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Where are the Jewish Superheroes?

Stephen RosenthalFilmed at JDOV Live with the JC and JW3

If 2016 has shown us anything, it's that the world needs heroes more than ever. All superheroes possess a single superpower, and it's far more powerful than flight, strength or speed. Heroes, by their words, actions or even legends have the power to make us think and do things nobody else - not even our nearest and dearest - can. In this talk, Stephen Rosenthal explores whether the concept of "Jewish heroism" exists. Did our Biblical heroes possess any shared characteristics or qualities that inspire the Jewish heroes of today? And if they do, where are today's Jewish superheroes? Spoiler alert: They’re everywhere...

Stephen Rosenthal recently became an executive search consultant at The MBS Group, after more than a decade specialising in Policy, Communications, Marketing and Social Media, working for Google, The Home Office,  BICOM and Air France.

An experienced public speaker, Stephen has acted as an official spokesman to Google and the Home Office, regularly appearing on stage, TV and radio.

A regular columnist for the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen also acts as a consultant to several high-profile individuals, companies and communal organisations, advising on communications, public relations, policy, social media and strategy.

Graduating from The University of Leeds with a combined honours degree in English and French in 2006, Stephen has since been awarded the Legacy Heritage Fellowship, International Herzl Prize and Young Civil Servant of The Year Award.

Raised in Manchester, Stephen now lives in London with his wife and two daughters.


So where are the Jewish Super Heroes?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a hero. And I’m talking about infant school. I remember forming what was essentially a playground militia, where my comrades and I would patrol, looking for bullies and generally saving the day.

Of course, I’ve no idea what I actually would have done had we ever found any, I was only about ye high at the time, but that didn’t matter. We just wanted to be the saviours – to protect completely random strangers from other completely random strangers.

And it’s easy to see why. From Thunderbird lunch boxes to Superman bedspreads, our childhoods were intentionally filled with heroic characters. And by creating these clean-cut, justice-seeking role models for our children, we hope that they too will learn to be the ‘goodies’. It makes complete sense.

But, somewhere along the line, this system seems to have failed. And if 2016 has shown me anything, it’s that there’s never been a bigger dearth of, or need for, heroes. Real heroes.

Because, the sad fact is, we can’t really rely on the hero production line that we once did. We’ve got disgraced national treasures, exposed athletes, unworthy political figures. They’ve all eroded our faith in role models. And it’s no coincidence that 21 superhero movies – grossing 1.4 billion dollars – have been released since 2010, with another 30 planned before the end of 2018.

In the absence of real heroes, we’ve turned to anyone who can provide us with fantastical ones.

Why does any of this matter?

It matters because we need heroes. These characters, actual or factual, fictional, they all share a single superpower – and it’s not speed or strength or flight.

It’s far simpler than that.

Because by their actions, heroes, real heroes, can make us think and do things that no-one, not even our nearest and dearest, can.

And it doesn’t have to be dissidents and freedom fighters. Think about it. The reason we brushed our teeth at night was the Tooth Fairy. And the reason we stood up to the playground bully was we were inspired by Wonder Woman or Superman.

But what about “Jewish heroism”? In a world programmed to create and promote star strikers and pop princesses and caped crusaders, is there a brand of heroism that is distinctly Jewish? And if there is, what is it? And where are today’s Jewish heroes?

But to answer, it makes sense to first establish what the secular trope of heroism is. And usefully, there’s a template to follow. So this is Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ or ‘hero’s journey’, there are millions of versions of this. This is a good amalgam of them all. It was first published in the fifties, and it essentially maps out the cyclical blueprint of pretty much every hero story. (Turns out, the only difference was the colour of the lycra in the Hollywood studios!)

At the top of the circle, you’ve got “status quo” – we’re introduced to a world of injustice and threat. And then, the “call to action” – the “diamond in the rough”, our star, is identified as our only hope. Next, there’s the “refusal to the call” – the hero feels unworthy or unable to take on the challenge. Maybe they’re reluctant, in denial or begging to be excused from the task that’s been set, the responsibility. Then, “assistance” – often divine or other worldy – that eventually leads to “departure” and the beginning of the quest. We’re on our way.

