Disney’s First Jewish Princess Arrives in Time for Hanukkah

December, 12 2019

Finally, just in time for Hanukkah, a bona fide Disney Jewish princess has arrived.

Princess Rebecca, of the Ladino kingdom of Galonia, appeared in an episode of  Elena of Avalor that aired on December 6. Elena is a Latinx princess who is the centerpiece of the Emmy-winning, Disney Junior Channel series which debuted in 2016.

In the episode, entitled “Festival of Lights,” Rebecca and her family are shipwrecked off the coast of Avalor while returning home to observe Hanukkah. Elena welcomes them to her palace and invites them to celebrate the holiday and teach them about its traditions. The guitar-playing, olive-skinned Rebecca lights a Hanukkiah, the holiday candelabra, and she and her family (Tovah Feldush plays Rebecca’s grandmother, Miriam, also referred to as “Bubbie”) tell the story of her people’s struggle—without being too explicit—and the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in the neir tamid. There is also chocolate gelt, from a local shop, and a dreidel.

“It has always been important to us on Elena of Avalor to showcase the diversity of Latin and Hispanic cultures,” Craig Gerber, the creator and executive producer of the series, said in an interview with Remezcla. “We decided to focus on Hanukkah and a part of the culture that we hadn’t yet represented on the show.”

Elena and Rebecca

Jamie Lynn-Sigler, best known for her role as Mafia princess Meadow in The Sopranos, voiced the princess role, singing the number “This Hanukkah Night.” The actress, raised in New York in her father’s Jewish faith, had a bat mitzvah and traveled to Israel on a Birthright trip in 2008.

Responses to the episode have been strong and favorable. “I’ve seen many holiday princess specials, and this is the first one that Disney has released about characters who grew up with the same traditions as me,” wrote Lisa Dawn, on The Princess Blog: Your Resource for All Things Princess. “This is so important because it normalizes Judaism for today’s audience of children by showing them that not all fairy tale princesses celebrate Christmas.” 

Some may wonder whether this really is a milestone or much ado about relatively little. Does a cable TV princess, guest-starring in a single episode special, count as an official Jewish Disney princess? Will she become a doll?

And, frankly, this Jewish royal arrived draped as much in irony as finery. After all, this is the company that built its animated empire (and hugely lucrative merchandising franchise) on impossibly beautiful, long-haired blonde, wasp-waisted, WASP heroines. It is an ur-shiksa template beloved by—and inflicted on—little girls the world over for more than 75 years.

Oh, and it’s from a studio whose founder was dogged by charges of anti-Semitism, through his life and after. Despite Disney corporate disclaimers, Walt was known to make anti-Semitic remarks. He had acrimonious clashes with the few Jewish artists he hired. And he allowed an ugly peddler caricature to get into his “Three Little Pigs” short. So, conceivably, this Hanukkah episode may cause Walt to spin in his fabled cryogenic tank.

Also, there had been advance speculation that the Disney version will conjure memories of misogynistic jokes about the JAP, the spoiled, shopaholic stereotype of the contemporary Jewish American Princess.

Some may wonder if the new Jewish princess is a response to suggestions from numerous quarters—including mine —that the time has come for us (especially our daughters and granddaughters) to be included in the Disney canon. 

However, in a larger sense, this is more than an overdue corporate apology, or a belated and token acknowledgment of the Jewish community. It is the latest example of Disney’s expanding and evolving princess/heroine diversity palette. This expansion of religion and ethnicity flourished under the Disney leadership of two Jews, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg (the latter of whom went on to make the very Jewish animated feature The Prince of Egypt, about Moses, but only after he left the Mouse).

