January 18, 2019

ADL to introduce graphic novel about tragedy in Tel Aviv bar

American filmmaker and freelance journalist Jack Baxter got more than he bargained for when he set out in 2003 to make a film about Mike’s Place, the famous live music bar in Tel Aviv. He was one month into shooting a documentary about the bar and the people who run it when a suicide terrorist attack there killed three people and injured many others — including Baxter. 

The 62-year-old New Yorker, who originally went to Israel to report on a story (only to find himself getting scooped), chronicles all this — stumbling onto Mike’s Place and befriending its employees, making a film about the bar and surviving the deadly attack — in the new graphic novel “Mike’s Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv” (First Second Books).

Co-authored with Joshua Faudem and illustrated by Koren Shadmi, the book will be launched on the West Coast at a June 25 event hosted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) at its Century City office. Baxter will be on hand to sign books as well as to screen his 2005 documentary, “Blues by the Beach,” the film he eventually completed about Mike’s Place. (He also will appear June 26 at Skylight Books.)

How did the ADL get involved? Baxter told the Journal during a recent phone interview from his home on the East Coast that the message of the book echoes the mission of the ADL, which is that everyone is human. 

“Everybody, whatever religion you are, whatever race you are, we’re all the same, deep down,” Baxter said. 

Rachel-Ann Levy, assistant director of development at the ADL, which runs programming that takes local law enforcement officials to Israel, said trip participants often go to Mike’s Place to see this other side of Israel.  Therefore, the book seemed a natural for an ADL event.

“We thought it was a great symbol and relevant topic and thought we would engage our young leaders, which is our core demographic for this event,” she said.

Baxter, meanwhile, was 50 when he arrived in Israel during the Second Intifada and found himself making a movie about Mike’s Place, which today has several locations across the country. Not Jewish, although he married a Jewish woman and had a Jewish wedding, Baxter wanted to understand life in the Holy Land. There were so many questions: Why is there an Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why do people continue to live in a place that is overrun with violence?

The answers come in the friendships he develops with the Mike’s Place family, according to the book. There’s Faudem, a recent Israeli film school graduate who shoots Baxter’s documentary, and Gal Ganzman, the ponytailed owner of the Tel Aviv bar. Sasha, a non-Israeli, is experiencing culture shock after moving to Israel to be with her boyfriend, Faudem. And then there’s Dom, a beautiful French waitress and one of the three victims murdered in the 2003 attack.

The book is part soap opera, focusing on the romantic difficulties among the good-looking foursome in the Mike’s Place family. (Baxter told the Journal he was aiming to portray their entanglements as an “MTV ‘Real World’ type of story,” referring to the reality-television show.) This contrasts with the buildup to the tragic April 30, 2003, terrorist attack, which was the handiwork of two foreign nationals. 

All the while, Baxter becomes more familiar with — and falls in love with — Israel, its people and the passion of Tel Aviv.

The final section of the book follows people as they try to rebuild themselves and the bar after the devastation. The main characters are in and out of the hospital, visiting one another, drinking themselves to sleep, trying to understand what has just befallen them. They find comfort in, of all things, the camera, opting to continue shooting Baxter’s film, even while he is bedridden in the hospital with his wife, Fran, by his side, recovering from a blast that blew out his eardrums, caused minor burns and more. He spent two months in Israel in the aftermath of the attack receiving various medical treatments, he said. 

The survivors try to live life as best they can. They reopen Mike’s Place one week after the attack and hold a memorial service and concert there to commemorate the victims, including Dom, who is buried in Paris.

It took Baxter three years to write the graphic novel, which he says in the epilogue is an effort to truthfully chronicle the events while incorporating elements of fiction. (He originally envisioned it as a movie and even wrote the screenplay for it, but the project never took flight.) 

Shadmi’s black-and-white illustrations throughout the book’s more than 150 pages capture the sensuousness of secular life in Tel Aviv — the bar, the beaches, the apartments of the people who live in the city. The book also takes the reader into the more religious world of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Humor is a component of the story, too. 

“Surviving a suicide bombing,” Baxter’s character says near the close of the book, “is one way to cure a midlife crisis.”

For more information, visit la.adl.org