We’re nearly at the end of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, and several heroes from both Marvel and DC are celebrating by lighting the menorah and eating delicious latkes. In celebration of the holiday, it’s time to take a look at a few Jewish superheroes and how Judaism ties into their characters.
Perhaps the oldest and most well-known Jewish superhero is Ben Grimm, AKA the blue-eyed, ever-loving Thing. Judaism plays a role even in his character design, as his rocky form is based off the Golem of Prague. As a founding member of the Fantastic Four, Ben is one of the oldest Jewish superheroes in comics. Although the Comics Code prevented San Lee and Jack Kirby from revealing this during the 60s, they always intended for him to be Jewish.
His Jewish heritage was revealed during the Remembrance of Things Past storyline, wherein he eventually has his Bar Mitzvah to celebrate his “second life” as the Thing. Since then, it’s been an integral part of his character. While Ben’s religion doesn’t come up with excessive frequency, there are still little reminders of it where appropriate. With his upcoming marriage to Alicia Masters, for instance, promotional artwork shows him wearing a yarmulke and tallit, as appropriate for a Jewish wedding.
Of course, Ben is not the only Jewish character within Marvel – there are many more whose stories are deeply impacted by Judaism.
Magneto: the master of magnetism, alternating friend or foe of the X-Men, and Holocaust survivor. His backstory is inexorably linked to the darkest moment in Jewish history, if not world history. He lived through the rise of the Nazis, Kristallnacht, and imprisonment in Auschwitz, and what he experienced and survived turned him into the mutant he is. Even if he’s not a practicing Jew, his Jewish identity still plays a major role in his character and motivations.
While Magneto has been seen as an extremist, it’s also clear that his actions and worldview are designed to prevent mutants from suffering in camps the way he did. This even made it into his character in the X-Men movies, where he still has a number tattooed on his arm from his imprisonment in Auschwitz. Few were expecting a superhero movie to open with a scene in a concentration camp, but it was very effective for establishing his character’s roots.
While this did previously make Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch half-Jewish, the characters were retconned to no longer be related to Magneto back during the Axis event.
More recently, we see Magneto reflect on the meaning of Hanukkah in The Merry X-Men Holiday Special. Seeing a menorah lit in the midst of destruction, he questions the meaning of the gesture and celebration. But he’s reminded of what Hanukkah represents, and admits “Perhaps now… especially now… it is important to remember the miracles of the past.”
This background always added a level of sympathy to Magneto’s character, give or take how well he’s written at the time. For less moral ambiguity, though, there’s another character we can look at.
Kitty Pryde (or Shadowcat, Sprite, Ariel, or any of the codenames she’s used in the past) is the most prominently Jewish member of the X-Men. She’s occasionally depicted wearing a Star of David necklace (which even repelled Dracula on one occasion) and has on more than one occasion talked about what it means to be both Jewish and a mutant, to be a minority in two different ways.
One noteworthy example came from 2013’s All-New X-Men, where she reflects on a time in her youth when a boy she liked shouted an anti-Semitic slur at a rabbi.
“My heart sank, and then my blood boiled. I turned to him and growled: I’m Jewish. And he — just stared at me like he didn’t even realize he said something wrong. Or he didn’t know how to compute what I just said. But when I got home, after I was done crying my eyes out… I realized I was… maybe for the first time ever… I was really proud of myself. I am Jewish. I am a mutant. And I want people to know who and what I am.”
More recently, she also gets a page in The Merry X-Men Holiday Special, where she’s lighting a menorah and saying the prayers. While her internal monologue is her reflecting on the genocide in Genosha (oh, and on her plans to run for President), even her memory of her father has him wearing a yarmulke.
Moving away from Marvel, we have some Jewish DC heroes as well. Ragman may not be as big a name as Batman or Superman, but he’s a character with a long history and lore tied to Judaism.
Post-Crisis, Ragman was told the history of his powers from Rabbi Luria. A Council of Rabbis created the first Ragman as a counterpoint to the Golem of Prague, although that did eventually lead to the Golem and Ragman clashing. When the suit went out of control, he regained control of it with help from Batman and Rabbi Luria, although the Rabbi lost his life in the process.
Ragman has also been shown protecting Jewish communities and fighting against Neo-Nazi gangs. Additionally, when Ragman appeared on Arrow, his suit of rags were connected to the Devarim times, when Moses and the Israelites wandered the wilderness. In short, Judaism is more than just a minor character detail for him, it’s a driving force behind his heroism.
While Batman himself may not be Jewish, his cousin is. Kate Kane, AKA Batwoman, is a Jewish, lesbian superhero. We see her celebrating Hanukkah during 52, along with several other little moments reinforcing her Judaism.
However, nowhere is that stronger than within the pages of DC Bombshells. There, Batwoman is loud and proud about her Judaism as she fights against Nazis. She’ll drop Yiddish into her daily speech, and helped free a ghetto.
“We survived Egypt and we survived Masada. And if you cut us down, you are coming with us. Batter up.”
Batwoman will make her live action debut during the Elseworlds crossover event, where Ruby Rose will portray her. How her Judaism will come into play has yet to be seen, but it still means Hanukkah will come to a close with one of DC’s biggest Jewish heroines making her TV debut, and that’s nothing to kvetch about.