As the circle heads down to its base, the hero encounters “trials” and, at the bottom, “crisis”. By the way, not all the words are on here, but it’s like I say it’s an amalgam of them. An ordeal that seems insurmountable. An existential threat, teetering on disaster. That’s the edge of the seat part of the movie.

Then, not on here, but there’s “introspection” – in the face of a crisis, the hero makes a change that leads to “reward”, “treasure” and the “achievement” of the quest’s goal. He saves the day, defeats the baddy, gets the girl, gets the guy. Doesn’t discriminate.

And as the circle climbs back up to twelve o’clock, the hero returns to the life they once knew, having created a new “status quo”. Their action, their heroic activity, has made the world a better place for everyone in it.

And if it sounds familiar, it should because it’s every single story you’ve ever read, seen or heard. Including, as it turns out, those of our biblical heroes:

For example, Avraham, chosen by a divine being he’s never before encountered, selected and commanded to leave his homeland, the home of his father, and venture into the unknown. He has to face trials, 10 of them, wars, and the near sacrifice of his own son, before fulfilling his destiny and fathering a nation.

Moses’s story begins with the status quo of a 210 year enslavement of his people. The burning bush is his divine moment, the other-worldly moment he receives his quest. He begs Hashem to give the responsibility to someone else. He has his crisis, his nadir of increasing the workload of the very people he’s trying to liberate. He has to face and destroy his own brother, and the kingdom that raised him, in order to liberate a nation and take them to Sinai and to the gates of the holy land.

Etcetera. Etcetera.

So, on this evidence, classical Jewish heroes are the same as the characters of stage and screen.

Except they’re not. Modern heroes, on the whole, are young, athletic, lithe and lycra cladded. Biblical heroes most certainly aren’t. Joshua is 60 when he becomes the warrior who leads the Jews into Israel. Avraham is 75 when we meet him. Moshe is 80 at the beginning of the Exodus. And Miriam is 87. So Jewish heroism at least isn’t a young man’s game!

Modern heroes live by their own, often conflicted moral codes. But Jewish heroes, through the ages, regardless of geography or the reality they find themselves in, have all consistently worked from the same exact list of commandments. 613 of them.

Modern heroes beat the baddy, save the day, take the glory, end up on the front page of the paper. Whereas biblical heroes almost shun the adulation, they rarely even acknowledge the stratospheric scale of their achievements.

Secular heroism is almost always set up as the battle between equal and opposite forces of good and evil, constantly vying for supremacy – think Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader. The light side vs the dark side, the JC vs the Jewish News! All these things.

Now of course, there are Biblical baddies – like Pharoah and the Amalekites just to name a couple – but, in most cases, our heroes, our Biblical heroes have to face their own internal struggle between good and evil.

Moshe, for example, going back to him and his example, he fails to control his own temper, in a scene that’s always completely baffled me. This is a guy who has taken the Jews out of Egypt, through the performance of countless nature-defying miracles, but then he snaps. His moment of snapping is when he hits a rock he was asked to talk to. After everything he’d been through and seen!?

Jonah, has what can only be described as a panic attack, whilst on the ship he’s boarded in a desperate attempt to escape God and the mission he’s been set. Rather than go to Ninveh as he’s been commanded, he throws himself into the sea.

You have to wonder why, in scripture that celebrates these and other great prophets as heroes, these almost embarrassing episodes are recorded and shared with us.

For me the answer’s simple, it’s because ALL heroes have to reach the foot of Campbell’s “monomyth”. The crisis. And it’s this exposure that destroys the false messiahs and the manufactured heroes of today. We live in a world of instant celebrity and education, where hero status is awarded to complete strangers on Monday, only to be destroyed in front of an audience of millions by Friday. And every time it is, our faith in heroes is chipped away a little more.

But not so with Jewish heroes. In fact, just the opposite. This moment of fallibility is the very thing that makes them relatable to us. It’s what makes them human. They can’t fall from grace, for the very reason that they never tried to find grace in the first place, they never sought it out.

