Was Superman Jewish?
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While doing some research on litigation within the comic book world, I stumbled across these recent articles that I thought the board may find of interest.

 

*****

The Times (London)

 

March 5, 2005, Saturday

 

SECTION: Features; Weekend Review 5

 

LENGTH: 1258 words

 

HEADLINE: Up, up and oy vey

 

BYLINE: Howard Jacobson

 

BODY:

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, says Howard Jacobson, it's a Jewish folk hero in disguise

 

Though supposedly born to caring parents "of high intelligence and magnificent physical perfection" in the "outer reaches of trackless space on the great planet Krypton", Superman was actually conceived in the minds of two working-class Jewish boys who had met at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio.

 

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were bright enough, if not exactly of the genius level expected of children on Krypton, but certainly not what you would call, even by Earth standards, models of magnificent physical perfection. Bespectacled, shy, unsophisticated and awkward around girls, they stayed in a lot, steeped themselves in the culture of comics, pulp magazines and science fiction, and entertained each other with their fantasies.

 

Siegel and Shuster were both born in 1914 and would have been aware of Charles Atlas (real name Angelo Siciliano), whose famous "Hey! Quit Kicking Sand in our Faces" campaign was launched in the late 1920s. Whether or not Atlas was his inspiration, Shuster took up weights, while Siegel followed the other route popular with kids not remarkable for their brawn, and began imagining what it would be like to be the strongest man on the planet.

 

If Siegel and Shuster knew of Nietzsche's Ubermensch, they didn't say; but there is nice irony in the fact of their strictly non-Aryan Superman coming to supersede the philosopher's in the popular imagination.

 

In 1932, with Siegel as editor and writer, and Shuster doing the drawings, they started their own magazine, Science Fiction, in the pages of which their superhero gradually evolved, first as a megalomaniacal version of Frankenstein's monster, a derelict from a bread queue who abuses the powers he is given and turns to crime, and then, no less infelicitously, as a strictly non-interplanetary superhero with bulging eyes and a bad haircut who rescues characters bearing a remarkable resemblance to Siegel himself from hoodlums with Irish faces. It wasn't until 1938 that Superman as we know him, complete with red cloak, dimpled-jaw and college-boy kiss-curl, made his first appearance in Action Comics.

 

Siegel and Shuster had grown up poor in Depression-era Cleveland. If they wanted to go to the movies, they had to sell milk bottles to buy a ticket. Because they couldn't always afford heating, Shuster would wear gloves to draw in. "So we sort of had the feeling," Siegel wrote, "that we were right there at the bottom and could empathise with people." Hence the socialistic, charitably minded Citizen's Advice Bureau Superman of the early episodes, wedded to good causes, pursuing husbands who beat their wives, or punishing unscrupulous mine-owners who refused to pay compensation to injured miners. But hence, too -for being at the bottom also meant being an immigrant -the secrecy to which Superman was doomed, living in isolation, with a changed name, and experiencing embarrassment with his wardrobe.

 

If the above is not in itself conclusive proof that Superman, conceived by Jews, was also Jewish in his circumstances and in the complexion of his sympathies, consider what we know of his antecedents. He is born Kal-El, son of Jor-El. In Hebrew, El -originally meaning "might, strength, power" -is the name for God, appearing in such composite forms as El Emet, the God of Truth, and El Olam, God Everlasting. Students of the Kabbalah will further notice the rhythmic resemblance of Kal-El and Jor El to Ein-Sof, the term coined by the early Kabbalists for "The Infinite". This is not to say, of course, that Siegel and Shuster were consciously creating a Kabbalic Godhead, or were even readers of the Kabbalah, only that they heard the ancient Jewish music of their own history when they came to invent Superman's. And went on hearing it through every detail of their hero's hastily arranged dispatch from Kypton to his arrival, as an illegal immigrant, sans papers and sans passport, on Earth.

 

Threatened with the destruction of their planet, Kal-El's parents pack him "the last survivor of a great civilisation" -into a tiny spacecraft. After hurtling through interstellar space, the rocket, barely bigger than a crib, lands in a field of corn in Smallville, Texas, where it is discovered by Jonathon and Martha Kent, who happen to be out driving. "Why," says Mr Kent, "there's a baby inside."

 

"From the way it's crying," says Mrs Kent, "the little darling must be frightened." Compassion has its way with them, and very soon they have called the child Clark Kent and are raising him as their own.

