Eddy Portnoy on Harry Brod’s Superman is Jewish? How Comic Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way
Efn a zeml un aroys shpringt a yid is a Yiddish expression that conveys that no matter where you go, you’ll find a Jew. While that may or may not be true, some people actively seek Jews out, whether they exist or not.
Many Jews enjoy discovering that some actor, musician, or writer is Jewish and like the idea that they are somehow culturally or even genetically connected to a famous person. While this exercise in low-level nationalism is mostly harmless, it can become more problematic when those who aren’t Jewish become so by dint of credulous Jewish minds. Take, for example, the case of the cartoonist, Robert Crumb, who earned an entry in the most recent edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. Although he’s married to a Jew, he isn’t himself Jewish. Yet he sits for eternity on the pages of an encyclopedia that insists he is.
This kind of projection — the desire to make people Jewish — is an interesting, if strange, cultural phenomenon. Because Jewish identities draw upon culture, nationality, religion, and genetics (or some combination thereof), it becomes easier to ascribe Jewishness to anyone perceived to fit the mold. The Jewish field has widened exponentially. Sounds Jewish? Looks Jewish? Seems Jewish? Do whatever works to increase the roster of fabulous Jews.
This concept extends even to fictional characters. One may recall the Vulcan character, Mr. Spock, from Star Trek. Played by a Jewish actor, Leonard Nimoy, Spock was intelligent, logical, and thoughtful, but the Jewish clincher was that he used the symbolic hand gesture of the Kohanim, the priestly tribe. As a result, Vulcans became Jews to some Jewish viewers. Perhaps Litvaks because of their excessively logical nature, but they were Jews nonetheless.
This idea is central to Harry Brod’s new book, Superman is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way. Building on the conceit of the title, it is ostensibly about the purported Jewishness of Superman, although only the first few chapters consider the issue. The remaining chapters are a meandering trip through a few select examples of Jewish art and graphic novels, ranging from Marc Chagall to Maus, written by someone who is very excited about the genre and eager to educate you about it.
But Brod’s excitement and ambition quickly overwhelm him. His introduction informs us that he plans to liken the history of superheroes to the history of Jewish assimilation in America and to connect science fiction with “Jewish modes of thought.” If this was not enough of a tall order, he makes his task all the more difficult by purposely avoiding the entire body of comics scholarship, a genre that has burgeoned into a fertile academic field over the past ten years. The book suffers from inattention to this literature and the lessons it offers on how to read the visual. He claims, for example, that illustrative components like speech balloons and lines indicating movement are “inherently funny,” thus proving the “comic” nature of all comic books. Such visual cues can be humorous, but it depends on context; there is often nothing funny at all about them.
Superman Is Jewish? is well-written and often thoughtful. He manages to ask good questions, realizes Superman isn’t actually Jewish, and interprets the character using a methodology that relies on implicit cultural referencing. Of the work that exists on the issue of Superman’s Jewishness, Brod’s is certainly one of the better. But ultimately it’s a Fortress of Solitude built on sand.
One may broach the obvious question as to why we need to see a character like Superman as Jewish? Brod responds in a terribly awkward way:
Jews as a people lost a precious bridge to their history in the Holocaust, and many of the traditions and characteristics of Jewish culture have been lost, either in their entirety, or in being recognized as Jewish. It is the aim of this book to see that the stories of Superman and other comic book superheroes not be similarly lost as they are assimilated into mainstream culture. This is an exercise in reclamation.
A thousand years of European Jewish culture is comparable to the juvenile fantasies of two kids from Cleveland? “Jewish” superheroes being assimilated into mainstream culture (huh?) is a Holocaust?
The clumsiness of such assertions notwithstanding, Brod still has an argument to make, and it’s one that has been swirling around in Jewish popular culture for years. In its most basic form it holds that the Jewishness of Superman’s creators — Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — influenced how they imagined their main character. Superman must have Jewish characteristics. Add a bit of Jewish credulity and it’s almost plausible.
Brod relies on Jules Feiffer’s essay, “The Minsk Theory of Krypton,” which suggested that “Superman was the ultimate assimilationist fantasy” and that “only a Jew could come up with the story because it was, in fact, a Jewish story.” The problem with the “assimilation” argument — that Siegel and Shuster were trying to assimilate into gentile society through the character they created — is that, although Siegel and Shuster were social misfits who didn’t fit into their Cleveland high school, their fellow students who socially excluded them were mostly Jews. They were not motivated by a desire to sublimate their Jewishness (as the Minsk Theory holds) but by a desire to fit in wherever they could, in any society that would have them, Jewish or Gentile. The superhero they created was their juvenile fantasy, saving hapless victims and beating up bullies. That Jews were often historical victims isn’t particularly relevant to Siegel and Shuster’s own victimhood: their social haplessness occurred within a mostly Jewish world.
Brod quotes Jerry Siegel as saying:
As a high school student, I thought that someday I might become a newspaper reporter and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. It occurred to me: What if I was real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me.
