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It’s a Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s… Super Mensch!

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Brilliant flags cascade atop two majestic mountains, sullied by throngs of horses and soldiers’ shining steel armor reflecting the blinding sunlight. Shrill cries emerge from the melee, mixing with the stale, bitter smell of war. The Philistine champion bellows confidently at his challenger - the scrawny Jew’s side curls still wet behind his ears.

Let’s freeze the camera amid Goliath’s final laugh. We expect no surprise ending, but though David the Bethlehemite will triumph, he proves a peculiar sort of hero, who plays the harp and awakens midnights to sing poetry to G-d. Are we the “People of the Book”, or might the “people of the gym” prove kosher as well?

An Aristotelian brainchild, the superhero is larger than life, exhibiting fantastic strength, wit and a keen moral sense. Although the superhero displays strange qualities like underwear over his pants, he is a fellow well rooted in history, parading himself as the Hellenistic poster child with his aggrandizement of the body. Further, he owes much of his form to the ancient Egyptian pictorial narrative in the hieroglyphics.

As Jews who find ourselves stereotyped with noses further developed than our triceps, we must ask ourselves, how can we remain abreast with the age of vitamins, carb-less diets and personal trainers? Alan Oirich, creator of the Jewish Hero Corps, has some ideas in the form of several dozen comic book covers and interiors that convincingly argue for a pantheon of Jewish heroes. They are currently shown in “People of the (Comic) Book: Superheroes and Jewish Culture,” the exhibition he curated at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.

In an aish.com article entitled “Spider-Jew,” Oirich argues that Spiderman – Stan Lee’s (Stanley Martin Lieber) creation and the protagonist of a movie by Sam Raimi, both Jews-might as well wear a kippah. He lives in Forest Hills, “fits the Jewish stereotype of the nerdy
pathetic guy with glasses,” and receives bad press for defending the innocent in a manner that, Oirich feels, “Spidey” might share a lot in common with Israel.

In fact what we are seeing is a transformation of one aspect of the comic book industry. It is well known that many of the classic comics from the 1950′s were created and drawn by Jews: Superman, Captain America, Batman, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and The Hulk were all created by Jewish artists or writers. This uniquely American art form gave Jews an opportunity to express yearnings for justice and power in the post-war era under the guise of fantastic superheroes who were both good guys and yet outsiders of the mainstream culture. Now they can come out and proclaim their Jewishness.

“That’s why I created the Jewish Hero Corps,” Oirich says observing that their “common enemy is Jewish amnesia.” Don’t know what the Jewish Hero Corps is? Check out www.jewishsuperhero.com, where you will learn of Magen David, Menorah Man, Minyan
Man, Shabbas Queen, Dreidel Maidel, Yarmulkah Youth and Hypergirl/Matza Girl. You can read all about them, but here are a few examples:

Founder and leader of Jewish Hero Corps, Menorah Man has eight hands that may spout flames. His secret identity is Earl Chandler (Earl = oil, Chandler = chandelier).

Shabbas Queen waves a magic wand that bridles electricity to disable certain mechanical objects (“give them a rest”). Her wand must recharge weekly (a la Green Lantern).

Dreidel Maidel, the Hurricane Heroine, spins and thinks at top speed (compare the Flash).

The Jewish Hero Corps figures prominently in the JCC exhibit, where it joins Spiderman liberating concentration camps, Ragman combating the Golem and the Justice League and Green Lantern saving Chanukah. Also, viewers will enjoy “Revisionist History,” where Doc
Samson retells the Chanukah story to a Hebrew class with Marvel superheroes to aid the Macabees.

His storytelling begs a very important question. In a religion that detests lies, are we prepared to tolerate such an elaborate web of fantasy, or will we follow suit with Plato who banishes the poets and artists from his Utopia for their lies, amongst other sins?

The simple answer is that Plato is dead and the soap opera, Dungeons and Dragons, and “reality shows” are all the rage. The Jewish Hero Corps breaks that mold by opening an exciting new chapter-one that is neither tacky nor fake-in modern, Jewish culture. In today’s
world an authentic Jew can be strong, brave and heroic. Oirich told me that in the non-Jewish culture where “heroes are becoming less heroic” with more tattoos and blood than clothing, his Jewish characters use their mus- cles “as a means to an end.” It is their focus, not their
force that ought to inspire us.

It is not that we lack real superheroes of our own; Jacob outwrestles the angel, Samson betters hordes of Philistines, Moses takes us out of Egypt and the Golem saves Prague. In the 60′s, Sandy Koufax presented a modern alternative, which seems to have shifted to World Wrestling Federation (WWF) heavyweight, Goldberg, and to Senator Lieberman. However, despite these and the symbolic invocation of the Leviathan, Lilith and Satan, mainstream Ashkenazi tradition tends to stigmatize such sources of power as anathema to G-d’s singularity. In many respects, traditional Orthodoxy has found itself frustrated for so long by symbolic and critical textual techniques that it has failed to grasp the postmodernist marriage of the real and the fantastic. Conversely, Chassidism has tended to find more meaning in the Golem tales and the like, perhaps due to the importance of individualism and mysticism that lend themselves to expression with a liberating hero, who may prefigure the ultimate redeemer…We want Mosiach Now!

The Jewish superhero might not literally fly over us keeping close watch, but the mythology provides a rich corpus of stories that take on a truth transcending particular facts. The model of the Jewish superhero as Scrooge McDuck simply will not do anymore. In “Agamemnon,” a play that illustrates Clytemnestra’s betrayal of Agamemnon, Aeschylus (525-456 BCE) -
“The Father of Greek Tragedy” - writes, “I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope.” Or as Oirich put it, “Comics have been important when people felt helpless.” As we are yet in exile, we sometimes need a folklore where we can fly and defeat our assailants, in anticipation of the real redemption.

I gratefully acknowledge Alan Oirich’s, Shira Dicker’s and Karen Sander’s help throughout the article.

“People of the (Comic) Book: Superheroes and Jewish Culture” – co-sponsored by the NYC Comic Book Museum and jewishsuperhero.com.  Curated by Alan Oirich, with Steven Bergson. Through March 11 (may travel thereafter). The JCC in Manhattan: The Laurie Tisch Sussman Gallery – 334 Amsterdam Ave at 76th St – 646 505 4444. www.jccmanhattan.org


Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. He may be reached at wecker@yu.edu

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About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”

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It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

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Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

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