Sephardic Tradition and "The Simpsons" Connections
By Richard Kalman & Josh Belkin
The Sephardic Tradition encompasses the culture of the Jews who descended from Spain prior to the expulsion in 1492. However, a broader interpretation also includes Jews who originated from Turkey, Greece, Italy, England, the Ottoman Empire and other lands. The tradition today has come to include not only those with geographic ties, but also those with links to the fascinating culture. Many Jews know that Sephardim eat rice and beans on Pesach, and know of the unique torah trope of the tradition, but little else. However, many Jews, and even non-Jews are exposed to aspects of the Sephardic tradition and culture without even knowing it.
Ever since the late 1950's, America has been fascinated by pop culture. From Andy Warhol's eccentric artwork to Britney Spears, pop culture has reflected the times and ideas of generations past in a convenient, easy to understand fashion. Today, pop culture can be found in the form of the Internet, radio, movies, or television. While their methods are extremely efficient, only television is able to offer a visual as well as audio component that is free and easy to access. Often pop culture is criticized because it lacks intelligence and stereotypically portrays much of society, but this does not hold true for all facets of pop culture. For example, "The Simpsons," the longest running primetime animated show, has often been praised for being one of the most intelligent and provocative television programs on the air. Although many discount "The Simpsons," simply because it is a cartoon, this portion of the population is blinded to the high "plane" the show operates on. Aside to references to famous authors and philosophers like Marx, Kant, Twain, and Hemingway, "The Simpsons" also displays a knowledge of the Sephardic tradition that would make Rabbi Moses ben Maimon blush.
The creators of "The Simpsons" know that they have a powerful effect on their audience and have the opportunity to impart some wisdom onto their faithful cadre of fans. Much of this knowledge comes from the teachings of the Jewish faith. Long time writer Mike Reiss says, "There have always been a lot of Jewish writers on 'The Simpsons" (Pinsky 109). For example, self-proclaimed Sephardic Jew Hank Azaria not only writes for the show but also lends his voice to numerous characters such as Apu, Professor Frink, and Moe. Writers like Azaria have deftly incorporated Jewish wisdom into various episodes, much of which includes aspects of the Sephardic tradition.
The Simpson family, which the show places into various situations each episode has a broad range of personality traits in each of the characters. First off, there is the father Homer, who has a deep passion for life, as well as food. His judgment is often poor, but he usually means well, especially in regards to his family. His wife Marge has large blue hair, and holds the family together through her unending dedication to her job as a homemaker. They have three children: Bart is the young troublemaker who always causes a ruckus, while Lisa represents high intellectualism and morals, even though she is only eight years old. The baby Maggie never speaks, but observes all the ordeals the family goes through. The Simpsons live in Springfield, a diverse town that is the setting for the series. The use of the town and recurring characters in each episode creates a virtual community, with people of all races, classes, religions and traditions. However, this diverse setting often leads to culture wars and clashes between the townspeople.
All too often in world history, when nations experience internal strife, leaders are quick to blame a distinguishable group for the problems. The Spanish Inquisition was instituted to rid the country of individuals whom they believed to be causing Spain's rapid decline. In fact, Spain was losing many of its colonies throughout the world, achieving a smaller sphere of influence, and its source of wealth was drying up. The gold and silver they counted on from foreign lands ran out, and the country entered difficult economic times. "The Jew became the scapegoat of all misfortune, economic or otherwise" (Mowbray). The events of the inquisition forever changed the traditions and roles of Sephardic Jews. No longer was there a Golden Age, where Jewish thought and life flourished. Instead, Jews felt unwelcome and were persecuted because of their identity. The effects of Jews being used as scapegoats for societal problems can be seen today in the Sephardic tradition. Lessons from this can be learned, with the hope that something of this nature will not happen again.
The horror and shear unfairness of the expulsion of Jews from Spain was demonstrated in a 1996 episode of "The Simpsons." The details of the show have a striking resemblance to the situation Jews encountered during the Spanish Inquisition. In the episode "Much Apu About Nothing," citizens of Springfield are unhappy with the high rate of taxes, and the government leader, Mayor Quimby, blames the economic problem on illegal immigrants. This is a sharp parallel to the Inquisition, during which the government leaders, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, blamed the troubles of Spain, including economic problems, on the Jews. In the case of this "Simpsons" episode, while in fact immigrants had nothing to do with the tax increase, they were used as defenseless, powerless scapegoats, much like the Jews during the Inquisition.
