Holy Borscht Belt, Batman! The Jewish Roots of the Joker

Like most artists in the Golden Age of comic books, the three creators of Batman’s archnemesis were all Jewish — but good luck working out which of them came up with the original idea for the character

Ariel David
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Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in Todd Phillips' new origin story about Batman's archnemesis.
Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in Todd Phillips' new origin story about Batman's archnemesis.Credit: Niko Tavernise/AP
Ariel David

The dark, grimy, crime-infested streets of Gotham City may have little in common with the pristine nature and idyllic views of the Catskill Mountains. But it is precisely to this area that we can trace the real-life origins of the Joker, the most iconic supervillain in the Batman series.

It was a chance encounter in the Catskills that brought together the creators of Batman’s clownish archnemesis — now taking center stage in an origin movie in which Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joker. 

That serendipitous meeting also highlights the deep Jewish roots that Batman, the Joker and other Gotham-based characters share with almost all the superheroes of the so-called Golden Age of comic books.

Events were set in motion in 1939 when 23-year-old Bob Kane — who had just recently co-created the Caped Crusader — was vacationing in one of the many summer resorts in the Catskills catering to Jewish vacationers. Widespread anti-Semitism at the time meant that Jews were often barred from staying at country clubs, hotels and other venues, so they created their own holiday spots in this southeastern region of New York state.

Soon nicknamed the Borscht Belt, the area became a hub of Jewish culture and a magnet for young entertainers, especially comedians, seeking to hone their skills.

It was at one such holiday resort that Kane — born Robert Kahn, the son of Jews of Eastern European descent — spotted a 17-year-old journalism student named Jerry Robinson, who was wearing a jacket he had decorated with his own illustrations. That creative act earned Robinson a job on Kane’s team and a chance to illustrate some of the earliest and most iconic Batman stories.

In 1940, Robinson — together with Batman co-creators Kane and Bill Finger — introduced the character of the Joker in Batman’s first standalone issue.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's 2008 film "The Dark Knight."Credit: REUTERS

Since then, it seems that in keeping with his erratic and outrageous behavior, the Joker has been sowing almost as much discord in the real world as he does in the fictional one of Gotham.

Just as the new “Joker” movie has been stirring debate over its supposed glorification of violence, the story of who first originated the character, and how, has been the subject of a decades-long controversy between the three comic book artists.

As Robinson told it, he had come up with the idea of an evil clown for a writing assignment while studying journalism at Columbia University, says Arie Kaplan, a comic book writer and author of 2008’s “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books.”

Kaplan, who interviewed Robinson before his death in December 2011, recalls that the illustrator said he was inspired by the fact that many of his family members were championship-level bridge players, so there were many card decks lying around the house. This led to Robinson drawing a joker card depicting the face of a crazed jester with a sinister grin, which he presented it to his bosses as a new potential villain for the Batman comic, Kaplan says.

Kane has partly disputed this account by saying Robinson’s illustration was only used as a prop for the Joker — a calling card of sorts — and that the true inspiration for the character came from a photo of German actor Conrad Veidt playing the character of Gwynplaine in the 1928 movie “The Man Who Laughs.” Indeed, Veidt’s disfigured character does strike a remarkably Joker-esque figure with a pale face and a creepy permanent smile.

Jerry Robinson's original Joker sketch card, left, and Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in "The Man Who Laughs."Credit: Wikipedia

Unsolvable mystery

Part of the problem is that fans and the media only started investigating the origins of beloved comic book characters decades after they were created, making it even more likely that details on what was most probably a collaborative project had become fuzzy and inconsistent, Kaplan tells Haaretz.

“No one was interviewed before the 1960s, when fandom began to be organized,” he says. “If you interview me about a character I created a few months ago, I might not remember all the particulars — and that was decades after the Joker was created.”

Given that all three artists are now dead, it will likely be impossible to fully resolve the controversy. However, most comic book historians credit Robinson with the creation of the Joker character.

Whoever was the Joker’s true originator, the character was undeniably part of the first wave of major comic book heroes in an industry overwhelmingly populated by Jews. Not only were Robinson, Kane and Finger members of the tribe, but so were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman; Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the artists behind Captain America; and Stan Lee, the source of countless legendary superheroes from Spider-Man to the Hulk.

Their predominance in the early days of comic book writing was largely due to the fact that anti-Semitism made it hard for Jewish artists and writers — many first- or second-generation children of immigrants — to find employment in more prestigious professions in the mainstream media, says Kaplan.

As most artists do, comic book writers drew upon their experiences and infused their creations with their own aspirations, or used them to process traumatic events.

Heroes like Superman (an orphaned refugee child who becomes an invincible champion) and Captain America (seen punching Hitler on the cover of his first issue in March 1941, months before the United States entered World War II), were in some ways a “power fantasy” for young American Jews who felt powerless in the face of discrimination at home and the rising menace of the Nazis in Europe, Kaplan explains.

The Joker costume worn by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's version of "Batman" (1989).Credit: PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS

“Batman is also so, but in a less obvious way,” he says. As a lone crusader against crime, motivated by the killing of his parents when he was a child, Bruce Wayne “suffers from survivor’s guilt — and that was very much part of the Jewish story at the time,” says Kaplan. “A lot of Jews in America during the Holocaust felt that way.”

Jewish angle?

As for the Joker himself, Kaplan does not see any overtly Jewish cultural themes in the character. However, he concedes it is possible that his three creators were “subconsciously” influenced to choose a comic figure as their main supervillain because of the rising popularity of Borscht Belt comedians — a milieu they were clearly familiar with.

Later characters in the Batman series have been explicitly identified as Jewish, including Batwoman, and Joker’s paramour, Harley Quinn, who often spouts Yiddish slang words. (The former gets her own TV series, starting on the CW on Sunday, while the latter has a standalone movie, “Birds of Prey,” hitting cinemas next year.) 

For the Joker, however, the main thrust of the character was to complement Batman’s sleuthing side, and the character was designed to be what Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis was to the master detective, Kaplan explains.

A fan made up to look like the Joker ahead of the Venice Film Festival premiere of "Joker" in August 2019.Credit: YARA NARDI/REUTERS

“Especially in the early stories, he has a Professor Moriarty vibe,” says Kaplan. “He is this puppet master lurking in the shadows, mentioned with reverence by other criminals but only rarely appearing directly.”

Just like Holmes and his archnemesis, Batman and the Joker became inseparable, changing and mutating in step with the times. They started out as dark, pulpy characters in the 1940s, before becoming progressively lighthearted and goofy in the stories from the ’50s and ’60s, and then being reinvented as the brooding and disturbing characters we see today.

“They are two sides of the same coin: But for a twist of fate, they might have been friends,” says Kaplan. “Batman is also an antihero with a dark side — he can’t connect to people; he has few close friends; and his relationships don’t last long. So maybe they are not that different; they’ve just looked at their traumas differently. Batman tries to be productive and not give in to the darkness in him, while the Joker is embracing it fully.”