Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What If: Bucky Barnes from 'Captain America' Were Actually Jewish?


I have a lot of feelings about Bucky Barnes and the Captain America movies in general, as I'm sure you've all gathered over the course of our friendship. I love these stories more than is entirely logical or sane, and I'm okay with that. But recently I've been thinking about these characters in a new light. Instead of just taking them as they are, I've been thinking about little changes that I would like to make to the story.

I've talked about this before, actually, when I wrote an article outlining the comics I would write if Marvel handed me a pile of money. One of those comics, I said, would be the story of how Peggy Carter becomes Captain America with the help of SSR Agent Steve Rogers and Army Sergeant Bucky Barnes. I stand by that story idea, but this time I was thinking of something a little closer to canon. A story idea that actually could be true now with very few changes.

I'm talking, of course, about the idea that Bucky Barnes is and should be Jewish.

Now, I try not to make a habit of blathering on about my personal or emotional life on here, since I figure that all of you are more interested in the movies and television shows and comic books than you are in me and my adventures in needlework (not a joke, crochet game hella strong), but my reasons for wanting Bucky to be Jewish are, fundamentally personal. It matters to me, and we'll get into why at the end. 

But I need you to understand that this is personal. I totally understand if it's not your cup of tea, I just think you all should know why Bucky Barnes not only works narratively as a Jewish person but totally ought to be a filmic representation of the Tribe.

1. It totally makes sense.

I'm going to get all historical here, but I need you to bear with me. So, a huge part of the Bucky Barnes - Steve Rogers shared backstory is that they grew up together in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Times were tough, food was scarce, but these two boys formed an inseparable bond. In the existing MCU version of this story, Bucky is implicitly Irish, like Steve, but that doesn't actually need to be the case. As it turns out, Bucky could easily be from a Jewish family and nothing about their story would need to change.

In the 1930s, the Irish were definitely one of the most common ethnic groups living in Brooklyn, but they were by no means the only ones. Eastern-European Jewish immigrants made up approximately a fifth of the pre-war population in Brooklyn. That's one in five people (I know you can do math, but this is for emphasis). The possibility of the Barnes family being Jewish is actually pretty high.

While histories of World War II tend to focus any mention of Jewish involvement on the prisoners in concentration camps, there were actually a very large number of Jewish men and women working in the US Army and Navy. I mean, that just makes sense. We were extremely motivated. So Bucky could easily have been a decorated soldier on the European front and also a Jewish man. If you don't believe me, take it up with Band of Brothers, which features the true story of a Jewish soldier having to work as a translator in Germany because no one else in his squad knows German.

In fact, no matter which version of the Bucky - Steve backstory you pick (and there are tons), there's always room for Bucky to be Jewish. What if they're both orphans living in a Catholic orphanage when they meet? That's fine. Orphanages of the time were worried about overcrowding but weren't about to turn away a child for his parents' religion. 

What if Bucky's family actually moved to Brooklyn from Indiana or Iowa or somewhere else? Okay. Jewish people had been slowly disseminating throughout the country for a couple hundred years at that point. 

What if Bucky is actually from a slightly higher class than Steve and his family looks down on Steve for his poverty? Yeah, I think that fits actually pretty dang well. Would you want your nice Jewish son who's handsome and clever and totally going places hanging out with the poor orphan kid who gets in fights all the time and is of a "less desirable" racial background? Like, I said, Bucky's being Jewish just makes sense.

But the real thing to remember here is that, in terms of Bucky and Steve's history, Bucky being Jewish doesn't detract from the story, it only enhances. 

See, if Bucky's Jewish and we know that he and Steve have been close friends forever, that means we can imagine a world where interfaith friendship is simple and loving. Bucky goes to Midnight Mass with Steve on Christmas Eve and Steve comes over for Shabbat every week. When they live together, Bucky puts up a mezuzah and Steve puts up a crucifix and they're both okay with that.

This version of the story gives us Bucky insisting that he doesn't need to eat anything because it's the Sabbath and making sure that Steve has enough food instead. Here we get Bucky Barnes saying the Hebrew prayer for the dead on the battlefield. We get Steven Rogers learning as a little child the stories of his Bible from a different perspective, and here we get Steven Rogers as an adult being infuriated on his friends' behalf that the atrocities in Poland aren't more widely reported.

