The Secret Jewish Origins of Wonder Woman

Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta? Don't be fooled by the Greco-Roman names. Wonder Woman has deep roots in Jewish lore

Connie Nielsen (right) and Lilly Aspell as Queen Hippolyta and young Wonder Woman in a scene from the film "Wonder Woman."
Alex Bailey/AP

The latest superhero movie, "Wonder Woman," is cloaked in controversy. Because it stars Gal Gadot, a former Miss Israel and Israel Defense Forces combat trainer, it was banned in Lebanon before its release. The Lebanese urged the Jordanians to do the same. “We remind the Jordanians of their obligation to boycott the film, and we refuse to be partners to the crimes of the Zionists and to increase their profits from this film,” reads a statement from a Jordanian campaign to ban it.

If that wasn’t bad enough, once the film was released, it became the source of debate over Wonder Woman’s “whiteness.” Critics complained of the lack of women of color in the film, especially given the lead character’s Amazonian origins. Others noted that Gadot cannot be considered Caucasian because of her Israeli origins. Backing up the latter argument is the history of Jews, particularly in the West, who neither considered themselves white Europeans nor were considered as such by the white Europeans themselves. Jews sought invisibility and had to earn their “whiteness." It was only begrudgingly bestowed upon them when they had assimilated to the point of no longer being perceived as a threat by mainstream society.

In this May 25, 2017 file photo, Gal Gadot arrives at the world premiere of "Wonder Woman" in Los Angeles.
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File

But all of this misses the point. Superheroes all have a coded Jewish history, whether they were invented by Jews or not. To paraphrase the great American comedian Lenny Bruce: If you’re a superhero, you’re Jewish even if you’re goyish.

Superman was the creation of two American Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who conceived of him as a conceptually Jewish character. Clark Kent is just a cover name, hiding an inner Jewishness. As the novelist Michael Chabon wrote, “only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.” Captain America was also created by two Jews, Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon). They wished to create a new superhero to uphold American values in the face of the Nazi threat. He, too, hid beneath a goysiche name, Steve Rogers.

Wonder Woman fits into this trend. Born Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, she also hides in plain sight under an assumed identity as Diana Prince. Her origin story tells that she was born when her mother, Queen Hippolyta, sculpted her from clay. She became animate when Aphrodite breathed life into her, and the Greek gods gave her superhuman powers.

But don’t be fooled by these Greco-Roman names. Wonder Woman’s origins have deeper roots in Jewish lore. She, like many other superheroes, is a contemporary reincarnation of the famous legend of the golem, a humanoid sculpted from clay and animated to do the bidding of the Maharal of Prague.

Wonder Woman, created by American psychologist William Moulton Marston, may not have had a Jewish formation, but she was given her start by Jewish comics entrepreneur Max Gaines (née Ginzberg). She is part of a wider pattern in which Jewish comic book writers and artists created all-American superheroes masking Jewish interiors, of which Superman may be the greatest example. No amount of makeover can erase these characters' underlying Jewishness.

Gal Gadot in a scene from "Wonder Woman" in theaters on June 2.
Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

And like Superman and Captain America, Wonder Woman, who was created during World War II, was also enlisted in the fight against Nazism.

She was conceived as a feminist icon, predating and anticipating the feminist movement of the 1960s, which had its watershed moment with the publication of Jewish writer Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" (1963). Activist Gloria Steinam, who had a Jewish father, put Wonder Woman on the first cover of the feminist "Ms. Magazine" in 1971 and Jewish artist Dara Birnbaum created a Wonder Woman-inspired video installation around 1979.

Wonder Woman is highly ethical. She seeks to heal a fractured world, known in Judaism as tikkun olam. She adheres to a code of decency, known in Yiddish as mentshlekhkeyt. Wonder Woman is a fine, upstanding and honorable human being, an exemplar of social justice.

So now we have come full circle. From gentile origins, Wonder Woman is finally outed as Jewish. Played by a Israeli woman, her inner Jewishness is rendered explicit. Wonder Woman is surely an example of an Eshet Chayil, a “woman of valor,” or in other words, a tough Jewess with attitude.