Supermensch!

The Jewish origins of America's favorite superhero


| January / February 2004


The idea of Superman occurred to a teenager named Jerry Siegel one hot summer night in 1933. He was having trouble falling asleep. While lying in bed, Siegel thought, 'If only I could fly . . .' and began to envision a character who could fly -- a character who was stronger, more courageous, more invincible than he could ever be. Excited, Jerry hurried to his desk and wrote out in comic strip form the first Superman story; early the next morning he rushed over to the home of his artist friend Joe Shuster to share his idea. Equally inspired, Joe immediately began to draw a prototype of the character. Thus was a hero born.

Superman actualized the adolescent power fantasies of its creators -- two Jewish, Depression-era kids craving a muscle-bound redeemer to liberate them from the social and economic impoverishment of their lives. And, as author Michael Chabon, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is about two Siegel and Shuster-style cartoonists, notes, there's a parallel between Kavalier and Clay's superhero creations and the Golem -- the legendary creature magically conceived by the rabbi of medieval Prague to defend the community from an invasion by its anti-Semitic enemies. Cartoonist, writer, and comic-book historian Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) also views Superman as a mythic descendant of the Golem and thus a link in the chain of Jewish tradition. '[Jews needed] a hero who could protect us against an almost invincible force,' Eisner says. 'So [Siegel and Shuster] created an invincible hero.'

The Superman narrative is also rich in Jewish symbolism. He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, 'All that is God') from the planet Krypton, whose population, a race of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh's decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons. In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports -- the evacuation to safety of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain.

Angst-ridden adolescent comic fans, Jewish and not, shared Siegel and Shuster's feelings of helplessness and yearned for a super-savior, a fact that was not lost on the comic-book publishers, who responded with a succession of new superhero creations, many created by Jews -- Wonder Man was created in 1939 by Will Eisner, Bob Kane gave us Batman in 1940, and a year later, Jack Kirby unleashed Captain America (fighting no less than Hitler on the debut issue's cover).

The rest, as they say, is history. Superman became the first comic-book character to cross over to virtually every medium -- novels (George Lowther's The Adventures of Superman, illustrated by Joe Shuster and published in 1942, featured the first comic-book hero to appear in a novel), radio plays, television programs (including the current WB hit drama Smallville, a postmodern look at Superman's early life in quintessential small-town America), theater (Harold Prince's 1966 Broadway musical It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman), feature films, movie serials, animated short subjects, newspaper comic strips, Internet comics, even popular music (in the rapper Eminem's 2002 song titled 'Superman,' he compares himself to the Man of Steel).

From Reform Judaism (Fall 2003), 'the world's largest circulated Jewish magazine' and the official publication of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation, which serves more than 900 reform synagogues in North America. Subscriptions: $48/yr. (4 issues) from 633 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017; http://uahc.org/rjmag/