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Is Spider-Man Jewish?

July 15, 2010 | by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein

Goldman, Lipman and Spider-Man: All Jewish names.

My Spidey sense is tingling, 48 years after the Spider-man was first concocted by Jewish artist Stan Lee; Jewish actor Andrew Garfield will don the spandex for the forthcoming fourth film in the Spider-man franchise, replacing Tobey Maguire in the role. Garfield noted in an interview, that he grew up in a middle-class Jewish home and attended private school. While born in Los Angeles, Garfield moved across the pond to live in England with his British mother and American father when he was 3.

Garfield being Jewish is no small matter to the Spider-man universe. In August 1962, Stan Lee was basking in the success of the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, created a new kind of superhero: “A teenager, with all the problems, hang-ups, and angst of any teenager. He’d be an orphan who lived with his aunt and uncle, a bit of a nerd, a loser in the romantic department, and who constantly worried.”

Spider-Man has a number of classically Jewish qualities.

Angst-ridden teenager Peter Parker is introduced in the first panel as “that bookworm [who] wouldn’t know a cha-cha from a waltz!” He’s drawn as a nebbish – a dark-haired, spectacled, neurotic worrier. When he’s bitten by a radioactive spider while visiting a science museum, Parker ends up with an array of superhuman, spider like powers: speed, strength, and agility; a tingling "spider-sense" that warns him of impending danger; the ability to quickly recover from injuries and poisons; and a proficiency for sticking to walls. Originally near sighted, Parker now has perfect vision.

The death of a loved one is a commonplace motive for crime fighting in comics. Just think of Batman. But Spider-Man is driven by guilt rather than revenge. Michael Chabon notes, “I don’t think there’s another comic-book superhero that’s as completely driven by trying to pay some debt, a debt that can’t be paid, as Spider-Man is.” Amazingly, Garfield recently noted, “I have a really big guilt complex and that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being.”

Sam Raimi, director of the previous hugely successful Spider-Man movies, agrees with Chabon: "Spider-Man is a character that spends his life trying to pay down his guilt, the only difference is that it’s caused by his uncle, not his mother. That’s a real classically Jewish quality — to be very aware of your sins in this life and try and make amends for them in this life."

Michael Chabon’s fictional account of the early days of the comic book industry, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay depicts how badly the comic creators themselves needed heroes.

The theme of guilt leads to talk of Spider-Man being Jewish. So does Spider-Man’s dry sense of humor, “He’s a very funny guy, almost Seinfeld with webbing,” observes Marvel writer Danny Fingeroth. Chabon comments, “For years people have speculated that Peter was sort of crypto-Jewish. You know, living with his uncle Ben and aunt May in Queens.”

Many people consider spiders pests and are fearful of them, but in fact these creatures perform a vital natural function by keeping the insect population under control. In the same way, the Jewish people have received their share of bad press over the years. Israel is a special target of misrepresentation in media “spin.” Like the Jewish people, Spider-Man tries to do the right thing but is viewed with suspicion by authority figures.

Spider-Man’s famous costume covers his entire body from head to toe. Even his eyes hide behind unblinking white triangles. Spider-Man seems to be trying particularly hard to conceal himself; not many other comic book characters are so thoroughly disguised.

Spider-Man, unlike other superheroes, is more Woody Allen nebbish than all-powerful, suffering from stereotypical Jewish neuroses. When he was in his Clark Kent guise, Superman was only pretending to be a nerd. Peter Parker really was one.

The director of the forthcoming movie Marc Webb noted, “Mark my words, you will love Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.” With a guy named Webb helming a Spider-man movie starring a guilt-ridden Jewish actor, who am I to disagree!


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