Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mighty Jewish

Can a Jewish Superhero fly on the Sabbath?

Something you never see superheroes do is attend services. You never see a superhero go to the bathroom either, but that’s another story. The religious affiliation of most superheroes is as mysterious as their secret identity. With the exception of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil, I can’t remember ever seeing a superhero in a church. I’ve seen Daredevil portrayed praying in a Catholic church, but I’ve also seen him fight ninjas in the church, which may have been some kind of cross-cultural event I didn’t understand.

It’s no big surprise to me that there are a number of Jewish superheroes, considering that most of the early comic book creators were Jewish. What I want to know is, does being a superhero influence how they observe Judaism or vice versa? If a Jewish superhero is a flying superhero, does he or she refrain from flying on the Sabbath? I imagine flying would be permitted if the Jewish superhero were on the way to fight crime, since crime fighting would be considered an emergency situation.

Let’s examine some specific Jewish superheroes, starting with Ben Grimm. He’s the orange rock-skinned member of the Fantastic Four, better known as the Thing. Here’s a man who could easily be mistaken for the afikomen on Passover. The Thing’s signature battle cry is “It’s Clobberin’ Time!” Does he shout “It’s Davenin’ Time!” when he arrives at shul for services?

A great female Jewish superhero is Kitty Pryde. She’s had more super names (Shadowcat, Ariel, Sprite) than any character I can think of. She once stopped a vampire by using a Star of David instead of a Cross. Her power is that she can become intangible and “phase” through any object. If she becomes intangible before she enters a mikvah and the water passes through her, does it count as a cleansing or does she have to do it again when she’s solid?

Colossal Boy is the Legion of Super Heroes’ only Jewish member. He can expand from giant size back to normal size without having to use the South Beach Diet. If he got as big as seven men, then married Triplicate Girl and got her to convert, would they make a minyan by themselves? Would it depend on which synagogue they were members?

Bernie Rosenthal is not a superhero, but she almost married one. I can only hope that Bernie is short for Bernadette. After an intense courtship, she proposed to Steve Rogers; Captain America. That’s right, she asked him. Hey, she’s a Jewish girl; she’s not shy. And what else could he say but yes. But here’s the problem- you don’t get much more Gentile than the blond-haired, blue-eyed Captain America (even if he was created by the Jewish team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).

Due to circumstances that could only happen in a comic book, Bernie and Steve never could set a date (he always had to run off to save the world whenever she mentioned wedding plans) and eventually they drifted apart. How did Bernie ever manage to explain her relationship to her mother? Can’t you just imagine it? Bernie’s mother says “Sure, he’s a nice boy, he fights for justice, and he always remembers to wipe his feet before coming in the house, but he’s not Jewish!”

Not all comic book characters with super powers are heroes. There are a few Jewish supervillains running around in their underwear too. Two of the most infamous are Magneto, arch-nemesis of the X-Men, and Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend (what she sees in that meshuggenah, I’ll never know). Yom Kippur takes on a whole new dimension of atonement for these characters. I can’t imagine that one day of fasting is going to work for a supervillain. Maybe a week? Do they even bother with the traditional vidui, or do they have a special supervillain alphabet of sins? Something like: I annihilate, I blow up, I crush, I devastate, I eviscerate, I flay, I garrote, I humiliate, I jeopardize, I laugh like a lunatic, I mutilate, I no good, I oppress, I pummel, I quote dead tyrants at inopportune moments, I rip to shreds, I squash, I tyrannize, I undermine, I vandalize, I whack, I x-ray gun, I yearn for world domination and finally, I zap!

Probably, every day is a special challenge for Jewish superheroes. How do you perform a bris on a boy with impregnable skin? How does the busy Jewish woman superhero manage to find the time to fight crime, do her day job and keep a kosher home all at the same time? How does a Jewish superhero convince his mother that fighting crime and saving the world is better than being a doctor or a lawyer?

Considering that most of superheroes are Gentiles, how does a Jewish superhero maintain his Jewish identity when it’s hard enough to maintain his secret identity? That’s probably the biggest challenge any Jew super or otherwise has to face.

