Yom Hashoah is the Jewish Holocaust remembrance day. It’s a day of mourning the more than six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust just as well as it’s a day of reflecting on the Jewish present that has survived and the future that we have been building for 70 years. Moon Knight is a Disney+ Original series starring Oscar Isaac about one of the most powerful Jewish characters in comic book history. Marc Spector, one of Moon Knight’s personas, is a character whose history is rooted firmly in the pogroms of 20th Century Europe and whose Jewish identity is integral to his being. In the television series, Episode 5 “Asylum” turns this powerful backstory into mere window dressing for its larger story.
The origin of Marc Spector’s Jewishness in the comics is an accident, by all accounts. The character wasn’t Jewish off the bat, but with a name like that, it certainly would have made sense. Rather, in Moon Knight #37 (1984), readers learn that Marc’s estranged father is in fact a rabbi. One who escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe to thrive and build a family beyond the pale of antisemitism. So he hoped. Instead, he only found more hatred and bigotry.
In venturing to Chicago for the first time in a long time to see his father before he dies, Marc has a few transformative encounters. Marc has always been put off by his father’s religion and his orthodoxy is part of their estrangement. But when he arrives and meets some of his father’s students, he is beloved by them all, and seemingly, he is a bit of a father figure to them even. It creates some jealousy and some awkwardness.
He later finds a burning synagogue. He springs into Moon Knight action to save the man inside holding the Torah close for safekeeping. Outside, he finds Nazis painting swastikas and causing the arson. He chases them and beats them all down, declaring in a moment of powerful confrontation with generational trauma and kinship with his father’s, and his own, people “I belong with the decent and innocent folk who can’t find a moment’s peace, not in the streets, not in their own homes so long as punks like you terrorize them. I belong with the persecuted.”
He later finds more Nazis in a cemetery desecrating graves and has a similar reaction. It’s a turning point for Marc. As for many Jews, confrontation with antisemitism is a call to action and a moment of self-realization. I’m another place and another time, this just as well could have been him being hounded by the Nazis, even if he’s largely rejected Judaism until then.
Were Marc Spector not Jewish in the comics, perhaps his kippah-wearing, shiva-attending character in Moon Knight would have been a welcome concept. Latino-Jewish characters rarely exist in media, let alone get to be heroes. Had Marc Spector been Jewish all along and the show decided not to depict him as such, it would have been disappointing, but far from surprising.
Instead, what the show did today was quietly tell the audience that this character was, in fact, Jewish on-screen, by way of wearing a religious garment (which he wears for no discernable reason, given he had never before and nobody else in the scene was wearing one either) and attending a religious ceremony. It’s more than just one of the endless examples of how Hollywood and Disney in particular diminish their representation of marginalized groups to mere lip service and small blink and you miss it instances. And that’s certainly what this episode was. Oscar Isaac isn’t even Jewish himself, and his character in this show isn’t seemingly Latino like Isaac is in any discernible or meaningful way. This Jewish “representation” has no impact on his character whatsoever. It’s all lip service all the way down.
But it’s also worse than that. Because on today of all days, Moon Knight’s decision to completely change Marc’s background amounts to more than poor representation, it constitutes as total erasure of his Jewishness. Marc Spector is explicitly, distinctly, and powerfully the product of the Holocaust and the fascist antisemitism in Europe that lead to it. He’s just as well the product of the persistence of antisemitism today and the way that modern non-orthodox Jews confront their place in the Jewish worlds and non-Jewish worlds alike.
Jews associate the Hebrew word zachor with Yom Hashoah. It means remember. No matter how well Marc’s new backstory might work in Moon Knight, and it largely does, it does so only while intentionally forgetting the Holocaust.
Holocaust education and remembrance isn’t just about mourning though. It’s also about examining the realities of Jewish existence today, the rebirth of a Jewish life since the Holocaust, and the path forward into an ever-brighter Jewish future. The entire “Asylum” episode is about balancing the scales of Marc’s soul. Khonshu’s entire deal is about vengeance against evil. Marc’s father I’m the comics is revered for his ability to forgive even the Nazis and pray for their remorse. What disappoints me most of all watching Moon Knight today is that the erasure means Marc will never have a chance to actually balance his scales.
There’s no real balance that happens in this episode. None that comes from reconciliation with his mother or from accepting that his life of killing for revenge required paying a price. A genuine attempt at wrestling with Marc’s true a Jewish origins could have powerfully fulfilled both his character and his plot in this case. Instead, we’re left with only a messy story and empty kippah theatrics.
Before the show came out, I joked that Moon Knight ‘s Jewish representation would come from Marc taking a sip of wine and saying “l’chaim” accompanied by pats in the back by the studio for making him Jewish. I think this was ultimately even worse.
Pop culture is cool, but have you ever tried analyzing it through a historical and cultural lens so that you can not only understand the content more deeply, but be able to apply lessons to your own life through the act of criticizing it? No? Just me? Oh… Well, your loss. When I’m not editing the podcast or musing the effects media have on our lives, I’m off working to develop sustainable food systems. So remember, individual consumer choices won’t save the planet, Black lives matter and reparations must be paid, and remember to think critically about the pop culture you consume!