Seven Jewish Heroines Disney Should Make a Movie About
In Disney’s latest animated blockbuster-Moana, set in Polynesia-the title character’s religious faith plays an important role, as Mark I. Pinsky, author of The Gospel According to Disney, noted in Tablet last week. (Don’t spoil anything for me; I haven’t seen it yet!) This means Disney has now created heroes who are French Catholic (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Arab (Aladdin), Chinese (Mulan), Native American (Pocahontas), and an African-American adherent of Voudoun (The Princess and the Frog-so underrated). Also, of course, Disney has hung films on canine-Americans (Lady and the Tramp), fancy Fronch felines (The Aristocats), and automotive-Americans (Cars). So, nu, Disney, whither the Jews?
Leaving aside any discussions of Walt Disney’s purported anti-Semitism, it’s undeniable that the depiction of the tribe in Disney films has been … not good. As Pinsky points out, the one clearly Jewish character we’ve seen in a Disney picture-the Big Bad Wolf disguised as a hook-nosed, Yiddish-accented peddler in 1933’s The Three Little Pigs-is problematic. When confronted about this, Walt’s brother and partner, Roy Disney, protested, “We have a great many Jewish business associates and friends and certainly would avoid purposely demeaning the Jews or any other race or nationality.” Sounds strangely familiar. (After the Holocaust, the wolf was re-edited to become a Fuller Brush Man with an Irish accent.)
In any case, it’s high time Disney made it up to us with a Jewish heroine. It wouldn’t be the first depiction of a Jewish girl in a mainstream animated movie (I can think of Madeline Kahn’s wealthy German-born 19th century New York City mouse Gussie Mausheimer in 1986’s An American Tale, co-produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Tzipporah and Ofra Haza’s Yocheved in 1998’s The Prince of Egypt, from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation), but it would be the first from Disney. Pinsky suggested that Disney adapt the story of Queen Esther, and I’d be down with that, but let me suggest a few more offbeat contenders.
1. Annie Londonderry (who gets a long shoutout in my book) would make an awesome movie lead. An actual Bostonian who emigrated from Riga, Latvia, as a child, she was arguably the first famous American female athlete. In June 1894, she set off to ride a 42-pound bicycle around the world (purportedly after a bet by two wealthy goyish Bostonians saying that a woman couldn’t do it). A young mother who kept a kosher home, Annie had never even gotten on a bike before. But she won the bet, two weeks ahead of schedule, and along the way pretty much invented the notion of sports-related product endorsement. As she pedaled along, she got companies to sponsor her-indeed, she changed her name from Annie Kopchovsky to Annie Londonderry after getting the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Co. to give her $100 to do so. She helped popularize bloomers (way easier for biking than skirts!) and started drawing crowds with her amazing (embroidered) storytelling as she traversed the globe. Fifteen months after leaving Boston, she collected her prize money, $10,000, despite a broken wrist acquired when she crashed into a passel of pigs in Iowa. It was “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman,” proclaimed the New York World newspaper (for which she later became a columnist). After a spell as a celebrity and journalist, she returned to the bosom of her family; her story was nearly forgotten, until a distant cousin, journalist Peter Zheutlin, wrote her story.
2. Chelm! Do we want a sillier, goofier movie? How about adapting the Chelm stories? Let’s get American children to start using words like schlemiel by feeding them time-tested tales about an entire village full of idiots! My not-idiot librarian friend Heidi Rabinowitz pointed out to me that there are already girl-centric Chelm stories that Disney could draw on: For instance, Richard Ungar wrote Rachel’s Gift, an adaptation of the one about the dumb Chelmians’ attempts to capture the moon in a barrel so they can enjoy its light even on dark nights. Simon the Carpenter tries to build a ladder tall enough to let him grab the moon; Rafael the musician tries to lure it to Earth with beautiful melodies; but little Rachel is the only one who succeeds-sort of-by snaring the moon’s reflection in a rain barrel. This movie could string together a bunch of Chelm stories, with Rachel as the only sensible denizen of the village, tolerantly amused by her neighbors’ shenanigans. The movie could end with her leading Chelm to a new life in America, where stupidness is richly rewarded. (The ending would be like the “Anatevka” number in Fiddler, without the melancholy.) The animation would have a Chagall-like dreamy feel and brilliant color palette. Come on, it’s a winner.