Background information:
This essay originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of "Chai" magazine- a Jewish lifestyle magazine associated with the Atlanta Jewish Times.

I got most of my information as to which superheroes are Jewish from articles I found on the internet, which means the facts are hardly set in stone. In fact, I was at a comic book convention where two Jewish comic book writers claimed they were not aware of the religion of any character.

Any comic book fan can tell you that the illustration with this posting is a tracing of a famous Jack Kirby drawing of the Thing. I added the tallit and the kippot.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Victims of their Environment

This is an old cartoon from a comix zine I did years ago. Sorry so small, but if you click them, you can see the much larger.

Model Man

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A List


Endless arguments over whether God is both a boy and a girl name.

Child might try to create their own commandments concerning bedtime, before meal snacks, etc.

Overwhelming temptation to give him or her the middle name “Damnit.”

If it’s a girl and she grows up to marry a Latino named Jesus, people will think they are both the same person.

He or she will be tempted to shout their own name during sex.

People will always expect him or her to do the impossible.

Confusion over whether he or she is the God or just a God.

Child might grow up to be a bit cocky.

Every time somebody says, “Who do you think you are? God?” He or she will have to answer, “Why yes I am,” which invariably will lead to fisticuffs.

Some day, he or she will start a conversation by saying, “Are you there Margaret? It’s me, God.”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What I've been reading

The back of the cereal box
(how do they get so many essential vitamins into such a small sugar-coated corn flake?)

Whatever book and/or magazine happens to be in the bathroom

News headlines on my Yahoo homepage
(WTF is this world coming to?)

All my friend’s facebook pages while never adding a damn thing to my own because I can never think of a clever activity that I is doing.

The cartoon caption contest on the last page of The New Yorker
(which always makes me ask myself, why didn’t I think of that?)


A book

The list of possible side effects that came with my thyroid medication

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Porch Pirates

Time: 2004
Place: Atlanta, GA

J and I were taking a walk through our neighborhood when we noticed a woman sitting on the stoop to her front door. She was petting a tabby cat. The cat was responding with great love and affection. His tail stuck straight up in the air and he rubbed his head against her hand.

“Your cat loves you,” J said.

“He’s not my cat,” the woman said.

“Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“He’s been hanging around our door for a couple of weeks now,” the woman explained. “I’ve been feeding him now and then, but nothing regular. I haven’t decided whether I should keep him or not, or even if I can keep him.”

“Well, as long as you don’t name him, you’re okay,” I said. “Once you name a cat, it’s all over.”

“His name is Murray,” the woman said. She sounded like she was on the verge of tears, torn between happiness and helplessness.

“I’m sorry,” J said. “But you have a cat named Murray.”

“I think you’re right,” the woman said.

Murray purred in agreement.

We understood the woman’s predicament. We got two of our cats the exact same way. A friend of ours calls them “porch pirates.” That’s a cat who takes over your porch and hangs out, begging for food and attention until you give in and let them live in your house.

The porch pirate starts out acting so sweet and helpless as if to say, “If you could just spare a few crumbs to keep me from starving and perhaps let me sleep on a dry spot on your floor, I promise to love you forever and never ever destroy your furniture.” After a few weeks of resistance, you give in and the next thing you know, the cat is sleeping on your bed, eating the fanciest cat food available, and destroys all your good furniture.

So, beware. The porch pirate is a cunning creature. They know where the cat lovers live the same way hobos used to know which house in a neighborhood was good for a free meal. The porch pirates may even leave a mark on the house as a sign to other porch pirates the same way hobos used to do. If I were to guess what mark the porch pirate leaves, it would have to be a sucker.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Girls' Club

Time: 1974
Place: Chattanooga, TN

“Pump me, Mickey. Pump me.”

There was no way in hell I was going to “pump” that girl. I didn’t care how much she pleaded with me. She was nine and I was seventeen. There were laws against that kind of thing.

“Come on, Mickey. Pump me. Please pump me.”

