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. His social circle didn’t give it away either: Lois Lane and even Lex Luthor were, like him, more Midwest mainstream than East Coast ethnic. The surest sign that Clark Kent was no Semite came when the bespectacled everyman donned royal blue tights and a furling red cape to transform into a Superman with rippling muscles and magnifying superpowers. 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 Dani-el. It means God. Kal is the root of the Hebrew words forvoice 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 Egypt’s Pharaoh, 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 — and the adoptive parents quickly learned how exceptional their foundlings were .
Clues mounted 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 rings of the Holocaust that was brewing in 1938 when Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster 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 inDas Schwarze Korps,
the newspaper of the SS, called Jerry Siegel “Siegellack,” 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.”
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 Clark Kent. Clark and Superman lived life the way most newly arrived Jews did, torn between their Old and New World identities and their mild exteriors and rock-solid cores. That split personality gave him perpetual angst. You can’t get more Jewish than that.
Was all this what Jerry and Joe had in mind when they created Superman precisely 75 years ago? Neither was 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. But Jerry acknowledged in his unpublished memoir that his writing was strongly influenced by anti-Semitism he saw and felt, and that Samson was a 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 theaters and newspapers were in Yiddish as well as English, and there were 25 Orthodox shuls. 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 Adolf Hitler and the bully down the block — dreamed that someday the world would see them for the superhero they really were.