Based on this quote, Brod projects Jerry Siegel’s high school fantasy onto all Jews, the “classic Jewish nebbish,” he calls them, as if every Jew had this very issue. The problem is that the issue is specific to Siegel and Shuster and universal to every high school dork in America. It’s not a Jewish matter at all.
Brod also makes the preposterous claim that Clark Kent is “essentially how the anti-Semitic world sees Jewish men.” He “is a gendered stereotype of Jewish inferiority. Superman exists to counter the notion that strength or manliness and Jewishness are incompatible.” Anti-Semitism typically portrays Jewish men as greedy and rapacious, often with grotesque physical features. Clark Kent is a clean-cut, well-meaning, good-natured doofus. It’s quite a leap over a tall building with a single bound to make Clark Kent the poster boy for anti-Semitism. A simpler explanation works much better. Clark Kent is Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s glorified perception of their everyday selves: nerdy high school journalists unable to get girls and wishing they had alter egos with superpowers. It’s probably not such an unusual wish for any kid in that situation.
There are further aspects of the Superman story that resonate with those in search of a circumcised Superman, and Brod argues them with gusto. As a baby Superman was placed in a vessel and sent to earth as his parents’ planet was destroyed, a story he claims echoes the Moses in the bullrushes narrative. But it can also echo the Christian theme that God sent his only son to earth to save humanity. So which is it? There is no discussion.
There’s also Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, which Brod (and numerous others) parse as “voice of God” in Hebrew. Kal means “light” or “easy” in Hebrew, not “voice.” The name also appears to have been a variation on Jor-El, originally the name of a space detective from a 1937 Siegel and Shuster strip entitled, “Federal Men of Tomorrow,” a work that preceded the publication of Superman by more than a year. The two authors likely killed the space detective character and subsequently reused Jor-El as the name of Superman’s father. The name is probably some variant of the first and last letters of “Jerome Siegel,” his creator. And what of Superman’s mother, Lora of Krypton? Lora means “not bad” in Hebrew. None of the “Superman is Jewish” proponents ever bothers to comment.
Brod never discusses the Jewishness of Siegel and Shuster. We don’t know what kind of Jewish educations they received, whether they grew up in traditional homes, or if they knew any Jewish languages. These, it would seem, would be key components in helping to determine any alleged Jewish influence on their characters. Just what did they know of Jewish culture and were they even remotely interested in it? We simply do not know after reading this account.
In an attempt to ground Superman in Jewish lore, Brod claims that Siegel and Shuster drew on the tradition of the Golem. This is also highly unlikely. Though he provides a respectable history of the Golem character, he offers nothing on its cultural role in contemporary Jewish life. It might have been worth knowing that it was relatively common to refer to an idiot as a leymener goylem (a clay golem) in Yiddish, an insult. Considering the brainless nature of the golem, it’s unlikely that Siegel and Shuster used it as a model. Superman was not a Golem but a thinking, moral character.
A product of science fiction and adventure pulp fiction combined with severe high school angst, looking for Superman’s origins in Jewish sources is wishful thinking. That so much ink has been spilled trying to Judaize Superman is, perhaps, a more curious topic than the idea that he was Jewish in the first place.
Siegel and Shuster developed a product with mass appeal, one that has had a tremendous shelf life. Their character endured despite their primitive art and simplistic scripts. Siegel and Shuster may have been innovators, but they weren’t geniuses. They don’t seem to have been very bright at all. Both flunked grades in high school, both went out with high school girls when they were in their twenties, and both foolishly sold the rights to their super product for a grand total of $130. Though their creation launched a billion dollar genre, they died in poverty. Their story is actually tragic, an irony for an allegedly Jewish success story.
But Brod is intent on telling a “Jewish” story, and though the bulk of his “superheroes are Jewish” argument is spent on Superman, he also enlists Spiderman (Batman, he claims, is a super-gentile) to his cause. Spiderman, he argues is “a post-Holocaust American Jew, and the guilt that plagues and motivates him is a specific post-Holocaust American Jewish guilt. It is a guilt about not having done enough to save one’s people, about having passively stood by in the face of the crime and having let it happen.” This seems like a bad case of Jewish overthink.
After claiming Spiderman for the Jewish people, Brod’s book begins to lose its focus. It moves on from the Judaization of superheroes and becomes a passable, though selective overview of Jewish-themed graphic novels and comics that have appeared since the late 1970s, some of which he discusses at length and others he simply mentions in passing. There is no earlier indication that the book will consider anything but the notion that superheroes are Jewish, but faced with a shortage of clear examples from the Golden Age of comics, he heads in the direction of more recent product from the world of graphic novels. As with the first half, there are errors of co- and omission in this half as well. The overview is decent enough, but reading the works themselves would be far more gratifying than reading Brod’s summaries and brief analyses.
“Look! Up In the sky! It’s a champion of the oppressed! It’s a messianic liberator! Yes, it’s the Jewish imagination in flight” are the glib final lines with which Brod closes the book. Superman Is Jewish? is symptomatic of an ongoing and particularistic American-Jewish search for cultural avatars. As it is, the “Jewish imagination” has produced enough of significance without having to stake claim to things it didn’t. Yes, Superman was created by Jews. But that hardly makes him Jewish.