Many Jews in Spain found their lives became easier once they converted to Christianity. The term "Crypto Jew" refers to a person secretly remaining faithful to Judaism while outwardly practicing another religion. In addition to the "marranos" of Spain and Portugal, crypto Jews also existed in North Africa in the 12th century. While they were officially deemed "New Christians" and were supposed to be treated as equals, considerable legislation was taken against them in Spain, Portugal, and the colonies. In addition, the brunt of the Spanish Inquisition was aimed at them (Sephardim 1146). There were considerable amounts of social, political, and economic pressures placed on Jews in Spain to convert once the 14th century rolled around (Gitlitz 4). For example, in 1348, Castillian Jews were forbidden to lend money at interest (Gilitiz 6). And as early as the mid 13th century, Christians were allowed to enter temples and attempt to persuade Jews to convert as they were forced to sit and listen. In 1263, Saint Raymond of Penyafort and Nacmanides were forced to debate the reliability of the Talmud before a congregation in Barcelona (Gitlitz 4). Although no outcome was reached, a bad precedent had been set. In the 1370's, a revival of anti-Semitic literature took place in Spain and several prominent Jews converted, including Solomon Halevi, chief Rabbi of Burges, who took the name of Pablo de Santa Maria. Fueled by the inflammatory oratory of Archdeacon Martinez of Seville, who preached a holy war against the Jews, and called for the destruction of local synagogues, pogroms spread across Spain in June of 1391, followed by mass conversions. Haim Beinart said "what started in Seville in 1391 was like a spark in a forest fire" (425). Once lit, nobody could quell the anti-Semitism in Spain.
It was estimated that one third of the Jewish population of Spain was killed in the pogroms of 1391, and another third converted to Christianity (Beinart 425). Jews faced more and more hardships in Spain after this incident, culminating in the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, which forced Jews to either convert of leave the country. These extremely difficult circumstances forced a significant percentage of Jews to take on the Christian faith.
Conversos came in two categories: those who wished to mend into Christian society and erase their Jewish past and those who sought to preserve as much of their heritage with as few alterations as possible. This latter form is what is now almost romantically referred to as the crypto Jew. Some noteworthy changes include the shift from yeshiva education to being taught by one's family members, an obligation taken very seriously (Gitlitz 217).
If anyone truly understands the difficulties of living one way, and believing something completely different, it is "Simpsons" character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Azaria). Apu was born in Ramatur, Pakistan and attended Calcutta Technical Institute (CalTech) where he graduated valedictorian of his class of seven million. After several years, he completed his Ph.D. thesis and then found work at Springfield's Kwik-E-Mart (a spoof of 7-11 convenience stores). Apu is a devout Hindu, but has been forced to hide his religious identity in order to be accepted by his peers. He adorns a cowboy hat to cover up his traditional Indian locks and at times even tried to feign interest in baseball, America's national pastime. When Apu replaces his statue of the Hindu god Genisha with a stack on Entertainment Weekly magazines, Homer asks why Apu made the change, to which he responds "Oh, who needs the infinite compassion of Genisha when I have Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman staring at me with their dead eyes!" The obvious frustration felt by Apu here is typical of what many crypto Jews felt in Spain. Apu curses himself for letting down his family, "I've betrayed my Indian heritage, sir. What would my parents say?" This must have been a feeling that many crypto Jews were forced to get used to in order to remain in Spain.
The same can be said of the life of the character Waylon Smithers. Smithers is a closet homosexual, and is forced to forever hide this aspect of his life from his peers to gain their acceptance. He carries a picture of his boss Mr. Burns, with whom he is infatuated, in his wallet alongside his dog. He even has dreams of Mr. Burns flying into bed with him. Yet every opportunity he has to declare his true self, Smithers reluctantly holds back. In the episode entitled "Bart's Inner Child," Smithers actually musters up the courage to tell Mr. Burns that he loves him at the first "Do What You Feel Festival," but quickly covers his tracks by adding "… in those colors!" This idea of hiding one's true identity is very much related to the Sephardic crypto tradition, and brought up repeatedly in "The Simpsons."
According to David Gitlitz, in spite of the attempts of crypto Jews, most of these conversos had been completely assimilated by the end of the 17th century (Gitlitz x). Gitlitz say that the meager remnants that resurfaced in the 20th century are the exception to the rule. There is evidence to suggest that the writers portray the Simpson family as crypto Jews of the assimilated nature, so much so that they no longer know their true identity. Mark Pinsky, author of The Gospel According To The Simpsons, argues that "The Simpsons from time to time suggest an underlying element of what might be called crypto-Judaism" (121). For example, a menorah is found in the Simpsons' storage closet, with no explanation. Also, Homer's father Abe, is portrayed as the quintessential Jewish grandfather, always complaining and boring his family with stories of "the old country."
In addition to crypto-Jewry, the Sephardic tradition is based heavily on enjoying life and taking care of oneself while doing so. For example, poems by Sephardic writers such as Moses ibn Ezra convey the importance of living life to its fullest. "Immerse your heart in pleasure and in joy," he writes. Another poem by Rufina Bernardetti, a Sephardic-American, expresses the importance of living with a vivacious spirit in Sephardic culture. "With the wholeness of spirit that is victorious we once more can share the essence and purity of life as Jews from Sepharad". These writings begin to encompass what the Sephardic tradition means in today's world.
