Last summer, I stood in line at the Wizard World NYC Experience waiting to accuse my hero, Stan Lee, of being a bigger Jew than he admits. True story. I even prayed on it. During a question and answer panel spotlighting Lee, I planned to ask him if he spoke Yiddish, and request that he do so in front of a tent of people. Was I wrong? Why would I not be satisfied until he spoke the language of our ancestors in front of an audience of Jews and gentiles alike?
A little background: Stan Lee, if you somehow don’t know, co-created much of the Marvel Universe- The X-Men, Spidey, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Thor and so many more. His parents, Jack and Celia Lieber, emigrated from Romania to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They were Jews; he was a Jew; his cousin, the publisher of the company that would become Marvel, was a Jew. Heck, almost the entire comic industry was made up of Jews. No one wanted to work in comics, but other more “respectable” fields wouldn’t hire our Yiddish behinds. His cousin, Martin Goodman, gave Lee a job, and Lee eventually helped usher in the Marvel Age of comics.
Even though Lee never publicly acknowledged his heritage early on, Jewish themes seeped into his stories. Peter Parker is a neurotic mess whose inspiration to be a hero is his guilt. The Fantastic Fourare a family that bickers as much as they fight crime. The X-Men are an oppressed minority discriminated against by the same people they try to help. The heroes hide behind gentile names (and often gentile noses), but Lee wrote many “Jewish” characters.
I’ve noticed that recently there are many more documented sources of Lee acknowledging his heritage, but there are also many other important sources where he does not. In fact, it’s the times he does not acknowledge his Jewish background that are telling to me. Most of the sources in which he refers to his heritage are in Jewish sources, while he appears to shy away from spotlighting them in many mainstream sources. In both cases, he often downplays it.
Does he actively attempt to distance himself from his heritage? Is this a symptom of past paranoia making him wary of drawing attention to his background? Does Lee not have the right to self-identify? Just because I talk about being Jewish way too much, does that mean he has to also? Can you be a proud Jew and not feel the necessity to tell everyone? Does it matter? Am I so sick that I insist on reading into Lee’s (in)actions in the most negative way possible? What is wrong with me that this bothers me so? Am I totally meshugenah?
Like most early Jewish creators, Lee hid his Jewish identity when he broke into the industry. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Danny Fingeroth, author of Disguised As Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero, said:
“While there was never in the U.S. the virulent anti-Semitism of Hitlerian and Tsarist Europe, there were plenty of homegrown bigots and demagogues, the most influential of whom included Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin, so American Jews, in general, were wary of calling attention to their identities, especially those in media who tended to be either from less traditional homes, or seeking escape from tradition. These early comics creators wanted themselves and their creations to be seen as ‘all-American.’”
Today, the industry is very different. We have Jewish superheroes proudly reppin’ the tribe. Graphic novel racks are filled with tales of our history written by Jewish authors who proudly use their Semitic names. A Jewish comic, Maus, even won the Pulitzer Prize. Many of the early comic creators, such as Will Eisner and Joe Kubert, ended up focusing on their Jewish backgrounds later in life, writing tales about our history. Still, while the industry no longer denies its Jewish influences, Lee rarely acknowledges his Jewish heritage.
When The Thing, a character from the Lower East Side based on Lee’s frequent collaborator Jack Kirby, came out as Jewish, Lee was asked if he intended for The Thing to be Jewish. Lee said, “You Know, I didn’t intend for him to be Jewish. No. I never thought for a minute what [the characters’] religions were.” In the same radio interview, when questioned how much Judaism influenced the field, he stated, “You know, I have no idea. I never really thought of it… It is strange when you mention that the—perhaps best-known of all the characters—Spider-Man, Superman and Batman were done by Jewish writers. I guess that is an odd thought. ” I buy that Thing was not intended to be Jewish, but I also think that, because Thing’s persona and background was so influenced by Kirby’s, his character was effectively Jewish whether intended or not. I do not buy that the Jewish influence on the field was simply coincidence, and I do not buy that Lee believes it to be either. In Fingeroth’s book, Lee questions, “could it be that there was something in our background, in our culture, that brought us together in the comicook field?” I believe Lee knows the answer to that.
When I watched the 2010 documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, I yearned for a chapter all about his upbringing and how his family moved from the shtetl to the Jewish Bronx . The closest we get to a reference of his Jewish heritage is when his wife states they had difficulty adopting a child because you “couldn’t adopt into any mixed marriages at that time.” She never refers to him as a Jew, and neither does he refer to himself as one.
