Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jewperheroes

The story goes like this.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the Rashbi) was a great spiritual leader and teacher to many Jews in Israel in the days of the Romans. Unfortunately, the Romans had outlawed the teaching of Torah and Jewish practice. But Rashbi persevered, unperturbed by the threat of torture and crucifixion, and spoke out against their decrees. 


One day, as with all stories, the Rabbi’s enemies found out about his actions and placed a price on his head. So Rashbi, along with his son, R’ Eleazar, hid in the Beit Midrash. They taught whoever they could and learned as much as they were able. Their wives and daughters snuck them food and kept them savvy of goings on in the outside world. But then came the time when they could no longer stay in their beloved Beis.




The Rabbi and his son fled. For the safety of their loved ones, they told no one of their destination. The duo found a deep cave, with a fresh spring for water and a carob tree growing outside for sustenance. There they spent a full year, discussing the mystical secrets of creation and the Torah. 


Throughout that year, Rashbi and R’ Eleazar explored the deepest chasms of the hidden scripture, until enough time had passed that they could risk stepping out into the world again.



Upon emerging, they were greeted with the sight of a Jewish farmer, working the land. But this was the Shabbat day, and such work was strictly forbidden on the day of rest by Jewish law. Offended for his G-d and full of righteous anger, Rashbi called out to the farmer.


But the farmer did not stop.



A searing anger passed through the Rabbi, and before he could say another word or knew what was happening, a light burst from his eyes and engulfed the farmer, reducing him to ashes or knocking his head off or something else fatal but nonetheless impressive.

And a voice emerged as if from nowhere, rebuking the Rabbi. For you see, he had gained so much power from G-d's mystical secrets, but he had no idea how to harness it (it was G-d's power after all). And so the voice sent the Rabbi and his son back into their cave for another twelve years, so that they may learn to use their gifts for good. And legend has it that when they emerged, Rashbi brought with him the secrets of the Zohar, the definitive book of Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism). And he was, for the rest of his life, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of his time.

This story is from the Gemarah (Bavli, Shabbat, 33b for those who care. Look! I did my research!), but it sounds very much like a variation on any modern comic book origin story. Think about it. A mild-mannered hero is faced with an ethical dilemma, and chooses the path of least resistance. This only draws out his enemies, and so in order to protect his loved ones, he must go into isolation, honing his skills, until he emerges with uncanny abilities. But unprepared to use them, he trains himself further and vows to use his power only for good.

When you think about it, Rashbi is the first Jewish superhero (complete with laser vision!), and really it’s kind of cool, considering the rich history of Jews and tales of supermen. Lest you think it all started when two nice Jewish boys created Superman, let me remind you of Rabbi Loew of Prague and his magical Golem.  And that's just one of the most famous stories. Jewish folklore is filled with legends of mighty heroes emerging during their people’s time of need to protect the innocent and defeat the forces of oppression. Most of these are myths, some of them are based on real figures, but the fact remains that the superhero genre was as Jewish as gefilte fish long before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby drew their first panel of X-Men.

I suppose this is to be expected. A people wandering from place to place, dreaming of having a home of their own, getting persecuting wherever they go… for sure they dreamed of having some armored titan there to stand in the face of determined crusaders, Spanish Inquisitors, and charging Cossacks. And tragic as the need for such stories is, we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit the imagination, and on occasion the stories themselves, from our ancestors.

Which brings us to the modern comic book, an especially “Jewish” cultural medium, at least judging by the giants of the genre. I’ve already mentioned the creators of Superman. Stan “Lieber” Lee and Jack “Kurtzberg” Kirby, two true New York Jews, created titles such as Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and of course, The X-Men. Even the great graphic novel series, Sandman, has Hebrew geneology in the form of Neil Gaiman to thank for its existence.

The history of Jews and comic books has always fascinated me as both a Jew and an Art Major. Last year, I was lucky enough to intern for one of the larger distributors of the comic book industry, where I had plenty of assignments to read through comics from every source, from way back decades. And I began to notice a pattern, not so much in the Jewish themes of the comics (which, addressing subjects such as acceptance, fear, and prejudice are rather obvious for this post’s brevity) but in the characters themselves. 

(Note: I could go on for hours about Jewish Folklore and its influence on modern culture and comics' Jewish themes, but another time. For the remainder of this post, I will be focusing on the depiction of Jews in the comics.) 

Two of the most famous Jewish comic book characters, Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr and Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde are both featured in the X-Men books, the former as a villain/antihero and the latter as a member of the main team. Both are well-written, developed, and enormously popular, and have been featured in multiple TV shows and movies.

There are several other Jewish characters in the comics: Legion, The Thing, Sabra, Batwoman, and Iceman, among others (Yes, this took way too much Wikipedia and Comic Site research). But the Jewishness of these characters (with the exception of Sabra), is a minor detail at best, mentioned in passing. And none of them, none, are shown to be observant. At their “frummest” they are Israeli and mildly affiliated (not Reform or Conservative or Orthodox, just affiliated), but mostly they are presented as ‘agnostics of Jewish descent.’ Even Kitty Pryde, the de facto Jew of the X-Men, is only mentioned as Jewish a handful of times in the... what, 30 years she’s been around. My favorite of these is when she has to fend off a vampire, not with a cross like her teammates, but with a Star of David. Wow, writers. Thanks for the shout-out. Otherwise, she bears the same amount of Jewishness as most other TV and book series Jews do: she lights Hanukkah candles come the Holiday special. 

