Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Power of An Adult Jewish Education

“Look up!  In the sky! It’s a bird!  It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!”  This is arguably the most famous catchphrase in all of comic book lore.  So much so, that even those folks who are not fans of this particular medium know of this American icon.  According to Time Magazine, Superman is one of the top 13 most memorable people who never lived.[1]

But how much do we really know about Superman?  In his book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most enduring Hero, Larry Tye wrote, “Legend has it that Superman was born under a fiery red sun on the futuristic planet of Krypton, in a crystal tower overlooking the Jewel Mountains and the Scarlet Jungle.  But the legend has it wrong.  In fact, Superman was born under a hazy yellow sun in a gritty Jewish precinct of Cleveland, two blocks from the Hebrew Orthodox Old Age Home and down the street from Glenville High.  Just ask Jerry Siegel.  He’s the one who brought him to life there in the throes of the Great Depression.”[2]

As Jerry Seigel recalled, “Late one night, it was so hot that I had trouble falling asleep.  I passed the time by trying to come up with dramatic story elements for the comic strip.  One premise I had already conceived came back to me, but in even sharper focus.

The story would begin with you as a child on far-off planet Krypton.  Like the others of that world, you had super-powers.  The child’s scientist-father was mocked and denounced by the Science Council.  They did not believe his claim that Krypton would soon explode from internal stresses.  Convinced that his prediction was valid, the boy’s father had been constructing a model rocket ship.  As the planet began to perish, the baby’s parents knew its end was close.  There was not space enough for three people in the small model craft.  They put the baby into it.  The mother chose to remain on the doomed planet with the man she loved, and die with him.  Tearfully, hoping that their baby boy would survive, they launched the craft toward the planet Earth.  Shortly, Krypton exploded and its millions of inhabitants were destroyed.

As Simcha Weinstein wrote in his book Up, Up, and Oy Vey!, “That was 1934, and it would take another four years for Superman to go from feverish dream to full-fledged hero.  Detective Comics, Inc., looking for a character for its new magazine, Action Comics, paid young Siegel and Shuster $130 for the first thirteen pages of Superman.  Action Comics #1 materialized in June 1938.  The issue sold out, and a star was drawn.”[3]

This is the official story.  But what is equally as important is that Superman has Jewish origins.  Not only were his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Jewish, but they drew heavily from their own tradition, our tradition, in their new creation.  For example, Superman’s backstory was pulled straight out of Exodus.  “Like the people of Krypton who faced annihilation, the Jews of biblical Egypt faced the murder of all their male offspring.  To ensure her sons survival, Jochebed places Moses in a reed basket and sets him afloat on the Nile.  Her desperate decision is clearly echoed by Superman’s father, Jor-El, who launches the little rocket ship containing his son into outer space.”[4]

Moses and Superman are eventually discovered and raised in foreign cultures.  Baby Moses is found by Basya, the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in the royal palace.  Superman is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent in a Midwestern cornfield and given the name Clark.  From the onset, both Basya and the Kents realize that these foundling boys are extraordinary.

When Clark grows older, his adoptive father tells him, ‘Now listen to me, Clark, this great strength of yours – you’ve got to hide it from people or they’ll be scared of you … but when the proper time comes you must use it to assist humanity.’[5]  Moses gets a similar inspirational talk from God in the famous story of the burning bush from the book of Exodus:

‘And now, go and I shall dispatch you to Pharaoh and you shall take my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’[6][7]

            Superman was just as clearly inspired by the stories and the strength of Samson.  Superman’s name is even Jewish: Kal-El.  El is one of the oldest names of God as can be found in the Torah.  Thus Kal-El can be translated to “the voice of God.”  Even the original German concept by Friedrich Nietzsche: Übermensch, or as it is translated, “Super-man”, appears to our ears to be Jewish.  And perhaps the greatest indication that Superman is in fact Jewish; is that Clark Kent, designed after Joe and Jerry’s many personal frustrations, is that he is quite a nebbish and often referred to as a klutz. 

            Superman has been a perennial staple of newspaper comics, comic books, television, and movies.  The first Superman film was called Superman and the Mole Men.  It came out in 1951.  Since then Superman has appeared in seven theatrical releases to date whose box office and international returns total a little over 1.5 Billion dollars, adjusted for inflation of course.  They are already planning a sequel to the most recent incarnation entitled, “Man of Steel” as well as a cross-over movie with Batman. 

Speaking of Batman, You might have heard that Ben Affleck was recently cast to play an older version of the caped-crusader much to the consternation of many of the more rabid fans.  But what they themselves may not even know is that Batman was also created by a Jew: Robert Kahn, later Bob Kane, a second generation Jewish-American.

            Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and one of my personal favorites Spiderman were all created by Jews.  Perhaps the most famous Jewish Comic book writer is Stanley Leiber, or as you might know him by: Stan Lee.

