In The Land of Eastern European Jews, aka America

Articles and books about Jewish influence in media, finance and politics are often associated with antisemitic writers, loony conspiracies, and nefarious organizations. However the influence of Easter European Jews on pop culture of the past century are so encompassing that it is worth a deeper look.

There were many changes brewing in America in the beginning of the 1900s. The industrial revolution pushed people from rural farming communities to the big cities. Language was changing to keep up with the times. So was art. The Art Deco movement with its focus on modernity and hard line, men-made forms looked towards the future unlike classical art that drew inspiration from the past. Another big change took place in America’s folktales and stories.

Classical American tales and the characters in them focused on nature, the Western frontier, farm life, and the rugged men who would come to tame it. These were the stories about Paul Banyan, Daniel Boon, Johnny Appleseed, and numerous tall tales about cowboys, sheriffs, and gunslingers. In the 20th century the characters and the medium of distribution would change, in big part because of the dreams and imagination of a few nice Jewish boys.

If someone tells you that Hollywood is a Jewish invention, whether they say this with malevolence or pride, you should believe them. Of the eight major film studios operating in the early 1900s, which included most of today’s big players, Warner Bros, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal Pictures, United Artists, 20th Century Fox, RKO Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Paramount Pictures, all of these were founded by Jewish men from Eastern and Central Europe. The book An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler and the subsequent documentary by the same name discuss the very similar backgrounds of the studios’ founders, their experiences of immigration, struggle, and adversity. The setting of the films that these studios churned out focused on city living with complex themes and characters that blurred the line on morals and ethics that were simpler to see in classical tales.

Another huge evolution in storytelling took place through comic books with this media giving rise to some of the most iconic and prominent pop culture characters of the past 100 years. Like the movie industry, the comic book industry with its heroes and villains was created by Jews from Eastern Europe.

Think of almost any comic book character worth mentioning and chances are they were created, written, and drawn by Jews whose families were from Eastern Europe. Batman, Spider-man, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, Iron Man, and on and on, were all created by Eastern European Jews. Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has so many Jewish themes in its comic and similarities to Moses of the Exodus that his red S might as well be the star of David. Of all the comic book writers, probably the most prominent is Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, who successfully developed Marvel Comics with its legion of characters into household names. There are a number of books that discuss Jewish influence in comics, one of which is Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped The Comic Book Superhero.

As the heroes from comic books become part of modern American mythology, it is interesting to note the contrasts between them and mythical heroes from other cultures. If we look at the heroes from ancient Greece, Japan, and Norse mythology, one common characteristic among them is that they relish the fight, the war, and ultimately the honorable death in battle. The comic book heroes of the past 100 years are cut from a different cloth. Like the heroes of Talmud and Jewish myths, these comic book heroes are multidimensional, complex, and will avoid the fight if only they can reach the super villains in a more meaningful way. Which is perhaps why all of the major bad guys from comic books are still alive. The superheroes always give them another chance. It’s the Jewish thing to do.

About the Author
Gennady Favel is a co-founder of the Jewish Parent Academy, an organization engaged in community building through education for Russian-speaking parents. He also helps Jewish organizations create more meaningful engagement with their target audience.
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