“Pumping” was the term the day campers at the Girls’ Club used to describe a method they invented to make the swings go higher. The way it worked was one girl sat on the swing with another girl sitting in her lap, facing the opposite direction. The girl on top wrapped her legs around the waist of the girl sitting on the swing. Each girl took turns swinging her legs, which achieved greater altitude than one girl could by herself.

Having a nine-year-old girl sit in my lap with her legs wrapped around my waist while we pumped our legs back and forth would have been wrong on so many levels. I told her she would have to find someone else to help her go higher.

I had gotten my summer job as a day camp counselor for the Girls’ Club through my girlfriend, Linda. We had been dating for a couple of months. She was another in my growing collection of tall, skinny, Gentile girlfriends with long dark hair. Linda wore big round-rimmed glasses. She used sarcasm with laser beam accuracy on anyone who pissed her off.

Linda had no trouble talking me into taking the job because it meant I would get to hang out with her every day. After I was hired, I discovered that there were only three counselors for the entire day camp; Linda, her best friend Claire, and me. Camp was held from nine to two at a Victorian house with a big yard that had been converted into a playground.

I thought the job at the Girls’ Club would be easy. I had been a day camp counselor before at the Chattanooga Jewish Community Center. My previous job experience didn’t prepare me for a day camp that was all female and all African American. I had no trouble with the six to ten year olds. The sixes greeted me with big smiles and climbed on me like I was a human jungle gym.

It was a different story with the eleven and twelve year olds. To them, I was the worst thing in the world. A white male. I was The Man. They glared at me with a mixture of distrust and disgust. Since I was the only male counselor, my boss decided that I should be in charge of the oldest group, the eleven and twelve year olds.

Linda and Claire decided that the first thing we should do with our groups of campers, once we had separated them by age, was to come up with a name for each group. Claire named her seven to eight year olds the Ladybug Brigade. Linda named her nine to ten year olds the Sparkle Musketeers. I named my campers the Glorious Ladies of Pastor Mick. On the spur of the moment, I had created this alter ego named Pastor Mick, a revered messenger of funky truths. I thought Pastor Mick was inspired. My campers were confused, though they didn’t mind being referred to as Glorious Ladies.

It took a couple of weeks, but I finally convinced most of the Glorious Ladies that I wasn’t there to oppress them. Some refused to stop hating me just on principle. The younger girls still loved me. At the end of each day, I sat with them on the house’s big wraparound porch as they waited for their mothers to pick them up. They enjoyed twisting my frizzy hair so that it stood off my head even frizzier. Usually they only finished one side of my head before either losing interest or having to leave. I often went home with half an afro.

My favorite camper was a nine-year-old named Venus. The first time we met, she put her hands on her hips and warned me not to make the obvious jokes about her name.

“You mean, Venus being the Goddess of Love?” I asked.

“No,” she said, stomping her foot, “Venus Flytrap! I heard that enough times and I don’t want to hear it no more. Goddess of Love? What’s that?”

The lady who ran the day camp decided that each group of campers should put on a short play for the other groups. I hated the idea. Leading a group of overactive girls from arts and crafts to a game of kickball was taxing enough. I really didn’t need the added pressure of writing an original skit.

I procrastinated as much as I could, and then forced myself to sit down and write. I decided to write a play about the Glorious Ladies of Pastor Mick, except The Glorious Ladies didn’t interest me at all. I wanted the play to center on Pastor Mick.

I ended up writing what could only be described as a bizarre comedy sketch where Pastor Mick lectures all the campers about life and the pursuit of funkiness. My script was loaded with jokes that were only funny to me. I had the only speaking part. All the Glorious Ladies were required to do in the play was dance wildly to the music of Kool and the Gang, once at the beginning of the play and again at the end.

I had an image of Pastor Mick in my mind. He was a funky black man in outrageous clothes. He looked like J.J. Evans, Jr. in the sitcom “Good Times.” Like J.J., Pastor Mick was dy-no-mite!

To do the play right, I would have to dress the part. Getting the proper wardrobe was no problem, but I had to figure out how to look like a black person. I found boxes of donated cosmetics in an upstairs closet. In one box were dozens of small vials of some kind of greasy stuff that I think was eyeliner. It was dark green. Close enough to black. With Linda and Claire’s help, I used a shitload of the stuff to cover my face, hands, and forearms.

