A Nice Jewish Doll: She Goes By “Barbie”

How Ruth Moskowitz Handler, the Jewish creator of the Barbie doll, changed history and the toy industry forever.

"Barbie Reads Torah" by Jen Taylor Friedman, HaSoferet. Posted with permission

When Ruth Handler (formerly Moskowitz) traveled to Switzerland in 1956 with her family – her husband Elliot and their children Barbara and Kenneth – they came across a small figurine in a shop with a striking appearance: she was blonde, thin, and tall at 11 inches (28 cm). Her name was Lilli.

Bild’s “Lilli”

The Lilli doll was a novelty item for adults. The all-American Barbie doll, named for little Barbara Handler of course, debuted in 1959 would soon become a mass-produced doll for young girls (and also boys, we don’t judge, and neither should you). Barbie eventually solidified her status as the most popular doll in the history of toys. The Ken doll, which debuted a few years later, was named for Ruth Handler’s son Kenneth, of course.

Elliot, Ruth, Barbara, and Kenneth Handler in their home, 1960s. From Ruth Handler’s, “Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story”, 1994.

Ruth Handler’s story, and Barbie’s, is part and parcel of the American story. The daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Ruth Moskowitz was born the youngest of 10 children in Denver, Colorado. As a teenager she was sent to be a shop-girl in her aunt’s store, where she not only learned the basics of running a business, she fell in love with it.

During her marriage to Elliot Handler, the two formed a plastic and wood business, making props and toys for Hollywood studios and toy shops nationwide. Along with another business partner, the Handlers formed “Mattel”.

In 1959, after three years of development, Barbie sprang fully formed into the world, bathing suit and all. Barbie was a child’s toy with adult outfits, accessories, and most importantly – a job.

The first Barbie, 1959

Handler herself wrote in her autobiography, “Dream Doll”:

“The idea had been the result of the many times I had observed my daughter Barbara playing with paperdolls with her friends… Barbara and her friends always insisted on playing with adult female paperdolls. They were simply not interested in baby paperdolls or even those representing ten-year-olds, their own age… I discovered something very important: They were using these dolls to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women.”

The Barbie doll was the first “adult” doll intended for girls – not a doll in the shape of a baby or a child, but one with which the young girl could play at being a grown up. Barbie was a loyal, mature companion.

Contemporary Barbie

The Barbie doll may not have a particularly Jewish “look”, but her heritage is Jewish and full of chutzpah. Ruth Handler was ambitious and held her own in the male-dominated world of business. She thought of young girls not merely as consumers, but as the future generation of women in America and all around the world. Well, almost all. Back in 2003 Saudi officials declared the “Jewish Barbie Dolls” a threat to morality.

You can’t please everyone.

Though Barbie’s Jewish roots may be bleached blonde, they are undeniable. Just by immigrating from Europe, changing her name and weaving herself into the very fabric of American life, the Barbie doll became an international sensation – a cultural icon that is both inspired and inspirational.


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The Yankee Talmud Gives a Different Spin on Purim of 1892

Purim is upon us! And it so happened that the 1892 American elections happened at around the same time. And so Gershon Rosenzweig, a Hebrew author and Jewish immigrant to the New World, wrote "Tractate America", to answer the question of who will win the election – the one with the most gold.

The large wave immigration of Eastern European Jewry to America began in 1881. For them, America was an unknown country, but was also “der goldener medinah”, a country which promised a safe haven, liberty and equal rights, regardless of religion.

The immigrant Jews saw America as a completely different diaspora than Europe. It was a place where they could continue to live as Jews while taking part in building a new and improved society; a far-cry from the intolerant and tyrannical regimes they left behind.

However, the utopic image of the new land was contrasted with a negative reality of America: an America whose citizens were low class immigrants, an America whose new lifestyle threatens Orthodox Jews, an America devoid of Torah and fear of God.

America, the capitalist country who truly did worship a golden calf.

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe are received with open arms by their American brothers, late 19th century. From the book “In the Footsteps of Columbus: Jews in America”, The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, 1987

In a world without internet and television, it was authors and journalists who painted the picture of America for the Eastern European Jews, people like famed Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem (Shalom Yaacov Rabinowitz) and Gershon son of Zalman Leib Rosenzweig who wrote a humorous Purim tractate about the improper characteristics and the ugly deeds and customs “which the Americans are not immune from”.

Rosenzweig was born in Bialystok in 1861. He studied and worked there as a teacher, and in 1888 left to build himself a new future in America. He lived in New York, where he worked in different professions: teaching, a worker in a shoe store and Yiddish journalism. Concurrently he worked “to bestow a Hebrew newspaper on the Jewish people in America”. His love for his beautiful new country did not blind him to its shortcomings, which he wrote about in his special parodic and cynical writing style.

In his own words, he was one of the Americans “who knows this country, and the livelihood and the rottenness [in Hebrew – מחיה וקלקלה a play on words found in the Grace After Meals] within it, and not those who live across the sea and see dreams in America”.

