Niv co-founders Orly Zebak and Clarrie Feinstein sat down with Arts & Kvetch columnist Lara Bulger to discuss the Passover classic film, The Prince of Egypt. Read their conversation as they discover new details about the Passover story, asking difficult questions like, “What makes a Jew, a Jew in biblical times?” And, “Why are the women given air time in the movie but not in the Haggadah?” These are some serious topics, covered by some very serious people.
Defining Jewish in biblical times
LARA: When watching this movie, intermarriage was top of mind because I started reading Rabbi Denise Handlarski’s book, The A to Z of Intermarriage a week before watching The Prince of Egypt. She mentions all of these couples in the Bible and Torah who are intermarried, and uses that as evidence for why it should be fair to allow it today.
CLARRIE: That just speaks to the hypocrisy of religion, when you have a major biblical figure like Moses who marries someone of a different faith. It conflicts with a lot of what people characterize as to what makes someone, or a family, Jewish. I think that’s a really great topic to pick up. It’s something I never thought of, and is never brought up in Hebrew school.
ORLY: I never went to Hebrew school, but I also never thought about it.
CLARRIE: In today’s current climate intermarriage is a highly contested topic in Judaism. We know that the laws for intermarriage were written centuries after the story of Exodus, yet it still merits the question: if this happened today, would you consider Moses’s children Jewish if their mother isn’t?
ORLY: But it also comes down to whether or not you believe the story really happened. And if you believe it’s just a nice fictional fable, then you could interpret it as something the writers weren’t concerned about at the time, or perhaps, they even wanted this situation to inspire us to ask these questions, and not see life in such a two-dimensional way.
LARA: Even in the movie, they don’t say ‘Jews’ once, they always say Hebrews. Moses wasn’t raised with Judaism, he didn’t even know he was Jewish until later on. So the fact that God chose him, someone who wasn’t brought up Jewish, not very Jewish, I found interesting just in terms of what qualifies someone as a Jew.
ORLY: Maybe it’s as simple as: “what do you believe in?” Do you believe in my God or do you believe in idolizing a porcelain chicken?
CLARRIE: (chuckles) I think here we’re talking about the evolution of Judaism. There’s a rigidity to tradition and religious law—if you’re not kosher, or if you don’t observe Shabbat some would consider you to be less Jewish. But things can change and adapt. If Jews in Moses’s time were considered something different than Jews of today, it tells us our definition of what Jewish is can change.
LARA: I feel like they decided to not make this film overtly religious even though it’s a biblical story. Because there’s not one moment where they discuss what being a ‘Hebrew’ means, and they’re only characterized in relation to their oppression. There’s not a clarification on what makes these people different—
ORLY: But the animators also show that people who are different do not need to look different. They made Moses and Ramses look similar. This was a realistic choice because often our enemies don’t look different than us.
I was always struck by how they portrayed their relationship. You can also see there’s a love between the brothers even after they’ve gone through most of the plagues. The writers show they’re not two dimensional characters. You can feel their sadness at the loss of their relationship, knowing they no longer see eye to eye, especially in their beliefs and values—do they talk about idols or idolatry in the film?
LARA: I don’t even think there’s talk of God until he shows up in the burning bush, which makes sense if you want to make it accessible to everyone. I don’t think you learn anything about Judaism.
CLARRIE: This is the precursor or foundation for the creation of that later on, but we don’t see it in the film at all. The only sense of an aspect of Judaism being textually realized is at that the end when Moses carries the 10 Commandments.
ORLY: Touching upon the complexities of belief and these ideas is something the film does really well because the story has been simplified to appeal to children. Due to this, the themes are quite repetitive, which you can see in the music and text, especially with the phrase “deliver us”. As a child, I looked at this line, and thought, yeah, we want to be delivered to the Promised Land literally, but watching the film now, deliver us is also deliver me, not to the literal land of Canaan, but to what freedom looks like for me. But I see it as a plea to deliver us to a place where we can be free to be who we want and to have equal rights.
