Barbie Gets Another Makeover is back totally retooled and just in time to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8. And this time she’s based on real life “sheroes”—a portmanteau of the words “she “and “hero” that refers to positive female role models—who include Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson. Johnson was portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures.” This makes the ever chameleon-like Barbie the first woman aviator to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a famous artist and activist and a mathematician who smashed gender and race barriers to work on sending the first United States manned flight into space.

The dolls will come with educational materials documenting the contributions that each of these women has made to the world. Johnson had major input in creating and designing her doll, ensuring that the resemblance was based on her real appearance.

By the time Barbie’s maker Mattel is done rolling out the entire series, 17 women will be honored. Little girls and boys will meet Chloe Kim who won an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding this year, British Boxing Champion Nicola Adams and Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman.” These Barbies are no longer my sister’s or my Barbie dolls. They’re not even my 23-year-old daughter’s Barbie dolls—dolls who had just begun to venture into the world as a doctor, an astronaut and a presidential candidate. Although 45 different nationalities claimed Barbie as their own, she was still the doll with the impossible measurements and the stiff rosy-lipped saccharine smile.

These new Barbie dolls are the happy result of a survey Mattel conducted of 8,000 mothers from around the world. It showed that 86 percent of these women worried that their daughters were not exposed to appropriate role models. Here is where I would like to point out that our sons should be exposed to those same role models. Barbie is not just for our daughters. She’s iconic, and her transformation has broken down gender stereotypes that must be equally impressed upon on our boys.

In the last three years, Barbie has undergone a sea change in both appearance and relevance. In 2015 Mattel introduced 23 new dolls with different skin tones, hairstyles and clothing. Most notably, Barbie had flat feet for the first time in half a century. She no longer had those pointy feet that could only fit into uncomfortable high heels. Barbie was going places.

In 2016, Barbie gained weight. She was now available in three new body types. She no longer had a cinched waist, a large chest or stick thin legs. Barbie was beginning to look like a real woman.

In 2017, Barbie donned a hijab. She was based on the Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. The 31-year-old athlete was the first Muslim-American to win a medal at the 2016 Summer Olympic games. She was also the first American woman to wear a scarf while competing. Muhammad tweeted her thanks to Mattel and said, “I’m proud to know that little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear a hijab! This is a childhood dream come true.”

As excited as I am about the new Sheroes series, my first brush with this kind of Barbie occurred in the early 2000s, when she wore a pair of tefillin and a tallit or prayer shawl. She was dubbed “Tefillin Barbie” and I loved her. So did my daughter who was attending a Jewish Day School at the time. Mattel, however, did not manufacture Tefillin Barbie. She was the one-of-a-kind creation of Jen Taylor Friedman, a soferet or female scribe who writes Jewish holy texts by hand. It was so thrilling to see Barbie exemplify that there were no limits placed on how a woman practiced her Judaism.

A recent statement from Lisa McKnight a senior vice president at Mattel and the general manager of Barbie resonates for me. My only critique of it is that it once again bypasses the boys. “Girls have always been able to play out different roles and careers with Barbie,” said McKnight. “And we are thrilled to shine a light on real life role models to remind them that they can be anything.”

Amen to that and to the highest honor that Barbie now confers—a unique doll that resembles a real woman.


My Dad and Beetle Bailey

Every Sunday morning of my childhood my otherwise reserved father guffawed in the den over Mort Walker’s long-running comic strip, “Beetle Bailey.” Walker died last month at the age of 94. He and my father were contemporaries who seemed to me very much men of the 20th century. Like Walker, my father served in the Second World War. For both men, the experience defined who they became. Walker, however, had a bizarre war experience in which he guarded a POW camp where the Germans escaped at night and returned by daybreak. It was a topsy-turvy version of the 60s sitcom, “Hogan’s Heroes,” another favorite of my father’s. My father went on to serve in the CIA. “Beetle Bailey” debuted in 1950 when he was probably on his way to Guatemala.


