VIDEO: The Tribe (The Barbie Doll and the History of the Jewish People)

What can the most successful doll on the planet show us about being Jewish today? Narrated by Peter Coyote, the film mixes old school narration with a new school visual style. The Tribe weaves together archival footage, graphics, animation, Barbie dioramas, and slam poetry to take audiences on an electric ride through the complex history of both the Barbie doll and the Jewish people- from Biblical times to present day. By tracing Barbie’s history, the film sheds light on the questions: What does it mean to be an American Jew today? What does it mean to be a member of any tribe in the 21st Century?

Bratz : They’re cool, hot and controversial

Depending on whom you ask, Bratz are odd-looking multiethnic dolls with big eyes and skimpy clothes – or they’re, like, the coolest things ever.

The dolls — with their “passion for fashion” demonstrated through midriff-baring tops and micro-miniskirts — have been criticized by many parents as being overly sexualized and therefore bad examples for little girls.

But ask a 6- to 10-year-old girl about them, and she’ll say they’re sooooo awesome. The sales of Bratz nearly rival that of Barbie — topping more than $2 billion by 2006 — and now, with the wide release last summer of the live action Bratz feature-length film, they’ve secured their place as pop-culture icons for the pretween set.

Bratz were created in 2000 by Isaac Larian, an Iranian Jewish immigrant turned toy entrepreneur, who had set out to create an anti-Barbie. Legend has it that Larian was turned off by the swollen-head prototype a designer showed him, but his then-11-year-old daughter, Jasmin, was enthralled by it.

Thus, the first of the Bratz pack, Yasmin, was born. Soon afterward, her totally multicultural BFF (that’s “best friends forever”) followed, including Jade, Cloe and Sasha — all of whom are characters in the live-action film, which is scheduled to be released on DVD Nov. 27.

Unlike Barbie — with her WASPy blond hair, penchant for pink and lame steady boyfriend, Ken — Bratz represents a different type of feminine ideal. They reflect the mixed messages that are fed to young girls today: a “girl power” mantra combined with a tarty, sexed-up image, a la Britney Spears. With ethnicities ranging from Asian to African American to a unique blend of Jewish Latina, the dolls trumpet their message loud and clear: It’s OK to be yourself, as long as you look totally hot when the boys are around.

Perhaps it is no accident that this new, aspirational doll had a Jewish creator. After all, back in 1959, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler — the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants — created Barbie.

Back then, assimilation was not the dirty word it is today; it was a goal. As such, Handler, a savvy businesswoman, convinced her husband to turn his Lucite and Plexiglas furniture-making hobby into a lucrative business. It resulted in the creation of Barbie, the ultimate American fantasy: the leggy, buxom blonde who remade herself as the notion of the ideal American woman and changed with the times, from stay-at-home mom to the uber-careerwoman who does it all and still looks good.

Still, despite Mattel’s attempts to diversify the line, Barbie has had trouble keeping up with the times. Larian’s dolls speak to the girls of the 21st century, a time when the melting pot has given way to multiethnic stars like Jessica Alba and a hybrid like Chrismukkah is practically a national holiday.

That Larian — a Sephardic Jew who arrived in the United States at age 17 with $750 in his pocket — is this new arbiter of kiddie cool also reflects the normalization of Jewish culture in American society at large, where today, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a national television show, bagels can be bought coast to coast and Yiddishisms like “oy vey” are a part of everyday American dialogue.

But somehow muddled up in the Bratz phenomenon is the notion that image is everything. And many don’t approve of the tarted-up image they see.

In her latest book, “Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good,” author Wendy Shalit takes Bratz to task for its overtly sexy image.

Decrying the come-hither fashions of Bratz Babyz — a spin-off of the original Bratz line — and the emphasis on looking hot in the Bratz books, Shalit agues: “If a little girl is young enough to be coloring and wearing glitter stickers, then she’s probably still too young to be worrying about boys and looking hot.”

“I think it’s a very confusing time, and Bratz is reflecting this confusion,” Shalit said. To really get at the root of the problem, she said, “we need to address the whole ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’ philosophy, which many mothers continue to believe in.”

Even Sean McNamara, director of the Bratz film, saw the challenges in transforming pint-sized plastic hoochie-mamas into wholesome, real-life teenage girls.

McNamara, executive producer of the Disney Channel TV hit, “That’s So Raven,” was unfamiliar with Bratz when he was approached to direct the project, so he took a trip to his local toy store.

“I was blown away,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There were two full walls of Bratz stuff. But when I saw them, I thought, ‘These aren’t cute dolls — they look like sluts.'”

“Bratz,” the movie — while keeping its stars clothed and chaste — bends over backward to hit home its message of diversity, often resorting to cliche.

