Superman is Jewish?: People of the comic book


Nothing is quite so purely American as the comic book, which is why it will come as a surprise to some readers to discover that philosopher Harry Brod regards Superman and Spider-Man and many other comic-book characters to be uniquely Jewish artifacts that offer crucial insights into the Jewish experience in America.

“For it turns out that the history of the Jews and comic book superheroes, that very American invention, is the history of Jews and America, particularly the history of Jewish assimilation into the mainstream of American culture,” Brod writes in “Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way” by Harry Brod (Free Press: $25).

Brod, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, affirms that his own path into the life of the mind began with a childhood passion for comic books. 

“I attribute much of my motivation to become a philosopher by profession to my early reading of science fiction and comic books,” he explains. “The world need not be as it was. There were alterative possibilities, reached not by fantasy but by rational extension of the world we knew. ‘What if…’ became a guiding question for me, and wanting to think that through became second nature.”

The Jewish origins of our superheroes, according to Brod, do not begin and end with the fact that so many of the writers and artists who created them were Jewish. Rather, he detects the influence of characters from Jewish folktales — the golem and the dybbuk — as well as “Jewish traditions of Talmudic disputation.” Nor is it a coincidence that so many Jews found a showcase for their sensibilities in the pages of comic books: “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew,” recalls Al Jaffee, a longtime cartoonist for Mad magazine. “One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”

Then, too, he teases out the Jewish values, aspirations and anxieties that are sometimes deeply encoded in comic book characters. Superman, for example, can be seen as “an alien immigrant from another planet.” The Incredible Hulk, a latter-day golem conjured by Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), turns into a “man-monster” when he gets angry: “Is it too much to speculate that in the Lieber household it was perhaps impressed upon young Stanley that nice Jewish boys don’t get angry,” muses Brod, “that they’re supposed to be, dare we say it, ‘mild mannered,’ like our old friend Clark Kent?” Spider-Man “is a post-Holocaust American Jew,” writes Brod, “and the guilt that plagues and motivates him is a specific post-Holocaust American Jewish guilt.”

Brod, an intellectual whose gifts include a lively sense of humor, is perfectly willing to invoke a Jewish joke to make the point. “It is hard to resist — too hard for me, in fact — quoting Zeddy Lawrence here: ‘It may not be true in all cases, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the word ‘man’ appears at the end of someone’s name you can draw one of two conclusions: a) they’re Jewish, as in Goldman, Feldman, or Lipman; or b) they’re a superhero, as in Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.’ ” As Brod himself puts it: “Before Joe Shuster drew Superman, the only artist drawing Jews flying through the air was Marc Chagall.” 

So, too, does Brod detect “a mocking Yiddishist sensibility” that runs from Mad magazine to Marvel comics and finally into the pages of Playboy, whose “Little Annie Fanny” was drawn by Mad magazine stalwarts Will Elder (born Eisenberg) and Harvey Kurtzman. But he seeks to show us “how American Jews created the modern comic book,” an achievement that has less to do with Jewish jokes than with a Yiddishe Kopp — that is, a characteristically Jewish way of seeing the world.

For example, he insists that Superman and Spider-Man share a common Jewish ancestry, but the differences between these two superheroes reveals a change in Jewish self-image in America: “The difference between Superman’s and Spider-Man’s Jewishness is analogous to the ways Jews, as they became more assimilated into American culture, struggled less with identity issues of being strangers in a strange land,” he offers. “They felt themselves to be more native to America, and so became freer to act and create in ways that are identifiably Jewish, not coded or indirect.”

Brod opens his book with some special pleading on behalf of the comic book as an authentic and worthy expression of culture and creativity. By the end of his book, however, it is clear that he has made his case. Brod devotes a chapter to Art Spiegelman, who boldly rendered a story of the Holocaust as a comic book populated with cats and mice and thereby “demonstrated what the medium was capable of and that there was an audience for it.” But we are able to appreciate Spiegelman’s courageous work all the more because we have seen the work of Jewish artists and writers who came before him.

“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a champion of the oppressed! It’s a messianic liberator!” Brod sums up in his enchanting and enlightening book. “Yes, it’s the Jewish imagination in flight!”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold


“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) www.fantagraphics.com .

“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.

Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.

Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.

“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.

He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)

“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.

Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.

“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”

So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)

To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)

Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.

— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.

“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”

— Menasha Skulnik?

“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”

— Joseph Seltzer?

“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”

— Abraham Kalish?

“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.

— While he mocked them?

“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”

— Sounds like what Borat does!

“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”

— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…

“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”

— He used a thick Jewish accent?

“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.

— Who played him?

“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”

— No.

“I’m surprised.”

Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.

Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.

Eight Crazy Delights


1. No Nostalgia for Waxing

This Chanukah, there is no more scraping, boiling water, melting with a hair dryer or freezing to remove wax drippings from your menorah because Wax-Off prevents wax from sticking to any candle-holder surface. Visit www.wax-off.net or call (800) 334-9964 for more information.

2. Fiddler-mania!

Question: What would your Chanukah be without your hand-painted “Fiddler on the Roof” Figurine Music Box ($45), “Fiddler” Chess Set ($300), “Fiddler” Chip n’ Dip Set ($50), “Fiddler” Teapot ($36) and set of “Fiddler” Shmear Spreaders ($45)? And the answer: Much less expensive. (www.jewishsource.com ).

3. A Big Blow to the Jewish People

Hebrew Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum Box of 100 ($10.95). If you can’t read Hebrew, don’t sweat it — the comic strips are probably funnier when you don’t understand the gags (www.jewishsource.com).

4. Rabbi Said Knock You Out!

Boxing Rabbi Puppet ($9.50). Finally, a way to one-up your neighbor’s Fighting Nun Puppet (www.mcphee.com ).

5. Ark for Ark’s Sake

The Ark of the Covenant ($11.95). Indiana Jones nearly lost his life searching for his. So why not pick one up for yourself and see what all the hubbub is about? (www.mcphee.com ).

6. Giving You Plaque

Gefilte Fish Plaque ($5.95). A Jesus plate parody for your car. In all honesty, this plaque probably tastes better than the fish that inspired it. Unclear whether it comes packed in jelly. (www.mcphee.com ).

7. When the Golem

Gets Tough…

Share with your children the legend of the Prague protector with a copy of “Golem,” an award-winning children’s book by David Wisniewski. (Clarion Books, $17) (www.amazon.com ).

9. Winnie the Jew

Winnie the Pooh in a yarmulke with dreidel in hand. Nobody saw this one coming, but then again, the lovable bear perhaps makes a more convincing Jew than a boy named Christopher Robin. ($8.50). (The Disney Store. For locations visit disney.store.go.com ).



Bonus Shamash Gift: The Jewish Version of The Spinners?

The Draydelettes, a chorus line of Chanukah tops created by designer Susan Fischer Weis, grace a light set ($19.95) and mug ($7.95) (www.jewishsource.com ).

Boys Wonder


Joe [incredulous]: Jewish superheroes?

Sammy: What, they’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick up a name like that for himself.

A day after Yom Kippur, Michael Chabon, with his telegenic looks – long dark locks, piercing clear eyes – does not stand out amidst the young and the beautiful circulating through Chateau Marmont. However, as a writer, the 37-year-old – best known for the 1995 novel “The Wonder Boys” – has stood out in the publishing world since graduating from college in the mid- 1980s.

Chabon’s latest, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (Random House), chronicles the rise and fall of Sammy Clay and his Czechoslovakian refugee cousin, Joe Kavalier – cartoonists who create, then lose control of their biggest creation: the Escapist. Set in the World War II-era Golden Age of comic books – when Jewish American males thrived, conjuring up dime store escapism – the story echoes the real-life tragedy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish teenagers who concocted Superman, only to naively forfeit the rights.

Five years in the making, Chabon’s novel not only encapsulates the author’s childhood-forged passion for superhero comics, but also his recent rediscovery of his own Jewish culture. The book’s strength lies in its rich universe of Jewish characters and metaphors, as the Golem of Prague, Harry Houdini and Europe at the dawn of World War II all figure prominently. And while some publishers might consider a saga containing the double whammy of overtly Jewish themes and comic books as an elixir for disaster, Chabon was surprised by how receptive his associates were to his concept.

