Up Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero
by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein
at the Montreal Jewish Public Library 5151, Côte Ste-Catherine Road
Thursday October 7, 2010 7:30 p.m.
While the Jewish contribution to film, theatre, music and comedy has been well documented, the Jewish role in the creation of the All-American superhero has not been – until now! From the birth of Krypton in Cleveland to Batman, Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men and more, Rabbi Weinstein will chronicle the unusual story behind the origins of the planet’s most famous superheroes.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is an internationally known best-selling author who is also a popular television and radio guest, having appeared on CNN Showbiz Tonight, NPR and other programs. He has also been profiled in many leading publications, including the New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Seattle Times and the London Guardian.
Books and autographs available.
Advance tickets: (514) 345-6416
Info: (514) 345-2627 ext. 3006
* Tickets at the member rate must be purchased in advance.
Students pay member rate at all times.
Call for details. Doors open 30 minutes prior to the event.
Free parking at the YM-YWHA.
Sponsored by the Helen Bassel Endowment.
Growing up Jewish in cold, rainy Manchester, England, I always knew that I was “a little different.”
My parents promised me a post-bar mitzvah growth spurt. (I’m still waiting.) And when the No. 135 bus took me home each day and stopped to pick up the kids from the local Catholic school, I’d shove my yarmulke even deeper into my pocket. Getting picked on by the big kids for being short and shy was bad enough. Getting picked on for being Jewish was much worse. But there was no point provoking the local anti-Semites by exhibiting my religiosity. These bullies weren’t the majority, by any means—but that didn’t make them any less scary.
My fears at the bus stop followed me into Hebrew school, where I learned all about centuries of Jewish suffering and oppression. When I walked back outside, our synagogue had been spray-painted, yet again, with (mis-spelled) obscenities.
Like many Jewish families, the standing joke at our family’s Passover seder table was, “They tried to kill us,
we survived, let’s eat.” But it didn’t seem all that funny to me, not when the tombstones in the local Jewish cemetery were defaced with swastikas. And so, like many underdogs, I sought solace in popular culture and the
world of superheroes. (In case anybody wants to learn more, I’ve divulged my affection for caped crusaders in my book Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.) Within that alternative universe of “Zap! Pow! Bam!,” nebbishy nerds like Clark Kent beat up the bad guys, not the other way around.
Halfway through high school, however, I made a life changing discovery. Beneath my nebbishy exterior, I possessed a hidden “super power” of my own: the power of humor. Suddenly, I became the class clown, cracking up my teachers and classmates. Now that the cool kids liked me more, the mean ones were less prone to beat me up. I learned later that I was in good company—many famous Jewish comedians had been class clowns, too.
At the time, however, I knew almost nothing about the tremendous impact Jews have had on comedic history. Instead, I’d subconsciously tapped into this long, storied tradition. Like countless Jews before and since, I discovered that suffering inspires humor, which in turn can be used to fight oppression.
Only later did I take that yarmulke out of my pocket. I’d studied film at university, and after graduation I began a rewarding career in movie and television production. But something was missing. After all, the entertainment industry revolves around all things superficial and trendy. As I looked for something more serious to which I could dedicate my life, I found myself thinking more and more about my faith.
I started taking classes, and became more observant. My spiritual awakening was nothing dramatic—unless swapping movie sets for “rabbi school” (yeshiva) counts as “dramatic.” During that journey, I met rabbis and
rebbetzins who became my new mentors and “super heroes.” The men were full of wit and wonder, nothing like the stuffy “white shirt/black suit” penguins I’d expected. The women surprised me, too. They were outrageous, confident and free-thinking, not stereotypical, shmatteh-wearing submissive kitchen slaves. Through these holy Hebrew jesters, I finally came to appreciate those dark-humored jokes around the seder table, and the very real role comedy has played in helping Jews survive centuries of persecution.
Or better yet, consider the festival of Purim, inspired by the biblical Book of Esther. Purim celebrates the time that the Jews of ancient Persia were saved from genocide. Okay, so that may not sound like a recipe for hilarity, but that’s exactly what makes the story a great taproot of Jewish humor. The tale relies on split-second reversals of fortune—called hippuch in Hebrew. The only difference between tragedy and comedy is the way the story ends, and the Purim story certainly wraps up with an amusing punch line. Haman, the chief advisor to the Persian king Achashverosh, secretly plots to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Disaster seems inevitable. Little does he know that the king’s wife, Queen Esther, is Jewish herself. Ooops! In an ironic twist, Haman ends up executed on the very gallows he built to hang the Jews. To this day, Jews commemorate this victorious reversal of fortune with a purimshpil (which means a “Purim game” in Yiddish), dressing up in costumes inspired by the Bible story, and perpetuating the tradition of linking the bitter with the sweet, and tragedy with comedy.
These lighthearted Purim activities serve a serious purpose: to remind us that persecution still exists and shows no sign of abating. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, the world pinned its hopes on the dawn of the new millennium, when we would finally bid farewell to the bloodiest century in history. Instead, the twenty-first century ushered in the new Intifada, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and other deadly bombings in London and Madrid. And who would have dared imagine that the ancient and barbaric practice of beheading would reenter the modern world with the execution of Jewish “infidels” like Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl? Nations like Iran and North Korea pose threats to world peace, while reports of genocide in Darfur seem to indicate we have failed to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. Closer to home, the evening news presents a nightmare vision of violence, economic meltdown and pointless tragedy, coupled with reports of shallow, shameless celebrity insanity.
