Oscar Isaac as Marc Spector in a very Jewish episode of "Moon Knight.
(Photo/Marvel Studios-Gabor Kotschy)
Oscar Isaac as Marc Spector in a very Jewish episode of "Moon Knight. (Photo/Marvel Studios-Gabor Kotschy)

The slowly emerging Jewish identity of Moon Knight 

Since Disney+ announced a new series about the Marvel comic book character Moon Knight, a mercenary and son of a rabbi, Jewish fans speculated about how the character’s Jewish identity would be addressed in the show, if at all.

With each episode, they seized on any hint — a book on the shelf, the glint of a Magen David necklace — that more Jewish content might be on the horizon. Not surprisingly it happened, as it often does on television, surrounding a moment of extreme grief. On TV and in film, Judaism often appears under a chuppah for a wedding, on a bimah for b’nai mitzvah or at a funeral or shiva. In the latest episode of “Moon Knight,” a shiva is the setting where the main character’s Judaism breaks through, though it doesn’t reveal much about Marc’s identity or what is meaningful to him about his faith.

WARNING: Spoilers follow for the first five episodes of “Moon Knight.” The sixth and final episode began streaming today.

In the comic books, Marc Spector becomes Moon Knight, an avatar of the Egyptian god Khonshu. And in the first four episodes of the series, the primary ancient civilization depicted on screen is Egyptian. There are many mythological notes, from the presence of Egyptian gods and their avatars to ceremonies regarding burial and the afterlife. (Did Oscar Isaac, who portrays Marc and his alter egos, also play an Egyptian god in the 2016 film “X-Men Apocalypse,” which is based on another Marvel intellectual property? Yes, he did. Glad you’re paying attention.)

Then, in episode five, Marc’s Judaism comes to the fore, and not one but two shivas are depicted on screen. In the first one, his mother mourns an impossible loss and blames her son, while various people sit around, including two people who read as visibly Jewish — a bearded man in a black hat who is wearing a tallit for some reason, and a clean-shaven, balding man in a suit. A covered mirror can be seen in the background, and a lit pillar candle sits next to a photo of the deceased.

We don’t get a detailed look at the second shiva because Marc doesn’t go inside, but we do see the photo of the deceased, placed somewhat inexplicably next to two unlit Shabbat candles. Marc takes out his grief on his yarmulke (a possible surrogate for his religion or family), beating it into the ground and then apologizing to God, his late mother, his brother, or faith in general.

Unfortunately, the meaning behind the shiva rituals is not explored, explained or even remarked upon. This is all a missed opportunity, as shiva in particular can be a powerful moment of connection with community or faith.

On April 29, responding to questions and criticisms of how Moon Knight’s Jewish identity is depicted in the series, “Moon Knight” writer Jeremy Slater tweeted, “Preserving the character’s Jewish faith was important to our entire writing team. It’s something that definitely gets explored in later episodes.”

In an interview on an episode of The Ringer-Verse podcast the same week, Slater said he was reluctant to show Marc’s Dissociative Identity Disorder (the mental illness formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) as emerging from his experience with antisemitism, as it is in some of the comics, because it might be seen as exploitative. Slater also said he wanted to make a clear separation between Marc’s faith and the fact that his brokenness emerges from being raised by an abusive mother. And he indicated that there had been some “really lovely scenes about his faith” that had been cut, and that he hoped that perhaps other writers would be able to pick those up in future shows or movies involving the character.

“Moon Knight,” like many other shows looking to depict faith observance authentically, has a Judaism consultant, and she happens to be a friend of mine, Rabbi Sarah Bassin. While that is public information (her name appears in the end credits), because of various nondisclosure agreements, she was unable to discuss with me the details of what she had advised regarding the depictions of these Jewish rituals on screen.

But she knows her stuff — she was an associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills for several years — and I have no doubt that, despite the oddities depicted, her counsel was sage and accurate. And because I and others of my peers have acted as Jewish consultants on series, I know that the consultant’s advice is not always implemented in the final artistic product. Producers, directors, actors and set dressers may make choices with the visual impact of the series in mind, and without necessarily paying attention to the authenticity of the way the rituals are presented. If it looks good, better than its authentic particulars, that’s more important.

Oscar Isaac as Moon Knight in "Moon Knight." (Photo/Courtesy Marvel Studios)
Oscar Isaac as Moon Knight in “Moon Knight.” (Photo/Courtesy Marvel Studios)

I cannot speak to the way the character appears in the comics and how accurately the Judaism transfers from there to this screen adaptation. But so far, in these episodes, Judaism is not represented as a core system of meaning or belief for Marc or his other family members. Rather than a space of exploration, it is a dramatic device, a stimulus that precipitates a breakdown in Marc.

“Moon Knight” may not yet be the answer to my prayers for big, Marvel-size Jewish representation. But this depiction still makes a contribution to the array of Jewish portrayals, and with Slater’s promise, there may yet be more.

The show is also important because it contributes to the global awareness of Jewish life and meaning. Articles discussing the Jewish elements of the show have appeared in mainstream publications, including Men’s Health and The Mary Sue. Imperfect though it may be, the presence of Jewish identity in any form, and the ensuing conversations about what it did or didn’t represent about Jewish meaning, will ultimately help illustrate — to fans, both Jewish and not — that there’s more than one way to “do” or be Jewish.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.