First, Krusty the Clown intermarried. Now, Homer Simpson, in Jerusalem on the animated family’s first trip to Israel, thinks he’s the Messiah.
In its more than 20 years on the air, “The Simpsons” has had countless Jewish moments and references, such as when Homer expresses shock that Mel Brooks is Jewish, a Springfield department store advertises “Christmas gifts at Hannukah prices” and the numerous adventures of Krusty, whose father Hyman is an Orthodox rabbi.
But in an episode airing Sunday, March 28 on Fox, the Simpsons dive full-force into Jewish culture.
British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen (known for his comedic personas that include the anti-Semitic Borat) voices the family’s gruff Israeli tour guide. Cohen lived in Israel for a year with youth group Habonim Dror, and has been known to sneak significant amounts of Hebrew into his imitation of Kazakh.
Recruited by Evangelical neighbor Ned Flanders to go on a Christian tour of the Holy Land, the Simpsons bring their usual havoc to the Jewish state. Bart steals notes from the Western Wall while Homer develops Jerusalem syndrome, a psychological phenomenon of intense religious delusions triggered by visiting the Holy City. Believing that he is the Messiah, Homer attempts to unify the nation’s religions through their shared love of chicken.
The episode generally avoids the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but the issue is not totally skirted. When Marge comments that the tour guide is too “pushy” in trying to get positive feedback on the comment card, Cohen’s character replies, “You try having Syria for a neighbor! What do you have — Canada?”
“I think that the show has a tradition of family travel and the kind of discoveries that travel produces for people. This is just one more part of [The Simpsons’] journey, and how wonderful that it includes Jerusalem,” says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of Clal–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a close observer of the intersection between Judaism and pop culture. “These journeys can remind they wake up our angels, such as our need to unify as Homer has, but also our ugliest demons, like suddenly thinking you’re the Messiah. It reminds us that Jerusalem is important to lots of people and lots of traditions. If it weren’t, the Simpsons couldn’t use it as a spot for their journey of self-discovery.”