He didn’t look Jewish. Not with his perfect pug nose, electric blue eyes and a boyish spit curl that suggested Anglo as well as Saxon.
No hint in his sleek movie-star name, Clark Kent, which could belong only to a Gentile and probably one with a lifelong membership at the country club. The surest sign that Clark was no Semite came when the bespectacled everyman donned royal blue tights and a furling red cape to transform himself into a Superman with rippling muscles and expanding superpowers. Who ever heard of a Jewish strongman?
The evidence of his ethnic origin lay elsewhere, starting with Kal-El, his Kryptonian name. El is a suffix in Judaism’s most cherished birthrights, from Isra-el to the prophets Samu-el and Dani-el. It means God. Kal is similar to the Hebrew words for voice and vessel. Together they suggest that the alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but a very special one. Like Moses.
Much as the baby prophet was floated in a reed basket by a mother desperate to spare him from an Egyptian Pharaoh’s death warrant, so moments before Kal-El’s planet blew up, his doomed parents tucked him into a spaceship that rocketed him to the safety of Earth. Both babies were rescued by non-Jews and raised in foreign cultures — Kal-El by Kansas farmers named Kent — and all the adoptive parents quickly learned how exceptional their foundlings were. The narratives of Krypton’s birth and death borrowed the language of Genesis. Kal-El’s escape to Earth was the story of Exodus.
Clues mounted from there. The three legs of the Superman myth — truth, justice and the American way — are straight out of the Mishnah. “The world,” it reads, “endures on three things: justice, truth and peace.” The explosion of Krypton conjures up images from the mystical Kabbalah where the divine vessel was shattered, and Jews were called on to perform tikkun haolam by repairing the vessel and the world.
Superman’s lingering heartsickness was survivor’s guilt. A last rule of thumb: When a name ends in “man,” the bearer is Jewish, a superhero, or in this case both.
This search for Superman’s roots has a special resonance now, in what is likely to be the summer of Superman. The Man of Steel turns 75 this month, and Warner Bros. is about to release a Man of Steel movie it hopes will be its biggest ever starring a superhero.
If most of his admirers did not recognize Superman’s Jewish origins, the Third Reich did. A 1940 article in Das Schwarze Korps, the newspaper of the SS, called Superman writer Jerry Siegel “Siegellack,” the “intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York.” Superman was a “pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind.” Creator and creation were stealthily working together, the Nazis concluded, to sow “hate, suspicion, evil, laziness and criminality” in the hearts of American youth.
Superman had even stronger cultural ties to the faith of his founders. He started life as the consummate liberal, championing causes from disarmament to the welfare state. Clark also had something in common with his boyish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster: All were classic nebbishes.
Clark and Superman lived life the way most newly arrived Jews did, torn between their Old and New World identities and their mild exteriors and rock-solid cores. That split personality was the only way he could survive, yet it gave him perpetual angst. You can’t get more Jewish than that.
So compelling were those bonds that The Jewish 100, a book about the most influential Jews of all time, listed Jerry and Joe alongside Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Abraham. Jules Feiffer, an authority on cartoons and Jews, said the Last Son of Krypton was born not on Krypton but on “the planet Poland, from Lodz maybe, possibly Crakow.” The alien superhero was, more than anything, “the striving Jewish boy’s goyishe American dream.”
Larry Tye is an award-winning author who has written about Satchel Paige. His latest book is on Superman.