The first Jewish princess in Disney’s history is ready for her royal introduction. Actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler confirmed that a Chanukah-themed episode of Disney’s widely popular children’s TV series Elena of Avalor will feature a visiting princess from a Latino Jewish kingdom who will be voiced by the former Sopranos star.
Rachel Ruderman, a writer for the Disney series, said fans should be excited about Sigler’s performance of a groundbreaking character for the animation giant, whose first princess character in a feature film was Snow White in 1937. “A little over a year ago I had the honor of writing an #ElenaOfAvalor episode featuring Disney’s first Jewish princess,” Ruderman tweeted Wednesday. “@JamieLSigler knocks the role out of the park (wait ‘till you hear her song!) and @CraigGerber_ directs it masterfully.”
It’s truly exciting to see how Disney will interpret a Jewish princess. Quite a remarkable contrast to the erosion of the Jewish women’s images in media and print in Orthodox Jewish circles. Should we leave it up to the gigantic image maker, Disney, to show us what a Jewish woman looks like? Acts like?
I recently contacted my friend who was lecturing about her Torah-based book in the neighborhood. I was certain that she was not the kind of person who wished to hide her face from any announcement or poster promoting her important visit. When I asked her if it was her idea to remain faceless, she promptly replied, “No way, it was the sponsor’s decision.” Although she was “okay with it” we had a conversation about this continuing and disturbing trend. Could 5780 be the year of the disappearing princess? Can we still tolerate the shiurim, Torah classes, challah bakes, and inspirational speakers marketed on posters and ads with no faces at all?
About 25 years ago I was totally unaware that there were actual prayers written by women exclusively for women. After I suffered a heart-wrenching miscarriage, my doctor gave me a little book called Aneni. I was enormously comforted and surprised by the intimate and personal, poetic, and beautiful prayers. They address a woman’s deepest longings and put faith into words. They are among the least-known but most beautiful of Jewish prayers. Techinot, a perfect complement to Aneni is aimed at and often written by Jewish women through the ages. I had no idea that women authored such important prayer material!
Techinot originated among Jewish communities in Germanic lands in the early Middle Ages. At the time there were three “Jewish” languages in use: Hebrew; Aramaic, and Yiddish, a hybrid language that incorporates both Hebrew and European linguistic roots and became the daily language of many European Jews. Jewish women were typically educated and able to read and write, unlike their Christian counterparts. Jewish girls were often educated at home by their mothers, and with the homely mama loshen (mother tongue). It seemed natural for many women that when they turned to G-d, their words would be in Yiddish.
In time, whole books of Yiddish prayers, called techinot, were written. Some techinot were aimed at men, but most were focused on women. Many techinot were meant to be recited before traditionally female activities such as lighting Shabbat candles, sending children off to school, or making the blessing that’s recited over challah dough. They speak to some of the most intimate moments in a woman’s daily life. Many were written by women themselves. “As authors, Jewish women held equal status with their male counterparts,” notes Yiddish scholar Dr. Devra Kay. One of the earliest books of techinot that proclaimed female authorship was Eyn Gor Sheyne Tkhine (“A Very Beautiful Techine”), published in Prague in about the year 1600. The exact names of the authors are unknown; they simply called themselves “a group of pious women.”
These techinot are vehicles for raw and intimate connections with the Divine. Their beauty is the way they assume Jewish women have an intrinsic and strong relationship with G-d. You might say that they are open hitbodedut conversations with the Divine, suggesting the deep and secure personal relationship that a woman has with Hashem.
Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing photos of the women who composed these tremendous tefillot. Dare I ask, if these women existed in our lifetime, would we know what they look like? In this “visual age” of social media, print, movies, TV, Internet, etc., wouldn’t it be wonderful to glorify the image of a Jewish woman rather than hide it away until it no longer exists? Who is Disney emulating as the ultimate Jewish princess? I posed this question to my dear friend Yocheved Sidof, founding CEO of Lamplighters Yeshivah. She replied, “When you erase a woman or girl’s face from any form of media, you are explicitly saying that there is something shameful about her existence. It is not an expression of modesty; it is an overt call of objectification, disrespect, and denigration. Why should our daughters only “see” themselves in pop culture and Disney? If we erase them here, theey will find their place elsewhere.”
Rebbetzin Sara Shulevitz Vorhand expressed her opinion on this by acknowledging two public figures from the Torah. “There are two great examples of Jewish women acting publicly; they are Miriam and Devorah Hashofetet. They are examples for us to emulate in our modern times.”
Perhaps we can find a way to empower the Jewish woman to come out from behind the mechitzah of censorship and be the real Jewish princess of 5780.
According to Disney, Sigler is the perfect person to voice the character of an explicitly Jewish Disney princess. The Jewish mom strongly identifies with her Jewish roots. She attended Hebrew school, had a bat mitzvah, and lovingly referred to Israel as “one of the most beautiful inspiring places she has ever been to.”
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.