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.
How to cite this page
Namerow, Jordan. "Barbie Wears a Tallit?!." 8 November 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/barbietalit>.
I don't think a Barbie with tefillin raises troubling questions. There are already dolls with tefillin, they just happen to be male. There are toy sifrei Torah. Plush lulavin. 1000-dollar High Holy Day seats in the synagogue. The questions were there long before Barbie laid her tefillin. This image makes people uncomfortable, for the same reasons it makes people laugh, and people seem to prefer citing commercialisation or trivialisation of the sacred to exploring the idea that the discomfort stems from seeing a female figure in tefillin.
I'm one of the artists featured in the Lilith article. I was sent the links to T'fillin Barbie by one of my Chabad buddies in Crown Heights. At first I was ready to dismiss it as the usual bagels and lox lowest common denominator of Jewish humor. But seeing Barbie doing Daf Yomi made me laugh out loud and realized that I was not dealing with the usual crass stuff that passes for humor. I found Jen Taylor Friedman's work to be pretty wonderful.
Frankly, I had trouble with the the tone of the Lilith article. I don't assume that just because some aspects of Judaism evolved out of a partiarchal society that it makes them bad. Penises do not automatically make people boorish and stupid. Reflexively, bashing men is just as intolerant as assuming that women are somehow less than men because they don't have penises.
My daughter has grown up in a world where egalitarianism in shul and in life is a given. She, like her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother, has always owned Judaism in every aspect.
Women wear tallitot. Their bodies and their relationship to fabric is different than men's. The tallitot that women wear reflect that. Gamarnu.
Well, this may not be such a bad idea. After all, there is a barbie for almost everything today. Princess Barbie, Beach Barbie, Mall Barbie... why not Bat Mitzvah Barbie? She would wear a tallit, kipah, and could have accessories such as a siddur, yad, and a kiddush cup. Or maybe Bat Mitzvah Barbie already exists. I think it's a great idea to incorporate religion into Barbie's materialistic life. It's important for Barbie to have a religious identity she is proud of. If kids see Barbie as proud of being Jewish, they might start feeling proud too.