JT Waldman received what he calls a "rudimentary Jewish education" growing up in Philadelphia. It wasn't until he attended university as an exchange student in Spain that he felt compelled to explore his Jewish heritage.
"There were maybe all of 25 Jewish families that I met living there, and they were from Morocco," Waldman said. "I always represented myself as Jewish, but didn't know how."
Then he applied his illustration talents to comic book art, focusing on the biblical story of Esther. The resulting graphic novel, published in 2005 as Megillot Esther, has paid Waldman dividends ever since, with travel and workshop engagements to London, Miami and now Salt Lake City, where he'll speak Nov. 14 to open the Jewish Arts Festival.
One of the classic tales of Jewish exile, the story of how Esther saved her people from genocide in Persia appealed to Waldman for many reasons. It's short, pithy and never casts Yahweh as the leading character. It left room enough for the heroine's own strengths to shine. Esther is perhaps the Bible's only female character who is remarkable for the power of her actions and insight, rather than whom she is married to or the mother of.
"Esther is a superhero, very much the seductive woman who captivates the attention of a powerful leader," Waldman said. "She finds grace in the eyes of everyone who meets her and knows how to talk to people. Hers is definitely a faith-based story, but there's also a lot of fear and death."
In short, Esther's story seems almost custom built for the comic-book medium, just as the medium itself represents an unsung story of Jewish-American history. As anyone who's watched more than one episode of AMC's "Mad Men" can attest, in the 1960s, Anglo suits ruffled at the sight of a Jew in Madison Avenue boardrooms. TV fodder aside, the anti-Semitism experienced by Jewish immigrants to the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s was a harsh and unfortunate reality. Barred from lucrative art and writing careers in advertising, Jewish artists and writers applied their creative talents to their work at Detective Comics Inc. (better known as D.C.) and Marvel.
In 1932, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave popular culture the character of Superman, who was an improvement from the Flash Gordon character. In 1939, Bob Kahn and Bill Finger created the character of Batman for D.C.
At Marvel, Stan Lieber (you know him as Stan Lee) and Jack Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby) created the Fantastic Four and X-Men. Lieber also takes credit for originating Spider-Man and Daredevil.
The Jewish roots of superheroes are not just embedded in their creators, but also in the characters themselves, said Aire Kaplan, author of From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, for which Waldman illustrated the introduction by Harvey Pekar.
For example, Benjamin Jacob Grimm, aka The Thing, grew up on New York's Lower East Side to Jewish parents. Magneto, one of the original X-Men of 1963, survived the Holocaust.
More recently, American Jews pioneered the more literary form of the graphic novel, thanks to works such as Will Eisner's Bronx tenement stories in 1978's A Contract With God, while Art Spiegelman anthropomorphized the tragedy of the Holocaust in Maus, which won him a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992.
The creation of the superheroes is a Jewish and an American story, said Kaplan, who has written for D.C., Archie comics and Tales From the Crypt. Jewish-Americans weren't the only ones to create art out of discrimination. African Americans gave birth to jazz and blues, and found fame in boxing. Ancient Hebrew parallels are ripe for picking among those who know their Bible.
"I don't think Superman's creators meant for him to be a symbol of anything, but you can work metaphoric themes into the character's story," Kaplan said. "Superman comes from this other planet. Much like Moses' parents put him in a basket and pushed him down the river, Superman is put into a rocket. Both are raised by people who are not their real parents."
The parallel story, Kaplan said, is between ethnic minorities who feel alienated from mainstream society, and superheroes such as Batman and Superman who must keep their true identities secret.
"The genius of many of these characters is in their psychology," Kaplan said. "Who among us cannot relate to a secret side of our personalities? And how many of use have had the experience of being underestimated as a Clark Kent when we know we're more like Superman?"
When » Opening show with comedian Michele Balan, graphic novelist JT Waldman and food-tasting by Mazza, Nov. 14, 6:15-10 p.m. The festival continues Nov. 15 from noon-5 p.m., with local art vendors, music, dancing, children's art yards, workshops and a book fair.
Where » I.J. & Jeanné Wagner Jewish Community Center, 2 N. Medical Drive, Salt Lake City