Geffilte Fish is a traditional East-European Jewish dish. A fish is being ground whole, bones and fins, and then rearranged as a patty. It is cooked in water and served cold on Holidays, sometimes with a piece of carrot to add some color to the gray lump. It has a fishy, sweet flavor.
Illustrator and comic artist Ze’ev Engelmayer was born in Israel, to an East-European family. having both parents in the education system, he was a disciplined, studious kid. He wrote in the youth magazine “Davar Leyeladim” (“Davar for Children”), played piano, excelled in mathematics, and went to extracurricular activities and lectures. He traveled a lot to Tel-Aviv to visit his Geffilte-Fish-Making grandmother and ex boxing-champion, carpenter grandfather. He remembers getting a gift from the carpentry, a wooden prosthetic hand, creepily detailed with nails and knuckles.
He remembers the food. Cold borsch with cream, hot borsch with cream, Geffilte Fish. He remembers having a guest from abroad in their house, the dreadful look on her face as she saw the cold, grey fish patty with the sewer-like sauce.
In his teenage years, Ze’ev’s family moved to Winnipeg in South Canada. For the first time in his life, he had a hard time making friends, so he spent hours painting in his room. He developed a style of his own, sketching kitsch scenarios of women, castles, sunsets.
We meet at one of those new urban, hipstery cafes in Tel-Aviv. The waiters are super trendy and apathetic, and sitting there I can’t help but think I’m waiting in the wrong place.
It’s hard to miss him as he enters. A humble man in his fifties, salt-and-pepper beard, dresses casually. Only his grotesque, costumey glasses reveal his alter-ego. He says he forgot his normal glasses in the car, and then apologies for being hung-over. “Shoshke got drunk last night”.
While studying in Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Ze’ev put aside the realistic style and developed his own sketchy, rough style. He is known for mixing collages with hilarious rhymes, and a vulgar, yet childish contents. He began illustrating magazines and newspapers and got his own weekly columns, moving slowly into major newspapers and publishings. In addition to the mainstream media, he also took part in alternative comics and magazines and published independent comic booklets of his own.
The server brings us our coffee. “Here”, he says. “Here is some sugar”, he puts a sugar dispensary on our table. “This one is low-calorie”, he says as he takes out a packet to show us, and throws it back on the table. He walks away.
“Is he trying to tell me something?” Ze’ev laughs.
In 2016, Ze’ev published his book, “A Journey to Vulgaria” – a collection of crude texts and illustrations, without censorship and politically-correctness. It was a fantasy of his, and after accomplishing it he thought of taking some time off.
Two weeks later, he got an offer to create his own exhibition. As an artist who works with the two-dimensional medium, the most natural thing to do was to frame his best works and hang them on the walls. But when he heard about the ridiculously high budget, Ze’ev’s mind began racing. For a whole day, he brainstormed and wrote down every crazy idea that popped into his head – robots, huge statues of his characters, a mobile of monstrous Geffilte-Fish hanging from the ceiling all the way down, vitrages on the windows, adult-only rooms with complimentary barfing bags at the entrance, a Geffilte-Fish asteroid that fell on a near building and a telescope viewing it, with recorded scientific information about it. Some of those ideas popped up during work, during conversations or observations. 10 different teams worked to fulfill his vision, and after a month they ran out of budget and had to increase it.
He was in the zone, at the top of his creativity, feeling megalomanic enough to accomplish every whim he could think of.
The exhibition was called “Ha’aretz Hamuvtachat” – “The PromASSed Land”.
And so Shoshke, in her current form, was born.
Ze’ev originally created Shoshke in the early nineties in an alternative magazine, a careless, naked woman who is painted in minimalistic line. Always with a smile, Shoshke gets into the wildest adventures and takes the biggest risks.
For the opening night, Ze’ev decided to create a Shoshke costume, pink and fluffy with the breasts, vagina and a matching blonde wig. He would then burst out of a huge oyster, surrounded by firework and dancers.
The oyster stood in the sun and got hotter and hotter with Ze’ev cooking inside, and he believed this is how he’ll die. When it was opened, 3D Shoshke appeared.
Shoshke is wild and fearless. Friendly and unthreatening, Shoshke is more of a teddy bear than a naked woman. She would speak with anyone, drink everything, hug and kiss, climb the tallest buildings, say whatever she thinks, protest in the most straightforward ways. She has no limits or definitions. She is not a drag queen, nor an activist.
She keeps forgetting she is in fact operated by an introvert, acrophobic man.
