Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It is sometimes pointed out that Steve Jobs, American titan, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. It is also often pointed out that the grudging European and American responses to Syrian refugees today parallel the American response to Jewish refugees from Europe on the eve of the Holocaust, down to ships full of desperate men, women, and children being turned away.
But few seem to be recalling that the greatest American (fictional) hero of all, Superman, was conceived as a Jewish refugee. Perhaps doing so would seem to trivialize the very serious public debate. But our imagination, in which we invest our deepest yearnings, is as good a moral compass as any.
Perhaps ironically, Superman’s Judaism is actually well-documented. Several books have been written spelling out the case for Clark Kent as an Ashkenazi Jew, with titles like “Up, Up and Oy Vey,” “From Krakow to Krypton,” and “Superman Is Jewish?” Here, then, are the basic facts:
Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, more or less means “Voice of God” in Hebrew. Indeed, the “-el” suffix, from “Elohim,” means “of God” and is common among many names of Hebrew origin such as Micha-el, Gabri-el, Dani-el, and so on. Krypton itself is an older and more sophisticated civilization (when contrasted with the New World of earth/America) that is also more sclerotic, more corrupt, and on the verge of catastrophe — in other worlds, an analogue of the Pale that formed the heart of the Ashkenazi Jewish world. Superman’s chief psychological issue, after all, is survivor’s guilt. Not to mention that the world’s first superhero was Samson from the Book of Judges.
Then Superman lands in Kansas, quite literally as an illegal alien, without a shred of the proper documentation, and assumes a false identity under a comically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant name — “Clark Kent,” seriously? But of course taking a goy name to avoid anti-Semitism is as proud a Jewish American tradition as Chinese food on Christmas. Bob Kane, the Jewish co-creator of Batman, was really Bob Kahn. Stan Lee, co-creator of the Avengers, Spiderman, and the X-Men, is really Stanley Martin Lieber, son of Romanian Jewish immigrants. Although Superman’s creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel never switched to gentile names.
Superman proceeds to pass racially as a goy. Whereas most superheroes, like Batman, put on their costumes as a disguise so that their true identities won’t be known, Superman is only truly himself when he’s wearing his costume. Clark Kent is the disguise. Surely that is why he doesn’t bother wearing a mask.
In truth, Kansas wasn’t Kansas but Cleveland, Ohio, where Shuster and Siegel grew up, having been born to Jewish parents from the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Ukraine. The destruction of Krypton was not based on the Holocaust, but the European pogroms some decades earlier that Shuster and Siegel’s parents had escaped. When Superman first appeared in the comic books in 1938, the Final Solution had yet to happen.
But did Shuster and Siegel see the Holocaust coming even in 1938? Presumably not. It is only tragic that history would come to realize their vision of the destruction of Krypton, or the Pale, so thoroughly. But they named their hero in reference to the Nietzschean idea of the Übermensch, which the Nazis had coopted. And they made a statement in their imagination — that great mirror of our conscience — that the true Übermensch, a Jewish refugee with the might of Samson and a melancholy longing for the loved and lost, would stand for not only truth and justice, but also, because he was an immigrant, the American way.
After Pearl Harbor, a comic book editor contrived a way for Superman NOT to enlist in the U.S. Army, because otherwise within the illustrated pages the war would be over “in a wink.” The real war would take much longer. Neither did Superman knock down Auschwitz or Treblinka. Indeed he was as powerless to save European Jewry as he was to save Krypton, as he is powerless today to save Syrian refugees. Because in the end he is only a reflection of moral ideas. And only we, not fictional heroes, can act on those ideas.
For more, read articles on Superman's Judaism in the Daily Beast and the New Yorker.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."