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Arts & Culture a Jewish Girl in a Barbie World: Documentary Sparks Identity Debate

May 25, 2006
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San Francisco filmmaker Tiffany Shlain stood before 140 women and asked how many had ever been told they “don’t look Jewish.” Nearly half raised their hands.

Shlain smiled — that’s exactly her point.

“Imagine how I felt growing up, a blond, blue-eyed girl named Tiffany,” she deadpanned in front of the audience at a Silicon Valley Jewish federation meeting one recent evening. “I heard a lot of anti-Semitic things from people who didn’t know I was Jewish.”

It’s also one of the points raised in “The Tribe,” Shlain’s smart, snappy documentary that uses Barbie, and all she represents, to explore what it means to be young, Jewish and American at the dawn of the 21st century.

Anyone who makes a film about Barbie — especially one like “The Tribe,” which combines fast-moving graphics, a post-modern aesthetic and self-deprecating irony — is pretty much guaranteed a lot of ink.

The all-American doll with the impossible curves is wildly popular — producer Mattel claims three Barbies are sold every second — and widely lambasted, the unwitting proponent of outdated values and unattainable fantasies. People love to love her, hate her and poke fun at her.

Barbie is also Jewish, born in 1959 to a Jewish American mother-inventor. The iconic insider, developed by a Jew — the quintessential outsider — Barbie is the perfect hook for a film that looks at Jewish history through an anthropologist’s lens, focusing on the Jewish people’s status as outsiders trying to be insiders.

It’s an interesting take. Few films would dare, as this one does, to outline Jewish history without mentioning a single Jewish leader since Moses. But by focusing on big, universal themes — the nature of tribes, self-identity and social integration — and by avoiding prescriptions or pat answers while raising plenty of questions, “The Tribe” manages to be smart and appealing.

“I could really relate to it,” said Ruti Cogan, 14, who came to the event with her mother. “I learned there are a lot of sub-tribes, a billion different kinds. And the Jewish stereotypes, I could relate to them.”

“The Tribe” has received plenty of attention since its official premiere this spring at the Sundance film festival. It’s won awards at film festivals in Nashville, Ann Arbor and San Francisco, and will be the centerpiece of a September event at the 92nd St. Y in New York.

But Shlain didn’t make this film for the big screen: At just 18 minutes, “The Tribe” won’t be shown at many suburban multiplexes.

From the beginning, Shlain says, she and husband Ken Goldberg, her co-writer, intended it to provoke conversations about Jewish identity. Barbie, who appears only briefly, is primarily a good-looking decoy.

“I can’t tell you how many people want to see the film because it’s about Barbie,” Shlain says. But “the whole point is to use the film for discussion. We’re really interested in starting a dialogue for Jews wrestling with their Jewish identity.”

“The idea is to bring it to dinner parties, have a discussion with your friends,” Goldberg says.

The DVD is sold with a discussion guide and playing cards, so people can buy it for their personal use. And hundreds have, according to Shlain, who runs a Web site (, where people can order and discuss the film.

“The response has been overwhelming, from Jews and non-Jews,” she says. “I had people come up to me at Sundance with tears in their eyes, saying ‘I finally understand Israel.’ “

She says that more than 27,000 people viewed it for free on the Sundance Web site, along with another 5,000 or so who have seen it at group discussions like the event in Los Gatos.

Hillels, religious schools, interfaith organizations and other groups have ordered the kit for educational showings, which carry a much higher price tag than the $40 ordinary folks are charged. Proceeds are plowed back into a non-profit run by Shlain and Goldberg, who are currently developing a curriculum for classroom use.

Rabbi Julie Pelc showed the film to her high-school religious studies group in Los Angeles.

The students were “really responsive,” she reports. “They talked about their own identities, especially as they related to the ‘bad Jew’ in the movie.” That allowed her to “open a discussion about, is there such a thing as a ‘bad Jew?’ “

Vanessa Ochs, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, calls the film “delicious,” and says she’d like to use it in her Jewish studies class. But she wouldn’t show it at the beginning of the semester.

“Students know so much less about Judaism than we imagine,” she says. “You can’t assume a level of Jewish sophistication. If you don’t know enough, the film is just cute. But once you have studied, the humor becomes poignant and wicked, not just droll.”

Even the Navy is interested. Rabbi Irving Nelson, deputy command chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy, plans to show the film to his students this fall.

“It’s a fascinating movie, something our midshipmen would benefit from,” he says.

Shlain has spent most of the past six months shepherding the film around the country, leading group discussions. At Sundance, she and Goldberg rented a hall and served everyone homemade chicken soup. One of the first Jewish groups she showed it to was Jewlicious@TheBeach.2, a four-day gathering of young Jews sponsored by Hillel of Long Beach, Calif.

Shlain, 36, grew up Reform in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, in a largely secular home where Judaism was expressed “culturally and intellectually.”

Recently she and her husband have begun celebrating Shabbat, although they haven’t yet found a synagogue where they feel comfortable.

And in contrast to her grandparents, who tried to assimilate as quickly as possible when they immigrated here from Russia 100 years ago, Shlain and her husband named their first daughter Odessa, after the city both families came from. That’s part of the new Jewish pride of her generation, Shlain says, which is stronger than the Jewish establishment realizes.

“They’re so worried about this generation and intermarriage and losing Jews,” she told the federation women in Los Gatos. “But I’m not worried. I believe all you need is a conversation, and that will trigger much more.

“Jews are so connected, all around the world. The fact that we’re reinventing and reinterpreting, it’s all about evolving. And that’s how Jews have survived.”

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