World’s Finest

Superman is Jewish.

I think that’s something the modern myth makers over at the DC Extended Universe don’t really care to reflect.

They assume because his upholstery is so thoroughly baseball and American that he must be the epitome of Christianity as well, as though there are no other American religions. Zack Snyder very famously peppered Man of Steel with enough Christian iconography to repel an army of God-hating vampires (not to put to fine a point on it, but Man of Steel is the story of a boy whose celestial parentage allows him to perform literal miracles, though he wanders the Earth until he is in his thirties, at which point he moves to Metropolis and is baptized by John the Baptist).

There is some ammunition to the argument that Superman is a Christ analogue, most obviously in the 90s story arc/media event “The Death of Superman,” where Superman, like Christ, dies for his people…and is then brought back to life.

But as exciting as it is to watch Supes grapple with Doomsday through a 90s grimdark Metropolis, beating the tar out of each other in great streaks of soupy, pink-red newspaper-dimmed blood, it sort of misses the point of why we loved him in the first place.

It isn’t that he’s Jewish per se…because he isn’t (barring that baby in a space-basket traveling to Earth from the Heavens bit, which is so Moses it hurts).

His creators were two Jewish teenagers, themselves the children of Jewish immigrants fleeing the anti-Semitism of Europe, who grew up in a landscape largely hostile to their religion.

Not canonically. According to the website Adherents, the comic character was raised Methodist as a child. As an adult costumed crime fighter, he is basically non-denominational and “respects people of all faiths and backgrounds and considers himself a servant of all humanity.” Occasionally it’s been written that he’s an observer of the Kryptonian “Raoist” religion, sometimes exclaiming “Great Rao!” which we all do at one time or another, like when the Metro door closes on our fingers, or we lock our keys in our cars.

Which is all fine and good, but misses the point that his creators were two Jewish teenagers, themselves the children of Jewish immigrants fleeing the anti-Semitism of Europe, who grew up in a landscape largely hostile to their religion. They were thereby forced to posture; to fit in. To hide, like Clark Kent does, certain parts of their personalities that might have made others uncomfortable.

Superman is Methodist, then, as much as Clark Kent is just a mild-mannered reporter, which is to say there is something inherently Jewish in Superman’s DNA.

His story is special partly because it reflects the American immigrants’ experiences with assimilation.

Then, as today, immigration in America was looked upon with suspicion. In fact, in 1938 (the year Superman was born in Action Comics #1), a national poll was conducted that found the majority of Americans (some 60%) regarded Jews as “greedy,” “dishonest,” and “pushy”.

Very casually ugly statistics, of course, but not so casual for Leo Frank, who was lynched 27 years prior on suspicion of murdering and raping a Christian girl. He was found innocent in American court, but guilty by the lynch mob, who knew very well he was Jewish and probably would have supported building some kind of a wall to keep more Jews out if it would have helped (his death lead to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League that same year).

Henry Ford was very casually and very openly anti-Semitic and about as American as anything: apple pie, denim, crew cuts, Superman.

And the power of Superman, really, is that he’s come to represent a nation that initially despised the guys who created him in the first place.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster knew that, of course: were aware all the time that they were outsiders navigating the American dream through terrain that was more hostile for them than it was for the people who were already living here (themselves immigrants, of course, because that’s all any of us are in the U S of A, but I digress).

White protestant people who loved Ford and listened to Charles Coughlin and would someday vote for Richard Nixon (himself a rabid anti-Semite, proving that 2016 isn’t the first time bigotry’s been petrol for White House acquisition). Well, some of those same people wound up gobbling Superman comics, too, because let’s face it: Superman hit like a comet.

And the beauty of his character was that he, too, was an outsider. Only he didn’t look down on the people he came to live with. Didn’t fear them or despise them. And though he assimilated, it was only to a point. Only to the point where his unique point of view, his cultural Kryptonian disposition (his super powers), allowed him to help the new culture he had adopted. The new culture that had adopted him.

He could sculpt it for the better, because that’s what new perspectives can do. They can broaden us. Enlighten us. Challenge us. Not to get too cheesy about it, but they can make us super.

That’s the point of that other great American super personality, Lady Liberty, who stands guard of Manhattan like an early Wonder Woman prototype, declaring “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and reminds us who we are: we’re the dreamers, the super men and women who believe that liberty and justice for all is something to aspire to, and it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, what god you worship.

That’s the power of Superman. He isn’t some dusty one-percenter like Batman, who’s become cooler only as they’ve stripped away what made Superman cool in the first place.

He’s the outsider in all of us, huddled around the warmth of the American dream, trying to keep that flame alive with our talents, our skills, our unique perspectives. Chipping away at the idea that there are any outsiders at all. That we’re all outsiders, that our texture is better than our homogeny.

He’s a challenge to the idea that American is automatically Christian as well, and a constant reminder that the contributions of American immigrants can become national treasures; that they themselves can be the World’s Finest.

And it all begins with recognizing the fact that America’s most recognizable son is actually a Jewish immigrant.

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