The ways people cope with cancer are as unique as the individuals who have the disease. When Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg was diagnosed around the time of Passover in 2019, his children decided that they needed to help him have fun. So they sat with him as he watched all 23 of the Marvel movies known as the Infinity Saga.
The lessons he learned from these movies were personal. As he writes in his introduction, “Superheroes are ordinary people who yearn for the same things the rest of us want – a normal life, family, acceptance. But then a crisis comes knocking and an ordinary person overcomes his or her fears and insecurities to put the needs of others first. That is the moment that a superhero is born.”
Before cancer, Rabbi Rosenberg, the pulpit rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in Queens and teacher and technology specialist at SAR Academy in Riverdale had written three books teaching Jewish values through the lens of the Harry Potter series, in the books, Morality for Muggles, The (Unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah, and the (Unofficial) Muggle Megillah, which grew out of his work running Harry Potter activities for his students.
Rosenberg was excited to share that this Superhero Haggadah: A Story of Signs and Marvels not only contains the vision of Aviva Shur, the graphic artist who laid it out and also illustrated the other Haggadah and Megillah, but also the work of a seventh-grader, Moriel Hirsch-Hoffman. Rosenberg paid the young artist for his drawings but was most excited to be able to teach this student that there is a meaningful way to get paid for something you are passionate about. He wanted the young artist to see that he could both follow his dream of drawing superheroes and make money.
But for this rabbi and teacher, fun comes not just from watching movies but from thinking about what values they embody and identifying how to share those values with others (he is also working on a memoir about coping with cancer that will be the book he wished had existed for him to read when he was undergoing cancer and its treatment). He focused on how to share his thoughts on these superheroes, as well as the Jewish values they convey, in order to pass his ideas along, which is particularly important now that he has recently become a grandfather for the first time.
Rosenberg sees his notion of “fun” as squarely within the tradition of his alma mater Yeshiva University, to combine Torah u’Madda, Torah, and culture of the time. At YU, professors discuss great philosophers, but Rosenberg sees himself pioneering the same type of project with pop culture. He refused to divulge the subject of his next Haggadah but did say that for Purim he put out a list of the Haggadot that he was not going to do, among them a Gilligan’s Island Haggadah. (Too bad for those fans including my childhood self).
Here is an interview with Rosenberg, conducted by Zoom on March 12, 2021 two weeks before Passover.
BK: When did you decide to do this?
MR: I started writing during the summer. Watching the movies with my kids I realized that superheroes are really people who have the same problems people have.
Who am I really? How do I get rid of my inner demons? How can I find peace of mind? Regular life?
These are universal concerns. Harry Potter is not about magic but about kids facing loss in a boarding school. Though the wonderful suits and special effects are appealing, Avenger movies are about human issues. At their core, these movies are about what it means to be human.
There are different parts of humans – Hulk or Bruce Banner., Moses as Egyptian or Hebrew – and conscious decisions on how to choose one half or integrate the two.
What is a character without his or her suit? So many Marvel heroes lose their trademark prop and have to become comfortable with themselves to earn it back. Captain America loses his shield, Iron Man and Spider-Man their suits, Thor his hammer, Dr. Strange the use of his hands, and on the list goes.
Moses has to learn how to bring plagues without his staff. The staff is his prop. Before the seventh plague, God instructs him to use his hand rather than his staff, but it is only in the ninth plague that he finally does so.
And here is the tie-in to Covid: We have lost many of our props over this past, incredibly difficult year. We’ve lost the face-to-face support of friends and the touch of loved ones. We’ve been deprived of our public events and prayer gatherings.
The question is: When get them back, will we know what to do with them?
BK: Can you talk about the qualities of superheroes versus Biblical ones? A plain-text reading of the Bible shows characters with strong flaws (though rabbinic tradition often excuses them). Are superheroes similarly flawed or all they all good?
MR: As I mentioned before, there are split personalities and learning curves. Not always does the biblical or Talmudic character end up being shown in the most positive light.
Rabbi Eliezer in the Haggadah calls himself “sort of like 70 years old.” Captain America took a nap for 70 years. So did the Talmudic sage Honi ha’ma’agel. In American folklore Rip van Winkle slept for 20 years, and missed the American revolution.
What happens when they wake up? How do they readjust? All of us, after Covid, will have new circumstances. Will we fit in, readjust?
Captain America learned to fit in and even increase his contribution to society; Rip van Winkle went back to idle ways. Honi did not readjust – finally declaring, “Give me friendship or give me death” (erroneously attributed to Patrick Henry.)
BK: What do you mean when you say that guilt is a Jewish superpower?
MR: Heroes look at good, and have guilt for what they did not do. When Moses first went to speak to Pharaoh the Israelites were denied straw to make bricks. He blames himself, going back to God and asking “God, why did you send me and make it worse?
Feeling guilty about those they could not save from super villains, many Marvel superheroes accept limitations on their permission to operate in the infamous Sukovia Accords. The side of good feels bad, even when there is nothing to feel bad about.
BK: Judaism is a religion that contains a sense of the importance of fighting evil. Is there an innate match of it with the superhero universe?
MR: There is a parallel – in the Haggadah, evil has to be fought over and over again. Cue the music. It is not something that we get rid of till the world is perfected.
There is a scene in Dr. Strange. Dormammu, an inter-dimensional alien villain, attempts to take over the earth on his way to darkening the universe. Dr. Strange confronts him, saying, “Dormammu I have come to bargain.” Dormammu promptly destroys him. But using a time loop, Strange returns.
He is killed again…and again…and again.
“You cannot defeat me!”
“I don’t have to – as long as I don’t lose.”
“If I keep him occupied killing me, I will not win, but will not lose but he will not conquer.”
On Pesach, we accept the fact that we may not be able to rid the world of evil once and for all until Messianic times. But we don’t have to. We just survive this crisis and leave the next one for those who come after us.
As I listened between the lines of Rabbi Rosenberg’s words, I wondered if he were also saying, that like cancer itself, it is hard to point to a moment and say, ‘Ah yes we have defeated cancer or defeated evil.’ Just stay in a holding pattern, someone else will come along with a fix. Just keep it at bay. That is the best you can do.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.