Up, Up, and Oy Vey: Comic Books and Religion

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Washington, D.C. – On this past Sunday’s “State of Belief,” The Interfaith Alliance Foundation’s show on Air America Radio, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy spoke with the “Comic Book Rabbi,” Simcha Weinstein.  Rabbi Simcha is the author of the new book, Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.


Take Superman, for instance.  Although Clark Kent was raised as a Methodist, his given name on Krypton is “Kal-El” which is Hebrew for “the voice of God.”  Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster were both second generation Jewish immigrants.  “I think they shaped their super hero with a particularly Jewish world view,” said Rabbi Simcha.  Superman could be compared to the story of Moses, who is abandoned at birth, grows up in a foreign land, and eventually becomes savior to the world. 


“[The comic] also mirrors the situation that many real-life Jews back in the late ’30s when Superman first came out.  The life of Jews in the old country in Germany was imploding. Many Jewish children were sent away on the kinder transports to grow up with families in England,” said Rabbi Simcha.


Or, consider Spiderman, whose creator Stan Lee told Rabbi Simcha that he drew great inspiration from Hebrew king, David.   In a story from the Torah, an adolescent David seeks refuge in a cave after being attacked. A spider climbs over the cave and spins a web over the opening to hide David from his attackers.


“Spiderman has been always been my personal favorite superhero because Spiderman has this very Jewish dichotomy,” said Rabbi Simcha.  “On the one hand, he can fly through Manhattan and save the whole world.  On the other hand, he’s a neb, he’s neurotic, he can’t get a job, he can’t get a girlfriend, he struggles, and as a Jew I think that is something all of us can relate to. He’s been called Seinfeld with webbing.”


According to Rabbi Simcha, many early comic book creators were Jewish because of the anti-Semitism of the early 20th century.  Since artistically gifted Jews often were not afforded many education or employment opportunities, they turned to a new industry that welcomed them – comics. These early creators were careful not to make the Jewish roots of their characters too obvious because of their desire to assimilate into American culture.


Also on the show: Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Jesus for the Non-Religious, Ryan Valentine, Faith Network Director for the Texas Freedom Network.