Superman took a break from saving the world last week to wrap tefillin for the first time. He was later joined by Thor and Batman. It reads like the beginning of a joke, but for some ardent comic fans who belong to the Tribe, it’s just another day at Comic-Con 2014.
In the cosplay—costume play—wonderland that is Comic-Con, a four-day gathering in San Diego, another kind of costume stood out among the thousands of Klingons, Jokers and Princess Leias—a group of young bearded men adorned in typical Hasidic dress. The two young Chabad rabbis came to San Diego to seek out Jewish participants at the geek-culture mecca that attracts over 130,000 fans every year.
Daniel Huebner and Levi Yurkowicz, both in their early 20s, took time off from studying at a Brooklyn yeshiva to assist the local Chabad rabbi, Zalman Carlebach, with the influx of Jewish comic fans and industry professionals who descend on downtown San Diego every summer. Along with Carlebach, the two spent the past week working the decked-out crowds thronging the Convention Center, asking fans if they were Jewish and if they would like to do a mitzvah.
For ardent comic, anime and pop culture fans, Comic-Con—which closed yesterday—is a time to let their inner geek shine, and over the years has become known as the red-carpet for outrageous comic-inspired cosplay. In simpler terms, it’s a place where, for one week, a responsible adult can be excused for dressing up in a one-piece spandex Superman suit, no questions asked. But though the rabbis’ get-ups may appear as cosplay to some, it’s regular attire for them—white shirt, black suit pants and a kippah.
Carlebach told me that people usually assume he is in character when he walks through the crowds. “I had people calling out to me all the time asking what my costume was,” he said. “They were usually pretty intrigued to find a rabbi in their midst.”
…“People may have been confused at first, but they were excited to meet a rabbi among all the Darth Vaders and Transformers,” Yurkowicz said.
His favorite costume? By far the Jewverine. Yes, that’s correct, they met an actual Jewish-Wolverine hybrid, who was thrilled to find fellow members of the Tribe, and happily wrapped the tefillin straps carefully over his menorah claws.
Aside from meeting people around the Convention Center, Carlebach hosts a special Comic-Con themed Shabbat every year during the event. “We usually try to do something related to pop or fan culture, and have people from the industry speak.” he said.
This year, they merged with #OpenShabbat, an initiative run by the ‘Social Media Rabbi,’ Mordechai Lightstone, which hosts Shabbat meals at tech events such as SXSW. This time, David Steinberg, executive producer of animation at Nickelodeon, and David Sacks, a writer for Nickelodeon–who both happen to be Shabbat-observing Jews–spoke to the crowd.
So if you’re at Comic-Con next year, don’t be surprised to find yourself at Shabbat dinner sitting opposite a Star Wars character, light-saber in tow.