|UNITY OF VANCOUVER
3814 FRANKLIN ST. VANCOUVER, WASHINGTON 98660 360-696-0996
The Superhero Within
Reverend Bernadette Voorhees
October 31, 2021
All Rights Reserved
The Superhero Within
We are going to start this talk with a short quiz. We’re going to start easy:
1) Complete this quotation: “Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's __________!” (Superman)
2) A little harder: Who teaches us - “With great power comes great responsibility” (Spiderman)
3) Finally, who says: “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight? I always ask that of all my prey – I just like the sound of it.” (The Joker)
So, what do these quotes all have in common? They were all said by comic book characters created by Jews! So, what is it about comic book characters, especially superheroes, which inspired American Jews to create so many of them?
In his book, “Holy Superheroes”, Greg Garrett points out that Samson, is the Jewish Hercules, who performs amazing feats of strength and power. Garrett jokes, “Samson only needs some long underwear to make his way into the pages of modern comics – any man who could slay huge numbers of foes with the jawbone of an ass, burst ropes by expanding his chest and push apart pillars to collapse a temple on his enemies is worthy of superhero status.” Only cutting Samson’s hair will diminish his strength in his fight against the Philistines. Then, there’s the beautiful Queen Esther, who must hide her true, Jewish identity behind a secret identity named “Hadassah,” to save her people from a wicked villain named Haman. Centuries of constant Jewish persecution, led to the evolution of a totally different kind of hero in the 16th century, a hero outside of ourselves as exemplified in the stories of “The Golem.” The most famous Golem story involves 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague.
According to legend, the Emperor passed a law proclaiming that the Jews in Prague were to be converted, expelled, or killed. So, following a secret ritual, the Rabbi built “The Golem” out of grey clay and made him come to life by reciting incantations in Hebrew and writing the Hebrew word ‘Emet,’ meaning “truth,” on its forehead. The Rabbi's intention was to have The Golem protect the Jewish community from harm. But in the face of the strength demonstrated and violence perpetrated by The Golem, the Emperor begged Rabbi Loew to destroy it and in return he promised that the persecution and violence towards the Jews would stop. The Rabbi accepted his offer. To destroy the Golem, he rubbed out the first letter of the word "emet" from the Golem's forehead to make the Hebrew word "met," meaning death. It was made clear to the Emperor that “The Golem of Prague's” remains would be stored in a coffin in the attic of the Synagogue in Prague, to be summoned again if needed.Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, once said; “The Golem” was the forerunner of the super-hero. In every society there is a need for mythological characters and wish fulfillment. The wish fulfillment of the Jews would be someone who could protect them from their oppressors. This kind of storytelling seems to dominate in Jewish culture.”
With these types of hero figures in the Jewish past, it’s not surprising that, when faced with an emerging enemy in early 20th century-Germany, which was unlike any seen in Jewish history, two Jewish boys from Ohio, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster, were inspired to create a new hero. Beginning in 1934 and culminating in 1938 with their first published comic book, Siegel and Shuster created the incredible story of Superman. Born on the planet Krypton, Kal-El, or as we know him, Superman, was sent off into space when his parents realized that their planet was going to perish. In his small craft, the infant Kal-El flies towards Earth and lands on the small farm of Martha and Jonathan Kent. He is given a new identity – Clark Kent.
In his book, “Up, Up, And Oy Vey!” Simcha Weinstein notes that, in Superman’s back- story, we see profound parallels to the Jewish experience in America. Born with a foreign sounding name, a Jewish family name like Belofsky was changed to Bellows upon arrival in this country. The name Kal-El is very similar to the names of Jewish prophets and angels like Ezekiel, Michael, R’fael and is often understood to mean “Voice of God.”
Kal-El’s parents knew that his life was threatened and just like Moses’ parents, they sent him off so that he could survive to do great things. Just as Moses is told by the burning bush that he must return to Egypt to save the Israelite people, young Clark Kent is told by his adoptive father, “Now, listen to me, Clark, you’ve got to hide this great strength of yours from people or they will be scared of you but when the proper time comes you must use it to assist humanity.”
Superman is like the biblical Samson in that kryptonite weakens Superman just as a haircut weakens Samson. This similarity wasn’t lost on the character’s creators. A comic book in 1938 opened with the statement, “Friend of the helpless and oppressed is Superman, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samson’s!”