I was way too involved in the process of creating Pastor Mick to realize how inappropriate it was for me to appear in blackface. Even if it had occurred to me, I probably would have done the play in blackface anyway. I wanted to be shocking. Shocking was cool. Besides, who was going to see me, except for a room full of little girls?

Despite the July weather, I wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans so that there would be less of me that had to be covered. Multi-colored socks were all the rage at that time, so I wore a pair of them pulled up to my knees. Along with my green face and arms and crazy socks, I had on a large floppy hat and a pair of mirrored sunglasses.

The plays were performed in the living room with the campers crammed into two couches and the rest sitting cross-legged on the floor. I hid in the kitchen during the plays by the Sparkle Musketeers and the Ladybug Brigade. I didn’t tell the Glorious Ladies what I had planned. We never had a rehearsal. My only instructions to them were to wear something nice and whenever they heard “Hollywood Swinging” to get up and dance.

When it was our play’s turn, the Glorious Ladies stood in front of the other campers as if they were in a chorus line. A couple of them were wearing formal dresses, which looked out of place on a bright sunny afternoon. I started the music on a turntable I had set up in the next room. As soon as Kool and the Gang hit that funky beat, the Glorious Ladies began to gyrate wildly while grabbing handfuls of air. I only let the song play for about thirty seconds before stopping the record abruptly with a loud and unintentional scrape. The Glorious Ladies acted like someone had pulled their plug. They stopped moving and their arms hung limply at their sides.

I strode into the room. Adrenaline burned through my veins. The Glorious Ladies turned around to see why all the girls were gasping. The mouth of every girl in the room became a giant “O.”

“Listen up little sisters,” I said, “I am Pastor Mick and Pastor Mick is here to tell you how funk can save your soul. Because, if you get funky, then life will treat you right. If you get funky, all your dreams will come true. Can I get an amen?”

Except for Claire giggling, the room was silent.

“When man accepts the funk, he will go to war no more,” I said, “Because a man with funk in his soul has no room to hate. When man accepts the funk, no one will have to pay taxes anymore. Because a man with funk in his soul has no time to collect money. He’s too busy being funky! So hear me now, little sisters, and hear me good. No matter what you do, no matter what you say, and no matter where you go; do it funky. And if you are being funky, try to be more funky. There is no such thing as too funky. That is all I have to say. Time for Pastor Mick to get the funk out of here.”

I hurried over to the turntable and started the record. The Glorious Ladies danced to the music. I blew kisses and waved goodbye as I left the living room.

I thought I delivered an outstanding performance. Claire loved every minute. Linda shook her head and rolled her eyes. Campers’ heads turned to one side like confused dogs. If I was supposed to have been some kind of green alien, then why did I talk like a preacher?

If any of the campers told their parents what they had seen that day, I never heard about it. Maybe a few of them did and their parents either didn’t believe them or simply shrugged it off as something crazy white boys do.

For me, the play delivered everything I needed. I got to express myself creatively. I received attention for my art. I was able to escape the ordinary, and since everyone shared the experience with me, nobody got left behind.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Funeral for a Friend

Time: 1974
Place: Chattanooga, TN

For two weeks, everybody in my family was out of town, except for my sister Freda and me. Nobody in my family can remember now where they went, or why we decided to stay behind. More important nobody can remember why my parents trusted Freda and me not to have drunken orgies or burn the house down while they were away.

I was happy about not going because it meant I got to drive the family station wagon to school every day. I was feeling pretty cool about being mobile until the morning I was backing out of the garage and managed to take out the right side of the garage wall. After that, I parked the car in the driveway.

Freda had skipped her senior year of high school by taking her last credit courses during the summer. She was only enrolled in a couple of courses at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and had plenty of free time to hang out.

