Over the summer, I was contacted by nearby Temple Beth Shalom and asked to be their speaker at a Shabbat dinner, discussing Jews and superheroes. The mother explained that her son, Eli, was a huge superhero fan which has become the theme of his Bar Mitzvah so when Rabbi Susan Grossman was looking for a theme for that weekend’s Shabbat dinner it all seemed to tie in.
She later told me, I was suggested to her by Rabbi Grossman, a woman I did not know so was rather curious. Of course I accepted because it was a good topic and sounded like fun. While I do not profess to be as steeped in the subject matter as Arie Kaplan or Danny Fingeroth or Arlen Schmer, I knew enough to make my way through a 45 minute pre-dinner discussion and a 20 minute talk as part of the Shabbat Service.
I did research and prepared my notes, checking pronunciation with my far more observant colleague in the English department, and finaslly had a good excuse to wear my Mets yamulke.
Last night I walked into the Congregation and could have mistaken it for a con. Adults and kids alike sported capes and costumes, masks and power rings. Toys, posters, and signage all greeted me in the lobby, the social hall, and the synagogue itself. I was handed a homemade yarmulke made from superhero fabric, which I donned later in the evening.
There were about two dozen teens and adults filling the room where I spoke while the youth leader, decked out as Commissioner Gordon, took Firestorm, Captain America, Green Lantern and assorted super-tykes off to their own superhero-themed activity.
My talk framed everything around the social context of the times, as Jews struggled to find work so found niches and turned them into new businesses, from movies to comic books. I covered how many of the greats changed their names in order to get work and traced the paths of the major players – Hymie Simon and Jacob Kurtzberg, Stanley Martin Lieber and Max Ginsburg and so on. I covered the rise of comics and their near destruction at the hands of a fellow Jew, Fredric Wertham. Then gave due credit to Julie Schwartz for helping revive the field, carried further by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The 45 minutes zipped by and people seemed interested enough and certainly no one fell asleep.
But the real surprise came during the Rabbi’s introductory remarks. She revealed that she knew of me because she’s a fan of my Star Trek novels, as is the Temple President, Alan Zeman. More, she and I overlapped at SUNY-Binghamton for a year, she writing news for Ron Brownstein at Pipe Dream while I wrote about arts for Ken Cohen. I was floored. We even both interned at the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin at different times.
The Shabbat dinner was tasty, especially the pineapple kugel, and I was nestled between Rabbi and President as we happily talked Trek. I also signed books for Eli and one congregant brought his coipy of DC Comics Presents #94, the issue I cowrote with Barbara Kesel. Weird.
At the end of the service, I was introduced and began by noting how a great Jewish writer once said, “With great power must come great responsibility” and how that related to Eli, as he today became a Man. From there I stepped back to look at the Torah lessons Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were steeped in that no doubt had influence over their creation of Superman. Once again, I touched on the context of the times from the rampant antisemitism and Siegel’s pwerlessness at the death of his father. From there I covered the more prominent Jewish characters in comics and ended rhapsodically talking about the power of Will Eisner’s graphic novels.
I was aksed to be a part of the receiving line as people filed out of the Synagogue and I was blushing from the positive comments I received from the congregation.
As most know, I don’t practice any relgiion so felt a bit like a fish out of water, surrounded by the Conservative congregation where I only recognized a word here or there but certainly couldn’t join in. Heck, I didn’t even know which customs were involved during a Shabbat. I was honored, though, when they acknolwedged recent losses, and thoughtfully included my nephew Nicholas during the Kadash.
It was, I have to say, a pretty spectacular night.