Supeman’s Jewish Story Explored in Plays and Children’s Literature

Kids get to learn about the evolution of Superman, created by Cleveland Jews Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

When the lights dimmed, and one of the panels in the comic book-mimicking stage design lit up on the silhouette of Jerry Siegel hours before his death, he begged for “emet,” or truth. This is one of the recurring themes in the play, “The History of Invulnerability,” written by David Bar Katz and currently playing at Theater J at the DCJCC.  Siegel and his infamous creation, Superman–their statuses as saviors of the Jewish people lie somewhere between “truth” (emet) and “death” (met.) The rest of the two-hour play is a well acted, well staged hodge podge of Siegel and his “son” revisiting their tumultuous past, and exploring what Superman did (and didn’t) do for the Jewish people.

Several weeks ago when volunteering at the Adas Israel library, I chanced upon the book, “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman” (cover featured here.) I remember being shocked that this book was included in the children’s literature section; it didn’t seem as “serious” as the rest of the collection largely dealing with holiday observances, Jewish history and family life. The play, as well, touched upon some of the negatives of lauding comics, and this one-note, sort of violent character in the “funny” pages. It’s easy to forget that some 75 years ago, the idea of a superhero who could stop injustice with a snap of his fingers was more of a fad. I grew up in a more jaded generation, a post-Holocaust one if you will, where magical heroes have given way to average Joes willing to break their backs for the community. Recently, on Facebook, a friend posed the question why everyone was so obsessed with Batman or Iron Man (both also created by Jews), positing that maybe they should stop crime by using their wealth for housing programs.

But the origin of Superman, the first major Hebrew superhero, wasn’t really about fighting justice. It was about proving that Kal-El from Planet Krypton, or Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster with Jewish roots in Eastern Europe, were as American as Clark Kent and as secretly admirable as Superman. From there, as DC Comics wrested control of Superman from the lads, broader American culture wrested him from the Jews. Perhaps his most Jewish connection was when he fought Nazis in comics in the 1940s, which the S.S. took note of in an attack against “Jerry Israelite Siegel.”

Bar Katz played with the idea of what Superman meant to European Jews in a sub-plot about three men, a boy, a young adult, and an elderly kohanim, all prisoners in Auschwitz. They each play out fantasies of escape (the boy’s directly invoking Superman,) but near the end of the play, Siegel stops his creation from interjecting himself into the story, opting for “emet” instead. And the last, rather harrowing image is of Superman standing alone in a gas chamber amidst dead bodies.

To me (and apparently to some editors, as stated in the program introduction), the Holocaust sub-plot may have gone on a little too long. Perhaps I’m too influenced by “Boys of Steel,” and the theme of Superman/Clark Kent being more of an allegory for American Jews than European Jews. Maybe it’s that jaded thing again, because I already knew Superman couldn’t stop the Holocaust, and so I couldn’t fantasize about it. I liked the understatedness of the Siegel storyline, the connections between all of the dead or estranged fathers and their sons; the issues brought up in the trials like personal legacy and the impact of comics on children; and the evolution of Superman from alien Jew to super human with a small weakness, to god-like figure and back again. Gripping, thought-provoking stuff, all of it.

“The History of Invulnerability” will be playing at Theater J through July 8. Click here to buy tickets or click here to check out “Man of Steel” from the Adas Israel library!