Is Super­man Cir­cum­cised?: The Com­plete Jew­ish His­to­ry of the World’s Great­est Hero

  • Review
By – June 22, 2022

Cre­at­ed by Jew­ish teens Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter, the Man of Steel made his 1938 debut in Action Comics no. 1. Superman’s con­nec­tions to Judaism — a sub­ject that has been touched on in larg­er his­to­ries of Jews and comics — pro­vide the impe­tus for this study focused exclu­sive­ly on the world’s first superhero.

Roy Schwartz chron­i­cles debates about Superman’s Jew­ish his­to­ry,” begin­ning with the crime fighter’s par­al­lels to Moses (and more briefly to Sam­son and the golem). Moses was a boy dis­patched to safe­ty in a small ves­sel down the Nile Riv­er; the Last Son of Kryp­ton was trans­port­ed in a tiny rock­et to Amer­i­ca. Schwartz also points to Superman’s birth name, Kal-El (with the Hebrew suf­fix El” denot­ing God in the Bible), and ana­lyzes inter­pre­ta­tions of the pre­fix Kal,” var­i­ous­ly under­stood with­out consensus.

A par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling cor­re­la­tion is Superman’s arrival as a refugee immi­grant from Kryp­ton, an old world destroyed – – con­jur­ing the bib­li­cal flood in Gen­e­sis, and the Holo­caust in post-World War II comics – – to the safe haven of Amer­i­ca. There he was raised by strangers in a strange land. Schwartz describes a famil­iar sce­nario to Jews as pro­ject­ed through Super­man: How Kal-El nego­ti­at­ed his dual iden­ti­ty by adopt­ing the Amer­i­can­ized name Clark Kent, and the chal­lenges he faced liv­ing in two worlds. Those obser­va­tions have been fer­ret­ed out by past comics schol­ars, but Schwartz stands apart with his in-depth exam­i­na­tion and insights. Schwartz does not mere­ly list these claims (and oth­ers) as bul­let points or with morsels of evi­dence. Instead, he ques­tions such asser­tions and digs deep­er than schol­ars have before.

For exam­ple, Schwartz even-hand­ed­ly elu­ci­dates how Super­man can con­verse­ly be read as a Christ fig­ure. In doing so, he iden­ti­fies mes­sian­ic themes and the trini­tar­i­an nature of Kal-El/Clark Kent/​Superman inher­ent in some Super­man comics and oth­er media (e.g., the long-run­ning tele­vi­sion series Smal­l­ville and the 2013 film Man of Steel), although these are much rar­er than metaphors that sig­nal Super­man as a mem­ber of the tribe. Nonethe­less, by show­ing two sides of the denom­i­na­tion­al debate, Schwartz gains cred­i­bil­i­ty with the reader.

The title of this book should not prej­u­dice read­ers. This is a seri­ous study of Super­man and at the same time a broad­er exam­i­na­tion of why and how Jews have had such a cru­cial impact on the comics indus­try from its incep­tion. At times, Schwartz pro­vides a his­to­ry of the indus­try itself. In some detail, the author also takes on DC Comics’s shame­ful treat­ment of Siegel and Shus­ter after they unfor­tu­nate­ly and all-too-ear­ly signed over the rights to one of the most famous fic­tion­al char­ac­ters in the world.

Schwartz engag­ing­ly pars­es the inter­sec­tions of the Super­man mythos, the­ol­o­gy, Amer­i­can his­to­ry, and Jew­ish tra­di­tion and cul­ture. His thor­ough knowl­edge of Superman’s iter­a­tions by dif­fer­ent cre­ative teams from the Gold­en Age of comics to the cur­rent moment – – and of the character’s for­ays into radio, tele­vi­sion, and the big screen – – is tru­ly impressive.

Saman­tha Baskind is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia Judaica and is cur­rent­ly series edi­tor of Dimy­onot: Jews and the Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, pub­lished by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

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