            All of these superheroes are imbued with Jewish characteristics, much of which evolved straight out of yiddishkeit.  One of the most famous comic book covers was that of Captain America punching the leader of Germany, in the face, months before the United States even went to war.

            These superheroes embodied in many ways, the frustrations and wish fulfillments of their creators.  One of the best literary examples of this is in the book the Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, the acclaimed Jewish author of other books like the Yiddish Policemen’s Guild.

            I mention all of this for two reasons.  First off, I will be teaching a class on Jews and Comics as part of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis Adult Institute next month, which you are all welcome to attend.  You should have received brochures, and there is a poster in the lobby with more information.  And secondly because comic books have evolved into tremendously popular, though not always good movies, which in turn, have had a significant impact on our culture.  With the development of computer graphics, comic book movies have now become one of the most popular mediums for film.  Last year’s The Avengers became one of the highest grossing movies of all time.  Superheroes, for good or for ill, are very much a quintessential part of the American experience.  It is one of the perennial American creations like jazz, musical theater, and hip hop.  But unlike those other art forms, almost all of the early comic book men were Jews.

I mention all of this because this past summer Man of Steel was released by Warner Brothers.  Starring Henry Cavill and directed Zach Snyder, the movie went on to make over $650 million worldwide.  I will save my review of this movie for another day.  However, though as we have discussed, Superman was of Jewish origins, all of this disappeared in the most recent cinematic depiction.  Clark Kent was not much of a nebbish.  And the superhero seemed much more Christ-like than Jewish.  Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point was in one of the ways the movie was marketed.  According to an article in Forbes, “As part of its marketing campaign for “Man of Steel, Warner Brothers Studios is pushing the movie with Christian pastors. The studio invited them to screenings. It made Christian-themed trailers. It drafted sermon notes:  “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”[8]

It is as if all of his Jewishness has long been forgotten and instead co-opted into an entirely different universe.  Yes Superman is the embodiment of an American hero.  But he is also our hero, born right out of our tradition. And without this knowledge, we run the risk of losing Superman and having him co-opted by the larger society much in the same way of what has happened to the bagel.

            Now you might be thinking to yourselves, all this fuss over a fictional character?  And you would be right except that Superman has come to embody so much more than that.  As a character he is a fiction, as a symbol he has become so much more.  People identify with him.  They identify with his sense of righteousness and his sense of purpose.  They see themselves in him just as they envy his powers.  As the tag line goes, he represents, “truth, justice, and the American way.”  Therefore it is important for us to know the truth about him.  Truth comes from knowledge.  And if we do not know the truth about our first Superhero, we run the risk of losing him entirely to others.  As it says in the Babylonian Talmud “Truth is the seal of the Holy One, blessed be God.”[9]  As our great medieval commentator to the Talmud, Rashi, goes on to explain, “this saying refers to the Hebrew word for truth, emet, formed from the first letter of the alphabet, alef, the middle letter, mem, and the final letter, tav.  The God of truth is found wherever there is truth and His absence is felt wherever there is falsehood.”  Or as we learn from the story of the Golem, one of the inspirations for Superman, without emet (truth), there is just met, or death.

            In order to have control over one’s truth, the journey first begins with understanding.  Recently there was an article in the Jewish Times entitled “The Fusion of Faiths.”  Yours truly was quoted in the article.  And to be fair, I did spend around half-an hour on the phone with the reporter answering a series of questions.  I have to say, my quotes, for the most part, were accurate, but the context the editors framed them in, made it appear that I had a different opinion on the matter than the one I expressed.

            The article was about the issue of Messianic Judaism.  As the article began, “We’re in the era of pluralism.  Open-mindedness.  Acceptance.  Tolerance.”[10]  Of course as liberal, Reform Jews, we all believe in pluralism, acceptance and tolerance.  But the article presents an argument that would seem to imply that those who choose to call themselves “Messianic Jews,” are and should be accepted as Jews.  When I did the interview, the reporter was not even aware of the important but subtle differences between Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus. 

            Due to this article, I received several emails and questions about my views on this subject matter.  It is as if, without having knowledge, one might be led to believe that I see no substantive difference between Messianic Jews and Jews.  Of course this could not be farther from the truth, and I felt compelled to write a letter to the editor to emphasize the points that I thought I had made in the interview.