Half-white, half-Asian Jade, for example, is a science geek who, under pressure from her parents to be a good little girl, totally rebels by secretly wearing the hottest fashions. Then there’s half-Jewish, half-Latina Yasmin — played by 25-year-old Nathalia Ramos, herself the daughter of a Spanish father and a Australian Jewish mother — who inexplicably has a mariachi band in her kitchen and sings “La Cucaracha” with her grandmother (played by Lainie Kazan), whom she inexplicably calls Bubbe.

The movie centers around the four Bratz as they enter high school, totally sworn to be BFF. Soon, however, thanks to the devious Meredith Baxter Dimly — the queen bee who is not only the school president but the daughter of the principal — they are forced into cliques that tear them apart.

With Meredith employing the divide-and-conquer thing, Sasha soon hangs only with the cheerleaders; Cloe is a jock; and Yasmin, the loner, gets saddled with the label of “journalist.” (As if!)

Two years later, thanks to a massive food fight and an all-important talent show, the girls are brought back together. Without giving away too much of the plot — which borrows liberally from far better teen movies — the Bratz, with their awesome performance and their totally hip style, break down the barriers at Carry Nation High.

But with all the “likes,” the “omigods” and the rampant commercialism — after all, a love of makeup and shopping are what bind these girls together — what kind of message is Bratz sending to young girls?

Larian, traveling in Africa at press time, was unavailable to comment. Back in 2005, however, he told Business Week magazine, “Kids don’t want to play with Barbies anymore.”

One has to wonder: Is that necessarily a good thing?

A Blizzard of Flicks for Jewish Eyes

At the Sundance wintertime festival, which began Jan. 19 and runs through Jan. 29, Jewish viewers can check out a blizzard of flicks, including:

Opening night film, “Friends With Money” (Jennifer Aniston, Jason Isaacs), spotlighting successful adults approaching midlife crisis. It’s the latest feature by Jewish writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose self-deprecating comedy-dramas have been compared to the work of Woody Allen — not surprising, because her stepfather produced all of Allen’s films, and she virtually grew up on his sets.

Paul McGuigan’s “Lucky Number Slevin,” revolving around a Jewish mobster, “The Rabbi”; his arch rival (Morgan Freeman), and the chaos that ensues when the Jew declines to pick up his phone on Shabbat.

Tony Krawitz’s “Jewboy” (Australia), about an Orthodox youth searching for his place in the world (See last week’s story at

Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Adam’s Apples” (Denmark), a black comedy spotlighting a disgruntled neo-Nazi sentenced to community service at church

Yoav Shamir’s documentary, “Five Days” (Israel), on the historic evacuation of 8,000 even more disgruntled Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Frieda Lee Mock’s “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner,” which profiles the Pulitzer Prize winner who was raised Jewish on a bayou and channels Jewish themes into his work.

Alan Berliner’s “Wide Awake,” a self-portrait of the odd filmmaker’s insomnia, manias and obsessiveness.

Lian Lunson’s “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” (See main story).

Rex Bloomstein’s documentary, “KZ” (United Kingdom), about contemporary Germans living in the shadow of the Mauthausan concentration camp (See last week’s piece).

Tiffany Shlain’s short documentary, “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll,” on how the busty blond figure — created by a Jewish American — serves as a metaphor of Jewish assimilation and identity

For film schedules and information, visit

Simultaneously, the sixth annual SchmoozeDance and KidzDance festivals — the Jewish counterpart to Sundance on Jan. 20-21 — kick off with a screening of Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone at Temple Har Shalom” in Park City, Utah. The Israeli film focuses on a confused American (Natalie Portman) on a road trip with a bickering Israeli and Palestinian. For information, visit


Barbie Meet Gali

For generations, Barbie’s hourglass “perfect” figure has confounded experts in anatomy, while giving girls a role model of debatable merit.

Now there’s a doll whose appearance is more modest, who looks like kids and whose values are distinctly Jewish.

Created by Aliza Stein of Teaneck, N.J., Gali Girls wear clothes that are not made to accentuate their bodies. Accessories include a matching Magen David bracelet for the owner and the doll, a Hebrew and English birth certificate and a separate wooden Shabbat kit that can be painted.

Gali Girls are designed to encourage girls to bring positive Jewish values, such as kindness, respect, and charity, into their doll play, Stein said.

At 18 inches, Gali Girls are about the same size as some dolls made by Mattel Inc. and American Girl Dolls, but they are designed to be childlike playmates, not miniversions of some fantasy adult that a child may want to grow up to be.

“Young girls adopt dolls as their friends, even as their own children,” Stein said. “They create stories, role play and live out lives as they are or how they wish it could be. Having a doll with a Jewish identity reinforces values, and gives girls a certain sense of religious pride.”

Stein introduced the doll at the August 2004 Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference.

The dolls come with brown, blond or red straight hair. A version with curly hair seems mandatory for a Jewish line of dolls, and apparently that one is in the works.

Gali Girls from Gali Girls Inc. cost $55-60, but can be purchased at discount prices for school and organizational fundraisers. To order, call (201) 862-1989 or visit