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Super ... Mensch?

July 6, 2006 By:
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Truth, justice and the ...

Yiddish way?

Sure, "Superman Returns" after five years. But who knew Supersized would mean he'd be coming back circumsized?

And does a Man of Steel still need some grape juice to handle the pain?

That must be some pair of scissors.

"Well, I'm not saying Superman is Jewish, but certainly his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were, and they informed him with a Jewish worldview," notes Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, a caped crusader for the Man of the Cape.

And we're not talking just cape cod piece here. Weinstein makes an argument that the man with the big "S" on his chest has an aleph on his back; and he takes his arguments to soaring heights that make his Up, Up, and Oy Vey! a new way to deal with the Man of Steel.

What kind of name is Kal-El for a Jewish boy anyway? Krypton Conservative? "It's a good one," says Weinstein of the simcha of giving a child a name with an incredible similarity to Kol-El, Hebrew for "Voice of God."

"Superman" certainly is making his voice known intergalactically these days, flying off with No. 1 box- office honors upon his return from Krypton to the big screen.

And he's not doing too badly Jewishly either, says Weinstein, who credits comic-book sage Will Eisner with getting it more than a bissel right: "A little Yiddishkeit never hurt," said Eisner in the spirit of one who should know.

But could it help? "I have a bunch of apathetic art students who happen to be Jewish," says the artistic-leaning rabbi of those lethargic kids who would prove pathetic prey for a Lex Luthor. "But as soon as I started using Superman as a tool to educate, they said, 'Oh, rabbi! Now we understand.'

"Same thing at shul. People can be snoring when you give a sermon, but mention Superman? Suddenly, they're awake."

Able to leap tall bimahs in a single bound? Not just men, but women wonder, too, about the myth behind the man.

But that outfit ... Would a Jewish mother really send her son out in the snow dressed like that?

Well, he does wear boots. And, is it possible that the cape is actually a tallis? "Well," muses the rebbe, "I thought about it, but I didn't want to write that. But you can."

After all, isn't the "Superman" theme song -- heaven help us all, John Williams -- of "da-da-da, da-da da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da" just a Hollywood hora gone awry? A ditty derivative of "deidel-deidel-deidel," the hat song of the Chasids?

And is that not the Daily Planet that Clark's got in his hands but the Daily Forward? Midst all this is a midrash, says Weinstein.

Just what planet is Weinstein on? "With a title like Up, Up, and Oy Vey! it's clear I don't take myself too seriously with this," he says with a chuckle that would spin Jimmy Olsen's bow tie.

"I've been reading comic books since I was a kid, and anyone who takes it seriously forgets one thing: Superman is an alien."

But is it his inalienable right to stand up for all that is pure and perfect? Or did he just happen to cross the border from Mexico? Even with super vision, does Superman lose his power when confronted with green kryptonite because he thinks it's a ... green card?

Would his passport pass muster with immigration officials?

"No, he's from Krypton," chides Weinstein. "And that's one big matzah ball hanging out there!"

Pillar of Society
No kreplach, Rabbi. But there is a lot of truth to how the saga of Superman has a super sense of Jewish tradition and storytelling that made him every Jewish boomer's favorite Saturday cereal superhero. "I went back to the early comics, and I saw how his story compares to that of Samson," says Weinstein.

Moses, Moses, Moses -- there's that comparison, too. And then there are the World War II-set issues where Superman fought the Nazis with a brio -- giving them such a zetz -- that could have made him the ADL's poster boy.

Did they have matzah on Krypton? Was the Fortress of Solitude just another way of expressing how it felt to get a bad seat at High Holiday services?

Yet ... funny ... Superman doesn't look Jewish.

But, oy -- as Lois Lane discovered -- Superman really is faster than a speeding bullet. "Each generation of comic-book creators explored the ambiguities, the pain of discrimination, and the particularly Jewish theme of the misunderstood outcast, the rootless wanderer," writes the rabbi in his bam! pow! of a terrific book.

After all, it is written in the good book -- and Michael Chabon's good book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, says it all about the reconstructionist Clark Kent: "Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself."

Jew, non-Jew -- why get into name-calling? Because it means so much to so many in such super ways. His heroics even harken back to the Holocaust, relates Weinstein: "Just as Superman was sent away from Krypton to avoid the mass destruction of his people, many Jewish children were sent on the Kindertransport" during the Holocaust to "seek safety with families in England."

"Superman, the literary child of Jews," writes on Weinstein, "became on pulp paper what Hitler could not create even on the ashes of millions of flesh-and-blood Jewish children: the ubermensch."

