Ruth Mosko Handler made two fortunes from plastic boobs.
First as the women who single handedly brought Barbie into our world. (Makes me think of Sophacles saying, “Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse.”)
And secondly, as a breast cancer survivor who created a prosthetic breast company. Thank you Ruth! What a powerhouse.
But let me back up a bit. I first became aware of Ruth when I went to a show at The Jewish Museum in San Francisco many years ago called “Too Jewish.” It was during that show that I learned through an art piece that Barbie had been created by a Jewish woman. I was absolutely blown away. What a perfect irony of the 20th century, that a Jewish woman had created the ultimate Shiksha.
Then years later I was invited to Utah with 40 other Jews my age to explore what it meant to be Jewish in the 21st century, in what was then an experiment called Reboot. I was suspicious by the invitation since... I was a bad Jew. At the time I was running The Webby Awards and making films, but did not belong to a temple or engage in any traditional Jewishness. My husband, Ken Goldberg, and I had tried to find meaningful Jewish experiences--we were looking for something fresh, something engaging, something that spoke to us. But after trying every shul we resigned ourselves to thinking that the conversations between us were going to be where we found spirituality. I decided to go to Reboot. So I am at this gathering and people are absolutely exploding in dialogue about what their Jewishness meant to them. All we needed was the littlest of trigger to do a deep dive into issues of our identity and history and rethink what our traditions meant today, to our generation.
So while I was going through this transformative “I’ve finally met my people” weekend, I opened up the paper and read in the obituary section that Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll had passed away. I read voraciously about her amazing life and journey founding Mattel with her husband, leaving Mattel, her breast cancer, her prosthetic breast company, her family--but no where did it mention that she was....Jewish. What?? How could they bury the lead? That was the most interesting part of the story.
Ruth, a daughter of immigrant Jews, created the ultimate image of assimilation. She had been in Europe and had spotted in the window of a store a blond doll named “Lili..” Lil has sometimes been referred to as a “German sex doll,” found in Tobacco stores. She saw this doll and had the seckle to think, “This doll would be huge in America.” (Now the fact that there was a blond hair sex doll that Germans oogled over that was brought over to America after the Holocaust by a Jewish businesswoman to be rebranded her as Barbie to become the most successful doll on the planet is a film in itself.) But it was as I was reading about Ruth Handler’s life with no mention of her Jewishness that I had my Eureka moment. I wanted to replicate this amazing weekend in Utah filled with conversation. How could I replicate and extend this conversation? The answer was right in front of me. Thanks to Ruth, thanks to the reporter who forgot to write of her Jewishness, Barbie was my way in.
Thus began my journey of making the film, “The Tribe,” and exploring Ruth Handler, her life and how perhaps Barbie could explain what it meant to be Jewish today in America. Being a blond blue-eyed Jew named Tiffany (who no one ever thought was Jewish) was something I could relate to. And being married to man name Ken didn’t hurt either. ;)
We made “discussion kit” that included our 18 minute film along with discussion cards and a guide to the film called “Guide from the Perplexed.” Our goal was to spark conversation everywhere about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. Five years later, the film has reached over 700,000 in places I would have never imagined and has ignited wonderful dialogue about identity that keeps surprising me and my collaborators around every turn. (The US Naval Ships ordered copies.)
So thank you Ruth for inspiring me and sparking dialogue. And mostly for having Mazel, Moxie and Seckle.
Tiffany Shlain is a filmmaker, writer and speaker. Her work can be found at www.tiffanyshlain.com. Her film, The Tribe, traces Barbie's history, shedding light on the questions: What does it mean to be an American Jew in today? What does it mean to be a member of any tribe in the 21st Century?
Watch the trailer below: