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To Save American Judaism, Say No to Superheroes

Our caped crusaders have a lot to do with our anxieties about Jewish identity. It’s time we found more meaningful alternatives.

Liel Leibovitz
July 24, 2015
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock

How much of a geek am I? Let me count the ways: There is hardly an item in my wardrobe that is not emblazoned with a character from Star Wars, Dr. Who, Guardians of the Galaxy, or any number of pop culture properties favored by us mumbling obsessives. Mention any of the X-Men, and I could likely tell you more about them than I can about most members of my extended family. And if a Klingon sat on the stool next to mine in some bar, I would raise my glass and wish him ‘Iwllj Jachjaj, which loosely translates as L’Chaim and literally means May your blood scream. And yet, despite my particular predilections, or maybe because of them, I have an urgent request: Let’s make no more superhero movies. Let’s ban them, banish them, relegate them back to the same pit of despair where we keep Westerns and musicals and other forms of formerly popular entertainment unlikely to ever again feel the warmth of the limelight.

It’s not just that we’ve overdone it with the caped crusaders—before the next president delivers his or her first State of the Union address, we will be subjected to one, and possibly two, new Fantastic Four movies; another Captain America; another Spider-Man; another X-Men; and a gaggle of standalone films featuring new and minor heroes and villains, from Doctor Strange to Deadpool. This torrent of redeemers would’ve been easier to take, perhaps, had the entire notion of the superhero not been based on cultural preoccupations belonging to a previous century and that, in 2015, do more harm than good, to us Jews in particular.

It’s easy to read the previous sentence as nothing more than an overheated nerd overblowing the overall significance of comic book characters, which is why a touch of historical perspective is in order. Superheroes, as even the disinterested probably know, are largely the creation of Jewish artists who, working in the middle years of the 20th century, dreamed up infallible creatures to assuage their own existential insecurities. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two high-school kids from Cleveland, summoned Superman into existence in 1933, a few months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor. It took five years for the Man of Steel to star in his first published adventure; by then, Hitler had annexed Austria and was beginning his move into Czechoslovakia. Nor did life stateside seem that much rosier: A 1938 survey found that 60 percent of those polled held extremely low opinions of Jews, finding them “pushy,” “greedy,” and “dishonest.” Can you really blame a couple of Jewish guys for dreaming up a man who, like them, was really an alien in America and who, unlike them, only had to remove his thick glasses to reveal to the world the extent of his powers?

Thus was born the trope of the secret identity, a device that has served not only as the engine of a thousand plotlines but also as a banner for Jews and others struggling to find their place in America. For those on the outside looking in, for those who realize they’ll never fit in as squarely as the others, the idea of the secret identity promised both the assurances of assimilation and the joys of reveling in one’s true self—radiant, unleashed, and larger than life.

All that was fine for the 1930s through the 1960s, decades of swimming cautiously into the American mainstream. But this is 2015, two decades after Seinfeld. Yiddishims are now part of the lingua franca. Kabbalah is now part of every celebrity’s spiritual diet. What sense does a self-transforming Clark Kent make in this comfortable climate of acceptance?

For a thoughtful diagnosis, read my friend Gal Beckerman’s recent and masterful analysis of the pathology currently plaguing American Jews. “It’s not self-hatred or an attempt at ingratiating themselves with the wider society (as one former Israeli diplomat recently diagnosed it) that plagues American Jews,” Beckerman astutely observed. “It’s a lack of self-confidence and, perhaps even scarier, a lack of material with which to build a more confident identity.”

And identity, to us moderns, is the sine qua non, the iron throne on which we sit and invite the world to behold our specific glory. But identity, as our scholars of gender and race and sexuality constantly remind us, is performative, a social construct designed as much or more for public consumption as it is for individual use. Identity, as the Rachel Dolezals of this world so helpfully remind us, is a spectacle waiting to unfurl.

Which, perhaps, is why we’ve grown so attached to our superheroes: They are, after all, nothing if not idylls of identity, blessed, more often than not, with only one defining trait. What’s a Jew? Go figure. What’s a Spider-Man? A costumed dude who slings webs and climbs walls. The more acutely we feel the anxiety Beckerman describes, the more tempted we are to retreat into a world bereft of complications, where chiseled men and women pulsate with strong, singular beliefs.

Nothing could be worse for us. American public life, and American Jewish life in particular, is already sufficiently depleted, sufficiently misguided, sufficiently given to preoccupations with identity and its never-ending but ultimately empty intricacies. The more we care about identity, the less we care about personality, that infinitely more complex and idiosyncratic structure that is sustained not by symbolic actions but by private, often painful, commitments. Rather than engage with our theological precepts, as Jews have done for millennia—rejecting them, wrestling with them, amending them, accepting them, and forging a community that sustained itself across time and space by committing itself, incredibly, to ideas—we tell ourselves that none of this hard work and education are necessary because we could always bite into a bagel and quote a line from Annie Hall and call ourselves culturally Jewish. Studying Superman is easier than studying the Talmud.

There’s room, of course, for both, but less and less so in a field thick with fantastical characters designed to offer a quick resolution to the most profound question of our time, the question of just who the hell we are. The more we gawk at these super saviors, the more accustomed we grow to thinking of ourselves as creatures forged by the fires of one or two simple and defining character traits, the less likely it is that we’ll ever emerge from our state of permanent anxiety and find something else, something truly meaningful, to offer our young. Swearing off superheroes won’t make any of us overnight scholars, but it’s a good first step toward embracing a more human, layered, and sustainable view of our universe.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.