It’s curious that my seemingly disciplined father was a steadfast fan of Beetle the slacker soldier whose eyes were always obscured by the lid of his cap or his helmet. He also frustrated his immediate superior Sargent Snorkel who often beat up Beetle until he collapsed into a set of squiggly lines on the page. Then there was the dimwitted elderly General Halftrack who leered at his buxom secretary not accidentally named Miss Buxley, Cookie the gruff cook whose food was inedible and Private Zero the clueless country bumpkin.

My father volunteered for the Navy in 1940, the day after he graduated from Yale. Three months later, he enrolled in Officer Candidate School in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. In the course of writing a memoir about my father, I sent away for his naval records and I discovered that he too had his Greek chorus of characters on a supply ship in the South Pacific theatre.

My father’s records surprisingly show that he was a willful officer. He had an aversion to acquiring new skills like learning to use a sextant and sometimes ignored orders. In many ways, he epitomized the stereotype of the Ninety-Day-Wonder. As the country ramped up to go to war, the government recruited college graduates, giving them three months to absorb what midshipmen in Annapolis or West Point had four years to learn. These untrained newcomers were derisively nicknamed Ninety-Day wonders for skipping ahead of the line to become officers.

My father also knew a man named “Cookie” on his supply ship. His cook, however, was an African-American named Ernie. My father was accused of disobeying a direct order when he stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity, to put his arm around Ernie. Ernie had just received news that his brother had been killed in action in Europe. My father, a 24-year-old lieutenant, called Cookie by his given name and removed his hat in a show of mourning. Technically out of uniform, my father wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship. Dad was disciplined and remanded to his quarters for 24 hours.

While the antics of Beetle Bailey, Sargent Snorkel and General Halftrack in Camp Swampy made my father laugh, I suspect he was also happy to meet Lieutenant Flap the African-American officer Walker introduced in 1970. I remember Lieutenant Flap well with his Afro and goatee. Though I was too young to articulate what a breath of fresh air he was, Flap’s opening line would not have been lost on my father: “How come there’s no blacks in this honkie outfit?!” My father might have wondered the same thing since he thought segregation was a terrible affliction on our country. “Stars and Stripes” promptly banned the comic strip, worried that it would ignite racial tensions. The result, however, was more readers.

At one point, the strip reached 200 million people and was featured in 1,800 newspapers. Beetle was known in more than 50 countries. He and his pals were merchandised in comic books, television cartoons and games and toys. In 2010 Beetle was featured on a United States Postal Service stamp.

Despite its wild popularity, in the 1980s readers protested Walker’s sexist depiction of Miss Buxley. In response, Walker briefly introduced a sexy tennis pro named Rolf who was equally lusted after by the women in the strip. But that did little to quell the controversy. And then something happened in the late 1990s. Walker read about rape in the military and told the media he was “sickened. I decided these jokes didn’t belong in the strip anymore.”

Walker’s epiphany happened at the same time my dad’s Parkinson’s disease had taken over his body. By then I read to him regularly and among his favorites was the volume of “Beetle Bailey” comic strips. I sat alongside him, turning pages and trying to gauge his reaction particularly when the army sent General Halftrack for sensitivity training. He was quiet for a bit and then teared up as if to say, “It’s about time things changed.”


The Harsh Face of Poverty

For three hours last Sunday, I was a 36-year-old man named Kris Knowles who lived in Missouri. I worked a dead-end job for minimum wage. I had an unemployed wife named Kaitlin, a disabled mother and a teenage daughter who could not hold down a part-time job. I was poor. And along with being poor I became increasingly overwhelmed, angry and humiliated. I waited in line a lot for various services. And when I made it to the front of a line the folks who were supposedly there to help me were not all that kind. It was a typical day in a long month of scrimping and clawing to survive paycheck-to-paycheck.

This simulation was not a game and there were no winners. It was the Combined Jewish Philanthropy’s Poverty Simulation—a pointed exercise in empathy in which my fellow participants and I struggled with the taxing reality of keeping the Knowles family afloat. To my surprise, the particulars of the simulation effectively mimicked an actual life of poverty.

Various tables were set up in the room to represent a bank, Kris’ place of employment, a check-cashing establishment that charged Kris a high percentage when he couldn’t get to the bank, or it was closed, a social services office, a center to collect utilities and pay the mortgage and a table tucked away in the corner of the room to get emergency vouchers when cash was short.

