Is the Joker Jewish?
How this summer's blockbuster character migrated from the Catskills to Gotham City.
The release of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, is all the more "darkened" by the untimely death of one of its stars, Heath Ledger, who played the Joker. The talented young actor had devoted himself to creating an original, multifaceted portrayal of the iconic character, arguably the most compelling villain in the Batman canon.
The Joker's character has gone through a transformation over the years. The original image was that of a serial killer with a deranged sense of humor. This interpretation was interrupted when the campy Batman series became a 1960s TV hit. That particular Joker was a toned down and tamed version, an eccentric but essentially harmless prankster and unsuccessful thief. These respective Jokers represented the spirits of their times: the hardened, cruel Joker fit in during the Great Depression, while the softer, campy Joker personified the colorful, carefree ‘60s.
Jack Nicholson's unforgettable tour de force in the 1989 film Batman blended both Jokers together. "Some men aren't looking for anything logical," the film says in trying to decipher the Joker's motives. "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
The Joker's sadistic humor is far from the traditional Jewish approach, which uses humor to help overcome misfortune and maybe even make the world a better place. This idea has its roots in the book of Proverbs, where King Solomon writes: "A joyful heart is good medicine; a broken spirit dries the bones."
USING HUMOR TO COPE
Humor as a coping mechanism has aided Jews throughout the ages; Emil Fackenheim, a noted philosopher and survivor of Auschwitz, observed, "We kept our morale through humor."
"We kept our morale through humor."
Laying emaciated in the bunks, starving prisoners would invent elaborate recipes: one cup of sugar, two cups of flour, etc. When one woman declined to participate, she jokingly explained that she'd "burned her cake."
Psychologists point out that sobs and guffaws lie close to each other in the emotional spectrum; they even sound alike. Jews in the concentration camps told macabre jokes as defense mechanisms against the torture and suffering. One survivor describes:
At the Plashow slave labor camp, the sanitary conditions were horrible, and people would complain how there was no soap. We had heard about Auschwitz and how they were turning human flesh into soap. So we used to say: "Wait until you get to Auschwitz. Then you will have your own personal soap."
No subject was taboo. "Starvation, disease, beatings, murder, propaganda, and every form of persecution were grist for the victims' joke mill," writes Steve Lipman writes in his book, Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust.
When one Holocaust survivor was asked how he managed to survive, he attributed it to "laughter and humor, not to take things the way we were living but to dress them up as something different... Because it was absurd all that time, it was unconceivable, that they could do those things to people."
Two Jews are about to enter the Auschwitz gas chamber. One turns to the SS guard to make a last request for a glass of water. "Quiet, Moshe," says his friend. "Don't make such a fuss."
In the Batman films, the Joker also employs a similarly dark sense of humor, but more closely resembles a concentration camp guard than a prisoner. While the Joker's gift for the memorable one-liner is enviable, one wishes -- as with all comic book bad guys -- that he'd use that power for good instead of evil.
THE JOKER'S HUMBLE BEGININGS
It's a little known fact that comic book fans owe the Joker's existence to a chance encounter in the Catskill Mountains, a popular resort area and proving ground for the nation's Jewish stand-up comedians through the 1950s and ‘60s.
The Batman character was the brainchild of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, who first crossed paths in the Bronx during the Great Depression. Like so many Jewish New Yorkers, these young artists escaped the city's stifling heat every summer by taking a trip to the Catskill mountains in upstate New York.
Often barred from joining "restricted" country clubs or staying at mainstream hotels, American Jews created their own. There were so many of these resorts in the 1940s that the Catskills soon became known as the Borscht Belt. Hotels like Grossingers gave Jewish performers an opportunity to develop what would become a distinctive performing style. Take one self-deprecating, slightly desperate persona in a cheap tux, add a hostile, rapid-fire delivery that belies his nebbish exterior, and you've got the likes of Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Danny Kaye and George Burns -- classic Borscht Belt comics who gave new meaning to the phrase "passive aggressive."
One summer at a hotel in the Catskills, Kane, the co-creator of Batman, was taking a respite from his drawing board when he met 17-year-old Jerry Robinson, a Jewish journalism student. Robinson was innocently pacing the tennis court when Kane noticed the young man's impressive hand-painted jacket and offered him a chance to join his artistic team.
It was Robinson who would go on to create a character called the Joker, Gotham City's greatest criminal mastermind, and perhaps one of the most "loved" villains in comic book history.
So what is it about the Joker that makes him so compelling? Maybe it's because he's such a fascinating study in contradictions. He's a villain who does terrible things, but makes light of these situations by "joking." Interestingly, we Jews also suffer from a similar contradiction. We have gone through terrible things ourselves, yet we have somehow managed to persevere, using our sense of humor through it all. Subconsciously, did Robinson tap into some collective Jewish consciousness when he innovated the Joker? Who knows, but that certainly would be funny.
With thanks to Rabbi Simcha Weinstein