My wife and I have just spent two of the best weeks of our life, playing with our three-year old twin grandchildren, away from their parents.
We got along great with the little guys, once we understood how much smarter they are than us! The technological tots can already operate an iPad and access hundreds of games, cartoons and educational programs that keep them busy, which tends to come in quite handy while we are taking an oxygen break.
But, amazingly enough, their favorite pastime by far is playing with the various non-electronic superhero figurines they carry with them at all times, from the moment they wake up until they go to bed.
Remarkably, most of these do-gooders are the same fantastical characters that we grew up with as kids: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc., with Woody Woodpecker, Buzz Lightyear, Tweety Bird and Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure. They are the constant companions that for generations have entertained children, while fueling their vivid imaginations – pretending these inanimate characters somehow protect them while providing an outlet for their boundless capacity to love.
It shouldn’t surprise us that an overwhelmingly large percentage of these mythical, make-believe, macho men, women and assorted creatures were created by Jews, either when writing for comics, or in the creative, competitive world of toys and television. Superman was the brainchild of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1933, when they were high-school students living in Cleveland, Ohio. Robert Kahn (who later changed his name to Bob Kane) came up with the idea of Batman in 1939. Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) created Spider-Man, as well as Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four.
The phenomenally successful Toy Story characters were created by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, among others. And the voices of Bugs and Tweety – along with Woody Woodpecker, Sylvester the Cat and, you should pardon the expression, Porky Pig – were provided by none other than Mel Blanc, whose real name was Melvin Jerome Blank.
The strong connection between Jews and courageous saviors of society makes perfect sense. After all, our biblical literature is filled with hero types, from Jacob, who struggled victoriously with a malevolent angel; to Moses, who took on the evil Pharaoh and led the Jews out of Egypt; to David, who slew the arrogant giant Goliath; to Rabbi Akiva, who courageously stood up against the mighty Roman empire.
It was only after our expulsion from the Land of Israel, during the millennia- long wandering of our people throughout the cruel exile – a time when we so desperately needed rescuers – that such heroes, alas, were in short supply. Oh, we certainly had great and outstanding Jewish personalities, scholars such as Maimonides, Rashi and the Gaon of Vilna, financiers like Rothschild and Haym Salomon and semi-royal dignitaries like Don Isaac Abravanel and Dona Gracia. But for the most part, until modern times, Jews in the alien lands of our Diaspora were noted more for martyrdom than for making their mark in society. Since almost all of our diasporas ended badly, our ranks swelled with tragic figures that were either burned or banished for the crime of simply being Jewish.
In fact, the only valiant, hero-type personality I can think of during the Middle Ages is the Golem. Apocryphally brought to life by the Maharal of Prague in the 16th century to guard the city’s Jews from persecution, he is just as likely a creation of some Czech Ministry of Tourism. Even if the creature did exist, it wasn’t exactly “Jewish.”
But now, thank God, we have entered a new era. Here in Israel, heroic figures abound. Throw a stick, as they say, and you will hit either a lawyer or someone who has performed an act of heroism, in one way or another. Just think of all the Holocaust survivors who came to Israel, who overcame their depression and built new lives for themselves and their families. Are they not heroes? And what of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, who braved hostile governments, left most of their belongings behind and had to reorder their lives here? And the refugees from Arab North Africa, brutally expelled from their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs? And the thousands upon thousands of unsung soldiers – male and female – who risked their lives with no thought of reward, who rescued the nation from seven wars imposed upon us by our enemies, with no medals to show or victory parades upon their release? And for that matter, we might include all of Israel’s citizens, who in all likelihood will face a new wave of assault and acrimony when the so-called “peace talks” collapse under Palestinian obstinacy, and we are blamed once again for our adversaries’ intransigence. I have no doubt we will stoically withstand anything our enemies – as well as our socalled friends – will throw at us.
These are the living, breathing heroes who walk among us at every level of society, in every city and at every bus stop. Because Israel is in itself a heroic country, it produces massive numbers of heroes.
I suggest that along with faith and fortitude, the most important quality of heroism is humility. Perhaps that is why almost all of the fictional superheroes are masked, as if to say, “It’s not important who I am; it’s important what I do.” So, too, the biblical heroes we spoke of earlier share the same quality.
Moses was exceedingly humble; he even wore a mask when visiting the Tabernacle. Jacob struggled against the angel alone, out of public view, and David took no credit for himself when he slew Goliath. Rabbi Akiva, who had achieved fame and fortune and could have retired in leisure, selflessly gave up his life for the cause in which he so fervently believed – the independence of Israel.
Comic-book heroes can be seen flying through the clouds or swinging from skyscrapers, but Israeli heroes are there for the taking, if we only look behind the mask. Last week, at one of the many hitchhiking stations that dot our highways, I met an elderly man who was handing out snacks to soldiers on the go. In the course of our conversation, the man revealed that he had a grandson who was killed by Palestinian murderers in a drive-by shooting some years ago.
“That’s why I do this,” he said matter- of-factly to me, not a trace of conceit in his voice. “I want the road to be a sign of life, not death.”
That’s the stuff real heroes are made of. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; jocmtv@netvision.