What Irked Me About the Simpsons in Israel

by Brian on April 13, 2010

in In the News,Reviews

The Simpsons came to Israel last week. Not the actors themselves or large foam rubber versions of the popular yellow characters dancing on ice; rather the show itself, which after over 20 years as the longest running sitcom on television, finally had an Israel-themed episode. I enjoyed most of it but there was an ongoing theme that got under my skin.

In the episode, entitled ‘The Greatest Story Ever Dohed,” Ned Flanders is down to his last straw in terms of helping Homer see the light and become a good Christian. He offers the Simpson family a trip to the Holy Land.

The episode was typical Simpsons, which is to say, mostly amusing and not too deep. There were no serious jabs at the political situation and only a few mild caricatures of Israelis (the writers clearly didn’t want to make many waves).

Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat, Bruno and Ali G. fame, voiced the part of Jacob, the abrupt Israeli tour guide who kept telling his flock to “shut your face.” While a bit over the top, who hasn’t met a gruff Israeli like that at some point during an extended visit to Israel? Maybe not on the tour circuit but perhaps at a government office?

There was also Yossi’s pint-sized cousin Dorit (voiced by singer Yael Naim) who employed the Israeli martial art of krav maga to subdue Bart – again, a little stereotyped but nothing to get up about.

So what irked me? The portrayal of Israel as a kind of Middle Eastern version of Fiddler on the Roof. There was the matza ball truck, followed by the Chosen People moving van (set to a klezmer music background), and the tour group stayed at the Wailing Waldorf (with, yes, a fiddler cleaning the gutters). Many of the Israelis depicted wore tallitot around their necks and black hats on their heads.

In a nod to “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” Homer marveled over local soft drinks with Eastern European names like “Lemon Lime Oy” and “Diet Briskit” (although the “Chickpea Fizz” was at least relevant to the local milieu).

Perhaps the funniest bit of the show is when Homer tries to order falafel over the phone “with pepperoni, sausage and extra cheese.” After a pause, he responds, “yes, I know what a falafel is.” I also chuckled when Krusty the Clown patronized the “Gaza Strip Club.”

Of course I exaggerate. I’m glad, after 20 years, the Simpson took the opportunity to make fun of our eminently parody-able state. Homer even tried to make peace. While suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome and proclaiming himself the messiah, he ascended the Temple Mount and declared that one thing Jews, Muslims and Christians have in common is an abiding love for chicken.

Too bad most of the real players in the region seem to be devout vegetarians.

I first shared my frustrations on the Israelity blog.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 DovEphraim April 20, 2010 at 9:04 pm

While I was distracted by all the Old World Ashkenazi references, it made me realize the pervasiveness of Jewish humor. REAL Israeli references would have been lost on the vast majority of “Simpsons” viewers — but Jewish shtick they get because . . . well, because the Borscht Belt didn’t die, its children and grandchildren just became writers, producers, and stars of prime time TV.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Jacob” got laughs because he said funny things in funny ways. But for Jews who know Israeli culture to any degree, there was a whole other level of funny that the other 90%-plus of viewers almost assuredly missed. Heck — if you’ve spent any time in Israel or around Israelis, you KNOW that guy. On the other hand, if the entire 30 minutes (okay — 22 minutes plus commercials) had insisted on authenticity, it likely would have gone over like lead balloons with most fans.

A ma’aseh: probably the funniest moment in the episode (to me, anyway) was when Jacob started loudly arguing in Hebrew. The fact that the subtitles accurately reflected what was being said just reinforced the “inside” nature of the humor. The clueless looks on the faces of the Simpsons left you wondering who the joke was really on — something I’d bet Sacha Baron Cohen can relate to.

2 Andy Kayman June 18, 2010 at 12:59 am

I thought the sign at the airport that reads: Welcome to Israel, your American tax dollars at work was pretty funny.

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