 

Ring any bells? Threatened with the destruction of their people, the Pharaoh having ordered all Hebrew man-children to be killed at birth, the parents of a new-born boy pack him -perhaps the last survivor of a great civilisation -into a little ark made of bullrushes and slime and lay it by the river where it is discovered by Pharaoh's daughter, come down to wash herself. "And when she had opened it, she saw the child, and behold the babe wept." Compassion has its way with her, and very soon she has called the child Moses and is raising it as her own.

 

Superman is not Moses. But the equivocation they share in the matter of their origins -uncommon and set apart, as though for sacred purpose -their sense of belonging and not belonging, and the imprint they both bear of the kindness of strangers, would seem to have marked them out similarly, not only for heroic action, but ultimately for sadness. Moses is not granted the final honour of leading his people into the Promised Land, and Superman, even as Clark Kent, is never to enjoy the consolations of humanity. Superman's sadness is the most Jewish thing about him. It is a function of his homelessness, of his isolation, of his having to perpetuate himself endlessly in good deeds, but, above all, it is of a piece with his vulnerability to kryptonite, that poisonous mineral leftover of the planet Krypton, the briefest contact with which will deprive him of those powers which have become his only reason for existence.

 

How are we to understand the meaning of kryptonite? A vulnerability is vital to Superman if we are to go on being engaged in his adventures. So long as Superman is susceptible to something, we hold our breath for him. But essentially the significance of kryptonite is psychological. Those glowing green rocks, humming with radioactivity, are the tangible proof of Superman's foreign origins, the irrefragable evidence of his alienness.

 

As migrant communities grow in confidence, balancing assimilation with what is owing to their traditional cultures, it becomes easier for them to acknowledge their origins. Gradually, you cease to be ashamed of where you come from. But in the early days, you are in hiding. Where you come from is your life-and-death secret, it is what marks you as an outsider. The place you come from reminders of which are forever out there, floating in the stratosphere -is poison. And it is with a palpable slice of where he comes from -kryptonite from Krypton! that Superman's enemies are able to cut him down to size.

 

Touch Superman with kryptonite and he is no longer his adopted self, no longer Clark Kent, but Kal-El, the boy with the Kabbalic name, the boy from the shtetl.

 

Superman might be Jewish, but it's only so long as no one knows he's Jewish that he is capable of performing wonders. And you can't get more Jewish than that.

 

Is Superman Jewish? Radio 4, today, 3.30pm

 

*****

The Independent

 

March 9, 2005

 

LENGTH: 635 words

 

HEADLINE: THE WEEK IN RADIO

 

BYLINE: Robert Hanks

 

BODY:

 

 

WHAT REALLY leaves me feeling stupid is not so much the things I don't know as the questions I never thought to ask. Howard Jacobson posed one of these this weekend: Is Superman Jewish? (3.30pm, Saturday, Radio 4).

 

In a superficial sense, the answer to this is: yes, obviously. At any rate, Superman sprang from Jewish imaginations - his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, were working-class Jewish boys in Cleveland, Ohio. Indeed, more or less the whole of the US comics industry - which means, more or less, superbeings in skintight costumes - sprang from Jewish imaginations. Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, who created many of the most unforgettable superheroes (and believe me, I've tried forgetting), was born Stanley Lieber; Jack Kirby, the artist who collaborated with him on the best of these, was Jacob Kurtzberg.

 

There is no argument, either, about the Jewish roots of parts of the Superman narrative. The infant Kal-El, you'll remember, was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent in a space-capsule that had crashed in a cornfield in the Midwest: Siegel said that the notion came to him after a dream about Moses being found in his basket among the bullrushes.

 

Jacobson wanted to go deeper, though: his thesis was that there is something intrinsically Jewish in the character of Superman - that if we accept him as Jewish, he makes more sense. This hadn't occurred to me; and after all, the very name Superman has distractingly Nietzschean, hence Nazi, overtones. But think about it: he is an outsider who has taken on an Anglo- Saxon name - Clark Kent - and spends his daily life looking timid behind his glasses, trying to be inconspicuous. It is, as the novelist Michael Chabon suggested, a story about assimilation and the fear of being discovered. As Jacobson said, "The fear of being thought a fake is well-known to those who change their names and settle invisibly into an alien community."

 

This was an attractive thesis, and Jacobson attached some entertaining detail to it - hardcore comics fans will remember the bottled city of Kandor, a miniaturised fragment of Superman's home planet that had survived destruction: analogy with Israel, anyone? You could go further with other superheroes. Batman's attitude to crime is pretty Old Testament. The X- Men films follow a storyline about genetics and persecution that is explicitly grounded in the Holocaust (Magneto is first encountered escaping from a Nazi concentration camp). And look at the nerdy Peter Parker, alias Spiderman, and his overprotective Aunt May - isn't their relationship something of an extended Jewish-mother joke?

