Attending a Super-Hero Lecture

Yesterday, I spent the day in Spring Valley, New York, beginning with a wonderful brunch at my cousin Audrey’s. She’s the youngest cousin in the preceding generation and I continue to marvel at how my mother’s generation grew up so incredibly close and remain in touch with amazing regularity.

We then headed over to the small Holocaust Museum and Study Center to attend the opening of the exhibit American Cartoonists: Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. It’s a traveling exhibit assembled by Rabbi Isidoro Auzenberg, curator for special exhibits and scholar-in-residence at The Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives/Queensborough Community College.

The exhibit itself is modest, just over a dozen large images and placards with narrative. It attempts to trace how comic books and super-heroes dealt with the issue of the Nazis and the Holocaust from the early pastiches in Superman stories through Joe Kubert’s Yossel. It has some nice breadth but is missing depth along with a desperate need for a copy editor to correct art credits, issue titles and the like. It also posits that Siegel and Shuster created Superman as a response to the Nazi threat brewing during the 1930s, which of course it was not.

To kick off the exhibit, the Center invited Rabbi Simcha Weinstein to lecture on Jewish creators and super-heroes. The Rabbi is from England and was a film production person prior to devoting himself to the Torah and changing careers. He has since gone on to write extensively about popular culture, notably in his books Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero and Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century.

He was very engaging and passionate about his subject, knowledgeable as only one who has read and absorbed the comics could be. The room was packed with the overflow crowd standing or sitting in the vestibule to hear him. We were among the youngest in the room, a fact not lost on the staff. The Center staff was grateful and overwhelmed while the Rabbi looked out among the faces and muttered, “And to think I only brought ten books to sell.”

Through humor and example, he discussed why Jews wound up in comics and how the super-heroes explored the issues of the day, including the Holocaust. Superman was heavily referenced given his Jewish roots and he concluded with the debates over whether or not the Man of Steel was Jewish. His final conclusion< “Of course, he’s not real.”

His questions were incredibly thoughtful and informed with people wondering if comics can help keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive and who was going to read these works. Afterwards, while he was signing, I ambled up to chat a bit and ask why he totally ignored mentioning Will Eisner’s work. He paused, nodded, and admitted he had no idea why he omitted Eisner. Then he explained he was late in discovering Eisner’s work and we rattle doff favorite titles, especially those pertaining to the lecture topic.

This was diverting, informative, entertaining day, one all too rarely enjoyed.

One comment

  • Deb

    I agree with much of what Bob wrote. However, given the venue and the speaker you have to acknowledge the filter through which comics were being presented. The speaker claimed that the characters were born of the Jewish experience including the shy, blundering alter egos with the superhero being wish fulfillment. Even the Rabbi acknowledged his particular point of view.

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