What does it mean to human? I recall asking myself this very question one hour into the two hour line-up to see that elusive creature, half-human half-amphibian, Ariel, who seemed to be so important to my daughter a few years back at Disney World. To become human, many of us recall growing up and then reading to our children and grandchildren stories by Hans Christian Anderson, where the little mermaid had to give up her tail for legs, causing her terrible pain whenever she walked or danced (can you imagine how she would have fared at her bat mitzvah party!). She was told however by the Sea Witch that granted her wish that she would look beautiful and dance better than ever – perhaps a feminist critique of the exaggerated expectations women face. Young women the world over are looking for a different narrative than the one embedded in their fairy tales of youth, like sixteen year old, Lorde from New Zealand, whose pop ditty declares”
And we’ll never be royals/It don’t run in our blood,/that kind of lux just ain’t for us./We crave a different kind of buzz.
If we are at least as honest Lorde, however, we must admit at some point that Disney’s “Little Mermaid” never dared to redress Ariel’s terrible pain. Cleaning up the messy parts of the story and creating a happy ending for the whole family is what we expect from familiar fairy tales; but how does it affect our children’s self-conception as they grow older and encounter the messiness of life? One way to counter this approach is found in a new series of illustrations from Israel, entitled The Trials of Disney Princessdom by illustrator Rayut Siman Tov. It may not appeal to everyone, but Siman Tov is on to something here. By daring to “de-Disney-ify” the figure of the princesses, Siman Tov’s illustrations include: Ariel, the little mermaid with a pimple on her forehead; Snow White scarfing down a burger while her birdies offer an apple; Princess Jasmine from Aladdin threading off facial hair, and Cinderella healing her callused feet caused by glass slippers. Siman Tov wants us to challenge our limitations, and rethink what it actually means to be a ‘princess’ (or a prince for that matter). Judaism reminds us time and time again that respond to our human calling we must always remember we are quasi-royal—royal only insofar as we are the children of the royal family. I discovered this in my recent book, Mystical Vertigo, while translating the remarkable Hebrew poetry of Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. She writes her own contemporary parable of what it means to be a spiritual seeker through the parable of what is means:
…to be likened/To a queen who had many words/And who took them from the house and left them in the outer room./Those same words had their own palace/And they would go out from themselves and come into it/And they would put patches of secrecy on their mouths. (Mystical Vertigo, p. 200)
Israeli poets like Tamar are attempting to remove the secret patches that keep the power of words hidden from our spiritual journeying. Too often our ability to express that yearning remains in exile or in some other hidden form. When we recognize that life’s journey is about rediscovering our royal lineage, then we can make space again for our eternal connection to the ultimate Sovereign of the Universe. Sometimes the wake-up call happens on Purim, other times it happens when we are reading stories to our children before bed. The times are a changin’, and we all owe a great debt of thanks to the emerging counter-narrative with programs like It’s a Girl’s Thing and JewStu programs that listen to our childrens’ stories and more importantly, empower them with ways of embracing the deeper messages behind those stories—and at times, even daring to redraw the road-map to redemption. So the next time we are about to choose the costume, read the book, or line up at Disney World, let us be aware and ready to discuss the messages embedded in those moments that last a life time. The stories we chose to tell and retell are an opportunity for us to rethink what it means to be human and how to redeem our royal lineage from falling into desuetude. In his renowned retelling of The Lost Princess, hasidic master, Reb Nahman of Bratzlav ends by alluding to how the chamberlain freed the Princess:
…and how he got her out of there, he did no relate. But in the end he succeeded.
Too often on the road to redemption, we give up. We must remain hopelessly hopeful and continue to remind ourselves, as much as our children, that redemption is a matter of the future close at hand. How we tell that story and sing that song matters deeply.