It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a Jewish superhero whose founder used his experiences with anti-Semitism to create him? Superman represents different things to different people, but one aspect of his origin story is indisputable: The Jewish roots of his creator, Jerry Siegel, played heavily in Superman’s backstory.
Jerry Siegel was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, the youngest of six children to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Although their town was over 70% Jewish, the Siegels experienced considerable anti-Semitism. In an unpublished memoir unearthed in 2012, Siegel wrote that in 1920s America, any perceived “weaklings” — especially Jewish ones — were targets for neighborhood bullies. He would often dream that the world would someday see them for the superheroes they truly were.
In 1938 Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster’s “Superman” began appearing in comic books. Superman is born as a baby named “Kal-El” on the planet Krypton, an advanced world on the verge of destruction. His father places the infant Kal-El on a spaceship that whisks the boy to safety on Earth. There, Kal-El is discovered and adopted by an all-American family, renamed “Clark Kent,” and raised to secretly use his superhuman powers for good. Strong, brave Superman cleverly hides his superhero identity by giving Clark Kent a timid, polite persona. No one, not even love interest Lois Lane, has any idea that Superman and meek Clark could possibly be contained within the same person.
It’s not hard to see Moses references in Superman’s story. Both were saved from imminent death by a parent, with Moses tucked into a reed basket and set floating down the Nile, and Superman into a space capsule for an intergalactic escape. In addition, Superman’s name, “Kal-El,” sounds distinctly Hebrew, and has has been translated as either “voice of G-d” or “vessel of G-d.” Either way, it would fit right in alongside other Biblical names like Samu-El, Emanu-El or Isra-El.
Siegel’s recently-discovered memoirs have put to rest any debate about the character’s connection to Judaism, describing how Siegel’s life experience shaped Superman’s identity. Like the character, Siegel’s family had escaped the dangers of the old country, a place where they could never again return, finding safety and hope for reinvention in America. But in this new world, they still carried the vestiges of the old — their Jewish faith — and as a result, didn’t quite fit in. Torn between two strong identities, that of Jewishness and the pull of American assimilation, Siegel assigned Superman/Clark Kent a split personality. Each persona retained the best qualities of the world from which he emerged, though maintaining that outward balance often required plenty of inner struggle. You can’t get much more Jewish than that!