“You don’t call; you don’t write.” It’s a line we’ve all heard, even if we’ve never actually heard it. You know its tone, its pitch. You comprehend its denotation, but also its connotation. Most importantly, you understand its power to turn a conversation on its head. To change the course of events in favor of the siren who dares speak it. It is a force to be reckoned with: It is Jewish guilt.
Jewish guilt has long been a defining characteristic of Jewish characters in films, TV and literature. And while some point to it as an outdated trope, one cannot deny the gifts it has bestowed upon the world: The Nanny‘s Sylvia Fine, Transparent’s Shelly Pfefferman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Naomi Bunch, roles that shaped and continue to shape the Jewish experience in pop culture.
Still, a trope is a trope, and Jewish guilt is no exception. When utilized, it often turns the Jew into a kvetching and schlumpy caricature who has no power over their destiny. It explains why they can’t control how much they eat; why they worry so much; and why their grandkids never come to visit. It is a limitation, a weakness, the Jewish kryptonite.
But as any good comic book fan knows, there is more than one form of kryptonite (in fact, there are more than a dozen), and not every one of them is bad. In Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero, writer E. Lockhart and artist Manuel Preitano make the same case for Jewish guilt with DC Comics’ first Jewish superhero in nearly 20 years.
The young adult graphic novel follows Willow Zimmerman, a 16-year-old social justice activist living in Gotham City’s version of the Lower East Side. Unlike most Jewish superheroes, whose Judaism is expressed only through a menorah collecting dust in the background, the curly haired Willow unapologetically embraces her heritage and culture. She casually throws around terms such as chutzpah and mitzvah, quoting Proverbs and scarfing down a Reuben whenever she gets a chance.
However, when her Jewish history professor mother is unable to pay for her own chemotherapy, Willow finds herself wrapped up with classic Batman villain Riddler—who is retconned into the Jewish Eddie Nachtberger in this non-canon story—and his illegal gambling scheme. The gig pays well, and Willow is even able to strike up a friendship with Riddler’s accomplice, Poison Ivy. But Willow also has to lie to her mother about the job, knowing she would not approve of it, and isolates her friends with her demanding work schedule. Worst of all, the Riddler’s secret plan to destroy Gotham’s community centers for profit puts her in the crosshairs of Killer Croc, a reptilian villain who attacks Willow and, through a strange set of circumstances, endows her with the ability to communicate with dogs. Thus a new heroine is born: Whistle.
But super or not, Willow is still Jewish, and eventually she begins to feel guilty about the damage she has inflicted on her family, friends and community. At one point, she visits the Ramson Street Synagogue to weigh the pros and cons of her new job and to ponder Proverb 24:16: “A righteous person falls seven times and still gets back up.” Later on, though, the guilt breaks through. “You know that stereotype about Jewish people always feeling guilty? I never used to feel guilty. Never,” Willow thinks to herself as she contemplates her actions. “Now I think maybe I deserve these scars.”
And yet, unlike many other characters who suffer from Jewish guilt, Willow does not just sit around and kvetch about it. She decides to act and use her new superpowers to take down her former mentor. But it is not really Whistle’s powers that allow her to save her community and defeat the Riddler. Sure, she would be no match for him without her dog instincts and army of canines. But it is only after she takes a step back and looks at the damage she is doing, letting herself feel guilty about it, that she gains the strength to stand up for herself and her community.
Stopping the Riddler does not grant Willow absolution, not that absolution is necessarily what she wants. With the villain weakened, Willow continues to work for him to pay for her mother’s medical treatment. At the same time, she patrols the streets as Whistle, making sure danger stays in check. In her own words, she “is part of the solution” and “also part of the problem,” a tension she lives with every day of her new double—or rather, triple—life. But her guilt also gives her a sense of responsibility, one that provides her the strength to continue searching for answers that will finally satisfy her inner turmoil over matters of good and evil.
Of course, it is unclear if satisfying answers exist, and maybe that’s the point. Perhaps Jewish guilt is there not to help us gain peace of mind or moral absolution, but to inspire us to wrestle more, to ask better questions, to be more mindful. It’s the engine that drives us, that turns an ordinary person into a moral hero. Whistle, then, is not just any new comic book confection. She is a Jewish stereotype flipped on its head: a decades-old weakness turned into a powerful strength. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is Jewish guilt, a superpower like no other.