Tefillin Barbie's new career

Tefillin Barbie.
Courtesy of Jen Taylor Friedman.

"You know Barbie's getting a new job," says my friend Mimi to me. "People can vote for her new career."

I put tefillin on a Mattel Barbie doll in 2006, unwittingly creating the Jewish icon now known as Tefillin Barbie. Tefillin Barbie has a religious-girl denim skirt, a T-shirt, the tallit and tefillin more generally worn by Orthodox men during morning prayer, and a volume of Talmud; a whimsical activity for a vacation morning, she generated an absolutely vast and wholly unanticipated amount of reaction, positive and negative.

"Hurrah," people say. "Now we can have Rabbi Barbie!"

But why, people? Why? Barbie put on tefillin and picked up a gemara, so now she has to be a rabbi? Why can't she be an IT engineer who prays with tefillin and learns gemara in her lunch break?

See, we have this little problem in the liberal Jewish world. We assume that anyone who's Jewishly invested must be on the rabbinical track. Not completely Jewishly illiterate? Surely you are in rabbinical school. Pray with tefillin? No one does that except rabbis. If Barbie is wearing tefillin and learning gemara, how can she possibly be anything other a rabbi?

It's fair enough, in a way. We managed to create a world where the default level of Jewish education is impressively minimal. The only people who cared for advanced educations were rabbis. The only way to get an advanced education has been to go to rabbinical school. So there is an extensive correlation between liberal Jews who - like Tefillin Barbie - lay tefillin and learn gemara, and liberal Jews who have been through rabbinical school. More's the pity.

It's not an exclusive correlation, and really it would be jolly nice if we could stop assuming that it is. I'm no rabbi; I have a degree in mathematics and a career as a calligrapher-scholar. I pray with tefillin, observe Shabbat in accordance with halakha, and learn Talmud for fun. I and those like me feel vastly frustrated when people assume that we must be rabbis.

We're lucky, now, to live in a time when women can obtain high-level Jewish education in contexts other than rabbinical school; if we keep assuming that only rabbis can have Jewish knowledge, we damage ourselves as Jews.

Barbie's new career is, it seems, a combination of computer engineer and TV anchor (even Barbie has to work two jobs to make ends meet?) In her role as computer engineer, she's apparently supposed to convince little girls that one can be feminine and technically minded.

In assuming otherwise, we damage ourselves as women; the assumption is that only social misfits can be engineers, engineering is only a career for women who fail at being feminine. But no – actually you don't have to be a feminine failure, an ipso facto man, to be an engineer. You can be a perfectly ordinary woman and an engineer; while I question whether pink-laptopped Computer Engineer Barbie entirely demonstrates this, it's a point that needs making.

What Barbie's New Career theoretically demonstrates in the plane of socially-acceptable femininity, we could also apply in the plane of Jewish engagement. Barbie says, regular girls just like you can be engineers. Likewise, regular Jews just like you can be engaged and educated. You don't have to be a social misfit to be an engineer, and you don't have to be a rabbi to be an engaged Jew. You can be a perfectly ordinary professional and an observant, liberal Jew. Tefillin Barbie certainly does not demonstrate this and she was never intended to, but when I resist the idea that she should be Rabbi Barbie, the point is made. The richness of the professional world is not limited to men, and the richness of the Jewish world is not limited to rabbis.

If Tefillin Barbie is Rabbi Barbie, she thoroughly reinforces the idea that only rabbis can pray with tefillin, only rabbis can learn Talmud, only rabbis can be educated, committed, engaged, contented Jews. So no; let our Jews be computer engineers, and let them also pray with tefillin and learn Talmud. Let us not assume that being female prescribes a life of Barbie-pink frippery, and let us not assume that being a committed Jew prescribes a career in the rabbinate. Let us rather assume that Jewish life is worthwhile for all of us – women and men, clergy and laity - and proceed accordingly.

Jen Taylor Friedman is a post-denominational halakhically-observant egalitarian Jewish ritual scribe and scholar. She is notorious for having created Tefillin Barbie, and notable for being the first woman in modern times known to have written a sefer Torah. She blogs and sells Tefillin Barbie from www.hasoferet.com.

Check out JWA's Go & Learn lesson plan Teffilin Barbie: Considering gender and ritual garb. Three versions available: for youth, families, and adults.


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"An enjoyable article, but ... 'learning Gemorro for fun'? This sounds surprisingly close to those who object to teaching girls Talmud because they won't study seriously enough [e.g. Maimonides and Rabbi Teitelbaum of Satmar], and I'm sure that's not what she meant."
Is maybe a little close to the bone, but I guess it doesn't make it any less true.

