NEW YORK — It’s been a slow walk toward respectability for comic books, a medium that in the 1930s and 1940s was disreputable and lowly enough that it accepted Jews. Of course, the industry didn’t just accept them — it was created by Jews who ran every aspect of the business.
Two such young men who singlehandedly invented the concept of the superhero comic are Cleveland’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. To find scribes with a greater impact on culture, one may have to travel all the way back to Mount Sinai.
From the days of my youth, I’ve obsessed over outlandish science fiction and fantasy stories. My whole childhood was punctuated with sighs as my mother discovered me ignoring my homework to watch “Star Trek,” which she naturally called “Star Dreck.”
But lately, some scholars have also started coming around to the fact that logic is just the beginning of wisdom. Under cloak of night, when they hear the call, they’re transforming into comic book-loving nerds — seeing the pages of, say, DC Comics not as ephemeral junk but as a springboard for rich storytelling and a fine source of great cultural criticism.
Roy Schwartz’s recent, massive tome “Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero” is one of the best volumes that devote serious thought to what a previous generation of thinkers may have shrugged off as nonsense.
Its core thesis — that the world’s first superhero was as Jewish as Tevye — goes beyond shallow notations. Sure, The Big Blue Boy Scout’s creators were named Siegel and Shuster. And you don’t need a degree from Hebrew University to recognize that Jor-El placing his son in a space capsule rhymes with Moses’s trip down the Nile. But Schwartz’s close reading of the material goes much further and exposes a tidal wave of signifiers. Moreover, his writing tightly laces his theories with Jewish history and texts.
There are also a lot of great pictures.
Schwartz, originally from Tel Aviv and now living on Long Island, spoke to The Times of Israel recently via Zoom — and as someone who spends perhaps far too much time thinking about this stuff, it was a treat. Below is a transcript, edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: The title of this book is funny. I was expecting something light. By page two, BLAM! While this is entirely readable and entertaining, this is a scholarly text.
Schwartz: I come across as “mild-mannered,” right?
Some people think the book is literally about the title. I try to not be insulted, but inside I’m wondering, “Does this person really think I published 400 pages about Superman’s genitalia?” Plus, there are 96 images — what would those be?!?
You make your case phenomenally well, as we’ll get into, but was there any pushback from people who thought, “Oh, this is a guy with an agenda?”
People have a sense of ownership with Superman. Everyone grew up with him. I understand the reaction, to want to protect your ideas. But not everyone is intelligent enough to say, “Well, let me read what he has to say before I state my opinion.”
This book isn’t about ownership, it’s about recognizing contributions. No one says, “You are white, you can’t listen to jazz,” so I am not making any similar arguments. It’s about tracing origins.
Online, though, some of the comments have been rough. The book had the misfortune to first come out during the last Gaza conflict. As a result, some media outlets said, “Well, anything Jewish is a bit too sensitive right now.” I even had one producer at a very mainstream television program, which I shall not name, ask me if I’d consider changing the title. After the book had come out! If it were called “Is Superman Baptized?” I do not think he’d have asked me that. But let’s not dwell on the negative.
The concept of Superman, Kal-El, as Moses sent adrift in a basket is a fairly obvious one. And at this point, it’s no secret that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were Jewish. But for most people, it stops there. When did you realize, no, I can really push this into a substantial work of literary criticism? Was there a night when a glowing green crystal called to you in a barn?
It was a process. I studied Jewish folklore at NYU, alongside Christian/European folklore. And there are many interesting contrasts — for example, the Arthurian legend of the Sword in the Stone is very likely to have been influenced by a Talmudic story of Moses’s staff that was locked in a rock. My thesis presentation about Superman won second place in a competition and got a little bit of press. I met a publisher at New York Comic-Con, and originally pitched some other ideas, but we came back to the ideas in my thesis. They wondered if it could make a monograph. I thought, “Well, I can maybe squeeze out 50,000 words, something light.”
I started doing research and uncovering material that no one had written about before in this context. By the end of my first draft, I had 196,000 words.
How much of the source material did you review for this book?
This was a dirty job but somebody had to do it.
I have read every single Superman comic book ever published, ever. I have watched every movie, cartoon, and television episode, and listened to all surviving recordings of the 2,088-episode radio show. I have read every major article written in the American press about Superman. It was six-and-a-half years of research. My book has more than 200 sources, not including comic books. There are 41 pages of endnotes. There’s a reason I got a fellowship at the New York Public Library. They sent me my own librarian.
Wait, wait, wait. Okay, every “Superman” comic and “Action Comics,” but every “World’s Finest”? Every “Justice League”? “Justice League International”?