In the pages of Pirke Avot, which is the ultimate resource for Jewish Education and the Torah, it says that “The world stands on three things: Truth, Justice and Peace,” Superman stands for three things: “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”
Although it’s never said that Superman is Jewish, the undercurrents of Jewish values and experiences are undeniable. The character’s immediate popularity in the late-30’s and early 40’s wasn’t lost on the Nazis. In fact, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, denounced Superman as a Jew.
The fact that he felt called upon to make such a statement demonstrates the powerful impact Superman had on the world at the time. However, if we focus only on Superman and not his alter ego Clark Kent, we’d be missing the whole story. Touch Superman with kryptonite and he’s no longer his adopted self, Clark Kent, but Kal-El, the boy with the Jewish name. In other words, Superman might be Jewish, but it’s only so long as no one knows that he’s Jewish that he’s capable of performing wonders. Thus, Superman only has power if his identity, his Jewish roots, remain hidden.
While Superman fought in the light of day, another popular character, Batman, fought in the darkness of night. Bob Kahn, who later changed his last name to Kane, was a second generation Jewish American whose family experienced tremendous hardship during the Great Depression. Thus, he was inspired in 1939 to create millionaire playboy, Bruce Wayne, who fought criminals at night as a masked vigilante – Batman. Young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ brutal murder in a back-alley of Gotham City and used this as motivation to pour his wealth into the creation of incredible weapons and vehicles to aid in bringing criminals to justice. Writing about the evolution of Batman, comic book historian Alan Oirich observed, “In the late 1930’s, Jews in some of the capitals of Europe were being killed in the streets, with high culture and gothic architecture serving as settings for acts of uncivilized violence. Like 8-year-old Bruce Wayne, post-Holocaust Jews witnessed the generations before them shot down in the streets. They struggled to understand, to avenge and to decide what in the world to do in response to such unfathomable tragedy.”
Following these two major characters, others joined the scene. Captain America, created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, sported a big letter ‘A’ on his forehead, very much reminiscent of the letters on the Golem’s forehead.
Fears of nuclear war spurred the next big burst in superhero creation. In 1962, Stan Lee, whose original name was Stanley Lieber, created the Fantastic Four – four superheroes who worked together to save the world. One of the four, a rock-like monster named “The Thing,” was revealed to be Jewish when, in a 2002 issue, he recited the Shema over a dying man. The Incredible Hulk, also created by Stan Lee, debuted in 1962 and was so Golem-like that he was originally colored gray like clay!
Spiderman, created by Stan Lee in 1962, was one of the first characters to just be a normal teenager. He was a little nerdy, a little shy and not your typical superhero. Yet, a spider’s bite turned him into a hero who could walk on walls, swing from his web, and save the distressed and needy in New York. In a 2004 issue, Spiderman revealed a great little bit of trivia: All superhero costumes in comic-book land are designed by a Jewish tailor from the Lower East Side. When this tailor character first sees Spiderman hurtling across the New York skyline, he mumbles, “Meshugge!” a Yiddish word meaning, “Crazy! Far Out!”
Finally, the X-Men, also created by Stan Lee was first printed in 1963. The X-Men are a mutant group of people with extraordinary abilities. They are both celebrated and feared by the general population, and they have two leaders. One, Professor X, teaches tolerance and the use of powers for the good of society. The other, Magneto, is revealed to be a Holocaust survivor who vows, “I will not see another people fear what they don’t understand and destroy what they fear.” Magneto, focused on vengeance, embodies “Never Again” and the power of striking back against those who persecute people who are different. Magneto believes that humans only want to imprison and kill mutants, just as the Jewish people were destroyed in the Holocaust. So, the only way to prevent genocide, in his view, is to take power away from the humans and control them.
Superman, Batman, Spiderman, The Hulk, Captain America, X-Men, and more –are all the creation of Jews. Zeddy Lawrence, a television writer, once joked, “It may not be true in all cases, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the word “man” appears at the end of someone’s name, you can draw one of two conclusions: They are Jewish, as in Goldman, Feldman, or Lipman; or they’re a superhero, as in Superman, Batman, Spiderman.”
