Waking with anticipation, you step briskly out of the house and into your car. And drive nervously but with excitement. After parking, you reach into your bag to pull out your special head covering and pass through the entrance, greeting familiar friends that perhaps you have not seen since your last visit, which may have been a week ago for the faithful, or a year ago, or perhaps longer. Or perhaps it is your first time, because you are very young, or you are a recent convert, and so your excitement level is particularly high. And as all the people assemble, they rise in unison. They move their feet as prescribed. And at the appointed time, the head or heads of the household says the long anticipated words:
“4 tickets to Disney World, please.”
Yes, I really just did take you down that path didn’t I? Disney and synagogue, Disney and Judaism, are a lot more alike than you may have every considered, for better or for worse. The special headgear that I referred to above, of course, is different between the two - while I might wear my kippah when I go to Disneyland, a more devout adherent to the norms of the Magic Kingdom will of course wear personalized mouse ears. My son’s are Spiderman themed. The anticipation, the use of the language ‘recent convert’, the ritualized standing, all direct parallels. But of course, I did not truly do it justice. In truth, there is far more depth and commonality between the faithful fans of Disney and the practitioners of a religious tradition - and in comparing and contrasting the two, I do not wish anyone to believe that I am making light - neither of Disney fan, nor of religion.
This idea of Disney as sociologically mirroring a religion is not my own. It is part of a twitter and reddit thread by Lehigh religion professor Jodi Eichler-Levine. In response to a kerfuffle online in a reddit forum about a wedding. Seems the bride and groom were excoriated by family members for their Disney themed wedding. Specifically, here is the situation: the wedding couple had their wedding at Disney World. The couple chose to have a wedding in the park in which Mickey and Minnie Mouse both made a paid appearance at the wedding, which is not a cheap thing to arrange. So, in order to cover the cost of these highest order Disney celebrities to pay a visit, the couple simply did not offer food at the wedding, and informed their guests that they should simply bring cash and buy whatever they wanted. Many folks rave about the turkey legs at Disney parks, but alas, they are not kosher. My family and I generally have a field day with french fries, nachos, churros, and ice cream. I digress. The parents of the bride and groom were quite annoyed that the catering budget had been blown on giant stuffed mice. The internet, of course, took to savaging one another on the topic, as the internet likes to do.
But while the internet was busy poking fun, the deeper thinkers were … thinking deeply. Professor Jodi Eichler Levine, professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University, wrote a post explaining that the dismissal of Disney aficionados is short-sighted. She wrote, “Many of the Disney fans I have observed in person and online find immense meaning in the parks. People don't just marry at Disney. They mourn lost relatives at Disney. They go to Disney to celebrate surviving cancer. They go there for one last trip before they die. Religion is a way of making meaning in the world through stories and rituals. It is about a network of relationships with the human and non-human. It is about making homes and confronting suffering .”
It is that professor, and so much more.
We as experts of Judaism hold particular insights on the ways in which Disney diehards connect, elevate, and derive meaning from Disney.
Disney, particularly its theme parks, have rituals. You may have a favorite ride, or a first ride to go to when you get to the park. My family, for instance, will always go on ‘It’s a small world’, because it is my sister’s favorite ride. My sister is 43 years old. The ride’s target age is around 4 years old. Doesn’t matter. There are those that debate whether change is sacrilege. My favorite ride is Pirates of the Caribbean. I am still mildly upset that after Disney made a movie called Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp, they stuck Johnny Depp Captain Jack Sparrow mannequins into the ride. If any of you were mad enough to dive into a Disney fan chat group, you’d find hundreds of discussions of rides that were changed and that made all the die-hard fans immeasurably angry. And while individuals have their own Disney rituals, the park has its rituals too - like the pulling of the Sword from the stone every day at noon, and the main street parades on the hour. We have Havdalah, they have fireworks. Same thing really.
One of the most important aspects of both Disney and Judaism is how the spectacle and the event and the ritual creates family memories. We all have a story of the time Uncle Bert opened the door at the Seder for Elijah and the family cat ran in. Going to a theater to see a movie, or to a theme park for a day, creates those same moments. We’ve all gone on the Matterhorn a dozen times, and sung dayeinu at least a few dozen times, but at some point the event of thing resulted in a special memorable moment. For me, the classic in my family is the story of when my family of six, newly joined brady-bunch style, went to Disneyland together for the first time. My Step-father and his two daughters Stephanie and Robin and my mother, marilyn, little sister Alissa and I all went down to Aneheim in the family Volvo, with its odd, rear facing, and very uncomfortable flip up back seats. This would have been around 1984 or 1985, back when a ticket to the park was $18 for adults, and you could get a 15% discount if you showed a California driver's license demonstrating you were a local, and on the southern edge of the parking lot was a huge orchard of orange trees. After trundling around Disneyland all day and getting exhausted and waiting in line, we headed for the exit around dusk. As we reached the gate, my step-dad Jay looked up and said ‘where’s Alissa?’ My mom yelled, ‘Jay!’ Jay started to panic ‘WHERE’S ALISSA?’ My mom yelled ‘JAY!’ My sisters and I all started to laugh. My mom yelled ‘SHE’S ON YOUR SHOULDERS’. Trips and holidays and ritual events create moments and memories and family connections which elevate and mark time, and define us. They teach us lessons, and reveal our truths. They become our stories.
But the primary and most important area of commonality is sacred text - the stories we all tell for generations; and centuries.
