A Jewish ‘Joker’

From the Catskills to Gotham City

Heath Ledger, front, with Christian Bale as Batman, died shortly after completing his last role as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Heath Ledger, front, with Christian Bale as Batman, died shortly after completing his last role as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Photo by Stephen Vaughan, TM & © DC Comics

The new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, will inevitably be overshadowed by the untimely death of one of its stars, Heath Ledger, who played the Joker. The talented young actor (who actually lived a few short blocks away from me) had devoted himself to creating an original, multifaceted portrayal of the iconic character, arguably the most compelling villain in the Batman canon.

The distinctive look and feel of this latest film was inspired by Frank Miller’s revolutionary graphic novels of the 1980s, which unveiled a more complex and cynical Batman character than the caped crusader who debuted in the pages of DC Comics in 1939.

Batman was the brainchild of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, two young Jewish bruisers who first crossed paths at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx during the Great Depression.

Back then, in the wake of Superman’s spectacular success, comic book publishers were desperately searching for an equally profitable counterpart. So the DeWitt “Dynamic Duo” forged a strange yet oddly appealing character: millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who fights criminals in the fictional Gotham City while wearing, of all things, a bat costume.

In his biography, Kane recalled his tough childhood in the Bronx, where the streets “were melting pots composed of different ethnic groups and often one nationality would be pitted against another. In order to survive, if one were a loner like myself, he would have to join his neighborhood gang for protection.” Bruce Wayne is a loner, too, who, through sheer hard work, becomes a master thinker as well as fighter.

One by one, Batman’s colorful foes debuted: Catwoman, Two-Face, the Penguin, the Riddler, and, most famously, the Joker.

Morale through humor

Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures, TM & © DC Comics

Fans owe the Joker’s existence to a chance encounter in the famed Catskill Mountains, a popular resort area and proving ground for the nation’s Jewish stand-up comedians.

“I was taking a respite from my drawing board during the summer at a hotel in the Catskill mountains (probably Grossingers), when I met 17-year-old Jerry Robinson,” Kane wrote.

The Jewish journalism student — and future creator of the Joker — was innocently pacing the tennis court when Kane noticed the young man’s impressive hand-painted jacket and offered him a chance to join his artistic team.

“I have often wondered what I’d be doing if I hadn’t been there on the tennis court that day,” Robinson later commented.

Often barred from joining “restricted” country clubs or staying at mainstream hotels, American Jews created their own, like the one where Kane met Robinson. There were so many of these resorts in upstate New York in the 1940s that the area soon became known as the Borscht Belt. These hotels and clubs gave generations of Jewish performers an opportunity to develop what would become a distinctive performing style. Take one self-deprecating, slightly desperate persona in a cheap tux, add a hostile, rapid-fire delivery that belies that nebbishy exterior, and you’ve got the classic Borscht Belt comic — a figure who gives new meaning to the phrase “passive aggressive.”

So perhaps it’s no coincidence that Kane and Robinson invented a character called the Joker.

The Joker clearly claims the mantle of Gotham City’s greatest criminal mastermind. The character’s original and currently dominant image is that of a sadistic yet intelligent serial killer with a deranged sense of humor. This interpretation was briefly but memorably interrupted when the campy Batman series became a 1960s TV hit. That particular Joker was a toned-down and tamed version of his former self, an eccentric but essentially harmless prankster and unsuccessful thief. These respective Jokers represented the spirits of their times: the hardened, cruel character fit in during the Great Depression and our present day, while the softer, campy Joker personified the colorful, carefree 1960s.

Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable tour de force in Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman blended both Jokers together. Ledger’s portrayal, however, is meant to be far less appealing than Nicholson’s leering, charismatic anti-hero. Hiding behind smeared clown makeup are horrible scars hinting at this latest Joker’s tragic, painful past.

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical,” Michael Caine’s butler Alfred tells Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who’s trying to decipher the Joker’s motives. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

The Joker’s humor is that of a twisted, embittered individual. Luckily, we real-life mortals are more likely to use humor to help overcome our misfortunes and maybe even make the world a better place. Throughout the ages, Jews have used humor to deal with hardship and terror, going back to the book of Proverbs (“A joyful heart is good medicine, a broken spirit dries the bones”). Emil Fackenheim, a noted philosopher and survivor of Auschwitz, observed, “We kept our morale through humor.”

Ledger’s tragic death may well cast a pall over the film and prevent audiences from embracing the charismatic villain in greasepaint this time around. While the Joker’s gift for the memorable one-liner is enviable, one wishes — as with all comic book bad guys — that he’d use that power for good instead of evil.

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein (www.rabbisimcha.com) is a best-selling author who chairs the religious affairs committee at Pratt Institute. His first book, Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, received the Benjamin Franklin Award for the best religion book of 2007. His book Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century will be published this fall.


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