Things started to fall apart for the Knowles family shortly after the simulator began. The family barely lived from paycheck-to-paycheck and as the breadwinner in the family, I needed to work without interruption. During the first week—a period that for purposes of the simulation lasted 15 minutes—I was harshly turned away from work for tardiness. My lateness was compounded by the fact that I needed to take out a cash advance to pay for transportation.

Missing a paycheck for that week meant that the Knowles family would soon be drowning in debt. We netted approximately $1200 a month after taxes, and after our basics were paid we had just $336 left over. That was all the money we had for extras and even more alarmingly, emergencies.

As a member of the Knowles family, I quickly discovered there is no margin for error when you’re poor. Week two we had to decide between buying groceries and paying our utilities. Looming on the horizon was our mortgage, a car payment, purchasing prescriptions for my mother and charges for transportation vouchers. We were soon notified that our electricity and gas would be turned off. I was frustrated with Kaitlin who seemed to get little to nothing done while I was at my job. To keep the lights on she pawned some jewelry and the family stereo. All that did was increase our deprivation and spike our level of anxiety about whether or not we would end up in a homeless shelter.

In the meantime, our daughter’s part-time job was not working out. She couldn’t get to her job on time and for several weeks did not collect a paycheck that was a factor in the family’s finances. By week three the family was desperately missing my first paycheck as well as my daughter’s financial contribution. At this point, I was running from my job to the bank, with its inconvenient hours, and the cash-checking table. My frustration mounted as I stood in line worried that I would either be late for work again or unable to make a necessary household payment.

My wife became defensive when I told her that she needed to try harder to find a job. I raised my voice to my daughter whose excuses for missing work seemed more and more ridiculous. She claimed that her lost wages were the result of on-the-job discrimination. “Prove it,” I snapped at her. I then told my mother, who had suffered a stroke a few months back and was paralyzed on her left side that we had to sell her car to stave off homelessness. She was upset and accused me of robbing her of her independence. At this point I was so exhausted from making sure that I had my transportation covered to go to work that I almost told my mother she was becoming a burden.

Throughout the morning my “family” and I stayed in character. I noticed other couples also bickering. At one point the children next door were sent to juvenile hall after their parents failed to pick them up on time from school. Some people were incarcerated for various crimes including drug dealing. One family stayed out of the homeless shelter by doubling up with another family. But that had its set of social problems and frustrations.

The simulation happened over a couple of hours and after it was done, I was more dejected than relieved. There is living on a budget and then there is living on the edge of catastrophe. I went through a range of feelings during the simulation, but the one that stayed with me was vulnerability. A tape played over and over in my head—“There but for the grace of God go I.” It was no longer a well-worn cliché, but a deep and meaningful blessing.

A version of this essay appeared on

The First Zangeelee: A Thanksgiving Story

Five years ago I went on a short trip to Cuba—my first—in which I crammed a lifetime of my bright tropical curiosity about the place in just four days. With a mother from Cuba, I lay claim to my Cuban-Jewish heritage in many ways. Among them is that I grew up in a version of Havana transplanted to West Hartford, Connecticut.

Havana in these United States was the equivalent of messianic Jerusalem for my mother’s family. At the Passover Seder, it was always, “Next Year in Havana.” I have always had a genuine longing for the place. “Next Year in Havana” gave way to Hay Cuba como te estraño. I missed Cuba too. It didn’t matter at the time that I had never been there.

Cuba was mythic, imaginary, utopian. I grew up on the hyphen between two identities. My father’s family had a more familiar immigration. From Russia to New Haven, Connecticut via Ellis Island. My paternal grandparents both came to this country as infants. My mother’s family trace their roots to medieval Spain and came to Cuba by way of Greece and Turkey.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m afraid that all of this global hopscotching will be forgotten, or worst, meaningless to my progeny. The sturdy hyphen that bridged my identities will simply disintegrate. My children do not feel hyphenated. My son is practically bilingual in Spanish, but strictly through classroom lessons. The older my children got, the more I should not have only seen to their fluency in a different language, but also in another culture. They think my predilection for Cuba is both odd and endearing. Sometimes they believe I’ve invented Cuba the same way I thought my mother conjured it during the deep and dark Connecticut winters.

Thanksgiving was the only American holiday when my Cuban family came down from the bleachers and played in the game. Christmas was out. Hanukkah was about the light and darkness, nothing more. Giving gifts around the menorah was an American invention. The Fourth of July baffled my people who were on their third exile. But Thanksgiving was based on two groups who understood nothing about one another. That was family.

My maternal grandparents believed they could learn English by leaving the television set on all day. Mostly they stared at a jumpy screen scrolling endlessly. How do I explain this to my 21st century kids with their HD televisions? How do I describe translating soap operas for my grandmother?

The little English that my grandparents did pick up was severely mispronounced. How do I convey that attempting to say something in English is a rite of passage in this country, not an occasion for racism? When my grandmother heard the word Thanksgiving for the first time she took to calling it Zangeelee. At their first Zangeelee in the United States we had turkey with rice and beans and plantains. We were one of those families that also had the cylinder of cranberry sauce—the one with the ribs of the can clearly indented into it. A tower of cranberry sauce in which you could stick a candle. Happy Birthday. Feliz cumpleano, Zangeelee.

Before I went to Cuba I took inventory of our dead in Guanabacoa Cemetery. My daughter asked me if I still had family in Cuba. “They’re dead,” I whisper. “Are you sure,” she said incredulously.

I was. Those tombstones in that cemetery outside of Cuba were the equivalent of my Plymouth Rock. Cuba is, after all, where we first landed in the New World. I took my children to Plymouth Rock when they were small. It’s a good thing that it sits in a structure that looks vaguely like a Roman Temple or else we might have missed it entirely. “This is it?” asked my children looking at the relatively small rock.

I thought I might have some of that small-child mentality at Jose Marti airport in Cuba. Would I also say, “This is it? This is what I have been pining for all these years?” I had been saturated with pictures of the 1950s cars, my grandparents’ house with the heavy wooden door and their ornate balcony. What I found instead was the beautiful crumbling of old Havana that stands as proudly and triumphantly as an aging beauty queen. I had come to the place where my first Zangeelee originated.

This piece originally appeared on Cognoscenti

United Against Hate by Judy Bolton-Fasman

“Make no mistake,” writes the New Yorker’s editor David Remnick, “neo-Nazis and white supremacists are now at the forefront of American politics.” In the three decades since I tracked right-wing extremist groups for a Jewish civil rights organization, the reach of these groups has wildly increased. But their influence? Even in these difficult times, I’m not so sure how effective they really are. The biggest change, of course, has occurred in the way these racists circulate information. Instead of cranking out hate rags on mimeograph machines, they spread their virulence in a millisecond throughout the Internet.

And yes, David Duke is back with another crew of white supremacists who are garnering attention. They make a strong case for the resurgence of domestic extremists. But please look closely at the numbers. The ratio of these purveyors of hate to the good people who oppose them is promising. That was the message I took away from the “Interfaith Gathering of Unity, Love and Strength” this past Friday night at Temple Israel of Boston.

There was something sacred and satisfying about gathering with optimistically minded people. On that night Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy addressed the 1700-strong congregation as one. They stood alongside civic leaders and elected officials and listened to Temple Israel’s senior rabbi, Elaine Zecher, declare that, “I deputize you to become covenanted to one another—interconnected and dependent on another.”

And yet, I can’t forget how a friend’s house was vandalized with Nazi graffiti. Or the time when my mother, a teacher in the same school for years, unlocked her classroom door and found a swastika on the chalkboard. My friend and his family quietly scrubbed away the anti-Semitic epithets that were aerosoled on the front of their stately white home. My mother erased her board and went on with the business of conjugating Spanish verbs with her high school students. We didn’t have vocabulary like “hate crimes” to articulate what happened to them.

I once went down south with a friend and astounded him with my knowledge of the Klan cells that dotted the Carolinas and Georgia. But even as I read those sooty newspapers in my office, never once did I think most people gave these hate mongers any consideration. David Duke was more of a sideshow freak than anything else. Although he was an articulate Klansman calmly talking about the Zionist Occupied Government, who could take him seriously?

At Friday evening’s interfaith gathering, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center offered words of wisdom from the prophet Muhammad. “When speaking about the essence of the human condition,” he said, “Muhammad likened it to the body. When one part of that body is in pain, the remainder of the body will stay feverish. Many in our nation are in pain from Charlottesville to Boston, from the Holocaust Memorial in Boston to the streets of Barcelona. It is now time for us to come together and push back with mercy against those elements in our society causing that pain.”

Governor Charlie Baker proclaimed that good always triumphs over evil. He shared his favorite beatitude from Matthew 5:9 which says, “Blessed are the peacemakers. For they shall be called the children of God.” Baker went on to declare that, “Peacemakers say NO to bigotry. Peacemakers say NO to violence. Peacemakers say NO to hatred.” The governor charged his audience to go out and do the “active hard work” of peacemaking.

As he looked out at the congregation, Mayor Marty Walsh said, “This is what unity looks like.” Walsh said he found strength in his own recovery, which taught him to heal and to share that healing with others. “When hatred strikes one of us,” he said, “it strikes all of us.”

Attorney General Maura Healey asserted, “that what we saw this week, what we witnessed was not only lawless; it was godless.” She brought the audience to its feet in a pointed reference to President Trump when she declared that “anyone who struggles to denounce white supremacy or Nazism does not deserve to be president of the United States.”

Is David Remnick right? Is this the moment of the white supremacist and the neo-Nazi in America? Not if the latest numbers that came out of the Boston counter-protest this past weekend are correct. A group of less than 100 racists—racists grandstanding about their right to free speech—was overwhelmed by over 10,000 people protesting against them on the Boston Common. That ratio has been consistent for decades.

These bigots, though, have caught the attention of an administration that won’t repudiate them. They’ve menaced people who thought they were safe in this country. As Rabbi Zecher noted in her welcoming remarks, “many of us have been the object of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and bigotry.” That’s true enough. But I never thought it would happen to my children too.

Solar Eclipse: A Short Excerpt from Asylum Avenue, A Memoir by Judy Bolton-Fasman

There was a glimmer of my father’s naval life of stars and moons and discipline on a bright Saturday morning in March of 1970. My father announced there would be a solar eclipse that afternoon. I was a big fan at the time of Lost in Space, along with most anything to do with space. Each week I watched the Robinson family in their sleek space suits act unfailingly lovingly toward one another despite their predicament. I was thrilled that the oldest daughter was also named Judy. Maybe I, too, could be a Robinson, a member of their dream family. Here on earth I was bound to the Boltons.

As the appointed hour for the eclipse approached, my father ordered us to stay in the den. He explained that the moon would pass over the sun so that, for a moment, day would become the perennial night of the moon. The inversion fascinated me. Outside there would be no light, no glare to enable us to gauge the intense, prolonged rays emanating from a hidden sun — rays that could burn through our retinae and blind us, as my father reminded.

To demonstrate the rarity and import of the event, Dad bought us sunglasses at the FINAST supermarket. In his world, sunglasses weakened young eyes, and yet here he was adjusting round pink plastic sunglasses atop our noses. I sat in the creaky brown tweed rocker, my feet sticking out at a ninety-degree angle, and shut my eyes tightly until I saw a galaxy of swirling light. Then I opened my eyes narrowly, like the thin beams of light that streamed in between the slats of the venetian blinds. My father faced the shaded window, his sunglasses perched on his head. He was wide-eyed and unafraid of the pure light disguised as night.

Thunder, Lightning: A Flash Essay by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Lightning, Thunder

On summer nights, my father stood resolutely on the porch to listen for thunder, to observe lightning. When that lightning cracked the sky and lit the world the color of steel, my father’s rules were absolute: No telephone, no television, no shower. During a particularly window-rattling storm, Dad rushed us into the ’65 Malibu, sure that the car, with its rubber tires, was the safest place to sit out an electrical storm. My father belted us three kids together in the backseat, the silver buckle pressing against my belly, the car never moving off the driveway.

This flash essay originally appeared on “The Thread” as part of the “Stitch” series.