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Barbie’s (Dyed) Jewish Roots

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain always wanted to make a short film about the modern Jewish American experience.

Growing up in hippie-ish Marin County, near San Francisco, the self-described “blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew who doesn’t have a Jewish last name” often struggled over whether to call attention to her Jewishness or let it pass. Though she was bat mitzvahed, and she attended synagogue on the High Holy Days, Shlain always connected more with Jewish culture than with religion; she wasn’t sure how she fit in with other Jews, or with everyone else.

It took another blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew to help put it in perspective: Barbie.

The ubiquitous WASPy-looking doll that has delighted millions of children worldwide was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Reading Handler’s 2002 obituary, Shlain realized that Barbie was a lens through which to view modern Jewish identity (the same could be said of many comic book heroes): “the ultimate insider,” created by one of those who often seem “the ultimate outsiders.”

The result is Shlain’s 11th film, “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll in About 15 Minutes.” The movie premieres Saturday, December 3, at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre.

Co-written by her husband, artist Ken Goldberg, Shlain’s film is a kaleidoscope of archival footage, graphics, animation, dioramas and even slam poetry by New York’s Vanessa Hidary, aka “The Hebrew Mamita.” Actor Peter Coyote’s narration carries the viewer through fast-paced observations of what it is to be Jewish today.

Shlain, 35, said that early screenings garnered powerful responses from Jews and non-Jews alike. “I’ve had an Irish American say, ‘This is my story, too, in a different way.’”

“You want it to speak to the universal, and when it does it’s very exciting,” Shlain said. “While there are a lot of things that are very specific to being Jewish American in the 21st century, there are a lot of universals about being the grandchild of an immigrant: the desire to assimilate and be like everyone else, versus really owning who you are and where you come from.”

“The Tribe” juxtaposes high levity with horror, such as when a centuries-long list of persecutions of the Jews scrolls silently up a black screen.

“It’s that combination, that tension that we were trying to ride,” she said. “We’re constantly navigating a world where there’s good and there’s bad, there’s funny and there’s dark.”

In 1996, Shlain, since honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” founded the Webby Awards, now the international online community’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. Her last film was “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” a playful 14 minutes about reproductive rights. The movie was a 2003 Sundance Film Festival official selection.

“I actually feel like my film style has been so influenced by the Web, my work with the Web, the linking and the movement,” she said.

“The Tribe” aims to be interactive: Viewers get “tool kits” with a DVD of the film, a “Guide From the Perplexed” booklet exploring the film’s ideas in greater depth, flash cards with words and images from the movie, and tips for holding viewing parties.

“I’m interested in the challenge of taking a complicated subject and trying to look at it through a new lens and having people think of it differently. That’s a very Jewish thing on some level: There are these same old questions, and each generation is asking them.”

“The Tribe” premieres next year in Los Angeles in March and in New York City in April. For more information, see tribethefilm.


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