Supermensch!

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/

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