Superman is a lot of things; superhero, crimefighter, savior, friend, cousin, husband and, most recently, a father. First and foremost, though, Superman is Jewish. We may never see the Man of Steel read from the Torah or celebrate Purim, but the foundations the character was built on were profoundly Judaic. Now, with Brian Michael Bendis recently announced as the new architect of the Superman franchise, he’s heralding a return to Superman’s Jewish roots.
By now, we all know Superman was created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland, but not as many people understand just how vital that fact is to the foundation on which the character was built. Growing up in a Jewish community in the 1930s meant that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were intimately aware of Jewish social ideas and the themes in Jewish lore from the Old Testament. It makes sense that they would then use these ideas to craft their own stories.
A Jewish reading of Superman finds many similarities between his flight from Krypton and the story of Moses from the Book of Exodus. When Pharaoh ordered the execution of newborn Hebrew boys, Moses was sent down the Nile in a basket in order to spare him from the genocide. He was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a member of the court, like he was one of their own. Similarly, Superman was sent from a dying world in a spaceship and adopted by a loving family on Earth.
Even his name, Kal-El, is believed to derive from Hebrew. The Hebrew world El is one of the many names for the Abrahamic god within Judaism. It is also considered to mean ‘of god’ when used as a suffix, which would mean Siegel and Shuster used the same naming convention traditionally used on god’s group of archangels — Michael, Gabriel, Ariel and the like. Considering these entities were humanoid agents of god with superpower, it’s no small stretch to suggest that Superman was thematically intended to be a Judaic angel come to Earth.
More importantly, Superman’s sense of social justice that appeared in the character’s first appearances were likely informed by Siegel and Shuster’s upbringings. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, Superman was nothing like the character who would one day be synonymized with the American Way. In the early days, Superman was violent, angry, and unafraid to stick up for the disenfranchised. He fought corrupt businessmen and saved women from their abusive husbands.
His actions in these stories were certainly influenced by the Great Depression and the liberal idealism that was primed to get the country out of it. He represented the core beliefs of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but it was also profoundly Jewish teachings that powered him. In a sense, Siegel and Shuster created Superman to be the ultimate mensch, a term in Jewish society used to refer to a person who represents the community’s ideals of integrity and honor.
It is fitting, then, to see Bendis, another Jew who grew up in Cleveland, take hold of the character 1,000 issues later and rediscover where he came from. In his interview with Forbes to announce his run, Bendis referred to himself as “A little Jewish boy from Cleveland, and my connection to Superman is very, very deep, genetically.” By harnessing the ideals that created him, perhaps we can finally see a revival of what Superman was originally envisioned to be, while also preserving his recent rebirth as a dorky dad.
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