Is Superman circumcised?

Revealing the Man of Steel’s secret Jewish identity.

MAN dressed as Superman 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
MAN dressed as Superman 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 Aryan.
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 vessel.
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 holidays.
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.
The 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.
An important message at a time when ships full of Jews were turned back to Europe.
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 adulthood.
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 artists.
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 his escape.
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 Steel.”
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 competition.