The Conspiracy

The Forgotten Jewishness of Superman

Originally published in Ha’am.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No… it’s bubkes.

As one of the (evidently) few who flocked to theaters to watch the new “Justice League” movie — shout out if you’re one of us — I couldn’t help but view it as a mildly enjoyable bundle of missed opportunities. If you’re not among those who have seen the movie, rest assured, this article is “Justice League” spoiler-free.

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No… it’s bubkes.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

It got me thinking about previously missed opportunities in the DC Extended Universe, namely Superman’s lost origin. No, I’m not talking about the Boy Scouts Kryptonian, who struggles to fit in on the not-so-mean streets of Smallville.

I’m not referring to Superman himself — I’m referring to the idea of Superman. The conception of this legend, like a surprising number of success stories, can be traced back to two Jewish boys in New York.

Superman’s culturally Jewish origin is not often explicitly addressed in his depictions, but the blatant disregard was especially evident in Zack Snyder’s recent films, namely “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs. Superman.” The films are flooded with Christian imagery and not-so-subtle direct comparisons between Kal-El and Jesus.

The most obvious allusion is embedded in the overall story arc of self sacrifice and the Superman’s implied impending resurrection at the very end of “Batman vs. Superman.” I mean, sure, this is not the first time that a superhero goes out in a blaze of glory, but the crosses that show up in almost every single frame following Superman’s death make it difficult to ignore the parallel. The allusion to Christianity was, from the outset of the film making process, intended. Concept art produced by Vance Kovacs during pre-production of “Batman vs. Superman” is overtly inspired by famous Christian pieces, most notably “The Descent From the Cross.” (It’s pretty interesting, I encourage you to look it up).

There’s a practically infinite number of related motifs sprinkled generously throughout the films. So numerous, in fact, that it’s sort of difficult to decide which ones are worthy of pointing out. Here’s a rather conspicuous favorite: A frame of Superman side by side with Jesus, consulting a priest on whether or not he should sacrifice his own life to save the human race. The impending alien invasion aspect is just for added flavor.

I happen to be particularly fond of it because our friend Kal-El looks about as confused as I feel.

I mean, hey, I get it. What better way to make your story seem epic than to tie it back to the world’s mostly widely recognizable epic story? With all due respect, I believe the real craft is to create a truly meaningful story without slapping down the “religion card” and calling it a day.

It’s no coincidence that Superman’s running values of “truth, justice and the American way” echo Mishnaic ideas of “truth, peace and justice,” as pointed out by Larry Tye in his book, “Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.”

There’s a significant amount of literature that explores Superman’s Jewish beginnings, namely Rabbi Simcha Weinstein’s book, “Up Up and Oy Vey,” which, to this day, is one of my all time favorite Jewish puns.

Creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were both children of Jewish immigrants, who grew up in a period of rising anti-semitism brought on by the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and by the KKK in the US.

Siegel once said, “Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany…How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”

There is nothing to suggest that Superman himself is Jewish, but he is an idea that emerged as a direct response to a uniquely Jewish struggle. He is a symbol of Jewish resistance to oppression.

I know better than to toss around controversial phrases like cultural appropriation (That’s right. I went there… please don’t hurt me). I will say, that erasure of that origin, while not directly harmful, is a disheartening loss and a misrepresentation of history.

Bottom line is, Zack, my friend, if you’re reading this, bring back the Mensch of Steel.

Ronnie Cohen is a senior studying English at UCLA.

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