In the “Simpsons” episode “Sleeping with the Enemy,” local punk and two-tone laugh machine Nelson Muntz pines for his estranged father with a throaty rendition of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from the movie “Yentl.” (“Papa, can you seeeee me? Papa, can you fiiiiinnd meee in the noiiiiighhht?” he belts off-key.)
In modern comedy, Jewish humor is part of the bedrock, so it’s unsurprising that a reference to a famed rabbinical love story would make its way into the most consequential sitcom in history.
Yet “The Simpsons,” which turned 30 in April, doesn’t always get credit for its Judaica bonafides. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie may grudgingly attend church every Sunday, but their world has as much Yiddish in it as Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky.
For the uninitiated, Krustovsky, better known by his nom de plume, Krusty the Clown, is the show’s unofficial Jewish spokesman. His birth name is first revealed during the season three episode “Like Father, Like Clown,” where he’s asked to say grace before dinner with the Simpsons.
“Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam…” begins Krusty.
“Hee hee,” says Homer, “he’s talking funny talk.”
“No, dad,” says Lisa. “That’s Hebrew.”
Saying the hamotzi brings back painful memories for Krusty, who soon regales the table with the sad tale of his childhood. Krusty’s past is the typical Jewish migration story: His parents, immigrants from the old country, land Stateside some time in the first half of the 20th century in “The Lower East Side of Springfield” –– a neighborhood filled with tailors, butchers, and yarmulke stores –– where they look to raise their son.
But much to the consternation of his father, a rabbi at Temple Beth Springfield, young Herschel decides to skip out on a “respectful profession,” and instead pursues the life of a clown. “Oy vey iz mir,” shouts Rabbi Hyman Krustovsky (voiced by Jackie Mason), when he later discovers Herschel’s secret career path. “You have brought shame on our family!”
Back at dinner, Krusty goes into a tailspin. He’s finally let the truth out, but he has nothing to show for it, leading Bart and Lisa to come up with a plan to reunite father and son. They eventually ply the rabbi with Talmudic references about parent-child relationships as a reason to forgive his “boychik,” and by the end of the episode, Herschel and Hyman are patching things up with a rendition of “Oh Mein Papa.”
The episode, itself a parody of the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer,” not only inspired viewers to contact long-lost relatives, it transformed Krusty from lovable supporting character into the cartoon’s Jewish conduit.
“Jewish kids are grateful he’s up there,” “Simpsons” writer and producer Mike Reiss told the Denver Post in 2013.
In another interview, with author Marc L. Pinsky, Reiss explained the lengths the writers went to make sure “Like Father, Like Clown” accurately represented the teachings of the Torah.
“To write this thing we had three rabbis on the payroll,” he said. “They were working with us all week to make sure we got it biblically correct. We love to do our homework on the show.”
Reiss is another piece of the “Simpsons’” Judaica puzzle. The show’s original creative team featured a murder’s row of Jewish talent, including Reiss, James L. Brooks, Sam Simon, and voice actors Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer (ironically, non-Jew Dan Castellaneta does the voice of Krusty). Simon himself is a model for the Jewish tradition of tzedakah; before he died from colon cancer in 2015, he promised to donate his estimated $100 million fortune to charity.
This crew would help set the tone for “The Simpsons” by peppering its storylines with winks and nods to their religion: the “chai” hanging around newsman Kent Brockman’s (née Kenny Brockelstein’s) neck, the appearance of the “rapping rabbis” (Springfield’s answer to the Benedictine Monks), the “Itchy and Scratchy” bris episode (which ends with Itchy turning Scratchy into a kiddush cup), Homer asking Marge if they’re Jewish (when she tells him no, he celebrates by cutting into an entire pig).
Even lesser known characters like Dolph, who is seen throwing on a talit and running off to Hebrew lessons, and Duff Beer spokesman Duffman, are later revealed as members of the tribe.
Despite these revelations, “The Simpsons” wouldn’t make its way to Israel until 2010, where predictable shenanigans ensue: Homer gets hassled by customs for saying regular pancakes are better than latkes, and Bart gets beaten up by a young Krav Maga expert.
The episode of course includes an appearance from Krusty himself, seen stuffing pleas into the Western Wall to help pay off his unpaid parking tickets. He may be the show’s lovable resident Jew, but, as his father tells him in a later episode during a dream in “Jewish Heaven,” he’s also kind of a schmuck.
By then, Rabbi Hyman Krustovski has passed away and Krusty assumes that despite their reconciliation, his dad never really liked his humor. But Bart drags Krusty to the synagogue of Hyman’s favorite rabbi, who likes to recite some of Krusty’s old jokes.
Turns out, the afterlife vision that featured his deceased father wasn’t true at all, as Krusty adds one more Jewish-influenced joke to the “Simpsons’” archive: “My father respected me but could never tell me,” he says. “That’s Jewish heaven!”