HOLY HADASSAH! France’s First Lady Honored by Women’s Group

PARIS (JTA)—Singer. Model. First lady of France.

Hadassah woman.

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was the guest of honor March 5 at a glitzy fund-raiser in Paris for Hadassah Medical Organization’s hospital in Jerusalem and its global medical aid programs.

Standing at the podium in a sleeveless, silky black and white dress, she cooed in her trademark soft, husky voice to a crowd wearing glittering couture balanced on needle-thin heels.

“I’m so happy to have kept my promise,” she said.

Bruni-Sarkozy was referring to a visit she paid to the children’s ward of the hemato-oncology department at the Hadassah hospital last June, when she was in Jerusalem as part of her husband’s state visit.

During a tour of the facilities, she told the hospital’s general director, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, that she wanted to help.

Eight months later Bruni-Sarkozy, whose chiseled features and modern elegance continue to fascinate, delivered by becoming the first French first lady to work with Hadassah, the nongovernmental organization founded by American Zionist women nearly a century ago.

Bruni-Sarkozy’s appearance came at a trying period: Israel is wrestling with the fallout from Gaza, French Jews are worried about another spike in anti-Semitism and Hadassah has eliminated dozens of jobs.

In short, it was a good time for any sort of image boost that the 41-year-old first lady could provide.

“The image she conveys can help get rid of this vilifying view of Israel,” the president of Hadassah France, Sydney Ohana, told JTA in an interview. “She weighed the importance of a small country like this and understood that the world needs them, too.”

In December, after a year of sidelining as her husband’s glamorous companion, Bruni-Sarkozy signed on as the good-will ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It was under the new job title that Bruni-Sarkozy lent her image to Hadassah’s French branch for its 25th anniversary gala to fund the renowned medical research facility and its successful treatment of orphaned Ethiopian children with AIDS. The child mortality rate under the Ethiopian program has dropped from an annual 25 percent to 1 percent.

But her attachment to the Hadassah flagship hospital began before her Global Fund work, when Mor-Yosef said she dazzled patients and employees who “stood crowded in windows” to see her last summer.

Bruni-Sarkozy, he added, was “very touched” by the child cancer patients she met and “impressed” with the facility, which treats both Palestinians and Jewish Israeli patients.

“That’s just how we do things,” he said. “People come see what we do and they want to help.”

Hadassah’s hospital, which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, already doubles as an ambassador for some of Israel’s humanitarian efforts, but Bruni-Sarkozy’s support was especially timely.

As the global financial crisis and the Madoff scandal gnaw at the organization’s private finances, forcing staffers to take pay cuts that won’t be restored for several years, some overseas groups also have accused Israel of committing war crimes during its winter Gaza offensive.

“In today’s press, Israel has one dimension,” Mor-Yosef said. “But this is another dimension of activities we are doing either in Israel”—to build “some sort of bridges to peace.”

The hospital hires Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, and treats anyone seeking care, though the Palestinian Authority recently barred their citizens from using Israeli hospitals—a “political” decision, according to Mor-Yosef, that he hopes will be reversed soon.

Ohana adds that in addition to Bruni-Sarkozy’s fresh face alongside Hadassah’s pro-Israel brand, when it comes to activism, the towering Italian-born beauty “does not just show up at gala dinners.” Her husband did just that, making a surprise appearance before heading off to Mexico after a quick bite.

“She knows the subject [of AIDS] really well,” Ohana said of the first lady, who lost a brother to the disease.

He cited her lengthy, technical discussions with researchers and doctors.

Through her contact with scientists and her Global Fund network, Ohana said Bruni-Sarkozy “can help make sure that Israelis and their researchers are not marginalized and that science has no borders.”

“Other first ladies have come” to the hospital, Mor-Yosef said. “But she’s different because she’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s not the typical first lady and that’s clear to everybody.”

Mor-Yosef stressed that Bruni-Sarkozy’s Hadassah participation was discussed before the financial crisis and the news that the $90 million that it had invested with Bernard Madoff was a mirage. Nevertheless, it was an especially good time for her to help raise more than $380,000 for the organization.

“The mood is very difficult from a financial point of view, but otherwise the hospital continues to be at the cutting edge of technology,” he added.

Most donations to the hospital come from the United States, but since Americans are feeling the pinch of a recession, Mor-Yosef said it is now “more important” to also seek funds elsewhere, in countries such as France and Germany. The medical organization currently raises 10 percent to 20 percent of its money from countries outside the United States and Israel.

Ohana told the JTA he is “persuaded” that Bruni-Sarkozy “will continue to closely follow Hadassah’s work, and will continue to help” in the future.

“That is what she promised me,” he said.

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?

VIDEO: Israel tries to sex up its image

Britains’ Sky News reports from Tel Aviv on an Israeli advertising campaign to sex up its image.