For most of my life, I lived a Clark Kent existence: that of a Jew residing in Manchester, England, intent on blending into the modern, secular world. I kept my Hebrew name a closely guarded secret; my desire to assimilate required no less. A degree in film history led to a job scouting movie locations. My work was exciting, even a bit glamorous, but something was missing.
Seeking to fulfill needs that were not met by MTV and materialism, I set out to meet my great-great-grandparents and finally learn about my Jewish heritage. Trips to Israel followed, where I enrolled in the life-changing Mayanot Institute, a Chabad yeshiva in Jerusalem. I eventually reverted to my Hebrew name (from Simon to Simcha). My transformation was complete.
Yet I never entirely lost my love of pop culture. When marriage brought me to New York City, I began thinking about all the Jewish writers, artists and editors who’d lived and worked there too – and who’d created a whole new art form: the comic book. As the rabbi of the esteemed Pratt Institute – the very school many comics pioneers once attended – I began to wonder why comic books had been invented in that particular time and place, by those particular men.
Every Friday night, my wife and I cram a crowd of Jewish Pratt students into our tiny, over-priced Brooklyn Heights apartment. (We often have so many guests we have to double slice our gefilte fish!) While my two sons, ages three and one, play around under the table, we grown-ups discuss the meaning of life, over copious bowls of steaming chicken soup, until the wee hours.
Interacting with these gifted art students challenged me, as a rabbi, to look at those early comic book pioneers from a new, theological perspective. I re-read the classic superhero comics of my youth – this time, through the lens of Jewish tradition and spiritual belief.
The sages expound that all human knowledge and wisdom is contained within the Bible’s 304,805 letters of ink and parchment. (No wonder Jews are called the People of the Book.) The great eighteenth century chassidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that Jews should relate the weekly Torah portion to events in their own lives, right then and there. He called this way of reading “living with the times.”
As Eastern European Jewish immigrants poured into New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900’s, they viewed the stories of the Bible through the prism of their struggles in a sometimes baffling new land, and passed them on to their children. And some of those children in turn retold those Jewish tales using dots of colored ink on pulp paper, beginning in the 1930’s.
In those days, the shadow of persecution was descending upon European Jews once more, and no one seemed willing to come to their rescue. That decade also witnessed the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States: Nazi sympathizer Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund led legions of rabid followers on marches through many cities. Ivy League colleges intentionally kept the number of Jewish students to a minimum, while restricted country clubs and even entire neighborhoods barred Jews altogether.
Clearly, the world needed heroes. So even before their own country went to war with Hitler, young Jewish American artists and writers (some barely out of their teens) began creating powerful characters who were dedicated to protecting the innocent and conquering evil.
Their names include Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; Batman creators Bob Kane (born Kahn) and Bill Finger and their protégé, Jerry Robinson, who invented the immortal villain the Joker; the Spirit creator and graphic novel pioneer Will Eisner; publisher Julius Schwartz, known as the “father of science-fiction comics” and the man behind the Justice League of America; Martin Nodell, the man behind the Green Lantern; Jack Kirby (born Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon, who brought the world Captain America; Max Gaines, the true father of comic books, his son William, publisher of MAD magazine, and William’s partner in satire, Harvey Kurtzman; Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), who created Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men – and his boss (and wife’s cousin), Martin Goodman of Marvel Comics.
The end of World War II and the defeat of Hitler saw a brief decline in the popularity of superhero comics, but that didn’t last long. After all, every generation needs archetypal heroes of its own, larger-than-life characters who evoke (sometimes blatantly, sometimes subconsciously) the eternal themes found in the Bible and within the Jewish experience.
Comic book superheroes have evolved to reflect the changing times, as well as the changing attitudes of writers, artists and readers. In the 1940’s, superheroes appointed themselves saviors of a world riddled with real-life villains; their fictional exploits boosted the morale of those fighting flesh and blood Nazis, Communists and other threats to “truth, justice and the American way.”
During the tumultuous 1960’s, comic book characters became more complex and ambiguous: flawed, reluctant heroes with their own insecurities to cope with (when they weren’t fighting crime).
Then, in the 1970’s, comic books (some of them, anyway) became “graphic novels.” Now more popular than ever, these comics for adults are more realistic, downbeat, “artistic.” Graphic novels tend to focus on average (sometimes below average) people and their everyday lives, instead of superheroes with extraordinary powers.
The best examples of the genre also illuminate the universal human condition, lifting them to the level of literature. This difficult-to-accomplish blend of the quotidian with the cosmic gives graphic novels their depth and explains their growing appeal to younger people whose vocabulary is visual rather than verbal.
Graphic novels explore the human condition in general (and Jewish American identity in particular) through the eyes of their Job-like anti-heroes. Today’s Jewish graphic novelists – Bob Kanigher, Chris Claremont, Ben Katchor, Daniel Clowes, Sammy Harkham, Joann Sfar, Diane Noomin, Joe Kubert, Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman, to name a few – have joined the pantheon of the comic book pioneers.
Each generation of Jewish comic book creators and graphic novelists explored the ambiguities of assimilation, the pain of discrimination, and the particularly Jewish theme of the misunderstood outcast, the rootless wanderer. Again and again, the triumph of good over evil remained a central theme.
Jack Kirby – known as the King of Comics – once said, “In the movies, the good always triumphed over evil. Underneath all the sophistication of modern comics, all the twists and psychological drama, good triumphs over evil. Those are the things I learned from my parents and from the Bible. It’s part of my Jewish heritage.”
My new book Up, Up and Oy Vey seeks to reclaim a vital component of that heritage. While the Jewish contribution to film, theater, music, and comedy is well known, my book is the first to focus exclusively on the Jewish role in the creation of these all-American superheroes.
