Superman May Tell A Jewish Story — But It’s Not The One You’d Expect by the Forward

Superman May Tell A Jewish Story — But It’s Not The One You’d Expect

Is Superman Jewish?

Superman, the superhero who defends Metropolis and masquerades by day as the journalist Clark Kent, was born on Krypton. But he immigrates to Earth, just as many Jewish-Americans left their homes to come to the United States. Superman’s adoptive parents, the Kents, find him in a spaceship far from home — just as Moses’ adoptive parents found him in a boat on the river. Superman is super strong, like the Golem. He passes as human, just as Jews sometimes pass as non-Jewish. The evidence is clear. He’s Jewish. Right?

Not so fast. The new Syfy show “Krypton” delves into the history of Superman’s ancestors in the old country: The series is set on Krypton some 200 years before the planet exploded and baby Superman was sent to earth as a refugee. Superman’s creators, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, were Jewish, and the origin story they developed for their most famous character appears to draw on Jewish experiences of immigration and exile.

But is Krypton actually a Jewish homeland? The idea that both Superman and Krypton are linked to Judaism has gotten popular in recent years: As one example, in 2013 Larry Tye wrote an article for the Forward called “10 Reasons Superman is Really Jewish.” But Superman’s identity may be less Jewish than we’ve come to believe, according to Martin Lund, author of “Re-constructing Superman 1938-1941: Jewish American History and the Invention of the Jewish Comics Connection.” Siegel and Shuster were Jewish, but, Lund argues, that doesn’t mean that they drew on Jewish history or myths to create Superman.

Superman, rocketed to earth from Krypton as a baby, has superpowers. The comics’s explanation for Superman’s powers has to do with Krypton’s sun being red, and earth’s being yellow; in the great tradition of sci-fi pseudoscience Superman’s place of origin makes him who he is. Similarly, scholars and fans like Arie Kaplan in “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books” have argued that Siegel and Shuster’s Jewishness was a defining aspect of the comics they wrote. Sociologist Harry Brod’s 2012 book “Superman Is Jewish?” summarizes the case for Superman’s connection to Jewish tradition with a series of leading questions:

Unfortunately, all those supposed connections to Jewish heritage and history start to wilt under inspection, like Superman exposed to Kryptonite. Take the name “Kal-El.” Brod argues that it’s a Hebrew word meaning something like “all in God.” But in his book, Lund points out that “Kal-El” has only ever been rendered in English, not in Hebrew. Depending on the “K” sound and the vocalization, Lund writes, “Kal-El” could have to do with the Hebrew root kwl, meaning “seize,” or with the root kele, meaning imprisonment. It could be related to Hebrew words for “ruined” or “cursed.” “Kal-El”, in short, doesn’t definitively mean anything specific in Hebrew; it’s a nonsense name, as it is in English.

Critics such as Brod and Tye have also argue that Superman’s origins recall the Holocaust; Tye, for example, writes that “the destruction of Kal-El’s planet and people also calls to mind the Nazi Holocaust that was brewing when Jerry and Joe were publishing their first comic, and it summons up as well the effort to save Jewish children through Kindertransports.” This connection is dubious. In the first place, as Lund told me by email, Krypton only really became important to the Superman mythos after Siegel and Shuster’s time. “In Krypton’s first appearance, the planet goes unnamed and is mentioned only in passing as a ‘distant planet … destroyed by old age,’” Lund told me. “When it next shows up in a comic book, it has a name and has graduated to being a ‘doomed planet,’ but it still doesn’t play much of a part in the series. “

Moreover, when Siegel and Shuster created Superman in the 1930s, the Holocaust was in its nascent stages. Most people in America, including most Jews, did not know that genocide was imminent. As Lund points out, Jewish refugees were thought to be escaping persecution, not certain destruction. Siegel and Shuster’s exploding planet may look like a metaphor for Nazi Germany looking back, but it’s extremely unlikely the creators saw it that way themselves. “The fact that so many writers have used the suffering of European Jews in those uncertain days to Judaize Superman says very little about the character,” Lund writes in “Reconstructing Superman.” Instead, it tells us something about how central the Holocaust has become to Jewish identity in America today — so central that it’s hard to imagine a time when Judaism and the Holocaust were not intertwined.

Brod and other critics have also linked Superman to Moses. For instance, Tye writes “Much as the baby prophet [Moses] 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.” But, as Lund told me, “for Superman to work as Moses, you have to discard the Exodus, at which point you wind up with something entirely different from Judaism and Jewishness as it has been historically defined and framed.” Moses’ renunciation of Egypt, and his embrace of the Jewish people, is central to the Jewishness of the Moses legend. In the Superman version, Superman becomes the champion of the people of earth, his adopted home. If his story is a Moses parallel, it’s one that inverts the story so that it’s about assimilation, rather than liberation.

The truth is that Siegel and Shuster, like many Jewish Americans in the 1930s, had little investment in Jewish religion or in Jewish history. Brad Ricca wrote in “Superboys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” that Siegel and Shuster were both disinterested in the Jewish religion and culture of their “old world parents.” When asked in a 1983 interview with Nemo magazine why they had Superman rocket from Krypton, Shuster replied “Jerry [Siegel] reversed the usual formula of the superhero who goes to another planet. He put the superhero in ordinary, familiar surroundings instead of the other way around, as was done in most science fiction.” In stories like “John Carter of Mars” humans went to alien worlds, and became heroes, so Siegel and Shuster had an alien come to Earth to save people.

As Shuster’s reply suggests, Siegel and Shuster’s main influences were pulp science-fiction stories, of which they were voracious readers. It’s easy to see how the duo were influenced by Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel “The Gladiator,” which is about a man who has super strength and the ability to leap great distances. (Superman originally could only jump, not fly.) Wylie compared his character’s super strength to that of an ant, which can lift many times its own weight. As Lund points out, Siegel stole that exact same analogy for his early Superman comics; the connection was so close that Wylie threatened to sue Siegel for plagiarism. In comparison, Superman’s links to, say, the Golem, who is often cited as a Jewish predecessor, are extremely tenuous. Comics creator Will Eisner argued that Superman was descended from Jewish legends of the Golem; Brod makes similar arguments. But Lund points out that in the legend, the Golem goes on a rampage, and then is destroyed. The overlap with Superman barely exists.

This isn’t to say that Jewishness had no influence on the character of Superman. “Superman’s hyper-Americanness and lack of discernibly Jewish traits were part of what, in his time and place made him such a Jewish-American character,” Lund told me. Superman, he said, was “born amidst the push of an explosion of American anti-Semitism and the pull of Americanization, as promoted both within the Jewish American community and by the state and other public actors.”

Clark Kent is a weak, nerdy, bespectacled man — in other words, a tacit Jewish stereotype — who transforms into an all-American He-Man. To the extent that Superman is Jewish, he’s Jewish not because he references Jewish history and culture, but because he embodies the possibility of leaving that history and culture behind. In 2018, the Syfy channel may be fascinated by Krypton, but originally, neither Superman nor his creators cared much about his heritage.

As Lund argues in his book, Superman today is often read through “a lens of sentimental and nostalgic Jewishness” which has much more to do with our own time than with Seigel and Shuster’s. Superman wasn’t Moses, or the Golem, or a survivor of the Holocaust. He was the fantasy of a couple of kids from Cleveland who loved science fiction. That’s one way to be Jewish, too.

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