In other words, Bucky being Jewish doesn't contradict anything about Bucky and Steve's childhood together. What it actually does is make it all mean so much more.

2. This would radically change the Jewish-American experience in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So imagine for a second that this happened, that Bucky Barnes, a Jewish man from Brooklyn, went on to become a POW in WWII, was rescued by Captain America, and became Captain America's right-hand man before dying tragically in the line of duty. How different do you think it would be for Jewish children growing up after the war? 

I mean, clearly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Bucky is a hero, but a nationally recognized badass Jewish hero who died fighting Nazism? That's something else entirely.

I can easily see that reverberating forward in Jewish-American consciousness. Bucky Barnes would be remembered as the First Son, basically, this emblem of how to be noble and good and self-sacrificing and heroic. So instead of Jewish culture coming to be understood as mostly nebbish, neurotic men talking about how women make them sweaty*, Jewish culture would be understood by the mainstream first and foremost in terms of Bucky Barnes.

And since Bucky is basically an action star in the Marvel Universe - the dark-eyed heartthrob backing up America's biggest hero - that means that Jewish culture would be associated with athleticism and heroism. Seriously. It's not that there would probably be more Jewish heartthrob actors or amazing athletes or fantastic heroes, it's that the ones out there would actually considered representative of Jewish culture and not flukes. 

This is sort of a side-note, but in our culture today, we really only talk about certain actors and musicians and comedians as Jewish. While there are a whole host of Jewish men and women working in Hollywood, we only tend to talk about them being Jewish if they're in comedies. I'm not kidding. It's a super weird trend, but Jewish men in particular who act in action movies almost never get to play characters that are Jewish. This bothers me. 

Anyway.

Bucky Barnes being a big hero of World War II in the Marvel Universe would change the narrative about the war as well. Instead of people viewing Jewish Europeans solely as victims - to the point where any movies about the Holocaust have to be told through the perspective of Gentiles because no one believes Jewish people did anything but die tragically - the complexity and diversity of Jewish involvement in the war would become known.

Basically, if Bucky Barnes in the MCU were Jewish, then you'd better believe that the Jewish community would hold him up as a damn hero in the years after he "died" in the Alps. They'd love Steve too, obviously, but Bucky would be a foundational figure in the community, an ideal of Jewish strength and courage and heroism in a very dark time.

3. Bucky's emotional arc as the Winter Soldier would become ten times more heart-breaking.

And this, of course, would mean that when we find out that Bucky Barnes isn't actually dead but has spent the past seventy years being brainwashed and tortured by a splinter Nazi organization, it's even more devastating and tragic.

Yay!

Hey, you know me. I'm all for the devastating and tragic in my stories, as long as there's some redemptive hope in there somewhere. And narratively speaking, there's so much more to work with when we imagine Jewish Bucky Barnes slowly coming back to himself after years of lost identity. 

We can believe that his torturers would have taken great pleasure in destroying his memory of his religion and his heritage, and the scenes where he regains those memories but has to struggle against his brainwashed belief that it's bad and wrong to be Jewish would be heartbreaking.

But then we get to imagine Bucky slowly getting that back. We can see Steve helping his friend relearn all those traditions that Bucky helped Steve learn when they were kids. And we can see the same community that celebrated Bucky for so long rally around him now that he's back.

I just really want to watch a movie where Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers are aggressively fed kugel in a Jewish deli in Brooklyn while an army of Jewish mothers cluck over them and bring Bucky the comfort he's needed for so long. I want that so bad, okay?

4. We the audience would finally get to see a Jewish man who represents the complexity and depth of the Jewish-American experience.

I've covered this already, but when it comes to representations of Jewish-American people, pop culture isn't doing us a lot of favors. For men we have a bunch of horrible stereotypes about being sad, short, hopeless dweebs who sweat too much, and Jewish women are typically portrayed as less-nuanced iterations of Fran from The Nanny. Don't get me wrong, I adore Fran. But there's a lot more to the Jewish experience than that.

