The following essay about Jewish superheroes was written by Jacob Genick, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
I love comics. I feel like they are gateways to our own imagination. It first started for me with Spiderman. He was a very relatable character, and I think that is what got me into comic books. There is always a sense of relatability in good comic books that make them stand out. As I read more and more, I noticed that there were references to being Jewish in some comic books. I decided to research this topic and learned that there is a strong Jewish influence in the creation and development of the superhero comic book industry.
In the early part of the 20th century, in publishing, there was a lot of anti-Semitism so the jobs that Jews could get were limited. The comic book industry was more tolerant. However, Jewish writers and illustrators of comic books were looked down on. They created heroes who were accepted and people liked what the heroes stood for even if they didn’t like the people who created them.
Many comic book writers were pressured to change their names after World War II. Jewish writers didn’t want their original names to be used in the comics to prevent people from recognizing them as Jewish. As mentioned in my role model paper, Stanley Liebert changed his name to Stan Lee. Max Ginsberg, who was a publisher, became Max Gaines. Bob Khan became Bob Kane; he worked on and created Batman, and Joe Kurzberg became Joe Kirby. Interestingly, Jerry Siegel (illustrator) and Joe Shuster (writer) who created Superman, kept their original names because they didn’t want to hide where they came from. This shows their pride and persistence through tough times.
Jewish creators used their personal lives and what was happening in the world to inspire their stories and ideas. Many writers drew upon what they knew about their religion and their culture. Interestingly, there are many Jewish themes and symbols relating to Superman. For example, Superman’s birth name was “kal-el”, meaning “all that is god” in Hebrew. His origin story also has Jewish undertones. Superman is a child survivor of genocide on his planet and was sent away by his parents so he’d be spared. This story parallels the story of Moses being sent away so that he wouldn’t be killed as the first- born son by Pharaoh’s plague. Another more contemporary parallel is to the Kinder transport during the Holocaust, when parents sent their children to other countries without them to try to keep them safe.
The S shape on Superman’s uniform was the symbol for Krypton’s “house of L”, but it also looks like the Hebrew letter Lamed. Superman’s original television show had a code of ethics: Truth, Justice, and the American Way. This is similar to the code of ethics written about in the Mishnah, which was Truth, Peace and Justice.
The physical appearance of Superman/Clark Kent was modeled after Jerry Siegel and later after a Jewish man the writers met in the Catskills. Personas like Clark Kent were the type Jews would root for. A mild-mannered man with glasses who was shy with women was a stereotype of male Jewish entertainers at the time. The writers transformed the klutzy bumbler into a strong, sexy, confident superhero, something the readers could easily relate to.
Like many Jews were at the time, Clark Kent/Superman was an immigrant, but instead of coming from Eastern Europe, he was from Krypton. He was partially assimilated but retained some important features of his home culture, just as many Jews of the time did.
Other comic book heroes and stories were created in the context of World War Two and continued to have Jewish related themes. Captain America put the front lines of war right onto the page. His origin story tells us that he was a weak, puny guy. He gets a shot from Dr. Reinstein, obviously a reference to Albert Einstein, a prominent Jewish scientist, that turns him into a superhero. With the help of writer Joe Simon, the first issue was very provocative. It showed Cap breaking into a Nazi headquarters and punching Hitler in the face.
Kirby quickly became well known in the comic industry and went on to illustrate characters from both Marvel and DC comics. Kirby felt like he had an obligation to write about his experiences as a Jew. He wanted to express his anger, and what better way to do it then through literature? In a Superman issue in the 40s, Superman attended the German hosted Olympics. He fights Nazis and Hitler, declares himself a non-Aryan, and of course, he wins. In real life, the head of Nazi propaganda, Goebbels, accused Superman of being a Jew. Superman became “more Jewish” during WWII, and after that, when anti-Semitism was less explicit, Superman became “less Jewish”.
There are other references to WWII in the golden age of comics. Captain Marvel
fought Captain Nazi, the Aryan assassin and super solider. Captain America’s origin was that he
was injected with a super soldier’s serum to fight Nazis. And the villain, Magneto, hates humanity due to his childhood experiences in a concentration camp.
In conclusion, Jewish people shaped the way we think about pop culture. The golden age of comics in the 1930’s and the 1940’s were a kick starter for what comics are today. There have been many Jewish writers and illustrators (and many characters) in the past 70 years who have shed light on dire subjects such as: the Holocaust, discrimination, the rise of Neo-Nazis and various psychiatric conditions. Comic books are an easy way to reach the emotional core of a reader, and I have really enjoyed researching and discovering Jewish themes in my favorite genre of literature.