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Doctor Leonard Samson, better known as "Doc Samson," strides down the corridor and into the classroom, his massive muscles rippling beneath his skin-tight red costume. He sports a long mane of hair, just like his biblical namesake (except the real Samson's hair wasn't green, presumably). Today, Doc Samson is taking a welcome break from the usual crime fighting derring-do: He's visiting the children at his old Hebrew school to tell them all about Hanukka.
It's a very special occasion, so Doc Samson's wearing a navy kippa along with his skin-tight red costume. The teacher, an aging bubbe named Mrs. Klein, proudly introduces our colorful hero: "I was his teacher here at the yeshiva when he was a very little boy." But these chutzpadik kids are unimpressed by their bizarre guest.
"I bet the Hulk kicked your butt," one student says.
Did the Maccabees have guns or cable TV, they ask. One precocious girl wise-cracks, "Aren't Maccabees like little cookies?"
Doc Sampson angrily snaps, "No! Those are macaroons."
Doc realizes he's losing his restless audience, so to Mrs. Klein's horror, he starts spicing up the Hanukka story: the Greek villain Antiochus suddenly becomes an evil robot, Judea now looks an awful lot like Krypton and Captain America, Wolverine and the Hulk come to the rescue in the end, wiping out Antiochus for good.
"They, uh... nuked him," announces Doc Samson, as Mrs. Klein drops her head into her hands in disgust.
That story may come from a January 1993 Marvel Comics Holiday Special issue, but it mirrors the sad reality: For many young Jews, the ancient story of Hanukka feels, well, pretty ancient. Antiochus just doesn't seem that scary compared to the Green Goblin or Magneto. Today's children are too busy downloading clips from YouTube onto their iPods to explore the deeper aspects of their Jewish heritage.
No wonder the real reason for Hanukka has been largely forgotten, and the celebration has become a merely cultural (not to mention a highly commercial) enterprise. Yet there's so much more to Hanukka than latkes, doughnuts - and that Adam Sandler song, funny as it may be! I like to think that if kids (and not a few adults) knew more about the amazing Jewish connection to the world of pop culture in general, and of comic book superheroes in particular, maybe they'd be more excited about the rest of their Jewish heritage. Believe it or not, Doc's wacky adventures at the yeshiva school are just one example of the intersection between Jewish culture and comic books.
My new book, Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, looks at all the Jewish writers, artists and editors who have shaped the all-American superhero over the last 70 years, beginning with Superman and continuing through the X-Men saga of today. Though a comic book aficionado since childhood, I later reread the classic superhero comics from an entirely new perspective - as a rabbi, and through the lens of Jewish tradition and spiritual belief. My new perspective - along with my observation of Jewish students ignoring Torah study while engrossed in the latest comic books - motivated me to write Up, Up and Oy Vey!
Think I'm exaggerating the connection? Well, a Public Radio International special called "Hanukka: A Time for Superheroes," is to air during the holiday season. Writers Michael (Kavailer and Clay) Chabon, Neil (Sandman) Gaiman, Stan (Spider-Man) Lee and The New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg explore the legends of ancient and modern Israel that have shaped today's Jewish psyche. The show also features an audio voyage to Joe (Sgt. Rock) Kubert's cartooning school in New Jersey, where Irwin (the Green Lantern) Hasen teaches, and visits with Joker creator Jerry Robinson. These genre celebrities recount the story of Hanukka through their own experiences. And sure enough, many of them cite biblical archetypes as the inspiration for their comic book creations.
One of the cleverest comic book twists on the Hanukka story shows up in Justice League of America #188 (DC Comics, March 1981). The Justice League character known as the Atom is a not-terribly-observant Jew (not to mention the tiniest superhero in the known universe). In this particular issue, the Atom spends Hanukka with his Jewish non-superhero friends. Atom admits with some embarrassment, "I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm not very religious." Yet he becomes fascinated by the Hanukka menora and by the miracle of oil, which miraculously burned for eight days when it should only have burned for one.
Later that night, Atom is beamed up to the League's space station. It's been attacked, and its life-support systems have failed. But incredibly, the oxygen supply on board lasts long enough for vital repairs to be made. Not surprisingly, the newly inspired Atom compares that miracle to the miracle of Hanukka.
In a way, the Atom serves as a perfect metaphor for the Jewish people: The Greek forces led by Antiochus were undoubtedly the super-villains of their day - a lean, mean fighting machine armed with all the latest high-tech gadgets. Facing them are the Maccabees - a small, unprepared people who were vastly outnumbered. Yet the Maccabees were victorious.
The story might have been lost in the mists of time, except that to this very day, no matter how much darkness surrounds us, the Jewish people still light the menora, in a gesture of reverence for our past and hope in our future.
Perhaps even a couple of superhero lessons can be gleaned here.
* Oil does not mix with other liquids, but rather rises to the top. A superhero rises above the mundane, everyday obstacles and focuses on the bigger picture of saving the world. Rather than sitting semi-comatose in front of the latest TV show, a real hero makes things happen in the real world.
* The olive produces its oil only under pressure. When the pressure's on, that's when a hero shines.
* As Doc Samson discovered, being a teacher isn't easy. And teachers are today's real heroes. They remind us that the great people of our past, like the Maccabees, did remarkable things and won amazing victories, armed with little more than their faith. If they could do it, imagine what we can accomplish. Even without long green hair and red Spandex tights.
The writer is the author of Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.
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