Superman The Jew: History Of A People Through The World’s Greatest Hero

The Doomed Planet

Go to the town of Kovno, Lithuania today, and you will find a world of ghosts. In another age, 40,000 Jews lived among the crowded streets of this one-time capital. They worshipped at more than 40 different (and often squabbling) synagogues, educated their children in Hebrew schools, and kept open a hospital to care for the thriving community. At the center of life was Yeshivas Knesses Yisrael, the “mother of yeshivas”, from which the finest minds of rabbinical Judaism graduated. Ask the Jews of Kovno in 1939 if their golden age was coming to an end, and they might have given you a baffled stare. The clouds of war seemed very far indeed.

Portraits of rabbis and students of the Yeshiva of Vilijampolė (Slobodka)
Portraits of rabbis and students of the Yeshiva of Vilijampolė (Slobodka)

On June 24, 1941, the German army entered Kovno. The Jews of the city, one quarter of the population, were concentrated in a tiny ghetto, deliberately starved, and subject to riots and organized killings. On October 29 of that year, during the so-called “Great Action,” soldiers from the SS and Gestapo murdered 29,000 Jews in a single day. By the time Kovno was liberated by the Soviet army in 1944, the total number of Jewish survivors in the city totalled perhaps 500. Far away from the shots and the ghosts and the bloodied streets of Kovno, a family survived. Their names were Sarah and Michel Sigelowitz, and in 1900 they had boarded a ship to a new world in North America. There, they changed their last name, and they had a son. His name was Jerry Siegel. 

Siegel would, in time and alongside his teenage friend Joe Shuster, give to the world a child of his own named Superman. He, too (as Grant Morrison would memorably summarize in a single four-panel page), would be a lonely survivor of a faraway lost world who became a source of renewed hope in a new one. And it is his story with which Roy Schwartz is concerned in his somewhat flippantly titled Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero. Schwartz begins his book with something of a cliché, dutifully comparing the now-familiar origin of Superman to the Biblical patterns of the Hebrew Bible:

“This process is also found within the Bible itself; Superman was inspired by a mythic pattern that begins with Noah, recurs in Moses and culminates after a fashion in Jesus, which sees a boy or man become the last of his kind as he’s cast away in a specially-built craft to an unknown fate, the only survivor of a catastrophe befallen his people. Saved, he grows to be a righteous person and fulfill his destiny as a great savior and bringer of moral law.”

But clichés are sometimes clichés for a reason: they can be oft-repeated precisely because they are true. Superman shares with his mythical predecessors  a pattern of survival against the threat of extinction because it is a pattern experienced by his — and their — creators. It is, specifically and repeatedly, a Jewish story. But is it a story about a Jewish hero? Well, that’s a trickier question entirely.

Superman demands an audience in Action Comics #1
Action Comics #1 | DC Comics | Shuster 

The Superman who debuted in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938 (three years before the Nazis marched into Kovno — the pattern had not yet repeated itself) would be largely unfamiliar to most modern readers. When we first meet him following a condensed one-page origin, he is barging into the manorial home of his state’s governor, cracking wise and roughing up the hired help while demanding to see the governor. His mission? A race against time to save the life of an unjustly condemned man on death row. Two pages later, he’s at it again: this time, it’s a brutishly abusive husband who attracts his ire. Charging unexpectedly into the scene of the attack, hurling the abuser against the wall, Superman cracks wise while dispensing justice: “You’re not fighting a woman now!” This is not obedient defender of the status quo lampooned by Frank Miller in his Dark Knight Returns four decades later. This is not even the all-American happy warrior of the World War II era. This, the primordial Superman of Siegel and Shuster, is an outsider among the masses; a fighter on the behalf of the voiceless and the oppressed. It is stressed at all times that he is visibly and openly not like us: “He’s not human!” exclaims the shellshocked governor. “Thank heaven he’s apparently on the side of law and order!” So this is the story of a man who knows he does not belong. Does that make him a Jew?