Despite these dark turns in the annals of history, the United States generally remains a safe haven for the Jewish people. But, ironically, America’s embrace of the Jewish people has a shadow side: rampant assimilation and secularism that threatens the future of our faith.
Sadly, I witnessed something I never expected: the same hatred I saw as a child in England, here in my adopted home of New York City. In the autumn of 2007, our local synagogue was vandalized, along with another synagogue on our block. The culprits spray-painted and scratched more than twenty swastikas onto cars, and stuffed handwritten flyers reading “Israel: Land of Pigs” and “All Jews Die” on windshields. And this was in Brooklyn Heights, a leafy, gentrified neighborhood. Coincidentally (or not) the vandalism occurred just a few hours after anti-Semitic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spewed his rhetoric not far away, at Columbia University.
Thankfully, diligent police work paid off and a few months later, a suspect was indicted on almost one hundred counts of criminal mischief and other charges. An arsenal of weapons, including pipe bombs and firearms, was uncovered in his apartment. Our community was relieved, but also disturbed by the news that the suspect was a local man who claimed to be Jewish. His home was just a short distance from my office; I’ve probably passed him on the sidewalk many times. What a chilling reminder of the very real dangers we face today.
With all the tzurus in the world, we might well ask: What is there for twenty-first-century Jewish comedians to joke about? The surprising answer plenty. Luckily for us all, a veritable army of next-generation Jewish comedians are now on the scene, ready to slay the world’s modern day Hamans with their wit.
But before we meet these new Jewish jokers, let’s pay tribute to the funny men and women who paved their way.
“Vassup?” you ask. For one thing, the new movie, Brüno.
The swishy, semi-fascist fashionista Brüno is the imaginary Austrian TV personality created by the very real British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. In 2006, Baron Cohen broke box office records (and probably a couple of laws) with his movie Borat, about another foreign fictional reporter’s adventures in America.
In 2006, Barron Cohen broke box office records (and probably a couple of laws) with his movie Borat, about another foreign fictional reporter’s adventures in America.
Rabbi Simcha was a guest on the Morning Show “The Rude Awakening: With Bulldog and the Dude” IRIE 98.1FM
Simcha discusses the changing face of Jewish humor from Sacha Baron Cohens and Bruno, to Jon Stewart and Meet the Fockers.
It is hard to overstate the influence Jewish people have had on modern comedy The second-generation immigrants who became Borscht Belt tummlers pretty much invented stand-up as we know it, with rhythms and a style that resonate down the decades – after all, what is stand-up but formalised kvetching?
These comedians moved into TV in its early days, creating templates for sitcoms and variety shows – while legends such as the Marx Brothers had already made their indelible mark on film comedy.
But in those early days it was thought that you had to assimilate to succeed, anglicising your name and concealing your heritage. Nowadays, following the trail blazed by the likes of Woody Allen and Jackie Mason, Jewish comedians are ‘out and proud’, mining their background and the stereotypes for comic fuel – from Sarah Silverman’s exaggerated Jewish princess or Larry David’s perpetual schmuck. In today’s postmodern climate, it’s perfectly reasonable for an observant Jew such as Sacha Baron Cohen to pose as a fierce anti-semite, as long as it’s in search of a laugh. Read more
PROVIDENCE, R.I. In the 1930s, amid the Great Depression and Nazi Germany, Cleveland writer Jerry Siegel and Toronto artist Joe Shuster conceived an iconic superhero with rippling biceps, long-flowing cape, impeccably coifed hair and a virtuous calling to stamp out evil.
Superman may not be Jewish like his creators, but some scholars, comic book historians and rabbis see the superhero and his introverted alter ego Clark Kent as subtly influenced by the authors’ heritage and informed by themes of assimilation and conflicted cultural identities.
Two related exhibits at Brown University explore the seminal role of Jews in the comic book genre, including the founders of satirical Mad magazine and the creators of Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Batman and Captain America. The displays also include contemporary illustrators such as Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his Holocaust-inspired comic Maus. Read more
Rabbi Simcha on Air America chats with Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy about the changing face of Jewish humor from Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.
I would like to give a shout to all those who attended the Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century launch with a book reading and signing at Barnes and Noble in Park Slope. If you live outside NYC, please check out the dates of my Shtick Shift tour because I could be in your state soon!
In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century is now available from my new Internet bookstore. The perfect gift if I may say!
Order your personalized autographed copies for only $15. Limited Offer for an extra $5, I will send you a copy of my first book, Up Up and Oy Vey. Two best-sellers for just $20 (Plus P+P) so be a mentsch and enjoy.
Sarah Silverman’s shocking stand up. Judd Apatow’s foul mouthed morality plays. Sacha Baron Cohen’s provocative alter egos. This is definitely not your zayde’s Jewish comedy.
Even the once revolutionary, understated “Jew-ish” and “Israel-lite” flavor of Seinfeld has been
replaced by a brutal matter-of-factness that would make earlier generations cringe. Read more
“Simcha Weinstein is one of the freshest, boldest, and funniest voices writing about American
Judaism today. Shtick Shift is the latest addition to his impressive body of work. It will have you
laughing in your latkes and repeating jokes in services.”
– Bruce Feiler, author of Walking the Bible and Abraham Read more