On the surface, a story about the toys of a boy named Andy led by a cowboy called Woody who befriends a space ranger with the unlikely Jewish name of Buzz could not be more goyish. But underneath lies a hidden Jewish history.
Certainly, the movies betray a Jewish sensibility in its lampooning of such tough square-jawed goyish heroes as Buzz Lightyear. It operates in the same mould as the oh-so Jewish Mad magazine, which also took swipes at similarly clean-cut American role models, and to which Toy Story is indebted. Name me one Jew called Buzz.
Underpinning the movie’s creation were Jews. Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow wrote the original screenplay under the aegis of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner.
Significantly, many of the toys are Jewish. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are voiced by comedian Don Rickles and Estelle Harris (George Costanza’s mum in Seinfeld) respectively. This is appropriate because Mr. Potato Head is a Jewish toy, the brainchild of Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner, a Jew of Romanian descent. The Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro) sold the first Mr. Potato Head as a kit of facial parts with the suggestion that a real potato was used.
This potato couple also recalls Arsenal fans’ nickname for fans of Tottenham Hostpur – the club in English football with the label of being the “Jewish club” – as Spuds.
Wallace Shawn voices Rex, a sensitive and neurotic – both stereotypical Jewish traits – tyrannosaurus rex. T-Rex was the name of Jewish rock star Marc Bolan’s band.
Stand-up comedian Jeff Garlin who is famous for his role as Larry David’s agent/friend Jeff in Curb Your Enthusiasm played Buttercup the white male unicorn in Toy Story 3. He is set to appear in the fourth movie, too.
Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Kind also appeared in the third movie.
Note how none of these characters voiced by Jews are actually humanoid. They aren’t the cowboys, astronauts or soldiers, which buys into long-held stereotypes about Jewish male physical inadequacy, that they don’t belong in nature, outer space or the army.
In fact, casting Jews as a pair of potatoes, a dinosaur and a mythical one-horned horse recall the stories of Franz Kafka who often wrote about the Jewish condition using animal metaphors – beetles, jackals, apes and mice. I have long proposed that animated movies featuring anthropomorphised animals are the modern heirs of Kafka.
It has even been argued that Toy Story 3 is an allegory for the Holocaust. Perhaps this is attributable to the fact that its director is Lee Unkrich, who is also Jewish. Unkrich, massive Kubrick fan – he runs a website dedicated to The Shining (1980), peppered the film with references to that movie, which itself has been read as being a film about the Holocaust. It is now well known that Kubrick was Jewish. Buzz’s mantra, ‘To infinity and beyond’ can even be seen as a direct reference to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the final section of which is named ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’.
That there are now four movies in the franchise is also a nod to the Jewish mode of interpretation known as PaRDeS which itself operates through four, increasingly complex and mysterious, levels. Fours crop up frequently in Jewish tradition – the four matriarchs, the four cups of wine at the Seder, the four sons, and so on.
In the final analysis, one might say all four parts of Toy Story have a very Jewish view of the world. Woody (Tom Hanks) is a mensch – he refuses to abandon his friends whatever the circumstances – and goes to extraordinary lengths to rescue them. One might even say: he who saves one toy, saves the entire toy world.
This is a revised and expanded version of a blog originally published by the Times of Israel on March 26, 2019 here: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/oy-story/.