The fiction writer Michael Chabon certainly thought so. In his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, set amid the backdrop of the very Jewish comic book industry of the 1940’s, a character wryly comments (in a passage quoted by Schwartz): “They’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.” 

That’s one version of Clark Kent: the sincere expression of Superman’s uncertainty and vulnerability next to his neighbors, which he doesn’t have the luxury of showing the world in his costumed persona. At the other extreme is the Quentin Tarantino version, delivered in a monologue in Kill Bill: Vol. 2:

Superman didn’t become Superman—Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S,” that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears—the glasses, the business suit— that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.


What these two opposing views have in common is something familiar to any first-generation child of immigrants: a divided personality, half within their adopted society and half apart from it. Whether you believe that Clark Kent is an adorable, slightly heartbreaking attempt to pass, or a sneering, mocking satire of weak-kneed humans, you’re starting from the same premise: that Clark is, to himself, a fraud. That whatever he achieves as a human and an American, whatever news stories he breaks or corrupt governors and mob rings he brings down, he will never truly be one of us. He will always be laughed at and dismissed, as much in his own estimation as ours. Clark Kent is trapped inside the walls of American expectations he can never meet. Only Superman is unconstrained.

And it’s a freedom, importantly, that the reader of these original stories is encouraged to share. As Schwartz writes, “For one, we’re in on the joke, not the butt of it.

We know he’s just pretending. We can identify with the bumbling Kent but we also feel superior to him, allowing us to identify with Superman, our true self. That’s why his stories, in print and on screen, used to end with him winking at us.” Golden Age Superman was an invitation, from two Jewish creators, to their largely gentile and all-American audience to cast themselves as the immigrant outsider even without knowing it. And the subtext is the ultimate power fantasy of the picked-on Jewish kid: yes, go ahead and chuckle at the nebbishy, bookish kid next to you in class. But share also in his secret power, and know that when he fights he fights for more than himself.

Except for one inevitable weakness, and in those earliest days, it wasn’t Kryptonite. It was Lois Lane. Lois in that first Superman story is a wonder to behold: talking wise to her editor like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (which wouldn’t come out for another two years), chasing down stories better than any of the half-witted men around her at the Daily Star, smacking a gangster upside the head when he starts to get fresh. Clark wheedles her into a date (to which she grudgingly accedes), and he’s not even faking it: he really is insecure, maybe for the first and only time in his earthly existence. It’s the only time the reader, and Superman, don’t get to be in on the joke.

Superman's date goes poorly in Action Comics #1

There is something uncomfortably Philip Rothian about this whole scenario: the gentile woman as the Delilah to Superman’s Jewish Samson, bringing down our hero with her awful WASPY wiles. Except — and this is important — every single one of the misogynistic details is missing. The Rothian woman is a faceless, soulless object of malevolent male lust; Lois is as active and driven as Superman himself. He rescues her again and again, to be sure, but it’s not out of her vulnerability. Quite the opposite: Lois needs rescuing because she will never back out on the tough story, and never shirk danger when it faces her. She has all the courage of Superman without any of his superhuman power, which makes her all the braver for it. She is a Delilah worth dying for. 

And so she represents the other end of the Jewish immigrant’s fantasy: the image of the better side of the new found land. She is all the hope and possibility of America emblematized in a single woman. She and Clark can never be together, and yet…perhaps, if they could, all of the despair and corruption and prejudice of this world would fall away. Perhaps the Jewish hero need not disguise himself into passing anymore. Perhaps, at last, we would be free.

So that’s where we leave him, that early Golden Age Superman. Like Moses, a stranger in a strange land. A hero whose heroism is rooted in loneliness, but never devoid of hope for something better. He is the perpetual outsider, the Wandering Jew, unable to connect to his past yet unwilling to succumb to the present. And it is a curious fact that in the first half-decade of his stories, the world of Krypton crosses his mind not at all.

The Last Son

I first grew up on the planet Krypton. My earliest years were spent in the happy nest of the Jewish community of Sherman Oaks, California. My background noise was a chattering of Yiddish from septuagenarian grandparents and Hebrew from Israeli immigrants. Fourth of July dinners were scented with Levantine spices and grilled kebabs, while every Passover what felt like the entire neighborhood would gather inside the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center for a wholly secular, social-activist Erev Shabbes Seder (it took me years to learn that traditional Passover seders do not have portions reciting poems about nuclear disarmament). It was a world away from the world, and it was the only one I had ever known.

View of Sherman Oaks from Valley City Jewish Community Center
View of Sherman Oaks from Valley City Jewish Community Center

The explosion came at age 10, over a dinner of takeout El Pollo Loco. My dad, unusually silent over his plate of chicken, unexpectedly looked up, gave me an expression of alarming intensity, and said, “How do you feel about moving to Oregon this summer?” Despite the implicit question mark, this was not a fact-finding mission: the decision had already been made, and within a few months we had piled all our household belongings into the back of a U-Haul and headed north along I-5 to a new and different world, the semi-rural, semi-suburban environs of the mid-’90’s Willamette Valley.

It was different, that much I could tell, and not just from the rain, or the greenery, or the lack of freeway haze. The people were different, too. Cleaner, somehow; more innocent, less wry and knowing in a way that 10-year-old me couldn’t quite define. It would never have occurred to me then to say the word “goyishe” in the scoffing tone I’d heard from my older relatives, and yet there it was all around me, undeniable. Yet it was easy, at first, to imagine that I was a part of it: that I wasn’t an outsider to this world of baloney sandwiches and Christmas carols sung at school assemblies, but had always been a part of it. It was easy to think myself a member of the human race all along.

One of the bizarre realizations about the earliest Golden Age Superman is how little the story of Krypton actually has to do with any of it.  The first 10 installments of the Superman daily newspaper strip (later trimmed and reprinted in the first issue of the Superman solo comic series) are concerned with the now-familiar tale of Jor-L (not yet quite the “House of El” as we know it) as his futile attempt to convince the Kryptonian Science Council of the cataclysmic fate awaiting their home world; of his experiments in interplanetary rocket travel; and of his final, desperate act to save his son Kal-L, our infant hero, the remnant of his race. 

And that, oddly enough, was that. Not for the next year and change would any reference be made in the pages of Superman or Action Comics to the complex, arcane, poignant backstory behind our hero’s arrival on Earth. It simply loomed, unspoken, over every page; a distant, troubling memory of a legacy lost forever. Indeed — and this is something of a shock to modern readers — Superman himself didn’t even know about it. How would he, after all? For all his outsider agitation, Superman was fundamentally an urban, American creator of his adopted world. It was difficult to imagine him outside the streets of Metropolis, let alone sailing the stars toward distant Krypton. But legacies, especially tragic ones, never stay buried for long.

In 1940, Jerry Siegel wrote and the Joe Shuster Studio drew a story entitled “The K-Metal from Krypton.” Originally intended for Superman #8, the story was lost and forgotten until 1988, when Mark Waid (then an editor at DC Comics) discovered pages from the story outline filed away in DC’s archives. The story, had it been published, would have been a landmark in the early development of Superman. Its plot, partially and painstakingly reassembled by comics historians in the years since, would have begun with a strange, unidentified object entering Earth’s orbit, with the alarming ability to sap Superman of his powers. Seeking an explanation for his plight, Superman would seek the aid of scientific authorities — and only then would he discover the strange orbiting rock’s true provenance: it was a fragment of his destroyed, irradiated homeworld, about which our hero had never known. 

The story ultimately never saw the light of day for reasons entirely apart from this moment of truth (the tale would have ended with a temporarily-depowered Superman having no choice but to reveal his identity to Lois Lane, who then happily joined him in his war against injustice; in all likelihood, that deviation from an already lucrative status quo was too much for the book’s publishers to stomach). But in the years that followed, more and more of both the story’s elements and the history of Krypton would gradually, inexorably creep into the continuity of Superman tales.

