Was Superman Jewish?

Eddy Portnoy, of the Judaic Studies Program at Rutgers University, reviews Harry Brod’s new book, Superman is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way. Of Brod’s thesis, Portnoy is sceptical:

[I]t’s one that has been swirling around in Jewish popular culture for years. In its most basic form it holds that the Jewishness of Superman’s creators — Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — influenced how they imagined their main character. Superman must have Jewish characteristics. Add a bit of Jewish credulity and it’s almost plausible.

Brod relies on Jules Feiffer’s essay, “The Minsk Theory of Krypton,” which suggested that “Superman was the ultimate assimilationist fantasy” and that “only a Jew could come up with the story because it was, in fact, a Jewish story.” The problem with the “assimilation” argument — that Siegel and Shuster were trying to assimilate into gentile society through the character they created — is that, although Siegel and Shuster were social misfits who didn’t fit into their Cleveland high school, their fellow students who socially excluded them were mostly Jews. They were not motivated by a desire to sublimate their Jewishness (as the Minsk Theory holds) but by a desire to fit in wherever they could, in any society that would have them, Jewish or Gentile. The superhero they created was their juvenile fantasy, saving hapless victims and beating up bullies. That Jews were often historical victims isn’t particularly relevant to Siegel and Shuster’s own victimhood: their social haplessness occurred within a mostly Jewish world…

Brod also makes the preposterous claim that Clark Kent is “essentially how the anti-Semitic world sees Jewish men.” He “is a gendered stereotype of Jewish inferiority. Superman exists to counter the notion that strength or manliness and Jewishness are incompatible.” Anti-Semitism typically portrays Jewish men as greedy and rapacious, often with grotesque physical features. Clark Kent is a clean-cut, well-meaning, good-natured doofus. It’s quite a leap over a tall building with a single bound to make Clark Kent the poster boy for anti-Semitism. A simpler explanation works much better. Clark Kent is Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s glorified perception of their everyday selves: nerdy high school journalists unable to get girls and wishing they had alter egos with superpowers. It’s probably not such an unusual wish for any kid in that situation.

There are further aspects of the Superman story that resonate with those in search of a circumcised Superman, and Brod argues them with gusto. As a baby Superman was placed in a vessel and sent to earth as his parents’ planet was destroyed, a story he claims echoes the Moses in the bullrushes narrative. But it can also echo the Christian theme that God sent his only son to earth to save humanity. So which is it? There is no discussion.

There’s also Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, which Brod (and numerous others) parse as “voice of God” in Hebrew. Kal means “light” or “easy” in Hebrew, not “voice.” The name also appears to have been a variation on Jor-El, originally the name of a space detective from a 1937 Siegel and Shuster strip entitled, “Federal Men of Tomorrow,” a work that preceded the publication of Superman by more than a year. The two authors likely killed the space detective character and subsequently reused Jor-El as the name of Superman’s father. The name is probably some variant of the first and last letters of “Jerome Siegel,” his creator. And what of Superman’s mother, Lora of Krypton? Lora means “not bad” in Hebrew. None of the “Superman is Jewish” proponents ever bothers to comment.

Brod never discusses the Jewishness of Siegel and Shuster. We don’t know what kind of Jewish educations they received, whether they grew up in traditional homes, or if they knew any Jewish languages. These, it would seem, would be key components in helping to determine any alleged Jewish influence on their characters. Just what did they know of Jewish culture and were they even remotely interested in it? We simply do not know after reading this account.

In an attempt to ground Superman in Jewish lore, Brod claims that Siegel and Shuster drew on the tradition of the Golem. This is also highly unlikely. Though he provides a respectable history of the Golem character, he offers nothing on its cultural role in contemporary Jewish life. It might have been worth knowing that it was relatively common to refer to an idiot as a leymener goylem (a clay golem) in Yiddish, an insult. Considering the brainless nature of the golem, it’s unlikely that Siegel and Shuster used it as a model. Superman was not a Golem but a thinking, moral character.

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