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The Secret Jewish History of … – Part One

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The Jewish connection to the Fantastic Four prompted a Manhattan comic shop, Cosmic Comics, to post the following sign in their window: ‘How do you circumcise an orange brick?’. This is an interesting question and one that I will attempt to answer in this week’s edition of The Story Factory. However, if you are feeling a little squeamish just thinking about it, I am saving that for a little later, so you can breathe easier … for now.

The Thing (aka Benjamin Grimm), a big orange rocky guy, together with his pal Johnny Storm (aka The Human Torch), Johnny’s sister Sue (aka The Invisible Woman) and Sue’s partner Reed Richards (aka Mister Fantastic) make up the cosmic-powered super team The Fantastic Four. Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created the team for Marvel Comics in 1961. Their debut is often said to have ushered in the Silver Age of comics.

At the time, Marvel’s rival, DC Comics, was doing very well with their team book the Justice League of America. Martin Goodman (the chief of Marvel) turned to Kirby and Lee to create a new super team that would take on the sales juggernaut of the JLA. They came up with something very, very different.

The Fantastic Four were unlike anything seen in comics before. "I tried to make them like real people with their warts revealed," said Stan Lee of the team’s origin. Unlike the super heroes who had appeared before them, the Fantastic Four had no secret identities. Instead, they were high profile celebrities who lived in the Baxter Building on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Each member of the team reacts differently to their new powers. In Fantastic Four #16 (published in 1963), Johnny hypes up his school by using his flame and flight powers to write the words ‘Go Glenville High’ across the sky. This is a possible Kirby/ Lee homage to Siegel and Schuster, creators of Superman, who attended Glenville High and wrote for its paper, appropriately called the Glenville Torch.

Prior to the release of The Fantastic Four the dynamics of family life had not really been explored in comic books. The family unit is the centre of life in Jewish culture; family is the tool that transmits spiritual and cultural values through hundreds of generations and across thousands of years. The Sabbath traditions of my family are shared by millions of others across the world and these customs remain almost unchanged since biblical times.

After the destruction of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the family home took on many of the Temples’ roles. There is a Jewish concept called ‘Shalom Bayit’ which is Hebrew for ‘peaceful home’; the Fantastic Four always seem to squabble and struggle, but when the chips are down they come together as families always do.

The biblical Exodus, after the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt, is also explored in the early issues of the comic. In Fantastic Four #19 (published in 1963) the family is enslaved by an evil Egyptian Pharoh from the future. In defeating the Pharoh, the Thing regains his strength and tears down the pillars of the palace, mirroring the actions of Samson in the Old Testament.

The Fantastic Four is a family unit, yet the number four has many interesting meanings in the Jewish religion. Firstly, universally, the number four represents the four seasons, four weeks in each month and the four points of the compass. In Jewish tradition the Passover service (completed while eating the traditional meal) includes the story of the four sons, dinking four cups of wine over the course of the meal and the four questions asked by the youngest member of the family. Reportedly, attending the Passover dinner was a favourite custom of Jack Kirby. This is something I can legitimately claim to share with the King, as Passover has long been my favourite festival on the Jewish calendar.

Of the four characters that make up the team, Ben Grimm is the most traumatized by his transformation. On the flip side, The Thing is likely to be the most popular member of the team. More than just a maverick test pilot with a penchant for cigars and cloberin’ time, the ever-lovin’ blue eyed Thing has a secret Jewish past.

With a civilian name Benjamin J Grimm, the Thing, like his co-creator Jack Kirby, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he belonged to the Yancy Street gang. In a famous issue August 2002 issue (Fantastic Four Volume 3 #56) titled Remembrance of things past, forty years after the character’s debut, the Thing’s Jewish identity is revealed. He returns to Mr Sheckerberg’s pawn shop to give back a Star Of David necklace that he had stolen many years before.

Mr Sheckerberg is none too happy to see Ben Grimm and is even less thrilled to see Ben’s nemesis Powderkeg who shows up to do battle with the Thing. The villain is defeated, but Mr Sheckerberg is critically wounded. Struck by fear that his own bulk will further harm the injured pawn shop owner, Ben remembers his past and recites a Hebrew prayer called the Shema. The Shema is the most famous of Jewish prayers and is said in the morning when you wake and at night when you go to sleep. This is the first prayer a Jewish child learns and is the last prayer you recite (if able) before passing from this world.

Remarkably Mr Sheckerberg recovers and says the following interesting passage to The Thing:

Mr Sheckerberg – It’s good to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mention you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?

The Thing replies – Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.

So the Thing reinforces that you can take the Jew out of Judaism, but you can’t take the Judaism out of the Jew.

The issue ends with Mr Sheckerberg recalling the ancient tale of the Jewish protector, the Golem – Remember the tale of the Golem, Benjamin? He was made of clay, but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.

The success of The Thing showed that superheroes did not have to follow the clean-cut, all-American archetype established by Superman. Heroes could be ‘real’ human beings with flaws, doubts and uneasy relationships with friends and family.

As for the question posed in the comic shop window, well I guess the lucky thing for Benjamin Grimm is that the rite of circumcision is performed when a Jewish boy is eight days old, so The Thing would have undergone the procedure long before he was bombarded with the cosmic rays that changed his appearance, but not his true identity.

Thank you to Rabbi Smicha Weinstein on whose work this column was based.

Next: The secret Jewish history of … II

Next: Am I a Jewish creator? (Or a creator who is Jewish?)

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