“Why are there no great Israeli superheroes?” asks Michael Weingrad in a recent post in Mosaic Magazine. It’s a good question. One would think that the current wave of knife attacks and car-rammings would supply fertile ground for pop culture to create a caped counter-terrorist, if only as an outlet for wishful thinking.
And yet, Israeli pop culture hasn’t produced anything of the kind. After analyzing some abortive attempts to come up with an Israeli hero worthy of the genre, Wingrad concludes that the superhero phenomenon is a uniquely American one, ill-suited to the Israeli cultural scene. Israeli comic creators, he writes, prefer to analyze and critique the conventions of the genre.
If Israeli pop culture isn't interested in creating a new hero, why has it also shied away from drawing on the heroes of the past? There’s Samson, the Hebrew version of Hercules, who had the strength of ten men. Or David, the shepherd who was too small to fit into the king’s armor, but nevertheless bested a giant in battle.
And then there’s the Golem, a sort of living automaton which, according to legend, was created by the Maharal of Prague using his Cabalistic knowledge. Under the command of its master, it protected the Jews from the persecutions of a hostile regime.
In fact, the quintessential Jewish superhero is the Messiah, the descendant of Israel’s ancient kings who, according to tradition, will renew Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, bring back the scattered diasporas, and — according to some opinions — usher in an age of world peace.
The problem is that none of these heroes managed to hold onto their elevated status for long. Even the wonder-working messiah of the Talmud underwent a process of demythologizing, eventually becoming just a sort of exemplar of sound governmental administration — from superhero to super-administrator! And so with all the other heroes of Jewish literature: they are all too human. King David sleeps with the wife of a man he has killed; Jacob deceives his father; Joseph enslaves the Egyptians to their government. As for the Golem, it’s no coincidence that the work of vengeance was delegated to a creature who was not human and never would be.
Modern Israeli superheroes fared no better: in the article cited above, Weingrad describes how Gidi Gezer, a kibbutznik “Popeye,” gradually became “less a superman than a virtuous everyman.”
This tendency to “humanize” heroism and demythologize miracles goes way back. The Biblical hero isn’t the warrior who valiantly dies in battle, but rather the man who goes out to fight and then returns home to care for his family. Even Samson, the Hebrew Hercules, is in fact a parody of the Greek superhero born of the union of a god with a human woman. Samson is depicted as a bumbler whose appetites get him into trouble time after time. His one truly heroic act is also his last.
Is this disenchantment with enchantment a result of millennia of being “mugged by reality”? Are we realists, or merely cynics? Perhaps a bit of both.
Philosophical kryptonite notwithstanding, it would appear that the Jewish notion of heroism has this advantage: by bringing superheroes down to earth, we also make heroism more accessible. A society’s standards of heroism create a “market” for heroic behavior: do we name our streets after those who died trying to kill others, or do we name our streets, our squares, and our institutions after those who chose life for themselves and others? The choice says a great deal about who we are, but even more about who we will become.
If there is going to be an Israeli superhero, he or she is all of us. Our age has witnessed many of the miracles that were to have been accomplished by the ultimate Jewish messianic superhero. In the end, they were wrought by the hard work, intelligence, and sacrifice of ordinary people, each of whom did the work of the moment.
In the end, it is no caped wonder-worker who rescues us from an axe-wielding attacker, but a businessman armed with an umbrella. It is no flying superhero that turns back a falling missile, but the Iron Dome system manned by a 20-year-old soldier girl. Our sons. Our daughters. Our neighbors. We are our own superheroes.
Yael Shahar divides her time between researching organizational dynamics and Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish topics can be found at www.damaged-mirror.com.
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