Just think: comic books that our mothers once tossed out as trash are now worth thousands of dollars and studied within the highest levels of academia. And, most amazingly, they actually represent an important facet of American Jewish culture. We’ll never know for sure how many thirteen-year-old boys like me squirreled themselves away with a stash of comic books when they were supposed to be studying for their bar mitzvahs. The thing is, they were on to something.
Seventy years later, comics have evolved from “throwaway” escapism for kids to a multimillion dollar business encompassing movies, television, music, toys – and, of course, movies.
This year alone, the murderous monks of “The Da Vinci Code” were battered at the box office by the mutants of “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Now a new superhero-inspired blockbuster seems poised to become an even bigger hit with moviegoers. Of all the comic book characters in history, one stands above the rest both as a universally recognized symbol of American values and Jewish themes. That beloved superhero finally comes home this week with the release of the movie “Superman Returns.”
In this latest installment, the Man of Steel returns to Metropolis at the end of a cosmic quest: investigating the facts behind the destruction of his home planet, Krypton. And things on Earth have changed. Lois Lane, the love of Superman’s life, has moved on in his absence. Worse, his old nemesis, Lex Luthor, is plotting to render the Superman powerless once and for all – and then destroy the helpless, hero-less world.
“Superman Returns” is one of the most expensive movies ever made. It’s a long way from 1938, when a couple of Jewish boys from Ohio were paid $130 for the very first Superman story – and sold away their future residuals. (Today, a mint condition copy of that comic book – Action Comics # 1, June 1938 – if you’re lucky enough to find one, will set you back a cool half-million bucks or more).
From the very beginning, the Superman mythos reflected his creators’ Jewish backgrounds. For example, the superhero’s origin story (as fans refer to it) bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Exodus tale in which Jochebed places Moses in a reed basket and sets him afloat on the Nile before he can be killed by the Pharaoh’s henchmen.
Likewise, Superman’s father Jor-El, launches a little rocket ship containing his son into outer space when he realizes Krypton is about to disintegrate. (Diaspora has been a tragic fact of much of Jewish history – think of the kindertransports that whisked so many children to safety from Nazi Germany.)
Superman’s Kryptonian name also reveals biblical underpinnings. Superman is named Kal-El and his father Jor-El. The suffix “El” is one of the ancient names for God, used throughout the Bible. It is also found in the names of great prophets like Isra-el, Samu-el, and Dani-el and angels such as Micha-el and Gavri-el. According to Jewish tradition, Micha-el is the great combatant angel who fights Satan. He could easily be deemed the flying Superman’s biblical alter ego.
The prefix of Superman’s name, “Kal,” is the root of several Hebrew words: “with lightness,” “swiftness,” “vessel,” and “voice.” We may never know whethe Siegel and Shuster were aware of these precise Hebrew translations; nevertheless, the name could not be more apt.
In Jewish tradition, the act of naming has been profoundly and mysteriously connected with creativity. The birth of Superman offers more examples – even the fact that Shuster and Siegel first submitted their cartoons under a Gentile-sounding pseudonym, to better their chances of getting published.
More profoundly, the two young men conceived of a brilliant idea: they gave their superhuman hero a secret identity, too, along with an alternative (and very WASP-ish) name: that of the all-too human reporter Clark Kent. Subconsciously, Shuster and Siegel had created a complex symbol of immigrant identity and assimilation.
Practically speaking, this notion of “double identity” allowed for almost endless storyline twists and thematic depth. On another level, it added considerably to the “mythology” that would eventually accrue around this fictional crime fighter. From then on, double identities became a recurring theme throughout comic book culture and mythology, with Spider-Man and Batman employing this character device to great effect.
According to the sages, we all have a double identity, just like the most enduring of the superheroes. Man is the fusion of matter and spirit, a body and soul. The body cleaves to this physical world, while the soul longs for the spiritual. Likewise, many comic book characters are reluctant heroes who often want nothing more than to give up their incredible powers.
With great power comes great responsibility,” as Spider-Man says, usually in a rueful, resigned tone of voice that hints he’d much rather be an ordinary mortal. And who wouldn’t want to walk away from our daunting duties and mundane cares, at least once in a while? Especially after a long, hard day of leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
But in reality, God created the world so He would “have a dwelling in the lower realms.”(Hebrew:dira b’tachtonim). The likes of Superman or Spider-Man have got a tough, thankless job to do in those “lower realms,” fighting for what’s right, without getting much credit.
Look closely: we’re all surrounded by superheroes. At the Pratt Institute, I see aspiring Jewish artists openly grappling with and embracing their faith within their work. I also see my own efforts mirrored by the brave Chabad-On-Campus rabbis (& Super-rebbetzins) who make sure that every Jewish student is aware of his or her heritage, teaching the Jewish leaders of tomorrow not to grow-up to be like the bumbling Clark Kent but rather to become Jewperheroes.
Comic book ethics are Jewish ethics. Like all of us, Superman and his colleagues are called to “perform wonders,” to repair order and balance in the world. We may not do it while wearing a cape and a big “S” on our chests, but universal messages of duty and justice still come across clearly, via the unlikely vehicle of comic books for kids.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, the “Comic Book Rabbi,” is the founder of the Jewish Student Foundation of Downtown Brooklyn, an educational and cultural center that strives to ignite pride and commitment through innovative educational and social experiences in an open environment. A sought after television and radio guest, he has been profiled in many publications. He is also the author of the new book “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” (Leviathan Press). For more information, visit www.rabbisimcha.com
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein