Hannah’s Prayer: A Rosh Hashanah Story

Struggling with infertility is a loneliness like no other. I have been blessed with two children, but I can still recall that feeling of isolation, hopelessness and, in some sense, failure until I conceived my longed-for first child. Jewish tradition not only validates this emotional state, but also elevates it by telling Hannah’s story publicly every year.

Hannah, the heroine of the haftarah that is traditionally chanted on the first day of Rosh Hashana, desperately wanted a child. Although she is not the first biblical woman to experience the pain of infertility, she is the first woman to confront God about her situation through personal prayer. In a number of midrashim Hannah is acknowledged to have introduced the model for the contemporary way we pray and approach God.

But like many inventions, there were missteps in Hannah’s journey. When Eli the High Priest saw Hannah moving her lips and praying soundlessly he assumed she was drunk. Hannah quickly corrected him. “I am a woman who is hard of spirit,” she said. “I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to God.”

Hannah’s barrenness echoes that of the matriarchs. Like Sarah and Rachel, she went through a long period of yearning for a child. And like her forebears who found concubines for their husbands, Hannah encouraged her husband Elkanah to take Peninnah as a second wife. A midrash further explains that Hannah reasoned that if she told Elkanah to take an additional wife, God would liken her to Sarah and Rachel and also remember her with a child. But Peninnah, who gave birth to many children, turned out to be Hannah’s cruel rival. Each year the family would go to Shiloh to offer a sacrifice and Peninnah would taunt Hannah about her childlessness. After almost two decades, a despondent Hannah had had enough heartbreak and confronted God in bitterness and desperation.

Hannah forthrightly calls God to account for the injustices in His/Her world. Another midrash depicts her comparing her situation to a woman who has been issued a death sentence. While this idea of a life without children as being the severest of punishments does not resonate with modern sensibilities, Hannah is a woman of her time. In the Hebrew text she refers to herself three times as a maidservant – a woman who observes God’s commandments. Her piousness alone is justification for demanding God to answer her prayers.

Alicia Jo Rabins, a teacher of Bible, a poet, and a song writer who has authored a curriculum on biblical women called “Girls in Trouble,” describes Hannah’s call to prayer as “the most radical fertility technology of her time.” Rabins asks: “Is God a partner in Hannah’s transformation, or a force activated through her demands?” For Rabins the story is “a complicated interplay between Hannah’s power to change her life, and her reliance on forces beyond her control. On one hand, Hannah’s decision to take action after years of suffering is a crucial part of changing her story. But on the other hand, Hannah cannot change her destiny alone; God needs to ‘remember’ her in order for her to conceive.”

This is the season to honor Hannah’s brand of ferocious and brave worship. In that spirit I have also been reading Belle Boggs’ beautiful memoir the “Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine and Motherhood.” There is an undercurrent of supplication in Boggs’ book too. In researching her memoir she came upon a phrase, “disenfranchised grief,” coined by another writer. In an interview with The Atlantic, Boggs explained that, “Disenfranchised grief is grief for a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported. And fertility fits into that category really well because it isn’t something that we are comfortable talking about. Because it is an experience of loss if you’re trying for something and it’s not happening.”

“Disenfranchised grief,” perfectly captures Hannah’s state of mind as she prayed to God for a child. Her prayer was a deceptively spontaneous outpouring of grief. It was a beautifully articulated expression of a deep, recurring disappointment. As we move into this High Holiday season, many of us will confront our own disenfranchised grief. May we pray as authentically and movingly as Hannah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Contradictions of Summer by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Summer has always been full of contradictions for me. The days are long yet the season is short. Summer experiences are like gossamer—try too hard to hold on to them and they vanish. During the summer I take stock, look back and marvel that I survived winter’s hibernation or the frenzy of the calendar.

Summer is a quiet time in the Jewish calendar. There is a slow but steady movement towards the high holidays. And then there is Tisha b’Av—simply translated as the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av. Tisha b’Av is a day of remembrance filtered through bereavement and mourning that is both as private as a yahrtzeit and as public as a yizkor. Tisha b’Av is a crater I seem to stumble into every year—a crater that filled with ancient and modern traumas. Israel’s holiest Temples were destroyed in different years on the same date.

The symbolism of that wholesale destruction comes back to haunt Jews even on the happiest of occasions as in the breaking of a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. Other historical tragedies befell Jews on that day as well. Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and many Jewish communities were annihilated. Jews were expelled from Spain on Tisha b’Av in 1492. World War One broke out on Tisha b’Av in 1914 and set the stage for the Holocaust. Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to Auschwitz on the ninth day of Av. Old and new history are omnipresent during a month that the Talmud instructs that we must reduce our joy.

In the summer Jewish observance may feel lighter, less busy but it is has its moments. On Tisha b’Av my mother never let us kids swim. We sat on the side of the town pool, sadly dunking our feet. This was a random punishment for nine-year-old me. Under ideal circumstances my mother didn’t let us go into the pool for at least two hours after lunch. This made Tisha b’Av the equivalent of continuously digesting a meal. But food was a moot point because we never fasted. Yet we purposely ate lightly if not more hungrily. The holiday also had a personal resonance for my mother. Her Uncle Baruch, who never observed any aspect of Tisha b’Av, died in a car accident on the very day. A few years later, on another Tisha b’Av, another uncle was run over by a streetcar in Havana.

Tisha b’Av always seemed to sneak up on me when I was a child and then as an adult I lost track of it altogether. Only when I went to work for a Jewish organization was I aware of it again. For some of my colleagues it was a day of true mourning. On the eve of Tisha b’Av they recited Lamentations on the floor of their synagogues. They went to work yet fasted all day. They wore cloth shoes and eschewed comfortably sitting at their desks. I remember my boss consciously trying to stand for most of the day. It was an austere yet functional shiva. I now see that my family and I were in the clutches of a makeshift Judaism, unable to forget Tisha b’Av yet not able to implement its more profound implications. We were on automatic pilot. Our practice never transformed us.

There was the summer when I wanted my Judaism to go beyond arbitrary bans on swimming and I decided to keep kosher. This made my parents anxious about many things including our annual summer vacation. Was there any place within a reasonable distance that we could go to for those two weeks where I would eat? The answer finally came to my father. The Catskills. My parents had honeymooned there and fifteen years later—1975—most of the big hotels were starting to dilapidate. But there was still palpable nostalgia for and loyalty to the Catskills. We stayed at Brown’s Hotel, owned by relatives of Jerry Lewis – a fact you could never forget because his picture was plastered everywhere.

That summer my sister learned to ice skate and my brother perfected his diving. I ate kosher food until I couldn’t eat anymore and fell madly in love with the waiter for my table. Bobby was an aspiring doctor from New Jersey. I was a fourteen-year-old as terrified of mixing meat with milk as I was of imagining myself kissing a twenty-one-year-old. Brown’s was a formative summer experience for me with its hint of summer romance mixed in with my newly found Judaism.

These days there are no bans, no lamentations, no uncomfortable standing for me on Tisha b’Av. I concentrate on honoring memories while living in the present.

 

A Letter to My Son After Orlando

My Dearest Son—

Orlando. That’s all we have to say now to invoke the horrific reminder of how vulnerable LGBT people still are. Orlando. A portent of how very careful you, a young gay man, must be anywhere in the world.

I am so proud of the man you have become. Your gay identity is just a natural part of who you are. You are not an activist about it. I almost wrote that you are comfortable in your own skin. But I’m not sure that is always true. Each time you are in a new situation you have to come out all over again.

When you came out to your father and me, you were a shy 16-year-old boy. You kept your eyes trained to the kitchen floor and blurted out that you were gay. And then you added, “I’m out of the closet.” How long had you been hiding who you were in such a dark, narrow space?

When you were a little boy, long before you came out, I published another open letter to you and your sister about the debate at the time regarding the status of homosexual men and women in our branch of Conservative Judaism. I said:

You have been taught in school, at Temple and at home that God is compassionate and would not want anyone — homosexual or heterosexual — to live a life without love. That is exactly what Dad and I want for both of you — to find true and fulfilling love with a partner.

I’d like to say that my words were prescient. But somehow a mother knows, and I knew you were struggling with your sexual identity. But I wanted you to come out to me in your own time. Reading that letter again, I also realize how far we have come in ensuring that you live a life in which you can legally marry the man that you love.

When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last year, I wept. And then I phoned you. I wanted to be the first person to tell you. You thanked me for calling and said you appreciated that I told you the good news. Your reaction, though, was cool and collected. I pray we had made you feel confident enough, strong enough to see the Court’s decision not so much as a privilege, but as your human right.

Yet even with the Court’s decision and the Conservative movement’s enlightening interpretations of Jewish law, I know if you kiss another man in public it’s still a provocative, even dangerous act. I read that the Orlando murderer became enraged when he saw two men kissing in public. That reaction is incomprehensible to those of us with gay friends and family. But I suspect you know how cautious you must be in this world. After all, there are too many places where your life as a gay man is threatened.

This has happened to Jews as well. I’ve been writing about anti-Semitism for three decades. But as an American I never felt overtly threatened by it even when your day school decided to lock its doors and hired a security guard. I suspect anti-Semitism does not affect your day-to-day life either, although you, who don’t engage much in Judaism, were disturbed by the anti-Israel protests on your campus.

But being gay is different. In interviews that I’ve heard or read, over and over people said that places like Pulse were supposed to be safe havens for the LGBT community. Pulse was a place to dance, to laugh, to flirt. You’re too young to remember, but before Pulse there was a 2009 shooting at a gay nightclub in Tel Aviv. And a young woman, an LGBT ally, was stabbed to death last year at a Pride Parade in Jerusalem. In our country there is a long history of oppressive violence in clubs like Pulse, upsetting a gay person’s sense of security and taking away his dignity.

In your last year of high school, a teacher asked you to imagine yourself in the future. You wrote a lovely essay that included a scenario in which you and your husband lived on the Upper West Side of New York with your two children. I hope you don’t let anyone or any event keep you from dreaming that dream.

If Orlando has taught us anything, it is that you and your LGBT brothers and sisters can’t always live securely and confidently and openly. We must fix this by safeguarding that something as innocent as a night on the town does not turn into a dangerous experience, or God forbid, a tragedy. Fighting against LGBT hate is as important as fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism.

And no matter where you are, always know how much your father and I will always love you.

Mom

 

The Banana on the Seder Plate

bananabanana.jpgThe moment I saw artist Nicole Eisenman’s seder plate at the Jewish Museum gift shop in New York, I had to have it. Its simplicity gives way to cheekiness. Its bold black lettering and mud-red glaze give it a funky vibe. And the symbols on the seder plate are described in a straightforward, childlike language. My favorite description calls the charoset—the edible stand-in for the material the enslaved children of Israel used to make bricks—“cementy stuff.”

The most declarative symbol on the plate is the bone—the place for the zeroa, or roasted shank bone. That particular object is there to remind seder participants of the 10th plague—the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons—and it screams for attention on this seder plate.

Nicole Eisenman Seder Plate with Pouch

And while this is a dream of a seder plate, there are newer ritual food objects to join the old standbys. The first is an orange. This is a tradition that goes back to the 1980s, when an early feminist Haggadah suggested the radical act of placing a crust of bread on a seder plate in solidarity with Jewish lesbians. Unfortunately the message was that gay Jews were made to feel as if they violated Judaism, like eating bread at Passover. So Susannah Heschel came up with the idea to replace the bread with an orange. In an essay she wrote a few years ago for the Forward, she explained:

“When we eat that orange segment, we spit out the seeds to repudiate homophobia and we recognize that in a whole orange, each segment sticks together. Oranges are sweet and juicy and remind us of the fruitfulness of gay and lesbian Jews and of the homosociality that has been such an important part of Jewish experience, whether of men in yeshivas or of women in the Ezrat Nashim.”

A relatively new tradition on my seder plate is the inclusion of cashews. This is the brainchild of Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Newton. A few years ago, Rabbi Gardenswartz saw a sign in CVS asking customers to buy bags of cashews for our troops in Iraq. A CVS employee, whose son was on his second tour of duty there, spearheaded the idea. She explained that salted cashews kept the men and women serving in a desert climate hydrated. The next Shabbat, Rabbi Gardenswartz urged his congregation to honor our troops by including cashews on their seder plates.

Now comes the year of the banana. For 3,000 years the Haggadah has reminded us that we were once slaves, and it commands us to experience the Exodus from Egypt as if we had actually gone through it ourselves.

This is where the banana comes in. Like the slaves we were in Egypt, so too are we Syrian migrants fleeing for our very lives. We too are the parents of the little boys—brothers who were 3 and 5—who drowned on an Exodus gone horribly awry. Their mother drowned with them, but their father survived the harrowing journey. In his grief this father remembered how much his boys loved bananas.

Bananas are not easy to come by in war-torn Syria, but every day this father brought his boys a banana to share. Its sweetness was not only a treat, but also a symbol of his deep and abiding love for them. Is this man so different from us? Is he so different from our ancestors wandering in the desert? Did the Israelites make life a little sweeter for their children on their traumatic journey with bits of hard-to-come-by fruits?

In the spirit of Nicole Eisenman’s original plate, what would an updated seder plate convey about these new and sacred ritual objects? Here are my suggestions and their meanings:

  • Orange: cherishing one another
  • Cashews: solidarity
  • Banana: we are all migrants

What would you add to your seder plate?

The Empty Seder Plate by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I cook the way I speak Spanish, which I describe as a “kitchen Spanish.” My accent is intact, but my fluency comes and goes. I learned the basics of the language from the women in my mother’s Cuban family, whom I watched as they peeled and fried and roasted their way to an improvised repertoire of Cuban infused Sephardic Jewish food. I think of the ropa vieja that my Abuela—my grandmother—made. She sautéed shredded beef in tomato sauce, onions and garlic. The dish was then studded Sephardic style with raisins—small bursts of sweetness swimming in an oily broth. A gift from one culture to another.

Abuela’s cooking genes bypassed my mother to be inherited by her younger sister, Tia. But my mother could not abide Tia doing anything better than she did. Mom anointed herself the prettier sister. “All of my cousins wanted me to be in their weddings,” my mother bragged. “I had a beautiful figure,” she said outlining the shape of an hourglass.

My mother eventually vanished into a mental illness that blurred my teen years with fear. “No one will believe you,” she once said to me when I threatened to expose her after she threw a milk bottle at me and bloodied my head. These days a crippling arthritis mires her in loneliness and maroons her in a wheelchair. But before that she was, as my father used to say, crazy like a fox. As a child I intuited that my mother was not so much smart, as she was wily. I would learn much later that she pretended to have a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Havana.

My mother never let her lack of credentials get in the way of her achievements. In the afterglow of Betty Friedan’s, “The Feminine Mystique,” she went back to school. It was the mid-1960s and my mother was among the first wave of women returning to higher education. I was five when she applied for a Master’s degree in Spanish literature. She talked her way into the program, claiming that her wedding gown and her diploma were trapped behind Castro’s clanking iron curtain.

I learned a lot about my mother during her graduate school years. But what struck me most about that time was that my mother was as slow a reader as I, her kindergarten daughter, was. She bought a cookbook holder to read Don Quijote constantly as she stirred a bubbling stew on its way to burning the bottom of the pot. “Burnt food doesn’t have any calories,” she said as she ate her charred dinner away from us over the kitchen sink. She drenched tuna fish in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and baked the thick concoction until it left an exoskeleton imprinted on the Pyrex pan.

In the meantime Tia had achieved near perfection and total adulation from us kids with her American-style papitas fritas. She also excelled at making bourequas, Sephardic style knishes that we couldn’t get enough of. She pickled and cooked a cow’s tongue—the biggest block of meat I ever saw—and paired it with tostones and arroz y frijoles. Tia had transplanted tropical Cuba to freezing Connecticut with her culinary acrobatics. The recipes she used were never written down. Her dishes were an oral history of my family’s migration from Turkey and Greece to Cuba.

Witnessing Tia’s success in the kitchen, my mother stepped up her game and made what turned out to be the driest paella in the western hemisphere. To give the dish a kosher sensibility, she substituted hotdogs for sausage and exchanged bits of salmon and flounder for shellfish. Her rice glowed neon yellow from over seasoning with saffron and, of course, there were raisins mixed in with peas and peppers. My mother over-baked the whole enterprise until the rice was beyond crispy. Her chicken was similarly desiccated—the skin of the bird crumbling to the touch, the meat as flavorful as a tongue depressor.

When my highly assimilated Americano father took over making school lunches, he slipped American cheese in between pieces of deli turkey until he worked his way to packing us soggy ham sandwiches. An unspoken rebellion, this sign of marital discord also marked the beginning of what was a very slippery slope with respect to kashrut. I don’t remember how it happened, but one Sunday morning my mother was frying bacon. Her dark hair coming out of its bun, her reading glasses askew as she read a novelita propped up in her cookbook holder. “You’ll learn that sometimes you have to please a man,” she sighed. My dad, sturdy and intimidating in those days, slathered the BLTs she made him with mayonnaise. No one said a word about the equally treyf rubbery clams that appeared in the smoky paella my mother served for Shabbat dinner.

Tia was more faithful to the laws of kashrut. She kept milk and meat separate in her cooking, and the meat she used was succulent and kosher. In a nod to our Anatolian heritage she made tishpishti—a Turkish cake drenched in honey. She also made biscochos—sweet dough baked in the shape of donuts. In addition to making Sephardic delicacies, Tia also perfected her Ashkenazi mother-in-law’s recipes for gefilte fish and chopped liver. My mother attempted to make her own mother-in-law’s chopped liver, but it was eggy and garlicky and swimming in mayonnaise. Her swampy version came up short on chicken liver, which pleased my kid’s palate.

The Passover holiday, though, belonged to Tia. Her unleavened foods were indistinguishable from the ones she made the rest of the year. The Passover bourequas would rival the regular ones and her tishpishti was as spongy and flavorful as the “chametz” version. The tongue would sit alongside the brisket Tia learned to make in America. My mother knew she had no part in this veritable feast. And so she dragged the spotlight from Tia by doing what she did best: she threw a temper tantrum. This one was over the fact that Tia’s husband, Tio, was not wearing a tie to the Seder. Tia stood at the threshold of our back door, brisket and bourequas in hand, only to be sent away. The sisters stopped speaking to each other.

sederplate

The next Passover, a former student of my mother’s—Mom had gone on to teach high school Spanish—now a reporter for the local newspaper, contacted her about a story she was writing on Passover cuisine. She remembered my mother as vaguely exotic—a Cuban Jew with roots in Turkey and Greece. Along with drilling her students in stem changing verbs, my mother also unfurled her personal history in the classroom. Here was a chance for my mother to expand her audience beyond the teenagers she taught. By then I was in graduate school studying writing and modern literature. She called to tell me that she was excited about the opportunity to tell the Greater Hartford metropolitan area she still had the key to her apartment in Havana. If she had to offer some holiday recipes in return for the attention, so be it.

The first order of business was to make up with Tia. This was tricky, since my mother never apologizes. Instead, she lets time pass and then pretends that nothing has happened. She called Tia betting that she would inevitably forgive her. My mother’s proposal was straightforward: Tia would make the Passover food for the photo shoot and my mother would praise her sister’s culinary abilities in a very public forum. Tia agreed.

My mother looked beautiful for the photo session. She had traded up to contact lenses and wore her long hair in a pretty flip. The former student arrived with a photographer and asked my mother about the Passovers of her childhood. Tia was late with her food delivery. The dining room table where my mother and her reporter-student chatted was as barren as the desert into which the Israelites were liberated.

The photographer was getting antsy and my mother assured him that the food would arrive at any moment. She told her guests that she and her sister had cooked at Tia’s house to keep things tidy for the photo shoot. Two hours later there was still no food. My mother hoped her sister had been in a car accident.

The photographer decided to take pictures of my mother anyway, posing her at the dining room table with an empty Seder plate in front of her. It turned out that my mother was featured with two other Sephardic women who stood behind their food-laden dining room tables. Undeterred, my mother had offered her own recipes for Passover biscochos and something she called “Pink Rice.” Always the teacher, she pointed out that Sephardic Jews, unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, were allowed to have rice on Passover.

In keeping with my mother’s culinary capabilities, the biscochos were made with matzah meal and orange juice. There were no baking instructions. Pink rice—arroz rosado—got its coloring from canned tomato paste and according to my mother “melted” in one’s mouth. As usual, my mother bypassed reason and credibility yet was still taken seriously. “Weren’t you embarrassed that you didn’t have any food to show?” I asked her. “Of course not. Your Tia is a sin verguenza”—an offensive phrase I knew from my kitchen Spanish to mean “without shame.” But in the end we both knew that Tia was the true winner, preserving her dignity while my mother, quietly disgraced, never mentioned the incident again.

A few years ago I was packing up my mother’s house for her move to an assisted living facility and I found a copy of that long-ago Passover article in her jewelry box. It was yellow like her saffron rice and crumbled to the touch like the skin of her chicken.

A Letter to President Obama from the Daughter of a Cuban Exile

Dear Mr. President:

Your trip to Cuba is a dream, a miracle, a revolution to me. Never did I dare to fantasize that in my lifetime a sitting U.S. president would be shaking hands with Cuban officials at José Martí Airport — the airport my family used to escape Fidel Castro. Yes, Mr. President, I am a child of refugees. Although my Cuban mother came here just before Cuba’s iron curtain clanked shut, the same desperate, fierce homesickness that claimed my refugee relatives overtook her as well.

As a teenager, my uncle left Cuba two months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Although on the older side, he was part of the Pedro Pan rescue operation — a CIA undertaking that arranged to airlift children out of Cuba. Many of them were placed with American families. My uncle was lucky. He had an older sister, my mother, waiting for him.

But he almost didn’t make it to America. He was on a Pan Am flight that was suddenly grounded by the Cuban military who claimed there was a draft dodger on the airplane. We’ll never know if it was my 19-year-old uncle they were after, because the pilot declared the aircraft sovereign American territory and took off without permission from the tower. My uncle shakes each time he tells the story.

I was born in my American father’s hometown in Connecticut in December of 1960 as diplomatic relations with Cuba were deteriorating. My grandmother, my Abuela, arrived from Havana to care for my mother and me. She adjusted to the Connecticut winter mostly by rocking me and singing me lullabies in Spanish and her native Greek. (Yes, Mr. President we are a family who hopscotched its way to the United States, but Cuba is where we left our hearts). After three months, she decided it was time to go back to Cuba. My mother pleaded with her to stay and family lore has it that she took the last Cubana Airlines flight out of Idlewild Airport.

I can’t begin to tell you how often I heard my mother softly cry, Hay Cuba, como te estrañò — Oh Cuba, how I miss you, how I long for you. That longing for Havana, for its sea wall along the Malecón — it colored my childhood. I finally walked the Malecón four years ago.

I was overwhelmed with emotion when I arrived at José Martí Airport. The ghosts of my grandparents, who finally left Cuba for good two years after I was born with one small suitcase between them, haunted me. I thought about how they shut the door of their home on almost three decades of life and set out for yet another migration. I went to their house in old Havana. I finally saw the marble stairs I had heard so much about. I saw the heavy wooden door my grandfather still had the keys to in his last exile. He carried those keys until the day he died, believing he was going back to Cuba. The current occupants were kind enough to let me in for a look. They wouldn’t take the money I offered them for their hospitality. They told me this was my home too, and I broke down and cried in front of them. Hay Cuba como te estrañe — Oh Cuba, how I missed you.

Mr. President, you will undoubtedly notice that Havana is like an aging beauty queen. So is my mother who is now marooned in a nursing home wheelchair. When she calls me to tell me that you are in her city, she can barely contain her excitement. Wistfully, she asks me if she will again see a Havana without a Castro in power before she dies. All I can tell her is that you made a return to her country feasible. No matter how remote the possibility that her health will allow her to go back, you have given her hope. Se lo agradezco, and I thank you with all my heart and soul that you have opened up prospects for peace with Cuba for my children.

Felicitaciones,
Judy Bolton-Fasman

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station — http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2016/03/22/obama-in-cuba-judy-bolton-fasman

Barbie: New and Improved? by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’d like to think that Mattel’s introduction of three new body types for the iconic Barbie doll — Petite, Curvy and Tall — is the company trying to make amends for the emotional tsunamis thin, busty Barbie has caused over the decades. To further diversify her, Barbie will also come in seven skin tones and sport 24 new hairstyles. There will be a redheaded Barbie, a curly-hair Barbie and even a Barbie with long blue locks. Yet according to a recent Time magazine cover story on Barbie’s transformation, in little girls’ minds, Barbie is still Barbie and they overwhelmingly identify her as blonde and thin.

The cynic in me knows that Barbie’s makeover was mostly a business decision. Barbie, pardon the very bad pun, is a cash cow. According to the Time article, she does a billion dollars in annual sales across more than 150 countries, and 92 percent of American girls ages 3 to 12 have owned a Barbie at some point.

I … was a short, chubby girl who wouldn’t dare to imagine even coming close to looking like Barbie. It didn’t make me sad exactly, just resigned.

But in the last four years, Barbie has seen her sales lag. In October, Mattel announced a 14 percent global drop in Barbie sales, the eighth consecutive quarter in which profits fell. Barbie’s poor performance is somewhat explained by the fact that Lego has introduced toys aimed at girls who are aspiring engineers and Hasbro has cornered the market on Disney Princesses; two years after “Frozen,” Elsa continues to be a top moneymaker for the company. Also, figure in the negative impression that many millennial moms have of Barbie.

Barbie and I go way back. She came into my life when I was 6-years-old and bedridden for three months. She was a gift from my aunt who also gave me some of Barbie’s exquisite miniature outfits. I went on to collect dresses, bathing suits, and my favorite — a bridal gown. I kept Barbie’s clothes in what I thought at the time was the most gorgeous wardrobe in the world — a small black patent leather case with a handle to transport her and her clothes anywhere and everywhere.

Barbie didn’t look like anyone I knew. That was not a surprise considering she had impossible measurements, perfect hair and immaculate makeup. I, on the other hand, was a short, chubby girl who wouldn’t dare to imagine even coming close to looking like Barbie. It didn’t make me sad exactly, just resigned.

This file photo provided by Mattel shows a group of new Barbie dolls introduced in January 2016. (AP)

Barbie was born fully grown with a checkered past in 1959. She was the invention of Ruth Handler, who named her after her own daughter. Barbie and Handler courted controversy from the beginning when Handler based Barbie’s body on a curvaceous German doll named Lilli. Lilli was often handed out at stag parties as a gag gift. Among Barbie’s other controversies is a book that accompanied her in 1963 entitled, “How to Lose Weight,” which included explicit instructions not to eat. Ten years after playing with my first Barbie, I took that advice and subsisted on Popsicles and saltines for a year.

I have no doubt that I was similar to the subjects in a comprehensive 2006 study of young girls 5 to 8. Researchers found that “early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.”

Bingo.

Barbie’s body transformation comes on the heels of a chameleon life in which she has had over a hundred careers ranging from rock star to presidential candidate. She’s been a medic in Operation Desert Storm. She’s been black, Hispanic and even a devout Jew. But after all these years, I still don’t see myself in any of those versions of Barbie. Like the little girls who test drove these new Barbies, I still identify her tiny waist and her perfectly coiffed blonde tresses as hallmarks of the Barbie I know.

And the new Barbies will not pierce her plastic mask of perfection. She still has no paunch, no wrinkles and no thick ankles. Damn her!

And the new Barbies will not pierce her plastic mask of perfection. She still has no paunch, no wrinkles and no thick ankles. Damn her! Only her wide hips constitute body diversity — hips that are the norm for most women. A number of commentators have noted that Barbie’s feet have finally been leveled off so she can now wear flats as well as stilettos. No doubt that will add to the over one billion pairs of shoes she has owned.

I imagine a day when we’ll see Barbie in a wheelchair, or using a walker, or walking on a prosthetic leg. But I suspect she’ll never need a hearing aid or an insulin pump. Her hair, all 24 versions of it, will never frizz. She will never have a pimple or even a freckle. Despite all the angst she’s caused, she remains maddeningly aloof. And she reminds us that women will always find something wrong with their bodies.

 

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news stationhttp://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2016/02/04/barbies-new-body-judy-bolton-fasman