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Deliver Me From Disneyland

The experience of being Jewish during the amusement park’s ‘holiday season.’ It’s a small world after all.

Marjorie Ingall
November 28, 2016
Disneyland / Facebook
Disneyland / Facebook
Disneyland / Facebook
Disneyland / Facebook

I spent most of my Thanksgiving holiday at Disneyland. Everything there was Christmas-ed up the wazoo, in either red and green or the black and white of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. Rides were tricked out with images of teetering piles of wrapped presents topped with shiny bows. (Fun fact: Over 1.4 miles of ribbon are used for bows in the park, as well as over 79,000 ornaments.) “Holiday songs,” i.e., Christmas and/or nebulous “it’s snowing” songs written by Jews, played on an endless loop. But now and then, my children cocked their heads, stood straight up and yelled “Hanukkah song!”: Sprinkled in with the Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn hits were “Sevivon, Sov Sov Sov” and “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.”

It was a strange place to be Jewish.

My kids were overjoyed to find a small blue table (adorned with mod Mickey-head designs filled with dreidels, menorahs and olive branches) of Hanukkah crafts, next to a wee cart of Hanukkah merch. The Disney “cast member”—everyone who works at Disney is a cast member; no one is an employee—who was seated at the table was resolutely cheerful, even though no one except us stopped. My kids colored in Disney-themed Hanukkah cards and taped together dreidel templates. At the cart next to us, you could buy a blue and silver Mickey-head banner that said “Happy Hanukkah” on it, or a blue-stemmed wine glass. I was about to buy a five-pack of small plastic Disney Parks Dreidels (designed, I later learned, by an actual Jew) until Josie grabbed my hand and muttered, “Look at the price!” I immediately recoiled: $27.95. For five plastic dreidels. I gasped and thrust them back, and immediately worried that if the salesgirl had any stereotypes of cheap Jews, I’d surely just embodied them. But she said brightly, “You could just use them as inspiration and make your own!”

Every cast member, in fact, was lovely. When my 3-year-old niece started chanting, “Ears! ears! ears!” and reached for a display of red sequined Minnie Mouse ears with a giant green sequined bow, I said, “Uhhhh, let’s go look for Hanukkah ears?”

A cast member overheard and exclaimed, genuinely stricken, “I’m so sorry! We don’t have any Hanukkah ears!”

“No problem,” I said.

Then, another guest (a superfan, judging from the number of Disney pins on a lanyard around her neck) chased me down the street and tapped me on the shoulder. “There’s a cart of Hanukkah merchandise over there!” It was as if she felt personally responsible for our earlessness. Alas, it was the cart we’d been to earlier. But on Buena Vista Street, in Disneyland’s California Adventure park, we spied a silver menorah in the window of a housewares store called Julius Katz & Sons (the store’s name is a reference to Julius the Cat in 1920s silent cartoons). Everyone pointed and got excited. We didn’t buy anything; we were just happy to be acknowledged.

There were minute nods to Judaism elsewhere. One of the many live musical acts that periodically pops up in the park, though we never saw it, was a klezmer band named Mostly Kosher; it performed along with the Blue13 Bollywood dance company as a nod to Diwali and Mariachi Divas for a Feliz Navidad. And there was a food hut called Nosh & Nibbles, which sold a Brisket Potato Croquette with Horseradish Cream, a Reuben Potato Smash with Russian Dressing and Rye Toast, and Noodle Kugel with Lemon Cream and Cranberries. You could enjoy them with a glass of Baron Herzog Pinot Noir. (Nosh & Nibbles was next to Abuelita’s Kitchen—warm tamales!—and Spicy Salutations—mango lassi!)

I read on a sign that Disney wished us a Happy Kwanzaa, but I saw no evidence of this.

On our final night, we hit It’s a Small World, everyone’s favorite ride. It was stunningly done up in brilliant neon instead of the usual gold and white. As we waited in a 45-minute line that wrapped and weaved around monuments and hedges lit with tiny white lights, we were entertained by periodic light shows projected onto the face of the ride itself. It was late, and everyone was exhausted, but even the littlest kids in our group were troopers. It was gorgeous. Finally, we boarded.

My sis-in-law Ellen and I are both huge devotees of the ride’s designer, Mary Blair. In an era in which few women were big stars in animation, Blair was responsible for the look of many early Disney films. She also created textiles, hankies, and snazzy children’s books that still look current.) The Small World ride was initially an attraction for the UNICEF pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It was intended to celebrate the different cultures of children around the world, who are depicted as whirling dolls wearing the native dress of their homelands. In 2008, Disney decided to add characters from Disney films, a decision that was greeted with widespread dismay and wails about the corporatization of a historic, non-commercial tribute to difference. But Disney’s Alice now nestles among the children of England; Pinocchio is in Italy; Cinderella is in France; Mulan is in China; Aladdin is in “the Middle East section”; Simba is in Africa; Lilo and Stitch are in the South Seas. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the “holiday” version of the ride made us feel so forlorn.

In fact, we felt erased. In addition to the infernally familiar theme song, the characters repeatedly sing “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.” Candy canes, Santa’s reindeer, notes for Santa, naughty and nice lists, and Christmas crackers were everywhere. In China there were a couple of visual references to the Chinese New Year, but otherwise it was all Christmas, all the time. (If the “Middle East section” contained any reference to Jewishness, I missed it. The scholar Alex Sinclair noted the ride’s problematic depiction of Jews back in 2009, but this time through, I didn’t see the ultra-Orthodox dolls at all. Having watched a fan video depicting the entire 2016 ride multiple times, I didn’t see them there, either. Perhaps they’ve gone to Boca for Hanukkah.) If there are any non-Christians—Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Shintoists, Zoroastrians—in the wide world, they’re not in evidence in this small world.

It’s distressing to feel that the entire universe, not just the United States, has been Christified and turned into a whitewashed sales op, especially given that this is a ride originally intended to celebrate diversity. But hey, maybe Jewish kids are never too young to learn that even in America, they’re emphatically Other.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.