During their highly successful corporate and creative reign, and after, the leading female characters of their animated features included:

• Jasmine, an Arab princess, implicitly Muslim, in Aladdin
• A Native American nature worshipper in Pocahontas
• Esmeralda, the Catholic Roma heroine of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
• An Asian lead, a Confucian, in Mulan
• A native Hawaiian in Lilo and Stitch
Tiana, an African American, a believer in Voudoun, in The Princess and the Frog
• A Polynesian in Moana, who appeals to her culture’s cosmology

But until now there has been no Jewish princess—not that there wasn’t an abundance of attractive candidates.

Throughout history, there have been numerous Jewish queens and princesses, in the Bible and after; the best known is Queen Esther of Persia. Like her, most of the others gained their titles through marriage, in Israel and far-flung foreign lands, from North Africa to the Caspian Sea. Others were already royal rulers who converted.

Disney’s TV Jewish princess episode script was written by Rachel Ruderman, who has written previously for Elena of Avalor, as well as for Thomas the Tank Engine. Intriguingly, Ruderman also wrote for the earlier Disney series Sofia the First, in which Elena was first introduced as a guest character, leading to her own Avalor series. “I would love to see a feature film about a Jewish Disney Princess someday, or perhaps a series like the one Elena got,” Dawn wrote in her blog. “I am grateful for this small contribution that Disney made to my culture after so many years of silence…I love that Disney wants Jews like me to feel seen.”

Could Rebecca’s guest appearance, too, be a precursor? One can hope.

Mark I. Pinsky is the author of The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust.

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63 thoughts on “Disney’s First Jewish Princess Arrives in Time for Hanukkah

  1. Ernie says:

    Very timely. Thank you Mark and Disney.

  2. RG says:

    Very exciting!

    By the way – Stitch (the “blue-skinned Hawaiian”) is male. Lilo, a native Hawaiian, is female.

  3. Mark, why do you refer to the setting as “the Ladino kingdom of Galonia?” Where is there any reference to anything Ladino – or Sephardic?

    1. Bonnie says:

      She lights a menorah not a Hannukah

      1. Jacob says:

        Bonnie, she lights a Channukiya not a menorah. The ancient menorah at the temple had 7 equal candle/oil holders. The Channukiya, a much later object, has 8 candles and the Shamash. American Jewry adopted the word menorah simply for convenience reasons – easier to pronounce .

        1. A.R.S says:

          Channukiah is a menorah. Just that all menorahs are not Channukiahs. Just like “all thumbs are fingers, but all fingers are not thumbs”

      2. A Hannukiah is indeed what we light on Chanukah. It has 9 arms and is popularly, though incorrectly, called a menorah.

        The menorah found in ancient carvings and representations in Israel has only 7 arms. FYI and Happy Chanukah!

      3. Me says:

        A hannukah specific menorah is called a hannukiah

        1. Linda caplan says:

          Menorah’s r only for Hanukkah.

          1. Roni Love says:

            A Hanukkiah is a menorah, but menorahs are not necessarily Hanukkiahs. Menorahs generally have 7 candles. Hanukkias (Hanukkiot) have 9 candles.

      4. Cheryl says:

        A Hannukkiyah is what a Hanukkah menorah is called.

      5. BubbeS says:

        The article is absolutely correct. You light a chanukiah. A chanukiah is a menorah that is specific to Hanukkah. A menorah is basically a candelabra and can have way less or more candle holders than the 8+ for Hanukkah

      6. shloime says:

        in the picture, it clearly has 9 branches, which is a hanukkiah.

    2. T. Prince says:

      Too bad I cannot buy a Jewish princess doll “Just in time for Hanukkah”. Apparently, they do not make one. Any other new princess introduced the toy comes out first.

  4. Yak Fatzko says:

    “Tova Feldush”?! Seriously?! Please correct this asap…

  5. Alexandra says:

    Ladino linguist-right.
    It’s so funny that she is supposed to be Ladino but calls her grandmother “Bubbie”, which is a strictly Eastern-European, Yiddish title.

    1. Miguel says:

      Alexandra, you beat me to it. Bubbie isn’t exactly Ladino. Ditto for the Hanukkah gelt. That would make sense in my world, however, having a Sephardic mother and an Ashkenazi father.

