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?

Latke Larry Cooks Up Dough for Kids


For a second or two, it seems like the cloth doll is going to leap from the table to the stove and start wielding a spatula.

Or maybe it’s just that Latke Larry’s creator, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, head of the Ohio State University Chabad House in Columbus, is so excited about the singing, dancing Chanukah action figure and how it will benefit children with special needs that his enthusiasm seems capable of casting a spell.

“How can you resist Latke Larry? He’s all about transforming the ‘oy’ of Judaism to ‘joy,'” says the rabbi, fidgeting in his chair as he activates the doll’s song.

Latke Larry, clad in a chef’s hat, tzitzit dangling from his waist, rocks to and fro and sings (to the tune of “Rock of Ages”): “Latke Larry comes to you, a friend to play with and fun to chew. I’ve got tales of Maccabees — oy — and plenty of calories.”

Kaltmann created the battery- and computer-chip-powered toy as a fundraiser for Chabad’s national Friendship Circle. The program pairs teenagers in 30-plus communities with families whose children have special needs. The teens are companions to the children, playing games with them and joining them on outings. Kaltmann and his wife, Esther, spearhead the Columbus chapter of Friendship Circle.

Latke Larry retails for $17.95. Part of the cost covers manufacturing and distribution. Profits from the doll’s sale will be distributed to all branches of Friendship Circle.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a Chabad rabbi in West Bloomfield, Mich., and founder of the 11-year-old Friendship Circle, said the doll is only one idea brewing to raise money nationally for the program. “I’m really excited about this,” he said. “It’s a consistent and very appropriate fundraiser for Friendship Circle.”

To record Larry’s voice, Kaltmann got comic actor and TV star Jerry Stiller — for free. Stiller said the actor Jon Voigt asked him to do it. Voigt, a longtime supporter of Chabad, had encountered Kaltmann at events over the years.

Stiller said he was intrigued. Speaking from his dressing room on the set of “The King of Queens” in Los Angeles, he said the rabbi “arranged for me to meet him in the middle of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue [in New York]. I had just come from the orthopedist, and I couldn’t find him. Then suddenly, he waved at me. I thought, ‘This is “Fiddler on the Roof” once removed.’ He screamed and we stopped traffic.”

The pair went upstairs and Kaltmann played the song for Stiller.

Stiller later unveiled Latke Larry to his family.

“We had a little get-together, my son, Ben, and the kids — and we played it,” he said. “Everybody cracked up. A lot of the children there were not Jewish, but they got the greatest amount of joy out of this.”

“Jewish kids have no icon for Chanukah,” the rabbi said. “I thought, ‘How can we give children something where kids can express their Judaism, feel good and have a good time?’ I want Jewish kids in America to feel proud of their heritage.”

On the back of the doll’s box, Kaltmann put a latke recipe for those who might want to try to make the traditional Chanukah food.

The dolls have circulated throughout the country as a test to see how kids would respond to them. Beth Kramer of Santa Fe, N.M., said she got the doll through Chabad House there for her daughter, Ryanna.

“It’s hilarious,” Kramer said. “It’s a great Jewish toy. I love the recipe on the back.”

Katie Kaufman of Columbus said her children, 4 and 2, enjoy playing with the doll. “It’s adorable and it appeals to both kids and adults,” she said.

Retailers are fascinated, too. Kaltmann sold 13,000 of the 21,000 dolls he had ordered before they arrived from the manufacturer. Buyers have picked up the dolls for sale in a number of department and specialty stores, including Filene’s Basement and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The design for Latke Larry comes from Kaltmann’s brother-in-law, Eli Toron, a graphic artist for “Sesame Street.” Larry’s song was written by two of the rabbi’s friends, Neil Greenberg of Philadelphia, who works in marketing, and Aaron Evenchik of Cleveland, an Ohio State University graduate who attended Chabad House regularly during his college years.

Kaltmann has sent fliers about Latke Larry to synagogues around the country. He also has promoted the doll on mainstream radio stations. Kaltmann said he has other ideas for Latke Larry. He wants to write a children’s book featuring the character addressing children with special needs.

He said, “The idea of Friendship Circle is about putting smiles on faces of people who deserve to be happy.”

The doll also is available through its official Web site,

Matzah, Matzahman


“Everyone wanted to clone our mother, which is why wecreated our Dancing Matzahman, said Davida Lampkin-Tydings. Actually, thesinging, swaying doll — voted best new Passover item at the 2003 Kosherfest –looks like a male chef wearing matzah print. But press his foot, and the plushfigure raps in the voice of Lampkin-Tydings’ mother, Pauline S. Lampkin, whosephoto is on the tag. The tag also credits Lampkin as the “vocalist”: “I becamea rapper at 94,” she said, looking impeccable in a blue velvet pants suit.

Her matzah doll, which  is available at Ralphs and Judaicashops, is the latest matzah mania product by Lampkin-Tydings’ company, DavidaAprons & Logo Programs Inc., which specializes in “kitchen kitch.” Thedoll’s song is composed by Jewish musician Craig Taubman.

