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Tefillin Barbie: Body Image and Gender Roles in Judaism - Lesson Plan for Teens

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

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Photo Study: Tefillin Barbie

Begin the session by showing the students the picture of Tefillin Barbie and gather initial responses to begin the discussion. You may need to explain the term tefillin (ritual prayer boxes worn on the arm and head while praying) to your students. Some points to touch on in your discussion of the photograph include:

  • What is she wearing, and why might the creator (Jen Taylor Friedman) have chosen a Barbie doll to model her tefillin?
  • Jen Taylor Friedman is one of the first soferot (female ritual scribes—this means that she writes everything from tefillin scrolls to a whole Torah; sing. soferet). How might this have influenced Jen to create this doll and put her out on the internet for the world to see? What is she trying to say?
  • Would you have chosen a different doll/model?

Barbie: History and Discussion

Since the students are likely to be familiar with Barbie, this is a good time to discuss both Barbie as a toy that has lasted through several generations of little girls, and its creator, Ruth Handler—a Jewish businesswoman. Have students look at excerpts from Handler's obituary in the New York Times. The article discusses Handler's motivation for creating Barbie as well as some of the criticism of and resulting changes in Barbie's image. Guiding questions for your discussion are below:

  • Why did Ruth Handler create Barbie? What was she hoping to accomplish?
  • Why has Barbie become so political? What are people on both sides of the issue concerned with?
  • What do you think of the changes that Barbie has undergone over the past few decades? Are they meaningful?
  • Do you agree with Ruth Handler's assessment that “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices?”
  • What do you think about the critique of Barbie that suggests that her unrealistic body measurements can cause low self-esteem in girls?
  • What else in our culture might contribute to poor body image and low self esteem in girls?

Women, Body Image, and the Media

You may use this next piece in addition to, or instead of the article on Ruth Handler. Both are helpful starting points for leading a discussion on the issues and complexities of presenting unrealistic images of bodies. (Either way, you will want to connect this discussion back to the image of Tefillin Barbie, and ask the participants why Jen Taylor Friedman may have chosen to use Barbie as her model.)

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:

  • Why is this short film entitled “Onslaught?” Why does the film move at such a quick pace?
  • 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?

On Barbie and Jewish Ritual

On a blank wall in the room where your discussion takes place, you should place four signs: “Strongly Agree,” “Somewhat Agree,” “Somewhat Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.”

Begin a discussion on Jewish ritual and the roles of men and women by allowing the students to consider their own thoughts on the place of gender in Jewish ritual. Read the following sentences to your students. For each statement, students should stand underneath the sign that best represents their thinking on the issue. If they are between signs, that is also OK. Do not stop to discuss each statement, but rather have students move through all of the statements and then call them together to discuss the choices they made.

  • Both men and women should wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at services.
  • Men should, but women should not wear tallit, kippah or tefillin.
  • Both men and women should wear tallit, kippah and tefillin if they choose to.
  • Women should participate as equals in leading services and counting in a minyan (minimum number of Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations; traditionally only male Jews count toward a minyan).
  • Tefillin look weird on women.
  • Tefillin look weird on both men and women.
  • Only men should do hagbah (lifting of the Torah to put it away).
  • There should be some differences in the roles of men and women at synagogue.
  • Men and women should both wear tallitot or kippot, but they should look different.

Once the students have finished moving through all of their choices, gather them together and lead a discussion on why they stood where they did in response to each statement.

Particularly for those who stood in between two signs, what was the thinking behind that choice? Did all of the students typically stand together, or were there differing opinions about the roles for men and women in Jewish ritual observance?

Paper Dolls

This activity can be as labor intensive as you choose to make it. It will require you to have each student draw out two figures—one male and one female—with only simple clothing on. (You may be able find paper doll outlines online. Here is one website that provides some.)

Next, have students take fashion magazines and/or a sheet with Jewish ritual objects on them (everything from tallit and tefillin to a Torah and rabbis' manual) that you have given them, and cut out the objects and place them on their 'doll.' You may also want to brainstorm a list of ritual objects and then encourage students to draw their own.

When they are done, have your students share what they created and why. This should lead to an interesting discussion about some of the issues they had to think through when deciding what to put on their doll. Are all of their choices traditional in terms of gender? Did all of them go against tradition? In either case, ask them why they made those choices. Were they just trying to make a point, or did they think theirs was a realistic representation? Does their paper doll represent what they themselves do? Why or why not? How does this exercise help them in thinking about real people and the decisions they make every day regarding issues of ritual, or even in their daily, secular lives?

Note for the teacher: If you prefer not to use paper dolls, you can also have the students make a male collage and a female collage, using magazines and pictures you will provide. This will still allow for a very rich discussion of what 'belongs' in which space.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Tefillin Barbie: Body Image and Gender Roles in Judaism - Lesson Plan for Teens." (Viewed on December 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/jan08/youth>.


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