  6. Randy Zippert says:

    Very interesting one small step for Judaism. One giant leap for human kind.

    1. David Tabak says:

      I would be very happy with a seres stared by Esther , the Persian Queen.

      1. Rebecca Britt says:

        Purim whaaaa… <3 <3 <3

  7. Shaina Settenbrino says:

    Not enthused about this at all. She’s going to light a menora and that’s the only Jewish thing she does? There’s so much more to being Jewish than that. It’s a way of life, with so many subtleties and nuances that you have to live it to appreciate it — not a bunch of rituals. If I want my kids to see Jewish heroines we watch Jewish movies.

  8. Jason Stansell says:

    Note: Tiana’s religion is not even referenced at all. Voodoo was the evil character’s mojo, one could even stretch it to say the prince as well. But Tiana was just caught up in the schemes.

    To call her Voudoun would be like calling Ariel, Cinderella, Snow White, etc. Wiccan just because of the witches in their tales.

    1. Alina says:

      Your right that Tiana didn’t have her religious preference shown, but Voodoo wasn’t just the “evil” in the movie. Remember Mama Odie is also a character, who is a light Voodoo priestess who helps tell them how to break the curse.

    2. David Young says:

      What’s with Latinx? Change your own language and leave Spanish alone.

    3. Erise A says:

      Thanks for that!! I was like wtf! Tiana isn’t voudon at all! She was swept up in the rich/broke frog’s lie and got spellbound with him. and Jasmine of Alladin wasn’t Muslim just because they lived in a desert! LOL neither was Alladin of any faith! But the author was REACHING for some kind of diversity correlation with his article.

  9. Ruth says:

    Snow White – black hair. Sleeping Beauty – blonde long hair. Cinderella – ash blonde, shoulder length, Mulan – Asian, black hair, Jasmine – black hair. Rapunzel – long blonde hair turned short brown. Pocahontas – Native American, black hair. Tiana – black. Ariel – red hair. Merida – red hair. … Hmmm, black hair tally 5. Blonde hair tally 2.5. Red hair tally 2. Surprising lack of brunettes in the princess tally, but definitely not blonde dominated.

    I didn’t include the TV princesses cause I am not really familiar with them, but I don’t think any are blonde.

    And let’s not forget that some Jews are blonde, so let’s just stop with picking on blondes. We haven’t been inflicted upon little girls for 75 years.

    1. Ruth says:

      Forgot about Moana – another for the black hair tally!

    2. Jen says:

      Forgot about Bell, who is a brunette.

    3. Smelly telly says:

      You forgot Belle in your tally.

  10. Rosie Rafden says:

    Haven’t seen cause I don’t have the Disney channel, I’m a grandmother of grown children, but I’m delighted that the episode was created and acknowledges the Sephardic jews.

  11. Donna says:

    They light a “menorah” for Hannukah.

    1. Eileen Simmons says:

      It’s called a Hanukia. A menorah is traditionally a seven stemmed candle holder that is for regular times. A Hanukia is strictly for Hanukah and has 8 candle holders plus the shammos. Yes, people often call it a menorah. but the Hebrew term is Hanukia.

    2. Laurie says:

      So Disney should use these comments and a focus group or two as lessons learned. They should do more research before presenting more about this unique character on what are the truly Sephardic Jewish cultural differences from other Jewish cultures around the world. Also, research the correct terms for the Jewish symbols, and explain makes t then so special and important to reused them every year, like this Chanukah menorah is called a “hanukkiah” and how it is a symbol of this beautiful, religious freedom holiday ( as well as Purim and Passover – other storylines for this “ladino” princess).

      1. Laurie says:

        Excuse the poor grammar – should have reviewed before pressing send!

