by Rabbi Michael Schwab
As many of you know, Disney came out with a new movie, Encanto, which is an Oscar-nominated animated film featuring the cultural traditions of Colombia. Fascinatingly, in a recent article, author Rudy Malcom ponders the question of whether the Magical Madrigals, the main characters in the movie, are actually Jewish. As he writes, “They’re close-knit to the point of being smothering. They’re successful yet grappling with generations of pain. And their powers come from a candle that has miraculously burned for 50 years — kind of like oil that lasted eight days.” Further, he cites that a Tik Tok user made interesting parallels between the fictional Madrigals and the Conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Catholicism after persecution during the 14th and 15th centuries. In fact, a 2018 study demonstrated that a full quarter of the Latin American respondents had traces of Sephardic Jewish ancestry. What is more, soundtrack creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) has strong Jewish connections, including being in a Jewish a cappella group in college and the fact that he considered making a musical out of Hayim Potok’s famous book, “My Name is Asher Lev”. Add to that, the name Madrigal, itself, is identified by nameyouroots.com as possibly a Sephardic name from the Middle Ages.
What might be even more interesting, though, is Malcolm’s observation that regardless of whether the movie creators intended the main characters to be Jewish, the story of the Madrigals resonates with Jews today and could contain some lessons for us. The character Abuela Alma Madrigal miraculously received her magic-giving candle after soldiers killed her husband and forced her and her fellow villagers to flee their homes. Fifty years later, every child in the family has received a magical gift on their fifth birthday — except for 15-year-old Mirabel, who learns that her family is losing their magic. She learns that their candle is flickering, and that their enchanted home, Casita, is cracking, because of family issues that relate to their heritage and history.
As Malcom writes, “We Jews can surely relate to how pain is passed l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation”. And we can also relate to the fact that there is often much for contemporary Jews to negotiate when deciding how much of our tradition to keep intact, and how to pass it on, while still maintaining our own personal happiness in contemporary society and while achieving our personal goals.
Therefore, perhaps the fears of the character, Alma, resonate with our own: our anxiety over the precarious nature of American Jewish life. As Malcom writes, “We’ve built places of power and safety (like Casita) and, in many ways, become part of the establishment, yet we carry the impact of antisemitism in our minds and bodies. And our synagogues face the real threat of white supremacist violence and conspiracy theories that Jews control the world.”
It is instructive to note that in the movie, there is a happy ending. So, while we can’t be sure the Madrigals were intended to represent the descendants of Sephardic Jews, perhaps they can give us hope. Even though our metaphorical Casita may have cracks, there is a bright future for us where the candle keeps burning and our people continue the age-old Jewish tradition of finding the magical balance between flourishing in contemporary times and preserving the sacred nature of who we are and what makes us special.