On Homer Simpson and the Jews

The time has come to set the record straight. Torah, Israel, Jewish continuity – that’s not where we should be devoting our energy. At least not when we could be talking about Homer Simpson.

Israelis typically have one of two reactions when I tell them I made aliyah from Springfield, Massachusetts. A few of the more worldly will point out that Springfield is where basketball was invented and is the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The more common response, however, is “Ah, Springfield. That’s where the Simpsons are from.”

There are 38 Springfields in the United States, from the smallest of them, Springfield, Maine with 379 people, to the largest, Springfield, Missouri with nearly 200,000. In between, there’s Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and not one but two Springfields in the state of Wisconsin. And of course, there’s Springfield, Massachusetts, the oldest Springfield in the U.S. The Springfield of the Simpsons is simply code for Anytown, USA.

Such an abundance of Springfields presented a PR opportunity that Twentieth Century Fox couldn’t pass up when they created The Simpsons Movie back in 2007 – and not without a Jewish connection, as I shall explain. In anticipation of the movie’s release, Twentieth Century Fox created the “Springfields Across America Challenge,” whereby any Springfield in the U.S. could submit a short video showcasing their “Simpson Spirit.” Fans could watch the videos online and then vote for their favorite real-life Springfield, with the movie premiering in the winning town.

Fourteen Springfields joined the fray. After a bruising battle, Springfield, Vermont emerged victorious in a last-minute upset, nearly a thousand votes ahead of its nearest rival and 4,000 votes in front of my own Springfield, Massachusetts.

Honestly, I hadn’t been following the battle of the Springfields all that closely. Ok, I hadn’t been following it at all and didn’t have a clue it was taking place. That is, until my phone rang on that fateful July 2007 afternoon.

As the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation in Springfield, I was accustomed to fielding media inquiries. Not infrequently, they came from local TV and radio stations asking me for Israel’s “position” on whatever was the latest brouhaha. I would have to patiently explain that we were the local Federation and not the Israeli government, and that even though, yes, Israel is the Jewish State and we’re Jewish too, we nonetheless could not make official policy statements on the Jewish State’s behalf.

This time was different. My secretary came into my office with a half-quizzical look on her face. “It’s a Jewish paper in England. They want to talk to you about the Simpsons.” I asked her to repeat what she had said, unsure I had heard correctly.

A fresh-sounding voice on the other end of the line breathlessly exclaimed, “We’re doing a story on the premiere of the new Simpsons movie and how it’s affecting the Jewish community. I’m calling all of the Springfields that lost to see how the Jewish communities there are coping. So tell me, what’s the mood like there? What are the Jews of Springfield, Massachusetts saying about this?”

Tottering somewhere between dismay and amusement, for a moment I considered saying, “Oh, it’s brutal here. The Jews of Springfield are hanging their heads in shame. They can’t even talk about it yet, and it’s going to be a few more weeks before they can come to grips with having to travel to Vermont if they want to see the premiere, especially when it’s not ski season. Some are publicly burning their Simpsons memorabilia. A few are so distraught they’re sitting shiva – but we’ve notified the police and I can assure you that those at risk are under close watch.”

But this reporter was so serious, and I could tell that anything I said, no matter how ridiculous, might wind up in his article. So instead, I answered straightforwardly, “The Springfield Jewish community isn’t really thinking about this. I honestly haven’t heard anyone mention it.”

Undeterred, he pressed on. “But if I were to walk into your Jewish Community Center, what are the conversations taking place in the hallways about the Simpsons? How do people feel about this?”

“No,” I reiterated, “it’s just not on their minds.” After a few more back and forths, the reporter thanked me and hung up, obviously disappointed. Must be a slow news week for the Jewish community across the pond, I thought.

Then I thought some more and – ok, I know how naïve this is going to sound – I got angry. Why is any Jewish paper anywhere spending time on how Jews feel about the Simpsons? Maybe, I thought, I should have said to him, “No, no one here is thinking about the Simpsons. But let me give you some real news that actually matters. Let me tell you about the Jewish family who lived in the hinterlands, went to Israel with our Jewish Federation, and got so excited that they moved so they could be closer to the Jewish community and send their kids to a local day school. Let me tell you about how, at a time when many wealthy Jews are mostly donating outside the Jewish world, the wealthiest person in our local Jewish community has devoted the lion’s share of his philanthropy to Jewish causes, and has created a foundation that is having a national and international impact. Let me tell you about how the Springfield Jewish community used to be several times its current size and was once Rabbi Norman Lamm’s first pulpit, and how now the community is aging and Jewish institutions are struggling, a scene that is being played out in too many Jewish communities across the U.S. Let me tell you about a million other things that actually matter to our Jewish present and Jewish future.”

Yes, I know. Naïve. In fairness, we do sometimes focus on what matters most. But with the stakes so high, and our real mission as a people so critical, we too often get sidetracked. We too often obsess about silliness. We too often idealize the trivial.

It’s not just Homer Simpson. Here’s but a sampling of headlines that have appeared over the past few weeks in prominent Jewish media (including Times of Israel):

Hooters Bans Jewish Mayor

NFL Chooses Official Dip…Spoiler Alert: It’s Hummus!

Adrien Brody to Play Houdini

Hazards of Dating While Jewish in Berlin

Delta Stops Serving Israeli Halva

Drag Star’s Got Jewish Roots Under That Blonde Hair

A Mahjong Renaissance Among Jewish American Women

What’s With Jewish Politicians and Sex Scandals

Hmmm – maybe I’m getting a little nostalgic for Homer Simpson after all (and that’s without looking through all the blog posts – I’m not going to touch that one). Really, I have nothing against Hummus, Houdini , Halva, even Mahjong. And there are plenty of articles on serious topics. But when you take out all the articles about who hates us, who is firing rockets at us and who is boycotting us, how much is left?

In the meantime, a Google search of “Homer Simpson” and “Judaism” produced over 62,000 results. Plenty to keep me occupied while I dip into the hummus.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.