The superhero was invented by Jews.
Oh sure, proto-superheroic figures go all the way back to the Scarlet Pimpernel. (Or mythological figures, depending on how you look at it, but hey—it wasn’t like Samson was putting up a Christmas tree and eating ham.) And the pulp media of the 30s was full of precursors to what we today recognize as a superhero. And the comics industry of the Golden Age was home to a diverse group of artists who couldn’t get higher profile gigs as illustrators due to their ethnicities.
But mostly, it was Jewish fellas. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Robert Kahn (Bob Kane) and Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. Will Eisner. Jacob Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby) and Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee) and Hymie Simon (Joe Simon). The list goes on! And they were all working during the darkest days in Jewish history to create heroes—brave and powerful figures crusading for the rights of the downtrodden.
And yet you wouldn’t know it from the actual religious makeup of most comic book characters. Jewish superheroes are still vanishingly rare nearly 80 years after two young mensches from Cleveland gave their dark-haired strongman a Hebraic name and a Moses-like backstory. Wikipedia, for example, only lists 26 pages under “Jewish superheroes,” one of which is “list of Jewish superheroes.” Compare this to 2,083 pages under “superheroes” in general—just about one percent.
Still, there are a handful of well-known Jewish heroes out there performing mitzvahs. Since we’re coming up on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and since the current political atmosphere increasingly resembles that in which the superhero was born—here are a few of my favorites, to help light the way into the new year. L’shanah tovah!
Ben Grimm (The Thing)
Though the Fantastic Four’s craggy, pugnacious ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing couldn’t be revealed as Jewish until 2002, a full forty years after his debut, he’s always been heavily coded as such, with his rocky form evoking the golem of Jewish legend. His Jewish co-creater Jack Kirby even put him in his family’s 1976 Hannukah card, dressing Bashful Benjamin in a talit and yarmulke and giving him a prayer book. I love Ben because he flies in the face of Jewish stereotypes as a hot-tempered, plain-talking brawler, and for his classic Lower East Side tenement background. His gruffness and essential mournfulness speak to what I saw in the men of my grandfather’s generation, and make him feel like family. I’d eat apples and honey with you any day, Benjy.
Kate Kane (Batwoman)
When DC reintroduced Kate Kane to their universe in 2006, it was with an eye to increasing diversity on their pages. But while Kate’s sexuality was a major aspect of her backstory (she was kicked out of West Point for being gay) and of the PR around her (re)debut, her Judaism was and remains a footnote. Ironically, that’s one of the things I like about her. There are as many experiences of Judaism as there are Jewish people, and the fact that Kate celebrates Hannukah but otherwise doesn’t seem to engage much with the religion rings totally true to me. (Plus, like Wiccan over at Marvel, she demonstrates that Judaism can be a faith that is inclusive of diverse sexualities.) Bonus: since Kate is first cousin to Bruce Wayne on their mothers’ sides and Judaism is passed down via the maternal line, her existence means that Batman is canonically Jewish. No wonder he’s always doing bat mitzvahs! (I’m sorry.)
Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat)
Unlike the first two characters on this list, Kitty is one of the most visibly Jewish characters in comics, and has been since the 80s—she wears a Star of David, she (sometimes) observes shabbat, and she’s vocal about her ethnicity and her faith and the way it intersects with her experience of marginalization as a mutant. (Admittedly sometimes in clumsy or problematic ways.) I’ve never been a huge X-fan but Kitty has always particularly appealed to me, in large part because of that specific visibility. Unlike the previous characters on this list, she’s neither coded nor casual about her religion. Again, it’s about a range of representation. As much as I love Ben’s flouting of stereotypes and Kate’s casual Judaism, I love Pryde’s pride.
Rory Regan (Ragman)
We’re getting Jewisher as we go, folks! Rory, like Kitty, is a vocal and observant Jew. His backstory and powers also tie into his faith—his magical cloak of rags, which he uses to trap corrupted souls that then provide him with his powers, dates back to the biblical Jewish patriarch Abraham, and he’s been linked to the Golem of Prague. I love the way his existence plays with Jewish myth, when so often biblical imagery is only used for Christian characters—and quite frankly, I love how goofy he is. He’s the Tatterdemalion of Justice! He has an evil counterpart named Bagman! Bless.
Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch)
Right, so Wanda’s Judaism is a little bit up in the air these days. In fact, her precise ethnic background has been retconned around a dizzying number of times: first she and her twin brother Pietro (Quicksilver) were thought to be the children of Golden Age heroes Miss America and the Whizzer, then of the Romani Maximoffs, then of Magneto, and now back to the Maximoffs. (And that’s leaving aside Wanda’s own reality-bending abilities!) But Marvel’s cavalier attitude towards Wanda’s ethnic and religious background has, albeit unintentionally, been a striking example of how Jewish and Romani identities are erased, disrupted, persecuted, and even betrayed (as with the MCU’s depiction of the Maximoffs as willing subjects for Hydra’s experiments, and Secret Empire’s recent use of Wanda as a brainwashed Hydra pawn). It’s not a happy story, and Wanda has not led an easy life, but her perseverance is a reminder that despite everything, we’re still here. L’chaim, Wanda!
I know I haven’t covered everyone’s faves—Harley Quinn, Wiccan, and Gert Yorkes spring to mind—but those are a few of mine. Who are your favorite supermensches? Let me know in the comments!
(Also, if you’re interested in this topic, check out Disguised as Clark Kent by Danny Fingeroth, which explores the relationship between Jews and the creation of the superhero.)