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Superman: America's Jewish superhero?

There are some undeniable parallels between Jewish history and the Big Blue Boy Scout.

Flickr user John Flannery
  • Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the children of Jewish immigrants, right when the world was contending with growing anti-Semitism.
  • The experience of Jewish immigrants in America and Superman's own fictional origins have striking similarities.
  • Though this theory has its critics, there seem to be too many parallels to dismiss it out of hand.

In the mid-19th century, an immigrant fleeing horrific violence arrived in America. He quickly assimilated, adopting an American-sounding name and identity, although he continued to pine for the homeland that he had to abandon. This individual's story is either that of any number of Jewish immigrants... or Superman.

Why Superman is the ultimate immigrant

Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the children of Jewish immigrants who had come to North America to flee Europe's growing anti-Semitism. Together, they crafted the platonic ideal of superheroes.

"What led me into creating Superman in the early '30s?" said Siegel. "Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany… seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden. I had the great urge to help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer."

Numerous aspects of Jewish history and culture are reflected in Superman's story. When the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered all male Jews to be drowned in the Nile, Moses was saved by being placed in an ark on the riverbank. Likewise, Superman was saved from his planet's destruction by being sent to Earth in a small, cradle-like spaceship. Superman's name — Kal-El — can be interpreted in Hebrew as meaning "voice of God." His abilities, too, also have a connection with Jewish folklore; in 17th-century Prague, a rabbi was said to have made a golem out of river clay. The golem possessed incredible strength and defended the Jewish community against the city's anti-Semitic pogroms.

Like Schuster's and Siegel's parents and other Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution, and the later Holocaust, Superman also fled the chaos and violence that eventually overtook his home. Superman's regret and wistfulness for Krypton mirrors the experience had by the millions of Jews fleeing their homes in Europe.

Once those Jews arrived in America, they took to assimilating as quickly as they could. Many had their own secret identities, just like Kal-El and Clark Kent. Jerry Siegel's father was originally named Mikhel Iankel Segalovich, but he chose to adopt the more American-sounding Michael Siegel after arriving in New York in 1900. Other Jewish immigrants did the same, notably Jacob Kurtzberg, who would later become the famous comic book artist Jack Kirby.

Superman became a way for Schuster and Siegel to exercise some degree of control over the events that were transpiring in Germany. The Man of Steel wound up fighting the Nazis even before America entered World War II. In one comic, Superman lifts Hitler up by the neck and proclaims, "I'd like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw." In fact, Superman's cultural heritage was so clear that even Goebbels is said to have written, "This Superman is a Jew!"

Christopher Reeve Superman

Christopher Reeve as Superman in the 1978 film of the same name. Still captured by Flicker user Rogelio A. Galaviz C.

But there are reasons to be skeptical

While these parallels make it tempting to do the same as Goebbels and assert that Superman is Jewish, there are some who contest this idea. You can't really claim a fictional character belongs to a certain faith unless that's stated in their history, such as the X-Men villain Magneto, who did live, during his youth, in a concentration camp. Furthermore, critics of the Jewish Superman theory have also been able to poke holes in some of the pieces of evidence.

Kal-El, for instance, could be rendered in Hebrew in a number of different ways, many of which are nonsensical — which is what you would expect when translating a fictional name to another language. Superman's flight from his doomed world Krypton only became a part of the hero's backstory after Siegel and Schuster had stopped writing for Superman, which weakens, in some aspects, the idea of Superman's Jewish roots. However, it may not invalidate the overall Jewish parallels in the character.

The critics have some points, and we probably have to admit that Superman doesn't observe the Sabbath or don a yarmulke. After all, why would an alien convert to one of Earth's religions? But the fingerprints of Jewish history are nevertheless all over Superman's story. Even if the parallels were unintentional — this seems unlikely given their number — artists always put a bit of themselves into their creations, and it seems likely that Siegel and Schuster did too.

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The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
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Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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