Faced with the threat of imminent death to their beloved infant son, his parents launched him out into the unknown and toward an unknowable fate in a specially-constructed craft in a desperate last-ditch attempt to save his life. Cast adrift from a society on the brink of extinction, he grew up in an alien culture to be a hero, a leader for all time who achieved great feats beyond even the imagination of his people.
No, not Moses. Superman.
Commentators often link Superman’s roots to both the Jewish immigrant experience and the Exodus account of Moses. Jules Feiffer, who dubbed it “the Minsk theory of Krypton,” may have been the first to suggest that the Man of Steel is Jewish, albeit surely not in the halachic sense; circumcision and upshirin, for example, would prove challenging.
The story begins with two young American Jews, Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) and Joe Shuster (1914-1992) who, deeply troubled by their sense of Jewish powerlessness in the face of rising anti-Semitism at home and overseas, created Superman, a fabled character who reflected their own Jewish values. In fact, from the very beginning Superman was created to help fight Hitler and the Nazis. As Siegel explained:
What led me into creating Superman in the early thirties? Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany…. I had the great urge to help somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.
Several early stories highlighted Superman fighting the Nazis, including one in which he even socked Hitler on the jaw. Shown here is a modern comic signed on the cover by Siegel in which Superman travels to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943; saves hundreds of Jews aboard a train transporting them to a concentration camp; and destroys a high-level Nazi atomic weapon experiment, thereby saving the entire world.
Superman’s birth name is Kal-El, which means either “voice of God” or “God is all.” His adopted name came from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which Nietzsche introduces the concept of Superman (“Ubermensch“), the hero who transcends what Nietzsche considered the enslavement of Christian morality by his “will to power.”
Superman’s father warned his people of the imminent destruction of their planet but he was ignored, much as those who forecast the impending European Holocaust were ignored – and, as a result, the people of Krypton and the Jews of Europe were both exterminated.
Superman and Moses were each adopted by non-Jewish parents, who quickly understood just how extraordinary were their abandoned babies. Much as Moses, Superman eventually used powers “beyond those of mortal man” to save his people; he dedicated himself to fight for “truth and justice” – tzedek, tzedek tirdof – and, lest we forget, “the American Way;” and his life epitomizes the concept of tikkun olam.
Much as Moses kept secret his Jewish identity while growing up in the house of Pharaoh, Superman, the alien-born assimilationist-survivor who left his planetary shtetl and escapes to America, hid his “otherness” and heroic qualities behind the alter ego of a bespectacled nebbish.
And there is more. Much as Eretz Yisrael, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people, has continued to exercise its pull on Jews throughout their centuries in the Diaspora, Superman could never forget his homeland, in part because the remnants of his home planet constitute his only Achilles heel: “Kryptonite.”
Superman’s yearning for the land of his ancestors is analogous to the longing of the Jews to return to the land God promised them, and the respect he continues to feel for his departed biological parents, along with his desire to honor their memories through the performance of good deeds, could have come right out of our Torah.
Moreover, it is notable that Superman’s archenemy was never, as might be expected, another alien or superhero – though he certainly has battled his share of such rogues and villains during his long and illustrious career – but, rather, the Nazi-like Lex Luthor, the prototypical evil megalomaniac.
On many occasions, Siegel and Shuster used Luthor to echo racist rants by Senator Ellison DuRant (“Cotton Ed”) Smith, a virulent segregationist whose infamous “Shut the Door” immigration speech led to the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act and, ultimately, the deaths of millions of Jews who remained trapped in Europe, unable to escape the impending Holocaust.
Had the act been ratified earlier, among the families most likely to have been exterminated by the Nazis were Siegel’s parents, who came to America from Lithuania, and Shuster’s parents, who immigrated here from Kiev and Rotterdam.
It’s intriguing to note that Elliot S. Maggin, an observant Jew who wrote the Superman comic strip during the 1970s and 1980s, is on record as stating that Lex Luthor is a non-observant Jew and, in his novel Last Son of Krypton he even has Luthor occasionally speaking Yiddish. He also identifies Jimmy Olsen as Lutheran, Perry White as Baptist, and Lois Lane as Catholic. Thus, Superman, the great Jewish icon, sadly committed the ultimate betrayal of his people and his faith when he married Lois in Superman: The Wedding Album (1996) – and, in a most bitter irony, the contemporary Superman writers identified the priest who marries them as none other than Jerry Siegel! (Siegel died in 1996.)
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There are a variety of sources that, comics historians claim, served as sources of inspiration for the Superman character.
First, as Siegel himself often stated, he modeled Superman on Samson, the mighty Jewish leader, Hebrew strongman, judge, and scourge of the Philistines about whom he and Shuster had learned in Hebrew school. In fact, original drawings of Superman depict him, like Samson, wearing sandals laced up to his calf rather than the red boots we all have come to know and love, which came later.
Though the Siegel and Shuster families were not strictly observant, they were traditional Jews. A wonderful story, perhaps apocryphal, is told that, as young teens, Siegel and Shuster drew on Mrs. Shuster’s challah board and that, as such, they were unable to work on their comic strip on Thursday evenings because Shuster’s mother was using her board to bake challah for Shabbat.
Second, it is almost certain that they also drew inspiration from Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart (1893-1925), a folklore hero born into an observant Jewish family in Poland who became renowned as the “Twentieth Century Hercules.” He was celebrated for amazing feats of strength, many of which later worked their way into the Superman comics, including bending steel bars, breaking horseshoes in half with his bare hands, and biting through iron chains.
