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Why the Golem Episode of the Simpsons Was So God-Awful: A Close Reading

When the Simpsons announced that their annual Halloween episode would involve a retelling of the Golem myth, Jews everywhere got excited. True, the Jewish experience is not exactly underrepresented in Springfield, a town that has its own Lower East Side. … Read More

By / November 6, 2006

When the Simpsons announced that their annual Halloween episode would involve a retelling of the Golem myth, Jews everywhere got excited. True, the Jewish experience is not exactly underrepresented in Springfield, a town that has its own Lower East Side. But the Golem is a particularly haunting legend. It might be the only true Ashkenazi ghost storyor at least the only one still suffusing the popular consciousness. Since the Simpsons’ Halloween specials are reliably brilliant, it seemed only fair to greet this one with anticipation.

The Golem is a sort of Jewish Frankenstein: an enormous clay monster, half-alive, who responds with creepy literalness to his master’s bidding. The best-known Golem legend comes from 16th century Prague. According to the story, things were particularly bad for the Jews one year, so the town rabbi decided to take matters into his own hands. He built a huge man out of clay, and then, appealing to his secret mystical knowledge, he inscribed the Hebrew word emet, truth, on the creature’s forehead. As soon as the word was written, the monster came to life, but Rabbi Loew could not control him, and the Jews watched in horror as their creation rampaged through Prague. Eventually, they were able to smear the clay on his forehead, turning emet into met, death, which was the only way to power him down.

It’s a good story, though it raises some serious questions. For one thing, how the hell do you sneak-attack the forehead of a rampaging monster? More importantly, though, what are we to make of the moral here? The Jews of Prague were being persecuted, so they decided to fight back. Fair enough, I guess, but why did they have to resort to magic? Wasn’t there a single tough guy or strongman in the entire community? And why did this attempt at self-defense have to go so horribly wrong? Judaism isn’t a pacifist tradition, after allso why create a legend that seems to frown so wholly on the idea of fighting back?

All of this might go a long way towards explaining why last night’s Simpsons episode turned out so hugely disappointing. It was bad enough that their Golem, when finally commanded to speak, turned out to be a neurotic New Yorker voiced by nasal Richard Lewis. Worse, when the Simpsons family sculpts him a girlfriend out of Play-doh, she opens her mouth and assaults the audience in the voice ofwait for itFran Fucking Drescher. Homer, aghast, offers to destroy his vile creation, but the Golem seems to find Drescher’s horrible whine charming. (And vy not? You vant maybe a Jew in the 21st century to not conform so embarrassingly to stereotype?) And so they are married. Mazel tov!

I know it's not fair to expect either theology or folk ethnography from a cartoon, even if it is the best cartoon in the history of the word. And I know the Simpsons jumped the shark years ago. But did they really have to take complicated, flawed, scary Jewish myth and use it as an excuse to bring back Fran Drescher?

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