It’s a bird, it’s a plane — no actually, it’s a rabbi.
This past weekend, Congregation Kol Israel, a landmark synagogue in Crown Heights, shook up the Sunday services by including Batman, Superman and Spiderman in the regular queue. The synagogue hosted the first Jewish comic-book convention in New York, an event exploring the unique confluence of Jewish identity and comic-book lore.
“This industry was created by secular Jews,” said the event curator and congregant Fabrice Sapolsky, sitting at a table covered in his work. “Now we’re full circle — the first Jewish Comic Con is in a synagogue! We’re remembering where we came from by doing this show.”
Photo credit: Bruce Feingold
The synagogue was packed, with guests coming in either for the entire day or for specific panels. The regular sanctuary was transformed into a row of tables featuring famous comic book cartoonists including cartoonist and comics journalist Josh Neufeld, known for working with the late comic book legend Harvey Pekar, and Jordan Gorfinkel, who was on the team that managed the Batman comic book franchise at DC Comics for nearly a decade. Guests of all ages and religious denominations lingered at the artist tables, examining the work on display and asking artists questions. Several wore costumes, including one Batwoman and several Supermen.
Although Comic book conventions in New York are no anomaly, with the New York Comic Con taking place annually at the Javits Center, this was the first such event geared specifically towards the Jewish community and featuring Jewish creators and Jewish-themed discussions.
Photo credit: Bruce Feingold
The event was the brainchild of Congregation Kol Israel president Fred Polaniecki and Sapolsky, himself a comic book creator (Spider Man Noir, Intertwined). According to Polaniecki, the two were at a Shabbat dinner together and Polaniecki, who knew that Sapolsky had worked for Marvel, relayed the synagogue’s commitment to the arts and his hope of doing something related to comics. Sapolsky suggested making a Jewish Comic Con, and the event became a reality three months later.
Special guests at the Con included New York cartoonist Mort Gerberg, whose work has appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker, Emmy Award-winning comic book artist Dean Haspiel, and Julian Voloj, photographer and author of the graphic novel “Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker.” Panels were moderated by writer and comedian Arie Kaplan and Danny Fingeroth, previous group editor of the Spider-Man books at Marvel Comics.
Photo credit: Bruce Feingold
One of the first panels of the day traced “The Jewish Root of Comics,” showing how Jewish creators often hid their heritage from their works. Instead of explicitly identifying a character as Jewish, Jewish creators would hint to a character’s Jewish identity with a small Star of David necklace or some other non-verbal identifier, according to panelists.
“Early comic book creators sometimes changed their names and had to hide Jewish characters and content, but were still able to use their talents to progress ideas of truth and justice,” said Polaniecki.
These Jewish values are apparent in comics such as the Batman series, as a later panel on “The Mezuzah on the Batcave Door: Jewish Elements of Batman” pointed out. Panelists Jordan Gorfinkel and Sholly Fisch (both former Batman editors at DC Comics) discussed how Batman — whose creator, Bob Kane, was Jewish — is a character who’s experienced tragedy and dedicates his life to making it a better world for everyone else. According to the panelists, the work Batman puts into making a better world reflects a core Jewish value of tikkun olam and living for something higher than ourselves.
The theme of cartoonists being involved in social action continued in the last panel of the day, on “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.” Holocaust scholar Rafael Medoff and comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe, who published a book of the same title together, spoke about the history of comics in bringing awareness of the Holocaust, both during the 20th century and in the present day.
“Political cartoonists tried raising awareness of the Nazis and the Holocaust as it was happening,” said Medoff. Cartoons are an effective way of educating American teenagers today about the significance of the Holocaust, he added. “With fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors to provide eyewitness testimony, Holocaust educators are looking for innovative ways to engage students,” he said. “The mass murder of Jews in Europe seventy years ago is a pretty remote and uninteresting topic for the average 16 year-old public school student. If you want them to remember something about the Holocaust, and if you want to prod them to think about the lessons that can be learned from it, a powerful graphic image such as an editorial cartoon can go a long way.”
He and Yoe have already presented workshops on Holocaust cartoons in a number of public schools.
According to Polaniecki, the event exceeded expectations. “The biggest surprise was the number of people who came from far and even many residing here who never visited CKI before,” he said. Polaniecki is hoping to bring the event back again next year.
Looking to the future, Polaniecki, Sapolsky, and some of the other artists involved in Jewish Comic Con also hope to take the Con on the road and bring it to more Jewish communities. Several other synagogues have already contacted Polaniecki to express their interest in hosting a similar event, he said. “We would love to bring JCC to Krakow Jewish Festival,” he added.
Polaniecki is interested in expanding Congregation Kol Israel’s role in educating the Jewish community about the arts. “We'd like to offer sketching classes and sketching Jewish comic art instruction," he said. "Just one idea."