Superman’s Jewish Origins Revealed

by Yelena Gerovich
New American Acculturation Coordinator

Eighty years ago, in 1938, two Jewish childhood friends, the sons of recent European immigrants, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were elated to sell their character Superman to DC Comics for $130. A phenomenon was born. Siegel later reflected when asked about what led him to create Superman: “Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews all around the world… seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden. I had the great urge to help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”

Siegel and Shuster’s parents were among more than two million Jews to arrive in the U.S. from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and 1920s, a spike in immigration that led to an anti-Semitic backlash and Ku Klux Klan rallies during the Prohibition era. Places of employment, colleges, resorts, private schools, and camps - all imposed restrictions and quotas against Jews. Superman channels the experience of many Jews bidding to assimilate in gentile culture, veiling his heritage behind a new suit and Christian name, Clark Kent, but always true to his roots underneath the social camouflage. Superman’s real name, Kal-El, resembles the Hebrew words for “voice” and “vessel.” He was the ultimate foreigner, escaping to America from his intergalactic shtetl and shedding his Jewish name for “Clark Kent. The alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but also a very special one, like Moses. Both babies were rescued by non-Jews and raised in foreign cultures. If most of Superman’s admirers did not recognize his Jewish origins, the Third Reich did. A 1940 article in Das Schwarze Korps, the newspaper of the SS, called Siegel “Siegellack, the “intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York.” The explosion of Krypton conjures up images from the mystical Kabbalah where the divine vessel was shattered and Jews were called on to perform tikkun olam, repairing the vessel and the world. No one did more of that than the Man from Metropolis. There are many parallels in this story to Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. They were not safe at home, considered foreigners for being Jewish. They started a new life in America and made it work despite having the same struggles to adapt as did Clark Kent. And just like Superman, these members of our community have done much to make their new home a better place. The New American Acculturation Program helps make the adaptation process easier for refugees. For more information about the New American Acculturation Program, contact Yelena Gerovich at (203) 387-2424, x321, or email ygerovich@jewishnewhaven.org.