As we finish this patriotic weekend and those last few souls who haven’t seen Man of Steel do their moviegoing duty, I would like to consider that tricky component of Superman’s identity: his Jewishness.
But he’s not Jewish! Or so you cry, my easily flustered reader. No, Superman is not explicitly Jewish, in this most recent or any other vaguely canonical representation. But he is an outsider to the Anglo culture in which he lives, and thus may qualify for comics’ Jewish-but-not-Jewish category (see the skinny, wise-cracking, guilt-ridden, Queens native Peter Parker, also not Jewish). In case you’re unfamiliar, the basic notion of the category is this; Jewish comics writers wrote from their experience to give characters personality, but shaved off explicit references to Jewishness so as not to unsettle their primarily gentile audience.
As a creation of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel
, it may not surprise us that Superman’s origin apes that of Moses and he sports unusually dark hair for an übermensch. Specifically, he embodies the young Jewish American immigrant experience of the early Twentieth Century, in which children had a birth name from the old world (“Kal El”) even though they generally went by their American name (“Clark Kent”) and had little or no memory of the old country. Superman is a child of diaspora, complete with dual identity and a conflicted relationship with the culture in which he lives.
If you’re a Jewish super hero fan (and who isn’t?), it probably gave you some pleasure to see this rendition of the Man of Steel expressed in Zac Snyder’s “Man of Steel.” Clark Kent via Henry Cavill gets bullied in school, loves his country and sometimes wants to kill people. It’s rich and relatable characterization, and stands in contrast to the un-Semitic version of the character expressed elsewhere. Sometimes, the story of the strong but mistreated minority is ditched in favor of a confident, visionary man who always know what’s right even when others don’t. This version can ring of the Great Men theory of history, in which confident white fellows always know what’s best, their only burden being their sense of responsibility for all the lesser beings whom they pity. It’s Superman as the Big Blue Boy Scout, and every time someone says it’s outdated, that person is right.
Here’s hoping for more Jewish Superman movies. L’chaim!