As I wandered aimlessly through the Young Adult section of my favorite used bookstore this past week (yes, I’m part of the estimated 50-70% of adults who read YA, and I’m only vaguely embarrassed about it), my eyes alighted upon a row of familiar pink soft-cover books: “The Princess Diaries” series by Meg Cabot.
I had not read this series since I was, like, 11. Feeling nostalgic, I slid the first book in the series off the shelf, with a sense of existential angst at how browned and crispy the pages had become with age, and checked the price: $1.25. Score. Later that day, as I began reading through the novel, memories came flooding back. I had forgotten how the movies are almost unrecognizable compared to the books. But I also noticed certain details for the first time, like how Mia and her best friend, Lilly, are Gen Z-level informed about social issues.
Oh, and page after page of Jewishness. Um, hello — why haven’t we discussed this before?!
As it turns out, “The Princess Diaries” is full of specific, fun Jewish references, mainly about the Moscovitz siblings — Mia’s best friend and unexpected love interest, respectively — and their family. How did I not notice this the first time?!
Not only are Lilly and Michael Moscovitz openly Jewish in the book, but it is a recurring theme. For example, Lilly notes how strange it is that she has never met Mia’s grandmother given that Mia knows all of Lilly’s grandparents, and Mia explains this is because “the Moscovitzes have me over every year for Passover dinner.” In another scene, when Mia enthuses about how much she enjoys hanging out with Lilly, she shares “But it’s like every time I spend the night here, even if all Lilly and I do is hang out in the kitchen eating macaroons leftover from Rosh Hashanah, I have such a great time.” Sure, my house had macaroon leftovers exclusively post-Passover, but I still greatly appreciate a reference to these ubiquitous stale coconut clusters that are always reliably on that one shelf at the grocery store that’s devoted to Jewish foods.
When Michael Moscovitz shows up at the end of the book, stepping in after Mia’s date turns out to be a huge flop and saving the night with his company (though Mia still hasn’t realized that he’s in love with her at this point), we learn he is dressed “in the tux his mom made him get for his cousin Steve’s bar mitzvah.” (Points for bar mitzvah chic.)
Even the Moscowitz parents, referred to as “the Drs. Moscovitz,” are distinctly Jewish. When Lilly and Mia make popcorn one night and watch all the James Bond movies in a row from their giant canopy bed, for example, it is because “the Drs. Moscovitz were out — they had to go to a benefit at the Puck Building for the homosexual children of survivors of the Holocaust.” While I myself grew up squarely in the South, I have a deep adoration for New York Jewish culture, and reading details like the above also reminded me of the fondness I have for the New York Jews I’ve known over the years. It felt like reading funny anecdotes about extended family (though tragically, I am not actually related to any New York Jewish individuals).
In the movie adaptation, I feel like these specific, intentional Jewish depictions are short-changed. As far as I can tell, apart from her surname, the movie version of Lilly is not actually Jewish (and is also not played by a Jewish actress), though she is loud, brash, and demanding — a complicated stereotype for Jewish women. In the book, Lilly is intensely invested in social justice, and even when her passion is wildly misplaced, it comes from a place of Jewish conviction: When describing some of Lilly’s latest local activism, Mia explains: “But Lilly says it’s the principle of the thing, and maybe if people had made a big deal about how the Nazis smashed up Jewish people’s store windows on Kristallnacht they wouldn’t have ended up putting so many people in ovens.”
Yeah, Lilly tells it like it is. (Which is also the title of the cable access TV segment she self-produces in the book.) As I reread the books, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where is this inherently Jewish Lilly, who is passionately focused on social justice, in the movie? None of these facets of her identity make it into the film.
Movie-Michael is also basically unrecognizable from his novel alter ego, and pales in comparison. And did you remember that Lana, Mia’s mean-girl high school archnemesis, is Lana Weinberger? Yeah, me neither — especially because the movie changes her into the super anglicized “Lana Thomas.” What, a Jew can’t be the blonde pretty girl? Eye roll. The more I read, the more I noticed the amount of fun Jewish Easter eggs throughout the book (and yes, I realize the irony of the phrase I just used): A side character once dates a boy named Aaron Ben-Simon, Mia writes in her diary that her dad “always had a driver, usually a big beefy guy who used to work for the president of Israel or somebody like that,” and later she mentions offhandedly that her royal bodyguard trained in the Israeli army.
At this point, you might be wondering the same thing I was: Is Meg Cabot Jewish or what? Spoiler alert: The answer isn’t terribly clear, but probably not. After lengthy research, I found no explicit confirmation that she is — though also no explicit reference that she isn’t. On her blog, she actually writes, “Everyone who meets me through my husband assumes we’re Jewish, because he wears glasses, has dark hair, is super smart, and his last name is Egnatz,” clarifying that: “My husband is not Jewish. Although it’s possible his Hungarian ancestors were.” (But notice she sidesteps the question of her own Jewishness.) If she herself isn’t Jewish, she has definitely had close Jewish friends. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter either way — I just appreciate the unabashed Jewishness of some of her characters, and how they are fully fleshed out with memorable personalities, not flatly centered around the most cliched of Jewish stereotypes.
I’m not saying that thrifting and binge-reading all the rest of the Princess Diaries books has now become a Jewish identity-defining goal of mine. But I’m also not not saying that. Regardless, picking up a nostalgic classic as an adult and suddenly noticing yourself and people you know represented in it is a royally fun experience, and well worth the $1.33 (including tax). I highly recommend finding a copy of your own for a summer read that’s both nostalgic and Jewish. Just do yourself a favor and imagine Michael Moscovitz as Timothee Chalamet—you’ll thank me later. (Wink.)
Late Take is a series on Hey Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail email@example.com with “Late Take” in the subject line.