“Many nights we prayed, with no proof anyone could hear,” so begins the lyrics to When You Believe a rousing ballad from the animated film the Prince of Egypt.
The song crystallizes what it’s like to crawl out of the depths of despair and find hope and freedom from slavery on the other side.
The words may have been written to represent Israelites and their Exodus from Egypt, but the message behind them is a universal one that can resonate with anyone who has lost hope.
It’s perhaps the last time I’ve seen a movie that told our story - a vividly Jewish story - in a way that is optimistic, nuanced and, yes, hopeful.
Schindler’s List told the story of Jews as victims. The wildly popular Fauda tells the story of Jews as warriors.
But with the Prince of Egypt, we’re seen as a people - a representation of humanity tested to their very limits and who took a leap of faith in order to finally be free.
It’s that telling of our story that’s needed now more than ever.
When the most popular representation of us as Jews in the news and popular culture consists of Bernie Sanders (“the socialist”), Michael Bloomberg (“the robber baron”) and Jerry Seinfeld / Larry David (“the complainers”) then we have a problem. And those are the ones with redeemable values! Once we delve into the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein (“the sexual predator”) the outside world doesn’t get a very pretty picture of us.
And obviously, it's a simplistic picture. We’re diverse. We’re robust. We disagree.
So why can’t we see that in pop culture?
When Dreamworks released The Prince of Egypt back in 1998, I remember sitting in a theater in the United States as a pre-teen with my Christian friends in shock that I’m watching not only a story of my people, but a people who are joyful - praising their God in song (and in Hebrew!) and showing that while we disagree, at our core we are good, we are strong and we’re not helpless.
It certainly helped that the cast had some serious star power. Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum were just some of the big names involved. It was co-produced by Steven Speilberg. And when it’s flagship song “When You Believe” needed to be recorded for radio, producers brought out the big guns: Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
We’re told representation matters - a young African-American girl sits on her couch and sees actors who look like her playing politicians or doctors or lawyers, then she slowly comes to the realization that those careers are options for her down the line.
So, no, I never aspired to like Tzipporah, the wife of a shepherd turned prophet. But seeing cartoon characters with olive skin like mine, speaking my language and telling a story Jews have been telling each other around a seder table for centuries in a major Hollywood production left a deep impression on me.
Why haven’t we had something so pure, well-intentioned and tailored to the masses since? I’m not sure, although I would venture to guess that in today’s climate, a major production about the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt would inevitably bring about many references to the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. And, really, does anybody want to go down that rabbit hole when they just want to make a family-friendly movie?
And yet, it’s something we need at this very time. When everything seems uncertain with the coronavirus pandemic and antisemites blaming the Jews for its spread, I know I’d savor something wholesome during this divisive time.
As The Washington Post noted when the film was released, “If nothing else, it's a wonderful essay on the meaning of freedom and the courage it takes to wrestle it from despots. In that sense, it feels more political and cultural than religious.”
In a time where we’re so isolated both literally and figuratively, this is exactly the kind of pop culture the Jewish people need to bring us closer to each other, and also to other nations and people as well.