Every “Superman,” “Action Comics,” “Adventure Comics,” certainly, and anything that he headlined or co-starred in. Guest appearances? Most of them. Definitely not all, but most. I am, you can say, well-versed.
Some months ago my wife and I were watching an episode of “Supergirl,” and she says, “Kara is who I am, Supergirl is what I do,” and I snap, “That is a quote from ‘Lois and Clark’ season two, episode 18!” My wife looks at me wide-eyed, like, we may have to get a divorce.
The book’s concept is very resonant with me and frequently on my mind. I have written far shorter pieces in a similar vein, like arguing that the most recent “Planet of the Apes” movie is a Zionist text. But time and again while reading I thought, “How have I never noticed this before?!”
Case in point: Clark Kent, on Earth, obscures his true identity, his pre-assimilated shtetl homeland. The only thing more powerful than he is a totem from the realm he left behind: Kryptonite, which can expose him. Much like those who underwent forced conversions were exposed as “Crypto Jews.”
It’s all like one of those Magic Eye pictures. Once you see what’s behind it you always see it. Things like Miracle Monday [a Passover metaphor], resurrection themes in “Death of Superman,” or the issue the reflects the Eichmann trial. Then there were the times that Siegel admitted he was inspired by the rise of Nazism in creating the character, mixed with traditions like Samson and the Golem.
As we get to the 1970s and ’80s you have the main creative force on the character, Elliot Maggin, saying he openly approaches Superman as Jewish. He says it is so self-evident it may as well be canon.
Unlike other heroes, who change into their outfits, Clark Kent sheds his clothes to reveal the true suit underneath. You describe this eloquently as a tallit (ritual fringes) not for outsiders to see. Even if Siegel and Shuster didn’t mean it that way, it was taken from their world.
Exactly. Precognition is not necessary. Take the jazz greats. This is an art form influenced by the Black experience and the Harlem Renaissance. Not every jazz song is born out of that discussion, but it is inseparably entrenched with these people.
Siegel and Shuster went to Hebrew school. They spoke Yiddish at home. It’s all there for interpreting the art.
Throughout your book, you describe Jewish history throughout the world, and especially in America. You describe the garment industry and point out the coincidence that the Israeli artist Judith Weller’s famous sculpture of the Jewish tailor happens to be across the street from probably the most famous comic book shop in the world, Midtown Comics in New York City. Jewish history in the schmatte trade has been long established, but you really make plain how nearly everything about comics was Jewish.
The comic book is a Jewish invention. As is the industry around it. The superhero genre is a Jewish genre. And its context found its way into the content.
It was the Depression, it was [World War II], doors were closed to these people, and “Jews need not apply.” So Jewish people with an artistic and intellectual bent brought their ideas to this new industry.
But it was at the very bottom rung of publishing, and not respectable. It was one more reason to change your name, to distance your association. Yet it was their outlet. This was their shofar! Teens and people in their early 20s with these stories in their kishkes [guts]; they had to let it out. And Siegel and Shuster, with Superman, did it at a time where everyone else in American culture was walking on eggshells not to upset the Germans or the Bund, and to appear isolationist. Here they have Hitler getting slapped on the cover of their comic books, and receiving death threats. They didn’t care. True chutzpah.
You show documentation that Goebbels and the Nazis were aware that Superman, now very popular, was a Jewish creation. How aware was the average reader? Or the parent of the average reader?
The Nazis clearly recognized it, but the average reader less so. That’s the strength of the character, right? A Jew masquerading as a Midwesterner. Siegel and Shuster are from the Midwest — Ohio. Foreigners with parents who changed their names. Kal-El becomes Clark Kent, super WASP-y, tucks the tallit in, puts on a fedora and boxy suit. This is a way to reach provincial Christian people, and it worked.
So I don’t think the average American caught on. However, Siegel and Shuster did get a fair degree of press in 1941, in the widely-read “Saturday Evening Post,” which went out of its way to point out that they were Jewish. There was some backlash in a publication called “Catholic World.” There was also something by the writer Sterling North in the “Chicago Daily News” suggesting Superman was all propaganda against Germans.
This leads to the 1950s clampdown on comics, with the Comics Code, and the Kefauver Committee. This came at a time with a lot of other changes in the culture, but censorship against comics really took a lot of heat. How much, do you think, was because it was a Jewish medium?
Much like the witch hunts in Hollywood, people knew it was a Jewish industry. The result was that when you found left-leaning people, or socialists, or outright Communists or subversives, if they were in that industry, they were bound to be Jewish. So it was antisemitic in practice, even if not in motivation.
If you look back, and there are quotes in the book, where people speak with a lot of euphemism. “The gold-plated sewers of New York” and the “soulless merchants.” They knew what they were saying. They were saying we are good Christians and the soulless Jews are selling us debauchery and hooliganisms.