CLARRIE: I hadn’t thought of that at all. This also ties back into what we were talking about with intermarriage or how you choose to identify as Jewish. It’s an interesting point you raise; delivering us to the freedom of how we choose to identify and how we want to live our lives. Of course “deliver us” is speaking to the Promised Land, to a land of freedom and autonomy, but also on a personal level of what freedom of expression is when talking about identity.
Women in Passover
CLARRIE: I wanted to discuss some of the female characters in Exodus who are often sidelined but in the movie they’re the reason Moses fulfills his destiny.
There’s his birth mom Yocheved who has to give her son away because he could be killed. In an obvious way, she’s a great symbol of maternal love, of a mother’s love for her child—
LARA: And sacrifice—
CLARRIE: Exactly, it’s the biggest act of sacrifice that’s done in the entire story. By saving her son she ends up saving the Jewish people through that act.
ORLY: I think this was only my third time watching The Prince of Egypt, it wasn’t and isn’t the passover film I watch each year, but the opening song with Yocheved has always stayed with me. Through her voice they really captured the meaning of her sacrifice.
CLARRIE: There’s also the song his adoptive mother, Queen Bithia, sings to him where she says, “when the Gods send you a blessing you don’t ask why it was sent.” And this isn’t in the film, but in the story she knows Moses is a Hebrew and defies the Pharaoh’s orders, deciding to raise him as her own child. This is again a case of a woman defying the orders of authority to save Moses which then allows him to save the Jewish people.
I think these women are important to give airtime to, because none of these women are ever mentioned in traditional Haggadahs. Without these two women the whole story wouldn’t take place at all.
LARA: I’m glad you brought up the fact that they’re not in the Haggadah, because when I was watching the movie their names didn’t sound familiar to me. How is the story even told in the Haggadah without saying their names?
CLARRIE: Definitely for traditional Seders they don’t mention it all. They just say he was placed in a raft, went down the Nile, was found by the Pharaoh, and the Pharaoh raised him. I don’t think they ever mention what the mothers did in this situation.
ORLY: I think it’s interesting too because in the movie they went a very nuclear route of setting up the royal family. And by doing so, idealised their relationship. I would say in the 90’s, when this film was made, the nuclear family was what everyone aspired to have, while in Exodus, Bithia is the Pharaoh’s daughter. And I also don’t think Bithia gets a lot of screen time, she just silently moves around.
CLARRIE: She is just kind of there. . . I think you’re right too, because there’s that point where he’s realizing that all he’s ever known is a privileged life and when he looks at the carvings on the wall it’s of his nuclear family—an idealistic image of what a family is, and it gets shattered for him completely. He realizes when he bumps into Miriam—
ORLY: I would say that Miriam is the one who’s so proud of who she is and never questions herself, and I think the same for Tzipporah. You don’t wonder who they are, or what their values are, or what they believe. But I think you do with Ramses and Moses.
CLARRIE: Exactly, Miriam is also not mentioned in the Haggadah. But now, many people include Miriam’s Cup at their Seder, as it’s symbolic of Miriam’s well, which followed the Jews in the desert. In the film, they choose Miriam to be the one to tell Moses of his Jewish identity, and she does it at great cost, knowing she could lose her life. This is really what leads Moses down his path of self-discovery.
And for Tzipporah, she’s shown as a strong-willed, independent person who supports Moses on his journey. And I think the film poses the question: without these two women, would he really have been able to complete the task? Even if that’s not necessarily true, I like how the film is set up to have these two women at his side. I also see his marriage to Tzipporah as an equal partnership where each party values the other.
LARA: The scene where they both go to her father, it’s not the father giving his daughter away, they’re both asking for permission to get married.
ORLY: Because the film gives us a little bit of a feminist reinterpretation, we are able to go back to the Exodus a little more enlightened about what the text does and does not say about these women.
CLARRIE: This conversation has made me realize that I know this movie very well but I really don’t know the story of Exodus. Goes to show the power of film informing us of our world. I think I might actually read the Exodus now to get my story straight.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.