The creators of Barbie were a nice Jewish couple, and then Rhonda Lieberman had a column in Artforum called Jewish Barbie which discussed this irony; where was Jewish Barbie? We had Asian and African American Barbie, but no nice jewish girl lighting the shabbat candles.....

Now we have one, tefillin and the whole megillah, but please credit Rhonda Lieberman for having raised the issue, (plus, she made chanel menorahs and matzah lamps, wadda heroine) credit where credits due (jew)

Here's an excerpt from my blog entry in response to Jen's provocative piece:

Liberal Jews often assume that I am a rabbi. Not just because I am invested and literate in the way Jen describes (above) but because I teach Torah and facilitate lifecycle rituals such as weddings, funerals, and baby namings but I'm not a rabbi. "Then why not become a rabbi?" they ask. The assumption being that I must want to be a rabbi. I don't, for many reasons, but mostly because I'm only interested in specific parts of the rabbinic portfolio--the teaching and the rituals--and I can do all that (and more) as an educated lay person. Unfortunately, as Jen points out, the "little problem" is that the way most liberal communities work the options are limited, sometimes by misperception and sometimes by design: you either are a rabbi or you shouldn't be impersonating one.

The important question is not "Why not become a rabbi?" It's "Why do you think I need to be one?" Read the rest at: blog.wideanglejudaism.org

Further to Michael Makovi, the Chofetz Chaim in Mishneh Brurah, when speaking about whether women recline at the seder, said that in earlier times only 'distinguished [chashuv] women reclined, but TODAY all our women are counted as 'distinguished' and therefore may recline.

An enjoyable article, but ... 'learning Gemorro for fun'? This sounds surprisingly close to those who object to teaching girls Talmud because they won't study seriously enough [e.g. Maimonides and Rabbi Teitelbaum of Satmar], and I'm sure that's not what she meant.

As a software engineer and striving Jew, I've found my dream girl! :)

But seriously, the pink laptop might not be realistic but it gets my daughter's attention, and I think getting single-digit-aged girls to just consider the field is the point.

It's an important point you make. There is something freeing about not having to rely on your religious practice for your livelihood, and not having to be an exemplar of observance. Of course I would be more observant if I had become a rabbi, and would be able to learn more, but as you point out, I'm not sure the ideal is for everyone who cares to become a rabbi; I'm not sure that's the ideal community.

This is so spot on. And I'm a survivor of this mentality.

10 years ago when I started seriously engaging in getting myself a delayed Jewish education, I figured I should go to rabbinical school. I was getting so much spiritually out of my new davenning practice, out of keeping Shabbat, out of learning some Talmud. No one else I knew in my liberal circles did these things. Everyone that I'd ever met who could talk about these subjects was in rabbincal school, or had been.

Yet something in me was pretty sure I didn't want to be a rabbi. But where else would I learn Hebrew and gemara and how to use a concordance? It took me years to figure that out.

I'm relieved I let those rab school applications collect dust. The rabbinate isn't for me, not by a long shot, and it took me a while to be able to articulate why. (No one should go to any graduate program if they're not sure why they're going, by the way. Unless of course they have a big fat fellowship.)

There are so many other things a girl can do with a Jewish education - in her free time or professionally. (And there are so many places to keep learning that I can't even begin to link to them.) I'm so happy to see your blog post...and I wish essays like this had been around for me to read 10 years ago when I was struggling with this.

This sentiment was expressed very well! I, too, am frustrated by the lack of perception held by so many people when it concerns the accessibility and general knowledge of the Jewish texts beyond the siddur.

But not only does this translate into the misguided idea that, 'all people who study are rabbis or rabbis-in-the=making,' it also does nothing to support the fact that other clergy roles must study and learn the laws and ways through these texts.

Of course, it's not simply a gender issue, but I love the 'absurdity' of not being shocked by the photo or concept of this blog. I hope others are empowered by the idea that anyone can study and access these texts, and learn a bit about their meaning without needing to go off to seminary.



Ì¢‰âÒSee, we have this little problem in the liberal Jewish world. We assume that anyone who's Jewishly invested must be on the rabbinical track....Ì¢‰âÂå

ItÌ¢‰âÂèÏs a little more than that, but not entirely unrelated. I know a woman, whose career was not rabbinical, but, when she stepped up to lead services, and the choir, and the etc., at a then rabbi-less Reform synagogue, she became the de facto rabbi. The congregation continued their rabbi search apace, but an outside observer would see her in the Reform shul and conclude Ì¢‰âÒfemale rabbi.Ì¢‰âÂå Even thoÌ¢‰â‰㢠the various synagogue religious duties were sÌ¢‰â‰ã¢posed to be rotated among the knowledgeable Jews, few others took the responsibility and the yoke fell on my friend.

