Superman is possibly the most famous man in the world. Some know him best from
the Christopher Reeve movies, others from the 1950s TV show, or the comics, or
cartoons, or some piece of paraphernalia.
Either way, the septuagenarian
superhero (he turns 75 this June, though he doesn’t look a day over 30) is a
household name from Tasmania to Timbuktu.
He’s an original American icon,
a hero of unwavering virtue – and he’s Jewish.
Since when is Superman
Jewish? Well, since the very beginning, it turns out. Superman first appeared in
June 1938 in Action Comics #1 and quickly became part of America’s, and the
world’s, cultural lexicon. He is the first of the superheroes, giving birth to
our modern- day mythology and what are arguably the most commercially viable
properties in showbiz. And it all started with two nebbish Jewish boys named
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
With the clouds of World War II gathering
over the eastern horizon, Jews needed a new golem to believe in. Not quite the
big blue Boy Scout he is today, Superman was a pugnacious New Deal liberal,
fighting Nazi pastiches years before the US entered the war. In one “imaginary”
story he even confronted Hitler himself, stating how he’d like to give him a
“strictly non- Aryan” sock on the jaw. A curious choice of words for an ideal
Those few who have commented on Superman’s Jewish roots have
usually pointed to his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, as meaning in Hebrew “voice or
vessel of God.” They are right in that the suffix “El,” found in the names of
angels like Michael and Gabriel and prophets like Israel and Daniel, means god
(lower case “g,” not the proper noun). But “Kal” isn’t the root of voice or
Voice – kol – is a rootless noun, and vessel – kli – is spelled
differently. At best they’re homonymous, and trying to shoehorn some meaning
into things waters them down. Still, while skeptics have argued that this is
typical postmodern deconstructionism reading too readily into things, it’s
difficult to imagine that Siegel and Shuster were both oblivious to such
evocative meaning, ubiquitous in the language of the synagogue and high
Another telling feature is the Man of Steel’s secret identity,
mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. It’s a superhero tradition he adapted from
the Jewish émigrés, who came to America and anglicized their name and appearance
to pass for gentiles. But unlike other superheroes, he actually has a triple
identity: one is Kal-El, his ethnic birth name and cultural heritage.
other is Clark Kent, the “act” through which the world sees him – a bright
schlemiel, very much the Jewish typecast even then, which Siegel and Shuster fit
themselves. And then there’s Superman, protector of humanity, who’s the heritage
of the immigrant and the values of his adoptive culture combined to create the
most powerful being.
Superman is essentially a promise to the American
people that taking in immigrant refugees will pay off.
message at a time when ships full of Jews were turned back to
What truly substantiates Superman’s Jewishness is his
unmistakable parallel to the Biblical Moses. Baby Moses is the last son of
Israel, sent down the Nile River in a small craft of bulrushes to save him from
the looming extermination of all newborn males. In a clear parallel, baby
Superman is the last son of Krypton, sent down the Milky Way in a small space
craft to save him from the imminent destruction of his people. They’re both
castaways, refugees fleeing genocide, and orphans. Both are foundlings; baby
Kal-El is discovered amid the amber waves of grain on a Kansas farm, whereas
Moses is found by the papyrus reeds along the river bank. Both are then raised
by people not their own, oblivious to their true birthright until
Their chrysalis stages correspond too. Moses walks across the
desert to Midian, where he encounters God in the form of a burning bush.
Superman crosses the North Pole to his Fortress of Solitude, where his father
manifests as a hologram from ice. They both, while reluctant at first, return to
their people as their greatest savior.
Once juxtaposed, it’s clear that
Moses is the precursor to Superman. Yet in the public zeitgeist Superman is
typically considered a Christ figure. There’s certainly enough symbolism to
match – from Marlon Brando sending him to Earth to save mankind in Superman: The
Movie, to being virtually crucified in the pilot episode of Smallville, to the
heavy-handed resurrection allegory in Superman Returns. But these are anecdotal
similarities, added years after Superman’s debut by gentile writers and
Thematically, the Superman mythos is far more apposite to Moses
than to Jesus. He wasn’t sent to Earth by his father to save us from ourselves;
he was sent to safety by parents desperate to save him from inevitable doom. He
wasn’t preordained for greatness by birthright; it was by the circumstance of
He didn’t grow up shouldering the burden of his destiny; he
discovered it only upon adulthood.
And as “man of the people” as Jesus
may have been, he wasn’t a commoner – he was raised as one, but to Christians
he’s both royalty and divinity, heir to Kind David by lineage and to God by
conception. Superman, like Moses, came from an unremarkable background (he
wasn’t “super” on Krypton) and was entrusted with immense power and
responsibility by mere fate. This overcoming of tragedy and rise to greatness is
what Superman echoes Moses in, and what makes him a true “Mensch of
But perhaps it’s best that Superman’s Jewish identity remain a
secret. After all, much of the story in a comic book takes place not in the
panels, but in the gaps between – the “gutters” – where hidden action and
meaning are left for the reader to fill in.
Roy Schwartz is a former
columnist for Ynet News. He lives in New York City, where he works as a
freelance writer and an adjunct professor of English at CUNY. This article is
based on his graduate thesis, Is Superman Circumcised? The Jewish Heroic Figure
from the Bible to Comics, which won second place at the 2012 NYU thesis