September 27, 2015
The reason I chose this topic, “Jewish Values and Themes in The Simpsons” was that I love watching the show. There are a lot of obvious, even very explicit, references to Jews and Judaism, but I never realized that many of the episodes implicitly reflected Jewish values until I started thinking about my Bat Mitzvah project. Several episodes vividly highlight traits associated with my Jewish values of memory, tradition, humor and education.
I remember the first episode I ever saw. I wasn’t old enough to understand the jokes, but it was fun to watch. The episode was called “Penny-Wiseguys” which aired in 2012. I had heard of the show, but I had never seen it. I remember my dad telling me to change the channel since he thought the plot was too confusing for me, but I wanted to watch it anyway. Soon after, I was hooked. Then, my dad started to buy me Simpson guides, DVD’s, plush toys, figurines, clothing and other Simpson merchandise. I became a Simpsons fan!
History of Jewish Comedy
Jewish humor is one of the “wonders of the world”, according to Harvard professor Ruth Wisse in her book “No Joke”. Other cultures also have a rich history of comedy and laughter, but scholars can trace the roots of Jewish humor sources back thousands of years to the Bible and Talmud. Wisse goes on to say that in Europe, “When Jews were forced to live in their own isolated communities, Jews could mock the people that oppressed them and speak humorously about them and each other, God and just about everything.” Wisse made the important distinction between people telling jokes, which is found in just about every culture, and the actual, more modern profession of comedy. The first full time entertainers came from England as Jews became assimilated in England in the late 1800’s. These Jewish entertainers brought their profession from England to the United States and by 1975, three quarters of US comedic celebrities were Jewish. Wisse states that the future of Jewish comedy is not clear as it no longer relies on Yiddish and Jewish tradition and ritual. She thinks Jewish humor has lost some of its edge as knowledge of both Yiddish and Jewish tradition has declined. So maybe, we now have to look elsewhere and find Jewish humor in unexpected places!
So where did Jewish humor flourish in America?
Sholom Alecheim, the famous Yiddish author, was fond of saying, “Laughter is good for you. Doctors prescribe laughter” (from the story “The Haunted Tailor”.) This must be the reason why people say laughter is the best medicine. Now, since the poor, striving Jewish immigrants escaping to America had lots of trouble, they needed lots of laughter– that famous Jewish medicine! Here are some places where Jewish humor made a happy home in the New World.
Yiddish theatre, centered on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side in New York City, consisted of Yiddish comedies performed by people from the Central European Ashkenazi Jewish community. It flourished from the late 1800’s until just before World War II.
Vaudeville was the theatrical genre of variety entertainment and was especially popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880’s until the early 1930’s.
The Borscht Belt in the Catskills showcased major performers including Jackie Mason and Joan Rivers. There were nearly a dozen of these resorts and they were popular vacation spots for New York City Jews from the 1920’s through the 1970’s.
Television brought Jewish humor to the American public. TV brought this brand of humor to people who had never heard a Jewish joke or perhaps had never met a Jew. When Jews entered the genre of television, the impact was enormous. Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen brought their Jewish humor to the rest of the country as Jewish comedy moved from the East Coast all the way across to the West Coast.
Hollywood studios were first run by Jewish producers and the industry is full of Jewish writers, producers, actors and directors.
Jewish writers on “The Simpsons”
Before I start talking about “The Simpsons”, I thought I’d let you know there are a lot of Jewish writers on this popular show. Maybe this is why there are so many Jewish themes. The fact that “The Simpsons” feels so completely American shows how Jewish humor has become such a big part of the American culture. These are just some of the Jewish writers who have written or still write for “The Simpsons”.
● Mike Reiss is an American television comedy writer. He served as a showrunner, writer and producer for the animated series “The Simpsons” and co-created the animated series “The Critic”. Mike Reiss has travelled the country talking about Jews in “The Simpsons”.
● Jay Kogen used to write for “The Simpsons” in its first four seasons. He also wrote
episodes of The Tracey Ullman Show, which is the show where “The Simpsons” first appeared.
● Sam Simon, who recently died, was the co-creator of “The Simpsons” along with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks. He wrote for other comedy shows and created the Sam Simon Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to rescue animals.
Who are The Simpsons?
● It’s the longest-airing animated primetime show in the world
● It’s created by Matt Groening who said he based the show on his family. He is part Mennonite.
● There have been many guest stars on the show including the great Jewish comedian, Jackie Mason.
● Although Matt Groening is not Jewish, there have been many Jewish values in the series.
● The show has been on the air for 27 seasons and is still a success. Family members are Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie who are the main characters in the show. Did you know Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie were named after Matt’s family? And that Bart was based upon Matt as a child?