            In the letter I stated, “In your article about Messianic Jews (“Fusion of Faiths,” June 21), I was quoted throughout the article, and I feel the need to clearly reiterate my position that those who identify themselves as Messianic Jews are not Jewish. Har Sinai Congregation has always been a very welcoming congregation to many diverse populations. We especially work hard to welcome all of our interfaith families, and we respect the different religions that are observed in their households. All that being said, I firmly believe that if you believe in Jesus as your Lord, you are by definition a Christian. To state that one can believe in Jesus as their Lord and be a practicing Jew does a disservice to both Christians and Jews. Contrary to the implications in the article, I for one am not ambivalent nor do I stumble over this issue. I feel it is important to continue to have the conversation about the differences in theology, worship and practice between Judaism and Christianity. But I do not feel that that this is one delineation that will ever be crossed.”[11]

            There was one statement in the article I did agree with.  It correctly pointed out that the danger is when people don’t understand or are not aware of the powerful and important differences between these faith traditions; they might equate the two as the same.  It is like saying the Steelers and the Ravens are the same thing.  They are both football teams.  But as you and I know, the proud followers of both have very different feelings on this subject matter.

            Without this knowledge however, people will make the assumption that because there is the term ‘Judaism’ or ‘Jew’ in how these followers identify themselves, they must be Jewish.  There is a whole movement afoot called Jews for Judaism fighting this trend.  They are based right here in Owings Mills, and they are working to protect the most vulnerable in our community who are targeted by these groups among others.

            But we ask ourselves: how can this happen?  To start with, we must acknowledge, that when it comes to our tradition, there is a knowledge gap.  For many of us, we worked hard preparing for our bar or bat mitzvahs, and when the celebration was all done, we walked away from our formal Jewish education.  We may remember a little bit of Hebrew and a little bit about the holidays.  We recall how preposterous many of the stories in the Torah sounded to our ears, and we left pediatric elements of our tradition behind.  It is as if, we continued to grow up, while Judaism remained stagnant in our thirteen-year-old perceptions.

            Many of us went on to college where we encountered philosophy, science, and so much more, and our Judaism simply did not stand a chance.  Now we come here to worship, maybe out of a sense of duty or obligation.  And I am sure there are some of you saying to yourself, “why do I do this every year?”  I don’t find meaning in the service.  And yet you do come, because there is part of you that wants to connect.

            But here’s the secret, Judaism was never meant to be a pediatric tradition.  Instead is a tradition of empowerment.  It wrestles with just about every possible topic and quandary you can think of: abortion, immigration, individual rights versus communal obligations, end of life issues, medical conundrums, the ethics of food, personal relations, honesty, integrity and the list goes on and on.  I like to say that Judaism really lives in the gray areas of life. 

            This is in part because Judaism is not dogmatic.  It encourages us to ask lots of questions.  It is more than a set of rituals and a language few of us speak.  Like Superman, it embodies a way of life.  There is no secret knowledge here.  It is all yours for the taking.

            But you might be saying to yourself, I am too busy or I have left that part of me behind.  To this I would like to respond with a story.  This is the story of Nizin Lopez.  In the article The True Story of One Man’s Discovery of his Jewish roots, journalist Karmel Melamed writes, “In December of 1992, after enduring the difficulties of life in Stalinist Cuba, then 17-year-old Nizin Lopez decided to risk his life and escape the island for the chance to live the American dream in the United States. "You really don't have choices or freedom in Cuba," said Lopez. "They tell you what you have to eat, watch on T.V., they practically control your life." While living in Cuba, Lopez was informed that his grandparents were Jewish but was never exposed to Judaism because it was prohibited by Cuban law…

            With only a few belongings, he traveled on foot from his village and carried two canisters of gasoline that served as tickets for the boat ride Lopez was making with his father and 13 other refugees. "It was very hard, he walked for miles through the thick bushes, getting cuts on his arms and legs," Lopez said. Following a few days at sea the boat carrying Lopez and the refugees was destroyed and the group was stranded on Anyuila Key, an island off the coast of Florida.

For nine days, Lopez and others were left without food or water and barely survived by drinking a little rainwater and eating snails. "It was really rough, he almost died," he said. "But he had faith in G-d that he was going to make it." Eventually the refugees were rescued by the Bahamian coast guard and imprisoned for two weeks in a Nassau jail with little food or clothing to stay warm.

            Lopez said he and the other refugees managed to contact relatives in Florida who secured their release from the Bahamas and paid for a smuggler to take them close to the U.S. shores. Finally in early January 1993, Lopez's unbearable journey across the ocean to America was over when the U.S. coast guard rescued him and the others off the coast of Florida and granted them political asylum in the U.S.[12]

Following his arrival in America, Lopez spent the next nine years trying to forge a new life for himself as an artist who created album covers for Heavy Metal rock bands and pursuing other artist endeavors. Being a wild spirit, he was quickly drawn into the world of Heavy Metal rock music and became involved in the music, sex, drinking, and even experimentation with drugs…”

But there was something missing in Lopez’s life.  Over time he learned about his Jewish identity.  He learned how his family on his mother’s side were Turkish Jews who immigrated to Cuba in the 1920s.  He discovered that halachically, he was, in fact, Jewish.  And from there his journey to understanding began.  After approaching an Atlanta area rabbi, Lopez began to study.  He studied Torah, kabbalah, and he even travelled to Israel.

