The other day I was in my rabbi’s office for what she and I like to call my 10,000-mile tune-up. And there she was on a bookshelf in a plexi-glass frame—a super hero ready to wrap and unwrap at a moment’s notice to redeem the world—my old friend Tefillin Barbie.
Tefillin Barbie is modest and learned and devout. She wears a long denim skirt. Her sleeves are below her elbow. She wears a head covering and is draped in a tallit—a prayer shawl. And, of course, the most notable thing about her is that she wears tefillin. Prominently, proudly and naturally.
I know all the feminist arguments against Barbie, but I can’t help myself, I’ve always loved Barbie. She came into my life when I was six-years-old and bedridden for three months. My aunt sent me a Barbie along with the doll’s extensive miniature wardrobe. I kept her outfits in a black patent leather wardrobe created just for her clothes. I spent hours dressing Barbie in ball gowns, tennis skirts and my favorite—a bridal gown.
Over the years Barbie’s outfits have used over 105 million yards of fabric. She has owned over a billion pairs of shoes. Through it all it never fazed me that Barbie was blonde and tall and I was not. She measured an impossible 36-18-38, but I attributed that to the fact that she was a doll.
A few facts about Barbie and her creator. Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959 and named her after her own daughter, Barbara. Ms. Handler went on to co-found the toy company Mattel. Barbie was not her only significant invention. Recovering from a mastectomy in 1970, Handler discovered the need for a suitable prosthetic breast and invented Nearly Me, a prosthesis close in weight and density to natural breasts.
Barbie has had over eighty careers ranging from a rock star to a presidential candidate who focused on educational excellence and animal rights. She has served in every branch of the military and was a medic in Operation Desert Storm. In addition to being a devout Jew, Barbie is also black and Hispanic. Forty-five nationalities claim her as their own. She has been present at diplomatic summits and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And now she is a baal koreh—a woman who reads Torah.
I’m not surprised that Tefillin Barbie’s inventor is a soferet—a woman scribe who is trained and certified to write holy texts by hand. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive Jen Taylor Friedman is one of six soferot (plural of soferet) in the world. She has a workshop in her native Southampton, England handwriting an entire Torah for a congregation in St. Louis..
Discovering the occupation of this late incarnation of Barbie led me to do a bit of research on soferot. I learned that the first woman soferet was certified in October of 2003. A congregation in Seattle underwrote the cost of training additional soferot in order to be the first synagogue in the world to have a Torah exclusively hand calligraphed by women. Additionally, women metalwork artists are creating the breastplates, crowns and a clasp for the Torah.
All of this wonderful female energy sent me on a virtual journey that ended up at the Jewish Women’s Archives site where I came upon an entry for Joan Snyder’s lithograph “Our Foremothers.” Serendipity. I have a copy of Snyder’s print hanging in my living room, a gift from my mother-in-law. She thought it was my destiny to have it because the name Judith is so prominent among the Jewish women’s names that Snyder commemorates. Snyder uses shades of red and pink—the colors of blood and tutus—to write names like Hagar, Leah, Rachel and Sarah. She pairs these iconic names with those of her mother, daughter and life partner.
People have two reactions to the print—some are mesmerized and others think it’s the work of a child. “Did Anna make this?” more than a few people have asked me. Snyder’s presentation is both basic and profound. The listing and mixing up of these name reminds me that at some point in a woman’s life she has been cast out like Hagar. She has been adored like Rachel. Taken for granted like Leah or not taken seriously like Sarah. Our foremothers are not simply archetypes. They are us and we are them.
So where does this newest incarnation of Barbie fit in with our own mothers and sisters and foremothers? For one thing she’s an all-American girl who is at ease with every aspect of Jewish ritual. I’m envious of her. A couple of years ago I went to the World Wide Wrap at my synagogue where I was the lone adult among a group of bored pre-teens. I didn’t get a lot of support for trying to learn how to wrap tefillin as a grown woman, so thank God for Tefillin Barbie. When I look at her I remember that nothing in Judaism is off limits to my daughter and my nieces.
Here’s another fun fact about Barbie. Every second of every day a Barbie is sold somewhere in the world. And here’s a wish inspired by Barbie’s sales numbers. Every time that a Jewish girl comes of age, may she be comfortable in her own body and wrapping her own tefillin.