Jeremy Burton, in addition to directing Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, possesses what we believe to be the world’s largest collection of superhero figures (for an office). He also boasts a rich knowledge of all things superhero and comic book. So, of course, we had to ask him a ton of questions about Gal Gadot until he told us there was more to the story than that. The highlights of our conversation are below.
israel360: Can you give us a little context—the origin story, if you will—about the Jewish roots of superheroes?
Jeremy Burton: Even when I was a kid, growing up, reading comic books, one of the things I loved was the way in which the American comic-book industry started as an idea largely of Jewish artists in the 1930s and ’40s in New York, trying to give voice to their sense of American identity as Jews at a time where a lot of them couldn’t even be explicitly Jewish in public. So, so many of the early artists like Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, some of them changed their names to be less Jewish sounding, and they poured that Jewish identity into the characters they drew and the stories they told.
israel360: Are the themes we are seeing in comics, superhero films, etc., these days similar to the themes of those early comics, particularly Superman? Themes about overcoming helplessness or overcoming division?
Jeremy Burton: Sure. Well, there are some classic elements of Superman, as originally thought of, that have deeply Jewish roots. So, he was the immigrant, maybe from a little farther away than Eastern Europe, but an immigrant to the United States. He was very publicly a small, meek, weak-looking, glasses-wearing individual, but underneath was this powerful person with this passion and these values and the desire to protect. And, of course, to make it as explicit as possible, there was his name, his Kryptonian name, his true name before he immigrated and took on an American name, which was Kal-El, literally, “the voice of God” in Hebrew.
israel360: We waited a few minutes to ask you about this. But we’re doing it now. Why is “Wonder Woman” and Gal Gadot such a hit, and why is the Jewish world up and talking about it?
Jeremy Burton: Well, it’s interesting to watch the Jewish world up in celebration about Gal Gadot’s role in “Wonder Woman” because Wonder Woman’s not a Jewish character. Our celebration about this character is really about Gal Gadot and not Wonder Woman. It’s about her role as an Israeli actress, accepted as a global superstar actress.
israel360: We could talk about it all day, but we’ll move on. Your social media wallpaper is an image from an X-Men comic where Professor Xavier is reminiscing about Israel. What’s that all about?
Jeremy Burton: Charles Xavier is doing some meditation and relaxation and he’s having a conversation with Magneto, who’s sort of come to check in on him. And essentially Charles says, “It’s interesting, surprising to me that every time when I go to my happy place essentially, the place that I am most peaceful, at peace with myself, it’s always Israel….” And Magneto responds with essentially, it’s not that surprising. And there’s a backstory to that in the comic books.
israel360: We’re on the edge of our seats. Can you tell us the short version of the backstory?
Jeremy Burton: Charles Xavier and Magneto’s backstory is that after Magneto’s experience in the Holocaust, they met as young adults in Haifa. Charles Xavier as a young man, as a psychiatrist, went to Israel to work with Holocaust survivors at a psychiatric facility in Haifa, and Magneto came there looking for his family. And the two of them discovered each other and that was the beginning of their lifelong friendship/frenemy relationship, their early relationship in Haifa.
israel360: It just seemed so not random to have something set in Haifa of all places. Is there something deeper here?
Jeremy Burton: Yes, it was a clear knowledge of something much deeper than just let’s put it in a random place in Israel. It was also in a period where so much, again, in the American comic-book industry was trying to diversify the visibility of various ethnic national origins in American comics; that was the same time period when Kitty Pryde was being introduced as the first explicitly Jewish member of the X-Men.
israel360: Can you speak a little bit about the Israeli comic-book industry? Does it have one?
Jeremy Burton: There’ve been several efforts over the years, mostly by expatriate Americans who moved to Israel. Israel has always had a healthy comics in the newspapers tradition. Not unlike the tradition in American Jewish media of using graphic arts and comics as a way of helping immigrants acculturate to these new environments, so the earliest Israeli comic books were basically teaching new immigrants Hebrew. Or teaching them basic living skills of living in a different climate and a different kind of country. Israeli artists talk about everybody being a superhero in Israel. Which brings us back to Gal Gadot again, every Israeli just waking up in the morning, getting out of bed, living in that particular existence with all of its challenges, serving in the IDF, serving your country, fighting for your country makes every single Israeli a superhero in their own national narrative, which is a different one for us as American Jews in our narrative.
israel360: OK, so we were patient. We’re getting back to this. What’s the greater impact of this moment when Gal Gadot, an explicitly Israeli actress, becomes a Hollywood star?
Jeremy Burton: I haven’t seen massive coverage of “Oooh, wow,” Israeli artist, Israeli actress opens massive global movie in a lot of mainstream media. But I do think, for us, it goes back to your point; it’s the response to Gal Gadot. For us, it’s a celebration of Israel being a normal country and Israel being accepted and that Israeli actors and actresses can appear in a whole variety of venues and just be accepted, portrayed and recognized for their craft. It is an important moment, and we are seeing Israeli television shows now being picked up on Netflix.
israel360: Jeremy, you’ve been patient and kind. And you let us play with your action figures. We appreciate it!
Jeremy Burton: It’s a pleasure to share my passion with you.