The Best Part Of Krusty The Clown’s Judaism Is That It Doesn’t Need To Explain Itself
9:01 AM EDT on September 22, 2023
There is one episode of one TV show that I have watched more than any other. It is not for the reasons you might expect. It is not because I was a super-fan of the show, for instance, and it also isn't because I had some amazing personal memory attached to the program. I never even owned a copy of the episode in question. But the thing about my Hebrew day school growing up is that what we consumed within its walls had to be Jewish. This made a certain amount of sense given all the very non-Jewish cultural and religious stuff we swam through in the rest of our daily lives, but it also made video day quite a conundrum.
Video day meant that we got to watch a video in class. Maybe we had a substitute teacher. Maybe we'd all aced our Jewish history tests and were being given a treat. Maybe our morah was just having a day. All those scenarios put the "only Jewish things" rule to the test; back in the 1980s and early 1990s, there weren't that many openly Jewish characters portrayed in movies and TV that were also appropriate for children and pre-teens. This meant that the videos we watched the most in Hebrew day school boiled down to what I called the Big Three: The Ten Commandments, Fiddler on the Roof, and the television episode that I have seen more than any other, which is the Krusty Is A Jew episode of The Simpsons.
That, technically, is not the name of the episode. Its official title is "Like Father, Like Clown"—get it?—but this is not how I filed it away in my brain, and it's not how I think of it now. I still can recall the rush of excitement when the episode first aired. There had been Jewish characters on TV before, but a foul-mouthed clown who smoked, drank, womanized, and shared his show with a cartoon cat and mouse pair who thought only of vengeance and murder? The Simpsons was incredibly popular, and also the type of show your parents might not want you to watch; even if they did let you watch, they surely didn't want you emulating Krusty. All of which meant that Krusty the Clown being a Jew felt, well, cool.
And since the whole episode was about Krusty being a Jew—and also self-contained and less than 30 minutes long—we were allowed to watch it at Hebrew school. It is also why it is, quite easily, my most-watched TV episode ever, despite the fact that I barely watched any of the rest of the show, and despite the fact that I hadn't watched the episode since I dropped out of Hebrew day school in the mid-1990s.
Until this week. Maybe it was because The Simpsons is streaming now, or maybe it was because this is the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews are supposed to repent. Maybe, admittedly, I was just fumbling around for something to write about. But I rewatched "Krusty is a Jew," and I realized that I had forgotten what made the episode so beloved, and so surprisingly appropriate for showing to young Jewish kids. It is thoroughly, deeply, and unapologetically Jewish.
The news that Krusty is a Jew doesn't arrive until more than six minutes into the episode, which is practically forever in the world of half-hour sitcom television. By that time viewers have already seen Krusty cancel therapy, cancel his personal trainer, chew nicotine gum, call a phone sex line, and gamble on sports (yes, sports betting signaled that a character was a ne'er-do-well in the early '90s). Most importantly, Krusty has canceled his thank-you-for-saving-me-from-jail dinner with Bart Simpson five times; he only stops canceling when his long-suffering assistant threatens to quit. At that dinner, the Simpsons politely offer to let Krusty say grace and Krusty launches right into Hamotzi in Hebrew, with a noticeable New York accent. That is, the cartoon clown thanks God for this bread from the land.
In a lesser work, this might have launched an entire explain-a-thon. Who are these Jews? Why is Krusty Jewish? Where do Jews come from? How are Jews different than Christians? Are Jews actually Just Like Us? Here, the new factoid simmers for less than a minute. The always-prepared Lisa jumps in to explain that this means Krusty is Jewish, then rattles off a long list of famous Jewish entertainers. Remarkably, that's it. Krusty's Jewishness isn't the entrance into a moment of learning. Nobody has to explain that the Jews don't have horns. He's just Jewish.
