Book Review: Super heroes and prayer

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

 
While there’s a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, that usually doesn’t apply to Jewish prayer books, which concentrate on print and frown on drawings, photos or illustrations of any kind. That may change, at least for the younger crowd, once readers become familiar with the “Comic Book Siddur for Shabbat Morning Services” by Howard Salmon, artist and interpreter; and Rabbi Benjamin Sharff, editor (www.comicbooksiddur.com). For those like myself who still fondly remember our early days as comic book readers, the drawings – reminiscent of the super heroes of simpler times– will probably bring a smile to your face. Younger readers will just enjoy a prayer book that uses visual images to make the meaning of the prayers easier to comprehend.
In his introduction, Sharff notes how the comic book genre owes many of its best creations to Jewish writers and artists. Bringing a religious vision to their work, they created superheroes who sought “to right the wrongs of society, [and] bring justice and help to the oppressed.” The question that plagued Sharff was how to translate this Jewish theological fantasy “into everyday living for those of us without super powers.” He hopes the images in this prayer book will serve as a reminder “that in the end, we are the ones who have the power to bring these prayers to life.”
Except for the drawings, the “Comic Book Siddur” would be just another children’s prayer book, appropriate for use at family services or junior congregation. Some selections lean toward Conservative versions of the prayers, while other are more reminiscent of Reform variations. However, the book can easily be used in either type of congregation. Where this work differs from others is that the comic characters’ dialogue helps explain the meaning of the prayers and songs.
What Salmon has done is create specifically Jewish heroes, some of whose looks will remind readers of Jewish concepts. For example, there’s Captain Aleph, who is studying for his bar mitzvah; a Samson-like muscle man; and a hero with a Torah scroll for a head and the kabbalistic tree-of-life on his chest, in addition to several women who seem to represent the Torah and Shabbat. While some of the comments are humorous, they all manage to make important points about the awesome power of God and the importance of gratitude.
Obviously, the “Comic Book Siddur” is not going to appeal to everyone, especially those who prefer not to mix humor with their prayers or who find it sacrilegious to use cartoon drawings to teach religious points. However, I found the book great fun and, while I’m not sure about using it in a service, think it would make an excellent teaching tool to generate discussion about the meaning of the prayers. After all, too many children complain they learn the prayers by rote and have no idea of their meaning. That won’t be true for those who read the “Comic Book Siddur.”