I love Superman comics, but you did six-and-a-half years of research. It’s not all gold! Were there points where you felt, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
I love all of it, even the bad stuff. When the Adam West “Batman” television show was all you could get, you resented it. It mutilated the character. But when you have so much other good material — the Michael Keaton and Christian Bale Batmans — then you can afford to say, “Okay, it’s fun,” and give it its space.
I do not particularly love Zack Snyder’s approach to the character. “Man of Steel” is a good movie, except Superman never really shows up. Some of the 1960s comics are crazy and out there, with some enjoyable stories, but too often he was powerless, or an ant, or with rainbows coming out of his ears… it was a weird period.
What are some of your recommended favorites?
Go right to the Siegel and Shuster oeuvre from the 1930s. It’s great and it’s raw. Then hit John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” period from 1986. It’s dynamic and feels like a summer blockbuster. Also some of Dan Jurgen’s work.
I loved “All-Star Superman,” which is fairly recent as these things go.
That’s magnificent, too. Grant Morrison really gets it.
Who is the second-most Jewish character in the DC Universe?
Okay, this is interesting. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel/Shazam are the two rare superheroes of the Golden Age that are not created or co-created by Jews. However, look at their origins. Wonder Woman is kneaded out of earth and mud, and has life breathed into her by the Gods.
Totally the Golem! There’s a lot that’s been written about Captain America being a Golem, or the Hulk being a Golem. Wonder Woman is literally a Golem!
Now, about Shazam, there’s not too much that’s Jewish about him, except the acronym. Shazam puts “the wisdom of Solomon” first, then “the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, the speed of Mercury.” All the Greek Gods plus one old Jewish guy.
And “Shazam” sounds a little Hebrew, or maybe Aramaic, or something.
[In mock Yiddish]: Vos? Shazoos?
Now, in the new films they made Barry Allen, the Flash, a Jew. Both in the story, and played by Ezra Miller, a Jewish actor. I have mixed feelings about this, because I always liked Barry as a potato-eating Midwesterner. Now they’ve made him a fretful, almost Woody Allen-ish character.
Also there’s the Spectre — co-created by Jerry Siegel himself — who is the Old Testament Wrath of God embodied in a spirit.
And then there’s [Silver Age] Green Lantern. First, Gil Kane was neighbors with an aspiring Jewish actor named Paul Newman when he designed the character. Then the Guardians of the Universe [Green Lantern’s strength and spiritual trainers] were drawn to resemble David Ben-Gurion.
Of course. Ganthet!
And, the Green Lantern’s concept of the universe is divided into 3,600 sectors. This is a play on the 36 lamed vav tzadikim [hidden righteous men] from the Talmud.
You have, this day, changed everything I’ve ever known about life. How have I not put this together on my own!?
And how do they save the world? With light. Illumination.
I need to lie down.
More recently there’s actually a Guardian named Gurion. And Oa, their home, is the center of the universe, and at times looks like Tel Aviv, the city of the future.
There is talk that the next movie Superman will be Black. How do you feel about this? It could always be a Black Jewish actor.
Yes, cast Zoë Kravitz!
I will wait to see the movie before I assess it. A well-executed idea earns its place.
I do find, however, that in an era of increased representation and introspection, more characters are being “flipped” either in gender or race. This is only a problem when it is contrived. What we’re finding is more, say, Spanish-speaking characters, or women, or whatever, and we are flipping “back” Jewish characters. Everything else is moving forward, except this one category is moving backwards. Even when there are new cases, like the Flash, it is reverting a little to stereotypes.
For Superman so far in his history — he shoots lasers from his eyes. He can fly. Biologically he may as well be a dolphin. He simply “passes for white,” which shows how artificial the whole structure is. Jews are non-whites who pass for white, right? To the people who really care about this stuff, we are not white. Hitler didn’t check if you prayed with tefillin [phylacteries] in the morning.
So Superman can be whatever. Dean Cain, who played him on TV, was not fully caucasian. The character worked, because he could hide within the dominant culture.
This is what could potentially be interesting. Clark Kent, though a secret Kryptonian, was accepted everywhere. Black people in America, despite the fact that we had a two-term Black president, still have difficulty being accepted in the mainstream. A passing Jewish person has an easier route. This next film, if it goes that way, will perhaps need to make something of a fundamental change.
I want to circle back and talk after we see it.
Who is the most non-Jewish character in DC?
Maybe Hawkman, who is Egyptian? Or Captain Marvel with all his, “Gosh, holy moly!” Though “moly” is Moses.
Certainly not Wonder Woman, now with Gal Gadot. Though I do want to point out that in 2013, I dressed as Wonder Woman for Halloween, so I was the first Israeli Wonder Woman by many years.
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