Celebrating the first Jewish Superman

Hollywood has long cast Jewish actors according to stereotype, but this may finally be changing.

An illustrative image of a superhero. Photo: rangizzz/Shutterstock
An illustrative image of a superhero. Photo: rangizzz/Shutterstock
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

I am not a comic book fan. I am not a superhero fan. I think comic book films are slowly demolishing whatever remains of American cinema. But, if I may be slightly hypocritical, I am a huge Superman fan.

My love for the character goes back to my earliest childhood, when my family gathered before a black-and-white television to watch the first network broadcast of the classic 1978 film “Superman,” starring the immortal Christopher Reeve as the title character.

Even without its vibrant colors, the film transported me to another world as soon as John Williams’s extraordinary score began to pound and the “S” shield swooped onto the screen. Ever since, Superman has been the exception to my general distaste for the comic book aesthetic.

I did not realize until much later that there was likely another reason for my love of the iconic character: Superman is blatantly, quintessentially, obviously Jewish. To the core. I saw myself in him.

A recent Rolling Stone article by Jay Michaelson outlined the numerous ways Superman’s Jewishness has been expressed, from his Hebrew-sounding name Kal-El to his sense of being other and different. And, of course, there is the inescapable fact that the character was created by two young Jewish men from Cleveland—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Their very Jewish names still adorn every iteration of the character.

For me, however, Superman’s Jewishness was summed up in a remark made by a friend of mine comparing Superman to his dark, cynical and pessimistic counterpart: Batman. “He’s rich, he drives a cool car, he runs around with little boys—he’s goyish,” she said of the Dark Knight. Chauvinistic, perhaps, but certainly insightful.

The comparison is indeed telling because the most Jewish thing about Superman is that he represents hope and justice. Batman is brooding, violent and traumatized. Superman is, in his way, traumatized too—the last survivor of a destroyed planet and civilization—but he does not spend his time brutalizing criminals in order to purge his suffering: He seeks to do justice for the sake of it.

“Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” is the goal, as the prophet said, or as the song goes, “Hatikvah”—the hope. At our best, the Jews pursue justice, the Jews persevere, the Jews are optimists because we have no choice in the matter. Neither does Kal-El.

However, Superman has almost always been played onscreen by unthreatening WASPs. Hollywood has long been incapable of believing that a Jew could comfortably portray a character of such strength and power.

That is, until now. Michaelson’s tribute to Superman’s Jewishness was prompted by the news that Superman will be played in an upcoming film by David Corenswet—the first Jewish actor to portray the character.

This is long overdue, to say the least, but it is important for another reason as well. Despite Hollywood’s perennial obsession with diversity and inclusion, along with the effort to counter stereotypical portrayals of seemingly every identity group in the United States, an exception has long been made for the Jews. Almost universally, Jewish actors who portray Jewish characters onscreen are cast as comical buffoons: Neurotic, petulant, inept, farcical and inevitably played for laughs.

Indeed, a mini-controversy has recently erupted over the casting of the acclaimed new film “Oppenheimer.” The picture contains numerous Jewish characters, which is not surprising, considering the immense achievements of Jewish physicists in the first half of the 20th century. In the film, they include everyone from Albert Einstein to J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. Yet all of the strong, dignified Jewish characters are played by non-Jews.

In contrast, the physicist Isidor Rabi—in real life a brilliant scientist and an extraordinary man—is played by a Jewish actor: David Krumholtz. But Rabi alone is portrayed as a ridiculous figure. Bulbous, bumbling and inexplicably clownish, he has none of the complexity and power of the Jewish characters played by non-Jews. Why, one wonders, could no Jewish actor be found to play the stentorian Oppenheimer or the gentle but knowing Einstein?

The latter is particularly ironic, as Einstein was always proud and defiant when it came to his Jewish identity, which he never denied and often celebrated. One would think that, if only in deference to his legacy, a Jewish actor could have been cast in the role. The fact that this apparently never even occurred to the filmmakers is telling. It is not necessarily antisemitic but it is disrespectful, above all to Einstein himself.

Corenswet’s casting as Superman suggests that this unfortunate situation may be changing. Indeed, Superman is, in many ways, the ultimate subversion of Jewish stereotypes. His bumbling alter ego Clark Kent personifies all those stereotypes, but Clark Kent is a fake, a mask that Superman’s true self wears, and that true self is strong, powerful, confident and righteous.

Kent may be how many people like to see the Jews, but Superman is what all Jews—and all human beings—truly aspire to be and often are, however much the world might like to think otherwise.

To see a Jew finally portray what is perhaps the strongest of all Jewish characters in American pop culture will not mean much to most of the movie-going public. They will simply be happy to see a beloved character return to the screen. But for the Jews, it will have an added significance: We will be permitted, at long last in full, to see ourselves as a Superman.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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