November 20, 2019

Superman is a Jewish Fantasy

This past week my wife surprised me with tickets to the new Superman movie “Man of Steel” for my birthday.  So late Saturday night, we sat in a packed movie theater to watch the reboot of the famous franchise begin.  I loved it.  I love Superman.  And I love the way this film portrays his inner conflict.

Frankly, I think Superman could only have been written by Jews.  It is common knowledge that Superman was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, two Jews, in Cleveland, Ohio.  The character debuted in 1938.  Shuster and Siegel were first generation Americans and maintained a similar “us-against-the-world” mentality that my parents and all first generation Americans do.  They spoke English at school while Yiddish was spoken at home.  This is all explored briefly in “Jewish Americans” – a great PBS documentary. 

Therefore, it is no coincidence that Superman has dark hair and dark eyes while all of the popular kids in his high school are blond and that his American name is Clark Kent while his ancestral name is Kal-El and begins with the same phonetic sound.  Does this sound familiar to American Jews?

However, I’d like to take this one step further and assume that Shuster and Siegel named Superman Kal-El on purpose.  Kal-El can either mean the “Vessel of G-d” or “Ease with G-d”.  No matter which translation we accept, they are drastically different than our traditional title of Children of “Israel”, which means “struggle with G-d”.  Jacob is gifted with the name of Israel only after wrestling with the angel.  This drastic dichotomy in names portrays the difference between the Jewish Ideal and the Jewish Fantasy.  Israel is the Jewish Ideal.  Superman is a Jewish Fantasy.

We would all love to have somebody show up as a vessel who can walk into some chamber and then reveal to all of us the secrets of the universe.  We would all love to have a leader who stands for what is right and good.  We would all love for a figure to battle the forces of evil in the world on our behalf.  But Traditional Jewish Texts leave that for fantasy.  We hold flawed individuals as our role models – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David.

We as Jews try to repair the world ourselves and not wait for others.  The Zionist Tradition encourages us to stand up to our enemies ourselves and not wait for others.  The Rabbinic Tradition shows us to wrestle with G-d’s words, to turn over the words of the Torah and the Talmud until we can make sense of it.  In fact, we spend our entire lives wrestling with G-d, looking for answers.

It would be nice for our relationship with G-d to come easily or “Kal”.  However, Judaism isn’t interested in an easy relationship, our Sages want us to yearn for a meaningful relationship.

That is why I am proud I am moving to Israel for a year.  My family and I are so excited.  Although, I have to admit that we would love to visit Krypton as well.