Why Did We Create Superman? July 5, 2013

On this very day, two hundred thirty seven years ago, the residents of the Thirteen Colonies were learning about the Declaration of Independence adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia just the previous day. In the days before telegraph, news only traveled as fast as horses could gallop and ships could sail. It would take several more days for the Declaration of Independence to reach the outlying areas of the newly independent colonies. One hundred fifty years ago today, residents of Baltimore, Jew and non-Jew, white and black, were rushing to treat the wounded of both the Union and Confederate armies who were pouring into Baltimore on trains from Gettysburg. Many of our doctors and nurses had already made the fifty mile trip, doing what they could for the thousands of wounded on the battlefield. Others volunteered to dig graves for thousands of dead soldiers whose bodies lay on the fields on which they were killed. Last Erev Shabbat, I spoke about the highest ranking Jewish officer from Maryland in the Civil War, General Leopold Blumenberg, a member of Har Sinai, whose brigade took Bloody Lane at the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862, where he was severely wounded. President Lincoln personally rewarded Blumenberg for his valor by appointing him Provost Marshall of the Third District of Maryland in which office he served for the rest of the War.
I have chosen tonight to speak on another patriotic topic in honor of Independence Day, one perhaps less serious but, I think, no less interesting. I was motivated to choose a topic as American as baseball, mom, and apple pie. My sermon title is called, “Why did we create Superman?” I decided that there was nothing more American than the character of Superman who, this year, is celebrating his seventy fifth birthday. Why Superman? Superman is the quintessential American hero. He was created by two Jewish teenagers in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. Back then, when radio and movies were the only media, most kids played sports, read, and used their imagination to entertain themselves. Science fiction was the rage. Kids passed around pulp fiction novels and short stories, going through them like candy. Borrowing heavily on their own experience as first generation Americans, children of Yiddish speaking immigrants, growing up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side, Siegel and Shuster dreamed of a world in which they were the tough guys. They were the ones who could defend themselves and others, who could defeat Adolf Hitler and the other enemies of America and the Jews. They were no longer young Jewish nebeshes who ran from trouble, but strong and dominant heroes who looked for trouble. In a time when America did not like its Jews, their hero would be an all American. Siegel, Shuster and every other Jewish kid fantasized about becoming Superman, the Man of Steel. No schmaltz and gribbenes for him. Superman would eat hot dogs, hamburgers, and apple pie with ice cream.
The Forward, the excellent Jewish weekly that stems from this era, published an article a few weeks ago (Forward, June 21, 2013, page 14) detailing the top ten reasons why Superman was Jewish. Allow me to share some of these with you. Like his creators, Superman was an immigrant whose original name was neither Superman nor Clark Kent. On Krypton, his parents called him Kal-El. Of course, we recognize the name El as a biblical Hebrew name for God. Kal is similar to the Hebrew word for “voice” and “vessel.” In order to escape an Egyptian death sentence, Moses’ mother put him in a reed basket to float in the Nile. So, too, did Kal-El’s parents put him into a spaceship to flee from the soon to explode Krypton. Like Moses, Kal-El was rescued and raised by non-Jews, the Kansas farmers Ma and Pa Kent. As Moses found found safety in Midian, so did Kal-El find a refuge in Kansas where his adopted parents soon learned of his exceptional powers. His parents gave him the name, Clark Kent. Clark was the assimilated Superman. Like the Jews who created him, Clark was nerdy, wore glasses, was an intellectual (he worked as a writer), and was non-physical. “Clark and Superman lived life the way most newly arrived Jews did, torn between their Old and New World identities and their mild exteriors and rock solid cores. That split personality was the only way Superman could survive, yet it gave him perpetual angst. You can’t get more Jewish than that.” Like many American Jews, Clark Kent shed his real name and pined for an unattainable non-Jewish girl, in this case the brainy and beautiful Lois Lane. Siegel and Shuster modeled Superman on two Jewish heroes, the famous Polish Jewish strongman Siegmund Breitbart and the legendary hero of the Prague ghetto, the indestructible Golem. Superman was even a Roosevelt Democrat, fighting on behalf of the oppressed, championing disarmament and the welfare state. Within a couple of years, Superman comics became famous, even calling down the wrath of the Third Reich who associated him with “circumcised Jews who sowed hate, suspicion, laziness, and criminality in the hearts of American youth.”
If there is yet any doubt about Superman’s Jewish origins, it must be noted that the three legs of the Superman myth, “truth, justice, and the American way,” come directly from the Mishnah. When we take out the Torah, we often sing during the Hakafah, “Al Shlosha Devarim Haolam Omeid, Al HaDin, v’al Ha-Emet, v’al Ha-Shalom,” “The World endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace.”

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