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Superman may go by Clark Kent on Earth, but his birth name Kal-El carries a secret meaning when one realizes it"s etymology isn"t Kryptonian - it"s Hebrew. The Man of Steel is widely considered to be the world"s first ur-example of a superhero; his suit, superpowers and symbol are all classic additions to the genre. But unlike many other heroes who have two names, Superman has three - Superman, Clark Kent, and Kal El, the last of which pays tribute to the character"s origins as a Jewish hero.
Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were no strangers to the Jewish experience in the diaspora. The children of immigrants themselves, they struggled as artists in 1930s America until Superman graced the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938 and became wildly popular with readers at the time. Siegel and Shuster desired a comic strip instead of a book (strips were much more lucrative at the time), hence why Superman"s first adventure appears oddly disjointed: it"s a compilation of sample comic strips that the duo literally cut and pasted together to fill enough pages for a book story. But by 1939, Superman was popular enough to receive his own comic strip as well, in which the name Kal-El (written as Kal-L) appears for the first time.
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The name Kal-El has two parts, and each can be translated into Hebrew. Kal, or קל, means "easy" or "light" - but it"s important to remember that with the creators" accents at the time, Kal would be read as Kol, or קול, meaning "voice." El in Hebrew, אל, means "God," thus Superman"s name in Hebrew is קול-אל, which loosely translates to "the voice of God." This does not necessarily mean that Superman is God incarnate or even directly sent by God, but rather is an instrument of God - a person with incredible powers who saves lives and fights for the weak and downtrodden. Even Action Comics #1 introduced the hero as "Superman: Champion of the Oppressed!" But the Jewish influences don"t end at Superman"s birth name.
Though the story of Superman is commonly interpreted today as a Christ allegory, it"s actually a Moses allegory: the planet Krypton is a stand-in for Jews in Egypt around 1200 B.C.E. (the period immediately preceding the Exodus). Infant Kal-El"s small spacecraft, for all intents and purposes, is a basket that travels through space instead of the Nile River. Jonathan and Martha Kent replace Queen Nefertari, wife of the Pharaoh Seti I. At the same time, Superman is also an immigrant, living far from home and entirely ignorant of the culture of his own people; until Superman #113 in 1957, he didn"t even know Kal-El was his birth name.
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How unfortunate - or perhaps inevitable - that this quintessentially Jewish story would be co-opted by Christianity. Modern Superman creatives, especially in the DCEU film series, are quite fond of the image of Superman posing with arms outstretched in the shape of a cross (and Marlon Brando"s "I have sent them you...my only son" quote from 1978"s Superman is no accident). Certainly the story of Moses has just as much cross-cultural significance; unfortunately Siegel and Shuster were frequently locked out of the creative process at DC (perhaps in part due to a lengthy legal battle over the character). Though Superman has adopted many identities and changed significantly over the past 80 years, his birth name remains steadfastly Jewish.