My Jewish Values shown in the clips
Other than enjoying this show for its humor and wonderful graphic art, I saw that my Jewish values are present in many episodes. These values are as follows:
● Tradition – Bar/Bat Mitzvah
● Family and Food
This upcoming clip is very important because it shows memory and love at the same time. It’s important in my everyday life because I have to remember facts and concepts in school. But more so, it is important to me because I remember the stories my parents tell me about my family, I remember my grandparents and the love they had for me. Moments before the actions in the clip, called “Lisa on Ice”, Bart and Lisa have been fighting nonstop during a hockey match where they are on opposing teams. In this scene, just before they are about to fight again, they remember all of the good times and love they have for each other. It’s an important moment in their relationship.
LISA ON ICE
So as you just saw, Bart and Lisa, through their memories of each other and their past experiences, exhibited their love for each other. At times, family members have to remind themselves of their love for each other and forget about the fights.
Education and Tradition
This episode is somewhat based on the movie “The Jazz Singer”, where the main character in the movie goes against the traditions of his Jewish family in order to fulfill his dreams. He is then punished by his father, a cantor. Years later, he has become a talented jazz singer but still wants to please his father.
This upcoming scene shows the values of education and tradition. Krusty is a very successful celebrity in the town of Springfield, where the show takes place. He has his own TV show and Bart is a huge fan. In this episode, Bart and Lisa find out that Krusty is Jewish and his father is a rabbi. The rabbi and Krusty haven’t talked in years and Krusty is saddened by this. The rabbi is very mad at Krusty because Krusty didn’t want to be a rabbi and follow in the family tradition and instead became a clown. So, Bart and Lisa decide to help Krusty reunite with his father. Lisa uses her love of education to help Krusty accomplish this goal. Lisa, the middle child, is very smart and loves to learn. In this scene, Lisa and Bart are in the library and Lisa looks for appropriate passages from the Talmud to help Krusty and the Rabbi get back together.
Like Father Like Clown
Lisa clearly exhibited her love of education by finding the appropriate passages in the Torah to help Krusty reunite with his father. She may not be Jewish, but she shows the Jewish value of education.
My value of humor is shown in this funny clip as Krusty and his dog walk through the Lower East Side of Springfield. On his walk, Krusty comes to the Jewish Walk of Fame. He’s shocked that he is not included as a famous Jew, which upsets him, and he then goes to find out why. This is funny because Krusty is not as famous as he thinks he is when he sees all these famous Jewish celebrities. There are many famous Jews in American culture and unfortunately, as I am about to show you, Krusty is not one of those famous Jews.
The Jewish Walk of Fame
The director of the Jewish Walk of Fame told Krusty he was not a good Jew because he did not have a Bar Mitzvah. So can you be a good Jew if you don’t have a traditional Bar or Bat Mitzvah? With or without a Bat Mitzvah, I know that I am Jewish.
My value of tradition is shown in this clip when Krusty has his Bar Mitzvah. Earlier, when I spoke about my values, I told you about the tradition of Bar/Bat Mitzvah in my family. Now it is Krusty’s turn to have a Bar Mitzvah. He’s hired Mr. T. who speaks about the tradition of giving envelopes as gifts at a Bar Mitzvah. Also in this clip, the value of forgiveness is demonstrated. When Krusty is having his crazy, made for TV, celebrity Bar Mitzvah, he looks over to his father and sees that he isn’t happy. Krusty feels bad and then decides to have a “traditional” Bar Mitzvah and his father forgives him. Krusty’s Bar Mitzvah Extravaganza
Krusty wanted to make his father proud and have a traditional Bar Mitzvah. His father was proud of him and I know that my parents are proud of me, too.
The Jewish Values of Food and Family
Food is important in Judaism. When people think of Jewish food, they think of bagels, gefilte fish, lox, corned beef and my favorite, chicken and matzo ball soup. There are jokes about Jews and food. There is an old Jewish joke that declares: “We were persecuted; we overcame; now we eat!”
Jewish holidays often revolve around meals. Passover has the Seder, with the big holiday meal, and Hanukkah wouldn’t be Hanukkah without potato latkes. But food and meals are not just about eating. My family tries to have dinner together almost every evening. It’s a time that we can discuss our day, talk about plans for the weekend and just catch up and be with each other. In the clip I’m about to show you, Marge is calling the family for dinner and they all try to have a regular meal but it doesn’t turn out the way Marge wants it to be.
The Simpsons certainly tried to exhibit the value of family while having their dinner. It didn’t quite work out the way Marge wanted it to, so let’s just say, this is a work in progress for The Simpson family.
Even though “The Simpsons” will soon be ending its long run, it will always be my favorite show. Doing this major project has oddly made me much more interested in the show since I now realize there are many Jewish themes and values present throughout the episodes. Some are very evident, some not so evident. I enjoyed this project because I was able to watch my favorite TV show and learn in the process. Jewish themes and values are present in places you might not expect to find them. I hope the next time you watch this fun show, perhaps you’ll notice some Jewish values and themes.