In 1938, American Jewish writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian-American Jewish artist Joe Shuster introduced the world to Superman, a new type of hero. It is universally recognized that Siegel and Shuster were motivated by the plight of European Jews to offer an alternative to common portrayal of Jews as creatures meek, sheep-like and afraid to confront their persecutors. Superman would be by day a timid, shy, self-effacing newspaper reporter, but when confronted with a danger that threatened the people of Metropolis, he was able to leap tall buildings, stop a speeding train and run faster than a bullet. Superman went on to become the star of comic books, radio, television and film.
In 1962, another American Jew, Stan Lee, introduced the world to Spider-Man. Like Superman, this comic book hero would be by day a shy student whose life was filled with teenage angst. However, when needed, he donned his costume and swinging from his secreted webs, fought for justice and the rights of the undefended.
Lee, who died last month, was no doubt also motivated to create a heroic figure that resonated with an imperilled and persecuted Jewish population whose rabbis had exercised physical heroism from the pantheon of Jewish heroes and replaced them with rabbinic figures whose heroism was a cloak of faith. For much of the 20th century, and now due to the popularity of the Marvel Comics films, these Jewish comic book icons turned the Greek portrayal of heroism on its head. Heroes need not be born of the gods, circumstances could create heroes even out of everyday men and women.
The establishment of the State of Israel provided an opportunity for a more traditional representation heroism. The military leaders of the Haganah, Palmach, and Stern Gang would be idolized by their followers for their bravery and audacious courage in the face of overwhelming odds. The leaders of the Israel Defense Forces, would be lionized for their victories in June 1967 and October 1973 and their military successes would be instrumental in their political successes.
The heroes of the comic books and the heroes of the State of Israel remain the paradigm of Jewish heroism in the modern age. But in the 1980s, a young poet, writer and Conservative Jewish youth leader, introduced a new term to our concept of heroism. Danny Siegel, an American, urged North American Jews to see individuals who lived the values of tzedakah (righteous giving) gemelut chasadim (loving kindness) and tikkun olam (repair of the world) as “mitzvah heroes.” They are individuals in the business of changing lives by small, medium or big mitzvah deeds. They don’t have superpowers but they are super people.
Danny spent two decades travelling in Israel and North America finding individuals who devoted their lives to saving the lives of others, not with a costume, but with heart and soul. Danny was the first of many to identify the Rabbanit Bracha Kapach of Keren Segulat Naomi. This woman single handedly raised money to provide bridal dresses for the poor, provide summer camp scholarships to Israel’s poorest families, Pesach baskets and weekly food baskets for Shabbat. Today, her followers serve over 1,500 families per week with Shabbat baskets. Danny discovered Ruth Schlossman of Gift of Comfort who offers massage therapy and alternative therapies to survivors of terror. He brought to our attention Joseph Gitier of Table to Table, Israel’s premier food recycling program which includes Leket. Miriam Mendela who began Yad L’Kashish, a program for the elderly of Jerusalem that helped them learn usable skills that now produces talitot, mezzuzot, table cloths and chanukiyot. Danny’s publicity helped Life Line for the Aged to now serve over 300 elderly per day and provide transportation and a hot meal to individuals from 16 countries.
The list of mitzvah heroes never seemed to end. There are individuals who collected out-of-date shoes from stores for the homeless, individuals who volunteered their horses to help the handicapped recover from PTSD, etc.
As our secular year comes to a close and a new set of superhero movies is ready to grace the screens of our local theatres or TVs, maybe we should see if we can identify some mitzvah heroes in our city, province and country and make a donation before the tax year ends. Movie and popcorn cost nearly $18 dollars. An $18 donation to one of the charities mentioned, or to any other mitzvah hero, lasts for more than two hours.