I don’t look Jewish.
Somewhere during the formation of my DNA, most of my father’s darker features were thrown out in favor of my mother’s Irish coloring, giving me blonde hair, blue eyes, and a nose that doesn’t quite dominate my profile.
This fact, while interesting, isn’t that remarkable. Jewish people exist all over the world, in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Yet if you live in northern Connecticut, like I do, you might think all Jewish people bear striking resemblances to Anne Frank or Adam Sandler. In elementary school, when we were beginning to learn about the Holocaust, I was informed time and time again that Hitler would’ve saved me because I “don’t look Jewish.” Admittedly, we were all kids, and no one really felt like explaining the details of the Nazis’ final solution to a bunch of six-year-olds, but the comments never stopped. Last year in math class, I was quietly elaborating on my Chanukah plans to a friend of mine when the girl sitting in front of me whipped around.
“Wait,” she said, the wheels in her brain obviously spinning, “you’re Jewish?”
I nodded. I didn’t know her that well, and, as I’ve been told many times, I don’t look Jewish.
After about ten seconds, her eyes widened. “Woah. You’re really pretty for a Jewish girl.”
I promise this isn’t just an anecdote; I do have a point. But I want to talk about Ben Grimm first.
The first comic I ever read was Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1. Its pages were tissue-thin, and the issues appeared in black and white, leaving the cover as the only splash of color. Essential Fantastic Four contains the first twenty adventures of Marvel’s First Family: Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm. I was nine when my dad brought it home, and each member of the team quickly found their place in my heart. Reed was smart but struggled socially the same way I did, Sue taught me how to survive as the token girl in the Boy’s Club, Johnny could always cheer me up when I felt sad, and Ben was like me—uncomfortable in his own skin, potentially monstrous, and Jewish.
I had never read anything with a Jewish character before. Sure, there were Jewish books with Jewish characters, but I had never even heard of a character in a regular story being Jewish just because. Ben Grimm changed everything; when I read the Dark Phoenix Saga a month later, I met Kitty Pryde, a thirteen and-a-half year old dancer who could walk through walls and was Jewish just like me.
Kitty was tweenage me’s idol—briefly, I even used my last name, Katzman, to get people to call me Kitty. It never stuck, but it felt good. Hannah was the second most popular name for girls born in 2000. Kitty made me special, made me part of a story. When a friend asked me to cosplay with him last summer, I knew instantly who I wanted to be: Kitty Pryde, X-Man.
After Kitty, though, there was nobody else. Marvel, a company founded by Jewish men, never saw fit to include any other practicing Jewish protagonists (The Maximoff/whatever last name Magneto’s using these days clan is ethnically Jewish, and Magneto survived Auschwitz, but I’m not considering Magneto a protagonist, and neither of the twins are practicing Jews). The lack of Jewish superheroes has even been acknowledged in-world by none other than my boy Benjamin J. Grimm.
So why aren’t there more? If Marvel knows it’s lacking, why remain unrepresentative? A quick search around the internet will find more merchandise for Marvel’s personal brand of Nazi than its Jewish protagonists. Hydra began in comics as an extremist branch of Nazism which grew into its own entity post-WWII. The mantra of Hydra is “cut off one head, two more shall take its place” (referring to the replaceability rate of its agents), a movement figureheaded by the Red Skull—a product of the German wartime effort to recreate the super-soldier serum that created Captain America.
You can find glow-in-the-dark Hydra t-shirts for sale at heruniverse.com if it strikes your fancy, and “Hail Hydra”, the organization’s version of “Heil Hitler”, has become a phrase recognized by every MCU fan. Last summer, a comic about the “everyman” of a subsect of Nazism was released without anyone batting an eye. In a company founded by Jewish men, pro-Nazi content is somewhat of a surprise. Especially in today’s world, since, after all, anti-Semitism died in 1945 when the Allies liberated the camps, right? There are no more acts of anti-Semitic terrorism anywhere in the world today, certainly no synagogues being burnt down or Jewish religious leaders being attacked. The multiple incidents of swastikas being found at my local high school are simply a mistake. Marvel can distribute all the pro-Nazi imagery it wants, because the Jewish experience has never been more irrelevant than it is today.
My father and I made a point to introduce my ten-year-old sister to comics the same way he introduced me: first Fantastic Four, then Uncanny X-men, then Spider-Man and the Avengers. When she discovered Kitty Pryde in the opening pages of the Dark Phoenix Saga, she ran straight into my room, ignoring our ‘knock-first-then-wait-for-a-response’ policy. For once, I didn’t mind.
“Kitty Pryde is Jewish?” She was out of breath, clutching the comic. I nodded.
“I wanna be her for Halloween, Hannah. Can I be her?”
I laughed. “Absolutely.”
Representation matters. We know this. Religious representation, like racial, gender, LGBTQ+, and disability representation, matters. I want my little sister to grow up proud of who she is, proud of the rich history behind her and her people. We all deserve to see people like us in the things we love.