On the eve of the release of Frozen 2, it’s timely to republish a blog I wrote about the original film’s Jewishness.
On the surface, nothing could be less Jewish than a Disney-produced movie about a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian princess in the land of Arendelle named Elsa. And having watched it dozens of times, I didn’t consider it Jewish either. But if Michael Chabon can relocate the Jews to the frozen wastes of Alaska, in his 2007 The Yiddish Policeman’s Union then we can consider the underlying Jewishness of Frozen.
Frozen’s Jewishness is embodied in two characters in particular: the above-mentioned Elsa and her creation, Olaf. While Elsa is voiced by Jewish actress Idina Menzel, it is the nature of the character that she plays that really suggests a sub-surface Jewishness. Elsa is different, like an X-Men mutant (also Jews), with secret powers that she has to keep hidden from others lest her Otherness be detected. She has to pass, undetected.
This very much allegorizes the Jewish condition in Western society in which, according to John Murray Cuddihy, the Ostjude must learn to civilize very quickly in order to be accepted in Western Protestant society. Consequently, the Ostjude must quell his/her inner (Y)id and submit to the Gentile superego. However, in moments of high emotion, this inner (Y)id may emerge. This is precisely the ordeal that Elsa undergoes, required to suppress her inner nature. Shut behind the castle doors, her upbringing is the stuff of Freudian nightmares. When she comes of age, and, in a flash of anger, Elsa reveals her secret powers she is cast out, into exile, to become a wandering nomad. It is only when she establishes a new homeland in that faraway place, where she can feel safe, that she no longer has to “Be the good girl you always have to be” or to “conceal, don’t feel.”
Majorie Ingall in the Tablet (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/159386/frozen-feminism-jewish-values) explained how she thought Frozen had “a Jewish-inflected spirit” because of the film’s “concern about passing, about not calling attention to difference and otherness.” She pointed to other “American Jewish women who have succeeded in our culture,” such women as Barbra Streisand who rejected the norms of American womanhood as found in Disney movies, to act in a brash, Jewy fashion that transgressed the boundaries of decorum and correct behavior. Elsa behaves in a similar way once she has thrown off her self-imposed shackles by embracing her difference and reveling in it.
If Jews like to tell themselves that “we are like everybody else, only more so” then they need look no further than Elsa for a role model. She’s excessive and refuses to be contained. Her song, “Let it Go,” recalls the Book of Exodus and Mel Brooks’ famous pronouncement in Blazing Saddles, “Loz im geyn! [Let him go!]”
Elsa creates two other Jewish figures in the form of Olaf and Marshmallow. Both are what Ingall calls a “snow-golem,” coding the two sides of the modern Jewish condition. Marshmallow is created by Elsa as her personal bodyguard, to keep out any intruders. He therefore resembles the famous creation of the Maharal of Prague. But in his strength and power, he is very much the tough, macho, Israeli.
By contrast, the little, goofy, snowman Olaf, who is voiced by another Jewish actor, Josh Gad, is described by Ingall as “the Jewy-Jewiest nebbishy-voiced singer who has ever played a Mormon on Broadway.” Olaf, then, despite the oh-so-Gentile name, is the Woody Allen-esque schlemiel, the weak spineless (he literally lacks a backbone, skull, or any other bones) Diaspora Jew, who survives only by his wits and sense of humor. He’s witty and probably given the funniest lines in the movie. Ingall feels that “the way he’s perpetually attacked and bounces back with a smile (‘Oh, look at that, I’ve been impaled!’ he observes after being pierced with an icicle) feels Jewish, too.” When he’s given a nose, it is small and pert — Gentile. but when it’s elongated into a stereotypically Jewish schnoz he “loves it even more.” And what’s more Jewish than the last name Snowman (a version of the German surname Schneemann; there was even a famous mohel Dr. Snowman)?
Elsa’s difference, though, must be suppressed by the Gentile superego as represented by Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (rhymes with Gentile) and he hunts her down in the film and almost kills her. Is it just a coincidence that his name is Germanic?
Ultimately, though, Elsa is victorious. She is saved from death by the unselfish act of her sister, Anna, who reveals her menschlikayt. Elsa survives to revel in her Otherness – a victory for the (Y)id and mensch over the Gentile superego – and that is the real Jewish ethos underlying the film.
In the casting of Evan Rachel Wood and Ciaran Hinds (who played a Mossad agent Munich) in Frozen 2, this Jewish subtext looks set to continue.