In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, we’re giving the spotlight to one of our favorite Jewish American characters: The Thing! Benjamin Grimm is one of the most well-known and beloved Jewish characters in comic book history. Despite his creation occurring 41 years earlier, Marvel revealed only recently his heritage in 2002. However, co-creator Jack Kirby, a Jewish American, intended for The Thing to be Jewish. It’s no coincidence that Kirby and Ben share quite a few similarities. Since the revelation of his Jewish faith in 2002, it became a large part of The Thing’s character. We’ll explore the history and impact of Ben’s heritage in this celebration.

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Jack Kirby and The Thing: Two Boys from the Mean Streets

In 1917, Jack Kirby (then Jacob Kurtzberg) was born and raised on Delancey Street, a rough, tenement-lined slice of the Lower East Side. From a young age, he resisted the temptation to join the various Jewish gangs which littered the streets. Instead, he focused on his passion: drawing. 44 years later, along with his writing partner Stan Lee, Kirby brought the Fantastic Four to life. One member, Benjamin J. Grimm, AKA The Thing, held a special place in Kirby’s heart. Much like Kirby, Grimm grows up on a rough street in the Lower East Side, a thinly veiled reference to Delancey Street called Yancy Street. There, he grows up in a then-unrevealed Jewish household with his brother, a gang member who dies in a violent brawl. Unlike Kirby, he winds up joining one of the toughest gangs on the block, the Yancy Street Gang.

The Thing
The Thing sketch by Michael Golden. Image courtesy of Michael Golden.

Already, Grimm’s background is part of classic Jewish Americana. Countless Jewish families emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in the last 19th and early 20th Centuries, many of who landed on Ellis Island. There, they moved to tenement-filled neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, Delancey Street being one of the most famous streets with a major Jewish population. The Thing embodies the rough exterior the younger immigrants had to create in order to look tough in front of violent gang members and con artists who would prey upon unsuspecting immigrants.  Of course, rocks make up Ben’s exterior hide, but his toughness shows even before cosmic rays pelt him. This connection to American Jewry would only increase in succeeding years.

To Be or Not To Be Jewish

Ben’s religion was never really brought up for years. In in the ‘60s, comic characters’ religions were never really spoken about. Stan Lee wanted to make the characters as relatable as possible, so by leaving their religious backgrounds vague, anyone could relate to the character (although there’s no reason why religion shouldn’t make a character relatable to anyone). There were some incredibly vague references throughout the years, and in one issue of MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE, he teamed up with the mythical Jewish hero, The Golem. Despite this, Kirby apparently believed from the beginning that Ben was Jewish. He sent Chanukah cards out one year with Ben dressed in a yarmulke and tallit, reading the Torah.

THE THING
Jack Kirby Chanukah Card. Image courtesy of the Jack Kirby Museum.

In addition to this, and to his upbringing, The Thing has the same mannerisms and worldview as Kirby. They were both tough individuals who, nonetheless, were incredibly compassionate. They both held ultimately optimistic worldviews despite their gruff exteriors. As stated above, those traits were common with Jews who grew up in tenements in the early 20th Century. Just ask anyone with Jewish grandparents who emigrated around those times. I know my grandfather acted somewhat similarly. For now, Ben was, in effect, culturally Jewish without outright saying what his religion was. That would soon change.

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FANTASTIC FOUR #56 (2002): The Thing’s Heritage Revealed

41 years after FANTASTIC FOUR #1 came FANTASTIC FOUR #56 (vol. 3) by Karl Kesel and Stuart Immonen. In this issue, Ben goes back to Yancy Street, as he has many times before in various comics, and is, as usual, taunted by the Yancy Street Gang. We learn this issue that he was excommunicated from them after Ben was adopted by his rich uncle, gaining the ire from his once-friendly but seriously impoverished gang. In order to ingratiate himself in the gang, he steal a Star of David from pawn shop owner Mr. Sheckerberg. The Thing intends to finally return it, but he encounters a villain named Powderkeg, who tries extorting Sheckerberg for cash. Ben gets into a fight with him, and the Yancy Street Gang assist, eventually driving him into a sewer. Unfortunately, in the fracas, Mr. Sheckerberg is injured.

