Popeye"s Jewish (?)
The Theology of Popeye - Part 2


Who would have thought it?

When thinking of Popeye how can you not think of “I yam what I yam, that what I yam.”

And my mind being what it is, a bit weird, I naturally hear the divine voice in the burning bush, saying in Popeye’s rough sailor-like way, “I yam what I yam, that’s what I yam.” Too bad that we couldn’t be there to see Moses’ reaction to that.

My mind not only functions weirdly, it also meanders about thinking theological things. I guess one can just not remove oneself from his seminary days. Well, anyway, I couldn’t help but wonder is Popeye Jewish? After all, his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar, was.

If you’re hard enough (and maybe twist a few comic panels here and there) you can find a few suggestive hints that maybe he was, or at the very least, Segar’s Jewish heritage enters into the comic strip now and then.

Here’s what’s I found:

In one animated cartoon Popeye faces a ranging steer and with just one punch sends the steer to the meat market where a piece of beef is marked “כשר.” For those among us who are not Jewish, that’s Hebrew for “kosher.” Can’t get much more obvious than that, can you?

Then again, maybe it was just a Jewish illustrator who felt convicted to mark the meat. And you do have to look closely because the mark could be “בשר,” meaning “meat.” Maybe it was a gentile illustrator playing havoc. The cut does look a bit like a ham.

The animated Popeye cartoons produced by Famous Studios was often set in the Lower Eastside where thousands of Russian and Polish Jews settled in the late 19th century, fleeing antisemitism. In those same cartoons Olive Oyl has a slight New York Jewish accent. Famous Studios, by the way, was the successor to Fleischer Studios, which was owned by two Jewish brothers.

Olive Oyl was conceived in Segar’s mind in 1919 as a late teen or early 20’s woman with a somewhat tempestuous persona. Growing up as a boy in an almost all Jewish Baltimore neighborhood I knew some Jewish women just like that (Hashem bless them!).

In Segar’s “Thimble Theater,” Olive Oyl’s parents, Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl 1 could easily pass for Eastern Europeans. Maybe Olive Oyl’s parents immigrated were Jewish immigrants from Russia or Poland?

In the 1933 animated short, “Popeye the Sailor,” produced by Fleischer Studios, Popeye meets up with Betty Boop, and as we all know, Betty was no shitza2.

Okay, I admit, I am stretching it a bit … actually, quite a bit. Yet, it is a tantalizing thought.

Popeye, for one, acts nothing like a Jewish male, although I did once know a Jewish sailor who reminded me an awful lot of Popeye. Just no spinach. Still, you have to ask, would any self respecting Yiddish Mame allow her daughter to hang out with a shegetz 3?

And while “Jew or Not Jew”4) give Betty Boop a Jewishness rating of 10, poor Olive Oyl can only garner a weak , although Nana Oyl would probably come off better, being a “shorter sort, with good meat on her bones (and in her chest).” A much better characteristic of a Jewish woman of Olive Oyl’s day. As a sidenote, “Jew or Not Jew” thinks Wimpy, “an unrepentant moocher taking advantage of someone who"s a little soft in the head,” acts the most Jewish in Popeye.

As I said, stretching it—The only thing we know for sure is that Popeye’s creator, Segar was a Jew. Being thick in the head though, I am not quite to let this go, no matter how off-base it appears I am.

There’s still Popeye saying, "I yam what I yam, that’s what I yam." To me, sounds suspiciously like Voice in the burning bush...

[Next up: The Voice in the burning bush saying, “I yam what I yam, that’s what I yam. Or something like that.]


1. It is rather obvious that Cole Oyl (olive Oyl’s dad) is a play on “coal oil,” but perhaps less obvious that Nana Oil (Olive Oyl’s mom) is a play on banana oil. Younger brother, Castor Oyl completes the Oyl family.

2. Her films provide all the evidence needed, from her yiddish-peppered patois to her yarmulke-wearing abba, “Shitza,” a gentile woman (Yiddish). I may have to do a Betty Boop series. Fleischer Studios thought that Popeye needed a more famous character if people were going to come watch the movie.

3. Shegetz, non-Jewish male (Yiddish)

4. “A Jew or Not a Jew?”

© Frank A. Mills 2018