Welcome to Chai Brow, Moment’s weekly arts column exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.
You may have heard of Disney+, a new streaming service launched last week by the world’s largest entertainment conglomerate. Among other things, the platform instantly resurrects nearly a century’s worth of Disney movies and TV shows, taking them out of the so-called “Disney Vault” and placing them at your fingertips for $7 a month (or free if you have a Verizon Unlimited plan). A cute little shayna punim we’re calling Baby Yoda is on there, as well.
“Where are all the Jews?” is maybe not the most noteworthy question to ask of the streaming equivalent of a Macy’s catalog, and yet I found myself asking it anyway. Jewishness is both unrelated to the Disney archive and, thanks to Walt Disney’s long-rumored yet long-denied anti-Semitism, inseparable from it. But if anti-Semitism did exist within the company, such bigotry rarely made it to the creative stage. Disney doesn’t have any massive, Song of the South-sized shondas in its archive when it comes to the Jews—and even if one existed, we’d never be able to watch it. One exception is the Oscar-winning 1933 animated short Three Little Pigs, which included a gag about the Big Bad Wolf dressing up as a stereotypical Jewish peddler…surprise, surprise, it’s not on Disney+. (Don’t worry, the Library of Congress has preserved the short in its Film Registry and it’s freely available online.)
But something interesting happened to the Disney empire as it approached, and then entered, the 21st century. The company expanded its TV division via the Disney Channel, Disney-produced network television animation and direct-to-video movie sequels, all passable babysitters for busy suburban parents who could afford the basic cable subscriptions and DVDs. And Disney’s onetime efforts to present its stories as mostly religion-free fell by the wayside, either because the company was trying to better relate to its potential audience or because it was so desperate for content it was willing to be more adventurous. Suddenly, Disney had Jews. And, with an assist from the “Jewish Characters” category page of the Disney Fandom wiki, I’ve tracked some of them down.
What sort of Jews? Well, in the spotlight, there’s Even Stevens, the series about a dysfunctional interfaith family in Sacramento that ran from 2000-03, starring Shia LaBeouf. The mom on the show, played by Donna Pescow, was a Jewish state senator. A first-season episode called “Heck of a Hanukkah” is a takeoff of It’s a Wonderful Life, with LaBeouf’s Louis Stevens finding out what the world would look like had he never been born.
Meanwhile, the mid-2000s animated show Kim Possible followed a teenage crimefighter. Kim’s Jewish sidekick and love interest, the bumbling Ron Stoppable, at one point frets that he can’t be a real man because his rabbi never signed his bar mitzvah certificate. Ron’s Judaism is mainly incidental to his character, and yet he still likely wound up being the first nebbish most of his viewers would see on TV. Jewish sidekicks were a popular device for Disney; they also popped up on Lizzie McGuire and Phineas and Ferb.
Disney even threw us a based-on-a-true-story sports biopic, although it wasn’t exactly Remember the Titans. The 2003 comedy Full-Court Miracle, a low-budget Disney Channel movie, riffed off the career of Lamont Carr, a black basketball coach who took a Philadelphia Jewish day school on a championship run. Players wear yarmulkes and study the history of Hanukkah, but this is also a culture-clash comedy, which means a rap remix of “Dreidel, Dreidel.” Jewcy deemed it “the best Chanukah sports movie,” for what that’s worth.
What else we got? Did you know that Kronk, the scene-stealing evil sidekick from the animated farce The Emperor’s New Groove, is canonically Jewish? Sure, he’s a servant of the Inca Empire, several hundred years before any Jews were hanging out in South America. But he fantasizes about having a Jewish wedding in the 2005 direct-to-video sequel Kronk’s New Groove. It’s a goof on the series’ fondness for anachronistic gags, but that still has to count for something, right? No?
These portrayals are all harmless yet affectionate. But my fondest childhood memory of a Disney character comes from one with a questionable Jewish background: Fagin, the sweet-yet-grimy pickpocket from 1988’s Oliver & Company. He’s a much softer variation on the character of the same name from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, long considered by literary scholars to be a textbook anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish schemer (like the one the Wolf impersonates).
Oliver & Company was one of my favorite Disney animated movies as a kid, and I loved Fagin. Even though he seemed like he smelled bad and didn’t carry himself with much human dignity (he ate dog biscuits), he was a kind man who wanted the best for his group of stray animals, so long as they helped him steal things from rich folks to earn their keep. Any hints of his Judaism were scrubbed from Disney’s take on the Dickens tale, as you would expect: Unlike the other properties on this list, Oliver & Company got the full-blown theatrical treatment. They couldn’t take any chances.
It’s weird to do this kind of excavation of a studio’s back catalog. It reminds me that Disney has steered the cultural narrative of family entertainment for generations and that if it doesn’t want anyone to be Jewish, nobody will be. Unearthing all these old stories and finding only a few mostly peripheral characters in lower-tier franchises isn’t offensive, exactly, but it’s not welcome, either. Now that Disney+ looks to supplant cable TV as the suburban babysitter of choice, maybe we’ll see the company commission more original works for the service that do incorporate Jews. Or, since Disney bought the onetime Jewish-owned 20th Century Fox, it could throw some of that studio’s more daring Jewish-themed films on the service, like Gentleman’s Agreement or the 1959 version of The Diary of Anne Frank. But why would anyone watch that when they could watch X-Men? Well, at least Magneto is a Holocaust survivor.