Jewish Superheros

A recent email prompted me to revisit the topic of Superman.  Although I’ve always favored Batman over Superman (feeling that Batman’s human origins make his personae more relate-able), but Superman has an interesting back-story.

Superman was created by two Jewish men in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1930s.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman as an amalgamation of Biblical heros like Moses and Samson with American ideals of the period.  Superman represents a lot of bottled up angst within the Ashkenazic male psyche.  Siegel’s father, a shop owner in Cleveland, was gunned down during a robbery.  As a result, Siegel created a bulletproof superhero.

Many of the characteristics of Superman are inversions of traditional Ashkenazic stereotypes.  While Clark Kent is a bookish and awkward reporter, within him flourishes the awesome power to right all the wrongs of the world.  Clark Kent fumbles around his lady love, but Superman is expressive and Louis Lane cannot help but be won over.  Yet despite the very obvious physical similarities between Clark Kent and Superman, when he is Clark, no one can see the latent Superman underneath.

After the abortive Bar Kockba revolt of 132-135, Jews were dispersed from the area that is now Israel and began to laud study and prayer over military or agricultural activities (even though the Tanakh is based in an agricultural society).  Jews reinterpreted our role and made the scholar into the hero.  In the Talmud, the highwayman Shimon ben Lakish (Reish Lakish) is a strapping and muscular criminal who turns into a gentle study partner for the dashing Rabbi Yochanan.  Shimon ben Lakish represents a removal from the psychical world, an inverse of Superman.  This trend would be best summed up from a line in the Hadran ceremony, the ritual for completing a course of study of Mishnah or Talmud.  We work and they (non-Jews) work.  Their (non-Jewish) work is empty and pointless, our work (ie study) brings us merit in the World-to-Come.

19th and early 20th century Eastern European Jews also struggled with a desire to release their sensual and physical potential.  The poet Shaul Tchernichovsky famously wrote an ode to the goddess Astarte (one of the forbidden deities in the bible).  It is a good example of the Zionist and early Israeli desire to return to the Tanakh and eschew the Talmud and Rabbinic Tradition.  The feeling was that the Rabbinic Tradition (along with diaspora languages such as Yiddish) had been emblematic of powerlessness.  The poem below expresses a yearning to break away from the quiet yeshiva student and return to the eroticism and power of the heroes of the Tanakh.

My Astarte, won’t you tell me, please, was it not through the vale
You came to us? Was it through waves of agate and chalcedony,
In a son of Canaan’s hands, from Sidon, stronghold on the sea?
Did Dan’s chieftains lie in wait for him at night along the trail?

Was it in linen bundles on the camels of Dedan,
The she-camels swaying back and forth and raising golden sand,
Carried by, with swords and spears equipped, a Sheban caravan,
Led forth by tinkling bells and singing moons1 across the land?

To see that emeralds are your eyes, how I have been delighted,
You’re wholly made of ivory, limbs perfectly united.
But the secret no man will reveal — who brought you here to me?

A little basket of dried figs, my finest flour too,
A pour of oil from my olives — so I’ve prayed unto you:
“Please find for me a shining boy and bring him speedily!”

There was a belief that Jews, like Superman, had a hidden strength, stifled by exile and only waiting to burst forth should the opportunity arise.  The ethos of the early settlers in Israel and the kibbutzniks is representative of this feeling.  The poet Abraham Shlonsky reinterpreted Jewish symbols like tallit and tefillin, making them into metaphors for the burgeoning physicality of Jews as New Israeli men and women:

Clothe me, goodly mother, in a splendrous coat of many colors,
And with dawn lead me unto my toil.

My land wraps itself in light as in a tallit
Houses stand like tefillin,
And like tefillin-straps the palm-paved highways all glide down.

Thus a beauteous new-wrought township prays at dawn to her creator,
And among creators,
Your son Abraham
Is the hymnal poet-paver
Of the roads of Israel.

And at evening in the sunset Father shall return from labors
And like prayer whisper gladly:
Dearest son, my Abraham
Skin and bones and veins and sinews:
Hallelujah

Clothe me, goodly mother in a splendorous coat of many colors,
And with dawn lead me
Unto my toil.

Which are we as a people?  Are we muscular and tan?  Are we pale but intelligent with good sense of humor?  Which are we, Clark Kent or Superman, or both?

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