 

In the end, though, Jacobson, tried to pin too much on to Jewishness. You don't have to be Jewish to worry about being thought a fake, about not fitting in - especially not when you're a teenage boy. Superman speaks to fantasies and insecurities that are universal, which is why he sells. But as you can probably tell, superheroes have played an unhealthily large part in my imagination for a long time; and it was a relief to hear the subject discussed in an adult way.

 

But lo! What is that streaking across the airwaves? A bird? A plane? Nope, it's Brian Walden, the new saviour of Radio 4, in the old Alistair Cooke slot. My first thought on hearing the news was that it was a curious choice - whereas Cooke's voice was at the dipped-in-honey end of things, Walden's is more dipped-in-honey-then-rolled-in-sand. Still, he is a clever man, and I was hopeful that he might have something fresh to say. As it turned out, the first edition of A Point of View (8.50pm, Friday, rpt Sunday, Radio 4) was disappointingly tame - we all know about politicians and focus groups, don't we? But it does take time to settle into a tone, and an angle; Walden shouldn't hang up his cape just yet.

 

****

Irish Independent

 

March 12, 2005

 

LENGTH: 398 words

 

HEADLINE: RADIO : ONLY LOIS KNOWS!

 

BODY:

 

 

Novelist Howard Jacobson's witty and engaging documentary Is Superman Jewish? (BBC Radio 4, Saturday, 3.30pm) made a persuasive argument for looking at the origins of the Man of Steel - and particularly his famous vow to fight "for truth, justice and the American way" - in an entirely new light.

 

Superman was created in 1932 by best friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two awkward young guys from Cleveland who shared a talent for drawing and a passion for pulp fiction. Being Jewish, 'respectable' occupations such as graphic design were closed to them, so they naturally gravitated towards working in comic books, which traditionally employed many Jews.

 

Apparently, Superman was born out of a dream Siegel had about Moses. Like Moses, the infant Superman (whose real name was the Hebrew-influenced Kal-el) was sent away from his homeland, the doomed planet of Krypton, for his own protection, albeit in a pod-like spaceship rather than a basket.

 

And just like immigrant Jews, he was forced to conceal his true identity and change his name, in this case to the distinctly WASPish Clark Kent. But, being the last survivor of his race, his superpowers ensured he would never be totally accepted in his new home. He was "a diaspora of one", said Jacobson, plagued by a sense of "cosmic homelessness".

 

So far, so tenuous, except that the lore of Judaism - in which Siegel and Schuster were steeped - is rich in tales of super-beings such as the Golem, the man of clay summoned up to protect persecuted Jews; and mystical rabbis endowed with superpowers.

 

When America went to war, so did Superman. A 1942 comic book, deliciously dramatised here, saw him swoop behind enemy lines and capture Hitler.

 

In the 60s, it emerged that Superman wasn't a lone survivor after all. Before the planet Krypton exploded, the evil genius Braniac had miniaturised the city of Kan-dor and covered it with a bell-jar. Superman liberated Kan-dor, miniaturised himself and made frequent visits to the city to be among others of his kind. In effect, said one comic book editor, Kan-dor was Superman's Israel.

 

Whether all this was conscious or accidental, or even wish-fulfilment on the part of Jacobson and the programme's contributors, is open to question; yet the notion of a circumcised Superman is tantalising.

 

Only Lois Lane knows for sure.

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Oy Vey! foreheadslap.gif

 

Jim

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I know this idea was raised before, I can't remember if I read it in Comic Book Nation or where I saw this speculation.

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Oy Vey... foreheadslap.gif

 

Ze-

 

 

Edit.. I want it noted.. I made my Oy Vey post before Awe.. but my browser did not load for 2 minutes.. so I want credit for the first Oy Vey.

wink.gif

 

 

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So is Kryptonite made of pork?

 

I'm Jewish so i'm allowed to say that. wink.gif

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Interesting (from what I read of it.... it's a really long article). Will read more later.

 

Thanks for sharing. thumbsup2.gif

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Last time I checked, Supes did not attend Shabbat B'Ahad confused-smiley-013.gif

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And he was also his own tailor.

( Or was that Ma Kent?)

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Oy Vey... foreheadslap.gif

 

Ze-

 

 

Edit.. I want it noted.. I made my Oy Vey post before Awe.. but my browser did not load for 2 minutes.. so I want credit for the first Oy Vey.

wink.gif

 

 

tongue.gif Get off the dial-up... poke2.gifsmirk.gif

 

Jim

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Oy Vey... foreheadslap.gif

 

Ze-

 

 

Edit.. I want it noted.. I made my Oy Vey post before Awe.. but my browser did not load for 2 minutes.. so I want credit for the first Oy Vey.

wink.gif

 

 

tongue.gif Get off the dial-up... poke2.gifsmirk.gif

 

Jim

 

 

27_laughing.gif.. cable modem here.

But our Liknsys Router seems to have a mind of its own.. and breaks contact with my modem on a regular basis.

frustrated.gifChristo_pull_hair.gif

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would the story get the same press, or even interest, if it came out that they were secretly communists?

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...once again class for those of you who did not read last semester's required reading material..." Men of Tomorrow", by Gerard Jones,......and to answer your question,..Yes,,,,,,,,,.Superman was more Jewish than Barbara Streisand eating a bagel at a bris,.......

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would the story get the same press, or even interest, if it came out that they were secretly communists?

 

Not today...but I wouldn't be surprised someone made the accusation sometime during the Red Scare of the 50s. There seemed to be a communist or plot behind every corner... foreheadslap.gif

 

Jim

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would the story get the same press, or even interest, if it came out that they were secretly communists?

 

Not today...but I wouldn't be surprised someone made the accusation sometime during the Red Scare of the 50s. There seemed to be a communist or plot behind every corner... foreheadslap.gif

 

Jim

 

Why, that's the biggest plot of all....making you think the communist plot has gone the way of the dodo!

 

hehe

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This guy should really get out more.

 

Part of Superman's appeal was based on his alien origins, which resonated with virtually any immigrant, no matter the race, color or religion.

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The question has been asked and answered. Move on.

In "Superman at Fifty: The Persitence ofa Legend",Scott Raab wrote an excellant essay

titled" Is Superman Jewish".

 

Is Superman Jewish? He will always be considered an outsider,he is subject to different laws than others,and he both draws strength and is haunted by a past he relives over and over.

 

To me,the more important question is-What breed of dog is Kyrpto?

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For what it's worth, I was asked to provide an opinion for the radio show that Jacobson did (I would've been a taped soundbite!!) but my general opinion of Superman's Jewish roots was radically different to his - as you stated, I thought the Kabbalistic / Jewish folkloric elements of Supes were being heavily overstated and over-intellectualised by Jacobson.

 

Jacobson's layman opinions are typically schematic and simplistic - Superman was created by Jews, he's an alien, he's got a pseudo - biblical name, therefore he's fundamentally Jewish.

 

Here's the email I sent outlining my standpoint to the producer of the radio show:

 

My opinion about the Chasidic elements within the origin or back story of characters such as Superman is that I think they've been overstated. I thought it might be worthwhile if a contrary viewpoint was given on your radio show with Mr. Jacobson as to the development of these classic characters.

 

I won't go into great detail now, but one has to remember the context of the creation of these super - heroes. It's possible that Siegel and Schuster may have unconsciously brought some Jewish themes into play, but bear in mind that Superman's origin as the last son of Krypton and his adoption by Middle American farmers was developed over many years - at the beginning, in 1939, his back-story was very sketchy and lacked cohesion. Plus they'd been hawking the character to newspapers for a decade prior to the birth of the medium, and in that time "Superman" had gone through many changes, mainly to appeal to whichever paper they were pitching their idea to.

 

Also what non-comic hobbyists tend to forget is that Superman was one of many super-powered iconic characters that came along in this initial, hothouse period. He may have been the first, but he was not the most popular - that would've been Fawcett's Captain Marvel. Also any Jewishness in the character would've been heavily underplayed due to the necessities and vagaries of the time - super-heroes in the Golden Age may have fought the Nazis, but they did it as symbols of America, and other heroes (Captain America, the Shield, Fighting Yank, The Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, etc.) were just as significant then but had no discernible Jewishness about them whatsoever. Even though they too were created by Jews.

 

And that was that. grin.gif

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this is old news too me, i've read and heard this discussion before. hence superman comics along with action was heavily non nazi/axis even prior to US joining the war. gossip.gif

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He grew up in Kansas. He wasn't raised Jewish. And as far as I know, Jews don't come from outer space. confused-smiley-013.gif

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He grew up in Kansas. He wasn't raised Jewish. And as far as I know, Jews don't come from outer space. confused-smiley-013.gif

 

 

ridicuous....... sball8.jpg

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