I was in one of my last classes, an Algebra class, when the principal’s secretary poked her head in the door to tell me that my sister had called. Freda had told the school to tell me that I had to go home right away because the dog was sick and had to be taken to the vet. I gathered my books, and the principal’s secretary escorted me to the parking lot.
“Is taking the dog to the vet really considered a family emergency?” the principal’s secretary asked.

“He’s a part of the family,” I explained.

I should have given my sister’s message more thought. If something really serious had happened, like if Prince had been hit by a car again, that would have been a real emergency. But if he was just sick, why hadn’t Freda just taken him to the vet, then called to tell me what was wrong with him? I didn’t stop to think. Freda said Prince was sick and that she needed my help. I went home to help.

As I pulled into our driveway, Freda and her best friend, Trudy, came out to greet me. Freda was crying. Prince wasn’t sick. Prince was dead. Freda had found him under her car. She thought he was sleeping, since he liked to nap under our cars, and she had tried to wake him up.

“Where is he now?” I asked.

“He’s still under my car,” she said, “I couldn’t bring myself to move him.”

I squatted down and pulled Prince out. Without life inside, his body felt hollow. I could tell from the way his legs were stretched out and his eyes were half-opened that he had been in the middle of an after nap stretch when he died. Death must have been instantaneous. What a great way to go.

Dying peacefully was an unlikely death for Prince. He had lived a hard life. He was an incurable car chaser. He wandered neighborhoods to pick fights with other dogs. In eleven years, he survived three car accidents and countless injuries from dog fights.

The first time he was hit by a car was the worst. His back leg was ripped open, most of the skin ground away, exposing muscle and bones. While I held on to my whimpering dog on the examination table, the vet cheerfully explained to my mother how he was sure he could save the leg. As he talked, he tapped a pencil on Prince’s foot, which barely clung to his leg by a mangled tendon, causing the foot to bounce up and down. The vet did save the leg, though Prince limped on cold days.

Prince came home once with half an ear missing, and another time he trotted up to me with a huge gash down the front of his face. I lost count of the times he came home with teeth marks on his back flanks. Despite the injuries, he always came home happy after a fight. Once he came home covered in blood and fur. After looking him over, I discovered that neither belonged to him.

Dad always said Prince would probably “die with his boots on.” Mom prayed that if he got injured again, he would die then just so she wouldn’t have to rush him to the vet one more time. She said she was tired of paying to have him stitched back together. I think she was more tired of the emotional turmoil we all went through whenever Prince was hurt.

I sent Freda to find an old bed sheet we could wrap Prince in before we buried him. While she was inside the house, I ran my hand through Prince’s fur for the last time. It still felt the same, but already I could tell this wasn’t my dog anymore. It was just the body he left behind. I unhooked his collar, a worn brown leather strap with a double row of silver studs, many of them missing. His rabies tags hung from a metal bar next to the buckle.

“You don’t have to wear this anymore,” I said. “It’s my turn now.”

I wasn’t sure why I said it or why I felt compelled to put the collar around my own neck. It fit and I buckled it on. When I moved I the rabies tags jingled the same way they did when he wore it.

Freda came outside with an old white sheet and I wrapped it around Prince’s body. I carried his body to an empty lot behind our house that was overrun with weeds and tangled vines. Freda and Trudy followed. Trudy carried the shovel.

Rigor mortis had already set in by the time I pulled Prince out from under the car. I had to dig the hole extra long because of his outstretched legs. I probably didn’t dig the grave deep enough. I wasn’t sure. This was the first time I had buried a pet.

After I covered Prince with dirt, I pounded the grave flat with the shovel. We placed a brick-sized rock at the foot of the grave to serve as a headstone. I stammered through the Mourner’s Kaddish as best I could remember. Yeetgadal v’ yeetkadash sh’mey rabbah. That part I know I got right. The rest I wasn’t so sure.

To make Freda and me feel better, Trudy took us out drinking that night. I kept Prince’s collar on until Freda insisted I take it off.

“Every time I hear the tags jingling,” she said, “I think its Prince. It’s really freaking me out.”

I took it off and stuffed it in my jeans pocket. When I got home, I put the collar in an old Hav-A-Tampa cigar box I found in the basement.