Speaking to this week’s grandiosely named “Conference on the Future of the Jewish People,” convened by the equally grandiosely (and tongue-twistingly) named Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that he identifies as a Jew first, and an Israeli second.
“If I was asked today, which I am sometimes, how do I most accurately define myself, as a person? What is that defines me most accurately? I probably will say, certainly will say, first of all I’m Jewish. Had I been asked this question when I was much younger, say at the age of 14, 15, I would have said right away, I am an Israeli. Something in me changed,” Olmert said.
“It’s not something that just happened. It happened through a very long and sometimes painful process of soul searching of who I am and where I come from,” Olmert said.
What’s noteworthy about Olmert’s remarks is that these two terms — “Israeli” and “Jewish” — have come, in certain respects, to represent competing identities. (After being defeated in the 1996 Israeli elections by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres famously explained that the election’s losers were “the Israelis,” while the winners were those “who do not have an Israeli mentality,” namely, he explained, “the Jews.”)
What if Batman and Robin worked in the American Jewish community? Eli Valley offers up a clever exposition of this silly scenario in a comic on the Web site Jewcy.
I wish I had been there for this one: Jewish mega-philanthropist and avowed atheist Michael Steinhardt faced off in New York against renowned talmudist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (who happens to be heading up a new effort to revive the ancient Sanhedrin).
Michal Lando of the Jerusalem Post gives the blow-by-blow:
…[M]oderator Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, pressed both participants to explain why there was even a need for Jewish continuity.
Steinhardt argued that the Jewish people should continue in order to preserve “Jewish values,” which he distinguished from Judaism’s religious aspects. “The overwhelming number of Jews alive today have no serious interest in their religion,” said Steinhardt. He said that could change if Jewish values were substituted for “that which is called religion today.” He mentioned education and tzedaka (charity) as examples.
Steinsaltz tried to reframe Joel’s question. He rejected the notion that Jewish survival was important because of what Jews have to offer the world. “Do we have to continue in order to do something, or can we continue as other beings [do]?” asked Steinsaltz.
The reasons to work for the continuation of the Jewish people, he said, could be compared those given for saving the dolphins. “Everybody should see that here is a species that seems to be endangered, so you should give it a better chance to survive.”
Steinsaltz said, as he has before, that the Jews were neither a nation nor a religion - they were a family. “We want to survive, first and foremost, because our family is a family… I don’t need to give any arguments that we are a light unto nations,” he said.
The Forward has earned a reputation for uncovering the Jewish ancestry of figures both real and fictional. Comics, in particular, have been a rewarding realm of inquiry: My friend and former colleague Max Gross outed The Thing, while executive editor Ami Eden discovered an uncanny Jewish X-Men connection.
So it was only natural that we’d turn our attention to Spiderman, who has been slinging webs across the silver screen for the past few weeks. Spidey’s creator, Stan Lee, is well known to be a member of tribe. But is his most famous superhero Jewish, too?
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up, Up, And Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero,” is ready to make the case. “Peter Parker’s a nerd who grew up in Forest Hills, his middle name is Benjamin and he’s motivated by guilt…I see a connection,” the rabbi told the Park Slope Courier.
Forgive me, rabbi, if I’m not convinced.
A little Web research, however, did yield a discovery of Jewish ancestry for the Sandman. Alas, it’s the wrong Sandman: not the wall-crawler’s nemesis from “Spiderman 3,” but rather an obscure 1940s DC Comics superhero — a “mystery man,” in the parlance of the times.
This Sandman, whose mother it seems was Jewish and father Catholic, apparently had no superpowers, but rather wielded “an exotic ‘gas gun’ that could compel villains to tell the truth, as well as put them to sleep,” according to Wikipedia.
Also, according to Wikipedia: “Unlike many superheroes, he frequently found himself the victim of gunshot wounds.” In other words, a real shlimazl of a superhero! In one comic book, he is reported to have come to the rescue of Rabbi Isaac Glickman. So it seems that this Sandman also happens to be something of a mensch!
UPDATE: Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks Peter Parker seems a little Wasp-y. Reader Arieh Lebowitz helpfully forwarded a link to a Web page on Spiderman’s religion from Adherents.com (the same site that provided the information on the religious affiliations of the Sandman and The Thing.)