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Make Superman Jewish Again

The Man of Steel has distinctly Semitic roots, and the celebrated comic book artist about to reimagine him wants to honor them. But just what does that mean in 2018?

Liel Leibovitz
February 20, 2018

Mazal tov to Brian Michael Bendis: The esteemed comic book writer has recently jumped ship from Marvel to DC, and, later this year, will give new life to the publisher’s most iconic hero, Superman.

“I’m a little Jewish boy from Cleveland,” Bendis told Forbes, “and my connection to Superman is very, very deep, genetically.”

He wasn’t exaggerating: Educated in an orthodox day school in Cleveland, Bendis shared with Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, not just a city of birth but also an obsession with all-things-Jewish, the sort of preoccupation that ended up with the hero sporting a vaguely Jewish name (Kal-El, the latter word, of course, being Hebrew for “God”) and an origin story that faintly resembled that of Moses, dispatched from certain doom as a baby only to rise again as his people’s savior.

One of Bendis’s many talents is the ability to reimagine traditional heroes in surprisingly contemporary ways, as he did when he killed off Peter Parker—also known as Spider-Man—and gave the Spidey senses instead to Miles Morales, a new teenager nibbled on by a radioactive arachnoid, half-black and half-Latino and a hundred percent great. This wasn’t just an empty nod to diversity, but a very personal undertaking: Two of Bendis’s children are adopted—one African and the other African-American—and his strength lies, in part, in creating narratives that blend comicdom’s mythology with a world that feels entirely contemporary and wholly inclusive of groups traditionally relegated to the sidelines.

His Superman, he reassured fans, will feel every bit as fresh. “Writing Superman in today’s day and age is such a powerful experience. We live in a world where we’ve heard, ‘Truth, justice, and the American way’ our whole lives, right? But this is the first time those things are really not to be taken for granted. Now I think it’s time Superman stand up and give us that hope we always want from him. It’s a great thing to be writing a character who exudes hope at a time when people really, really need it.”

But what, if we accept Superman as a crypto-Jew, does that mean, precisely? What fresh troubles might face the perpetual stranger from faraway who changes his Semitic name to the all-American Clark Kent and strives to assimilate, only to learn, again and again, that assimilation isn’t really an option? One hopes that Bendis considers, as he sits down at his desk to begin his momentous undertaking, that, in 2018, Jews experience more hate crimes than any other minority group in America, and remain arguably the only group reviled by the blowhards on both left and right.

All this isn’t to suggest that Superman abandon his lifelong struggle against Lex Luthor and instead do battle with BDS. But as Bendis himself probably realizes all too well, Superman’s story was only ever great when it played up the persecution he inevitably faced from folks terrified by his otherness. There’s nothing inherently interesting about this airborne alien—his nearly impeccable superhuman strength makes him too perfect for any mortal to empathize, unlike, say, Marvel’s gallery of deeply flawed heroes who struggle primarily with their own vices. Superman has only truly soared when facing not just Luthor’s Kryptonite but also the sneers and fears of those puny people he toiled so hard to save. In fact, the comics’ early years consisted largely of the citizens of Metropolis struggling to make sense of Superman, terrified by his distinction and oscillating between reverence and contempt.

Let Superman, then, be Superman again, and let him face the sort of bigotry, veiled and otherwise, that American Jews these days experience everywhere from the quad to the streets of Charlottesville. Bendis has the opportunity to make a Jewish hero for our time, one that revisits his own origins and replaces the anxieties of his Jewish creators with new concerns, every bit as harrowing. It’s the stuff legends are made of, and there’s no one better for the task than a kid who admits to having spent his childhood reading comic books as if they were the Torah.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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