The Wisdom of Superheroes

March 20, 2008: I wasn’t on the playground the day my son’s teacher instituted the anti-superhero rule, but I imagine it looked something like this: curly-haired Asher, then 4, one of many small boys, their cheeks still pudgy, their eyes pools of innocence. Two boys exclaim, “We’re Transformers!” and then they’re dueling in the dirt, a mock attempt to save the world.

I buckled Asher into his car seat that afternoon and steered my Toyota minivan away from school. “Mommy, my teacher said we’re not allowed to talk about or think about superheroes, on the playground or in school,” he said.

Ever the liberal writer, out to protect the First Amendment, I replied, “She said you can’t think about superheroes? Why did she say that?”

“I don’t know.” He munched on pretzels.

With one hand on the wheel, I used the other to auto-dial my husband. I begged him to send an immediate email to the teacher asking for clarification. Several days passed without response, so I brought it up in the hallway at school. “Some of the boys started fighting while pretending they were Transformers,” said the sweet twentysomething in a floor-sweeping denim skirt.

“So it’s the behavior you have a problem with?” She nodded.

“You could have a conversation with the kids, channel it into something Jewish – like ask who are Jewish superheroes?”

“Oh, that’s a good idea,” she said. Just please don’t tell my child what he can think about, I wanted to say.

Asher’s first red, yellow and blue polyester one-piece with its tie-around cape became a mainstay in our house after he leaped as Superman along the ceramic tile floor of the synagogue foyer on Purim at the age of three. At four, Asher received costumes as birthday gifts – Batman and Superman with bumps for muscles, bright waist sashes, capes and eye masks. He dressed up as Robin for Purim, and my father bought him a pilot’s flight suit with his name embroidered on the pocket.Anything inspired transformation – a play date with a favorite friend, a tussle with his sister or some inequity like not enough parmesan cheese on his noodles. He’d zip into the playroom and use our blue-and-white gingham fort as his very own phone-booth. Clothes fell on the plush carpet. After asking me to fasten the ties, my uber-strong little boy leaped around the house, no longer a helpless youngster whose world was mostly ruled by people twice his height.

“All of boyhood is a striving for autonomy, for mastery, for competence,” says Adam Cox, a psychologist in

Tiverton, R.I. “For little kids, it’s the ultimate ‘Wow, I’m invulnerable.’ They love the idea that the ordinary can transform into the extraordinary.”

Plus, superheroes present a sort of “sanctioned aggression,” Cox says. “Boys love the idea that in some cases, it’s ok, even good, to be deadly powerful. There’s a highly moralistic side to superheroes – they’re protecting the weak. What a source of projection: a little child, they are the weak, but they can identify with the powerful.”

Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, these were some of the reasons I took issue with the preschool ban on all things superhero. But I also knew there was something more, some familiar details about these characters who were so innately good, the whole world depended on their efforts for survival. Weren’t the Jewish people supposed to be a light unto the nations? In my mind, that means it’s our job to heal the world, to stand up for right over wrong.

But while Asher has been gaga over Superman, Batman and the Justice League since he was 3, I never had such a discussion with him myself. Until I suggested doing so to his teacher, I hadn’t connected the dots between my son’s Superman costume and the fictitious hero’s Jewish creator nor did I show my little boy Torah characters with superhero selflessness. And so, just as I prodded my son’s teacher to connect her small students’ natural developmental interest in these characters to something Jewish, I figured I should do the same thing at home.

For an article in the World Jewish Digest (www.worldjewishdigest.com), I researched some of

America’s favorite superheroes and learned that, in fact, many have roots in Judaism. They reflect a pained history of torment and tumult in nations where we were – are – outsiders and even so rose to the heights of society. Superman was created in the 1930s by Jews barred from working in advertising and journalism. He debuted when anti-Semitism blazed through

Europe on Hitler’s shoulders. Superman’s original name, Kal-El, is Hebrew, meaning “all that is God.” Like Moses in a basket, sent down the

Nile to avoid certain death, Superman was sent by his parents in a small rocket (think Kindertransport), saved just as his home planet of Krypton and its race of brilliant scientists were destroyed.

Of course, my little boy doesn’t see all that in Superman, though he thought it was “cool” when I told him Superman was Jewish. His connection is more basic. Behind the primary colors of his costume, my little guy feels confident enough to face his fears.

I’ve often heard gurus and philosophers wax poetic about the wisdom of children – they don’t worry, they play. When I’ve had a bad day or have more loads of laundry than I can carry, it would be great if I could erase my worries by trading my jeans for a costume that made me feel invincible.

Asher’s finishing kindergarten now and doesn’t transform as much as he used to. But the values of these larger-than-life characters have become rooted in his character. One day when boys were chasing a little girl with bow-legs and straggly hair, Asher called out to her to see if she was ok. He’s inviting her to his sixth birthday party. “We’re friends, Mommy,” he said. “I want her to know she’s safe with me.”

If this is the lesson my son gets from superheroes, then it’s OK by me.

The Jewish holiday of Purim begins tonight at sundown. It’s a time when kids dress in costume and many adults drink until the point of not knowing the good guys from the bad guys.

Tomorrow, we’ll race around our neighborhood, giving creative packages of edibles – mishloach manot – to our friends and neighbors. And we’ll sit down together over the family table to share a festive meal.

It’s sort of our version of Halloween, though the focus is not on scaring or hiding with our costumes, but in understanding the multi-layered story of Esther – that the meaning and the answers are not always on the surface. In the Megillah, the story of Esther, which we will hear read tonight in synagogue, in Hebrew, doesn’t contain God’s name at all.

What I take away from the Megillah every year is how we are all thoughtfully placed in our lives. I am meant to be here, now, with these people around me, for a specific reason. That’s why Esther became the King’s wife – so she could eventually save her people, the Jewish people, from a death decree. We may not have such an important role in our everyday lives, but I’m willing to bet that in some way, we are exactly that important to those around us.

Have a happy, meaningful Purim!


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