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The Secret Jewish History of… – Part Two

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Growing up in New York City’s Bronx area during the Great Depression were two young Jewish artists who were setting out to change the world. In their own way they both more than succeeded. One was the legendary Will Eisner. The other was Bob Kahn (who later changed his name to Bob Kane).

In the wake of Siegel and Schuster’s success with Superman, National Periodical Publications asked Kane to develop a new character. Kane teamed up with his colleague, another Jew named Bill Finger, and together they created the millionaire playboy who dresses as a bat to fight crime; the Batman. The character debuted in Detective Comics #27. The year was 1939.

In the book’s first few issues Batman was a one dimensional weirdo in a costume, devoid of motivation or any real personality. Even the location of his adventures remained vague. Finger later claimed to have come up with the name Gotham City after seeing a listing for ‘Gotham Jewelers’ in the local phone book. Intentionally or not, the word ‘goth’ (short for gothic) came to define Batman’s operating environment.

In November of 1939 readers finally learned what was driving the dark and mysterious caped crusader; on the way home from the theatre Bruce’s parents are murdered in front of him by a petty thief who was attempting to steal his mother’s necklace. Then and there Bruce vows to avenge his parents by spending the rest of his life fighting crime. One part of Batman’s character is certainly not condoned by the Jewish faith and that is his vigilantism. –

His significant inheritance gives Bruce the ability to become a ‘master scientist’ and to hone his physique ‘until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats’. Finally, Bruce seeks to develop a crime fighting identity. His fate is sealed when a bat flies into his study.

Later, Kane decided the comic needed a more kid-friendly tone. As a result he came up with a sidekick named Robin. The very first issue featuring the Boy Wonder (Detective Comics #38 which debuted in 1940) sold twice as many copies as the previous issue.

Such partnerships are prominent in Jewish tradition and culture. The book of Ecclesiastes (from the Old Testament) says: "Two are better than one, for they get a greater reward for their labor. For should they fall, one can lift the other; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and there is no one to lift him!"

Many heroes are best defined by their villains, and few are more memorable or as instantly recognized as the bad guys of the Batman-verse. The list of names instantly brings their hideous visages to mind as we recall their evils; Catwoman, Two Face, The Penguin, The Riddler and, most infamously, the Joker.

Bob Kane met the Jerry Robinson in the Catskill mountains. Robinson was a Jewish journalism student who was preparing to play tennis when he met Kane. Kane was so impressed by Robinson’s hand painted jacket that he offered him a chance to join the Batman team. Robinson was the instigator of the Joker’s creation. The character was later remodeled by Kane and Finger.

One other ‘Jewish’ element to the Batman character is his hideout the Batcave. "The notion of a cave representing a private place of introspection and spiritual growth is a biblical one" Rabbi Weinstein writes. In his book Up, Up, and Oy Vey! the Rabbi discusses a part of the Book Of Genesis where Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah as a burial plot for his wife Sarah. In Hebrew the word machpelah means ‘doubled’ and hints at the holy couples said to be buried there; Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. This cave was also a place where warring brothers were able to reunite – Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father Abraham in the cave.

Of the characters discussed in my most recent columns Batman is the one with which I am least familiar. Beyond the kitschy TV show I have never been truly drawn to this character. Somehow, I feel a closer connection to the Dark Knight now that I understand his Jewish roots.

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

Next: Am I a Jewish creator?

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