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Over 20 years since he last flew across the big screen, a beloved superhero finally comes home this summer with the release of the blockbuster movie, Superman Returns.
This latest installment in the Superman saga begins when the man in tights comes back to Metropolis at the end of a cosmic quest, investigating the facts behind the destruction of his home planet, Krypton. And things at home have changed. Lois Lane, the love of Superman's life, has moved on in his absence. Even worse, his old nemesis, Lex Luthor, is plotting to render the Man of Steel powerless once and for all - then destroy the helpless world.
Superman Returns is being called one of the most expensive movies ever made, with a rumored budget of $200,000,000. It's a long, long way from 1938, when a couple of Jewish boys from Cleveland were paid $130 for the very first Superman story. (Today, a mint condition copy of that comic book, if you're lucky enough to find one, will set you back almost a half-million bucks.)
The 1930s and 1940s were arguably the most anti-Semitic period in American history. The German-American Bund marched legions of rabid followers through many cities, including the hometown of those two young men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In response, the writer and illustrator invented the most famous comic book superhero of all time.
From the very beginning, the Superman mythos reflected his creators' Jewish backgrounds. The superhero's "origin story" (as fans refer to it) bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Exodus tale. Yocheved places Moses in a reed basket and sets him afloat on the Nile before he can be killed by the Pharaoh's henchmen. Likewise, Superman's father, Jor-El, launches a little rocket ship containing his son into outer space when he realizes Krypton is about to disintegrate. That symbol comes full circle in the new film, when Superman journeys back to earth in the very same type of space pod.
Superman and his nebbish alter ego Clark Kent are now recognized, in retrospect, as a complex symbol of immigrant identity and assimilation - the embodiment of the American Dream, as imagined by two second generation Jewish kids. Howard Jacobson of the London Times has called Superman "the boy with the Kabbalistic name, the boy from the shtetl. Superman might be Jewish, but it's only so long as no one knows he's Jewish that he is capable of performing wonders. And you can't get more Jewish than that."
Superman's ethics are Jewish ethics. Like all of us, Superman is called to "perform wonders," to repair order and balance in the world. We may not do it while wearing a cape and a big "S" on our chests, but universal messages of duty and justice still come across clearly, via the unlikely vehicle of a comic book for kids.
In the works of the great Jewish sages, it is taught that we all have a double identity, too. Man is the fusion of matter and spirit, of body and soul. The body cleaves to this physical world, while the soul longs for the spiritual. Likewise, Superman often wants nothing more than to retreat to his aptly named mountain hideaway, the Fortress of Solitude. And who wouldn't want to meditate up in the Alps, far from mundane cares, at least once in a while? Especially after a long, hard day of leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
But in reality, God created the world so He would "have a dwelling in the lower realms" (Hebrew: dira b'tachtonim). Superman knows he's got a tough job to do in those "lower realms" fighting for what's right without getting much credit. The "real world" may not live up to your expectations: Your long lost love ran off with someone else, your nemesis is out to get you, your boss doesn't give you much credit and the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Yet, you are right where you need to be.
That's Superman's dilemma, and ours, too - no wonder this unlikely comic book story has enchanted millions of readers for decades. This summer, Superman Returns is set to introduce the Man of Steel (and his very Jewish story) to a whole new generation.
Rabbi Weinstein is the author of the new book Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (Leviathan Press).