Mensch of Steel: Superman’s Jewish Roots

Let's not forget that Superman was created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland, and despite his secular nature, the religious overtones can't be ignored!

From Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 to Man of Steel in 2013, when religious parallels are made explicit in Superman movies, they tend to be overtly Christian ones. In fact, according to CNN, Warner Brothers even marketed Man of Steel to various Christian ministries and included sermon notes comparing Christ to Superman in materials titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero.” For some, the idea that Superman belongs to Christianity seems obvious. Though some may view the movie studio’s interest in this as a purely manipulative tactic to bring in more revenue, it does raise questions. 

Many of the cinematic depictions of Superman are heavily laden with Messianic overtones and Man of Steel is certainly no exception. However, is that definitive proof that Superman is a good Christian? Larry Tye puts it well when he asks in a recent article, “How did Superman, originally a Jewish superhero, become a Christ figure?” Comic book experts have long noted Superman’s connections to Judaism. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein has written a great deal about the Jewish origins of superheroes in his book, Up Up and Oy Vey. This article seeks to highlight some of the arguments made by Jewish scholars and pop culture experts alike.

In order to begin the story, we must create our setting. Between the 1880s and 1920s, over 2 million Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in America. As they began to settle in some of the busy cities of the American East coast, they began to change culture. This influx of Jewish immigrants were leaders in the early 20th century labor movement. They brought with them a sense of social justice that was intricately tied with their Jewish identities. And yet, America wasn’t entirely safe for the new Jewish arrivals. The KKK rallied against them, lynch mobs targeted them, and in 1924 the US Government barred any further immigration into the United States.

The world was ripe with Anti-Semitism and Jewish people were barred entry in many industries. If you were a Jewish writer, you may be denied a job in the more mainstream writing industry. Rabbi Scolnic describes the situation“The big publishing houses and the advertising world had all sort of barriers but the world of pulp magazines and the fledgling comic book industry were wide open to talented aspiring Jewish people like Siegel and Shuster.” Jewish writers and artists created the American superhero. We can thank Jewish creators for Superman, Captain America, The X-Men, Fantastic Four, and many more.

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The 1930s were a rough time for Jewish-Americans. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein writes, “Nazi sympathizer Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund led legions of rabid followers on marches through many cities, including Siegel and Shuster’s hometown. Radio superstar Father Charles E. Coughlin of the pro-fascist Christian Front was one of the nation’s most powerful men. And Ivy League colleges kept the number of Jewish students to a minimum, while country clubs and even entire neighborhoods barred Jews altogether.”

1933 was a year that would change the comic world forever. Two drastically different and seemingly unrelated events occurred on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States two unknowns in the comic book industry named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a character named Superman. In Germany, a man named Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany. And forever their stories became intertwined.

Fate and destiny are apparently huge comic book fans. When we look at the personal histories of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two seem almost destined to have created Superman. Jamie Coville has written a great deal on the history of these two men. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were born only four months apart from one another. Both grew up in Jewish households and embedded in Jewish culture though neither were observant. They ended up living within blocks of one another and attending the same high school. However, the story of Superman doesn’t begin until they were seventeen years old. Their mutual love of science fiction led them to create what would become the Man of Steel.

Jerry Siegel said, “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 … seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden … I had the great urge to help… help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”

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From his very beginning Superman was an outsider. He came from somewhere else and, despite his best efforts, never quite fits in. Superman had to take the name Clark Kent in order to pass as just a regular guy from Smallville. And yet, even with these attempts, his otherness is always clear. He simply cannot suppress who he is. Instead he chooses to lead this double life. He can be both Superman and Clark Kent.

This dual identity and status as outsider would not have been entirely foreign to Siegel and Shuster. Jewish people in Europe often found themselves as outsiders within their countries. This perceived otherness led to horrific acts of Anti-Semitism from individuals, institutions, and governments. Many immigrants fled to America in order to have a better life, only to encounter additional discrimination. If it wasn’t their immigrant status, it was the actual practice of Judaism which marked them as outsiders.