His most famous parody is “Tractate America”, a humorous “Talmudic tractate” in which he criticizes the materialism, spiritual poverty, greed and servitude to money which were also part of Jewish life in America. He wrote especially for Purim and the 1892 elections of that year.

Tractate America from the Yankai Talmud, Gershon Rosenzweig. New York, 1892. Signed by the author.

Rosenzweig wrote the tractate in Talmudic language, in the style of the Talmud with the commentary of “Rashi”. So, for example, one of Rosenzweig’s imaginary “sugyot” (Talmudic topics) asks: Why America?

And the ‘Talmud’ answers: “Because empty [in Hebrew – reikim] and reckless people came to it, and it is the place of an Ama Reika (lit. an empty nation – a stupid nation)”. And: “Because it cleanses [in Hebrew – memareket, a play on the word America] the sins of sinners who become pure in it and of unfit people who become pedigreed in it”.

The humorous Tractate America continues: “Ten statuses came first to America, and they are: murderers, thieves, reporters (of Jews to the secular authorities), ignitors of houses, printers of banknotes, sellers of souls, false witnesses, bankrupt people, people who were excommunicated and rebellious sons. And there are those who say even girls who were tempted”.

Rosenzweig also explains that Tractate America is part of the “Yankai” (Yankee) Talmud. Why Yankai? In the name of the Yankees – the residents of the north eastern states of the USA and “in the name of the citizens who absorbed [yank]) the Torah of America in their childhood“.

It’s All About the Gold

The first edition of Tractate America was published in New York in 1892, which was also an election year. The president elected in those elections was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president – the only president in American history to be elected for two non-consecutive terms of office.

This was his second term of office. Cleveland was known as being arrow-straight, a warrior against corruption, and a sworn capitalist who supported reducing taxes and believed that federal government should limit its involvement in economic issues as much as possible.

Part of his election campaign revolved around the American currency policy. At the time, Cleveland fought for “the Gold Standard” – linking the currency to gold, which enabled any person to enter any bank and exchange his banknotes for gold. In the period which preceded Cleveland’s term of office, the dollar was linked not only to gold, but to silver as well, which was less stable.

This caused fluctuations of the economy, which continued, and even worsened, during Cleveland’s term of office. Through no fault of Cleveland’s, his second term of office is known for a series of economic disasters: a railway company collapsed, hundreds of banks closed, thousands of farmers and business owners went bankrupt, the stock exchange plunged, and the country fell into a deep economic crisis. The crisis was so deep-seated that it destroyed the Democratic Party and caused it to split.

So how is a president elected in America? Here are several related “sugyot” found in Tractate America, possibly even on the backdrop of that tumultuous election, and the “Gold Standard”:

How are Presidents elected in America?

Each and every president appointed in America, is appointed by casting lots. What are lots? Bribery.”

According to Rosenzweig’s humorous Talmud, no president is elected without bribing his voters and scattering his gold to “the politicians“.

He adds:

“It says in the Mishna, the gold buys the president and the judge and Rabbi Yankee says even the tyrant.”

This is followed by a scholarly discussion whose conclusion is: “From here we learn that anyone who has gold becomes pleasant, good and pure“.

Don’t believe it? Here is the “sugya” before you:

In humorous tractates and newspaper articles Rosenzweig continued to write satire about the difficulties experienced by the Easter European immigrants and their new lives in America… he is also known for “Tractate Lies” about April Fools’ Day pranks and “Tractate Camouflage” about Purim costumes.

Rosenzweig died in New York in 1914, but has never been forgotten. His works from the “New World” of the time are read and reread to this day by Hebrew readers who find them to still be as relevant ever.

Gershon Rosenzweig

“Letter Returned to Sender: The Jewish Council No Longer Exists”

59 envelopes attest to the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. "It is important that the world know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans' cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors."

“I have a very important item which I must give to you,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone, “And I ask that you come to collect it personally, as soon as possible.” The name of the man who telephoned the archive department some six months ago is a familiar one in the Library: the engineer Yosef Weichert, son of Michael Weichert whose large, extensive archive has been preserved in the National Library for almost fifty years.

A surprise awaited us when we came to visit him in Tel Aviv: Mr. Weichert gave us an item which for various reasons had not been deposited with the rest of his father’s archive material, and had remained in the family’s possession. With great excitement he handed us an album with a faded cover and said: “The time has come to present you with this historical item. It is important that the world become aware of the story and remember and know that the Poles collaborated with the Germans’ cruel actions during the Holocaust and were fully aware of the horrors.”

Meticulously arranged in the album were 59 letter envelopes sent between September 1940 and May 1941 to the various branches of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (ZSS) from the central office in Krakow. All the letters sent by the chairman of the organization, Michael Weichert, were returned to him.

The Polish postal service returned them to his office, a while after they were sent, with various handwritten additions on the envelope: “Left the address”; “The Jews were deported” or “The Jewish council no longer exists”.

