Spider-Man is great at saving the world, but somebody please save Andrew Garfield from himself—judging from interviews, the poor guy’s an ulcer waiting to happen. His quotes page on imdb.com is a minefield of self-deprecation: “I’m very neurotic and self-conscious.” “I think too much.” If I watch myself, then I suddenly have a bunch of things that I’m scared to do. It just upsets me.“ “I’m probably going to be the guy in the movie theater shouting abuse at myself.” “I was genuinely expecting ‘You’re just a shit actor’ instead of ‘We want you to [play Spider-Man].’” Where’d this guilt complex come from, Rob Carnevale of IndieLondon asks in an interview? Garfield doesn’t mince words: “Being Jewish.”
Yes, Garfield is the first Jewish Spider-Man in movies, a fact that’s not gone unkvelled over in publications like The Jewish Journal and the Jerusalem Post. (Naomi Pfefferman sums it up in the former by observing how Garfield “reminded me of the kind of gangly geeky-cute guys you’d develop a crush on at Jewish summer camp.”) While Garfield makes a serviceable action star (his wide-shouldered yoga teacher physique, sleek underneath Cirque du Soleil-designed spandex, certainly sweetens the deal), his best moments in The Amazing Spider-Man could only befit a Nice Jewish Boy—hypochondriacally fretting over his spider bite welt, stammering out his secrets to Gwen Stacy before tangling her up in a kiss, abjectly apologizing after laying waste to an entire subway car because of Spidey-sense jumpiness. He, more than any other Spider-Man—and certainly more than Tobey Maguire—understands the joke-away-the-guilt core of Peter Parker’s uneasy being.
As conceived in the early ‘60s by writer Stanley Lieber (known professionally as Stan Lee) and artist Steve Ditko, that part of the character was right there from the beginning. Lee was a New York-born Jew, and Spider-Man was a new breed of superhero – utterly urban, exiled, neurotic and conflicted, subject to all of the Age of Anxiety’s assaults that rolled off the back of less complicated, more assimilated heroes such as Captain America. Also, since Spider-Man had no sidekick, he talked to himself, rendering the reader privy to an inner monologue full of doubt, fear, and insecurity. No wonder he’s so full of jokes when he’s doing away with bad guys: we laugh to keep from crying. (Lee originally worked on the character with Jack Kirby, a Jewish artist born Jacob Kurtzberg, but grew dissatisfied with Kirby’s designs and turned the nebbish-y character over to the non-Jewish Ditko. But it’s Kirby’s pencils on the cover of Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, swinging across the New York skyline with a rescued man in his arms, a pose we still see as prototypically Spidey.)
That’s the thing about Spider-Man: his considerable gifts are only as good as his surroundings. Sure, he can cling to walls and swing on webs, but how impressive is that against the skyline of Omaha or Peoria? Sure, Superman left Smallville because Metropolis offered more opportunity to do good, but he’d still be perfectly superpowered back there. Spider-Man, on the other hand, reaches his full potential only in synergy with the hospitable habitat of the endlessly tall buildings of Manhattan. He’s not even operating at his peak in his home borough of Queens. How many other superheroes are “bridge-and-tunnel”?
Spider-Man’s story is similar to the great exodus of Jews at the turn of the century, fleeing shtetls to flourish in New York City, a city whose Jewish population is still second only to Tel Aviv. (Israel has its charms, but for many American Jews the real Holy Land is a place where you can find a decent bagel on any corner.) The Jews’ impact on New York’s culture and history is so great that Lenny Bruce said it best: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish.” (Indeed, Peter Parker wears a Ramones t-shirt in his first big fight scene, invoking another game-changing group of Jews from Queens who also besieged Manhattan.)
Judaism reveres the tenet of areivut: the onus of mutual responsibility, spelled out especially in Shavuot 39a: Kol Yisroel areivim zehl‘zeh, translated as “all of Israel (meaning, all Jews) are responsible for one another.” That concept of “responsibility” is crucial to Spider-Man: it’s what accompanies great power, whether you like it or not, a guiding aphorism with much greater moral subtlety than “Hulk SMASH!!”, and near-Talmudic in its grace and simplicity. If Spider-Man’s Jewish, then he’s looking out for other Jews—and, like Lenny Bruce said, that includes everyone in New York City. Don’t worry, five boroughs: Spider-Mensch has your back. His tikkun olam is defeating Doctor Octopus when needed.
An actor can’t play Spider-Man without understanding areivut in his gut, without understanding that heady brew of neuroticism, guilt, humor, social responsibility, and a symbiotic love for big cities where reinvented exiles can thrive, swinging free. Even though a UK-raised actor is an unconventional choice for an American icon, Garfield’s tribal memory extends deeper than his passport. His Jewish roots inform the truth of Peter Parker, and his portrayal conveys Spider-Man’s essence more than any other actor’s has previously. In that same IndieLondon interview, Garfield was quoted as saying, “I feel like I have a really big guilt complex, and that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being.” Peter Parker would say the same thing. Mazeltov, webslinger. Today you are a Spider-Man.
Thanks to Adiel Levin, Jessica Leshnoff, Ben Korman and Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin for contributions to this blogpost.
Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.