Known to his legion of Yiddish-speaking fans as Shimshon Hagibor (“Samson, the Strongman”) – and also beloved as a Zionist, as he often performed flanked by Zionist flags – his act included pulling a wagonload of people with his teeth; supporting an automobile loaded with up to 10 passengers while lying on his back; and lifting an elephant while climbing a ladder.
Siegel and Shuster were surely inspired by Breitbart’s image, which undercut stereotypical notions of weak Jews. Moreover, Breitbart was sometimes billed as “the Superman of the Ages,” and the name, along with the reference to Samson, may have stuck in their consciousness.
Third, critics theorize that Superman was “the American Golem.” According to the famous legend, Rabbi Judah Loeb’s Golem, like Superman, was created in a time of crisis for the Jewish community; was a virtually invincible being of intense physical strength; and was a source of security and hope to the oppressed. The popularity of the Golem story had grown in the early 20th century, and Siegel and Shuster were surely exposed to the many books, plays, films, and even an opera about the Golem that saturated the public consciousness at the time.
Fourth, another possible link to the development of the Man of Steel may be Siegel’s father, who in 1932 was killed by three assailants while working at the family’s second-hand clothing store. The oldest surviving artwork featuring Superman depicts him flying to the rescue of a man being held up at gunpoint, and Superman may have been Siegel’s fantasy response to his feeling of helplessness with respect to his father’s murder, a crime that was never solved.
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Despite all the evidence of Superman’s Jewish background, there are any number of non-Jewish writers who seek to claim the “Son of Krypton” as their own. Consider, for example, a sermon by a Christian theologian titled “Jesus – The Original Superhero” in which Superman is specifically linked to the Christian deity/messiah. The sermon garnered a lot of attention online when Warner Bros. played it up in an effort to draw religious viewers to its 2013 “Man of Steel” movie.
The 2006 film “Superman Returns” may well constitute the zenith of the attempted Christianization of our Jewish superhero. Krypton is depicted as “Paradise Lost,” Superman refers to himself as a “savior,” and Satan (the evil Lex Luthor) calls him “a God.” Before sending Kal-El out into space, Marlon Brando, playing Jor-El, Superman’s all-powerful and all-knowing father, is replayed sonorously intoning his little speech from the earlier “Superman: The Movie”: “They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, this capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.”
Finally, lest anything at all be left to the imagination, this only son “dies” and is born again.
Protestants point out that Clark Kent had a rural Midwestern Protestant upbringing, was raised with firm Protestant values, and attended a Protestant church every week with his mother. In later issues, the adult Clark continues to consult with the minister of his childhood church, though he is no longer a regular attendee.
Buddhists, too, have made attempts to claim Superman as their own. In an article on the Buddhist Channel, Superman was compared to a Bodhisattva, known for hearing the cries of the world and for lending “1,000 compassionate helping hands to those in need.” Citing Superman’s “Buddha-nature,” The Daily Enlightenment (November 29, 2013) notes:
Like a skillful transcendental Bodhisattva whom, as instructed by the Buddha, does not reveal his identity – so as to better enter and blend into the worldly masses and protect relations –Superman functions almost anonymously despite his obvious helping of many and saving of lives…. His foster father also reminded him from young to solve his existential koan, to find his raison d’être, even if it takes the rest of his life…. Mindful of his Buddha-nature and that of others, even the villains he fights, will be what differentiates Superman from them, for he sees the hope that they too can become noble, if only he, but more importantly, they, give themselves a chance to awaken to their inner goodness…
Even Muslims have eagerly joined the Superman parade. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Muslim comic artist, conceived a group of 99 Muslim superheroes (reflecting the 99 attributes of Allah), including a Burqa-wearing superhero called “Battina the Hidden.” First published in 2007 by Teshkeel Comics in Kuwait, the comic came to America a year later.
In a truly grand irony, Superman was to hook up with the “The 99” in the pursuit of “truth, justice, and the Muslim way” – which would presumably include putting an end to the state of Israel. (See “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman – Set to Join Muslim Superhero Crew” (Jewish Press, January 7, 2011). In fact, the story, where Superman meets Sharif, a new superhero and the “Muslim Superman,” was scheduled to appear in Superman #712 (June 2011), but D.C. Comics abruptly pulled the plug on it, most likely due to public pushback and political fallout.
Most ironically, however, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest experts on who is Jewish and who is not, the Nazis of the Third Reich, harbored no doubts regarding Superman’s Jewish identity. The SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps called Siegel “Siegellack, the circumcised guy from New York” and characterized Superman as a poison, planting “hate, suspicion, evil, laziness and criminality” in the hearts of American youth (1940).
In a major hoot, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, once brandished a comic book in his hand during a cabinet meeting and furiously denounced Superman as a Jew.
Another group that seems to have no problem identifying Superman as Jewish is Hizbullah. In a February 10, 2014 report on Al-Manar, its Lebanon-based TV station, the terrorist group charged that Superman is nothing more than “a Jewish conspiracy” and that “Jews created Superman to take over the greatest superpower in the world, controlling all aspects of her daily life and harnessing it in service to Jewish interests all over the world.” Siegel and Shuster would have been proud.
Finally, many books and articles have been written on the subject of Superman’s Judaism. My favorite titles include Up, Up, and Oy Vey and The Mensch of Steel, but I am still waiting breathlessly for Able to Leap Tall Shteibels in a Single Bound.