  12. Leanna says:

    Lol we don’t light a hannukah we light a menorah but ok

  13. Tony Neuron says:

    In fact, Donna and Leanna, if it has a total of 9 candles (with one separated in some minor way from the rest) it is a Hanukkah. If it has a total of 7 candles, it is a menorah.

    1. Tony Neuron says:

      Sorry, hannukiah. Autocorrect got in the way.

  14. Marion says:

    Bubbe? Not representative of Latinex/Sephardic culture. They couldn’t have found the right word for grandmother, which is probably Abuela if my Latinex students know what they call their grandma.

  15. Majin Yojimbo says:

    >”Jasmine, an Arab princess, implicitly Muslim, in Aladdin”

    Uhhhhh no. The only ‘muslim’ was the Sultan who had imprisoned the storyteller, who had to come up with a new story every night for 1001 night er be beheaded / killed by the Mooslum sultan. Jasmine and Aladdin are more PERSIAN, as Genies come from D’JINN, which is a Zoroastrian thing – not to be confused by Islam’s ‘JINN’ which are (like all other lame rip offs by Mohammed from other lores)simply ‘demons’.

  16. Steven Gordon says:

    Disney…Jewish….uhhhhhhhhhh….NO. Isn’t it bad enough that Di$ney has ruined many other cultures and ethnicities that they have to go after the Jewish? Oy vey…

    And by the way, that “Jewish candelabra” is called a MENORAH.

    1. Noah Simon says:

      That’s not true. It’s a hanukkiah, or a Hanukkah menorah. If you’re going to criticize, get your facts straight.

  17. Iris says:

    Leanna – a traditional menorah has 7 branches and is NOT lit on Chanukah. A CHANUKIAH (or hanukkiah) is the 9 branched menorah that is lit during Chanukah.

    The 7 branched menorah has always been a symbol of Judaism and dates back to the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. The chanukiah appeared about a thousand years later after the Maccabees were victorious against Antiochus and the Assyrian Greek conquest.

  18. JT says:

    “ He had acrimonious clashes with the few Jewish artists he hired.”

    Nnnnnnope. Denied time and again by the actually fairly numerous Jewish employees, Walt’s protégée Marty Sklar and the Sherman Brothers, all three of whom are Disney Legends and whose contributions are fundamental to Disney, among them. It’s always fun when people who should know better continue to recite the same apocryphal stories.

    But by all means, prove me wrong. Please provide specific instances where Jewish employees have described Walt’s unambiguous anti-semitism toward them. I’ll settle for just two. Go!

  19. AT says:

    Just as a follow-up the article’s several references to sexism… in an essay that appears to be extremely aware of sexual inequity in the media, your overlooking the lack of positive male representation in Disney’s output while emphasizing the need for even more representation of women seems unusual.

  20. Chayyim says:

    Chanukiah is a modern word invented in the 1950s in Israel to mean specifically a Chanukah menorah as opposed to an electric light chandelier or generic candelabra.

  21. Roberta Shlak-walters says:

    Its about time. I am named for my great grandmother, Rebekah and am excited to see this additional diversity which is long overdue! As a doll collector, I would love to have the doll if created!

  22. Lynne Young says:

    The rumor that Walt Disney was anti-semetic started during the strike at Disney during the 40’s or 50’s. A guy came out from the mid west and said he was a strike buster and would help Disney. Some of the employees who were not on strike told Walt that this guy was not someone he would want to work with, so Walt turned him down. He then went to the strikers and noticed that a percentage of them were Jewish. He used that to imply that Walt was firing the Jews. Thus, the rumors began. Walt Disney hired many people and it would be very hard to find one that said he was anti-semetic. You may want to go to the lobby of the Walt Disney Family Museum in the San Francisco Presidio and see the award he received from a Jewish group. They would not have done this if he was anti-semetic.

    1. Barbara Albin says:

      Except I remember as a young teenager, being Jewish, unable to get a summer job in the park. Walr Disney and Walter Knott were anti Jewish, let’s not change history in order to feel better.

