Student Union opens ‘hasbara’ room in effort to fill public diplomacy vacuum.
Doctor Leonard Samson, better known as “Doc Samson,” strides down the corridor and into the classroom, massive muscles rippling beneath his skin-tight red costume. He sports a long mane of hair, just like his biblical namesake (except the real Samson’s hair wasn’t green, presumably).
Today, Doc Samson, taking a welcome break from his crime fighting, is visiting the children at his old Hebrew school to tell them all about Chanukah. It’s a very special occasion, so Doc Samson’s wearing a navy kippa along with his skin-tight red costume. The teacher, an aging bubbe named Mrs. Klein, proudly introduces our colorful hero: “I was his teacher here at the yeshiva when he was a very little boy.”
But the chutzpadik kids are unimpressed by their bizarre guest.
One student voices his certainty that Doc Samson had been beaten up by the Hulk. Others ask whether the Maccabees had guns or cable TV.
One precocious girl wisecracks, “Aren’t Maccabees like little cookies?” To which Doc angrily snaps, “No! Those are macaroons.”
Doc realizes he’s losing his restless audience, so to Mrs. Klein’s horror, he starts spicing up the Chanukah story: the Greek villain Antiochus suddenly becomes an evil robot, Judea now looks an awful lot like Krypton, and Captain America, Wolverine and The Hulk come to the rescue in the end, wiping out Antiochus for good.
“They, uhnuked him,” announces Doc Samson, as Mrs. Klein drops her head into her hands in disgust.
That story may come from a Marvel Comics Holiday Special issue (Jan. 1993), but it mirrors the sad reality that for many young Jews, the ancient story of Chanukah feels, well, pretty ancient. Antiochus just doesn’t seem that scary compared to the Green Goblin or Magneto. Today’s children are too busy downloading clips from YouTube onto their iPods to explore the deeper aspects of their Jewish heritage.
No wonder the real reason for Chanukah has been largely forgotten, and the celebration has become a merely cultural (not to mention a highly commercial) enterprise. Yet there’s so much more to Chanukah than latkes, doughnuts – and that Adam Sandler song, funny as it may be.
I like to think that if kids (and not a few adults) knew more about the amazing Jewish connection to the world of pop culture in general, and of comic book superheroes in particular, maybe they’d be more excited about the rest of their Jewish heritage. Believe it or not, Doc’s wacky adventures at the yeshiva are just one example of the intersection between Jewish culture and comic books.
My recently published book, Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, looks at all the Jewish writers, artists and editors who have shaped the all-American superhero over the last 70 years, beginning with Superman and continuing through the X-Men saga of today.
Though a comic book aficionado since childhood, I later re-read the classic superhero comics from an entirely new perspective – as a rabbi and through the lens of Jewish tradition and spiritual belief. My new perspective – along with my observation of Jewish students ignoring Torah study while engrossed in the latest comic books – motivated me to write Up, Up and Oy Vey!
Think I’m exaggerating the connection? Well, I just contributed to a Public Radio International special called “Chanukah: A Time for Superheroes,” set to air during the holiday season. Writers Michael (Kavalier and Clay) Chabon, Neil (Sandman) Gaiman, Stan (Spider-Man) Lee and The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg explore the legends of ancient and modern Israel that have shaped today’s Jewish psyche. The show also features an audio voyage to Joe (Sgt. Rock) Kubert’s cartooning school in New Jersey, where Irwin (the Green Lantern) Hasen teaches, and visits with Joker creator Jerry Robinson. These genre celebrities recount the story of Chanukah through their own experiences. And sure enough, many of them cite biblical archetypes as the inspiration for their comic book creations.
One of the cleverest comic book twists on the Chanukah story showed up in Justice League of America #188 (DC Comics, March 1981). The Justice League character known as the Atom is a not-terribly-observant Jew (in addition to being the tiniest superhero in the known universe). In this particular issue, the Atom spends Chanukah with his Jewish non-superhero friends. Atom admits with some embarrassment, “I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m not very religious.” Yet he becomes fascinated by the Chanukah menorah and by the miracle of oil, which miraculously burned for eight days when it should only have burned for one.
Later that night, Atom is beamed up to the League’s space station. It’s been attacked, and its life-support systems have failed. Incredibly, though, the oxygen supply on board lasts long enough for vital repairs to be made. Not surprisingly, the newly inspired Atom compares that miracle to the miracle of Chanukah.
In a way, the Atom serves as a perfect metaphor for the Jewish people: the Greek forces led by Antiochus were undoubtedly the super-villains of their day – a lean, mean fighting machine armed with all the latest high-tech gadgets. Facing them are the Maccabees – a small, unprepared people who were vastly outnumbered. Yet the Maccabees were victorious.
The story might have been lost in the mists of time, except that to this very day, no matter how much darkness surrounds us, the Jewish people still light the menorah, in a gesture of reverence for our past and hope in our future.
Perhaps even a few superhero lessons can be gleaned here. (Come on: I’m a rabbi, remember?):
· Oil does not mix with other liquids, but rather rises to the top. A superhero rises above the mundane, everyday obstacles and focuses on the bigger picture of saving the world. Rather than sitting semi-comatose in front of the latest TV show, a real hero makes things happen in the real world.
· The olive produces its oil only under pressure. When the pressure’s on, that’s when a hero shines.
· As Doc Samson discovered, being a teacher isn’t easy. And teachers are today’s real heroes. They remind us that the great people of our past, like the Maccabees, did remarkable things and won amazing victories while armed with little more than their faith. If they could do it, imagine what we can accomplish. Even without long green hair and red spandex tights.
About the Author: Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, an internationally known best-selling author whose first book, "Up, Up and Oy Vey!" received the Benjamin Franklin Award, has been profiled in leading publications including The New York Times, The Miami Herald and The London Guardian. He was recently voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. His forthcoming book is “The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.”
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