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The Superhero: Jewish Origins, Universal Appeal

June 23, 2019

Growing up as a kid in the 1950s and early 60s, I read a lot of superhero comic books. I even read the Letters pages, where readers sent comments and questions about the various characters. Some readers seemed to think of the superheroes as real people. I remember one reader wrote and asked if Superman believed in God. The editor answered Yes, Superman indeed believes in God. I was glad to learn that the Man of Steel was not an atheist.

     As a kid I knew very little about God, and virtually nothing about Jews and Judaism. In later years I learned that nearly all of the most popular superheroes were created by Jews, and that Jewish themes were often woven into many of the stories.

     I also learned about the original mythical Jewish superhero, the Golem. The legend of the Golem took place in 16th-century Prague. To defend the persecuted Jews, Rabbi Judah Loew created a giant out of clay. He inscribed the Hebrew letters Aleph, Mem, and Tav on the figure's forehead and used kabbalistic magic to bring the form to life. The mute, super-powered Golem would beat the tar out of anti-Semitic mobs. The persecution of Prague's Jews eventually let up. Rabbi Loew then returned the Golem to lifeless clay by removing the Aleph, leaving only the Mem and Tav, the root letters for "death."

     It is easy to see how this 16th-century fictional Jewish story of the Golem was the inspiration for Jews to create fictional superheroes in the 20th century, when not just the Jews but the entire free world was threatened by Nazis and Communists.

    Superman made his first public appearance in 1938. Superman was the creation of two Jewish boys from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The saga of Superman's origins parallels the story of Moses. The people of the planet Krypton are in danger of annihilation, like the Hebrews in Egypt. The Kryptonians' threat does not come from an evil Pharaoh, but from an impending explosion which will soon blast their planet to smithereens. Scientist Jor-El and his wife prepare a small rocket to send their infant son Kal-El to the planet Earth, in the hope that he might survive--just like Moses' mother prepared a small vessel to send her son down the Nile in the hope that he might be spared. And just as Moses was rescued, named, and raised by Pharaoh's daughter, so the infant Kal-El is rescued, named, and raised by Ma and Pa Kent. Both Moses and Kal-El are raised by foster parents in a foreign culture, and both grow up to be mighty deliverers.

     Superman's secret identity as the shy, stuttering Clark Kent also has its parallel to Moses. At the burning bush, Moses presents himself as an incompetent who is "slow of speech, and of a slow tongue." In Egypt, no one recognized Moses as the deliverer, and in Metropolis, no one recognizes Clark Kent as Superman.

      Those who know a little Hebrew will notice the -El endings on the Kryptonian names Jor-El and Kal-El. El (a short form of Elohim) is the Hebrew word for "God." Is Superman Jewish? This question was discussed in a 2005 BBC radio debate. Long before that, Josef Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda, accused Superman of being a Jew.

      In a 2006 comic book, Superman goes to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a kippah-wearing Jewish reporter. So maybe Superman is Jewish. But the Jew has to use grape juice instead of wine, because Superman never drinks wine. So maybe Superman isn't Jewish after all.    

     Batman made his debut in 1930, when Jews were being killed in Europe. The dark, violent streets of Batman's Gotham City were perhaps inspired by the Gothic architecture of Europe. Batman appears to be a non-Jew (given the Crusaders' treatment of Jews, it's unlikely that a Jew would call himself a "caped crusader"), but Batman was created by two Jews, Bob Kane (born Kahn) and Bill Finger.

       A 1992 op-ed in the New York Times called the film Batman Returns anti-Semitic, because Batman's foe, the Penguin, looks like the stereotype of a Jew: "his hooked nose, pale face, and lust for herring." A young girl wrote a great response: "It made me very surprised when they said the Penguin had to be Jewish because of his nose and fondness for herring. For Pete's sake, he's a penguin, give him a break."

      Captain America is another superhero created by another Jewish duo, Jack

Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon. Captain America received his powers in 1941 after being injected with "Secret-Soldier Serum" by Dr. Reinstein. (Notice the similarity to Einstein.) Although the star on Captain America's chest is not yellow, he began wearing it at the same time when Jews were being forced to wear the yellow star in Europe.

     The "A" on his forehead stands for "America," of course. But it is interesting that "A" also corresponds to Aleph, the letter which was needed on the Golem's forehead to bring it to life. It's also interesting that the cover of the very first issue of Captain America shows our superhero delivering a powerful punch to Hitler, the ultimate anti-Semite, and knocking him to the ground--just like the Golem did to the anti-Semites in Europe 400 years earlier.           

      The most Golem-like of all the superheroes is the Incredible Hulk, who was created by another Jew, Stan Lee (born Lieber). (Lee also created the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Spider-Man.) The Hulk was originally gray--like the clay used to make the Golem--but printers had trouble keeping the Hulk a consistent shade, so he was changed to green.

