Jewish Lessons in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’


'The Lion King,' Disney's classic film/Broadway show, offers younger Jewish audiences a lot to learn about respect for elders in the community.

Let others be nonchalant, sing “Hakuna Matata,” and feel trouble-free: When you’re The Lion King, you’ve got a prideful of problems and responsibilities.

After all, it’s a jungle out there.

But among the thousands who have gravitated toward the Broadway hit in the past 20 years — including those snatching up tickets for its return to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, May 20 to June 14 — some contend that there’s much Jewish pride to be taken in this tale of the African Pride Land.

And much of that pride focuses on the Jewish conceit of respect for the elders in the community.

“If ever there were a theater piece that so nearly speaks to Judaism and Jewish tradition, this is certainly it,” asserts Cantor Marshall Portnoy of Main Line Reform Temple.

He should know: Each year he accompanies the Junior Jammers — the name of the temple’s children’s choir — on a musically themed trip to Manhattan. Next month, he’ll do so again, heading to The Lion King for the second time in 20 years.

Why? Because, in part, the musical fosters a certain understanding between children and their elders — a virtue in the vanguard of Jewish values — that is hard to come by in today’s society.

This is “nowhere better exemplified,” he says, than in the reverence shown Mufasa, the title character.

It doesn’t stop with him. One of the other key characters, the wisdom-soaked, grey-haired mandril, Rafiki, says Portnoy, offers lessons to Simba, the young lion in line for the throne, about the respect he should have “for all who have gone before.”

Ponder the possibilities of tradition, advises Rafiki: “When Rafiki takes Simba to a pond where he gazes up at the sky, we cannot help but be moved by the memory of father Abraham, when God beckoned him to look at the sky and count the stars,” says Portnoy.

“The stars shown to Abraham are promises of the future; the stars on which Simba gazes are promises of the past.

“Yet, the lesson of The Lion King and the lesson of Judaism is the same: There is no ‘past’ and no ‘future’; there is but a divine continuum of space and time in which we are all privileged to sing our songs, write our poems and play together in a great circle — blee reshit, blee tachhlit — without beginning and without end.”

It takes a jungle, it takes a shtetl: Portnoy cites the show’s lyrical “He Lives in You” — “which sounds very much like a Jewish prayer, except it’s partly in African, not Hebrew!” — as a bow and curtsy to the magnificence of ancestral wisdom:

“He lives in you.

He lives in me.

He watches over

Everything we see.

Into the water.

Into the truth.

In your reflection

He lives in you.”

Paula Goldstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, agrees.

“As Simba grows up, he embraces his father’s value of communal responsibility and takes the reins to lead his kingdom,” she says.

The musical “represents the bittersweet aspects of family life, with Simba ultimately taking hold of the responsibility that his father had” as he “rises to be a leader of the lion nation.”

Jewish communal leader, theatrical cognoscenti and eminent Philadelphia attorney Lou Fryman has more than earned the love, respect and admiration of his own grandchildren. In a way he is their Fryman king. As a zayde well familiar with the message-bestowing musical, he sees the show as emblematic of what Jewish tradition and reverence for age are all about, calling the musical “a thoughtful, impressive and subtle message of family structure,” with “a presentation of family values: respect, authority and devotion.”

South Jersey’s Ben Lipitz has devoted a chunk of his own lifetime portraying Pumbaa, the musical’s worry-free — if gas-filled — warthog on Broadway and in the tour that is coming to Philadelphia.

The Cherry Hill actor, 51, is celebrating his Bar Mitzvah year in the role.

Being part of The Lion King experience for 13 years has him roaring with approval for the Jewish tenets it manifests. The musical fosters “respect for our forebears, those who came before us who made a path for us to assume.”

And for children, that means being tutored in the sagacity of the elders, allowing youngsters “to step into adulthood,” says Lipitz, with the boost of the braintrust that came before.

That sense of respect certainly has hit home for 13-year-old twins Olivia and Danielle Kogan of Huntingdon Valley.

The show has “taught me the importance of appreciating and respecting” her parents and grandparents, says Olivia, and their efforts to make a better world.

“When Simba is out there hanging onto a tree,” amid a stampede by wildebeests, “and his father saves him, it showed me how parents will always be there for you,” says the daughter of Jen and Mark Kogan.

As their grandparents, Murray and Judy Cohen are major components of the twins’ circle of life. The teens — recent B’nai Mitzvah at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, where Murray Cohen is congregational president — covet the time they spend encircled by the moral force that is their bubbe and zayde.

And the grandparents reciprocate 360. Judy Cohen especially felt a kinship for the musical missive, she says, “which shows we all have interdependent roles to play in the family,” a lesson for and about the ages.

This bubbe bubbles about her own expanded family circle; she learned so much, she says, from her own grandmother, Rose Benson, who lived to be 105 and interacted with the twins before she died.

Indeed the twins are all part of an expanded circle that covers five generations of women, including Judy’s own mother, Shirley Oxenberg, 91.

Apparently, one can never be too young to glean the messages of the musical. Ava Endy, 5, attends pre-K at the Richard E. Rudolph Jr. Preschool of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. The youngster likens her own great-grandfather, Harry Blask, to Mufasa and felt a special affinity for The Lion King. Both Mufasa and her zayde are good, she says, and look out for their community, whether cubs or cuties like herself.

“He saves people and he helps me,” she says of her great-grandfather.

Mufasa and mitzvot? Rafiki and reverence? It is all good, adds  Portnoy, the cantor from Main Line Reform, all part of the bigger picture. “As we say whenever our Torah is read, chadesh yameinu kedem, renew for us our first days and first dreams,” he notes.

“As the Circle of Life continues its inevitable swirl and flow, we will always face new challenges and circumstances, some daunting, yet always find core strength and direction in the eternal values of our God.”

Michael Elkin is features editor of the Jewish Exponent. This article recently appeared in the supplement, "The Good Life."


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