MINDY NEWELL: “Superman? He Must Be Jewish!”
As Superman zooms down into the torrent of Niagara Falls to save that dumb kid who is falling into the torrential waters of Niagara Falls, we hear an off-screen female voice – whom I’ve always imagined as Rob Reiner’s mother – saying:
“He must be Jewish.”
It’s a throw-away line, a bit of Yiddishkeit humor, in a movie (Superman II) about a comic book hero whose underlying themes are – you can say – chock full of Jewish mysticism and Jewish angst and Jewish hope and Jewish dissimilation and Jewish fatalism.
Think about it.
Facing annihilation as their world is torn apart by cataclysmic forces, loving parents rocket their child away in hope of their child finding refuge on an alien planet.
Facing annihilation as their world was torn apart by cataclysmic forces, loving Jewish parents in Hitler’s Europe spirited their children away into the hoped refuge of alien, Christian homes.
The child is raised in the Christian faith of his “foster” parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent of Smallville, Kansas, who do their best to keep the child’s true background a secret for fear that he would be taken away from them by the government and “studied” – or worse.
The Jewish children who survive the Holocaust learn the prayers and rites of the religion of their “foster” parents – Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim. All do whatever they can to keep the children’s true background a secret in fear of brutal, usually fatal, Nazi reprisals.
As an adult, the child uses his Earth name – Clark Kent – and religion as his “secret identity,” though he has learned that his true name is Kal-el, and that he is last survivor of the planet Krypton.
The Kryptonian “Kal-El” is close to the Hebrew קל–אל, which can be interpreted as the “voice of God. The last name “Kent” is an Americanization of the name “Cohen,” and “Cohen” is a transcription of the Hebrew כֹּהֵן, or “kohen,” which means “priest.” Kohens were the priests in the Temple of Solomon in biblical Jerusalem – the last remaining remnant of which is still standing today, known as the Wailing Wall.
He is publicly known as Superman, a hero capable of God-like powers who uses those powers for the good of humanity.
“El” means “of God,” or just plain “God” in Hebrew, and is part of the names of the angels Michael, Gabriel and Ariel, who look human, but are agents of God who are capable of flying and performing great deeds of good through the use of their superhuman powers.
The schlemiel Clark Kent – schlemiel being Yiddish for an inept, clumsy, hopeless bungler – falls for the self-assured, brilliant, famous, respected and beautiful Lois Lane, but she only has eyes for Superman.
Jewish men are traditionally said to yearn for the forbidden shiksa – a non-Jewish woman – who represent the self-assured, respected women who belong to a world that is alien to Jews. These women traditionally ignore them in favor of the Don Drapers of the world.
So did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster purposely create a Jewish superhero? The traditional answer is, of course, no. Siegel himself said he based the visual aspects of Superman on Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Kent on Harold Lloyd. But did he know that Fairbanks was actually born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman, and was Jewish? Did he know that Harold Lloyd was the son of a Welshman and not Jewish? I doubt it, on both counts. But the subconscious does its own thing. To coin a phrase:
“Who knows what dreams lurk in the hearts of men?”
Or you can call it Jewish mysticism.
TUESDAY: Michael Davis