February 20, 2019

Happy Birthday, Batman!

This past weekend, I happened to drive through my old hometown on Long Island. It passed by the house of the kid in my neighborhood who put a sheet around his shoulders, climbed onto his roof, and would have jumped off had his mother not intervened. 

Like every other kid in America, I loved superheroes. Superman's 75th birthday has been the occasion for a number of books and articles (In particular, I recommend Larry Tye’s excellent Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero Superman had Jewish “roots.” His birth name, Kal-el, contains the element el, which is one of God’s names. He was adopted as an infant, and we know nothing about his childhood or teen years until he becomes a superhero – in many ways, like the Moses stories. His motto – “truth, justice, and the American way” – echoes the classic Jewish triad of truth, justice, and peace. Some suggest that Superman was modeled on the classic golem legend.

In fact, the entire comic book industry was a Jewish production, and a quintessentially American one, at that. (Check out Michael Chabon's classic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). So many of the early comic pioneers were Jews: Will Eisner, Shuster and Siegel, who created Superman; Bob Kane, who created Batman (more on him later); Stan Lee…and just this past week, we mourned the loss of Al Feldstein, one of the creators of Mad magazine, which would ultimately have a greater influence on my life than even Superman and Batman. These cartoonists were all guys who grew up in immigrant neighborhoods, and who expressed their longings for belonging in the form of costumed heroes.

But my favorite superhero was not Superman. Rather, it was Batman, and this month happens to be the 75th anniversary of his first comic book appearance.

And just as we “made” Superman Jewish, it is time for us to reclaim Batman as a character in modern Jewish literature. 

What made superheroes Jewish? Not their super powers (which, let the record note, Batman lacked). 

No. They had secret identities.

The whole idea of a secret identity is bizarre. You actually have two separate identities, two distinct people. Batman, in particular: millionaire Bruce Wayne, and his ward, Dick Grayson, who was Robin, his sidekick. 

Bruce Wayne: I loved the mansion, at least the way that it looked on the admittedly cheesy Batman television series. You needed to be a millionaire to pull off what Bruce Wayne had to do in order to do his Batman stuff. The Batcave (who dug that cave? Or was Wayne Manor simply built on top of it? How do you even get a building permit for that?).

The Batcar: only a rich man could do that. Was Bruce friends with John DeLorean? In the comic books, Bruce and Dick descended to the Batcave through a secret pathway behind a grandfather clock. The television show had them slide down poles, like firemen. Why not just stairs? And how, please, are you supposed to get back up the poles to the mansion?

It used to fascinate me: Batman/Bruce Wayne. At any given time, how do you know “who” you are? Did Bruce Wayne ever do “Batman” stuff when he was Bruce Wayne? Could he go down to the Batcave and simply hang out, just as Bruce? How does one manage two separate identities? Long before it became fashionable to talk about the conflicts between home and profession, and the conflicts that various roles bring to us, Batman and Bruce were having that inner monologue.

In truth, however, the whole notion of the secret identity is laughable. How incredibly stupid could the people of Gotham City or Metropolis have been? Was it really that difficult to figure out who Batman was? True, he wore a mask, but when it came to Superman and Clark Kent, the only facial difference was that Clark Kent wore glasses. Seriously? And no one was supposed to know who he was?

Perhaps they were all simply pretending that they didn't know who Batman or Superman really were. Perhaps it was all an elegant charade. 

And this is precisely what makes those works so Jewish. Back to Bob Kane. Kane, according to various accounts, was a true Jewish assimilationist. While he knew that he was Jewish, that was not the face that he wanted to present to the world. (Note, please: the Hebrew/Yiddish word for face, panim, is in the plural form. Which means that by design we present a multitude of faces to the world). And, as many German Jews discovered in the 1930s, you can wear your gentile disguise all you want to, but the world knows your secret identity. 

So, the entire notion of having a secret identity is a quintessential modern Jewish way of looking at the world, and being in the world. Come to think of it, it’s much older than that. In the book of Genesis, Jacob disguises as Esau. Leah disguises as Rachel. Joseph disguises himself before his brothers. Moses disguises (whether he knows it or not) as an Egyptian prince. David disguises himself as a Philistine. Esther disguises as a “regular” Persian girl.

It's not only Jews who have secret identities, pretending that they are gentiles. Think about gays and lesbians who are not yet out, and who have to maintain a collection of fictions just in order to get through their lives. 

There is something else that Superman and Batman have in common, and it is also very Jewish.

Superman emerges from horror; his home planet, Krypton, has been destroyed, and he is an orphan. Young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents being murdered in a robbery; that is what compels him to fight crime.

Both Superman and Batman, then, are the children of trauma. The current series of Batman films makes this reality even deeper and more present to audiences.

Children of trauma. Survivors of primal horrors. As is this generation of Jews, coming to maturity almost seventy years after the Shoah, but never allowing its memory to fade away.

Survivors, compelled to make the world better. 

And so, happy 75th birthday, Batman. Yom huledet sameach!

And may I say, on behalf of all your fans: may you live to be a hundred and twenty.