Superman: From Cleveland to Krypton

The Man of Steel's Jewish roots.

Print this page Print this page

In a brilliant stroke, Shuster and Siegel gave their superhuman hero a secret identity, that of an all-too human reporter, the meekly-mannered Clark Kent. Practically speaking, this notion of "double identity" allowed for almost endless storyline twists and thematic depth. On another level, it added considerably to the "mythology" that would eventually accrue around this fictional crime fighter. Clark's shyness undermines his courtship of his co-worker, the gutsy Lois Lane. Siegel and Shuster later admitted that the shy Clark struggling for a date reflected their own social challenges.

Superman #1 was published in the summer of 1939. Across the Atlantic, in Germany, Adolph Hitler was exploiting his nation's economic and social ills by scapegoating Jews. Living in a country that had stripped them of their citizenship yet perversely obstructed their exit, German Jews resorted to desperate measures. Just as the baby Superman was sent away from Krypton to avoid the mass destruction of his people, many Jewish children were sent on the Kindertransports to seek safety with families in England.

After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America entered World War II, and so did Superman. In Siegel and Shuster's comic, Clark Kent tries to enlist in the Armed Forces, but he fails the routine medical examination,. Clark accidentally uses his X-ray vision to read the next room's eye chart. Distraught, he muses, "I've got the most perfect body the world has ever known, and through a sad trick of fate, the army turns me down as hopeless!" This feeling of desperation and despondency was felt across the country. As news of the Nazis' murderous Holocaust plan emerged, American Jews felt utterly powerless to help their European brethren.

Word of Superman and his ethnic undertones did not escape the enemy's notice in real life. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, denounced Superman as a Jew. In April 1940, Das Schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the Nazi S.S., attacked the comic and its Jewish writers:

"Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York. . . The inventive Israelite named this pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind "Superman.."

Here were Nazis wringing their hands over a cartoon character cooked up by a couple of boys across the sea. Yet this ideologically driven rant actually touched on something vital--the importance of Shuster and Siegel's Jewish heritage.

Superman #1 begins with a brief synopsis of the hero's escape from Krypton, which draws heavily on Jewish sources. Superman's journey closely reflects the story of Moses. Like the people of Krypton who faced total annihilation, the Israelites of biblical Egypt faced the murder of their male offspring. To ensure her son's survival, Jochebed places Moses in a reed basket and sets him afloat on the Nile. Her desperate decision is clearly echoed by Superman's father, Jor-El, who launches the little rocket ship containing his son into outer space.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Simcha Weinstein

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the founder of the downtown Brooklyn Jewish Student Foundation. Rabbi Simcha is a sought-after television and radio guest, and has been profiled in many publications, including the New York Post, the Jerusalem Post and the Washington Post. He is also the author of Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.