Also, when I started grad school, folks would walk into the local Hillel and if they had never met the rabbi and they saw me first, they would frequently assume I was the rabbi because I had a beard and was wearing a kippah or other hat. I was amused; the rabbi was not.

Just awesome, Jen. From strength to strength.

Of course, it's not just women who often get the "You learn Torah? Oh, you must be a rabbi" routine in non-O circles. When my wife and I told folks that we would be spending a summer vacation learning in the Conservative Yeshiva, a lot of people thought we were just plain nuts (or at least a a little bizarre).


So no; let our Jews be computer engineers, and let them also pray with tefillin and learn Talmud. Let us not assume that being female prescribes a life of Barbie-pink frippery, and let us not assume that being a committed Jew prescribes a career in the rabbinate.

Well-said. :-)

See my blog entry, slightly-expanded from the above comment of mine, here.

Damn straight!!! An excellent article, and I completely agree.

Rav S. R. Hirsch wanted to found a yeshiva for laymen in Frankfurt (which his son-in-law eventually succeeded in doing) precisely because he was afraid that as long as there was only the Berlin Hildesheimer rabbinical seminary, that even the Orthodox laymen would assume that only rabbis need post-high-school Jewish education. Even Rav Hirsch's son-in-law, however, found it difficult to found that lay yeshiva, because the congregants erroneously thought Rav Hirsch would have opposed its creation. For years, the yeshiva had to import students from Hungary, and only later did native Germans finally begin attending it.

As for women, I'd like to quote Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg (of Germany)'s <i>teshuva</i> on <i>qol isha</i> (translated <a href = "http://www.hashkafah.com/index...">here</a>): "I therefore instructed the leaders of [the NCSY-type youth group] Yeshurun that they may rely upon the great rabbis of Germany [viz. Rabbis Hirsch and Hildesheimer]. Those men, experts in education, were familiar with the spirit of the contemporary young woman, who, have been educated in the state schools and having learned languages and science, has a sense of self respect. Because they view the prohibition against their participation in religious singing as a form of ostracism, they have been permitted to participate in singing Shabbos melodies. We know the great rabbis of Germany were more successful in educating their young women that the rabbis of any other country. In Germany we have seen highly educated, scholarly women who are the same time G-d-fearing and enthusiastically observant. For this reason, I do not dare forbid what those rabbis permitted. In these countries, the women will feel they have been insulted and their rights have been denied them if we forbid them to participate in singing Shabbos melodies. Anyone familiar with the nature of the women in these countries will understand this. Prohibiting them may cause them to be estranged from religion, G-d forbid. Of such it is said, 'When it is time to act for the Lord, violate the Torah' (Psalms 119:126)."

Elsewhere in the same <i>teshuva</i>, Rabbi Weinberg said (as quoted <a href = "www.jofa.org/pdf/uploaded/1529...">here</a>): "In any event, when I was asked ... I instructed them that they should continue their activity in accordance with the way that was delineated for them by the great [rabbis] of Germany, who were very righteous Ì¢‰âÂå_ and the great [rabbis] of Germany were erudite and expert in the wisdom of education and therefore they succeeded by their deeds to raise whole generations of people who had both the fear of Heaven and secular learning, something that did not occur under the [most] brilliant of the great [rabbis] of Lithuania and Poland, because they did not know how to adjust the education [-al methods] according to the conditions of the time. It is known what the brilliant Rabbi Salanter told upon his return from Germany, where he met with Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer and saw him lecture classes in Bible and Shulhan Arukh in front of young single women. He [Rabbi Salanter] said thus [in reaction]: if any one of the rabbis from Lithuania would act in such a manner in his community, they would remove him from his post, and such is the law. In any event, it is my hope that my place in the afterworld will be with Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer . Ì¢‰âÂå_ And now the rabbis of Poland and Hungary who have found their way to France see the modern practices ... and they vehemently protest them, because these practices are in opposition to explicit laws ... but these said rabbis are not erudite in the conditions of life ..."

About women's <i>semikhah</i>, see what I've written <a href = "http://michaelmakovi.blogspot...."></a>. About <i>qol isha</i>, see my article <a href = "http://www.jewishideas.org/art...">here</a>.

How to cite this page

Friedman, Jen Taylor. "Tefillin Barbie's new career." 9 March 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 13, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/tefillin-barbies-new-career>.

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