The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is coming up, which makes this a good time to look at one of the most famous Jewish heroes in comic books: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the orange super-strong rock-like Thing from the Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four, who made their debut in August 1961, were created by two Jews, writer/editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and co-plotter/penciler Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). The Thing was never identified as any particular religion by Lee & Kirby. However, the personality & background of Ben Grimm, a gruff-taking, street-smart, working-class Joe who grew up on the rough & tumble streets of the Lower East Side during the Great Depression, was similar to Kirby. It was often suggested that Ben Grimm was a semi-autobiographical creation. Interviewed in 1987, Kirby acknowledged the similarities…
“Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way… If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.”
In a 1976 Chanukah card Kirby drew the Thing as Jewish. It’s unknown if this meant that Kirby actually saw Ben Grimm as Jewish, or if it was just a humorous bit he did for a card he was sending to his family & friends. Nonetheless, for years this fueled speculation among both comic book fans and creators that the Thing could be Jewish.
The Thing’s faith was finally identified in Fantastic Four volume 3 #56 (August 2002). “Remembrance of Things Past” was written by Karl Kesel and drawn by Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish. A brooding Thing finds himself back on Yancy Street, where he grew up decades earlier. He runs into Hiram Sheckerberg, a curmudgeonly pawn shop owner who knows Ben Grimm from way back when. The still-cranky Sheckerberg at first mistakenly believes the Thing is part of an extortion racket that is threatening him. However the true culprit soon turns up at the pawn shop: Powderkeg, aka “the man with the explosive aura,” a super-powered thug whose shtick is that he literally sweats nitroglycerine.
The Thing defeats Powderkeg, but during the fight Sheckerberg is knocked out. Believing the old man is dead or dying, the Thing begins say the Mourner’s Kaddish. It turns out Sheckerberg was only stunned. After getting to his feet, the crabby pawn shop owner addresses the Thing…
Sheckerberg: It’s good, too, to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mentioned you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?
The Thing: Nah, that ain’t it. Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.
Sheckerberg disagrees with the Thing’s assessment that he is a monster, reminding him of the legend of the Golem…
“He was a being made of clay — but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.”
The police and paramedics soon arrive. The Thing, having wrapped up Powderkeg in a lamppost, is ready to hand over the thug to the authorities. But first we get this little exchange…
Powderkeg: And you’re really Jewish?
The Thing: There a problem with that?
Powderkeg: No! No, it’s just… you don’t look Jewish.
In the decade and a half since that story, the Thing’s faith has been addressed by subsequent writers, usually in passing. I feel this is the best way to handle it, showing him as a super-hero who happens to be Jewish, rather than making his faith the central, defining aspect of his character.
Nevertheless, on occasion Ben Grimm’s religion has been addressed head-on, such as in the story “Last Hand” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, in The Thing #8 (August 2006).
Sheckerberg and Rabbi Lowenthal approach Grimm about having a Bar Mitzvah. The Thing is confused, pointing out that he is much older than 13. Sheckerberg observes that it has been 13 years since Grimm was reborn as the Thing. A reluctant Grimm agrees, spending the next month studying with Sheckerberg and Lowenthal. Finally the big day comes.
It’s worth nothing that Ben’s Haftorah is from the Book of Job, which is not part of the Jewish Old Testament. However this nevertheless in an appropriate choice on Slott’s part, given the struggles that Ben has been forced to endure since his transformation.
The Thing’s faith has also been mentioned in a few Holiday Specials, with Ben being shown observing Chanukah instead of Christmas.
Truthfully, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, not like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Chanukah typically falls in the month of December, around the time of Christmas. The exact dates vary from year to year, since the Jewish faith is based around a lunar calendar rather than a solar one. (Yeah, that’s Jews for you; we just have to be different!) Because of its close proximity to Christmas, often Jews will exchange gifts.
“Chinese Food for Christmas” written by Jamie S. Rich and drawn by Paco Diaz appeared in the Marvel Holiday Special 2011. Playing on the idea that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas, the Thing is planning to attend a big Chinese buffet organized by Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat of the X-Men, Marvel’s other significant Jewish hero.
En route to dinner, the Thing encounters an odd creature that has been stealing Christmas decorations. It turns out the creature was trying to put together a Christmas party for the orphans at the Yancy Street Children’s Home, which ran out of money. Ben Grimm invites the kids and their odd benefactor to the buffet dinner, where we see Shadowcat, as well as several other Jewish heroes, namely Moon Knight, Songbird, Sasquatch and Wiccan.
Casting my mind back to 2002, I recall that I was genuinely thrilled to find out that the Thing was Jewish. When I was a kid, I was definitely shy & insecure. In general I didn’t feel like I fit in. The fact that I was Jewish added to that, giving me one more thing about which to feel different. This was especially true in December, when everywhere you turned it was Christmas all the time.
It’s worth noting that I felt this way even though I lived in New York, which has a significant Jewish population. I can only imagine how much more of an outsider I would have felt if I had grown up in a different part of the country.
My experiences when I was younger definitely led me to appreciate the importance of representation in pop culture. When I was a kid there were very few Jewish characters in movies, television or comic books. This left me with almost no one to identify with, which exacerbated my feelings of being different. I was already in my mid-twenties when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish, but it nevertheless felt really significant to me that one of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters was revealed to be Jewish.
There was an excellent piece written last year by Mordechai Luchins, “That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation.” I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by the author. It is crucial to have diversity in pop culture. Just as I really wanted, and needed, for there to be Jewish heroes in the stories I read and watched, so too do women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and other groups want and need the same thing.
I think it is very easy for some white Christian males to take for granted that the majority of the characters in movies and television and comic books and other media look & sound like them. I really hope that these people will eventually come to understand the importance of diversity, and to realize that pop culture is big enough for all of us.
Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, I hope that you all have a very happy holiday season.