"The Simpsons" demonstrate the concept of living life to its fullest routinely, especially through Homer's actions. While simply a working class family man, over the years Homer has managed to accomplish many things including winning a Grammy award, traveling to outer space, climbing the highest mountain in town, doing undercover work for the police, and meeting Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush, and Clinton. He has a sensational passion for life. "I want it all! The terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles" (Irwin 7). Homer's ambition and thirst for excitement allows him to live a fulfilling life, which other characters take pride in. His next-door neighbor, Ned Flanders, labels Homer as having an "intoxicating lust for life" (Irwin 20).
While Homer does many life-rewarding things, he also does many things that go against the Sephardic tradition. All too often he contradicts the teachings of Maimonides and other Sephardic thinkers, which leads to visible negative effects. He has a hedonistic lifestyle, which is the flaw that prevents him from greatness. In the episode "Wild Barts Can't Be Broken," Homer's favorite baseball team wins the pennant, and he celebrates with heavy drinking, which leads him to destroy the local school. Homer enjoyed drink, as ibn Ezra's poem dictates, but he did so to the point of excess where Maimonides would not be pleased with his actions. "Food should not be taken to repletion," he says (Minkin 382). Homer also eats to excess on many other occasions, which causes him physical harm, and creates problems for himself and his family. In order to qualify for disability and be able to work from home, Homer intentionally eats to gain weight His plan backfires, and he loses the respect of his family and friends when he does damage to his body. Other examples of Homer's hedonism are demonstrated by his eating to the point of sickness. After eating expired canned meat, Homer returns to the store to complain, where he is quick to accept ten pounds of moldy seafood as an apology, which only makes him sicker. In yet again another situation, Homer eats a steak so large that another person who he coerces into eating it with him has a heart attack. Obviously, Homer in this case did not follow Maimonides' instructions to eat one-third less than the quantity that would make one feel full (Minkin 382).
Maimonides also incorporates his advice about other topics of health and hygiene into the Sephardic tradition. When giving the rules for proper rest and sleeping, he insists, "one should not sleep during the day" (Minkin 383). Meanwhile, Homer is routinely shown asleep on the job throughout the day. While this goes against what Maimonides taught, at the same time, these actions are fulfilling and gratifying to his lifestyle, which is encouraged by the tradition. Homer's characteristics and actions have been assimilated into American culture, while containing Sephardic themes and traditions, unbeknownst to many.
Good health is a prerequisite for another important part of the Sephardic tradition: education. According to Maimonides, the highest goal that one can hope to attain is the perfection of the mind. As he noted in The Guide to the Perplexed, "the true perfection of man [is] the possession of the highest intellectual faculties" (Minkin 417). For Maimonides, the ultimate aim of education was to achieve knowledge of G-d through the Torah, but he and his Sephardic peers never underestimated the importance of learning in other areas. This stress on education of secular subjects as well as religious topics allowed the Sephardic Jews privileged enough to live in the Golden Age of Spain to contribute to a wide array of matters. According to Solomon David Sassoon, "all fields of intellectual endeavor such as medicine, mathematics, philosophy, grammar, poetry, ethics Talmud and mysticism…were widely deepened by the Jews of Spain" (Sassoon 7).
Aspects of the Sephardic style of education can be seen clearly in "The Simpsons" upon careful inspection. According to Maimonides, every province is responsible for the education of its youth, and the penalty of neglecting this duty is excommunication (Minkin 286). This responsibility is undertaken by the people of Springfield in the episode titled "The PTA Disbands" (Richmond 172). When Principal Skinner is forced to cut back funding for school supplies and teachers' salaries, the teachers decide to call a strike. Instead of panicking and having children run wild through the streets, members of the community step forward and take the teachers' place until an agreement can be met. The eccentric Professor Frink (also voiced by Azaria) teaches his nursery school class the physics behind many of their beloved toys and Marge Simpson lectures to Bart's class on geography.
