Welcome Barbie! An Interview with Tefillin Barbie’s Creator
With the opening of Beit Hatfutsot’s new exhibition, “Let There Be Laughter – Jewish Humor Around the World,” the Museum has welcomed Tefillin Barbie into its collection of objects that inspire, amuse, provoke, and enrich the story of the Jewish people. This year, Tefillin Barbie is celebrating her bat mitzvah: 12 years of bringing joy, laughter, and greater inclusivity to the Jewish world. Jen Taylor Friedman – Tefillin Barbie’s creator and a scribe who is the first known woman to have written a Torah scroll – sat down with us for an interview in which she discusses the unexpectedly funny origins of her unique doll.
Tefillin Barbie is part of Beit Hatfutsot’s new exhibition, Let There Be Laughter! How do you feel about it?
“I think it’s very amusing that Tefillin Barbie is part of an exhibition on laughter and humor“.
Tell me about Tefillin Barbie’s origin story. How did she come into being?
“It actually happened as a joke, which got out of control really fast. One October I was studying in yeshiva in New York, and I happened to see a Barbie for sale with a long denim skirt, just like the ones yeshiva girls were wearing then, and this Barbie looked a lot like most of my female friends, most of whom either wore tefillin or were struggling with wanting to. The ideas bounced together in my head, and I had some spare time, so I bought that Barbie and made her a quick tallit and tefillin. I took some photos and put them on my Facebook page, and rather to my surprise, she went viral. As it turned out, the image of Barbie (hyper-feminine and hyper-American) combined with the image of tefillin (hyper-masculine and hyper-religious) spoke very strongly to a lot of people, in both positive and negative ways.
This social group of religious girls on the fringes of Orthodoxy wanting to wear tefillin gave rise to Tefillin Barbie as an artistic expression, but it also ultimately gave rise to the Women’s Tefillin Gemach. A gemach is an organisation for loans. Many religious communities have a Tefillin gemach, where men who can’t afford to buy tefillin can borrow a set. But in that sort of community the service usually isn’t available to women. So I started collecting old sets of tefillin, sprucing them up, and loaning them to women who needed them but couldn’t afford it. Like Tefillin Barbie, the Women’s Tefillin Gemach is still going strong, but gets less publicity”.
What were the initial responses to Tefillin Barbie?
“Some people adored her because they saw their own Judaism reflected in her. Some people liked her because they thought she was making Jewish ritual fun, and they felt the same way. Some people told me I was destroying Judaism. Well, Judaism still seems to be going strong though, so I think it’s okay. Art is a mirror to the soul, you know”.
Have you had any interesting and meaningful interactions surrounding Tefillin Barbie? Any interesting buyers (other than Beit Hatfutsot, of course)?
“She appeared in a few other Museums, and features in a few books about Judaism, in the bits about tefillin or about egalitarianism. Lots of the sales are graduation presents, which is rather nice. Some are for bat mitzvah girls or Hebrew schools. My favourite is the one I made for a blind friend; that Barbie had a cane and a Braille siddur, as well as tefillin”.
What other projects have you worked on?
“Other projects recently have been my sixth Torah scroll, a lot of tefillin (mostly for bnot mitzvah), some mezuzot, and some megillot. I’m involved with an effort to make klaf from ethically-treated animals, and I have a whole lot of excellent students, from a retiree in New Zealand to a college student in America. Part of my fee for teaching students to write mezuzot is a mezuzah, so all the doors in my house have mezuzot written by different students and colleagues. This makes me very happy, feeling like I am always surrounded by friends. Some of them are making a real difference in their communities, checking tefillin and writing mezuzot and repairing Torahs. My team of scribes has a website at stamscribes.com: we’re Jewish scribes from around the world serving all types of Jewish community with expertise and respect”.
What’s next for you, and what’s next for Tefillin Barbie?
“Since 2006, Tefillin Barbie has got woke. Now she has tefillin-laying friends who aren’t white, skinny, and blonde! I’m working on a PhD about otiyyot meshunnot (embellished letters) in Torah scrolls, the letters which are altered to hint at hidden meanings”.
More about Jen Taylor Friedman and her work can be found at http://www.hasoferet.com
Rachel Druck is the editor of the Communities Database at Beit Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People and loves receiving photographs of Jewish communities in action, funny or otherwise. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org