These heroic characters arose when we most needed heroes. The Great Depression, the Holocaust and the fear of nuclear destruction all led to a need for heroes.
The recent influx of superhero movies over the past few years, like Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, Iron-Man, the Fantastic Four, all came at a time when America was once again at war, feeling threatened and needed a dose of escapism and heroism.
Each character provides catharsis in one way or another. They explore the ambiguities of assimilation into the dominant culture experienced by immigrants, the pain of discrimination and the difficulty of the misunderstood outcast. Through them, we can experience these feelings with some degree of disconnect and begin to heal.
We all have times when we feel small and helpless, so we create stories like King David’s triumph over Goliath, or The Golem who saved a whole community, or Superman who is virtually undefeatable. Seeing the evil in the world around us we are constantly struggling to reach that time when “things will get better.” These heroes give us all hope that, in the end, no matter what, good will prevail over evil. This ability to keep trying to seek out the light within and without is a central Jewish concept.
Luckily, we don’t have to battle enemies like The Joker or Lex Luthor but there’s often much that we must battle inside of ourselves like: the part of us that would like to remain passive, to sit on the couch, to spend the day on the computer or watching soap operas rather than going to work, cleaning the house, seeking to alleviate human suffering, heal the emotional pain of those around us, volunteer time, or even visit a sick family member or friend.
In his book, Superman on the Couch, Danny Fingeroth states that we are all heroes. He writes: “A hero can be said to be someone who rises above his or her fears and limitations to achieve something extraordinary. In the real world, firemen who race into burning buildings, soldiers who advance in the face of enemy fire, astronauts who launch into space despite the high odds of lethal outcome, are often the standard by which heroism is measured. On another level, a teacher who, day after day, attempts to educate under adverse circumstances, an accident victim who, despite pain and enormous difficulty, persists in relearning lost skills, or a physician who ministers to AIDS patients in plague-stricken, third world nation can all be considered heroes. They fight the odds and sometimes beat them. Indeed, at one time or another, as the alarm clock rings, we all feel we must steel ourselves to face another day in the struggle that life can be. There are days when simply taking the bus to work and getting through the day seems like the triumph of Gilgamesh, or the Green Lantern.
Superman fought for integrity, Batman for justice, Captain America for patriotism, Fantastic Four for teamwork, Spiderman for responsibility & redemption, X-Men against antisemitism and for reconciliation. We are all capable of fighting for these same values. We all have a responsibility and mandate to be our best selves and to make the world a better place.
Perhaps we can’t fly, bend bars, or change the flow of a river, but we can become people of courage, peace, love, compassion, and action. We can be lights in the world.
Every one of us has the power to do great things – to do what is just, good, and meaningful and not just what feels, tastes, looks good or is easy.
One person can make a difference – but all of us working together can truly change the world.
A cabbie picks up a Nun. She gets into the cab and the cab driver won't stop staring at her. She asks him why he is staring. He replies: "I have a question to ask you, but I don't want to offend you".
She answers, "My son, you cannot offend me. When you're as old as I am and have been a nun as long as I have, you get a chance to see and hear just about everything. I'm sure that there's nothing you could say or ask that I would find offensive."
"Well, I've always had a fantasy to have a nun kiss me." She responds, "Well, let's see what we can do about that: Couple of conditions #1, you have to be single and #2, you must be Catholic."
The cab driver is very excited & says, "Yes! I'm single and Catholic!" "OK" the nun says. "Pull into the next alley."
The nun fulfills his fantasy with a kiss that would make a hooker blush. But when they get back on the road, the cab driver starts crying. "My dear child," said the nun, why are you crying?"
"Forgive me but I've sinned." The cabbie says, "I lied. I must confess, I'm married and I'm Jewish." The nun says, "That's OK, my name is Kevin and I'm going to a Halloween party."
Shema Yisrael From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Shema Yisrael (or Sh'ma Yisrael or just Shema) (Hebrew: ְשׁ ַמע יִ ְשׂ ָר ֵאל ; "Hear, [O] Israel") are the first two words of a section of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) that is a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services.
The first verse encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one," found in Deuteronomy .6:4
Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, and its twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment).
It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and parents teach it to their children before they go to sleep at night.
What do you think?
© Unity of Vancouver, 2004 All Rights Reserved.