As the first author to publish a book about the Jewish connection to comic books, I’m tired of writing articles that begin with the words, “As the first author to publish a book about the Jewish connection to comic books.”
The topic has become a genre unto itself.
Yes, the original creators were largely Jewish and yes, those artists (subconsciously at times) created characters that reflected their own double identities and their own struggles assimilating into the dominant culture whilst reverting to their Jewish-immigrant alter egos at homes. But these themes all simmered beneath the surface of previous comics. The overtly Jewish dilemma belonged to the creators, not the characters — until now!
In truth, I actually kvetched when asked to review DC’s new young adult comic/graphic novel, “Whistle: A New Gotham Hero,” billed as featuring DC’s first openly Jewish character in 40 years.
“Whistle” announces the arrival of dark wavy-haired teen Willow Zimmerman, aka Whistle, who along with her loyal dog Lebowitz saves the overly-borsched and previously overlooked Gotham neighborhood of Down River.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was how soon my kvetching turned to kvelling.
Willow is an entirely new comic book figure — a thoroughly contemporary heroine whose extra abilities are almost as impactful as her commitment to social justice. In fact, as the rabbi to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, I noticed that Willow looks remarkably like the students I’ve ministered to over the years. I see her all the time these days and, like our heroine, she’s masked!
It’s no coincidence then that author E. Lockhart lives in Brooklyn, as Willow felt less Batman more Bushwick. This super heroine is Brooklyn-woke, more interested in fighting gentrification than criminals. Much like her contemporaries on campus, Willow sees the gentrifiers as the real criminals.
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Yet for all Willow’s modernism, she is rooted in the past. For example, traditional Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this slender story. Throughout the book, Whistle is fressing and buying reuben sandwiches, chocolate babka, cinnamon rugelah, and lox and bagels!
The mitzvah to honor your parents also informs Willow’s worldview. Willow’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and Willow takes on the traditional role of caring for her. Her mother’s job as an adjunct professor of Jewish culture does not provide adequate health insurance. (In yet another Jewish connection, her mother is re-reading Holocaust history for her class on Jewish immigrant communities in America.)
And what would a contemporary proto-Brooklynite be without a volunteering gig at the local pet shelter? Willow takes in a stray dog she’s named Lebowitz.
Obligatory rabbinic wisdom aside: The word for dog in Hebrew is kelev, a contraction of the words kol lev, which means “full hearted.” The sages observe that dogs are particularly sensitive to metaphysical matters that are not readily understood by humanity, an extrasensory perception Whistle can clearly sense.
Lockhart’s Gotham is loosely based on the Lower East Side, which is ironic because the Lower East Side served as the inspiration for the actual Gotham. In fact, Batman co-creator Bill Finger claimed he simply filched the name “Gotham City” from a phone book listing for “Gotham Jewelers.”
“In order to make Gotham my own, I invented a neighborhood called Down River,” Lockhart said. “It’s a formerly all-Jewish neighborhood like New York City’s Lower East Side, now home to a wide range of people, but still holding onto a lot of its Jewish history and culture. Shelsky’s Bagels of Gotham. Rosen Brothers’ Delicatessen. Stuff.”
Willow herself speaks of her fictional neighborhood with a similar fondness: “Down River is all about the delicatessen. It used to be an all-Jewish neighborhood and had more than five hundred synagogues back in, like 1915.”
As a character, Willow feels poignantly full-circle. Her contemporary sensibility is manifested, somewhat ironically, in her zeal to preserve the old neighborhood, a relic of the past. But unlike the creations of the earliest comic book authors, Willow is a superhero who is finally able to remove her mask.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is a best-selling author who chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. He is the founder of the Jewish Autism Network (www.JewishAutismNetwork.com) and resides in Brooklyn.