buildings, much to Bubbe Rosa’s annoyance, rapidly change and shift with the changing of culture and societal norms, he finds his grandmother revealing memories of relationships, journeys, childhoods and, poignantly, unrequited love. In a beautiful twist on form, illustrator Phillips flips the colour codes of time through pictures for Bubbe setting her modern-day landscape in sepias and greys and revealing her past time to be full of colour and life: this is a time that she prefers and pines for. Even the size of the panels, expanding into full-page bleeds, outgrow and tower over the narrowly-framed images set in the current time period.
Frustrated with how her city has changed over the years, Bubbe lashes out at those around her and constantly berates her grandson. Yet the community, in its range of skin colours, faiths, ages, shapes and sizes is as tolerant, patient and accepting of Bubbe Rosa as her grandson is (a lovely touch) and a touching bond grows as she begins to gradually, albeit reluctantly, accept this new generation of settlers.
The story culminates in Bubbe’s desire to find the bakery of her first crush, Gershon, ‘a very rude man’ who never settled down into a relationship. By now, author and illustrator have thrown seeds of doubt into the reader as to whether Bubbe’s memories are intact and whether the baker’s shop still remains. Locations are not always where and when she remembers them and Benji finds himself troubled over her cognitive decline. But the ending is beautiful and full of hope. Generations and love reconnect in a touching, memorable way.
For a first graphic novel, Alte Zachen is a true success. As Bubbe and Benji head home over the Williamsburg Bridge for their dinner, you realise that both author and illustrator have gifted us with a story rich in evocative memories in which older generations and new begin to understand one another. And Bubbe, whose personality, no matter how sharp and dated, is difficult to not love once you see what’s inside her heart. This is award-winning storytelling.