Is the author uber-out there? No, even Superman's mantra is midrashic, he explains. Truth, justice and the American way (a line, ironically, not actually spoken in the film, reportedly out of the producers' concern not to make it seem a jingle for jingoism)? How different is that from the codes of Ethics of the Fathers, which explains that "the world endures on three things: justice, truth and peace."

Is Superman just a piece of Jewish lore? "Like Clark Kent, Jews have assimilated," says Weinstein, but by reverting to Superman, his alter ego is able to do miracles without phoning them in.

Want a miracle? Why not bring peace to the Middle East? Or better yet, why doesn't Superman make aliyah? Who'd throw stones at him?

Not a bad idea, says Weinstein, who, conspiratorially, lets it be known, "I hear he's thinking of going there with Project Birthright."

The man who could reverse the world on its axis would certainly turn heads with such a trip. And what a Jewish trip the animated TV series, "Justice League," was for SM fans, especially in its post-Superman "death" commemorative episodes 19 and 20, with other superheroes shown sitting shivah for the Man of Steal with stolen moments of memories.

And, now a new honor almost as big as being named ORT's "Man of the Year": Yahoo! Buzz has just released a survey showing that Superman is its No. 1 downloaded superhero. (The only Jew, it should be noted, to make the top 20.)

But before anyone hands Clark Kent a pledge card or asks Lois Lane about her plans for Shemini Atzeret, they should hold that Manischewitz toast. There are some who think that calling Superman Jewish is akin to finding the afikomen and discovering it's really an Easter egg.

After all, it's the Midwestern Kents, not the Mideastern. And there's a method to the Methodists, churchgoers all. Indeed, as "Superman Returns" gloriously returns the supercharacter to the big screen, some fans have noticed a Christological rather than Judaic symbolism in his depiction.

It wouldn't be the first time. Indeed, an article in a 2002 edition of Journal of Religion and Film pushed back the cape to reveal "Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah," detailing a number of similarities between two of the greatest stories ever told.

Tellingly, the article relates, "Kal-El was the son of Jor-El just as Jesus was the 'son of God,' " as related in Mark 1:1; 1 John 4:14; and much is made of the Holy Trinity, with Anton Karl Kozlovic, an eminent scholar, noting in the article that "Superman is not only a legitimate Christ figure, but the American pop culture movie Messiah."

Guess that clips Batman's wings.

But why has a movie Moses been made over into Jesus? Simple, Dr. Reg Gran of the Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas told one reporter: "Jesus sells tickets. He always has."

Sure, a struggling Hollywood's always looking for a box-office messiah -- especially during summer -- but how literal the locus?

According to The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero, there is no stigmata to drawing parallel universes -- bizarre as they may seem superficially -- between Superman and Jesus. Which is exactly what "Superman Returns" does, notably in a scene depicting the superhero posturing in crucifixion-style repose and another in which Jor-El (the late Marlon Brando) cosmically intones of his son's special earth-bound voyage from a lonely planet, "I have sent them you, my only son," evoking the arrival of Jesus on earth.

Holy ... holy?

Even Brian Singer, director of "Superman Returns," returns to the days of yesteryear when he was a Jewish kid raised in a gentile Jersey neighborhood to recall how that catholic background affected him and, possibly, his retelling of the Superman saga. As he told the Associated Press: "Those [Christian] allegories are part of how you're raised. They become ingrained in your storytelling the same way that the original story of Superman is very much the story of Moses."

Exactly, exclaims Weinstein. When all is said and done -- and those venal vile villains dispatched -- KAPOW! -- the star from Smallville is a big-time Jewish mensch; well, if not in actuality, then in attitude.

After all, says the author, who's working on an upcoming book about Jews in comedy, Superman's alter ego may be nebbishe -- with Clark Kent kin to Woody Allen -- but there is no mistaking who is the true hero and the super mensch of Metropolis when menace must be met and vanquished.

If Clark makes an "S" of himself, there's one thing that that letter doesn't stand for when Superman stands up for truth, the "S" rippling from his chest like an American flag made of muscle, says Weinstein.

Perry White, stop the presses! "It doesn't stand for Schmendrick."

But does it stand for fabulouS? The Advocate, the gay-geared periodical, is espousing a point of view that it's not so much that Superman returns but that he's coming out.

Wait ... Jewish? Gay?

Anyone else?

As they would say at the Daily Planet -- that's another issue. 

 

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