This summer’s Man of Steel, opening June 14th, marks the return of Krypton’s Last Son to American cinemas. Above all the fanfare, a question remains: Do Superman and his Jewish roots still have relevance to today’s American Jews?
The superhero’s origin story is fairly well known: Born Kal-El on the soon-to-be-destroyed planet Krypton, Superman is sent in a ship down the canals of space to Earth by his parents; a kindly Smallville couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, pick up baby Kal-El and adopt him as their own upon his arrival to this planet, renaming him Clark. On Earth, Kal-El (which means vessel or voice of God in Hebrew), leads a double life as a mild-mannered journalist, using his powers to save the people of Earth, his secret identity preventing anyone from realizing who he truly is.
The story may sound familiar to the Sunday school set, as an allegory for the story of Moses, who was sent away from his home in order to be saved, brought up in a strange land, then become a savior to a group of people he calls his own. Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster created Superman in 1938, at a time when Jews were still viewed as “others” in the United States, and many immigrant families were having first-generation American children, like Siegel and Schuster. Superman disguised his identity by wearing glasses and acting like a nebbish in order to blend in, just as many Jews took on different names or changed aspects of their lives in order to suitably assimilate into American society. Superman also seems to be partially based on the Golem, the mythical creature created by the Maharal of Prague in order to defend the city’s Jews whenever they came under threat. Similarly, when Superman hears the cry of the imperiled, he rips his shirt open to reveal the shield-encrusted S, which everyone knows and trusts.
Jews, much like Superman, spent much of the early- and mid-20th century forging a new identity in America. From a purely observational standpoint, they have been successful. Jews can legally apply for any job, are allowed to take unpunished leave for holidays, and celebrate their practices and history on main streets, even the National Mall. These are not the Jews who shared Superman’s duality, Jews who hearkened back to the 1800s Hebrew poet and revivalist YL Gordon’s phrase: “a man in the street, and a Jew at home.” Instead, many contemporary Jews publicly balance the religious and secular worlds.
The Jewish immigrant story has not ended, but is in a new chapter. Recent Superman works, such as this summer’s film, directed by Zack Snyder, and the graphic novel Superman: Birthright, by Mark Waid, have explored Superman’s initial hostile reception after first appearing in the skies of Metropolis. Rather than being welcomed as a hero, Superman is treated with hostility and suspicion; the military even attacks due to fear of a possible alien invasion. Superman has to prove himself a hero, and cannot simply put on the tights and claim to be one. Once Superman has accomplished this, and dedicates his values of “truth, justice, and the American way,” he is welcomed and celebrated for his work and contributions to the world, his unraveling path akin to that of the Jews in America.
Prejudice is not gone from this world. One does not have to go far to find a story of a Jew attacked for being just that, a Jew. Superman revealed his identity to Lois Lane and a few others, but it took a long time. There are many to whom Superman cannot reveal himself, to protect those he loves. We, in Superman’s shoes, have revealed ourselves to Lois (the United States), and a few choice others, but continue to lead subtle existences elsewhere. We, the children of Abraham, are still brothers with the Last Son of Krypton in that sense of still needing to balance our identity against those who might wish to harm us.
Larry Tye, author of the recent Man of Steel biography, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, wrote in an email to Moment:
“It’s not just Superman’s creators and publishers who were Jewish. The Man of Steel was, too…it is a big deal in a world where Jewish kids like Jerry still dream that someday the world will see them for the superheroes they really are.”