As a Sephardic Jew raising two small daughters in an American Jewish community whose default is almost always Ashkenazi, I was very excited to learn that Disney produced a Hanukkah-themed episode of the series “Elena of Avalor.” In particular, I was excited that the episode would feature Princess Rebekah from a Latino (Ladino) Jewish kingdom. I enthusiastically did something I’ve never done: pay for an episode of a show on my TV. One click and $2.99 later, my kids and I were ready for what I thought would be the first portrayal of a Sephardic Jewish hero on an animated show in America.
The show immediately introduces Rebekah as a Jewish princess from Galonia. It’s unclear whether the show is referencing the city of Galonia in Serbia that had a Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish community. However, I was very quickly disappointed as Rebekah’s grandmother was introduced as “bubbe,” the Yiddish word for grandmother. Additionally, as Rebekah is introducing Elena to her customs, she teaches her that “nosh” (again, Yiddish) is the Jewish word for eating. The word “dreidel” (also Yiddish) was used instead of the Hebrew word “sevivon,” which was more commonly used in Sephardic lands.
It’s disappointing to see that the writers of the show did not attempt to incorporate Ladino or Judeo-Arabic into the languages introduced on the show, and that they defaulted to what has unfortunately become the norm in America of using Yiddish as the catch-all Jewish language. To the writers’ credit, they did include the food bimuelos, fried dough with roots in Sephardic cuisine.
Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of the show was the failure to incorporate the Jewish tradition of female empowerment and leadership, something that was central to the Sephardic experience of Hanukkah. Jews in North Africa and the Middle East had a special holiday on Rosh Hodesh Tevet, which falls on the seventh night of Hanukkah this year, called Eid El Bnat or La Fete de Filles (“The Holiday of Girls” in Arabic and French, respectively). On this night, Jewish women in Sephardic and Mizrachi countries would celebrate the story of Judith, a hero who saved the Jewish people by seducing and killing an Assyrian general. Women in these countries would exchange gifts, bless one another and reconcile over any disagreement they may have had in the year. It was common to eat dairy food in memory of the cheese that Judith used to seduce the Assyrian general Holofernes.
It is my hope that the Jewish community will truly incorporate the depth and beauty of more Jewish traditions outside of Eastern Europe and normative American Judaism. As usual, the only way that Sephardic culture gets represented in this episode of “Elena of Avalor” is by incorporating Sephardic food. There is so much rich history, culture, liturgy and literature from North Africa and the Middle East that is worth bringing into the fold of what it means to be Jewish in America.