Superman may not look Jewish, but there are lots of...

Superman may not look Jewish, but there are lots of clues suggesting he may be. Credit: Joe Rocco

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 only belong to a gentile. His social circle didn't give it away either: Lois Lane, George Taylor, and even Lex Luthor were, like him, more Midwest mainstream than East Coast ethnic. The surest sign that Clark was no Semite came when the bespectacled everyman donned royal blue tights and a furling red cape to transform into a Superman. 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 the root of the Hebrew words for voice and vessel. Together they suggest that the superbaby rocketed to Earth by his dying father 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 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 -- Moses by pharaoh's daughter, Kal-El by Kansas farmers named Kent -- and the adoptive parents quickly learned how exceptional their foundlings were. The narrative of Krypton's death borrowed the language of Genesis. Kal-El's escape to Earth was the story of Exodus.

Clues mount from there. The three legs of the Superman myth -- Truth, Justice and the American Way -- are straight out of the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish oral traditions. "The world," it reads, "endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace." The destruction of Kal-El's planet and people rings of the Nazi Holocaust that was brewing in 1938 when Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- both of whom grew up in Cleveland but would later live on Long Island -- were publishing their first comics. A last rule of thumb: When a name ends in "man," the bearer is Jewish, a superhero, or both.

If most of his admirers did not recognize Superman's Jewish roots, the Third Reich did. A 1940 article in Das Schwarze Korps, the newspaper of the SS, called Jerry Siegel the "intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York." Superman, meanwhile, 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. He was the ultimate foreigner, escaping to America from his intergalactic shtetl and shedding his Jewish name for the WASPish pseudonym Clark Kent, a pseudonym as WASPish as the ones Jerry chose for himself. Clark and Jerry had something else in common: Both were classic schleppers. Clark and Superman lived life the way most Jews did, torn between their Old and New World identities and their mild exteriors and rock-solid cores. That split personality gave the superhero perpetual angst. You can't get more Jewish than that.

So compelling were those bonds that decades later TV's Jerry Seinfeld would refer to Superman as his Jewish brother-in-arms. The Jewish 100, a book about the most influential Jews of all time, listed Jerry and Joe alongside Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Abraham. And Clark chose a career in newspapers that was a popular pick for Jews then and today, although like many reporters of all faiths he recently traded in his print byline for a blog.

Was all this what Jerry and Joe had in mind when they created Superman 75 years ago? Neither was religious or attracted to organized Judaism. Some of Superman's Jewish accents -- spelling his name Kal-El versus Jerry's more streamlined Kal-L -- were added by later writers and editors, the preponderance of whom also were Jewish. But Jerry acknowledged in his memoir that his writing was strongly influenced by anti-Semitism he saw and felt, and that Samson was a role model for Superman.

What Jerry did, as he said repeatedly, was write about his world, which was a neighborhood of Cleveland that was 70 percent Jewish, where theater and newspapers were in Yiddish as well as English, and there were 25 Orthodox shuls to choose from. It was a place and time where every juvenile weakling and wheyface -- and especially Jewish ones, who were more likely to get sand kicked in their face by Adolph Hitler and the bully down the block -- dreamed that someday the world would see them for the superheroes they really were.

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