“Elena of Avalor” Gets Hanukkah Right (Almost)
This holiday season, Disney Junior delivered what once seemed impossible — a Hanukkah episode with no Christmas trees.
Despite the prevalence of Jews in Hollywood, when Hanukkah makes an appearance on TV, it’s usually as a sidenote or a joke. This year, made-for-TV giant Hallmark dipped a brave toe in the waters of multiculturalism by premiering its first Hanukkah movies. But the final products turned out to be two Christmas movies with Jewish characters (and some low-key anti-Semitic dog whistles) thrown in.
All this has left the Jewish viewing public crying out to God for some shmaltzy holiday content of our very own. And, through his chosen servant “Elena of Avalor,” He has answered our prayers.
The Disney Junior show focuses on a young Latina princess, Elena, learning to govern her kingdom with the help of her benevolent abuelos and science-whiz little sis. In the Hanukkah special, “Festival of Lights,” Elena befriends Rebekah, a Jewish princess from a nearby kingdom who is shipwrecked on Avalor’s shores while bringing her bubbe home for the holidays. Elena and her family learn how to cook Hanukkah dishes, build a new menorah to replace a family heirloom lost at sea, and host a dreidel party, while Bubbe gives a kid-friendly primer on the history of the holiday.
The real miracle here is that, for once, Hanukkah doesn’t have to exist in competition with Christmas. Elena and her family participate wholeheartedly in Jewish traditions, rather than incorporating them into their own. Rebekah gets to enjoy her holiday without celebrating Christmas “in exchange.”
This isn’t to say that holiday episodes must only center on culture, or that good interfaith content is impossible. But on many shows, Chrismukah mash-up episodes involve unrealistic depictions of Jews “learning” about Christmas (seriously, show me the American Jew who doesn’t know what a Christmas tree is) that ultimately downplay the cultural dominance of Christian holidays and the importance of visibility for other cultures. “Festival of Lights” shows gentiles and Jews how we can steward a proudly multi-faith society: by entering sincerely into the traditions of others, without needing to constantly refer them to our own.
No American holiday content would be complete without missteps, and “Festival of Lights” slips up in its elision of Askenazi and Sephardic culture. When it announced the special, Disney said that Rebekah would be a “Latina Jewish princess.” Rebekah indeed hints at her Sephardic heritage by sharing bimuelos, or Hanukkah honey donuts first baked by Spanish converso Jews, with her new friends. But she also teaches them Yiddish slang like “nosh,” calls her grandmother, “bubbe” instead of the Ladino “nona” or “avuela,” and plays dreidel for gelt, a custom that originated among Polish Jews. Next time Rebekah returns to Avalor, we hope she’ll bring a less Asheknormative vision of Jewish culture, one that lets the richness of Ladino language and Sephardic culture shine through.
Baby steps, Disney.