Who knew Superman was Jewish?
Well, some of us did, but a lot more didn’t.
While Warner Bros. is releasing the new Superman film, “Man of Steel,” and the superhero himself is celebrating his 75th birthday, it seemed a good time to ask the author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” to reflect on the many Jewish aspects of the red-and-blue-costume-wearing, Clark-Kent-pretending, kryptonite-avoiding, Lex-Luthor-battling crusader for truth, justice and the American way.
Here are the top 10 reasons for thinking the Man of Steel is an Israelite:
1) Superman’s creator, Jerry Siegel, acknowledges in an unpublished memoir that he was strongly influenced by anti-Semitism he saw and felt, and that Samson was a role model for Superman. Jerry also says he wrote about the world he grew up in: a Cleveland neighborhood that was 70% Jewish, where theaters and newspapers were in Yiddish as well as in English, and there were two dozen Orthodox synagogues to choose from but only one option, Weinberger’s, to buy your favorite pulp fiction. It was a place and time where weaklings — especially Jewish ones, who were more likely to get sand kicked in their faces by the bully down the block if not Adolf Hitler — dreamed that someday the world would see them for the superheroes they really were.
2) If only we’d been paying attention, we’d have seen Siegel dropping hints of his hero’s ethnicity when Superman dropped down from a faraway planet. On Krypton, Superman went by the name Kal-El as in Isra-el and the prophets Samu-el and Dani-el. It means God. Kal is similar to the Hebrew words for “voice” and “vessel.”
3) The alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but also a very special one. Like Moses. Much as the baby prophet was floated in a reed basket by a mother desperate to spare him from an Egyptian Pharaoh’s death warrant, so moments before Kal-El’s planet blew up, his doomed parents tucked him into a spaceship that rocketed him to the safety of Earth. Both babies were rescued by non-Jews and raised in foreign cultures — Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, Kal-El by Kansas farmers named Kent — and all the adoptive parents quickly learned how exceptional their foundlings were. The narratives of Krypton’s birth and death borrow the language of Genesis. Kal-El’s escape to Earth is the story of Exodus.
4) Clues mounted from there. “The world,” it reads, “endures on three things: justice, truth and peace.”
5) The explosion of Krypton conjures up images from the mystical Kabbalah where the divine vessel was shattered and Jews were called on to perform tikkun olam, repairing the vessel and the world. No one did more of that than the Man From Metropolis.
6) Clark Kent was Superman trying to assimilate. Superman was the real thing — as muscle-bound as the Polish-Jewish strongman Siegmund Breitbart and as indestructible as The Golem — and an inspiration to every Jewish schlump who knew there was a super being inside him. Even kryptonite radiated with symbolism: It showed the influence Clark’s homeland still had over its Last Son, threatening to upend his life in the Diaspora.
7) Superman’s lingering heartsickness at leaving Krypton and living as an alien on Earth was classic survivor’s guilt.
8) If most of his admirers did not recognize Superman’s Jewish origins, the Third Reich did. A 1940 article in Das Schwarze Korps, the newspaper of the SS, called Siegel “Siegellack,” the “intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York.” Superman was a “pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind.” Creator and creation were stealthily working together, the Nazis concluded, to sow “hate, suspicion, evil, laziness and criminality” in the hearts of American youth.
9) Superman had strong cultural ties to the faith of his founders. He started life as the consummate liberal, championing causes from disarmament to the welfare state. He was the ultimate foreigner, escaping to America from his intergalactic shtetl and shedding his Jewish name for “Clark Kent.” Clark also had something in common with his boyish creators, Siegel and his artist sidekick, Joe Shuster: All were classic nebbishes. Clark and Superman lived life the way most newly arrived Jews did, torn between their Old and New World identities and their mild exteriors and rock-solid cores. That split personality was the only way Superman could survive, yet it gave him perpetual angst. You can’t get more Jewish than that.
10) A last rule of thumb: When a name ends in “man,” the bearer is Jewish, a superhero or in this case both.
Larry Tye is the author of six books, including one on the Jewish Diaspora.