Most people, at some point in their lives, reject their upbringing/heritage. Sick of being defined by their ancestry, it is only natural to want to be your own person, not simply who forces beyond your control determined you would be. That is the heart of “Superman Isn’t Jewish (But I am…Kinda):” what makes you who you are?
Written by Jimmy Bemon
Illustrated by Emilie Boudet
An intimate and humorous autobiography of a boy’s quest for identity as he struggles with his heritage and his heroes. Benjamin would always proudly say, “I’m Jewish. Like Superman!” Assuming that Judaism is some kind of super power and Hebrew is akin to the Kryptonian language, Benjamin believes each of his family members is a superhero. Until, like Krypton, his world is shattered. After learning of the link between being circumcised and his religion, Ben decides to hide his heritage from everyone. Caught between the desire to avoid disappointing his Jewish father and his desire to understand his Catholic mother, Ben has to find a way to abandon his secret identity for a very public one. Humorous, timeless and universal, this personal and poignant story of acceptance and understanding shows how we all must learn to love the hero within ourselves.
If you read the solicitation for this book, it would seem that this is about as autobiographical a story as one can tell. And yet, it isn’t a memoir. Writer Jimmy Bemon took a lot from his own life, but also fictionalized aspects of his life. It is unclear what parts aren’t true to Bemon’s life, especially because in the backmatter, Bemon shares photos of various family members and the characters they inspired.
That detail shouldn’t affect how the book gets read, but it somehow does. This story feels too personal to be fictional, and so knowing that it isn’t exactly true to life adds an odd veneer to the story, that prevented a more personal connection.
The story is based around Ben, a boy whose parents divorce, and the identity crisis that comes from his father’s insisting of Ben’s Jewishness, and his mother’s rejection of that idea. For this dad, being Jewish is an integral, if not the integral, part of his life. Obviously, his father wants Ben to follow in his Jewish heritage, and so he does what all parents do: they try to make important things seem fun.
That is where the book’s title comes from; Ben’s father explained that Superman was created by two Jewish men, and therefore, he is Jewish. Ben begins to see his Judaism as a superpower, and is profoundly proud and boastful about his religion. For folks raised in religious families, this should sound plenty familiar, as the heroes of your parents’ religion are often trotted out as reasons why you should be proud/excited about your faith, too.
The turn in the book comes around the time that Ben hits puberty and discovers that his circumcision sets him apart in the most important area of a teenage boy’s life: his dick. From there, the book goes through pretty standard teenage rebellion stuff, full of a lot of really fun elements that feel insanely personal and specific which, again, is at odds with the fictional elements of the book.
Emilie Boudet’s art roots the book nicely in a style that creates characters that do evoke a Jewish heritage, but never delve into stereotypes. It could be easy to make every character so over the top that they would be anti-Semitic in the wrong view. Boudet never goes there, but doesn’t create blanket white folks who don’t have some Jewish traits.
There are, however, times when Bemon and Boudet push that in a cartoonishly far way, such as the character of ‘Grandpa Yoda,’ Ben’s grandfather who is given exaggerated features to the point at which he resembles everyone’s odd-speaking Jedi. But those moments feel more like a kid’s mythologizing of his family rather than something with any ounce of malice or poor taste attached to it.
Boudet does a really nice job of evoking tension in her work, and does so without resorting to any tricks or over the top changes in construction or style. Through subtle face work and body language choices, she can make Ben look totally different from panel to panel, without adding or removing anything that would sell out the character’s look elsewhere in the book.Continued below
More than anything else, this book evokes the secret origins that many of us have on the path to self-discovery. Teenage years are rough, and this story, though perhaps not applicable in specifics, is a story that most readers can identify with. Whether it is religion, or the family business, or coming home for the holidays, or even the pronunciation of your last name (all examples I can glean from various corners of my family), there’s a desire to set your own path in life, especially as a teenager. But as we get older, and we begin to see our past – through death, through moves – slipping away, we tend to grasp onto what makes our past special. This book works hard to have it both way, to show why the past is important but, perhaps, not as important as the future you’re setting out for yourself.