Sunday, 25 November 2018

Stan Lee, Jacob and Being a Jewish Superhero

One of the great heroes of 20th C American literature died last week - Stan Lee, the comic book genius behind Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther and the rest of them.

Stan Lee was Jewish - been wondering how that impacted on his heroes.

Let’s start with the X-Men.

Series started in 1963 where small boys and girls would discover their mutant superpower as they hit their teenage years. A sort of BM present, if you like. But then, in 1965 came a shift that has come to play an important part in the franchise ever since.

Episode 14 - ‘Among Us ... Stalk the Sentinels’[1] featured a Dr Bolivar Trask who wanted to wipe out these mutants, fearing their supernatural powers would condemn everyone else to slavery. So he pioneers sentinels to destroy our mutant superheroes.

“So, it has finally begun,” Charles Xavier pours over the newspaper. “The one thing I always feared – a witch hunt for mutants!”

The Sentinels were based on the German Nazi SS. Of course they were.
Lee, of course, was born to a Jewish family that had fled Romania - he knew about witch hunting people who were different and threatening in their difference.

A number of the obituaries I read suggested that this was behind his commitment to creating superheroes who reflected the diversity of this extraordinary planet - the Black Panther - created by the Jewish Stan Lee, Daredevil - the first blind superhero - also created by a Jew who understood the power of diversity and the importance of protecting it and proclaiming it.

These aren’t just kids’ stories, they are the myths that shape us. Fifty years after Lee created these characters, they still shape us.

Or what about another of Lee’s creations - Ben Grimm - The Thing, one of the Fantastic Four.[2] Grimm was a Jewish kid living on the Lower East Side when he stole a Magen David from the Jewish shop-keeper Mr Sheckerberg. Some years later Grimm returns to return the stolen jewellery to find the super-villain Powederkeg has created an explosion leaving Shekerberg lying, seeming on the point of death. Grimm stands over the shop-keeper and recites the Shema.

In his last encounter with Powederkeg who is, of course, defeated, the villain peers up at The Thing and says,
"Are you really Jewish?" the villain asks.
"There a problem with that?"
"No! No, it's just... you don't look Jewish."

That’s a very deep vein of Jewish identity Lee is mining. The non-Jew unable to imagine they have been defeated by a Jew they always assumed was less able than they were, and certainly less physically powerful.

In fact, that’s part of why Stan Lee and the other Jewish comic book creators were doing working in comics in the first place.
Anti-semitism made it difficult for Jewish writers, illustrators and designers to find employment in more prestigious sectors like advertising or the mainstream medi, so they did the one thing they could - told stories and produced images for whoever would be interested.

I’m reminded of Michael Chabon, Pulizter Prize for Fiction
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Story of two Jewish boys, one a refugee from Nazi occupied Prague who become best of friends in New York and create comic superheros who triumph over all adversity.

In a world where it was very hard for a Jew to win, in a world where Jews were being murdered for the simple fact of their Judaism in mainland Europe, and kept the respectable well-paid jobs even in the United States, in that world the Jewish comic book creators, Lee first among them, created stories where Jews could win.

Then there was the humour.
Everyone assumes the superheroes crack jokes while they save the world, or even while they are getting beaten up in that scene where it looks like they might finally be defeated ... before they save the world.
But that, again, was Stan Lee’s creation.
And that, again, is profoundly a reflection of the ways Jews made their way in the States in the middle of the last century.

American mid-20th C humour is Jewish humour.
Looked up a list of American Jewish comedians - not sure how many of these names will mean something to the younger members here today, but trust me; these men and women are giants.
Filed under ‘B’
Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and George Burns.
In the ‘M’ section the Marx Brothers, Jackie Mason, Bette Midler and Zero Mostel.
Humour was how Jews, and other outsiders, made light of their outsider-ness, indeed used their outsider-ness to gain welcome and success.

But the thing that most struck me, today, was Lee’s greatest creation - Peter Parker better known as Spiderman.

The thing about Parker is that, stripped of his fancy suit he wasn’t so funny. He was a nervy, neurotic too afraid to talk to the girl of his dreams.
Or in yiddish, Parker was a nebbish.
The idea that a superhero could be nervous on the inside and still save the world was Stan’s.

‘Of course Spiderman is Jewish’ said Adnrew Garfield, the Jewish actor who currently plays the role.[3]

And that takes me to the superhero of this week’s parasha, Jacob - the man who is transformed while wrestling some strange mythic force, into Israel.

Jacob is a nebbish.

Last week - in tents, mother’s boy.

Jacob spend most of this parasha nervous. Give Peter Parker a run for his money.

Genesis 32:8
We came to your brother Esau and he is coming to meet you and four hundred men with him.
And Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.

Not the first and not the last time that a Jew has faced great odds - a much mightier physical opponent, and still found a way to survive.

Goliath – classic superhero
Conquered by the Jewish David.

It is, of course, also a central message of Chanukah
Message, at the end of the day, inner strength will outwit, outperform and triumph over outer-strength
Not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone…

Interesting and perhaps characteristic Jewish attitude to power.
The true strength of a person is their inner strength, not their outer strength.
And what counts is not how one first feels when encountering a new challenge, a threat or a confusion, but how one completes that work.

That’s the lesson of the wrestling match between Jacob and his super-villain, the angel who comes to wrestle with him.

Jacob’s a nebbish, he’s up against a mighty supernatural force, but he refuses to back down. This artwork isn’t Stan Lee’s it’s Gustav Dore - from 1885 -.

But it could be an illustration from a contemporary graphic novel.

Jacob’s superpower is his refusal to surrender.
That’s the thing that forces the angel to quit -

‘Let me go for it is daybreak’
‘I won’t let you go’ Jacob responds, ‘unless you bless me.’

So the angel blesses Jacob - gives him his new alias and names, for the first time his superpower.

 The man/angel asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man/angel said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel - Yisrael because you have struggled sarita with God and with humans and have overcome.”

That’s Jacob’s superpower - he’s a wrestler with God and humans, and he refuses to give up.

The wrestling with angel comes at a physical cost – Jacob limps on, but mentally, spiritually, he is stronger,

This is the aim of the game.
Not to get through life pristine, unblemished, having never launched oneself into a wrestling match with a scary opponent.
Come to the end of life limping because of the wrestling matches of our life.

Tillich – true fear is to be afraid of looking back at life and seeing nothing.
And there are some who live their life, as if to maximise their likelihood of looking back, at the end of a life to see nothing ventured, nothing gained.
No risks taken.
And there are those who live their lives so that they can look back with no regrets, nothing left behind, risks taken, challenges met, challenges born with courage.

Reach further than we think we can.
Challenge is to sustain our appetite for the challenge.
Giving up only takes a moment,

Even greater challenge when everyone would understand if you were to give up.
But only you would know that this would be weak and from somewhere you find the strength to go on.
That is Jacob’s super-power - the super-power of being an Israelite.

I chanced upon the wise advice of a fictional character to their dear friend.
 ‘Promise me you will always remember, ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.’
Said Christopher Robbin to Winnie the Pooh - who, lovely as he was isn’t really anyone’s version of a super-hero, but the advice was true. It was true for Poo, it was true also for Jacob and as an inspiration, it will do for us all.
For in truth we are all
‘Braver than we believe, stronger than we seem and smarter than we think.’

Shabbat shalom


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