Once there was a survivor. His parents and everyone he knew were killed. His world was literally destroyed. And so he came to America as an illegal immigrant. He was given a new name and no one knew about his origins. He assimilated into the melting pot called America. He didn’t want anyone to know who he really was. And he dressed like all the Americans in suit and tie and hat, and he starting going out with a nice white Anglo-Saxon girl. And while he knew who he really was, all that history, and all that pain, was too much to think about, and so sometimes he just tried to forget it.
His original name was Kal-El, which means “Voice of G-d” in Hebrew, but he went by the WASPy name of Clark Kent, about as WASPy as you can get. And he didn’t let anyone know that under his grey flannel suit, he was really Superman.
The character of Superman was created by two Jewish boys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who grew up in the very Jewish neighborhood of Glenville in Cleveland. They grew up in the 1930s. For a Jewish boy in the 1930s, the world was a complex place. Being Jewish, having a Jewish identity, made the world a limited place. As immigrants with a history of persecution, Jewish people came to America with their heads down but their eyes open. They found America to be a place where there was anti-Semitism but where discrimination wasn’t officially sanctioned by the government. America had a philosophy that allowed the individual to succeed, at least in theory, according to his abilities. Relatively speaking, the Jews in America had it good; they had freedom and opportunity. In reality, it was harder. Some were able to become professionals, doctors and lawyers, but there were plenty of barriers, and a lot of Jews went into the garment industry and into entertainment. The big publishing houses and the advertising world had all sort of barriers but the world of pulp magazines and the fledgling comic book industry were wide open to talented aspiring Jewish people like Siegel and Shuster.
And these Jewish boys looked out at the world and they saw Hitler.
Here is what Jerry Siegel says:
What led me into creating Superman in the early thirties? … Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany … seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden … I had the great urge to help… help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.
If you look at the early Superman comics, you’re amazed at how clear the Jewish connection is. In the tenth Superman comic book in 1941, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are sent to cover a sports festival that looks exactly like the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Hitler mistakenly believed would demonstrate that the so-called Aryans were the supermen, the superior race, once and for all. In the comic book, the German athletes march around the stadium in a Heil Hitler pose, and the character that represents Hitler shouts that his people are superior to any other race or nation, that they are entitled to be the masters of America. Clark Kent has no choice but to enter the games as Superman and humiliate the fascists in order to say: Who’s Superman now?
Do you know who hated the Superman comics? The Nazis. They got the point. And in April 1940, Josef Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, denounced Superman as a Jew in a Nazi weekly newspaper. Here’s what he wrote: “Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York… the inventive Israelite named this pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind Superman. .. as you can see, there is nothing the Sadducees won’t do for money! .. Jerry Siegel stinks. Woe to the American youth, who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.”
The Nazis understood the power of propaganda and they feared the competition. They saw that the Superman legend undermined their myth of the Aryan race. They knew that Siegel was saying:
“You so-called Aryans think you’re the Supermen. You’re going down.”
But how, you ask, could Jewish boys see Jewish people as Supermen? They knew a secret, that Jewish people are made of steel, that no matter what the world has done to us, and the world has done every kind of evil it could possibly think of to us, we can take it. Our mission is what it has always been, to save the world through fighting for morality and justice.
Our problem, ironically, is not what the world has done to us. It’s what we have done to ourselves.
The character of Superman can illustrate this point. In the movie Superman I, we see the refugee boy from Krypton find himself in the world. He learns about his powers and resolves to follow the commandments that his father has passed on to him. He will save the world. But in Superman II, it becomes too much, and he doesn’t want to save the world anymore. He just wants to marry Lois Lane and have little Kents. He’s quite willing to give it all up. He just wants to be Clark Kent, not Kal-El, not Superman. With great power comes great responsibility and he doesn’t want it.
There is a song called “Superman (It’s Not Easy to be Me)” by a group called Five fort Fighting that captures this feeling:
I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
I’m just out to find
The better part of me
I’m more than a bird… I’m more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train
It’s not easy to be me
Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never see …
Up, up and away…away from me …
I’m only a man in a silly red sheet
Digging for kryptonite on this one way street
Only a man in a funny red sheet
Looking for special things inside of me
I’m only a man
In a funny red sheet
And it’s not easy,
It’s not easy to be me
A lot of us can understand this song and its emotions on two levels.
First, we have all these responsibilities.
We need to earn a living.
We need to raise these kids.
We need to take care of our loved ones
We need to manage our own illnesses
And everybody thinks we’re Superman.
And no one gets what’s it’s like
The truth is:
It’s not easy being you, is it?
So we get the song on the personal level
But it’s also not easy on the Jewish level
It’s hard being different
It’s hard to have different holidays
It’s hard to live in Connecticut in December
It’s hard to have different laws and customs
And so what do we do?
We just pretend that we’re them.
We disguise ourselves as Clark Kent.
Now, before I tell you how this is working out for you, let me tell you how it worked out for Kal El/Superman/Clark Kent.
In Superman II, when the world is invaded and evil people take over the White House, he’s off in the mountains with Lois Lane.
