A strange feeling comes over a committed Jewish activist when watching Spider-Man. No, it's not Spider-Sense. It's more a pang of familiarity -- some might call it Spider-Seichel -- felt when one watches Spider-Man responding to a murderous aggressor who has no compunction about attacking women and children using explosives and stolen technology. Spider-Man fights back, defends and protects, but the newspapers range from depicting the two sides as equivalent, to blaming Spider-Man for the destruction.
"Bad press!" the audience mutters. "But he's a hero!"
Anyone who feels for a peace-loving Israel -- vilified by bored, vindictive or gullible reporters -- can't help but ask about Spider-Man: "Why does he even bother?" At a time when Jewish sensibilities are raised by unfriendly press coverage of Israeli defensive actions, we relate to a superhero who finds the newspapers against him when his sole aim is to defend the innocent.
Besides the "public relations problem," there's a web of Jewishness about "Spidey" that's hard to ignore. A web that stretches from his Jewish creator Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) to Sam Raimi (the Jewish director of the new blockbuster film), and across numerous points along the way.
Peter Parker, Spider-Man's alter ego, lives in Forest Hills, Queens, New York (a very Jewish neighborhood) and fits the Jewish stereotype of the nerdy pathetic guy with glasses who's invisible (not as a super-power, but as a shortcoming) to the beautiful girl next door, who, in turn, wastes her time with less deserving athletic thugs and rich boys.
Before Peter Parker goes out and saves the world, he first needs to experience tragedy.
Peter gets bitten by a genetically modified spider that changes him in some very profound ways. Similarly, Jewish activists "bitten by the bug" find their entire lives with a new focus, and -- frequently -- increased strength and stamina. But Peter Parker's first reaction is not to go out and save the world. He needs to experience tragedy first.
In the 1930s and 40s, American Jews witnessed, albeit from a distance, the wholesale slaughter of their brethren in Europe. The aftermath of regret -- and the abiding wish that we could have done more -- has evidenced itself in deep commitment to prevent a recurrence of this historic horror. The primary activist response has been on behalf of Jews in danger overseas. This plays out principally in a fervent commitment to Israel, but is manifest in other ways such as the movements for Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry.
Another outcome (some say a secondary response to guilt suffered wondering if someone "dropped the ball") has been a redoubling of mainstream Jewish commitment to a more or less universalist campaign for human rights, both at home and abroad.
Poor Peter Parker became a hero the same way. After seeing someone close to him die as the victim of senseless, eminently preventable violent crime, he vows to protect the innocent, keeping the same fate from befalling others.
"Where there is no man, be a man." -Rabbi Hillel
"Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to live an ordinary life is no longer an option." -Spider-Man
"With great power comes great responsibility." -Peter's Uncle Ben
The biblical book of Proverbs lists the spider as one of four "small things that are very wise... [It] climbs up with its hands and is in king's palaces." Despite living amidst luxury, the spider prefers to catch its own food rather than taking from others. Compare that to Spider-Man's classic no-thank-you: "Action is my reward."
The first Arachnid hero in Jewish history saved the life of King David running from those who would slay him. After he ducked into a cave, a spider spun a web over the cave opening with such speed that his pursuers were sure that David could not be hiding within. But even though King David's life was spared thanks to a spider-hero, comic books wouldn't come along for another 3,000 years.
A spider spun a web over the cave opening with such speed that his pursuers were sure that David could not be hiding within.
The first comic book creators had a lot in common 60-70 years ago when they dreamed up a multitude of superheroes prepossessed with justice, self-sacrifice and acts of kindness. The vast majority of the writers, artists and publishers who created this industry out of near-nothingness were Jews. The roster of comic book pioneers reads like a shul mailing list: Schuster, Siegel, Gillman, Eisner, Binder, Klein, Fine, Schomburg, Blum, Simon, Meskin, Sekowsky.
The very first superhero, Superman, was introduced in 1938. His origin was based on the newborn Moses' narrow escape from Pharaoh's infanticide. Like Amram and Yocheved before them, Superman's parents Jor-El and Lara saved their baby son from communal catastrophe by placing him in a small conveyance (a mini-spaceship) and sending him off to be adopted, never dreaming he'd grow up to be a hero known the world over.
JEWISH HERO CORPS
In their few decades of existence, superheroes have become an international phenomenon and a multi-billion-dollar industry. In addition to Spider-Man and the X-Men, we have had four Batman movies, five Superman movies, dozens of animated and live action TV shows, and upcoming films of The Hulk, Daredevil and more. Comic books and their attendant characters are everywhere: lunchboxes, backpacks, action figures, t-shirts and even kipot.
The values they project have an effect on children and society. While cynics will claim that children are attracted to violence, I am of the understanding that children do not like violence per se, but are intrigued by excitement, conflict and resolution. Violence is just the rawest way to accomplish these ends.
Menorah Man grows eight arms that shoot flames.
That's why I created The Jewish Hero Corps, a team of Jewish superheroes whose common enemy is Jewish amnesia. Their adversaries, the Fobots, are contrary Robots programmed to erase Jewish knowledge and unravel Jewish history and culture. In an upcoming comic book, they tamper with computer memory chips to create the dreaded "Forget-me-Chip" which erases Jewish memories. Menorah Man (who grows eight arms and shoots flames) works with Kippah Kid, Dreidel Maidel, and Shabbos Queen to promote Jewish values -- as well as Truth, Justice and the American Way.
As for Spider-Man, there's a real advantage to being able to weave your own tallis, and we can all look forward to a Shabbat meal with him and his wife, the Webbetzin.
Adapted in part from a lecture by the author at the CAJE (Coalitions for Alternatives in Jewish Education) conference at Stanford University in August 1997.
Alan Oirich is a writer and multimedia producer. For more information, see JewishSuperHeroes.com