“I was sort of talking initially to my agent about various book ideas,” Chabon told The Journal, “and it was the one she jumped on right away. My editor had the same reaction. She’s not Jewish, she never read a comic book in her life.”

Researching “Kavalier & Clay,” Chabon conducted firsthand interviews with legends of the field: Marvel Comics’ guru Stan Lee, “The Spirit” creator Will Eisner, Martin “Green Lantern” Nodell, and on and on. As Chabon learned, “Almost all of the major characters – with the possible exception of Wonder Woman – were created by Jews. I wondered, ‘What was that about?’ As soon as I started thinking about it and doing some reading into the history of comics, especially superhero comics, it’s immediately apparent.”

Indeed, the Golem of Prague looms large in Chabon’s book, as symbolic of the Jewish storytelling tradition; as precursor to the modern superhero idiom; as a reminder of Kavalier and Clay’s Ashkenazi roots. While Chabon originally included the Golem in a passing reference, his chat with Eisner, who referenced the legendary champion of the Jewish people, led Chabon to reevaluate the clay giant. Several drafts later, the Golem had insinuated itself into a greatly expanded role. Like the original Golem rising in a besieged medieval shtetl, Chabon said the character “popped into my life kind of right when I needed it.”

The link between the Golem and the American superhero is clear to Chabon, who cites the “messianic” component of early Superman editions, when the Man of Steel – with powers less godlike and more earthbound (Superman originally did not fly) – served as a champion of the oppressed.”It was not about fighting supervillains,” said Chabon, “but rescuing people from bosses that were exploiting them.”

One eye-catching item in “Kavalier & Clay” comes at the end of the lengthy acknowledgments, where Chabon dedicates not only this comics-themed work but every story he has ever written to Jack Kirby – co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, and hundreds more. Chabon never did meet the prolific cartoonist, a tough Depression-era New Yorker born Jacob Kurtzberg who died in 1994.

“The greatest thing about Kirby that I ultimately find so inspiring,” said Chabon, “is the sheer fecundity of his imagination. The way he could just toss off, in a throw-away story, seven or eight different ideas that other writers would be happy to have an entire series built around. He was such an unstoppable force.”

For years, Chabon was somewhat disconnected from his own Jewish heritage.”As I had children, I found myself coming back to it and looking at it in a whole different light,” said Chabon, who lives in Berkeley.

With his novelist wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3, Chabon actively attends a Jewish Renewal congregation called Kehilla Community Synagogue and sits on the synagogue’s board.

“It is through Kehilla that I see myself, at least in the foreseeable future, defining my Jewish identity,” said Chabon.

Like many young men of his generation, Chabon’s entry into literature began with comic books, particularly the steady diet of Marvel titles he avidly consumed in the 1970s. By his own account, his childhood was “a standard suburban Jewish upbringing in Columbia, Maryland,” where his family occasionally attended synagogue. Chabon’s parents have Polish, Lithuanian and Russian roots. His father, a former pediatrician and lawyer, now works as an executive for Mutual of Omaha, his mother as an attorney. The family name is either Moldavian or Belarussian and means “shepherd.”

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, Chabon attended the University of California at Irvine, where his professor, MacDonald Harris, forwarded Chabon’s thesis to a literary agent. That project became Chabon’s well-received 1988 debut, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and that literary agent, Mary Evans, represents the writer to this day.

In the early 1990s, Chabon agonized over, then abandoned his original follow-up to “Mysteries” after amassing thousands of pages. His critically acclaimed sophomore novel, “Wonder Boys,” hit movie theaters earlier this year starring Michael Douglas and directed by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”). While the film version failed to find its audience, Paramount believes in it enough to rerelease the movie this month, in time for Oscar consideration. And producer Scott Rudin has tapped Chabon to adapt “Kavalier & Clay” as a motion picture.

“It’s going to be incumbent on me not to be too protective as a screenwriter,” said Chabon, who was pleased with Steven Kloves’s “Wonder Boys” screenplay.

By translating his book to celluloid, Chabon hopes to direct new interest to the long-maligned medium he cherishes.

“Comics had already existed for 40 or 50 years as this art form that nobody had paid attention to,” said Chabon. “There was never a critic who stood up and had the guts to say, ‘I read comics. I like comics.'”

Fortunately for comic book fans, one writer has.