And then he has to make a choice: Become Superman again, or let the world be destroyed.
He was a refugee from a world that was destroyed and he can’t bear for it to happen again.
But he has a problem:
When he made the decision to go off with Lois Lane and become like everyone else, he gave up his superhuman powers.
And now when he tries to take on a bad guy, he gets beaten up.
That’s how it works: If you’re going to be Clark Kent, you don’t have your power anymore.
You try to fly but when you try to go up, up, and away, oy vey, you can’t fly anymore!
I’ve always wondered: Why is Superman weakened by kryptonite? Why should something from his home planet of Krypton be his undoing? Why shouldn’t he draw strength from the stuff of his home planet?
To me, this symbolizes the Jewish person’s often complex relationship to his or her Jewishness.
I know it’s hard to be Jewish. It would be easier to melt into the Kentness of the world.
But if you’re just Clark Kent, you can’t help save the world, and this world desperately needs to be saved. That’s why we’re here. But without our real identities, we can’t do a thing.
I know we feel awkward with our talleisim and yalmulkas, like we’re flying in a silly red sheet.
The Reform movement got rid of yalmulkas and talleisim only to realize that without our red capes, we do not have our identities and without our identities we are no longer ourselves.
Give up your Jewishness and your family will go on, but it will be swallowed up in this society.
It’s funny; we Jewish people want to assimilate into a world of Kents that doesn’t exist in America anymore.
Have you looked around lately? Our assimilationist ambitions are simply out of date. We’re still trying to assimilate into what we think is a homogeneous society of Clark Kents in grey flannel suits that is now a heterogeneous society filled with Asians and Hispanics and Muslims in headscarves and saris. So sari, Jewish people, but the society in which you want to lose yourselves is gone. Your awkward feelings are anachronistic.
Okay, you say, but how can you compare Jewish people to Superman? In what way are we like him?
Ask yourself this question: Why are Jewish people so disproportionately represented in academia, in science and medicine and literature?
Where are there all these Jewish Nobel prizewinners and where does all this academic success come from?
From thousands of years of learning. In a word: Talmud. If you don’t know what Talmud is, that’s a problem, and you don’t know enough about your religion, because Talmud is a basic part of Judaism. In the pages of the Talmud, our great classical text after the Bible, there is no argument about what is good and what is evil. The pages are filled with arguments about what to do when one good value comes into conflict with another good value. When you read the pages of the Talmud, you strain your mind but in the process you have entered an ideal world where everyone is good and trying to do the best possible thing.
The Jewish mind has been trained through the centuries by studying the Talmud. We learn not in order to get a degree but as Torah Lishma, learning for its own sake. Learning is a kind of prayer that the more we know, the better we will be.
And the tradition of learning represented by and embodied in the Talmud is our special secret, the key to our success; the reason for all of the brilliant Jewish people.
And now I want to embarrass you about how little you know about Judaism. I was teaching a class in the community and I said my seemingly outlandish statement that we Jewish people are smart because we have always studied Talmud. And a very nice woman says, “You’re right, and the South Koreans know it.” I knew that the South Koreans are an ambitious, driven people. But what I didn’t know till I read the articles she gave me was that the South Koreans looked around the world and said, “The Jewish people are the smartest people in the world; how can we be like them? What is their secret? How do the Jews, more than other people, reach all those impressive accomplishments like winning so many Nobel Prizes in science and literature and economics?” The conclusion they reached is that we study Talmud, that Jews have always studied Talmud from a young age, and it helped us to develop strong mental capabilities.
Now, according to the article I read, close to 50 million people live in South Korea, and everyone learns Talmud in school. Almost every home in South Korea contains a Korean-translated Talmud. Korean mothers teach the Talmud to their children. In the Talmud, they find family values that are close to their hearts, respect for adults, appreciation of the elderly, and an emphasis on education.
You have 50 million South Koreans who study the Talmud and most of the people in this room don’t even know what the Talmud is.
What’s strange about this picture?
They want to be us and we don’t want to be us.
They get what we have and we throw it away for … for what, exactly?
Through the centuries, smart Jewish people had smart Jewish children and trained their minds, and transmitted their love of learning, and this has been going on for a couple of thousand years.
And some of us believe in this and are doing our best to perpetuate this wonderful chain.
And some of us are not, some of us allow the kryptonite of embarrassment about being different and our envy of some now-mythical WASP society to make us into weak and very average and bland Clark Kents, who have to wear ill-fitted glasses because we can’t see who we are anymore.
So you have a choice: You can be Kal-El, the Voice of G-d, who knows his Jewish name and follows the commandments of his people, who does not forsake but embraces his identity and its responsibilities,
Or you can be Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter, who merely observes the events of your time.
Let me say it quite directly: Your life is going by and you still don’t know much about your religion. There are classes at this shul, once a week, once a month, very convenient, where you could learn something.
I know that your life is not easy. I really do know that. But you are living a Clark Kent life and it’s about time that you learn who you really are.
The song is right: It’s not easy to be Superman. But if you choose this identity, if you choose to be Jewish and learn what it really means to be Jewish, more power to you.