Something for every superhero out there to consider

By Clive Lawton, August 9, 2012

I saw the new Spider-Man film recently. Near the end, a teacher tells her class of American teenagers something along the lines of "there's only one important question - 'Who am I?'" Of course, Peter Parker, alias Spider-Man, finds this very telling. But so, too, should any Jew in the audience.

It's no coincidence that many of the comic superheroes were created by Jews. After all, many Jews know exactly what it's like to live two lives, striving to appear "ordinary" in the wider world, and then entering a parallel world, a special relationship with God, struggling with monumental forces of history, ploughing an arcane furrow against the grain of society.

Who am I? That schoolteacher in the film might have gone on to oversee a term-long programme of study. After all, the question is not easy for anyone. And, for Jews, it's probably more complicated than for many.

For example, like most people, I know I'm a father and a brother and - even though my parents have now both passed way - a son, too. I'm British, and (sort of) English (come to the seminar - I'll explain why I've got my doubts about that), a Londoner and a European. I'm male and white and - of course - a Jew. So, to come back to that teacher's question - "Who am I?"

Such questions are the staple of Jewish youth programmes. I doubt there's any participant in a youth movement who hasn't experienced at least one programme devoted to the topic.

But adults have less time to luxuriate in such thinking. We've got to get on. There are things to do and responsibilities to fulfil. After all, what mother can pause and contemplate her own navel when there's fluff to be picked out of the children's? If you take any time off from breadwinning, then you want leisure, surely, not to be banged on the head with existential questions? And if you're retired, you must know who you are by now, right?

Well, probably not. Or, at least, whatever answer you came up with the last time could do with being challenged, refined or reconsidered. Identity is a fluid thing, but it is critically important - not only to our own selves, but also for how we see ourselves in the world, what responsibilities we consider to be supreme, for what lessons we try to teach our children and others both by example and maxim, and for whether we will, at the end, have a sense of a life well lived or one of unfinished business.

By the end of the film - I hope I'm not giving anything away - Spider-Man has not totally resolved his identity questions. Nor will we, even if you discuss it at length with me at the seminar. But talking about it may make you better equipped and give you more tools, concepts and approaches for considering "the only question worth asking" for the rest of your life.

Clive Lawton is scholar in residence at Ivy House and senior consultant to Limmud. He will speak at ‘From Poland to Polo in Three Generations?’ a seminar on identity at the LJCC from August 20 to 23. To book, call 020 8457 5000

Last updated: 10:37am, August 10 2012