Barbie Wears a Tallit?!
A recent article in Lilith Magazine entitled “How Do Women Define the Sacred?” speaks to the ways in which handmade tallitot (prayer shawls) have become central aspects of Jewish women’s spirituality. Though women have become increasingly enfranchised over the past several decades in many areas of Jewish life, the bulk of religious liturgy is reflective of Judaism’s patriarchal origins. And so, handmade women’s tallitot challenge a prayer legacy primarily composed and transmitted by and for men. The tallitot that women have created are, in many ways, deeply personal and self-expressive. One woman featured in the Lilith article created a tallit using her deceased father’s neckties. Another woman silk-screened generations of family photographs onto her shawl, and another created her own ritual of having her four best friends each tie one of the four tzitzit (fringes) to represent the gathering in of loved ones when her tallit is worn. Walk into any progressive synagogue on Shabbat morning and the colorful diversity in what Lilith calls “our technicolor dreamcoats” is overwhelming.
But human women aren’t the only ones sporting tallitot these days. Barbie now wears a tallit as well. Joining the ranks of ice-skating Barbie, ballet Barbie, and Queen Elizabeth Barbie, Jen Taylor Friedman has introduced two new Barbie identities: tallit-wearing Barbie and tefillin-laying Barbie. The original Barbie doll was invented by Ruth Handler (yes, she's a Jew) and some have speculated that Barbie embodies the goyisha (non-Jewish) yearnings of deeply assimilated Jewish women. So, perhaps Barbie’s new get-ups can be understood as her public reclaiming of Jewish identity. Maybe the more shocking identity would be Ba’al Teshuvah* Barbie (only then she’d need to cover her elbows… and it’s unlikely that she’d be wearing a tallit).
The responses to tallit-wearing/tefillin-laying Barbie have been overwhelmingly positive -- look at Jewishly-empowered Barbie lifting and wrapping the Torah under the wings of her tallit! And look at how Barbie defies the stereotypical appearances of Jewish women active in synagogue life!
Personally, I can’t say I’m too taken by this Barbie phenomenon. I do find it humorous, but the playfulness of a sacred ritual practice raises troubling questions about the commodification of religion. It’s only a matter of time before Kabbalah Barbie enters the market. Or has that already happened?
What would the women featured in the Lilith article think of this? Is tallit-wearing Barbie in any way exploitive of the meaning that Jewish women attribute to their own religious and spiritual observance? Or could Barbie actually encourage tallit-less Jewish women to experiment with wearing a tallit as a way of enhancing their own Jewish experience?
*a Ba’al Teshuvah is a secular Jew who becomes very religious usually in an Orthodox “born again” kind of way.