And I appreciate those shout-outs. I do. I am thrilled (nearly) every time a proud Jewish character is introduced. These are not negative depictions of Jews by any means (not even Magneto, in my opinion), and I am by no means trying to accuse the comic industry of any bias or anti-Semitic sentiment. But sometimes, I just have to flinch and wonder, is that it? But I’ll address my issues with what I call the “Hanukkah Special Jew” another time. I’m not here to talk about that.

I'd like to talk about Arsenic.

During my internship, I was introduced to a relatively obscure comic series called The Runaways, which featured teenage superheroes locked in a cathartic battle with their supervillain parents. What awkward Thanksgivings they must have. The series features characters in a variety of races, religions, and sexual orientations, even, for seemingly the first time, a “fat” female protagonist. 

Gertrude “Arsenic” Yorkes (well, there’s a Jewish name if I’ve ever heard one... Eye roll...), is the sarcastic, witty, “ugly girl” of the group (I don’t see a female Woody Allen here at ALL). Don't get me wrong, she's a great character, but...well...

Her parents are about as stereotyped as you can get: overbearing, constantly arguing, throwing around terms like “Gevalt” and “Meshugas” like confetti…oh, and evil. All of the runaways struggle with their faith and backgrounds, but Arsenic is the only one to completely reject her ancestry, and to be adamant about it. She repeatedly insists that she is agnostic, at one point hesitating to save an innocent’s soul (and life) because she doesn’t want  to take a risk for something she might not believe in. For a large chunk of the series, she refuses to use her given name (although, to her defense, that name is Gert Yorkes), in order to cut ties with her parents and her past. In my comic-book reading experience (which despite this post is actually quite limited), she’s the closest character I’ve ever seen to a self-hating Jew… or really, a self-hating any faith.
   
All of these characters, and I can’t help but ask: couldn’t one of them have actually been, you know, religious? Now, I’m not saying give them payot and Smicha and end every sentence with “Baruch Hashem.” Really, I would be very happy to see a Reform Jewish character who… I don’t know… prays every once in a while, or discusses their beliefs even once with some pride and sincerity.

Of course I would be thrilled if that character were Modern Orthodox, maybe shown lighting candles on Friday night, eating a Kosher meal, fighting crime in a costume designed in accordance with the laws of Tzniut… 


I know that comics aren’t the most highbrow of entertainment (fun as they may be), or particularly popular in Orthodox circles, but there’s plenty of precedent.

Let’s return once again to our favorite team roster, the X-Men. Sooraya “Dust” Qadir is a Sunni Muslim who fights crime beside the other X-Men, all the while wearing a niqab and abaya. Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner is a Catholic priest, and often the moral center of the group.

Certainly, there could be room for one observant Jew. If anything, their religious observance and restrictions could add a touch of flavor to the character.


Honestly, I don’t see this ever happening, on TV or in the comics. As someone pointed out to me, a vast majority of Jews in general are non-observant or agnostic, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anyway, I should probably be grateful there’s been no “token Jew” superhero, because knowing the comics, he’d probably end up going by “HEBREW MAN” or “LION OF JUDAH”, and end up looking like this:


And I just don't think that’s how you’re supposed to wear a tallit and tefillin. 



8 comments:

  1. Loved it! I think a cape would need tzitzit- it does have four corners.

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  2. http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/Thing.html

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  3. Hebrew Hammer LOL, but I don't think he was in comics...

    Ben-Torah,
    Thanks for the link!
    I think I remember someone mentioning that the Thing is Jewish, but once again an example of a "lapsed" religious character, one whose religion is at most a trivia question, mentioned briefly once in a decade or so. It's pretty interesting, and a real reflection of the ways us American Jews have functioned in modern History.

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  4. I'm not an avid comic reader myself, but lapsed religiousness (if that much) is the norm for comic book characters, no? Or is it something that is that much more noticeably absent when it comes to superheroes that are nominally Jewish?

    I'm looking forward to those posts on the influences of Jewish folklore and Jewish themes in comics.

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  5. Stefan,
    Generally, I do think superheroes and comic book characters tend to be lapsed religiously, or have nothing to do with religion at all (it is science fiction, after all). But when there is attempt at diversity, the ones who mention their religions often do so because they are adamant in their faith (see Dust, Nightcrawler, Daredevil, Wolfsbane, even Spiderman).

    This whole post began in my head when I made the observation that whenever a superhero is listed as Jewish, it is most often with the term "Of Jewish Background", and usually Agnostic.

    This was just basically my way of expressing a wish for one Jewish character, whose religion is actually a way of life, much like Nightcrawler and Dust show for their respective faiths (an addition I love, by the way. I think it makes both characters that much more compelling and dimensional).

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  6. Sabra @ marvel comics

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