In 1949’s “Superman Returns to Krypton!” from Superman #61, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Al Plastino, Superman travels through not only space but time to meet his parents and his homeland for the first time — tragically, in the final days just before the planet’s end. Superman tries valiantly to stave off the inevitable, of course, but no matter: history proceeds as it must, and the world is lost to him at the very moment he had discovered it.

Superman returns to Krypton
Superman #61 | DC Comics | Plastino

Schwartz is right, I think, to see more than a coincidence in the fact that this story was written immediately in the shadow of the Nazi Holocaust. In the 1930’s, it may just have been possible for the immigrant Jew to imagine himself divorced from his parents’ foreign past. A decade later, that fantasy had burned away into ash, and there was no choice but to look annihilation in its face. As Schwartz writes:

[T]he story opens with Superman clutching his head, this time in horror. Travelling through time, he returns to Krypton right before its destruction, but for all his powers is powerless to stop it. As a time-traveler he’s invisible and inaudible to them, but, the story being told from his perspective, it is they who are the walking ghosts of the past. It’s a melancholic, unsettling science fiction fantasy, ending with a strongly evocative message for Jews as Jor-El entreats his departing son, ‘You will be the last survivor of our great civilization! Be worthy of it!’

Roy Schwartz, Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero

Ironically, however, the years to come would prove that warning of destroyed peoplehood rather dramatically premature. The cover of Action Comics #252 from 1959 shows a blonde young woman, dressed in the same garb as Superman himself, popping out of a rocket ship and declaring, “Look again, Superman! It’s me — Supergirl! And I have all your powers!” This was Kal-El’s cousin, Kara Zor-El, and she would be the first to put the lie to the belief that Superman was the sole survivor of a vanished nation. 

The significance of Supergirl to the Superman mythos is more profound than might at first be realized. What she represents, in her unexpected and miraculous appearance, is the persistence of legacy in the face of seeming extermination. She is the remnant of her people left by God after the Temple’s destruction. And she is, at the same time, two things that Clark Kent emphatically is not. In her youth and exuberance, she is able to be unquestionably a part of her new home in a way that her elder cousin never was — her words, after arriving at the orphanage where Clark somewhat outrageously places her for safekeeping, are telling: “I can use x-ray vision through the walls to see the other orphans here! Hope I can make friends with them all! This will be my home from now on, on the planet Earth!” Though an immigrant, she is unequivocally American in a way Superman is not and cannot be; untroubled by the outsider angst and paranoia that carried the punchy older man through his formative issues.

At the same time, paradoxically, she is clearly and unapologetically Kryptonian. Kara never needed a moment of tragic discovery for her past: she was quite literally raised in it, in a Krypton totally untainted by the later, haunted memory of its own destruction. Her Krypton is one of life and hope, not of death, and that transformative optimism would transform the very nature of how Superman himself related to his home planet. What Supergirl represents, then, is the foundation of a new community out of the memory and legacy of the old: young, American, rooted in the best parts of its past but gazing toward a brighter and more hopeful day to come. It is an ethos familiar to every American Jew who, like me, grew up in a community of laughter, and celebration, and communal organization. She is Krypton reborn.

In the years to come, that community would become the defining aspect of Superman in the Silver Age, growing to an extent that would be comical if it weren’t oddly touching. Even before Supergirl had come, of all things, the family dog: young Kal-El’s pet Krypto, who joined him on earth and became a part of his household. Then there was Beppo, a Kryptonian test monkey sent into space in advance of Kal-El himself, and then — most impressively — an entire miniaturized city of Kryptonians, Kandor, trapped in a bottle by the wicked Brainiac, and preserved in the full flower of their culture like a living diorama. This latter was the ultimate fantasy for young Jews (or the older Jewish writers who crafted the stories): Superman could, at will, shrink himself into the world of Kandor and play-act the fantasy of his heritage, connecting with it and drawing from it, before returning to the more modern world above. This was still a bifurcated existence, but it was a very different one from that which had defined him in the 1940’s. The tortured outsider was gone now, and in his place was the happy composite of history and modernity. The blueberry bagel of Kryptonian breakfasts.

