They call me the “Comic Book Rabbi.”
Given the chance to choose my own “superhero” nickname, I’d have picked something more dynamic, like “Super Jew” or simply “The Rabbi.” (Imagine The Thing, but with a kippah.)
I come by my humble nickname honestly, though. My first book was called Up Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. Not surprisingly, I quickly came to be seen as an expert about the Jewish influence on American popular culture.
Most of the time, I study these matters at arm’s length -- literally, with a well-thumbed issue of the Fantastic Four circa 1964 in hand.
However, I confess (and that’s not something rabbis normally do) that I sometimes fantasize about doing more than just writing and talking about superheroes. Like millions of ordinary people, I wonder what it would be like to pull on some Spandex, then hit the mean streets and kick some villainous tuchas.
No wonder a recent movie based on that very topic is getting so much buzz. This new comedy adventure film tells the story of a teenage dweeb (with a pretty Jewish sounding name, no less) who sets out to become a real life superhero. However, he quickly discovers that, unlike the fights he’s seen in action movies, real fisticuffs can be pretty painful.
These days, aren’t most of us looking for heroes, or wish we could be one? I even have a friend who like Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, is a student at Columbia University by day and a superhero by night, going by the name of “Life”. Dressed all in black – complete with an eye patch -- he goes out looking for trouble on the streets of New York, but it’s not what you think: he’s dedicated to helping out the sick and the homeless – people who are in trouble, not making it.
He’s just one of a surprising number of people all over the world who are living out that new movie’s fantasy. At websites like www.SuperheroesAnonymous.com, they explain that their “main objective is to inspire others. We hope through our actions we can inspire others to go out and do good, help others, and stand up for what they believe in. There is a hero in everyone and we need to bring it out to help make this world a little more super.”
For whatever reason, these “real life superheroes” feel more empowered to help others when they put on a mask. It seems bizarre, but think about it: don’t we all wear a mask? We hide behind forced smiles or make-up, or even Botox. Sometimes we “try on” a new personality, especially when we’re younger and just learning about ourselves, and the world. In fact, the word “personality” comes from “persona,” the Latin word meaning “mask.” We might have one “persona” at work, and another around friends, and yet another around people we’re trying to impress. Sometimes we forsake our real selves for the assimilated archetype we think society wants us to portray. That mask is our false, exterior façade – that’s the French word from which we get the word “face.” (Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “face” is “panim”, which actually refers to our internal self. This reflects some ancient wisdom: that our ultimate goal should be to match our external actions to our internal convictions.)
Putting on the literal mask of the superhero lets my friend and his partners in crime fighting throw off the shackles of society’s expectations and pursue more noble, transcendent pursuits. They may be covering their faces, but they are actually revealing their authentic “panim”.
Yet we have to remember that, “with great power comes great responsibility,” as Spider-Man always says, in a rueful, resigned tone that hints he'd rather be an ordinary mortal. All of us have responsibilities to society, and they aren’t fantasies. We can’t hang them up in the closet like a cape when we’re too tired to deal with them. The secret is to stop thinking we either have to be a superhero or a nobody. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is just be ourselves.
Simcha Weinstein is an internationally known, best-selling author. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at the renowned New York art school, Pratt Institute. His latest book Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st century is out now.