Children of Jewish immigrants, like Siegel and Shuster, often found themselves juggling identities. In order to succeed in the United States, they knew they had to pass as Anglo-American. And yet, their attempts to pass as Anglo-American separated them from their families. And many simply tried to blend into mainstream society, just as Clark Kent attempts to do. Rabbi Scolnic makes the connection to Judaism by saying, “But if you’re just Clark Kent, you can’t help save the world, and this world desperately needs to be saved. That’s why we’re here. But without our real identities, we can’t do a thing.” The idea of living a double life and attempting to pass within mainstream culture would have likely resonated with early Jewish comic creators, and out of these experiences, Superman was created. And there are other parallels with Judaism and Jewish culture which are hardly coincidental.

Superman embodies many of the same values as Judaism. In the most simplistic and iconic terms, he stands for truth, justice, and the American way. Judaism has long embraced the same values. The early 1st century rabbi, Simeon Ben Gamaliel II is quoted as saying “The moral and social constitution of the world rests on three principles—truth, justice, and peace.” These shared values are, again, unlikely to be a coincidence. Early Judaism also emphasized civic loyalty, even when as Jewish people, they were outsiders. Superman embraces American culture and makes it his duty to protect the people of the world…even on a planet that is not his own.

Jewish-Americans were long at the forefront of social justice movements. They fought alongside labor movements to protect the poor, suffragettes attempting to gain gender equality, and other progressive causes. This continued into the 1930s when Siegel and Shuster were writing Superman. As Harry Bond writes in his book, Superman is Jewish?, “That generation recognized in the New Deal what they saw as traditional Jewish values. Superman’s costume was cut from that same cloth.” In his earliest adventures, Superman is often seen fighting corrupt politicians, perpetrators of domestic violence, and evil landlords. In other words, Superman fights on behalf of social justice. He exemplifies the three pillars of Judaism.

Scholars have compared these early comic book creators to Rabbi Loew and the legend of the Golem of Prague. Marie Southhard writes, “Then there is the Golem. In a sense, the late 16th century Golem was very much to the Jewish community what Superman was to Americans in the 1930s.” Both were created to give people strength and hope. Both were created to fight for justice. And both were created in a time of crisis for the Jewish community. Superman is Siegel and Shuster’s American Golem.

But Jewish influence doesn’t end with broad ethical values or legends. Many people have written about the parallels between Moses and Superman. Both were born in times of crisis. For Superman, he was born to a dying planet. For Moses, he was in real danger of being killed by the pharaoh. Both of their parents had to make unthinkable choices by sending their sons into the unknown. Both relied on their faith in the kindness of strangers. And in both cases, their faith paid off. Both infants found a safe home with strangers who raised them as their own. And in both cases, Moses and Superman were destined for heroic greatness. They would both lead and inspire greatness in humanity.

So is Superman Jewish? Not quite. In Superman canon it seems clear that Kal-El was found by the stereotypical WASP family and brought up in a Christian household. It is unlikely that Siegel and Shuster could have created an openly Jewish Superman even if they wanted to. But the influence of Judaism on his creation shouldn’t be ignored.

But the story doesn’t end there. The Nazis weren’t huge fans of Shuster, Siegel, or their Superman. Larry Tye writes, “’If most of his admirers did not recognize Superman’s Jewish roots, the Third Reich did. A 1940 article in Das Schwarze Korps, the newspaper of the SS, called Jerry Siegel ‘Siegellack,’ the “intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York.’” Das Schwarze Korps goes on to insult the Man of Steel himself, “pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind.”

But Jerry Siegel wasn’t too concerned about the insults the Nazis through his way. In fact, Siegel was proud of the fact that his creation ruffled some Nazi feathers. Superman was created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland. Larry Tye states, “It was a place and time where juvenile weaklings and wheyfaces — especially Jewish ones, who were more likely to get sand kicked in their face by Adolf Hitler and the bully down the block — dreamed that someday the world would see them for the superheroes they really were.” And that’s exactly what Superman became. Superman was strong enough to fight when they couldn’t. He could be powerful when they could not. Moses stood up with the courage of a superhero against the pharaoh. Esther saved them from the Persians using her wit and charm. Rabbi Loew created life itself in order to protect his people from Anti-Semites. And then there is Superman, the Kryptonian who pissed off Hitler, who could triumph against injustice in ways never imaginable for two young comic book writers.

 

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