Our heroes are painted as human, as flawed and conflicted as we are, and it’s that quintessentially Jewish idea of teshuvah – the admission of personal weakness – coupled with what they do next, that defines the moment they become true, enduring heroes.

So that’s Jewish heroism. There’s just one problem. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d tell you with any conviction that Moshe, Miriam or Mordechai were their poster child, poster heroes. And I haven’t checked on Amazon, so I can’t confirm, but I very much doubt you’d find any Queen Esther pillow and bedspread sets.

So where are today’s Jewish heroes?

Well, we’ve just defined the characteristics: they’re ageless, humble, principled and, fundamentally, human. And through that lens, you suddenly start seeing Jewish heroes all around us.

Now, in and amongst the unbelievable news events of 2016, and they just seemingly keep on coming, there have been a seemingly unprecedented number of high profile deaths. David Bowie, Victoria Wood, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Johan Cruyff – the list goes on. All eulogised around the world as heroes, leaving millions of fans devastated, crying into international news crew cameras.

Now, I couldn’t really relate to this, I don’t mind admitting. I respected their talents, but I never felt a connection to them as individuals. Their actions didn’t inspire my actions. But, on the 30th of September, Shimon Peres passed away. And eight days later, Mayer Hersh passed away. Now, one was buried on Har Herzl, in front of the world’s statesmen and news cameras, and the other was buried in Prestwich, Manchester, mourned by around 100 people.

Two men that I grew up following. Two of my heroes.

Now, from my bedroom in Whitefield, I read all I could on the epic stories and key protagonists of the modern State of Israel. Giants of history, starring in Hollywood-like tales of military pluck, courage and victory against the odds.

And out of the window, walking, straight-backed, up Hillingdon Road, was Mayer Hersh. We’d run out to meet him – throwing our coats on in the depths of the Manchester winter (cos he was out there every single day) – and we’d walk with him. Everybody walked with him. And we listened to his tales of pluck, courage, and victory against the odds.

But even though they were born just three years and 400 miles apart, Shimon Peres and Mayer Hersh’s stories of pluck, courage and victory couldn’t have been more different. One built, fought for and eventually led the State of Israel, transforming himself from hawk to dove, opening dialogue with his sworn enemies in pursuit of his vision of peaceful coexistence, a peaceful coexistence most thought was as impossible as it was foolish. You can plot that on the monomyth.

The other endured and then survived the horrors of labour camps, concentration camps and death marches. He was so impacted by what he’d endured, he didn’t speak a word of it for thirty years. That was his crisis, if you can believe it, after all the trials and crises’ that he went through.

But then, he quietly transformed himself into a prolific educator and inspiration, telling his story to more than one hundred thousand school children – that we know of – of all colours, creeds, ages and backgrounds. He didn’t grandstand and he didn’t even acknowledge his work. He just kept walking, kept sharing his story.

And with the passing of Shimon Peres and Mayer Hersh, the world has lost two heroes. Two quintessentially Jewish heroes. Two ageless, humble, principled, human heroes that we’d all do well to tell our children and grandchildren about.

Now, I fear that the modern world, with all of its challenges, needs heroes more than ever. But it feels a bit like Gotham City – when they need salvation, they beam the Bat Signal out into the night sky, hoping that some outsider will come and save them.

But we don’t. We point the beam internally, into the remarkable community that we’ve built. We find the minyan man, the chevra kadisha volunteer, the global statesman, the communal lay leader, the shoah survivor, the academic trailblazer, the dedicated parents, the dedicated parent governors. The fifteen year old youth leader who gives 10 hours of her time a week for 10 years, because someone who inspired her, another 15 year old, did exactly the same for her a few years earlier.

And that’s the essence of Jewish heroism. We’re surrounded by a community of heroes because, rather than seeking new saviours out, we’ve been hard-wired to become them ourselves. It’s in our DNA.

And how do we know this? We know because we can map it on every single Jewish hero since Avraham. Every hero from Avraham to Shimon Peres, Mayer Hersh and the countless other men and women that quietly exist all around us.

So, as I said, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a hero. I’ve only just recently realised that you probably have too. And for the first time ever, I think I understand why.

Thank you very much.



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