Superman: Our Jewish Hero
Superman’s real name is Kal-El, son of Jor-El. The suffix El means “of God” in Hebrew, with Kal-El defined as “Voice of God”. Before Krypton’s doom, Kal-El’s parents put him in a Moses-like basket, sending him down the Nile of intergalactic space until he landed safely on Earth. Superman and Moses relied on their faith in the kindness of strangers and both had sets of parents who chose to send their sons into the unknown. This all sounds a bit ridiculous I bet. How could one ever think that Superman is Jewish? Why do I make this up? Well it’s true and I’ll explain how.
Superman, as American as apple pie, has often overlooked Jewish heritage. 1933 was a year that would change the comic book world forever. Two different and unrelated events occurred on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States two unknowns in the comic book industry named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman. In Germany, Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany and forever their stories became intertwined.
Sons of Jewish immigrants, Siegel and Shuster were born 4 months apart, both grew up in Jewish households and ended up living blocks from each other in Cleveland, Ohio. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany, they both had the urge to help. Their answer to help was Superman.
Orphaned at birth to protect him from a world destroying cataclysm, the Man of Steel is most often compared to Moses because they were both raised by non-Jewish families and eventually accessed magic powers to save their tribe. Superman’s code of ethics, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” is very similar to the Mishnaic values of “truth, peace, and justice.” Superman was sent to Earth, forewarned of his planet’s demise, like a futuristic Moses. Perhaps his most important link to a Hebrew is his identity as an assimilated immigrant. The 1930’s New York that produced the world’s first superheroes was ripe with Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of 19th century Europe. In 1900 more than 40 percent of Jews in America were newcomers, ten years or less in the country. The next 25 years would see another 1.75 million immigrate to America’s shores.
One Jewish character for inspiration for Superman was Golem. In modern era, the character is associated with the 17th century pogroms in the Jewish Ghettos of Prague. Like Superman, Golem was a creature of intense physical strength and its primary function was to defend the Jews of what was then the Roman Empire. Though Siegel and Shuster knew they could not physically hurt the Nazi’s through Superman comic books they could have power to influence public opinion. Due to rising global anti-Semitism in the 19th and 20th centuries Golem resurfaced as a popular figure in Jewish culture. They never acknowledged the connection but Siegel and Shuster used Golem as a basis for Superman down to the steel-like material Golem is made of. Both Superman and Golem were created to fight justice, to give people hope and strength and both created in a time of crisis for the Jewish community.
Siegel used his father’s death as an inspiration for Superman as well. Killed by a still unknown assailant Mitchell Siegel was murdered in a second-hand clothing store. Siegel later wrote a story about flying to the rescue of a man being held up at gunpoint by an armed robber with a painfully clear link to his dad. Jerry Siegel actually used his own looks as the basis for Superman and would strike poses in his own home about how Superman should look in the comic books. Joe Shuster refreshed the character a bit from Seigel himself while using a Jewish model for inspiration. While on vacation he met a man named Stanley Weiss, son of Jewish immigrants, who after showing pictures of his dad at a young age, was the man Shuster had in mind when creating Superman. The sketches of Weiss’s dad, striking resemblance to Superman, are still on exhibit at the Center for Jewish History in New York. The basis for Superman’s hometown Metropolis is, ironically, German film director Fritz Lang’s visit to Manhattan. Hardcore sci-fi fans, Siegel and Shuster loved Lang’s movie Metropolis so much they used it in their books.
Superman fans may well recognize the features of Clark Kent, mild-mannered, shy, wore glasses, quiet around woman but these are essential elements of Jewish entertainers throughout the last 100 years. Siegel and Shuster’s character had a child-like innocence even during the worst period of Anti-Semitism in American Jewish history. Lax immigration in the 20th century paved the way for groups like the Kl Klux Klan to spread lies about Jewish people and make them the enemy. Anything from blaming them for the spread of Communism to outbreak of war, millions of Jews were trapped in this country and made feel the increasingly hostile American people.
Superman’s primary enemy has not been an alien or another superhero but megalomaniacal xenophobic billionaire Lex Luthor. Multiple occasions have seen Luthor engage in talk of racially motivated vigilantism and generally promote Nazi like propaganda. Amazing to think about it now but as powerful as Superman is, his greatest enemy is the human who is afraid of what he doesn’t understand. Go figure!!
Revealing any link to Judaism would have doomed Superman because of all the Anti-Semitism. Blatant Anti-Semitism became closeted bigotry and Superman survived because he was an American treasure. In the beginning Siegel and Shuster were submitting books under the pseudonym Bernard J. Kenton out of fear they would be hunted down and killed. Throughout the Great Depression they did anything they could to muster up money to produce these Superman stories.
The influence of Jewish heritage should not just be ignored. From his very beginning Superman was an outsider. He came from somewhere else and, despite his efforts, never fits in. Superman had to take the name Clark Kent in order to pass as just a regular guy in Smallville. He can not suppress who he really is so he leads a duel life as Superman and Clark Kent. Their dual identity and status as an outsider would not have been foreign to Shuster and Siegel. Jewish people in Europe often found themselves as outsiders within their own countries. Like Superman Siegel and Shuster often found themselves juggling identities. Trying to blend into mainstream society , just as Clark Kent does, is downright impossible when you’re so different. Superman embodies many of the same values as Judaism.
Jewish-Americans were long at the forefront of social justice movements. They fought alongside labor movements to protect the poor, suffragettes attempting to gain gender equality and other big issues. Siegel and Shuster recognized in the New Deal what they saw as traditional Jewish values. Superman’s costume is cut from the same cloth. In his early days he was often seen fighting corrupt politicians, perpetrators evil landlords, all common place issues for Jewish people. He fights on behalf of social justice and exemplifies the three pillars of Judaism I talked about earlier truth, justice, and peace.
Superman became the superhero every Jewish kid needed. He was strong enough to fight when they couldn’t. He could be powerful when they could not. Moses stood up to the Pharoah , Ester used her charm and wit to save the Jewish people from the Persians, Rabbi Loew’s Golem created itself in order to protect his people from the Anti-Semites and then there’s Superman. The Kryptonian who pissed off Hitler, who could triumph against injustices that no Jew ever could, especially for two young Jewish comic book writers. As for the Superman creators themselves they were screwed out of billions of dollars by DC. They receive $130 in rights money not realizing that they signed over the rights to Superman himself!! They believed that they were signing on to DC to write Superman, not give up the rights to the character. After many years fighting this decision in court they still have never ever won back the rights to Superman. Both Shuster and Siegel have since died but their Superman legacy will always live on as an American icon steeped in Jewish heritage. The irony of an American icon with a Jewish back story when our country was racist toward Jewish people will never cease to amaze me. This treasure should be accepted for what he is, a Jewish man who saved our planet!!