Superheroes reflect cultural values. Values can change, as do our heroes, and one scholar tracking these historic shifts is Roy Schwartz.
Schwartz, director of marketing and business development of a regional law firm, just published “Is Superman Circumcised?: The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero.” It chronicles the origins and cultural shifts the superhero has made.
Schwartz recently presented a paper to the Pop Culture Association at Bowling Green State University’s annual Pop Culture Conference entitled “Superman vs. the SS: When the Man of Steel’s Jewish Creators Got into a Real-Life Feud with the Nazis!”
“The book really started as my grad school thesis at NYU,” Schwartz said. “It started out on Christian themes in comic books, in particular Superman.
“Instead of defending my thesis in private in a room with three professors, you can do it on a stage in front of the entire school and you defend it against the deans of three schools. So me and my friend decided to do it just for fun. I didn’t prepare anything that didn’t rehearse anything. I won second place out of more than 400 people.”
Such a successful academic venture does not go unnoticed, and soon Schwartz seized a book deal.
“One thing leads to another, it leads to a book contract with McFarland, which is an academic press. Research and writing took me 6 1/2 years and along the way I received a fellowship from the New York Public Library,” he said.
Schwartz finished his fellowship and shortly after his book was published by Mcfarland.
He said that the allure of Superman is that he is an amalgamation of culture and religious influences, a product of multiple cultures and religions.
“The strength of the character is that he has a personality,” Schwartz said. “His Canon has specificity, but he is so archetypical, so iconic, that anybody can project themselves into him.”
Schwartz’ time as an academic has led him to the conclusion that Superman is Jewish in origin.
“So, when I say that he’s a Jewish character, I don’t mean that in a sense of ownership or religious bragging rights, but rather recognizing the contribution and the origination of the character from Jewish culture,” he said.
“Canonically, he’s Christian, usually Methodist or Protestant, and in one story even Southern Baptist,” Schwartz said. “He’s non-practicing in this kind of general humanist way. The real Superman who is a fictional character in our world, in the real world, is a Jewish character. He’s created by Jews and developed by Jews.”
Immigration in the ’30s and ’40s offered many Jews not only an opportunity to escape harm, but an opportunity to publish and share their cultural heritage.
“Immigrants that came to United States escaped pogroms, escaped the Holocaust, escaped poverty. Couldn’t get a job because they were Jewish and basically created the comic book industry whole cloth. The comic book is a Jewish invention, and the superhero is a Jewish invention,” he said.
This statement is certainly counterintuitive since Superman has assimilated many more cultural stories from diverse cultures since his inception.
“As the comic book industry grew larger and increasingly more versatile, different people brought their cultural influences to the mix, including Christian influences beginning in the ‘70s. Which have really cemented the character in the public consciousness. Figure which are as legitimate and enriching as any other interpretation” Schwartz said.
However, tracing the history of these cultural assimilations we can distinctly see that the Jewish influences predated the Christian ones, he said.
“There’s really nothing Christian in the comics until the early 90s when he was killed and resurrected in the 1992 through 1994 storyline,” Schwartz said. “The Christian metaphor really came from the movies, beginning with the Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve movies, and then coming into sharp focus in TV shows like Smallville beginning 2001.”
Schwartz says that while no interpretation of Superman should reign supreme, acknowledging that Superman’s roots are Jewish is important. Most notably, Samson.
“The Legend of Samson from the Bible is one of Superman’s influences. This super strong defender of truth and justice, since he was a judge, right? If you look at the old comics, Superman is referred to as Samson. Numerous times he described as being mightier than a dozen Samsons, being modern Samson The cover of Superman #4, for example, shows him toppling the pillars of a building in an image that’s traced from a famous painting,” Schwartz said.
The iconic moment from the bible that Schwartz is referencing has many paintings depicting when Samson brings down a temple on himself and the Philistines after being tied to two pillars. Most notably Superman’s origin story is Jewish, as he was sent away in the face of a looming catastrophe to another land to be raised by another people, but Schwartz says that even more influence from Jewish culture is seen in early Superman movies.
“In the movie he says ‘I am Jor-El, I am your father. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only let the light show the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.’
“In Exodus God said ‘I am the God of your father. I have surely seen the affliction of my people. I have come down to deliver them. Come now and I will send you that you may bring my people, the sons of Isarael,’” Schwartz said.
Equitable representation in media is an important and hot topic currently, and efforts to create fair and equitable representation of cultures sometimes homogenizes two dispart cultures.
“I am a school of thought that representation is important, but it is not everything,” said Schwartz.
“If we are looking at things from this perspective, I would actually note that in this day and age where characters are being made more and more diverse, Jewish characters, explicitly Jewish characters seem to have their Judaism replaced by generic WASPiness,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz wishes to continue to study Jewish culture and trace it back through time and recognize the common roots shared between our current culture and that of the Jewish tradition.
“Much of our modern-day culture which we take for granted really has very rich, very old roots. Everything is an effect of a previous cause,” Schwartz said.