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“Superman” Biography Looks at Superhero’s Jewish roots

superman coverBy Stacey Dresner

Is “Superman” Jewish? Larry Tye thinks so.

His book, “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” is a “biography” of the Man of Steel and those who created him.

Tye will be featured at both the Worcester JCC Author Series on Thursday,  Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. at BI and at Literatour, the Jewish Book Festival of the Springfield Jewish Community Center on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m.

Tye runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship, which is designed to help the media do a better job covering critical health care issues. From 1986 to 2001, he was a reporter at the Boston Globe, where his primary beat was medicine. He also served as the Globe’s environmental reporter, roving national writer, investigative reporter, and sports writer. His books include  Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora and Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, a past New York Times bestseller and winner of the Casey Award and the Seymour Medal – as best baseball book of 2009.

Tye, who has spoken about his book Superman and the superhero’s connection to Judaism at countless synagogues and Jewish book festivals around the country, recently talked to the Jewish Ledger in advance of his two appearances in Massachusetts in October.


Larry Tye will speak at both Literatour and the Worcester JCC Author Series

Larry Tye will speak at both Literatour and the Worcester JCC Author Series

Q: Your book is a biography of Superman?

A: A biography with a fictional character means …looking at how the character has evolved, and the truth is, he has evolved more than the fruit fly. Superman came alive in 1938 and that was when America was in the middle of a great depression and he was just we needed then — a butt-kicking, New Deal liberal who tracked down wife-beaters and slum lords.

In the 40s when we were going to war, Superman helped take us to war. He was what Uncle Sam used to sell everything from war bonds to newspaper drives. In the 50s we were looking for Red under every bed and so was Superman. In every generation, everything from his hairstyle to the way he dressed, to even most recently the fact that he quit the Daily Planet and became a blogger – it all evolved to seemingly give us precisely the hero that we needed at that moment in history. And yet what never changed, and what I think was the key to success, is that he was always the hero of the light. We had a dark hero in Batman, we had a fraught and anxious hero in Spiderman, and Superman was what I think Americans want more often than not, which is a hero that instinctively knows the difference between right and wrong. So the biography was partly looking at what happened to Superman; it also looked at who his creators were and what they had done to strike lightning with this character 75 years ago that looked like it would go no where, but has gone everywhere.

It was looking at over the years the people who have continued to write and draw him, to act him on television and the big screen, to edit him, to the corporate entities, and today it is Time Warner that owns him, and what they have done. So “biography” in the broadest sense means looking at everything there was that was instructive about this character.


Q: What made you want to write a book all about Superman?

A: The reason I got involved with the book in the first place was I was intrigued by why we as Americans embrace the heroes that we do and I thought if I looked at the longest-lived hero of the last century he could tell us not just something about himself but about us.


Q: Were you a fan of Superman and other comic book  heroes when you were a kid?

A: So, everything I just said was the serious reason I wrote the book. The other reason is that I wanted to be 10 years old again. I was a fan growing up of his comic books. I fell in love with Superman for real when George Reeves played him on TV.

In the series I was watching in the 1960s – and I think the best of the Superman onscreen. But yeah, it was all about reinventing my own feelings of having this incredible escape.

Q: Are you Jewish?

A: Yes, I am.

Q: How does Judaism play into this…What is Jewish about Superman?

A: Among my previous books, I had written a book about the Jewish Diaspora, and I was intrigued by the way Jews live around the world today and what I think is an often written-off or underplayed Diaspora which I think is every bit as being Jewish today in Israel.

I was intrigued by the fact that it was two Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman. I thought, “Geez, the fact that two Jews created him, two Jews published the creation, and the Jews were disproportionately involved in everything about his evolution and his movement into all of the various media – from TV and movies to cartoons and animated films – I thought that was what the Jewish story was. What I began to see as I looked into Superman more was that character himself was Jewish. There was evidence that Jerry and Joe threw in everywhere, from the fact that when he came from the planet Krypton his name was Kal-El. As you know “El” is God and “Kal” or “Kol” is voice or vessel. I think they gave us a character that had a name like the voice or vessel of God; they gave us a character whose triangle he sort of stood on was “Truth, justice and the American way.” The Mishna talks about “Truth, Justice and Peace,” which is what, hopefully, the American Way ought to be, whether it is or not.

The story of Superman’s coming here from the planet Krypton has always been seen as a Christ story: a God-like figure in a faraway world sends his first born son down to show mankind it can be better than it thought it could be. I thought a more compelling metaphor was that parents, desperate to save their first born, float him out into Outer Space where he is adopted in the middle of the American West by two of the most consummate Gentiles you would ever meet – John and Martha Kent. They raise him as their own and realize they have an exceptional child. The story of Superman coming to Earth struck me as a story straight out of Exodus and the story of Moses. The story of the destruction of the planet that he left behind is the story of Genesis. My most fun piece of evidence is that any name that ends in “man” is one of two things. It is either a superhero or a Jew, or in this case both.



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