There's also no more time to pontificate because Krusty immediately breaks down in tears and explains that saying the blessing brings back painful memories for him of his estranged father, an esteemed rabbi. The backstory is told via flashback in an homage to The Jazz Singer, which is about the son of a cantor chasing his dream of being a pop music singer, complete with a reference to growing up on the "Lower East Side of Springfield." (It must be said that The Jazz Singer holds the shameful distinction of including blackface, a racist trope The Simpsons excised in its retelling.) When young Herschel Krustofsky (Krusty's birth name) asks his father if he can be a clown, he's told no, because a clown is not "a respected member of the community." When pushed, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky (the voice of Jackie Mason) tells his son, "Life is not fun. Life is serious! Seltzer's for drinking, not for spraying. Pie is for noshing, not for throwing!" before finally shutting the conversation down with a thinly veiled allusion to corporal punishment.
Given that Herschel is now Krusty, the rest isn't too hard to suss out. Krusty pursues clowning behind his father's back, the rabbi eventually finds out about it at a Talmudic conference in the Catskills, and disowns his son. This section also includes one of the episode's best jokes, when Krusty impersonates his father in Yeshiva by going "blah blah blah blah, Moses," which is ... not terribly far off from how Torah class feels sometimes. I admittedly can't remember my classmates' reaction to this part, but for me it always hit right in the gut, in a good way.
The recollection sends Krusty into a crisis and he loses his ability to be funny, which Bart and Lisa set out to fix. Bart and Lisa not being Jewish, they think this will be as easy as just popping over to Rabbi Krustofsky's house and having a nice chat with him. Instead, in a more on-the-nose nod to The Jazz Singer, he bellows "I have no son!" and slams the door in their faces. What the Simpson kids eventually learn is a lesson that every Jewish kid who has practiced for a bar mitzvah learns—you don't just tell things to your rabbi. You must be prepared for an existential debate.
"We're gonna hit him where it hurts," Lisa announces to Bart before heading to the local library. "Right in the Judaica."
Lisa sends Bart out to the rabbi with notes quoting the Talmud and Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar. But it's her final shot, the last quote she can dig up without learning ancient Hebrew, that does the trick: "The Jews are a swinging bunch of people. I mean, I've heard of persecution, but what they went through is ridiculous. But the great thing is, after thousands of years of waiting and holding on and fighting, they finally made it." A stumped Rabbi Krustofsky, finally without a rebuttal, must know who said this. Bart reveals that it's from an entertainer—and Jew—Sammy Davis Jr.
The eventual reunion between father and son is beautiful and tearful and, as in The Jazz Singer, involves music. Krusty can be funny again, and Lisa and Bart have saved the day. All this in a tight 23 minutes, with time for commercials! Because it's TV, not Torah, this story gets to have a happy ending.
The entire episode is littered with jokes that do nothing to advance the plot but are ridiculously funny. For my money, none hit quite as perfectly as Rabbi Krustofsky's disgust at learning that his son's signature deli sandwich consists of ham, sausage, and bacon with a smidge of mayo ... on white bread. Why this is funny isn't explained. That's the point. A joke's never funny if you have to explain it.
Except so much of being Jewish is explaining yourself. There's only about 16 million Jews on Earth, a pittance of the global population, which means that, unless a Jew in the United States stays in the tiniest of bubbles—and, look, it is possible—you at some point invariably end up explaining yourself. Yes, usually it's to well-meaning people who just want to know Why is your new year on a different day? and Why are your holidays always moving around? and How come some of you don't eat pork but some of you do?
And sometimes it's not as simple as that. It's also Why do some of you wear funny hats? and Why do so many Jews work in media? and Why are so many of you rich? and What's up with that George Soros? Even the well-intentioned questions get exhausting after a while, as does smiling through the 10,000th person asking if you had a good Yom Kippur—it's a day of fasting and atonement, it's never good—because being a polite, kind, unthreatening Jew feels like the only defense against people thinking we [checks notes] control all the banks and have western civilization in the sites of our Jewish space lasers.
Is this a uniquely Jewish feeling? No. Of course not. Exhaustion at having to explain yourself or just feeling out of place are not experiences that belong to the Jews any more than the story of Noah and the flood does. But it is nice to not have to explain sometimes, to just feel normal. I think that's what still makes the "Krusty is a Jew" episode so special for me. Nothing is explained. Nothing is given context. Jews are just Jews, nothing we do is clarified or justified—and if you don't get it, well, we've got five more jokes coming, so buckle up and jot it down so you look it up later. And that might be the most Jewish part of it all.