Superman, Man of Schlemiel?

Superman, the invention of two U.S. Jews, is a profoundly Jewish character whose film history is entwined with that of American Jewry.

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It’s hard to imagine anyone less Jewish — or more goyish — than Superman. One could point to his white-bread name, his Midwestern origins, his hypermasculine physique, his feats of strength and his overall Man of Steel status. Yet Superman was the creation of two American Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who envisioned him as a conceptually Jewish character.

Clark Kent is just a cover name hiding a deep, subsurface Jewishness. As the Jewish novelist Michael Chabon wrote, “only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.” Clark Kent is a kind of empty vessel to hide his birth name: Kal-El, which could translate as either “vessel of God” or “voice of God.” He is the son of Jor-El of the House of El.

To fit into the Jew-free Kansas farm surroundings where he was raised Kal-El changed his name, as so many Jewish immigrants did before and after him. Yet any name that ends with “man,” such as Beckman, Kaufman or Silverman, surely displays some Jewishness. Perhaps that is why the latest film of the franchise is the first one without “Superman” in the title. Some have even argued that in the early 20th century "Kent" was a common Americanization of "Cohen." This would make Superman a member of the Jewish priestly caste. It is even tempting to suggest that his last name derives from the cigarette brand so beloved in Israel.

Outwardly, as Clark Kent, Superman is the classic Yiddish nebbish or schlemiel. He is a refugee alien from a foreign planet. A nerdy, wimpy, bumbling and geeky Jew, he hides behind a pair of oversized glasses of the type so beloved of Jews on screen and of Haredi Jews, a clear signifier of Jewishness if ever there was one. He is unmarried and is awkward with women. His chosen human job – journalist – is clearly a Jewish profession, requiring intellect and Yiddishe kopf, or Jewish brains, rather than relying on physical attributes. Even his goyish first name suggests a desk-bound, Kafkaesque bureaucrat, banging away at his typewriter or stamping documents. He is a city slicker, living in the fictional Metropolis. And his father, Jor-El, is a scientist, no less. If Superman had a brother, no doubt he would be a doctor.

Superman is also a retelling of the Moses story - sent away as an infant from the dying planet Krypton, he is born anew and given superhuman powers because of his exile to earth. Discovered and adopted by a non-Jewish Kansas farmer and his wife, he is raised with a strong ethical and moral compass that he uses for the benefit of humanity as a whole. As Superman he is devoted to tikkun olam, or saving and healing the world. His motto could be that of Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.”

The letter S on his chest, when transliterated into Hebrew, becomes a shin, perhaps signifying one of God’s names. In essence, then, Superman is a human mezuzah. The S may also invoke that Biblical strongman, Samson. Alternatively he is a living golem, substituting A (or Aleph – Captain America got that honor) for S (or Shin).

The Superman film franchise has also long benefited from Jewish creative input. Jews were largely responsible for choreographing Superman’s transition and transformation from the comic book page to the screen, where he became of the most iconic figures in Western popular culture.

The director of the first film, from 1978, was Richard Donner (who directed "The Omen" in 1976). It was written by the comic's creators, Siegel and Shuster, who went on to write "Superman II" in 1980 (and who shared writing credits for "Superman III"). Richard Lester, a British Jew, directed, and did such a good job he was given "Superman III" (1983). "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987) was directed by Sidney J. Furie and written by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal. "Superman Returns" (2006) was directed by Bryan Singer.

The current "Man of Steel" (2013) was written by David S. Goyer, who wrote and directed the Holocaust horror film "The Unborn" (2009). Richard Schiff, perhaps best known for portraying the explicitly Jewish character Toby Ziegler on "The West Wing" from 1999 to 2006, is Dr. Emil Hamilton.

Russell Crowe, who stars as Jor-El, is not Jewish but in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" (2007) he was Richie Roberts, a tough Jewish police detective from New Jersey. Finally, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer plays Lara Lor-Van. Zurer was previously seen on the big screen in the United States as Daphna, the wife of Jewish Mossad agent Avner, in “Munich” (Steven Spielberg, 2005). Superman himself is played by Henry Cavill, who coincidentally was runner-up to Daniel Craig for the role of James Bond in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale. In a previous column I argued that Bond can be read as Jewish wish-fulfillment, just like Superman.

Finally, "Man of Steel" was released by what was arguably the most-Jewish major Hollywood studio at the time of Superman's initial appearance, in 1938.

Warner Brothers, founded by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, stood out for its principled, fiercely anti-Nazi stance – "the only studio with any guts," according to Groucho Marx. It severed relations with Nazi Germany in 1933 and took part in a variety of anti-Nazi measures, culminating in its release of "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" in 1939. In the July-August 1942 issue of the comic, Superman is shown holding Hitler by the scruff of his neck and giving him a good shake.

Clark Kent masks an inward superhero, the tough Jew who can fight back. Yet in the transition from page to screen Superman remains free of any explicitly Jewish content. As his (Hebrew?) birth name suggests, he is an empty vessel into which many groups’ fantasies can be injected, standing as an iconic Jewish hero or a Christ-like savior.

Henry Cavill as Superman in 'Man of Steel.' Devoted to tikkun olam.Credit: Warner Bros.

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