Superman, such a nice Jewish mensch! (Guest Voice)
CALGRARY, Alberta, Canada–Look to the sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s Superman, the most famous comic book, radio, television and movie superhero. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is also Jewish. The truth is revealed.
In Cleveland, writer, Jerry Siegel and cartoonist, Joe Shuster, both the sons of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, created the fictional Superman in 1934. Siegel and Shuster’s Jewish roots and the immigrant experiences of their parents influenced their thoughts and writings. Incidentally Joe Shuster was born in Toronto. Perhaps Superman, the quintessential American superhero, may be a closet Canadian.
Long before Superman became Superman he was Kal-El born on the alien planet Krypton, the only child of Jor-El. The names Jor-El and Kal-El have unmistakable Yiddish roots, akin to the names Yossel, Barel and Fyvel. In addition, the name Kal-El phonetically in Hebrew is translated as “vessel of God”, the suffix “El” being one of the ancient Hebrew forms denoting God.
A leap of faith is now needed. For we must assume that at the Man of Steel’s Bris the Mohel would have used a diamond-cutter.
The story of the boy who was to become Superman begins with the planet Krypton on the eve of a holocaust-like disaster. His parents, in order to ensure Kal-El’s survival, place their baby in a small vessel, a spaceship, where he is rocketed to the planet Earth and lands in a corn field in Kansas. He is found by Methodists, Jonathan and Martha Kent who raise the infant as their own. The child, however, never forgets his origins.
Does the story sound familiar? It should. It is the story of the baby Moses. To escape Pharaoh’s cruel decree that every Hebrew male child be cast into the Nile, the infant Moses is saved by his mother who lays him in a small vessel, a reed basket and floats it down the river where it is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who takes Moses and brings him up as her own, an Egyptian prince. Moses, however never forgets his Hebrew origin.
Both Moses and Superman are strangers in a strange land.
Back to the story of Superman. The child, Kal-El takes the waspish name, Clark Kent. Only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself. After all, Issur Danielovitch Demsky became Kirk Douglas, Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis and Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall.
As Superman reaches adulthood with his superpowers fully developed he does something at that time very Jewish. Because he is an alien he takes on an alter ego, that of a nebbish, bespectacled, bumbling reporter who never quite ever gets the girl, sort of a fictionalized version of Woody Allen. He becomes the allegory of Jewish assimilation in the 1930s, the Diaspora Jew viewed as timid and bookish yet underneath a fierce warrior doing God’s work. Superman’s story is the metaphor for the Jewish North American dream, the tale of the old world Jew who comes to the new world for a better life and just tries to fit in. Superman is the “greenhorn” who came to America, embraced the culture and made something of himself. While Superman came from Krypton, he just as easily could have come from Kiev.
Superman’s mission is to fight for “truth, justice and the American way.” Time and time again he is called upon to perform wonders, to repair order and balance in the world. Superman is the vessel for Jewish values, to do good for its own sake, to practice the core mitzvah of tikkun olam.
Superman of America is the reincarnation of the Golem of Prague. During the 16th century the Jewish people of Prague were under anti-Semitic attack and lived their lives in fear. Their rabbi, Yehuda Loew in order to protect his people from the pogroms, created out of clay the supernatural Golem who came to life upon recitation by the Rabbi of a special incantation in Hebrew. The Golem was a giant manlike creature with the word “emet” (truth) carved on his forehead. The Golem did Rabbi Loew’s bidding and defended the Jews of Prague. When the Golem was no longer needed he was returned to his inanimate state by removing from his forehead the first letter of the word “emet” thus changing it to “met” (death). According to the legend the inanimate Golem is somewhere hidden in the attic of the famed synagogue of Prague ready to return to life when needed. A statue of the Golem stands at the entrance to the former Jewish area of Prague.
Superman is the Golem for our time. Both are animated by truth and serve the cause of justice.
While Superman is physically indestructible (except for proximity to Kryptonite) he was subject to the same jibes and taunts faced by other Jews in the first half of the 20th century. Other superheroes, disparagingly and perhaps anti-Semitically, referred to Superman as, “that big blue Boy Scout.” In real life, by a speech given in 1940, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, so enraged by the Superman comic book’s anti-Nazi stance, outed Superman’s Jewish identity.
We, the Jewish people, have our biblical superheroes, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Ruth, Saul, David, Solomon. To those revered names we add the name of post-biblical superhero, Superman.
So boys and girls, Superman, or if you now prefer you may refer to him as “Supermensh”, continues, as he always will, to do good, to fight evil and to save our planet Earth from all menaces both of this world and extra-terrestrial.
The next time you look to the sky and see the red caped crusader, in his blue tights with the letter “S” emblazoned on his chest streaking by, you may be tempted to say, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s …….a Jew.”
Spier is a retired lawyer with a keen interest in Jewish history. You may contact him via [email protected] This article is reprinted from San Diego Jewish World which, along with The Moderate Voice, is a member of the San Diego Online News Association.