Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
The first PG-13 movie that I ever saw was Spider-Man. The year was 2002. I was eight years old. My eyes were glued to the wide movie theater screen, every aspect of my being captivated by the web-slinging, web-swinging vigilante in a red, blue, and black costume. I remember my parents pointing out New York City landmarks as they popped up on the screen, eager to show me glimpses of the city that both of them held so near to their hearts. And then, just as Uncle Ben gave his parting advice to his nephew, Peter Parker, my father leaned down and whispered the words right alongside him:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
That was my introduction to comic books, superheroes, and the world of Stan Lee.
It was a classic introduction, though I wouldn’t find that out until later. Those words, after all, are some of the most well-known in the Marvel Universe. Those words stuck with me… and came to mind not only when reading comic books, but in a Jewish contexts as well. It makes sense; those words embody the essence of Stan Lee, co-creator of some of the most treasured superheroes of all time. He was an author, an advocate, a legend – and a Jew.
Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, was the child of Romanian Jewish immigrants living in New York City. In many ways, his family’s story is the quintessential Jewish immigrant story. His father was a dress cutter; they lived in a small Manhattan apartment, dreaming of making a better life for themselves. In 1939, Lieber worked as an assistant at Timely Comics, filling inkwells, getting lunch, and proofreading the work of other artists. Only two years later, Lieber published his comic book debut under the pseudonym of Stan Lee– using the pseudonym because he thought he would later publish novels using his full given name.
But he didn’t become Stanley Marin Lieber, novelist. Instead, Stan Lee would go on to create many beloved characters and comic books, from Captain America to Spider-Man, from The Incredible Hulk to The X-Men.
For many, Stan Lee was a kingpin of entertainment. He didn’t take the position lightly. Many of his comic books included messages of compassion, inclusion, and social justice. The X-Men, for example, have long been seen as metaphors for groups facing oppression. The Incredible Hulk represented the duality within all human beings. Captain America made a point to value the strength and worth of every human being. Stan Lee’s creations spoke to his desire to teach children (and older readers) that they, just like their fictional heroes, could change the world for the better.
In this way, Uncle Ben’s advice to Peter Parker was also Stan Lee’s advice to all of us. We all have the power to shape the world in any way that we see fit, but we also have the responsibility to do so in ways that are ethical, inclusive, and kind.
Perhaps Stan Lee was inspired by the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot – that we “are not obligated to complete the work [of repairing the world], but neither are [we] free to desist from it.”
Or perhaps he drew inspiration from the Jewish values of kehillah kedoshah, a holy community that is charged with continually improving itself to be the best that it can be.
Regardless of Stan Lee’s true source of inspiration, his work undoubtedly speaks to Jewish values and texts. And as a man who held the power to create innumerable characters and stories, he knew his responsibility to use such creative influence for good. In a 1968 column titled “Stan’s Soapbox,” he wrote: “Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, we will be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God – a God who calls us ALL – His children.”
In memory of Stan Lee, who passed away on November 12th, 2018, may we all begin and continue on a path that fills our hearts, and our world, with more tolerance, kindness, and belief that we all have the power to shape our world for good.