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Editor’s Note: Roy Schwartz is a pop culture historian and critic. He is the author of “Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero.” Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and at royschwartz.com. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Superman, the first superhero and by some measures, still America’s favorite, just celebrated his 85th anniversary, dating back to his debut in “Action Comics” no. 1 in June 1938. Auspiciously, the new movie, “Superman: Legacy,” set to premiere July 11, 2025, also found its leads in June; 30-year-old David Corenswet (“Hollywood,” “Pearl”) as Superman/Clark Kent, alongside Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as Lois Lane.
The casting has been making some waves. Corenswet is half Jewish, which has prompted articles in pop culture sites like Inverse, Jewish press like The Jewish Chronicle and even a 1,400-word piece in Rolling Stone on why that matters.
In fairness, his Jewishness has been overstated. He’s Jewish on his father’s side, while Judaism is traditionally matrilineal, and it’s unclear whether he was raised or identifies as Jewish (Corenswet was unavailable for an interview).
But still, Superman is a reflection of America. He’s also always been Jewish.
By that, I don’t mean that the guy from planet Krypton who was raised in Kansas is Jewish. He’s canonically Christian, usually a nonpracticing Protestant. I mean the character, in the real world, the one owned by DC Comics (with whom CNN shares a parent company). That guy is Jewish.
As I explore in my book, Superman is the brainchild of two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the sons of immigrants from Eastern Europe. As original as he was, he was cobbled together from a range of influences, including pulp heroes Tarzan and John Carter, the sci-fi novels of Philip Wylie, Popeye cartoons and Douglas Fairbanks movies. But he was also inspired by Jewish figures of legend.
His Kryptonian birth name is Kal-El, “El” meaning God in Hebrew. His origin story is that of Moses, a baby saved from doom in a small ark sent adrift, found and raised by strangers, who grows to reclaim his heritage and become a miracle-working savior.
As Siegel details in his unpublished memoir, he was also inspired by Samson, the biblical judge with super strength, and the Golem of Prague, an indestructible defender of the oppressed.
Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, borrowed from silent film actor Harold Lloyd but was mostly autobiographical. Siegel and Shuster were both bespectacled, geeky, awkward and painfully aware of their otherness. Superman was their wish fulfilment, while Kent was their reality.
Today Superman is largely seen as a Christ metaphor, but in truth, these themes were added later by other writers and artists. It’s by no means mutually exclusive, but the OG Superman is Jewish.
Essentially, it’s the story of a refugee with a Hebraic name who came over from the Old World and anglicized his name to Clark Kent. He’s an alien who can only interact freely with human society through a disguise, which he can do because he looks enough like the dominant population. He’s a Jew passing for a gentile. And he wears his super-suit, the ethnic garb sent with him from Krypton, under his clothes like a tallit, allowing him to change identities, both personal and racial — to be within and apart from — at whim. He’s the ultimate assimilation/assertion fantasy.
That’s partly why he still resonates: He reflects anyone who’s different, on the outside.
In the comics, where Kent and Lane are married, their superpowered teenage son Jon came out as bisexual in 2021. And since, at the time, he’d temporarily taken over as Superman while his father was off-world, it generated headlines about Superman being gay. Reaction was divided along the usual battle lines, but the LGBTQ community enthusiastically embraced him.
A Black Superman film has also been in the works since 2021, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and produced by J.J. Abrams, though its status is unclear. As with Jon Kent, it wouldn’t be the “real” Superman, but rather Val-Zod, the Superman of an alternate dimension.
The original character is still White and straight, and likely forever will be. Which circles back to the question, why is it noteworthy that the new actor playing him is of Jewish heritage? To answer that question requires engaging a deeper one: where Jewish identity fits in terms of race and ethnicity.
In 2017, when “Wonder Woman” came out, starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot, it spurred a flurry of articles and op-eds debating whether Gadot was a person of color. I was also born and raised in Israel, where I’d always thought of myself as western, but not White.
In America, race is understood almost exclusively in terms of skin color. But that’s a relatively modern, and American, understanding. Jewish identity is more complex — a mix of racial, ethnic, religious and cultural facets. Even in the Bible, the foundational narrative of Judaism, Jews are a people long before they form a religion with the receipt of the Ten Commandments and Torah at Mount Sinai.
Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, meaning from European decent, and the US Census Bureau treats Jews as White. But the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is currently considering a debate-provoking proposal to revamp its race and ethnicity statistical standards, which would include a category for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA), because many “do not share the same lived experience as White people with European ancestry, do not identify as White, and are not perceived as White by others.”
White-looking Ashkenazi Jews like me are about 65% of world Jewry (40% in Israel). Over 30% in the world are Mizrahi, Jews with darker skin from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Others are Sephardi, from Spain, Portugal and other Mediterranean and Balkan countries. Others yet come from Ethiopia, East Asia and elsewhere. American Jews also come from these varied backgrounds, but are consistently underrepresented in the media. Some identify by another race category in addition to or instead of their Jewishness.
Since I look White, and in the US I’m often considered White, I enjoy the benefits of White privilege. Whatever obstacles I face in life, prejudice based on my appearance isn’t one of them. But I’m also secular, so I don’t wear Jewish signifiers like a yarmulke, and I don’t have curly hair or a big nose or some other stereotyped feature. Friends who are more visibly Jewish have almost all experienced antisemitic bigotry. So have I, at times when my Jewishness was more evident.
We’re only White as long as we’re not obviously Jewish, at which point we’re seen as something else and treated differently. Like Superman and Kent, we’re both, but only one at a time.
All this just goes to show how superficial racial identity is. Scientifically, all of humanity is one race. Skin colors and features are just matters of sunlight, latitude and climate. But race does exist as a social construct, and historically, Jews aren’t considered White. Certainly not in the 1930s, when Superman was created, and definitely not in Europe.
Adolf Hitler famously said, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews based not on whether they attended synagogue, but whether two or more of their grandparents were Jewish. My grandmother was in a workcamp — a slave — for years, while her baby sister hid in the woods and her older sister was killed. It had nothing to do with their faith and everything to do with their race.
And yes, there is such a thing as Jewish DNA. Certain markers connect Jews around the world, tracing back to the ancient Middle East.
Jews also feature prominently in many race-based conspiracy theories, portrayed as infiltrators and subversives. The contemporary version is “The Great Replacement” theory (remember the White nationalists in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us”?), by which Jews are non-Whites who disguise themselves as Whites to replace real Whites with other non-Whites. (The far left has its own version, just with the narrative reversed.)
Brosnahan, who isn’t Jewish, also faced the question of Jewish Whiteness when she starred in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” In a 2021 podcast, comedian Sarah Silverman accused her and other actors of “Jewface,” arguing that positive Jewish roles are usually played by gentiles, while negative or stereotypical Jewish roles — neurotic, quirky, intellectual — are typically cast with Jews (Tony Shalhoub, who played Brosnahan’s father and also isn’t Jewish, dismissed the idea of race-specific casting, but didn’t really address the point Silverman was making).
I think there’s something to it, but Brosnahan’s livewire Midge Maisel might as well be Lois Lane’s aunt, so it at least bodes well for the movie.
That Corenswet’s heritage is Jewish isn’t important to the movie itself, of course. He looks the part, he can act and perhaps most importantly, there’s a warmth to him that’s been missing from Superman’s big-screen portrayals for a while now.
But it’s still recognized as meaningful, even outside the Jewish community. Superman is a Jewish creation with Jewish influences and a metaphor for the Jewish experience. That the actor playing him is partly Jewish is, in a way, coming full circle.
Mazal tov, David.
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