Superman’s Jewish Roots
Eighty years ago, a baby who would grow up to have x-ray vision and a body stronger than steel was sent off his dying planet of Krypton in a spaceship. He landed on Earth, and over the next several decades went on to become the world’s greatest superhero, saving his adopted planet countless times and becoming a symbol of hope for people around the world. Of course, all of this took place on the pages of a comic book, but the character’s cultural impact is equally significant.
Since his 1938 appearance in Action Comics #1, Superman has been the subject of a plethora of movies, television shows, books and dreams. Clark Kent, the secret identity of Superman, has established his own place in American pop culture. While much has been written about the Jewish influence on the character, his religion has never been explicitly acknowledged, and he is not commonly associated with his Jewish roots.
But that may be about to change with today’s release of Action Comics #1000. Acclaimed Jewish comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis has taken over the task of writing Superman, and he told Forbes that his take on the character would be “deeply connected to his origins,” which are steeped in Jewish mythology and culture.
Superman was first conceived in 1933 by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, both teenagers in Cleveland and the children of Jewish immigrants. In the Depression-era Midwest, the pair escaped their high school existences by dreaming up science fiction and fantasy stories. The character went through a few iterations as Siegel workshopped it, transforming from a bald scientist portrayed as a villain into the flying caped hero that is so well-known today. In 1938, Siegel and Shuster famously sold the rights to Superman to the company now known as DC Comics for only $130.
The inspiration for the character is unclear. For a long time it was commonly thought that Siegel conjured up the embodiment of bravery and heroism as a way to attract girls. But ten years ago, author Brad Meltzer proposed a more compelling theory for the characters creation. In 1932, Siegel’s father was killed in a robbery, and according to Meltzer, Superman’s invulnerability and perseverance after losing his original family and planet are a direct response to this tragedy.
Whatever the real reason for Superman’s creation, Siegel clearly injected the character with the Jewish traits and ideals that he grew up around, and Superman’s entire backstory is seemingly an analog of the Jewish immigrant experience. For example, his name is changed from the alien-sounding Kryptonian “Kal-el” he was given at birth to the typical American “Clark Kent.” He grows up always feeling like something of an outsider and must assimilate to American culture as best he can. Furthermore, “Kal-el” follows the traditional Jewish naming practice of adding the suffix “el,” which is short for “Elohim,” a biblical name for God. The iconic S on his costume has also been compared to the Hebrew letter lamedh.
Some scholars see even further connections between Superman and Jewish tradition. Comic book historian Didier Pasamonik told Time Magazine that he sees the story of Moses in “baby Superman’s passage through space in a cradle-like vessel and subsequent adoption.” Then there is Golem, the mythological creature of Jewish lore that, as we’ve written, protected Jews from violence in 16th-century Prague.
The case for Superman’s Jewishness goes on and on, and one of the reasons it is so significant is because the character came about at a time when Jews were not always accepted in the public sphere. Even in the comic book industry, which was largely created by Jews, many were uncomfortable publicly expressing their religion and changed their names to reflect that. Just like Superman had to hide his identity as Clark Kent, early comic pioneers like Jacob Kurtzberg and Stanley Lieber changed their names to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. In fact, Dr. Ben Baruch Blich, of the department of history and theory at the Bezalel Academy of Arts, theorized in an interview with Haaretz that Jewish comic artists and writers reluctantly took on prominent roles in the comic book industry, which was considered a very low form of art at the time, because they kept having their art and comic strips rejected by newspapers.
But despite all of the Jews bringing comic books into the mainstream, very few—if any—characters were made to be explicitly Jewish until the 1980s. Because of this ambiguity, many different groups have also seen their own cultures and religions reflected in these characters, and Superman’s true religion has been debated for years.
Ironically, the one group that Superman’s Jewishness was not lost on was the Nazis. While Siegel may not have been able to actually make Superman Jewish, he made his opposition to the Nazis a major driving force for the character. “Action Comics” often featured Superman battling with the Nazis or Nazi stand-ins during the 1940s, but to many Americans this was more of a display of patriotism than Judaism. In weekly Nazi newspaper Das Schwarze Korps, however, Superman was called one of the “fantasies of Jerry Israel Siegel.” According to Aish.com, it is believed that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared that “this Superman is a Jew!”
In the decades after World War II, many non-Jewish writers have taken on the character and infused him with their own experiences. For example, many Christians have considered Superman to be a Christ-like figure. The most recent movie iterations of the character, directed by Zack Snyder, have been immersed in Christian imagery.
As “Action Comics #1000” is released, the comic book industry is at a crossroads in terms of representation. While Marvel and DC have been embracing diversity both with their characters and creators, a vocal minority of fans are protesting what they see as a “drop in quality” by attacking these creators on the internet in a scandal called “Comicsgate.”
And if it seems unlikely that Bendis will incite more controversy and explicitly make the most acclaimed superhero of all time Jewish after decades of ambiguity, it is worth noting that he has been a champion of diversity in comics for a long time. In 2011, he introduced a new version of Spider-man, black teenager Miles Morales, and in 2015 he revealed that X-men character Iceman was gay.
Religion has, of course, never been and never will be the focal point of these larger-than-life stories about people with superpowers fighting aliens and throwing villains through buildings. And there is something to be said for allowing people to project their own experiences onto beloved characters. But maybe in 2018, what the world needs is an icon who embraces his true identity, instead of running from it, and inspires the next generation of comic-reading kids—Jewish or not—to be proud of who they are.