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Barbie Lays Tefillin: Discussing Women & Jewish Ritual - Lesson Plan for Adults

This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Tefillin Barbie: Considering gender and ritual garb.”

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Background Information

Introducing Tefillin Barbie

Begin the session by showing the picture of Tefillin Barbie. Follow up with other images of Barbie reading Torah, learning Talmud, and doing hagbah available on Jen Taylor Friedman's website. Friedman is the creator if Tefillin Barbie.

Ask the participants to reflect on what the creator of these pictures was trying to say. (No need to explain anything about the artist, yet.) Do people think that the statement is more about any woman wearing/doing things that are reserved for men? Or, do they think that the choice of Barbie is significant? What does Barbie normally represent? Why might the choice be seen as controversial?

Introducing Jen Taylor Friedman

Give some background on Jen Taylor Friedman, the creator of Tefillin Barbie and a soferet (ritual scribe). She has a website where you can read more about her and about her work. She also has a Wikipedia article. Ask participants if having a little more information about the creator of Tefillin Barbie influences the way they perceive the doll. Does knowing more about Friedman change what message they think Tefillin Barbie conveys?

Exploring Barbie, Feminism, and Judaism

Divide the group into 3–5 smaller groups. Give each group a different blog post (from Jewschool, Strollerderby, and Hatam Soferet; the 3 Jewschool comments can either be given to one group or split up, depending on how many groups you have). Ask each group to discuss the point of view represented by their blogger/commenter. Then, bring the groups back together and have each group present its viewpoint as if they are that blogger/commenter. Allow some time afterward for open discussion of what they think of some of the issues that were brought up by these postings.

At this point, you can choose to focus your program in one of two ways: on body image issues, or on gender and Judaism.

Option 1: Body Image

To focus your program on some of the body image issues raised by Tefillin Barbie, you can do this next part with adults only, or with adults and their teen daughters.

In 2004, the company that makes Dove products decided to embark on a campaign that showed women with a variety of more realistic body types than one typically finds in advertising or in fashion magazines. Use their short (2 minute) film “Onslaught” as a jumping off point for a conversation about some of the same issues and choices that faced the creators and purveyors of Barbie.

Below are some questions to help guide your discussion of “Onslaught”:

  • What is the point of this film? Does the fact that it is put out by a company that makes beauty products change the way you view it?
  • Why does the movie begin and end with young girls?
  • Why do you think boys/men are left out of this film? Do you think this is fair? If not, what are some of the issues that face young boys who are growing up in today's society?
  • If you were to “talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does,” what would you want to tell her? (Facilitators may choose to make this into an exercise for mothers and daughters to speak to each other on this issue. Allow parents to speak to their teens, but also encourage the teens to give their points of view: How do daughters respond to mothers who may tell them to ignore what it seems like the rest of the world is telling them? Do they believe their mothers are following their own advice?)

Option 2: Gender and Judaism

To focus your program on issues of gender and Judaism, use this text from JWA's online exhibit on anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. Have participants read through the text (or listen to the longer online audio version) and discuss. Some guiding questions can be found below. In this quote from the book Number Our Days, Rachel describes “domestic religion”—a concept Myerhoff used to examine the different religious experiences of Jewish men and women.

Guiding questions:

  • This text provides some insight into how one woman viewed the roles and differences between men and women in her generation.
  • Explain her viewpoint. Do you think she represents the majority of her generation?
  • Do you think that her words would speak to this generation? Why/why not? If so, what are the major differences between the genders in this generation in terms of religion or spirituality?
  • Should there be any differences in the way that we teach males and females in Jewish tradition?
  • How do you think Tefillin Barbie seeks to answer this question?

Additional Program Suggestions

  • Have participants use this program as a way to encounter new rituals. Explore Ritualwell for background and ideas on creating new, meaningful rituals.
  • Use this as a springboard to discuss the roles of men and women in the ritual life of your synagogue. Bring in the Rabbi, Cantor, or ritual committee members to discuss what has changed over time, and what new goals people would like to accomplish in the future.
  • Use this as an opportunity to study some of the relevant texts or halakhic responsa on the issue of women's participation in synagogue life—look at the issues of taking an aliyah to the Torah, reading Torah, counting in a minyan (minimum number of Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations; traditionally only male Jews count toward a minyan), etc. Enlist area clergy members or teachers to help out.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Barbie Lays Tefillin: Discussing Women & Jewish Ritual - Lesson Plan for Adults." (Viewed on July 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/jan08/adult>.

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