First appearance of Supergirl
Action Comics #252 | DC Comics | Swan, Plastino

And yet, creeping out of the corners, there was always something darker and more troubling. A memory of the past that seemed to whisper, underneath the hope for a future, that you can never run as far from your history as you might wish to. I heard it in the mocking laughter of my fourth-grade classmates behind my back when I used a Yiddish word in conversation. I saw it in the swastika slipped covertly into my binder, to be discovered by my mother when I arrived home. So too for Superman, as Schwartz, writes:  “While Superman’s sense of loss and grief grew, along with his connection to his culture and people, so did his insecurity. He spent numerous stories carrying out elaborate and sometimes cruel hoaxes involving Lois, Jimmy [Olsen], and Supergirl, testing their love and loyalty. He was the outsider making sure his acceptance was not conditional.” 

DC may not have published “The K-Metal from Krypton,” but Kryptonite would not stay hidden for long. It would come back, again and again, exposing Superman’s insecurity and dual identity at the times when he most believed them to be in check. It is persecution symbolized and distilled: the pain of the past come back to haunt the present in an endless loop of persecution. We may survive it, but we can never destroy it. History, memory, the future, and hope. None of them are gone forever — not for the children of the shtetl, or the Last Son of Krypton.

The Bridge

Rawa in Poland is a town much smaller than the city once known as Kovno, but in many ways their stories are the same. It was from Rawa that my great-grandpa Sam took ship in 1914, one step ahead of the Russian army set to draft him for the first of two world wars. Three decades later, the entire Jewish population of the town — my entire family, save for the single branch of grandpa Sam — had been liquidated by the Nazis at the death camp of Treblinka. Sam would talk about Rawa frequently, but it existed for him, and for me, only in stories of a foreign place and time. He never went back to Rawa again. The wound was too deep and too fresh. The ghosts still spoke too loudly.

Fragment of a transit camp in Rawa (1939)
Fragment of a transit camp in Rawa (1939)

Some years ago, one of my relatives not much older than myself decided to make a trip to Rawa. He walked the streets where merchants and tailors and yeshiva students once lived. He looked at the faces of the locals, descendants of the people who once knew and befriended and sometimes betrayed their Jewish neighbors. He saw the little house where Sam grew up (the new residents eyed him warily and refused to let him in, lest he demand the property back as reparation). He saw Sam’s world, and he felt the loss of it, but he saw something else — something new — behind that loss. 

I am writing these words in New York City, where Sam disembarked after arriving in his new world. Between my great grandpa’s generation and mine, between Rawa and Brooklyn, between tragedy and dreaming, there is a bridge. I cannot see it, but I know it. Every Jew in a new land knows it. Somehow, in us, there is a bridge.

In 1985, DC Comics, struggling against years of flagging sales against their cross-town rivals at Marvel, decided to upend their fictional universe in a story entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths. For many heroes, including Superman, it was an opportunity for a thorough deck-cleaning: a chance to restart the character’s history from scratch, while streamlining its components and eliminating what seemed at the time like the embarrassing deadweight of older stories.

So under the pen of new writer and artist John Byrne, page after page of the Superman mythos was consigned to the metaphorical longbox. Gone was cousin Kara and her hopeful gaze toward the future. Gone were Krypto, and Beppo, and the Legion of Super Pets. Gone was Kandor and its picture-postcard existence. No more history looking over our shoulders. Just to drive the point home, Byrne reimagined Krypton not as a wonderland of lost happiness, but as a cold and sterile place, where parents blanched in horror at the notion that something as disgusting as love could be felt for a child, let alone a spouse. This was a Krypton that deserved to die, and good riddance to it.