But long before Matzahman, the elderly Lampkin was making animpression. At trade shows, she stood out as Davida Aprons’ indefatigablebookkeeper: “People call her the ‘human calculator,’ because she still does allthe figures in her head,” her daughter said.

Mom continued manning the company’s Huntington Park office,even while battling cancer in the 1990s. She’s one of the oldest people ever tohave completed AIDS Walk Los Angeles. And she regularly participates whenDavida and her sister, Sybil Lampkin-Rubin, brainstorm new Passover products,for example, an award-winning matzah ball timer.

“But at trade shows, people would always say, ‘We love yourmother. Can we buy her?'” Lampkin-Tydings said.

That question started the matzah doll rolling. Yet one couldvery well wonder: If Matzahman is inspired by Lampkin, why is he male? Thereason, according to Lampkin-Tydings, was that the doll was originally supposedto sing a parody of the Village People song, “Macho Man”; by the time shediscovered the royalties would be prohibitive the figure was already designedas male.

“So we decided to make him my boyfriend instead, ” Lampkinsaid.

Now her daughters are designing a new line of products thatwill feature mom’s photo, including a mug, a menu chalkboard and, of course,something Passovery.  “You know that elderly woman who used to say, ‘Where’sthe beef?'” Lampkin-Tydings said. “Mom could say, ‘Who’s hiding the matzah?'”

For more information, visit www.davidaaprons.com .

Buy for Chanukah, Donate to Israel


The idea of a rabbi doll came to Gary Barris while he was shopping during the holiday season two years ago.

Overwhelmed by stores filled with Christmas decorations and gifts, the young Detroit entrepreneur said he “felt there was a void for sending greetings in the Jewish community.”

His answer: “The Rabbi Says…,” a 10-inch-high, plush rabbi doll.

Barris’ rabbi doll, which debuted last year, wears traditional Jewish garb and comes with a blank greeting card where buyers can add their personalized Chanukah wishes. It’s currently selling for $11.95, mainly on the Internet at www.therabbisaid.com.

Barris consulted Orthodox and Conservative rabbis before sending the final sketches to China, where more than 3,000 dolls were sewn, stuffed and shipped back to Michigan. He has sold more than 800 dolls so far. He has plans to expand his rabbi line to create a talking version that may say “Mazal Tov!” or “L’Chaim!”

If you buy the rabbi this year, a portion of the proceeds will go to the United Jewish Communities’ Israel Emergency Campaign.

Rabbi doll sales are just one way that North American Jews are being encouraged to support Israel as the Palestinian intifada enters its third year.

“We have felt helpless in the fight for Israel for so long. This is one way we can all truly make a difference,” said Lisa Katzman-Yassinger, a volunteer who devised a campaign to make the third night of Chanukah, Dec. 1, “Support Israel Day” on the Web site Shopinisrael.com.

With more and more people shopping over the Internet, it has become much easier to buy products directly from Israeli vendors who are struggling amidst the country’s economic downturn.

Shopinisrael.com is a nonprofit site set up last February by Californian Jane Scher and run by a team of more than 50 volunteers from around the world.

The site allows people to buy a variety of items — Judaica, art, jewelry, food, wine and other products — directly from Israeli merchants.

“The idea started at a bat mitzvah,” Scher said. “I had bought a gift from Israel and everyone at my table was very excited about it.”

A full-time volunteer for the San Diego Jewish community, Scher said she contacted some vendors in Israel and launched the site with just 15 links. The Web site now lists over 350 Israeli companies and has had more than 222,000 hits since February.

The goal of the site is “to help struggling merchants in Israel who have been hit by this rapid decline in visitors,” according to a news release sent out by Scher.

And there are success stories. Scher said vendors have sent her letters claiming that 30 percent to 50 percent of their business comes through the Shopinisrael site. One merchant, Ocean Herbs (www.oceanherbs.com) got a contract with an American company to bottle and sell its products overseas thanks to the Web site.

Similar sites have sprung up on the Web such as Israelexport.org, which promotes Israeli products and is sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

A site called isrealiwebshops.com, based in New York and New Jersey, creates free Web pages for Israeli businesses trying to sell their products abroad.

And on www.israelshop1.com, the rabbi doll may find his competitor in “Shimale” a doll of a little Jewish boy wearing a red and purple yarmulke who is accompanied by a series of narrated CDs and videos. For just $14.95, a Chanukah evening can be spent watching Shimale star in “The Tabernacle Treasures.”

However, not all the shop-in-Israel-type Web sites offer merchandise that’s quite as light-hearted.

Some of the sites, like www.israelmilitary.com, sell genuine Israel Defense Forces gear like the bulletproof Titian Vest Level-3 — listed under the product heading “Ballistic Protection” — or gas masks for adults, children and infants.

Marketed for sale abroad, such products serve as a stark reminder that all is not cheery for world Jewry this Chanukah.