Disney’s Jewish Princess Moana
By Laura Albert
Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, I often heard that Jews were the Chosen People. So, imagine my surprise when I realized that Moana, the Polynesian princess in Disney’s new animated feature, repeatedly proclaims herself to be “chosen.” She is chosen to save her people — and she has no doubt that she has been chosen.
My mom explained the idea of being chosen to me by way of the Hebrew National commercial I grew up with. A deep voice told us that Uncle Sam allowed Hebrew National to put a lot of dreck into its hotdogs, but didn’t. Why? Because Hebrew National had to answer to an even higher authority, at which point the camera tilted up to clouds and lightning. My mom explained that it meant God was watching and would know if Hebrew National put dreck in their hot dogs. That’s why we don’t eat the goy hotdogs, she said, it’s all part of being chosen.
To me, the Jewish way of being chosen felt like God was being a super unfair Santa – paying close attention to how we behaved, but really focused on how we misbehaved.
So what have Jews been chosen for?
From an early age, I knew about tikkun olam. I grew up in a Mitchell-Lama lower-middle-class high-rise building, and when the water went out, we brought containers of water to people who were old or infirm and made sure they were ok. In our building, we had a lot of communist Jews camp survivors, Jews who had walked with Martin Luther King, Jews who fought for their own survival and for others.
“What, you don’t think they won’t come for you next?” I heard as often as, “What, you on a new-fangled diet or something?”
In the early 70s, my mother would take my sister and me to the South Street Seaport to hear Pete Seeger and learn protest songs and go on marches — this was a Jewish thing to do — to help repair the world, and I assumed Seeger was Jewish too as we sang his clear directive: “We Shall Overcome.”
And this is Moana’s directive too. She hears a deep calling that impels her to leave home and safety and go beyond the reef. She is not too clear what her mission is, but she knows she has to go, even though her dad tries to keep her safe — “Stay at home bubeleh, be the princess.” Well he doesn’t call her bubeleh, but he might as well have.
Moana is not mentally ill; it turns out that she truly has been chosen to repair the world and awaken her people. The sea won’t even let her drown; she is blessed with empathy and compassion — combined with chutzpah, bravery, a good sense of humor and an inner drive. And so she risks death rather than remain the princess of Manhattan, I mean her Polynesian island.
Moana discovers that her people have forgotten who they are. Once a seafaring people, they now have comfort and like to stay put. Who wouldn’t?
She appropriates a catamaran and sets off to sea. It is revealed to her that she must return the jade stone-like heart that was stolen from the goddess Te Fiti, a stand-in for Mother Nature. The ocean gives the heart to Moana, which reminded me of how Moses received his staff, but what had me gasping at the climax was when Moana walks through the sea which parts for her, full-on Moses style.
After the bountiful heart is restored and nature is in harmony again, Moana returns to her people and awakens the story of who they are and who they have been. Not only do they happily embrace this truth, they also reclaim their original identity as seafaring nomads.
I remember being spooked by the plants we had when I was a kid – Wandering Jews, my mom told me, impossible to kill. She explained how even without much water they send shoots out all over and can always find new soil in another plant’s pot! “Like Jews,” she said with a laugh. “Always searching for another place to escape.”
As we have a president-elect who denies global warming, as this country now feels closer to the insecurity the Jews must have felt when America was slow to respond to the growth of fascism in Europe before World War II, the studio with the brand of the known anti-Semite Walt Disney, may finally be giving us our first covert Jewish princess. Still, the film gives us a reminder: While we might be “the chosen,” we need to remember what we were chosen to be and do. And perhaps we wandering Jews might need to search out new lands.
When Moana returns the heart, she sings to the enraged destroyed monster, “They have stolen the heart from inside you but this does not define you. This is not who you are; you know who you are.”
“We know who we are!” is the victorious song of Moana’s people as they sail off in search of new lands. Maybe they are in search of Bernie Sanders in that faraway land of Burlington, Vermont, to practice tikkun olam, with our first JPP – Jewish Polynesian princess – in the lead.
Laura Albert, who published “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” and other works of fiction under the name JT LeRoy, was the subject of the 2016 documentary film ‘Author.’