In many ways, the Superman that emerged in the 1980’s in the wake of this reboot was as gentile a character as he had ever been. This was a Superman who, by design and intention, had no desire or intention to be anything other than a product of the beef-eating, football-playing, U. S. of A. At the end of his The Man of Steel miniseries, Byrne presents a full-page splash of Superman gazing heroically at the reader, while he thinks to himself, “I may have been conceived out there in the endless depths of space…but I was born when the rocket opened, on Earth, in America. I’ll cherish always the memories Jor-El and Lara gave me…but only as curious memotos of a life that might have been.”

Superman declares how American he is in Man Of Steel
Man Of Steel #6 | DC Comics | Byrne, Giordano

No better credo could be recited for the most gentile of Supermen. And that, in many ways, is what the Superman of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s was. Despite the gradual reintroduction of many elements from the pre-Crisis past, often in remixed form, Clark himself remained determinedly divorced (often self-consciously so) from any sense of Kryptonian identity. No longer an outsider among a new people, he was the most American of Americans, almost parodically comfortable in his adopted skin without any trace of nervy paranoia or insecurity.

So there is some poetry to the arrival on the scene (following another reboot or two or DC’s comic universe — such things gradually became a habit for the company) of Brian Michael Bendis, who took over the Superman titles in 2018 after his much-heralded departure from Marvel Comics. Bendis, as he himself was fond of pointing out at the time, had a few things superficially in common with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Like them, he grew up a Jewish youth in the city of Cleveland, reading stories about superpowered sluggers in bright costumes. Unlike them, he was a long way from the immigrant shadows of the past. His Superman, for all its myriad flaws and imperfections, became a kind of reconciliation with the oldest part of the character’s past.

And he did it, appropriately enough, through a symbol of the future. Some years before Bendis arrived at DC, Dan Jurgens had introduced the character of Jon Kent, the child of a now-married Clark and Lois, who grew up with the same powers (and drive toward costumed heroism) as his dad. The Jon created by Jurgens and given additional depth by writer Peter Tomasi was, however, as determinedly human and American as the post-Crisis version of his pop had ever been: when Tomasi wrote a somewhat notorious story arc about Clark giving his son a stern lesson in America’s military history and the contribution of armed forces veterans, it seemed to exemplify the extent to which Superman comics seemed still to be wilfully insisting on the full-blooded Americanness (and lack of complicating ethnic identities) of their flagship family.

This, then, was the status quo that Bendis inherited. And what would turn out to be his most controversial decision as a writer would also be, I think, the single most Jewish touch the Superman story would receive in its modern era. Bendis confronted Jon and his father with a mysterious character initially known as Mister Oz — who, it would emerge in typical comic fashion, was none other than Superman’s time-displaced Kryptonian father, returned to reconnect his progeny with their long-lost past, his ever-present now. Jor-El had come to take his grandson on a journey through space, to show him the culture and society that the Earthborn Clark could only dream of. And though Clark resisted, in the end the choice was Jon’s: he would go, and would return something more than the simple human hero he had once been.

Jon Kent learns his culture in Man Of Steel #6
Man Of Steel #6 | DC Comics | Fabok, Sinclair

To return to the past, to become a part of it, but to emerge from it with a greater and more possible sense of a future still to come: this is the experience that the Jew of the new world seeks. Maybe the generation of tragedy can never hope to find it; maybe, like the Hebrews of the Exodus, they are too defined by the weight of their history to see the Promised Land with clear eyes. It is for their children, the children of America and of the planet Earth, to bring together the lost world and the found, and become the bridge between them.

Jon Kent became the bridge. Through his travels, he found for himself what his father and grandfather could never understand. His story, his identity, and his future would be left for other writers to tell. But when they do, I hope that they will hold on to what Bendis, perhaps without even intending to, recaptured about the earliest Superman stories; what Siegel and Shuster knew implicitly even if they never put it into words: that the story of Superman is the story of heritage reckoning modernity, and of the building of a hope and heroism from the pain of memories that never quite fade. No more Jewish a tale has ever been told.

Zach Rabiroff edits articles at