3. All-of-a-Kind Family. Every Jewish woman of every age in this entire country, plus a whole lotta goyish girls, would be thrilled to finally have an All-of-a-Kind Family animated movie. Little Women meets Coney Island! So many delicious set-pieces: The purloined dress dyed with tea! Mama hiding buttons for the girls to find to make sure they actually do a good job cleaning! A dreamy beautiful library lady! A nice Irish cop! Making crazy Purim costumes because you’re too poor to buy them! Twirled paper cones full of roasted chickpeas, barrels of broken crackers, sucking on salty salmon skin! And OMG, secretly eating your half-penny serving of chocolate babies, whatever they are, in the middle of the night, snuggling with your sis and best friend! Give me this movie right now!
4. Never Say a Mean Word Again. Disney, I will award you double multi-culti points if you adapt a Sephardic folktale. One suggestion: Never Say a Mean Word Again by Jacqueline Jules, a picture book based on a story from medieval Spain, when Jews and Muslims lived together in harmony. In Jules’ version of the tale, a Muslim boy named Hamsa and a Jewish boy-the son of the court’s Grand Vizier-named Samuel resolve their differences with humor and creativity. It’s a conflict-resolution story with a lot of resonance for today. Disney could recast it with girls and animate it like a gold-and-jewel-toned illuminated manuscript come to life, with thick black outlines and glimmering border art.
5. Yuvi’s Candy Tree. While we’re talking non-Ashkenazi narratives, how about an adaptation of Yuvi’s Candy Tree, a 2011 children’s book about Yuvi Tashome, a real-life Ethiopian Jew who was airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses? It won a Media Award from Be’Chol Lashon, which advocates for Jewish ethnic, cultural and racial inclusiveness. It offers huge drama: Yuvi and her grandmother flee famine via a refugee camp in Sudan; they get robbed along the way; Yuvi escapes on her beloved donkey. (Disney, a donkey did very well for DreamWorks. Donkeys are money.) Yuvi’s dreams of candy growing on trees-fulfilled when she sees oranges in Israel-will make for mouthwatering animation.
6. Clara Lemlich. I simply cannot shut up about how much I love the beautiful picture book Brave Girl by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. It’s the true story of a young, book-loving immigrant girl named Clara who becomes a leader of the labor movement and foments the biggest walkout of women workers in American history. It’s a girl-power story and a social-justice story, and Sweet’s fabulous collage-y style could be a blueprint for a whole new kind of animation: The book incorporates photos of swatches of fabric, snippets of ledgers and timecards, and borders of machine-made stitchery. I can envision using different stitches coming out of a sewing machine and swirling across the screen as a throughline for scene-to-scene storytelling. Disney, I give you this idea for free.
7. The Soap Golem. I was not a huge fan of Catherynne M. Valente’s purportedly middle-grade book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but a lot of folks are-mostly teenagers and grownups. And who buys movie tickets? Teenagers and grownups! The book, the first installment in a series (sequel potential!) is about 12-year-old September, who isn’t like other girls. The Green Wind whisks her off to a mysterious realm, where she embarks on a quest to find a spoon stolen from a witch by an evil marquess. The book is filled with creatures yanked out of the folklore of a zillion cultures … but I was utterly smitten with one: the Soap Golem. Valente changes the notion of a hulking, destructive male creature made of earth into a nurturing female creature made of soap. When September and her friends are filthy and exhausted and need a bit of kindness, the Soap Golem, whose body is made of castile, Marseille, strawberry, and saffron soaps, whose eyes are truth-seeing, faceted slivers of soapstone, whose mouth pours forth frothy bubbles when she speaks … the Soap Golem cares for them. She breaks off her own fingers and drops them into September’s bath. And in her care, September begins to feel clean and new again. Valente writes that courage tends to attract “gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like,” and the Soap Golem is a healer. I would like a whole movie about her, please, in the tradition of The Iron Giant.
Alas, I’m not hopeful about any big-budget Jewish-girl movie coming to pass. Sure, folks love to talk about how we Jews run the media, but if that’s the case, we sure haven’t delivered on self-representation. As Kera Bolonik pointed out in The Nation, the first sitcom wedding between two Jews didn’t occur until 2002, when Grace and Leo tied the knot on Will and Grace. And there’s no denying that Jews practically built the sitcom biz. It’s testament, I guess, to the strange, simultaneous insider/outsider status of our people. So while I’d love to see a Jewish version of Moana, I’m not holding my breath.
Originally published here: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/219124/jewish-heroines-for-disney