Lopez is now a proud Jew who aspires to bring his mother and sister out of Cuba.  He also wants to “gain more recognition as a surrealistic artist by exhibiting his paintings that have been influenced by and contain aspects of Jewish mysticism.”[13]

Here is someone who had to flee his homeland and come to a land he did not know, just like Abraham in order to find his connection to Judaism.  And I can’t help but think that if Lopez could do it, so can we.

With all this in mind, we at Har Sinai Congregation are committing this year to offering an increasing number of opportunities for adult education.  We want to give you the chance to come and learn.  We want to give you the tools to be able to reconnect with your heritage and tradition.

For example, we will be offering an introductory Hebrew course which will hopefully lead us to offering another chance for those of you who wish, to have an adult b’nai mitzvah.  We want to lower the barrier and help you feel more comfortable with the liturgical Hebrew.

We will also be offering once-a-month course on Sundays simply entitled: Judaism 101.  It is the practical, how do to Judaism in your homes along with explanations about why we do what we do.  There will be a course relating to Judaism and Sexuality taught by our own resident expert on the subject, Dr. Bill Petok.  This spring we will once again be doing a joint scholar-in-residence with the three other Reform congregations.  Our scholar is the world-renowned expert on Judaism and Islam, Dr. Reuven Firestone. We continue to have our Weekly Torah study on Shabbat and our Weekly Sisterhood Bible study on Monday mornings.  There are book clubs that are ongoing.  And we will have a variety of speakers come and teach from time to time.  And of course there is the aforementioned Adult Institute taking place in October.  And even if you are not interested in Jews and Comics, there are a wide variety of fascinating learning opportunities from some of the great scholars in our community.

You can read more about all of these learning opportunities in our newly published Adult Education brochure, available outside of the sanctuary courtesy of the hard work of Jo-Ellen Unger and our Life Long Learning Committee.  Also to help further along learning opportunities and general connection to the community we are proud to announce that we will be the first congregation in the Baltimore area to have an app available both on Apple and Android. It is in beta testing right now, but we will be sending out word soon when you can download it.

            There is a book in my office called, Swimming the Sea of Talmud.  The Talmud is a very scary collection indeed.  It is in Hebrew and Aramaic.  It contains Mishnah, midrash, and commentary all wrapped up in a very confusing design. 

And yet, when looking at the book, I am reminded that like all of our tradition, in order to swim, you have to first be willing to get wet and put your toe in the water.  Even a superhero needs to get wet every once in a while.  Which is great because another superhero Aquaman, was co-created by Mort Weisinger, a long time editor for DC Comics, and a fellow member of the tribe.

There is much to learn and much to be gained by learning.  Even if you just get your feet wet, you might find yourself reconnecting with a tradition that has so very much to offer.  And its offerings can make your life more knowledgeable, more fulfilling, and more rewarding.  So come and study with us.  For knowledge is our tradition’s greatest super power.

            L’shana Tova


[2] Tye, Larry, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, Random House, New York, 2012, pg. ix.
[3] Weinstein, Simcha, Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, Leviathan Press, Baltimore, 2006, 23.
[4]Ibid., 26
[5] Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman #2 (Fall 1939), reprinted in Superman: Archives, Vol. 1 (New York: DC Comics, 1989), 95.
[6] Exodus 3:10
[7] Weinstein, Simcha, Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, Leviathan Press, Baltimore, 2006, 26.
[9] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 55a
[10] Jaffe, Mayaan, “Fusion of Faiths,” Baltimore Jewish Times, June 20, 2013.
[11] Ibid., Letters to the Editor, July 3, 2013
[13] Ibid.

1 comment:

Nizin Lopez said...

Greetings. This is NIZIN LOPEZ. Things have changed....I didn't want it to be this way but it is what it is. Watch my YouTube video: Gang stalking in Miami Fla by Mr NIZIN LOPEZ part I. I did all I could to belong in Israel but I was never accepted because I'm not of pure race & because I'm not wealthy. I made a great mistake trying to recover my buried heritage. Thanks. My life has been completely destroyed by a group of fascists elitists here in Fla. I guess it was God's will. I used to venerate Israel & Am Israel ....those times are gone....Did you know that I rode the buses in Yerushalayim? Did you know I studied in M.Sephardi & in Machon Meir? The IDF did not trust me because of my look....the sacrifices I made in order to belong with the Jewish people are simply endless .....I ended up gang stalked, terrorized,...destroyed ....betrayed ....I almost died on 12/26/2012 here in Miami/Fla.....It's OK. There's reincarnation ....I know I'm a soul from W.W II.