Community Blog The (Future) Comic Book Rabbi: The Many Paths to Rabbinical School
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Hebrew College shanah aleph (first-year) rabbinical student Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth has an idea of what he wants his life to look like in five years: “I want to be in the rabbinate,” a typical admission from a student in a rabbinical school, “and I want to be [creating comics],” a less typical passion from an ordination student. These two lifepaths, though, show no signs of contradiction for Piatigorsky-Roth. “I know of artist rabbis and writer rabbis, so why not [a comic book rabbi]?”
His passions for Jewish learning and graphic novels aren’t as unrelated as they may seem. For starters, Piatigorsky-Roth acknowledges the medium has been historically Jewish. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, for example, were two young Jewish men from Cleveland, Ohio—and Maus, one of the most acclaimed graphic novels in history, was written by descendent of Holocaust survivors Art Spiegelman. And Piatigorsky-Roth sees a deep connection between his two interests. “One of the things I like about comics is there is always at least time narratives happening…the time narrative of the texts and of the time narratives of the images…and that feels like the experiences I’ve had with Jewish texts.”
Originally from Toronto, Piatigorsky-Roth went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut for his undergraduate degree before applying to Hebrew College. “I was really involved with the Jewish community there. I really loved being part of organizing Jewish community and [realized] I wanted to keep doing that… I knew I wanted to go to rabbinical school and continue this really specific kind of Jewish learning.”
“I’ve only just begun my ordination journey, so I’m not sure what that looks like as a career quite yet…but I think that’s okay. I know what I want to be doing,” said Piatigorsky-Roth.
After taking a course on cartooning in college, Piatigorsky-Roth began to take his artistic hobby more seriously and eventually realized his talents as a professional writer. Amongst other places, he has been featured twice in The New Yorker’s “Daily Shouts” and has an upcoming graphic novel about his fandom of Princess Diana Spencer titled Diana: My Graphic Obsession.
In a class on the Mishna last year taught by Rabbi Jordan Schuster, Piatigorsky-Roth brought Mishna Brachot 1:2 to life through art. In the first frame, Piatigorsky-Roth draws an image of himself standing in the doorway of a boathouse before dawn. In the second frame, he draws himself rowing through darkness, toward the heart of a lake. In the third frame, he Zooms in on himself in a canoe; we see his face clearly and closely for the first time. In the fourth frame, he draws himself, the canoe, and the forest around the lake all in shadow. But the sun, rising through the cracks of the boat house, begins to illuminate the world; Piatigorsky-Roth’s head tips upward to watch.
“Sivan’s graphic representation of this Mishna was not literal. There was no dialogue balloon to indicate that Sivan was literally ‘calling out’ the morning Shema in any of his frames. Nor did Sivan use color to indicate the visible distinctions between blue, green or white. Instead, Sivan represented the way he experienced the morning Shema, and the Mishna’s construction of it, without language, with only his senses,” said Rabbi Schuster, the instructor of the course. “Sivan’s artistic representation of this Mishna helps us to better understand the morning Shema as a spiritual technology, designed to encourage us to ‘listen’ more carefully to those moments when darkness and light, dread and beauty, begin to unfold from each other and offer us a new day.”
Piatigorsky-Roth added with a smile, “Comics and Judaism are very related in my mind too… I make little comics of the things I’m studying…They just go together.”
Most of the future rabbi’s drawings are not for school, however. According to Barnes & Noble’s website, “Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth is obsessed with Princess Diana, in the specific, laser-focused way an autistic person can be. This book is an unorthodox biography of Diana Spencer told through a particular autistic and transmasculine lens, examining issues of identity and self-determination, and the mythological parallels in the lives of the royal family and the author.”
There’s something almost mythological about the way the deceased British royal has captivated generations of fans. “I see a lot of parallels between Diana and the Greek goddess she shares a name with,” said Piatigorsky-Roth. “She’s a mythological figure that I can kind of do whatever I want to.”
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, the princess is something of an icon, especially for her generous support of those suffering from AIDS during a time in which the disease carried heavy, bigoted baggage. Piatigorsky-Roth probes this connection and fandom through questioning his own obsession. “For one thing, she challenged stereotypical images of femininity and womanhood while still conforming to them…she both conformed to it and opted out of it… And at least for me, that’s very interesting and relatable.”
Pre-order Diana: My Graphic Obsession online through Barnes & Noble or other online booksellers. Piatigorsky-Roth’s first book is set for publication through Street Noise Books on May 5, 2023.
Hebrew College offers a wide range of graduate degree programs to prepare you for or advance your career in Jewish leadership. Our graduate degree programs include Rabbinical Ordination, Cantorial Ordination, Master of Jewish Education, and Master of Arts in Jewish Studies.