Let's Welcome Disney's First Jewish Princess!

When I first learned that Elena of Avalor was going to do a Hanukkah episode, I was hoping for a two-part special like The Magic Within that would provide enough time for the first Jewish Disney Princess to assert her individual identity outside of being Jewish. However, just like the Maccabees, I will make the most of what I've been given. "Festival of Lights" came out today as a single episode that focused almost entirely on Jewish characters celebrating Hanukkah, and I do not want to downplay the historical significance of it in any way, shape, or form. 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. 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.

"Festival of Lights" had a similar story to most Christmas specials except that it was about Hanukkah instead. Rebeca, a Jewish princess, crashed her ship in Avalor and was determined to give her grandmother the perfect Hanukkah, but everything seemed to go wrong. The menorah broke, the dreidels didn't spin the right way, and Elena's family did not have the right ingredients for Rebeca's Hanukkah recipes. In the end, Rebeca learned that the most important thing about Hanukkah is being together with family and making the most of what they have. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Rebeca and her little brother Ari teach Elena and Isa all about the traditions that I grew up. It was a fun touch to have Isa use her clever inventing skills to help Rebeca make Hanukkah gelt for her family, and hearing Elena talk about packing chocolate for an "emergency nosh" brought a smile to my face. I also loved seeing Ari teach Isa how to play dreidel, although I'm surprised it landed on Hey and not Gimel, since every Jew knows that Gimel is the best result.

The episode also contained what I believe is the first and only Disney song about Hanukkah. "On Hanukkah Night" had a traditional-sounding Jewish melody. Rebeca sang about all of the traditions that Jewish families associate with celebrating Hanukkah, such as eating latkes, playing dreidel, and lighting the menorah. The word "menorah" was never used in this episode because that term commonly refers to any candelabra that holds seven candles to symbolize the days of the week. Instead, Rebeca and her family used the more specific term "hanukkiah," which is a special type of menorah that holds nine candles with four on either side and one in the middle called the "shammash" that is used to light the rest. The hanukkiah was created specifically in memoriam of the Maccabees' oil for their  menorah lasting for eight nights even though they only should have had enough to last one. A lot of the episode's conflict revolved around Rebeca wanting to fix her grandmother's special hanukkiah after it broke in the shipwreck. I loved that the grandmother was just as happy to use a homemade one that Isa and Ari put together.

I tried to keep my expectations realistic for Princess Rebeca as a character because she was only a guest star on Elena's show. Jamie-Lynn Sigler provided a lovely talking and singing voice for her. My favorite thing about Rebeca was her resourcefulness. When her ship started to sink on the shores of Avalor, she sprung right into action and figured out the best way to get to shore with no hesitation. She also was obsessive compulsive about the arrangement of the table for her family's Hanukkah dinner to the point where Elena needed to intervene about her perfectionism when it caused a minor disaster. I related to this more than I care to admit since people always found it odd throughout my life when I insist on displaying my princess dolls and toys at just the right angle. The only thing I didn't like about Princess Rebeca was her design. Her oddly shaped head and large nose make her look Jewish enough, but not cute and youthful like the other Disney Princesses. Her pudgy cheeks gave her wrinkles when she smiled that made her look more like a queen than a princess. Maybe this is coming from a place of vanity, but I really wanted the first Jewish Disney Princess to be just as pretty as any other fairy tale princess. I think the right artist could have achieved this while still giving her Jewish features. As much I liked her Magical Girl-inspired circlet and purple crystal earrings individually, they looked gaudy and overdone in combination.

Overall, "Festival of Lights" made a quiet impact on Disney Princess fans from the Jewish community. I would love to see a feature film about a Jewish Disney Princess someday, or perhaps a series like the one Elena got. I am grateful for this small contribution that Disney made to my culture after so many years of silence. I enjoyed Rebeca's vibrant personality and singing as well as seeing her share the traditions that I grew up with. Elena of Avalor is a culturally inclusive show, so it comes as no surprise that the first Jewish princess made her appearance there. The fact that Rebeca is Latina makes her even more diverse, and I love that Disney wants Jews like me to feel seen. However, the reason that I love and relate to princesses so much is not because they make me feel seen, but because they make me feel inspired. For me, the most inspiring part of "Festival of Lights" was the beginning when Rebeca got her family safely to shore with Elena's help. I'd love to see another Jewish Disney Princess in the future with Rebeca's resourcefulness and a more aesthetically pleasing character design.



In regards to a Disney song about Hanukkah, Puppy Dog Pals technically did it first for their Hanukkah episode from 2 years ago (which was paired with a Christmas episode), though given the show's lighter tone, it's pretty simple. The reason there's a Hanukkah episode is because a recurring character, Chloe, is Jewish, and her mother is voiced by Tara Strong, who has Jewish parents.

Back to Elena, it's safe to say that this episode definitely got more attention though. I hope we see Rebecca again.
Lisa Dawn said…
Thank you for sharing that with me! I was not aware of it. I also didn't know that the queen of Norberg was voiced by Tara Strong! That's really cool! Craig Gerber posted on Twitter that Rebeca would be coming back in an upcoming episode with Princess Chloe and Princess Valentina. I'm looking forward to it!
Jannah said…
Thank you. Now I know how to play Dreidel. I have a Dreidel somewhere, a pink one actually(fitting for this blog, right?), but I never actually knew how to play the game since I am not Jewish.
Jill Auerbach said…
I hope this will be re-aired or those o us who were not able to view it!

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