     The Hulk seems to perhaps have been inspired by a combination of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (a story that illustrates the Jewish concept of man's yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (a novel that was inspired by the legend of the Golem.) In a 1970 story, "In the Shadow of the Golem," the Hulk is mistaken for the Golem by a little Jewish girl in a fictitious European country. The Jews persuade the Hulk to be their golem and save them from their Nazi-like enemies. After the Hulk helps the Jews, he walks away muttering, "Golem! Wonder, what is a golem?"

      Another Golem-like superhero is the Thing, the orange, rocky-skinned

member of the Fantastic Four. The Thing was introduced to readers in 1961. In 2002 the Thing finally "came out of the closet" and revealed his Jewish identity when he prayed the Shema during a critical moment. At the end of the story, Powderkeg, the defeated villain, says to the Thing, "You don't look Jewish."

     And he doesn't. So what inspired the non-Jewish writer of that particular story to portray the Thing as a Jew? Two things about the Thing suggested a possible Jewish identity: his original name, Benjamin Jacob Grimm, and his home turf, New York's Lower East Side. But the writer of the story knew for sure that the Thing was a Jew when he saw, hanging above the fireplace of artist Jack Kirby, an unpublished drawing of the Thing "in a full rabbinical uniform with a yarmulke, and so forth."           

      A supervillain who is openly Jewish (but not very observant!) is Magneto, enemy of the X-Men. Magneto is a survivor of Auschwitz and a former Nazi-hunting agent for Israel's Mossad. Through a series of tragedies, Magneto becomes the vengance-seeking enemy of all non-mutant humans. Not a very Jewish way to react to tragedy, but hey, the X-Men needed an arch-enemy.

     Thanks to several hit movies in recent years, Spider-Man is probably one of the most popular superheroes at this time. Spider-Man's secret identity as Peter Parker--a nebbish, guilt-ridden, spectacle-wearing, dark-haired New Yorker from Queens--has led some to speculate that Spider-Man is "crypto-Jewish."

      Stan Lee likens Spider-Man to King David. In an apocryphal legend, young

David meditates on the purposes of all God's creatures, but he can't see a purpose for the spider. God answers, "A day will come when you will need the work of this creature. Then you will thank me." Many years later, David is fleeing from King Saul's soldiers. He hides in a cave, and hears the soldiers rapidly approaching. Then he sees a spider quickly spin a web across the cave's opening. When the soldiers arrive and see the spider web, they assume it has been there for some time, and do not bother to search the cave.

      In the early days of comic books, there were only hints that some superheroes might be Jewish. In more recent years, some superheroes are openly Jewish. In addition to the Thing and Magneto, there is Sabra, a feisty female Israeli superheroine, and Kitty Pryde, a proud Jewish superheroine who lights a yahrzeit candle, quotes from Proverbs, and recites Hebrew blessings.

      Orthodox Jew Alan Oirich, author of The Jewish Hero Corps, has created a line-up of Jewish superheroes who are more Orthodox than the mainstream superheroes. There is Minyan Man, who splits himself into ten (the number of men needed for a minyan). Menorah Man can sprout eight flame-shooting arms. (His secret identity is Earl Chandler, a play on the words oil and chandelier.)

       Oirich's line-up includes female superheroes, all of them dressed

modestly in long, loose-fitting dresses with long sleeves. There is Dreidel Meidel, who spins at super speed like a Hanukkah dreidel. Shabbes Queen has a magic wand that gives her super powers and enables her to fly. The wand doesn't work on the Sabbath, though. Hyper Girl is empowered with hyper energy "after eating matzah accidentally baked with radioactive water in a microwave oven." She also has "microwave vision," whatever that is.

     Fictional superheroes are popular during perilous times, when people need deliverance from evil forces that cannot be defeated by conventional means. The fact that Jews have experienced a lot of peril throughout history probably accounts for the Jewish origins of most fictional superheroes. The origin of the superhero is Jewish, but the appeal of the superhero is universal. All of us, Jew or non-Jew, need someone with supernatural powers to deliver us from evil.

       The popularity of fictional superheroes is a reflection of man's yearning for the one true Superhero, the Messiah. And the dual identity of fictional superheroes is a reflection of the Messiah's dual identity. Just as the citizens of Metropolis have no idea that Clark Kent is really Superman, so most Jews have no idea that Jesus is really their Messiah. And most Christians are clueless about the Jewish identity of their Messiah. They have no idea that Jesus Christ is really the Torah-honoring Rabbi Yeshua, a Jew who expects His disciples to obey the Torah. As a Yiddish proverb says, "The Messiah you are expecting will never come, and the Messiah who is coming, you never expected." May He come soon!

 

| DB

 

Most of the information for this blog post was taken from "Up, Up, and Oy Vey!" by Simcha Weinstein, Leviathan Press, 2006.

 

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Images: United States Postage Stamp Series: Superheroes, purchased by the author.

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