Last Men Standing

by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein
The 2000 movie X-Men and its smash 2003 sequel proved that comic book sagas with complex storylines and characters are still relevant in today’s world. This summer, the uncanny mutants are back with X-Men: The Last Stand.
Details about this big budget blockbuster are a closely guarded industry secret, but a few tantalizing spoilers have leaked. Before we get into that, a bit of background for the uninitiated…
The X-Men movies are based on the comic book series launched by writer Stan Lee and illustrator Jack Kirby in 1963. The scenario is deceptively simple: an overabundance of the “X gene” has caused random mutations, spawning a race of superhumans. These powerful mutants are treated as outcasts by ordinary humans, who view them with suspicion — and who wouldn’t be afraid of strange looking individuals with names like Beast, Cyclops and Professor X?
In other words, the mutants are victims of bigotry, just like other outsiders in other cultures through the ages. The X-Men are even divided among themselves. The telepathic Professor Charles Francis Xavier is headmaster of the School for Mutants, where the X-Men learn to develop their strange powers for the good of society. However, a minority of disgruntled mutants, led by the enigmatic anti-hero Magneto, threaten to wipe out humankind.
The X-Men series is not the story of a single hero, dynamic duo or fantastic foursome, but of an entire race of exceptional beings. Kirby and Lee were likely inspired by the experiences of their own race, the Jewish people. (Although Stan Lee claims he created the mutation storyline to save him from having to invent a new origin for every character). Like the comic book mutants, the Jews were persecuted everywhere they tried to settle, and treated as misunderstood scapegoats. The Professor instructs his X-Men to keep their true identities hidden; likewise, Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and Kirby (Jacob Kurtzbert) altered their Jewish names to gain acceptance within American society.
Jewish themes in the X-Men comics really came to the fore in the 1980s, after Jewish writer Chris Claremont took over the series. One of his cleverly crafted back-stories depicted Magneto as a Holocaust survivor who first met Xavier in Israel, when both men worked at a psychiatric hospital in Haifa. Claremont also portrayed Magneto and Xavier as former allies and friends, which is a notion that adds considerable poignancy to the X-Men mythos and has captured the imagination of fans. Sure enough, a recent interview with Sir Ian Mckellen (who portrays Magneto in the movies) hinted at a possible flashback scene in The Last Stand that depicts Magneto and Xavier as former friends. Recent footage of the new movie show one particularly somber aside, as Magneto rolls up his sleeve to reveal his Holocaust numbers, declaring, “No needle shall ever touch my skin again”.
Claremont also introduced the character of a young Jewish woman named Kitty Pryde, known as Shadowcat, who is one of the most popular characters in the series. Fans will be happy to learn that in the third film, Kitty (played by actress Ellen Page) reportedly gets much more screen time and sees plenty of action. According to her backstory, Kitty’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Prydeman, was a Polish Jew from Warsaw, who immigrated to the United States as a young man. He left behind a sister, Chava, Kitty’s great-aunt, who disappeared during the Holocaust. It was in a story from 1985, when Kitty and Magneto visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and attended a gathering of survivors, that Kitty discovered Chava Prydeman Rosanoff had been killed at Auschwitz. Throughout the comic book series, Kitty shows pride (pun intended) in her religion. In one captivating episode, she defeats a vampire — not with garlic but rather with her silver Magen David (Shield of David) necklace. In a more recent story, Kitty lights a yahrzeit (remembrance) candle in the memory of fellow mutant and sometime boyfriend, Colossus.
The biggest revelation about this summer’s anxiously awaited sequel is that the X-Men will contend with a “cure” that threatens their very existence: finally, a way is found to suppress the mutant “X gene” once and for all.
The previous movies addressed the need for peaceful co-existence and conveyed a powerful message: be proud of who you are. The premise in the upcoming film is much bleaker, however -– now the mutants are offered the chance to assimilate into the dominant culture. And after all, if there was a “cure” for being Jewish, it might make life easier — but what are the implications?
Jewish sages teach that just like no two snowflakes are alike, so too no two faces are alike — and no two souls are alike. Everybody is endowed with a special blend of abilities and potential. We’re obligated to perfect ourselves and in turn, perfect the world, a process known as Tikkun Olam. Living as a model community of uniquely gifted individuals, the Jewish people are called to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
Will the X-Men choose to take the easy way out and “cure” the very thing that makes them who they are? Will Xavier and Magneto join forces one more time to defend the rights of mutants –- and of persecuted people whoever they may be? Exactly how much screen time will Kitty Pryde finally get? This summer’s new X-Men movie will answer all those questions, but it won’t be the last we’ll hear of this compelling comic book allegory, that has introduced Jewish tradition and history to a new generation.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the founder of the Jewish Student Foundation of Downtown Brooklyn, an educational and cultural center that strives to ignite pride and commitment through innovative educational and social experiences in an open environment. He is also the author of the new book Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (Leviathan Press). For more information, visit

8 thoughts on “Last Men Standing

  1. What a great, well written article; and isn’t it clear that many (most?) of the great comic book characters are the wish fulfillmnets of their Jewish creators (what Jewish little boy living in 30’s or 40’s wouldn’t hope for a superhuman alternative to his Clark Kent existence, a secret power that would make his picked upon life superior to his gentile oppressors?

  2. Damn, I hate to link back to the JewniProj too often, but we published an excellent interview two weeks ago with Rabbi Simcha Weinstein by Blake Landau about his new book. Check it out here.

  3. The biggest revelation about this summer’s anxiously awaited sequel is that the X-Men will contend with a “cure” that threatens their very existence: finally, a way is found to suppress the mutant “X gene” once and for all.
    In addition to the Jewish elements which Rabbi Weinsten eloquently points out, this theme of “cures” and assimilation also has echoes in many other non-dominant cultures. Deaf culture is currently grappling with the implications of cochlear implants for deaf culture. LGBT culture wrestles with with manifestations of this theme, ranging from assimilationist interpretations of the genetics of sexuality to the “ex-gay movement.” And while I’m forgetting the title, there was at least one novel written during the Harlem Renaissance which centered around a method for making African-Americans white.
    Yasker Koach to the X-men writers for exploring such important themes, and to Rabbi Weinstein for writing this piece!

  4. Interesting piece. I would have added the very Jewish elements of Wolverine’s struggle against his own feral nature. Here’s a character who has a side to him that’s wild animal, and has been a victim of prolonged physical abuse. Yet he never whines about being “sick” or needing “healing”, he just goes out every day and does the right thing.
    While we’re on the subject of Jewish comics creators, does anyone know if Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) is Jewish?

  5. Anyone who finds this article interesting would definitely enjoy The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about two Jewish cousins who create comic book characters in order to battle Hitler in their own way. One of the cousins escapes Prague in a coffin containing the Golem who serves as the inspiration for their hero The Escapist (and doubtlessly for other heros created by Jews such as Superman and Batman). There’s a lot more to it than that, but the Jewish superhero themes run deep. Chabon, a Jew, was asked to write the script for the first X-men and I think may have even had a hand in the story. He was definitely involved in Spiderman, though I don’t know if that’s a pro or a con…

  6. I’ll second that–loved Kavalier and Klay! Great novel. Lots of themes of identity, shame, fighting back, and assilmilation, which play out differently around Jewish identity, as well as queer identity.
    Also includes a fabulous line connecting Jews in Japan to Jiu-Jitsu…you have to read it, but you’ll laugh out loud.

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