We’ll never know for sure how many thirteen-year-old boys over the past 80 years have squirreled themselves away with a stash of comic books when they were supposed to be studying for their bar mitzvah. The thing is: They might have been on to something.
In fact, I was one of them, and the comic inside my chumash (bible) was Spider-Man.
Amazingly, comic books are a largely Jewish invention. When Eastern-European Jewish immigrants poured into New York’s Lower East Side in the 1900s, they couldn’t help but view the stories of the bible through the prism of their hard lives in a sometimes baffling new land. They passed those Jewish tales on to their children, who then retold them in ink on pulp paper, beginning in the 1930s.
Each generation of Jewish comic book creators explored the ambiguities of assimilation, the pain of discrimination, and the theme of the misunderstood outcast and rootless wanderer. Is it any wonder that so many superheroes have double identities? Or that these heroes, serving as their creators’ surrogates, became super-patriots, eager to defend their nation?
In 1962, the Bronx’s Stan Lee (born Lieber) conceived of Spider-Man. When bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker (a Woody Allen-esque nebbish-dark-haired, bespectacled, and burdened with stereotypical Jewish neuroses) suddenly acquires superhuman, spider-like powers.
Spider-Man’s ever-present guilty feelings (brought on by his inadvertent role in his beloved uncle’s death) leads to talk of Spider-Man being Jewish. Jewish author Michael Chabon notes: “For years people have speculated that Peter was sort of crypto-Jewish. You know, living with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Queens.” Sam Raimi, the Jewish director of the hugely successful Spider-Man movies, adds: “The only difference is that it [the guilt] is caused by his uncle, not his mother.” (Ironically, there is no Hebrew word for guilt!)
While Stan Lee did not intend the character to be Jewish per se, he hints that he has infused his comic book characters with Jewish ethics. “You can wrap all of Judaism up in one sentence, and that is, ‘Do not do unto others…,'” Lee says. “I try to show there’s some innate goodness in the human condition. And there’s always going to be evil. We should always be fighting evil.”
Lee also explained that he saw the biblical archetype of Spider-Man in the story of King David, who had a special kinship with spiders. “Of all the biblical characters,” Lee old me, “I would have to say Spider-Man most resembles David.”
As a young boy, David tried to fathom the special significance of each animal, but he couldn’t figure out the spider. “Why, Creator of the world, did you make spiders?” he asked. God answered David: “A day will come when you will need the work of this creature. Then you will thank me.”
David grew up and became a courageous warrior. He defeated the giant Goliath and many enemies of the people of Israel. He married King Saul’s daughter, and the people adored him as the greatest man in the land. King Saul was jealous and afraid of David and sent his soldiers to kill him. David ran into a cave to hide. He heard the footsteps of the men and knew that they would soon find him.
But then David saw a big spider at the front of the cave, spinning a web across the opening. The soldiers assumed that the web had been there for some time, and they didn’t search the cave.
So because of the spider, David’s life was saved. David thanked God for creating all the creatures, especially spiders.
And think about this: Spider-Man’s famous costume covers his entire body. His eyes hide behind unblinking white triangles. No other comic book character is so thoroughly disguised. Spider-Man’s complete anonymity can be seen as a Jewish quality. Tradition states that the greatest levels of charity (tzedakah) is when one gives anonymously. Maimonides, in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Mat’not Ani’im 10:9) comments that “The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor.”
Was Stan Lee aware of all these levels of meaning while he was scribbling away on his many creations? Consciously, probably not. Yet he and other Jewish comic book artists and writers infused their work with a particularly Jewish worldview. So I can’t complain too much when my bar mitzvah students sneak out from the classroom and read the latest Spider-Man adventure instead. After all, I didn’t turn out so bad, did I?
Simcha Weinstein (www.rabbisimcha.com) is the founder of the Jewish Student Foundation of Downtown Brooklyn, an educational and cultural center that strives to ignite Jewish pride and commitment through innovative educational and social experiences in an open environment.
This article is taken from the forthcoming book, Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture and Values, shaped the Comic Book Superhero (summer 2006) by Leviathan Press (www.leviathanpress.com).