"The Simpsons" often utilizes the technique known as irony to illustrate a particular message. In short, by showing one thing, the writers hope to preach the very opposite. This is the case with the teachers of Springfield Elementary School. They show the teachers in a certain light, and because the viewer ridicules this presentation, they tend to agree with the opposite. Maimonides preaches for teachers to have patience with their disciples, as he said "If the teacher taught and his pupil did not understand he should not be angry with them or fall into a rage, but should repeat the lesson again and again till they have grasped the full meaning" (Minkin 288). In "Summer of 4 ft. 2," Mrs. Hoover, a second grade teacher, is speaking about the Abraham Lincoln assassination when she finds that she is under time pressure. When one of her students is perplexed about the situation and asks, "Was president Lincoln ok?" Hoover angrily and sarcastically remarks that President Lincoln was fine, in order to leave sooner. The writers behind "The Simpsons" are preaching that a certain degree of patience is necessary for a teacher to be effective, in agreement with Maimonides. Another example of this frustration expressed openly by faculty members of Springfield Elementary occurs when Principal Skinner blurts out "You and I both know these children have no future!" to a lunchroom filled with students (Richmond 172). Neither Maimonides nor any self-respecting Sephardic teacher would ever approve of such outrageous display.
Maimonides also states that a pupil should have a great deal of respect for his teacher, as he wrote "he is under obligation to honor and revere his teacher, even to a greater extent than to his father; for his father gave him life in this world, while his teacher who instructs wisdom, secures for him life in the world to come." (Minkin 289). Bart Simpson, who can be seen as the yetzer ha-ra personified, shows no respect for his teachers, and thus damages his ability to learn. In the episode entitled "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie," we learn that Bart once replaced his teacher's birth control pills with tic-tacs, and in "Bart The Lover" he forged love letters to her. Bart spends most of his time getting into mischief rather than studying. This could be perhaps traced back to his lack of respect for his teacher. Bart consistently gets bad grades, dreads school, and has no desire to learn. These are the dangers that Maimonides was warning about when the proper method of education is not implemented.
A typical curriculum for a Jewish boy in 13th century Spain was divided into three sections, the first being bible and Talmud, the second being ethical and philosophical works, and the third being scientific studies such as logic, astronomy, physics and metaphysics and mathematics (Sassoon 8-9). These diverse topics of study helped Sephardic Jews grow up to be great thinkers. Unfortunately, the students at Springfield Elementary don't have the same luxuries. All of the writers on "The Simpsons" have gone to great undergraduate and graduate universities, over 21 of who hail from Harvard, and thus know the importance of a diverse education. This is displayed by showing the opposite of the ideal at Bart and Lisa's school. For example, they only books the school can afford are ones banned by other schools like, Tek War and The Satanic Verses. The fourth grade teacher Ms. Edna Krabappel and Principal Seymour Skinner also take little care in finding diverse material to teach their pupils. Instead, in "Grade School Confidential," Skinner admits that he loves working at an elementary school because "The children will believe anything you tell them."
The hope of the Sephardic community in providing a diverse education was to mold an adult who was adept at many things. The term often used today for such a person is "Renaissance man," but aside from people like Leonardo da Vinci who had exceptional talents in a range of fields, many Sephardic Jews also fit this category. This Sephardic versatility is now indicative of the tradition. For example, many great Rabbis were also physicians, such as Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Rabbenu Nissim ben Reuben. Others were statesman-scholars, such as Isaac Abravanel, who was Ferdinand and Isabella's treasurer as well as the author of some very popular biblical commentary (Sassoon 23). In addition, many Sephardic poets were also well known in other spheres, such as Samuel ha-Nagid, who was a commander in the military, grand vizier to Grenada, grocery store owner, and halachist.
This Sephardic tradition is kept alive in Lisa Simpson, the brilliant and talented middle child of the Simpson family. Many of the members of the Springfield community have questionable morals and talents, but not Lisa. She is far and away the most respectable character. "Lisa, is not only pro-intellectual, she is smart beyond her years. She is extremely intelligent and sophisticated, and is often seen out-thinking those around her." (Irwin 26). Aside, from her immense knowledge of history, mathematics, and the sciences, Lisa is also an accomplished musician. She plays the saxophone for her school band, and also plays the bass, bongo drums, didgeridoo and acoustic guitar. In addition, she is a skillful horse back rider and at one time took care of a pony of her own. Lisa is also politically active. In "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington," she exposes a corrupt congressman for taking bribes (Richmond 63). Lisa is a devoted feminist. In "Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy," she creates a doll of her own for little girls to respect as opposed to the popular "Barbie" like Malibu Stacy, which is nothing more then a chauvinistic male stereotype. Finally, Lisa is a devoted sister and daughter who loves her family very much, and while she may be the classic "overachiever," she nevertheless remains the model of Sephardic versatility.
Even though many of the traditions of Sephardic culture were created generations ago, it still lives on today. The Sephardic tradition has come a long way from the days of the Inquisition, where people had to hide their roots, to today's modern culture, where it is ubiquitous. Nowadays, one of the country's most popular television shows overtly displays numerous facets of Sephardic culture. "The Simpsons" has an audience that ranges from young children to adults, and affects viewers on many levels. Countless viewers take what they see on the show and make it part of their lifestyle, which invigorates Sephardic thoughts and teachings into society. In this case, life is truly imitating art.