The Thing recites the Sh’ma, a Hebrew prayer recited at the time of death. Sheckerberg awakes and is surprised by Ben’s revelation. Ben explains that he was always too ashamed to reveal his Jewish upbringing to the press, since he feels like Jews would be equated to a “monster” like himself. He also reveals that he’s become a lapsed Jew since he hasn’t stepped foot in a synagogue in years. Ben tries to return the Star of David he stole, but Sheckerberg refuses it, comparing Ben to the Golem and telling him to protect the Star as a representation of his being a protector of the Jewish people, much like the Golem.

Even though this revelation isn’t exactly a huge surprise to many fans, it is a beautiful story about Ben’s guilt and how his upbringing made him into the sensitive, caring person he currently is.

Benjamin Grimm: The Jewish Thing

With this issue, Ben Grimm became a Jewish icon. He’s one of, in my opinion, the greatest fictional Jewish characters from the 20th Century. The Thing is such a positive role model for not only young Jewish people, but for all people in general. He’s not afraid to show his emotions even though he’s this hulking goliath made of stone. Much of this comes from Kirby’s impact on the character. Kirby’s Jewish upbringing makes him into the same kind of man that Ben is. His story, and, by extension, Ben’s, shows that anyone can overcome adversity and become a force for good, despite their less-than-stellar childhood.

THE THING
FANTASTIC FOUR #56. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Ben is also a great character because he doesn’t fall into any stereotypes. He’s Jewish, and he feels Jewish guilt at times, but it’s not his defining trait. He isn’t a neurotic, whiny Woody Allen-like nebbish either, a common stereotype in media. Instead, he’s a fully fleshed out character whose Jewish faith only serves to make him more of a diverse character. Thanks to writers and artists like Kirby, Kesel, John Byrne, Dan Slott, and others, Ben’s Jewish faith leads to a multitude of interesting stories like the tale of Grimm’s adult Bar Mitzvah, attended by his superhero friends and family. Stories like this have become relatable to Jews and serve as an important characterization for Ben. These stories also made him into one of the best written characters in comic book history.

The Thing: A Jewish Icon

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As stated above, Ben has become a modern day Jewish icon. He represents some of the noblest ideals of Jewry, especially American Jewry. He overcomes adversity, he fights evil on a regular basis, and he shows compassion for his fellow human beings. Thanks to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s fantastic characterization, Ben proves to still be one of the most memorable characters in comic books today.

6 Comments

  1. […] street gangs and grandmas of Yancy Street (his fictitious LES home block), even though it was only explicitly acknowledged in 2002. Unless you were on the Kirby family’s 1976 Hanukkah card mailing list, that […]

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  2. […] street gangs and grandmas of Yancy Street (his fictitious LES home block), even though it was only explicitly acknowledged in 2002. Unless you were on the Kirby family’s 1976 Hanukkah card mailing list, that […]

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  3. […] street gangs and grandmas of Yancy Street (his fictitious LES home block), even though it was only explicitly acknowledged in 2002. Unless you were on the Kirby family’s 1976 Hanukkah card mailing list, that […]

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  4. […] street gangs and grandmas of Yancy Street (his fictitious LES home block), even though it was only explicitly acknowledged in 2002. Unless you were on the Kirby family’s 1976 Hanukkah card mailing list, that […]

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  5. […] street gangs and grandmas of Yancy Street (his fictitious LES home block), even though it was only explicitly acknowledged in 2002. Unless you were on the Kirby family’s 1976 Hanukkah card mailing list, that […]

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  6. […] street gangs and grandmas of Yancy Street (his fictitious LES home block), even though it was only explicitly acknowledged in 2002. Unless you were on the Kirby family’s 1976 Hanukkah card mailing list, that […]

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