By – November 18, 2023

As Emi­ly Bowen Cohen demon­strates in this graph­ic nov­el based on her own life, belong­ing to two tribes is not always easy. 

Mia is about to cel­e­brate her bat mitz­vah. Her Jew­ish moth­er and her Musco­gee father are divorced, and the two sides of her her­itage seem to con­flict with one anoth­er. At Mia’s Jew­ish day school, stu­dents make igno­rant assump­tions about her eth­nic­i­ty, and her Jew­ish stepfather’s attempts to uni­fy their fam­i­ly are well-mean­ing but often awk­ward. Mia devel­ops a plan to leave Cal­i­for­nia and vis­it her father in Okla­homa with­out her mother’s permission. 

Cohen depicts how anguish, defi­ance, and love coex­ist in Mia’s strug­gle to deter­mine who she is. Mia’s com­ing-of-age is both unique and rep­re­sen­ta­tive. The fail­ure of her par­ents’ mar­riage has left her with dual loy­al­ties. Her moth­er is return­ing to Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tice, a process that Mia finds both com­fort­ing and frus­trat­ing. Bak­ing chal­lah togeth­er feels like an authen­tic Jew­ish expe­ri­ence and an act of cre­ativ­i­ty; Mia remarks that apply­ing the egg coat­ing is just like paint­ing.” How­ev­er, when their rab­bi joins the fam­i­ly for Shab­bat din­ner, the meal becomes a scene of recrim­i­na­tions. Char­ac­ters’ pos­tures and facial expres­sions con­vey under­ly­ing ten­sions and a fail­ure to com­mu­ni­cate. Mia pulls a hood over her head, clench­es her fists, and final­ly erupts in anger over her mother’s appar­ent dis­hon­esty. Fam­i­ly mem­bers’ oppos­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of the truth are inevitable, but for Mia, they have become impos­si­ble to reconcile.

In her author’s note, Cohen relates that her father died when she was nine years old; Mia’s jour­ney to vis­it him is not based on one she her­self under­took. How­ev­er, it becomes a key part of Mia’s quest. Once Mia arrives in Okla­homa, she begins an intense explo­ration of the com­mu­ni­ty that she hopes to assim­i­late into her self-image. There is no facile bal­ance between the Jew­ish and Musko­gee ele­ments of her her­itage. Mia learns about a painful past, when Native Amer­i­can chil­dren were forcibly edu­cat­ed in schools meant to erad­i­cate their cul­ture. She also glimpses some ambiva­lence with­in her father’s fam­i­ly about how to main­tain a tra­di­tion­al way of life and avoid dis­tort­ed inter­pre­ta­tions of Indige­nous customs.

Since Mia does not live with her father’s fam­i­ly, she responds to their love as an out­sider, with grat­i­tude for their wel­come. By con­trast, her Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty bears the bur­den of dai­ly imper­fec­tions. Rab­bi Gold­farb veers between inex­cus­able igno­rance and laud­able sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Mia’s step­fa­ther, reach­ing out in friend­ship dur­ing his meet­ing with her father, repeats a thought­less stereo­type about the sup­posed mechan­i­cal inep­ti­tude of Jew­ish men.

Cohen elo­quent­ly defends the legit­i­ma­cy of Native Amer­i­can cul­ture in her author’s note, cri­tiquing the mis­nomer of leg­ends” applied to Indige­nous cre­ation sto­ries. She states that these sacred writ­ings deserve the same dig­ni­ty grant­ed to Rab­bi Goldfarb’s Old Tes­ta­ment” (although it should be not­ed that a rab­bi would like­ly nev­er refer to the Hebrew Bible using that term, which is root­ed in the Chris­t­ian belief that a New Tes­ta­ment has com­plet­ed and per­fect­ed the orig­i­nal one).

Defin­ing one’s iden­ti­ty can be a life­long task. Emi­ly Bowen Cohen’s new graph­ic nov­el is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and gives voice to one young woman’s deep­en­ing aware­ness of that truth.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Toward the begin­ning of this debut graph­ic nov­el by Emi­ly Bowen Cohen, pro­tag­o­nist Mia’s moth­er and step­fa­ther invite the rab­bi to Shab­bat din­ner. He’s good-natured, open-mind­ed, and, like all rab­bis, fun­ny. He tells a sto­ry that ends with an offen­sive remark about Native Americans.

Mia, dis­tressed, sets off a chain of events that takes her all the way to the Musco­gee Nation’s reser­va­tion in Okla­homa, where she vis­its her estranged father and meets his new fam­i­ly. She cooks wild onions with her half-broth­ers, Roy and Jay, and talks about life in the big city with her cousin, Nova.

Her Musco­gee fam­i­ly doesn’t know any­thing about Judaism, and Mia dis­cov­ers that she can define what being Jew­ish means to her. She’s in charge of her own reli­gious and cul­tur­al prac­tice — and, in this new envi­ron­ment, she dis­cov­ers that her Jew­ish and Musco­gee beliefs are very sim­i­lar. You have all those beau­ti­ful Jew­ish cus­toms, and you’re just push­ing them away,” her Musco­gee grand­moth­er tells her.

In Two Tribes, Cohen shows us the ways in which her two cul­tures are both at odds, and the ways in which they come together.