Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jewish Origins of Superman

SOURCE:  "Supermensch!" by Arie Kaplan. Utne Magazine. January-February 2004, pg 93-4.
KEYWORDS:  superman, jewish, messiah, liberation, golem

The idea of Superman occurred to a teenager named Jerry Siegel one hot summer night in 1933.  He was having trouble falling asleep.  While lying in bed, Siegel thought, “If only I could fly…” and began to envision a character who could fly--a character who was stronger, more courageous, more invincible than he could ever be.  Excited, Jerry hurried to his desk and wrote out in comic strip form the first Superman story; early the next morning he rushed over to the home of his artist friend Joe Shuster to share his idea.  Equally inspired, Joe immediately began to draw a prototype of the character.  Thus was a hero born.

Superman actualized the adolescent power fantasies of its creators--two Jewish, Depression-era kids craving a muscle-bound redeemer to liberate them from the social and economic impoverishment of their lives.  [Others have seen a parallel between Superman and the Golem--the legendary creature magically conceived by the rabbi of medieval Prague to defend the community from an invasion by its anti-Semitic enemies]

The Superman narrative is also rich in Jewish symbolism.  He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, “All that is God”) from the planet of Krypton, whose population, a race of brilliant scientists, is decimated.  His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons.  In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports--the evacuation to safety of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain. 

Angst-ridden adolescent comic fans, Jewish and not, shared Siegel and Shuster’s feelings of helplessness and yearned for a super-savior, a favor that was not lost on the comic-book publishers, who responded with a succession of new superhero creations, many created by Jews--Bob Kane gave us Batman in 1940, and a year later, Jack Kirby unleashed Captain America

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