Every Disney diehard, and every Jew, has a corpus of texts from which they derive meaning - and amidst the vast repository of texts, everyone has favorites. Just as my favorite Jewish text will always be Abraham arguing with God at Sodom and Gomorrah, my favorite Disney text is probably Robin Hood. Not surprisingly, both are the stories of nomadic do-gooders fighting against the system. My daughter, however, is a big fan of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, possibly more because it creates a gothic and dark narrative with spooky art and music to boot, instilling a sense of forboding. Judaism has sacred texts that are more mood and less story too - think Lamentations, or Job.
Disney has elevated their sacred texts in ways strikingly similar to the ways Judaism has. We ritualize their recitations into the calendar, and create holidays around these stories, like the Exodus and the giving of the torah. We created music for the texts (torah trope) *so that it gets sung in a certain tune* (changing to haftorah) *but then other texts get a different tune*. Disney has too, primarily with their creation of the theme park. Once upon a time, before 1955, you went the county fair to go on a ride that spun you around or made you scared, but it wasn’t part of a film franchise. It didn’t have a narrative. You got on the tilt-a-whirl. You spun around. You got off the tilt a whirl. You were exhilarated, dizzy, and if you make the poor decision to eat a funnel cake first, you were probably a bit nauseous. Walt Disney decided that people wanted their rides to be attached to beloved stories, though. It is a radical idea that we more or less take for granted these days - a ride should have a story, and a setting, and a vibe, for lack of a better term.
The sacred texts of Disney and Judaism are both an attempt to reveal, or perhaps instill, the moral norms of the human societies they reflect. Self-reliance, bravery, generosity, duty, family, are all major themes in Disney classics like Bambi, Dumbo, the Lion King, and Frozen; as they are in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Abraham and the binding of Isaac, and Yael and Sisera. And yet they are of course different in their actual outlooks on the essential qualities of the human condition. Disney is a very American religious textual tradition, so individualism and bravery are very frequent themes. In contrast, the theme of our two most High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is error, apology, setting wrongs to right, and forgiveness. It took a lot of work to find a Disney movie that deals with those topic. When I finally did, I found two - and both are less than ten years old - Coco, the story of a stolen song and a slandered ancestor, reclaimed and rehabilitated, and Encanto, literally the most recent Disney-Pixar film, of family members pressed into roles they do not choose for themselves. Spoiler alert, it all works out ok in the end.
What I mean to raise this point is to note that our stories telegraph our morality and our values, and while we Jews read and nitpick specific ideas and themes out of the stories of the Chumash and the Tanakh on a molecular level, the broad sweep of our moral texts is not identical to the moral texts of other societies. Judaism and Disney tell moral stories, but they are not the same stories at all.
Additionally, I think it important to draw some key distinctions between Disney and Judaism lest you think I am advocating we all abandon this synagogue, move to Orlando, and set up an altar to the mouse upon which to bring sacred offerings. Disney films, characters, and stories are primarily meant to entertain us. The Torah’s purpose is primarily to inspire us and define us. It is why a dvar torah on the high holidays might never be quite as good in your mind as the latest Pixar film, and why Judaism and Disney are ultimately not the same thing, despite some interesting similarities. Ultimately, Disney is a commercial endeavor. No matter how many times I talk about Iggy and Etta in my sermons, I will not be selling t-shirts of them in the lobby after services. Our stories start with holy purpose and moral grounding, and yet will also include drama which helps hold our attention and understand the meaning in a way we can understand. Disney works the other way around.
Some might argue that Disney cannot be compared to a religion - because the stories are too new to be seen as sacred. To this, one might retort with noting that the Book of Mormon is less than 200 years old, and yet the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is undoubtedly a religion. Scientology is a quasi-religion, and its central text was written less than 80 years ago. Devout followers of the Jewish hasidic Chabad movement study the talks of the Rebbe as holy writ, and he died in 1994. What is a truth to someone is not necessarily determined by how long it has been a truth. We might, however, want to think about which messages truly bind a community together in morality and which might ultimately be discarded along the way as no longer relevant.
Once upon a time, the Disney film ‘Song of the South’ was very popular and well regarded. I personally very much like the song zipitty do dah. However, it has rightfully been removed from the corpus of Disney films - you can not rent it or stream it - because the ultimate message is that life in the antebellum south was quaint and charming, even if you were a slave on a plantation.
One of our own central texts for Rosh Hashanah, to be read on second day, is the story of the binding of isaac. Once upon a time, a central interpretation of that text was that it repudiated any belief in human sacrifice and transformed our religion into one of animal sacrifice. And yet we Jews today have not practiced animal sacrifice in almost 2,000 years, opting to express our love to God with words of prayer instead of goats and bullocks.
Sacred texts fade, and change meaning. And the ones that persist the longest do so for a reason.
Ultimately, we go into the high holidays each year asking God to reveal to us, using our sacred stories, some truth that we ought to learn, that will aid us in the coming year. A rabbi’s sermon at these high holidays is an attempt for one individual to aid you in discerning the message that one person - you - need to hear this year. But the reality is - we all need something different each year - different from last year, and different from what the person sitting next to you or behind you needs. Disney creates new stories every year, and builds more rides, because that’s what a commercial endeavor does to keep things fresh. In contrast, rather than write a *new story* with a *specific message* we hope will be a blockbuster at the box office, in our tradition, the core of the experience for us is to take an old story, and re-read for the hundredth time, and find something that speaks to you now, that you’ve never noticed.
The message I give you is incredibly simple this high holidays, and yet incredibly fundamental to who we are as Jews, and also incredibly hard. Return to our stories. Return to our texts. Search for the meanings that speak to you this year. Discovery yourself in our sacred texts. Use them as moments for reflection on who you are now as opposed to who you were once upon a time. It is an old text that teaches new truths - that reveals us to be different today from how we were last year or 10 years ago. Or, in the words of one disney princess, You can't step in the same river twice. Shana Tova.