Redacted from a much grander, really fun article
By Saul Jay Singer
The Jewish Press
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.
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.
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.
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.
About the Author: Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters, and his column appears in The Jewish Press every other week. Mr. Singer welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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