    2. Easy M says:

      I love how Disney did this, because it is very important to include everyone, and not just Catholics. I don´t celebrate Hannukah, but my friend does. She has told me a couple times how there are almost no Hannukah decorations anymore and that she feels very left out, so thank you Disney!

  23. Robert Schwartz says:

    If Elena is female name why do you need to use the generic latinx when you can just use Latina? Isn’t this PC sh** going far?

  24. Mickey says:

    It’s really nice to see a Jewish Disney princess, but I feel a little sad at how short this falls of accurately portraying Sephardic Jewish culture. Most glaringly for me, Bubbie is a Yiddish word– in Ladino the word for grandmother is “Nona” or “Bavá”. Also, playing dreidel is an exclusively Ashkenazic custom. I love that Disney is trying to be more inclusive, but it’s frustrating that in so doing they are conflating Ashkenazic Jewish culture with Jewish culture writ large. Maybe they felt they had to do that, because Sephardic Jews are so invisible in the US that most viewers (including most Jewish viewers) would probably fail to recognize anything in the episode as “Jewish” if it were portrayed accurately. But still, given their stated aim of showcasing the diversity of Hispanic cultures, you’d think they might have done a bit of research on Sephardic Jews instead of just assuming that all Jews speak the same language and celebrate Hanukkah the same way.

  25. Yuval says:

    Despite the fact that I’m thrilled Disney have finally given us some Jewish representation, the fact that they chose Hanukkah shows both a lack of originality and ignorance about the Jewish faith

    1. shloime says:

      what would you suggest, tzom gedalya instead?

      there’s nothing wrong with hanukkah, so long as they don’t put up a hanukkah bush!

  26. Cheryl says:

    A person who identifies as Ladino would not call her grandmother Bubbe., it is a Yiddish term. The Ladino word is Nonnative or Avuela. Close to the Spanish version.

  27. Keroline says:

    This work looks like the creation of #artbymervin. Is it?

  28. Bruno Frydman says:

    With the exception of hiring a few token chairmen and a couple of heads of production Disney has a tradition of racism and antisemitism. They do not hire Jews. Walt Disney was a member of the US Nazi party. In the mid 40s’ the infamous cartoons portraying the big bad wolf wearing tzitzis and a yarmukle led to confrontation with WB cartoonists and a law suits from the United Artists Charly Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. Since the end of WW2 and the death of Disney millions have and continue to be spent on Public Relations compannies to tru and bury the memory of the infamous behavior of the founder. And now to try and Pretend it is simply normal to this Studio to tackle Jews as regular characters is a scandal. The truth about WD racism and Jew hatred should be taught in schools and Universties and their films never showed to children!

  29. ESCinVA says:

    Savta instead of Bubbe? Plain Hebrew.

    1. shloime says:

      funnily enough, “savta” isn’t really hebrew, it’s aramaic. and it means “old lady”.

      for hebrew purists, it should be “z’kaina” (זקנה), although i doubt that even most israelis would use that to address their own grandmothers.

  30. UmmAsya says:

    Let’s not mention Jasmin, who is not “Muslim” in the slightest. She may be Arab but that is also questionable and many Muslims both Arabs and South Asians deplore Aladdin as a racist stereotype that does not represent either the Arab or South Asian culture. Please remove that part of this article.

  31. Susan says:

    Contravene over what to call the candlesticks…get us some positive representation in the genre , then refine, correct and amplify!

  32. mo says:

    Esmeralda wasn’t Catholic; she was a gipsy, and gipsies practised mysticism not Catholicism.

  33. I enjoyed all the posts and learned some things I never knew, Thank you all. And I must agree – It Is about time!

  34. SD says:

    It reminds me of how, in grade school, every December, the teacher would ask me to stand before the class and teach them about what Hanukkah was, and what it meant, making it so clear that I was the ONLY Jewish kid in the class, in the school, in the neighborhood. We just love to be an example to others. I find this rather offensive.

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