She does not considerate. She leaves Ze’ev hungover and tired and affects his commitments and close relationships.
She is so much fun, and walking with her feels like walking with a celebrity. People get disappointed when Ze’ev shows up, and not Shoshke.
She is also somewhat vulnerable. Shoshke loves consensual touch, but like us women know, we don’t always have the privilege of setting our own boundaries. Small incidents, like a man following her, asking intimate questions and touching her body, affects both Shoshke and Ze’ev. It’s this feeling of humiliation, like nothing bad really happened but somebody took something away from me. As a man, Ze’ev can slap away a curious hand that’s being sent toward him. But Shoshke is gentle, her fabric-skin can be ripped off and she can get seriously wounded.
We sit outside, my right side is cooking from a space heater and my left side is freezing. Small drops of rain falling. Shoshke reminds me of The Mask, Tyler Dirden, Superheros.
After years of protesting for social issues, our generation feels lost. Our demonstrations seem stupid, powerless against the amounts of corruption and hate around. We’ve painfully learned that nobody really cares.
But Shoshke protests in such straightforward and childish ways, she actually manages to change things. When racist propaganda posters appeared one night all over bus stations in Tel-Aviv, Shoshke created her own posters promoting love and respect and put them over the racist ones. When the cops showed up, she gave them Shoshke-shaped candies and said she was doing a performance. They laughed and moved on, and a few days later the racist posters were removed.
While wandering the botanic garden in Jerusalem, it was reported that “a naked woman is stripping in the garden”.
She walks around in the most conservative cities, being accepted by orthodox communities. Women from religious places approach her, saying she gives them power when they feel oppressed.
People write articles about her all over the world. She now collaborates with Danish artist Line Søndergaard, who dresses up as Carsten, a topless manly-man. They roam the Tel-Avivian streets together, Shoshke in her chubby nude body and Carsten with only his nipples covered with Shoshke-stickers, celebrating like the king and queen of the city.
One time, Shoshke and performance artist Anna Zakrevsky went to Jerusalem to protest in front of the government buildings against a new law saying art need to be loyal to the country and might get censured. Feeling the democracy is being murdered, they made a performance called “Democracy is bleeding”. They stood in a central junction under the iconic Menorah statue, and Anna spilled red paint over Shoshke while she made a speech. The guards were careful when touching them, not wanting to paint their white uniform red. Anna took off her shirt at one point and hugged a female guard, leaving two red circles where their breasts touched. This was the last thing Shoshke saw as she was dragged away.
Later on, she had to be taken to a hospital for swallowing some of the red paint.
Ze’ev says the interrogation was amazing. For her defense, Shoshke claimed this was an artistic performance, not vandalism or an act of protest. This led to a conversation with the interrogators about what is art, and why it has to be troublesome.
Shoshke travels the world.
Right after she burst out of the oyster, she was invited to marry a couple in France, who let her sublet their apartment in Paris in return. She got a lot of positive attention in the Parisian streets but was stopped by the police three times. She told the cups she was an artist. “Do you want France to be the only country the censors my artwork?”.
But traveling as Shoshke isn’t always comfortable for his wife and daughters. They had to find an agreement, where Ze’ev gets to let Shoshke out only two days a week while abroad.
While going through one of the hardest things for a parent, Ze’ev initially planned to put Shoshke aside. Then he decided not to. With a daughter laying in a hospital bed, suffering unimaginable pain, Shoshke brought light to everyone around her.
The hospitalized girl also created, even in her worst suffering, painting her pains and experiences in the children ward. She decorated her surroundings, turning the hospital into different imagined worlds. Not only did the art lift her spirit in times of despair, but it also helped her communicate her pains and feelings. They say art heals, and Ze’ev and his wife got to see the healing in front of their eyes.
Some people are meant to spread sweetness in the world. Ze’ev had a successful career sharing his funny bits and comics, a career that took a surprising turn with the appearance of Shoshke. She gives the once a disciplined child freedom to let go of his name, gender, and people’s expectations, and just be. She gives me, and probably others, a feeling that humor can win. A few days ago, Shoshke celebrated the Jewish holiday Tu-Bishvat – a holiday that celebrates nature and trees – by standing under a tree in a central junction and giving away small packs of raisings.
Back at the cafe, the droplets turn into rain and we ask for the check. After talking with Ze’ev, I have a sense of warmth I carry with me throughout the day. And knowing Shoshke is somewhere out there, makes me feel like a small packet of sweetness.