Yes, Spider-Man Is Jewish. But Not for the Reasons You Think.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 30 2014 12:19 PM

For This You Got Irradiated?

Yes, Spider-Man is Jewish. Just listen to his jokes.

140429_spideyComic2

Photo illustration by Holly Allen

Earlier this month, Andrew Garfield, star of Amazing Spider-Man 2, told Time Out that Spider-Man is Jewish. “He ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ about his future because he’s neurotic. He’s Jewish. It’s a defining feature,” Garfield explained, quickly adding, “I hope Jewish people won’t mind the cliché, because my father’s Jewish. I have that in me for sure.”

Apparently, Garfield sees Peter Parker as Woody Allen in superhero drag. But he doesn’t make much of an argument: Jews hardly have a monopoly on neurosis. And yet …

Though Peter Parker is usually depicted in the comic books as Protestant, Garfield is hardly the first person to assert that the character, created in 1962 by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, is a Jew. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who co-wrote the 2004 film Spider-Man 2, voiced a similar sentiment, calling the web-slinger a “crypto-Jew” in a 2004 interview with Newsweek. He offered up as proof the fact that Peter Parker lives in Queens with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Chabon sees all of the italicized words as subtextual Jewish signifiers. And perhaps he’s right. Peter, after all, doesn’t just live in Queens. He lives in Forest Hills, traditionally home to a large Jewish population.

Avi Arad, Israeli-born producer of the Amazing Spider-Man movies, made a more specific case to the Times of Israel in 2012. “These are practically shtetl Jews living in Queens,” he observed. “You look at Aunt May—she is tough as anything, tough as nails. She is a defender of the family … This is like a shtetl play.” He’s not wrong. Whether in the movies or in the comics, Aunt May frets over her family’s safety like a stereotypical Jewish mother in a Yiddish melodrama. In the new film, there’s a scene where Peter Parker talks about his laundry with Aunt May (Sally Field), who has no idea that he’s a superhero. They talk about the fact that Aunt May has been forced to take a second job—“Gives me a little extra in the cookie jar,” she shrugs—and she wonders aloud why Peter’s boss, newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, doesn’t give her nephew a fair wage. “Jameson pays me a fair wage,” he chuckles ruefully before adding, “If it was 1961, it’d be a fair wage.” Touching and funny, it is one of the best scenes in the movie. And it wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Clifford Odets play.

Whenever Peter talks to his aunt, in fact, it’s about how his father was unfairly scapegoated by a corporate conspiracy; or how neither Peter nor May is earning anything approaching a decent income, given the hard work they both put in; or how Peter’s deceased parents aren’t there to see their son achieve what they never could. There are echoes here of the sort of leftist kitchen-sink drama written by Jewish playwrights in 1930s New York.

But this is nothing. If we pop open the hood and examine Spider-Man’s inner workings, we can find plenty more that’s Jewish about Peter Parker.

Most of what’s been written about the “Is Spidey Jewish?” question ignores an essential part of Stan Lee’s background. Not his background as a Jew—born Stanley Martin Lieber, Lee is the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants—but as a humorist. His whole generation of comic-book writers and artists were, by default, humorists. Back in 1939, when Lee began working in the comic-book industry, humor comics were just something you did, alongside superhero, romance, horror, and western comics. And from the late 1930s through the late 1960s, even superhero comics were usually created with a light touch. Their creators knew to never take their stories too seriously, and a certain jokiness came standard. In the early 1960s, when Lee co-created characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men, he quickly developed a reputation for witty dialogue, sharp characterization, and clever one-liners.

Though no one would have described them as such at the time, the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics were a literary mash-up: part superhero comic, part romance comic, and part humor comic. While fighting criminals, Spidey has always made jokes, often at a rapid-fire pace, psychologically disarming foes with his lighthearted patter. As the co-creator, Lee established a template for what Spider-Man dialogue should be: fast-paced, character-revealing, self-deprecating, and rat-a-tat funny. And what’s interesting about the Lee-scripted Spidey stories is the type of humor Lee employed. Like Jack Benny and Don Rickles, Stan Lee put a certain Borscht Belt flavor into his work.

Maybe he couldn’t help it. Maybe it’s the sort of comedic voice he was most comfortable using when writing dialogue. But for Lee, a certain sense of Yiddishkeit came out in the cadence and rhythms of the web-head’s one-liners. And, interestingly, no Spider-Man writer has ever deviated from that template. No matter how dark a Spider-Man story has gotten—and some of them are Breaking Bad dark—Peter Parker never loses his particular sense of humor.

This is true of the Spider-Man movies, too. Witness the scene early in the new one, when our hero is battling a bunch of Russian mobsters led by Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). Spider-Man zips around, mocking them with zingers like this: “You can call me web-head, you can call me amazing. Just don’t call me late for dinner.” This is Spidey by way of Henny Youngman, which is probably what Lee had in mind when he and Ditko created the wall crawler. And this is perhaps the most visibly Jewish aspect of Spider-Man in any medium: his reliance on Borscht Belt–style putdowns and quips. He’s Danny Kaye with radioactive blood. (Lee himself has a bit of the Catskills comic in him: He’s a self-described “ham” who revels in his onscreen cameos in every Marvel movie and his guest appearances on shows like The Big Bang Theory.)

And then there’s Flash Thompson, the jock and bully, Biff Tannen to Peter Parker’s George McFly. Spider-Man’s quasi-Judaism most obviously comes to the fore whenever Flash shows up, and it’s hard not to see Flash—who could make anyone else look “ethnic” by comparison—as Lee’s commentary on the WASP establishment. This remains true in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies and the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man movies as well. The fact that Flash is given a bit more depth and dimensionality in Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t detract from the fact that he still appears as the film’s symbol of the Oppressor. As such, he’s a good foil for Peter Parker, the ultimate underdog.

Which brings us back to Amazing Spider-Man 2. Lee has often said that part of Spider-Man’s appeal is that everyone, no matter their ethnicity, can imagine himself or herself under that mask. And this is a major theme of the new movie. Nerdy black electrician Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a Spidey superfan. So is 9-year-old Latino science geek Jorge (Jorge Vega). Both Max and Jorge feel like they know Spider-Man, and they both want to be Spider-Man. Partway into the film, Max acquires electricity-based super-powers and tries to get revenge on Spider-Man for what he sees as the web-head’s betrayal. Toward the movie’s end, Jorge puts on a pint-sized Spider-Man suit and attempts to stop a raging lunatic … until the real Spider-Man stops the kid from getting himself killed.

So while the Jewish signifiers in the Spider-Man character persist, the films highlights his otherness in a more general way: Spider-Man is not so much a stand-in for Jews as he’s a stand-in for all marginalized people—including, and perhaps especially, nerds. It’s worth noting that both Max and Jorge are nerds, as is Peter. Whereas the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies gave Peter Parker a steady stream of damaged father figures to mentor and then disappoint him—like Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn and Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius—the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man movies posit a world in which Peter, a super-nerd, is alternately pitted against and befriended by other super-nerds. And while you might argue that super-nerds are hardly underdogs these days, it is nice to see a film in which the diversity of geekdom is not only acknowledged, but celebrated.

Which maybe makes Spider-Man less of a Jew, at least in religious terms, and more of a secular humanist. Either way, what a mensch.

Arie Kaplan is the author of From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. He has written for DC Comics, MAD Magazine, and Archie Comics, among other publishers. Follow him on Twitter.

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