The Reign of the Super­man” by Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter, 1933Wiki­me­dia Commons

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 www​.AdamNemett​.com and @NemoAuthor.