Sunday, May 07, 2006

Superman was Jewish

By guest contributor Blake Landau


Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the founder of the Jewish Student Foundation of Downtown Brooklyn, an educational and cultural centre that strives to ignite pride and commitment through innovative educational and social experiences in an open environment. 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 UpUpandOyVey.com or visit Rabbi Weinstein's website at RabbiSimcha.com.


Blake Landau: What was the first comic book you ever picked up?

Simcha Weinstein: I have absolutely no idea!! I was always fascinated with the heroes of popular culture, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and of course being English – James Bond was always a fantasy figure. My interest in comics came first through the medium of television – with the live action Batman, Spider-Man, and The Hulk shows.

BL: You have drawn parallels between superheroes and stories from the Bible. What are some of the parallels you found?

SW: The great eighteenth century Hasidic master, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, taught that the weekly Torah portion should be understood with regards to the events in ones own life, calling this way of reading “living with the times.” The early comic book creators – who were largely second generation Jewish immigrants – applied Jewish tradition through the prism of their hard lives in a baffling new land.

In late 1930’s persecution was descending upon European Jews and the world needed heroes. Before their own country went to battle with Hitler, young Jewish American artists and writers began creating powerful characters to fight back against the Nazis, “living with the times” in their own crazy way.

These early creators were almost exclusively Jewish – so the cultural tales they learned as kids came through Jewish tradition, not other religions. Take for example Jack Kirby – known as the King of Comics – he 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." Kirby’s father was an observant Jew and Kirby himself held a Passover seder – amazing if one looks at his work, the notion of slavery in biblical Egypt comes up again and again, as story lines in captain America, Fantastic Four, X-men, to name a few.

BL: The hero's journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, has a narrative. Is the journey of the superhero similar to the journey as described by Campbell?

SW: The religious and mythical underpinnings of Superman are entirely consistent with the "monomyth" theories of Joseph Campbell. In his famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes the common elements found in great stories from all places and times, from the Odyssey to Star Wars: “The hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This pattern of destruction followed by regeneration is also consistent with Kabbalistic doctrine. Siegel and Shuster had subconsciously tapped into Kabbala, the very core of Jewish spirituality. The 16th Century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, taught that the world was created through divine sparks within the vessels intended to hold them. Due to a cosmic catastrophe, these vessels could not contain the sparks, so they shattered. This is known as shevirat ha-Kelim (Breaking of the Vessels); our world is composed of the shards of these broken vessels. While destruction seems to imply negativity, the breaking of the vessels also heralds a new birth. The job of mankind is to reunite the shards with their divine source - a process called tikkun ha-olam (repairing the world). The destruction of Krypton can be seen as the breaking of these primordial vessels, giving birth to Superman whose role it is to repair order and balance in the world.

BL: Why are these discoveries important?

SW: In all honesty in the bigger picture – things like the occurrences in Darfur – my book does not matter one single iota.

On a personal level is represented a chance for me to unite my interest in popular culture with my commitment to Judaism. I also find the symbols of superheroes to be a very powerful metaphor for Jewish spiritual practices.

BL: What does this say about the influence of Judaism and Jewish stories on pop culture?

SW: Jewish comic book creators explored the ambiguities of assimilation and the theme of the misunderstood outcast. This book seeks to reclaim a vital component of that heritage.

Taken from my book:
“By projecting their own desires for assimilation, these young artists created an American ideal they saw as authentic. Cartoonist R. C. Harvey comments on a similar situation within the Hollywood establishment of the time: ‘The America they portrayed in their films was the America they dreamed of belonging to. But it was not the actual America. It was however, so compelling a portrait, so vivid an impersonation, that all moviegoers, all Americans bought into it.’[1] Jewish movie moguls Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer bankrolled patriotic fare like Yankee Doodle Dandy, changed the names of Jewish actors (Edward G. Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg, for instance) and made Danny Kaye bleach his hair. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. somehow managed to film The Life of Emile Zola without ever mentioning that Colonel Dreyfus was Jewish. (In the ultimate irony, middle America eagerly embraced the idiosyncratic ‘Jewish New Yorker’ sensibility decades later, turning Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Jerry Seinfeld into superstars).”

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein’s ground-breaking text will be out June 27, 2006 but you can pre-order it at LeviathanPress.com.

[1] R.C. Harvey, Comic Book Marketplace (Gemstone Publishing, 2004) 18.


Blake graduated UCSC in Fall of this year with a degree in Modern Literature and The History of Art and Visual Culture, and currently finished an internship at Blackbook Magazine in New York City. During her time at UCSC, she edited the music and arts desks for City on a Hill Press. She has interned at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, SOMA Magazine, and a think tank on foreign policy.

2 Comments:

Anonymous X-men said...

Great interview. I always saw the Jewish connection with Superman. He's sent away as a youth in a "basket" from his home, where he lands in a foreign land and grows up to be a hero... like Moses.

There have been some obviously Jewish comic-book characters too, like the DC characters Ragman and Monolith, based loosely on the story of the Golem of Prague.

Thu May 11, 10:28:00 AM 2006  
Blogger JewSlug said...

I am fortunate enough to have met Rabbi Weinstein when I traveled to New York with Chabad not too long ago. He is an extremely funny and intelligent man and I wish him all the best with his new book.

I hope that all Jews today can live up to the task of being real-world superheroes and usher in the era of Moshiach.

Thu May 11, 08:23:00 PM 2006  

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