I mean, for starters, very little pop culture actually deals with what it was like to be a Jewish person in America during the Great Depression. Or really at any time prior to World War II. We know that there were lots and lots of Jewish people already over here, but for some reason all of our historical depictions of Jewish people are about the Holocaust, and we don't even get to be the main characters.

The idea of showing a story about a Jewish man growing up in Brooklyn, working on the docks to make ends meet, being drafted into World War II, and fighting in the European theater? That's completely unlike any stories we have now. It's an experience we know empirically did exist, and yet we have no stories about it. I want more.

I want more because, frankly, my family's story is not represented in our pop culture. No, it wouldn't be much like Bucky's either, but it would be something. And I think that a lot of Jewish people would agree: we can only benefit from more and different depictions of the Jewish-American experience.

We almost never talk about the fact that both before and after the war, a large majority of the Jewish population was poor and lived in immigrant communities in urban centers. My great-grandparents lived in inner-city Boston after they came over from Germany, in an immigrant enclave. My great-grandfather was a judge in Germany, but in the United States he was unqualified for work; my great-grandmother opened a bakery, that's how they survived.

The Jewish stories that tend to get told in America are about people who are firmly entrenched in America now. People whose grandparents were the ones with the immigrant stories, people who don't remember what it's like to be starving and terrified and wake up screaming in the night. But these scary stories, these hardships are part of our history. We need more versions where we look our immigrant past in the face.

And it would be nice to have a big-name Jewish superhero who isn't Magneto, right?

5. Bucky's actual storyline mirrors that of a lot of Jewish-Americans over the past seventy years.

Okay, this is where it gets a little more personal, but bear with me here. Bucky's storyline over the past seventy years is that HYDRA took him and erased his memory and forced him to live a half-life with no connection to his heritage or past. I actually kind of relate to that.

When my grandmother escaped to the United States in the late 1930s, she didn't stand up in the bow of a ship and vow dramatically, "I swear I will never be Jewish again!" But she didn't make it part of her life either. I won't say that she actively hid it, mostly because that would have been pretty impossible, but I know that in my mother's life growing up, their Jewish heritage was de-emphasized to the point of nonexistence.

This carried over into my childhood too. I'll be the first to point out that even though I am by Jewish convention also a Jew, my cultural upbringing was very firmly in the Christian church. I'm Christian by faith. And none of my grandparents are particularly religious in any direction at all. Being Jewish was a vague concept to me until high school. 

My interest in and exploration of my Jewish heritage has happened as I became an adult and sort of realized that there's a whole part of my background I know almost nothing about. I felt cheated for a long time, and I still kind of do.

I don't blame my grandmother or anything. I can completely understand where she was coming from. In her world, being Jewish has only ever meant pain and loss and sadness. I really get it. I get why she hates it when I dye my hair pink or wear big ugly combat boots or stick out like a sore thumb - any kind of difference can make you noticeable to the wrong people. There's safety in fitting in. I get that.

But it still breaks my hear that so much has been lost. Not just for me, but for whole families and generations across America and Europe and the Middle East. We lost so much in the war, but then we lost so much afterwards when we forgot who we were. I know that's not everyone's experience, but I also know it's not just mine.

Imagining Bucky going through the same things, imagining Bucky coming back to himself and his heritage the same way I have tried to, it helps. It makes me feel better. There's so much depth and resonance in his story, and it only gets better when you add this idea in.

So I'm all for a Jewish Bucky Barnes. Not because I'm pushing some liberal agenda that demands more diversity for the sake of diversity (though I am, for the record), but because a Jewish Bucky Barnes makes for a better story, plain and simple. 

And that's all the reason you should really need.


*I'm looking at you, Woody Allen and Rick Moranis and Jon Stewart. And Howard and Leonard from Big Bang Theory, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Larry David, Seth Rogen, and so on. Jewish men get a bad rap in pop culture. It's like we only think there's one kind of Jewish man out there, and he's short, awkward, and weirdly over-attached to his mother.** Seriously. I'm over it.

**Andy Samberg gets a pass on this one because while his character on Brooklyn 99 does fit all those descriptions, he's also a skillful and athletic detective who is incredibly good at his job, is in a loving and committed relationship with a wonderful woman, and is an actually complex and interesting character. Jake Peralta can stay.

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