With so much attention being paid to comic books in the movies lately it is interesting to investigate the origins of icons such as Superman from time to time. Many see Superman as a quintessentially American hero but far fewer understand his decidedly Jewish roots. Regardless of whether he is seen as a Jewish-American icon, an American hero or just a comic book character, the Man of Steel definitely stands for something truly American.
Jerry Seigel, who co-created Superman with Joe Shuster, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, and patterned his iconic character, and in fact the world he inhabited, on his own Jewish-American childhood. While Seigel did not grow up fighting super villains or vanquishing evil in dramatic fashion he remembers being the victim of bullies and fearing the likes of Adolf Hitler.
Seigel admits in an unpublished memoir to having patterned the DC comic legend after Samson. He saw his creation, much like the Biblical figure, as a hero for a group of people who had been driven from their homes and forced to make new homes for themselves in another country. There are many clues in the comic itself that point to the Jewish origin of the superhero as well. Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El translates roughly to “Voice of God” in Hebrew and the means by which he arrived on earth, alone in a small spaceship, is a parallel to Moses being floated down the river to in a basket. The destruction of Krypton can even be seen as a symbolic reference to the Nazi Holocaust which was just starting when Seigel and Shuster put the character together.
Superman’s Jewish origins are criticized by some, including Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV and even the Third Reich, but most Americans seem to respect the hero regardless of his roots. This is likely due to the fact that his story has as much in common with all immigrants as it does with the Jewish culture specifically. The majority of Americans can trace their own roots to some foreign land or another and many still feel the tug of competing cultures. If not a competition of new world and old world, there is the competition of work life and personal life. Even beyond that there is often the feeling of an internal hero attempting to break free of the monotony of daily life. All of these conflicts are seen in the pairing of Clark Kent and Superman.
It seems fitting that a superhero with such a momentous impact on the American culture would be an immigrant. That he is a Jewish immigrant may be less impactful depending on individual perspectives. Regardless of who created him or who he was intended to represent it seems clear that most Americans see him as representing an ideal worth cherishing. He stands for “truth, justice and the American way” and there is nothing more American than the American way.
Heroes are important in American life. Whether the hero is a rock legend, a sports superstar or a financial juggernaut Americans love heroes. Having a Jewish American hero in the form of Superman even helps show the heroism of a multi-ethnic community.
By David Morris