In Lee’s 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, he doesn’t address the issue other than to say his mother was “a nice, rather old-fashioned Jewish lady.” Now some of you will say: “Why does he have to state he is Jewish? Isn’t it obvious that if his momma is Jewish then he is too?” In reply, I say, c’mon people, ONE SENTENCE! And not a direct reference! We are a people made up of thousands of years of history. Our humor, our views, our personalities cannot be separated from our Jewish identity. Give credit where it is due. But again, it comes back to, why does is bother me so much that he does not give credit in these instances?
Does he still avoid putting himself in the box of being judged as a “Jewish writer” and not a writer in the overall genre? Does he fear the Klan will think to themselves, “wow, this dude really is a big Jew,” and suddenly start a boycott of his 75 years’ worth of books.
There are sources where he does identify as Jewish. In a 2005 interview conducted in the Jerusalem Post, a newspaper read by a predominantly Jewish audience, he stated, “Jewish Culture in great, and I’m proud of it. Jewish people—and I include myself—I think we think a certain way, we feel a certain way, we react to things a certain way.” Yes! I only wish he said this in the sources previously listed. Lee even wrote the forward to Disguised As Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superheroand although he continues to downplay the cultural influence of Jews on comics, when he talks about the Jews involved in the industry he does not shy away from saying “we.” In fact, Lee is quoted as being the only creator to tackle the question of defining “what it means to be Jewish.” Lee states, “It means that you come from Jewish parents, obviously, and you have a long heritage behind you.” (It should also be noted that Lee ends the forward by saying “Excelsior– and zei gezunt,” which means “Excelsior– and be well.” Only a small taste of Lee’s Yiddish, but a tasty treat nonetheless.) As much as I love hearing this, I continue to wonder why if his heritage is so long is it not credited in his biography and documentary? Also, let’s be real here, repping the tribe in a room full of Jews is a lot different than standing in front of an audience of people from all around the world and saying “I am a Jew and I am proud of it!” Why Lee, why? Why is my own self-worth affected by your acknowledgement?
This is the era of assimilation. The intermarriage rate is58% in the US. Most Jews see themselves as white; most of society sees us as white, and we are given the privileges surrounding white-ness. It is not uncommon to hear Jews say “I really don’t see myself as Jewish even though my parents are.”
And I am no better than Lee. My parents are the same generation as Lee; they never wanted their kids to speak Yiddish, the language of the ghetto Jews. Sure, I can kvetch with the best of them, but other than a few random sayings I do not speak the language of my ancestors. Although I wrap my arm daily with Teffilin, I hardly ever go to temple. And I date a shiksa. I like to joke that she is by way of Ethiopia, but her family would say otherwise. I am even thinking of not renewing my temple membership- all because I wasted my money on stupid crap.
I do not have to change my name or deny my heritage to attain a job or a membership. I do not live in fear of the KKK, and I do not feel systemic discrimination.
I write this column every other week, possibly to avoid the guilt I have from losing my own heritage. Is this how I mourn my loss of identity? I am constantly caught between assimilation and Judaism. I look to Stan Lee to help me feel comfortable with myself as a Jew in America.
So on that blazing day last summer, I decided I was going to do it. I said the serenity prayer in my head. Sure, it’s not a Jewish prayer, but the words were perfect at the time. I scooted my way past the others sitting in my aisle, bashing each of their kneecaps. I was too nervous to remember to say I was sorry. The line was long, but there was a good chance I would finally get my shot.
I then switched my prayer from one of serenity to one hoping I wouldn’t get my turn. I started feeling that what I was doing was wrong, but I put it in G-D’s hands. If G-D wanted Lee to speak Yiddish to a somewhat gentile audience, it would happen. If not, then it wasn’t meant to be.
As the occupants of the line diminished, I started coming up with an escape plan. I wanted out, but I would never have the opportunity again. The clock was almost up and I was next in line. Suddenly, the panel moderator announced they had to halt questions… Baruch Hashem! Stan Lee looked at me and apologized that I would not get the opportunity to ask my question.
I love you, Stan Lee.
“To me you can wrap all of Judaism up in one sentence, and that is, ‘Do unto others.’ All I tried to do in my stories was show that there’s some innate goodness in the human condition. And there’s always going to be evil; we should always be fighting evil.” –Stan Lee