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Only We Can Save Us: A Brief History of Jewish Superheroes, Real and Fictional

Thursday, November 01, 2018| Permalink

By Adam Nemett

As I was finishing my debut novel, We Can Save Us All—about a group of Ivy Leaguers who respond to apocalyptic indicators by forming a student movement inspired by superheroes—my editor asked me why Jewish writers, from the scribes of the Old Testament to Michael Chabon, are so often called to the superhero genre.

I prepared a knee-jerk response—something about tikkun olam, perhaps, the Jewish notion of repairing the world. My real answer is: Jews have no choice but to reckon with notions of strength versus weakness, with the potential for progress versus history repeating itself, with good versus evil. In good times we can distract ourselves from such concerns, but they’re always there, like the Hulk rage monster bottled inside nerdy Bruce Banner. And in times of rising white supremacy and anti-Semitism, like now, it becomes necessary to deal with them head-on.

The first Superman was evil. In the 1933 comic, “The Reign of the Superman,” two Cleveland Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, envisioned their initial Superman as a bum plucked from the breadline and transformed into a telepathic supervillain. But, according to Siegel, once he saw the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, he decided he wanted to “help the despairing masses, somehow." So, Superman was transformed from an evil tyrant to a savior. Born with the distinctly Jewish-sounding name Kal-El, he was sent into space from dying Krypton as part of a planetary pogrom and adopted by kindly Midwesterners—Moses in the reeds. By February 1940, Superman was dragging Hitler and Stalin to the international courts, with a feature in LOOK magazine depicting the two “power-mad scoundrels” being convicted of “modern history’s greatest crime—unprovoked aggression against defenseless countries.”

From the beginning, we’ve been conditioned to expect Superman to come, a messiah who can rid a “defenseless” Jewry of this never-ending cruelty. There are antecedents and descendants, heroes who came before and after Superman: There were mythical Jewish strongmen like Samson. There was the Golem, that Frankenstein-like monster of incredible strength, made animate from a mass of clay, sent to protect the Jews of Prague. And there were real-life heroes. One of these was the “Iron King,” the “Strongest Man in the World," the “Superman of the Ages”: Siegmund Breitbart.

A Yiddish-speaking Polish Jew, Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart became one of Vienna’s most popular stars of circus and stage amid the rising anti-Semitism of 1920s Austria. He was similarly famous around the globe (on his North American tour of 1923, he even came to Cleveland, possibly influencing Siegel and Shuster). He demonstrated superhuman feats of strength, performing in the costumes of earlier heroes: cowboy; gladiator; Tarzan; even Shimon bar Kokhba, the Judean revolutionary who rose up against Roman rule in 132 CE (Though his rebellion was ultimately crushed, many believed Bar Kokhba was the messiah who'd come to deliver victory for them. Bar Kokhba was a humanist, however, and explicitly relied on his own powers when entering into battle).

After Breitbart and Superman came the Golden Age of Comics, and its lineage of crime fighters, saviors, superheroes, and mutants—mostly created by Jews.

There’s the cast of Marvel characters co-created by Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee): Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, the X-Men, Ant-Man, Iron Man and Thor. Before Marvel was The Spirit, a middle-class vigilante in a domino mask, created by Will Eisner; Batman, the upper-class caped crusader created by Robert Kahn (Bob Kane) and Milton Finger (Bill Finger); and Captain America, the working-class super-soldier created by Hymie Simon (Joe Simon) and Jacob Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby). Captain America’s debut in 1941 showed him socking Hitler in the jaw, a confident intro before America had even entered the war.

What are we to do with this genealogy, this legacy of icons that have dominated global popular culture for decades, only rising in prominence due to the recent slate of DC and Marvel blockbusters? From Bar Kokhba to Captain America, Jews are drawn to the promise of an intervening hero who can, in the words of historian Arnold L. Goldsmith in his study The Golem Remembered, “mitigate their suffering and lead them to the messianic redemption their religion taught them to expect.”

But what if we stopped looking, stopped waiting, stopped crying out for someone else to lead us to salvation? What if we instead found superpowers within, a way to catalyze a new future rather than replaying the past?

Last weekend, a hate-filled lunatic massacred eleven Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Last year, eleven days after my daughter was born, Nazis invaded my town, picked fights in our streets, cracked a black man’s skull in the garage next to the police station, weaponized a car to kill an innocent woman.

It wasn’t some superhuman mud monster, and it certainly wasn’t the government or police who battled white supremacists in Charlottesville on August 11–12, 2017; it was a committed and heroic group of ordinary people, many of them among the most vulnerable to attacks from the alt-right: women, people of color, the LGBTQ community.

Our collective faith and individual relationships with the Divine are undoubtedly part of why our culture has survived and thrived. But Jews can't afford to wait for our latest messianic savior, real or fictional. We must work together and as part of a multiracial coalition against white supremacy. We must be our own saviors. 

And that can mean many things.

It doesn’t have to entail fighting with fists or militarizing our synagogues, but it certainly doesn’t mean waiting or hoping or praying that someone else will swoop in and save the day. It means doing something, taking action, tapping into whatever powers you have and cultivating them. It means deploying humor and art and knowledge and bravery. It means mutating beyond our collective history, recalling the heroism inborn and discovered in Jewish communities. It means being unified.

It means developing new skills, too, and remembering old ones. Over the last two thousand years, Jews have undoubtedly been oppressed and denied access to rights and professions, but—as some research suggests—we have also proactively prioritized certain forms of education over others.

When faced with the realities of escalating climate change and civilization breakdown, the mortal, scared student superheroes in my novel complement their vital liberal arts and STEM education with practical trades and survival skills: farming, hunting, construction, self-defense. Together, they form a united collective of highly humanistic individuals—tapped into a higher spiritual force but, like Bar Kokhba, reliant only on their own powers when the shit hits the fan.

This fictional movement inevitably and hypocritically has to contend with the presence of a charismatic and messianic figure, but I hope the message remains. It may not be a popular message in devout circles, but it’s one that may be increasingly relevant for Jews in our time: no magical superhero is coming to save us.

But maybe we can save us all.

Adam Nemett is the author of We Can Save Us All, a debut novel published by The Unnamed Press (November 2018). He is the creative lead at History Factory, the writer-director of the independent feature film The Instrument, and co-founder of the educational nonprofit MIMA Music. Adam graduated from Princeton University, received his MFA from California College of the Arts, and now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find him at and @NemoAuthor.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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