Hell’s Kitchen Heimish

There is a word in Yiddish, היימיש heimish, which is used to describe something that is comfortable, not pretentious, homey. Alex De Campi’s Hanukkah Special edition of her webseries Hell’s Kitchen Movie Club radiates heimishness. In this series, De Campi presents short vignettes featuring Marvel’s characters Frank Castle (AKA the Punisher) and Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier). While the two characters are not necessarily the most famous in Marvel’s pantheon, even casual followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are likely familiar with them as Bucky Barnes plays a major role in some of the franchise’s biggest movies, and the Punisher has had a dedicated series on Netflix. Frank Castle is a former marine who became a vigilante  after his family was murdered in front of him, and  he was first introduced as villain fighting heroes such as Daredevil and Spider-Man. Bucky Barnes was a friend of Steve Rogers and served with him in World War Two. While Bucky has various incarnations in his long history, the one most readers would be familiar with has him disappear presumed dead during World War II, only to reappear brainwashed and with powers as a result of nefarious experiments by the fictional organization known as Hydra (which began as a scientific arm of the Nazi war effort and went rogue).  Fans’ familiarity with this backstory is part of what makes this Hanukkah Special’s special twist work, since, like Frank Castle in the strip visiting Bucky’s family for the holidays, out of costume, I did not expect to step into a Jewish Hanukkah celebration when I followed the link in De Campi’s tweet on December 2. https://twitter.com/alexdecampi/status/1069253436787617793

Just like Castle, I needed to be told how Bucky was Jewish. The explanation and discussion that ensues is in keeping with a well-known Jewish practice of discussing whether a given celebrity is Jewish. Staying in the context of Hanukkah, we can point to Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song, which also performs this cultural phenomenon.  Sandler’s lyrics are aimed at Jews who feel left out at Christmas time, so to make them (and himself) feel better, he is going to provide a list of celebrities:

“David Lee Roth lights the menorah,

So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas,

and the late Dinah Shore-ah”

(Sandler has revised the list and changed the names several times since he first performed it on Saturday Night Live). Similarly, one can find numerous lists and discussions on the internet about which superheroes are Jewish – as Henry says to Bucky towards the end of the strip: “We don’t get many superheroes. We’re keeping you and to hell with the fine print.”

The fact that this genealogy is not canon makes De Campi’s storytelling that much more special to me. She chose to make him Jewish so she could write a Hanukkah party into her web-series; this was her response to the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that took the lives of 11 Jews on October 27th. As she says at the bottom of the strip: “I wasn’t going to write any more of these [Hell’s Kitchen Movie Club strips] but then the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting happened, and I got real, real mad.” De Campi made Bucky Barnes Jewish as a response to anti-Semitism.

Jews played a prominent role in the origins of the superhero genre as prompted by their marginalized position in American society, creating the fantasy that the nerdy boy with glasses can transform into the muscular all-American hero. And it might be tempting to read De Campi’s response in the same vein, responding to a violent attack with a fantasy of a Jew who could fight back. But the story goes in a different direction. It’s not a tale of Bucky Barnes facing off against masses of Hydra goons, a revenge fantasy that might be expected given their Hydra’s origins as a rogue science unit of the Nazis. Bucky Barnes fought the Nazis during WWII, and then became a prisoner of Hydra who experimented on him and gave him his abilities, so it would not be a stretch to use his backstory as part of a response to anti-Semitic violence. But instead we have the Winter Soldier and the Punisher celebrating a heimishe Hanukkah. Although a story of Barnes and Castle on a blood-soaked mission of vengeance, a la Inglorious Basterds, might have offered a certain kind of catharsis, this response is also effective, and more complex. It is in keeping with the series created by De Campi strips focusing not on glorifying the violent side of these gritty characters, but rather on themes like “loss and PTSD,” as De Campi says below the strip from October, 2017 titled Silent Runnings. Further in that strip, Frank Castle reacts to the way his character has become a symbol for “bent cops” and racists committing violent murders. As she makes clear in the comments below, De Campi is thinking about current events, and what it means to tell stories centring extremely violent characters whose status as “heroes” is questionable. It is in keeping with this direction that in the Hanukkah special, a response to anti-Semitic violence does not take the route of telling a story about superheroes saving the day via violence. Henry saying to Bucky “You survived” is also the Jewish response the strip provides to anti-Semitism: we are still here.

The humour in the episode is an important aspect of this response; it’s not just portraying survival, it’s depicting its characters as genuinely happy. I don’t think I’ve seen the Punisher ever seem so amused as when people offer to tell him embarrassing stories about Bucky as a kid. And there is nothing funnier, or more fitting to the context, then a girl asking if she can go to “evil-science Nazis” to learn Hebrew like Bucky Barnes did, rather than learning it through Hebrew school.

This Hannukkah special engages with a growing trend to encourage Jewish visibility in media around Christmas time, as a way to be more inclusive. But De Campi does so in way that is thoughtful and touching. Further she touches on and subverts violent narratives in this specific strip and in the series as a whole, in a way that is a really powerful counter to violence and bigotry.