For Kids With Cancer, A Kabbalistic Superhero
Wed, 05/08/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Shira Frimer, left, says her graphic novel for children with cancer was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.
Shira Frimer, left, says her graphic novel for children with cancer was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.

After her husband died of a rare form of cancer, leaving her alone to raise their twin boys, Shira Frimer responded the only way that made sense to her:

The art therapist and comic book fan pulled out her pen and began creating a legacy of hope from her own darkness.

Fast forward 13 years, and she has completed a 104-page graphic novel about a hero doctor who fights deadly forces, which she will distribute free to children with cancer.  

“Writing the book made me realize how creativity can be a source of healing,” said Frimer, 37, a Cleveland native who now lives in Israel. “I understand now how creativity helped me through the darkest time. Turning heartbreak into something meaningful was a powerful experience.”

Although the book is aimed at audiences from all backgrounds, she said, it is informed by Jewish and kabbalistic themes. For example, the title of the fantasy adventure, “Nistar,” means “hidden” in Hebrew, referring to the hidden worlds in which the book’s hero searches for a mystical stone with healing powers. At the heart of the story is the legend of the Tzohar stone, a prism that contains primordial light and has been passed down through generations since the creation of the world, said Frimer.

The main character of the book is Dr. Jacob Barak, a survivor of cancer and a young physician who challenges dark forces. She didn’t have to search far for the inspiration for that character; he was based on her Israeli-born husband Yaakov, who contracted Ewing’s sarcoma at age 19, shortly after they became engaged. The couple refused to be deterred by his dire prognosis, and they married in Israel. Yaakov completed a year of law school while undergoing cancer treatment. He subsequently became a beloved personality at the Schneider Medical Center in Petach Tikvah, by entertaining and eliciting smiles from children in the cancer ward, who otherwise would have been afraid.

Yaakov spent five years in the hospital, with Frimer by his side. “He was a big brother on the ward. He used his charm and charisma,” recalls Frimer who now works at a clinic for children with cancer and other serious illnesses in Rehovot. “He was like a superhero to all the kids who were in the pediatric oncology ward. If anyone deserves a superhero, it’s these kids, who go through so much and have a huge chunk of their childhood taken from them.”

He died at age 24, but not before spreading a contagious joy to everyone around him. His widow said she aims to continue sharing that joy through her book.

Frimer said that when first pondering the concept of a graphic novel grappling with cancer, she thought of authors Neil Gaiman of “The Sandman,” and Art Spiegelman, whose “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize for his depiction of the Holocaust. She was strongly influenced by their works, which demonstrate that comics can be an expressive medium for serious subject matter. “Spiegelman took on the Holocaust. I felt if he could use a comic to depict the Holocaust, I can talk about cancer the same way.”   

Through friends, she connected with illustrator Joe Rubinstein, who is known for his work on Marvel and DC comics. He was immediately moved by the concept of her story and agreed to draw the illustrations for the book. Cancer is not a subject that has often been dealt with in comics, he said. “Kids will be reading these and getting encouragement and a time of escapism from what they are going through,” he said, adding, “Comics have always been a way for kids to get away from their lives and into a world that is more fun.”

Thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo,com, Frimer will be able to distribute 5,000 copies of “Nistar” to hospitals throughout the U.S. in September during Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. Her immediate goal is to distribute copies to cancer victims for free, and to send them to cancer wards throughout the world. She has already elicited interest from various cancer organizations and hospitals, as well as from parents of sick children who have requested copies.

“I’m hoping to encourage them to find their own superhero inside, to recognize their own story. ‘Nistar’ is designed to empower children. I want them to know they are not alone,” she said. “When you have a superhero that is designed for you, someone whose cause is your cause, that superhero will bring a smile.”

“The Barak character is a role model and hero for all children who are struggling with a serious challenge,” said Frimer. The ultimate message of the book is, “In the face of despair, hope if you dare,” she said.

Ayal Beer, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 12 and is now 28 and in remission, said he wishes he could have read “Nistar” when he was a child on the cancer ward. “It has the unique ability to speak from a very realistic point of view,” said Beer, a tour guide and married father in Jerusalem. “One of the most challenging things for me as a child fighting cancer was the idea that nobody understood me and what I was going through. This book will help.”

Beer added that, at the end of the day, children battling cancer “are still kids who want to have fun. Shira was able to get that and not see the cancer ward as a depressing gray place.” 

Deena Yellin is a newspaper reporter in New Jersey.