Without a doubt, the Polish postmen were fully aware of what had befallen the addressees whose letters were returned to the sender. Michael Weichert was horrified by the returned mail, knowing that each envelope bearing a Polish postman’s comment hinted to a community which no longer existed. In his eyes, the envelopes, some of which were also stamped with a Polish stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” were also an expression of the collaboration and unrestrained affinity many Poles felt toward the Nazi’s actions.

On the above envelope: the logo of the “Jewish Social Self-Help Organization”, underneath it, a red stamp: “Victory to the Germans on all fronts!” Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

Weichert decided to conceal the envelopes in a hiding place, together with other documentation from that time. After the war, he removed the envelopes from their hiding place, so his son who witnessed his actions told us, and added them to his archive. But who was Michael Weichert and what was the organization for which he sent these letters to dozens of communities throughout Poland?

Michael Weichert was born in 1890 in the city of Podhajce, Eastern Galicia. His natural affinity for the world of literature and theatre and his excellence in classical studies mapped this talented young man’s path, and he decided to dedicate his life to Jewish theatre.

After completing his studies, with excellence, in the law faculty of Vienna University, he travelled to Berlin and registered for studies at the Academy of Theatre Arts headed by the well-known director Max Reinhardt. When the First World War came to an end Weichert returned to Poland and settled in Warsaw, where in 1929 he opened a studio for young experimental theater which gradually developed into the “Young Jewish Theatre”. Despite Weichert’s great success as director of the theatre, he needed another job to supplement his meager income, and he worked in his profession as an attorney in the service of various Jewish charitable and social aid institutions.

Dr. Michael Weichert

When the Second World War broke out, Weichert found himself in the eye of the storm – he was the legal consultant of the umbrella organization which unified the Jewish self-help social aid organizations in Poland. His natural leadership abilities led to him being the person who decided to accept the Germans’ offer to continue to operate these organizations. The aid funds sent to the organization from the Joint Distribution Committee in America were the deciding factor in the Germans’ decision to permit the activity to continue, under their tight supervision. In May 1940 Weichert was transferred to Krakow, where he was appointed as chairman of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organization (in Polish: Zydowska Samopomoc Spoleczna – ZSS).

Weichert was joined by Marek Biberstein, the head of the Krakow Judenrat as co-director of the organization. Many people were disconcerted by the organization’s close connections with the German authorities, and an attempt was even made at the end of the War to accuse Weichert of collaboration with the Nazis. Weichert was deeply hurt by these accusations, and spent many years clearing his name and proving his innocence.

“The Jewish council in Leszno no longer exists”. An envelope returned by the Polish postal service in May 1941.

All of the ZSS’s foreign relations had to be conducted – by order of the authorities – through the German Red Cross, and the organization was under close supervision of the authorities. Even its management was approved directly by the authorities in September 1940. The organization had advisers for each of the four Generalgouvernement districts, as well as representatives on local aid committees. The ZSS distributed food to the Jews of the Generalgouvernement and directed other widespread aid activities – such as operation of centers for agricultural training for the members of the socialist youth movements, aid to Jews in the forced labor camps, and more.

Many towns had branches of the organization which were all subordinate to Weichert’s management. The management of the organization in Krakow, headed by Weichert, coordinated, initiated and supervised the social aid activities in all the towns under its authority, including of various organizations which were effectively subservient to it but were often given full freedom of action. During the three years of its activity, this organization dealt with some half a million people, half of the total number of Jews in the area it was responsible for. Despite the tremendous disparity between the needs of the public and the ability to help them, the self-help organization managed to provide portions of food to the soup kitchens, as well as to send packages of dry food, medicine and clothing to the poor. The Germans ordered the organization to shut down once they began the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’. Its activity ceased on July 29, 1942, and a Jewish self-help office was opened in its stead, which was subordinate to the Gestapo and closely supervised by it.

The many frictions between Weichert and the various Polish underground movements led to him being forced to hide from them and to his life being in two-fold danger –  not only from the fury of those who saw him as a Nazi collaborator, but also due to having been sentenced to death by the Germans themselves, who issued an arrest order against him. Weichert, managed to survive the Holocaust, along with his wife and son. They arrived in Israel in 1958, bringing with them a large and valuable archive of documentation which has unique significance for the history of the Holocaust, as well as, and perhaps primarily in Weichert’s eyes, material which told the story of the Jewish theatre in pre-Holocaust Poland, during the War and in the short-lived period of flourishing after the War.

Comments of the Polish postman who returned the envelopes to the sender. Michael Weichert Archive, the National Library

The envelopes of the letters sent back to Weichert from the various branches of the aid organization he managed are important testimony and a painful memory of those difficult days. It was the Polish postmen who informed him about the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities throughout Poland. This extraordinary documentation is now preserved in the National Library and is available to researchers and historians who undoubtedly, will continue to study this dark and terrible period of human history.


Lucie Dreyfus and Her Fight for Her Husband

The personal letters Lucie Dreyfus sent to her husband Alfred and the extensive correspondence she conducted with the authorities reveal the tremendous efforts she exerted and the personal aspect of one of the most notorious anti-Semitic affairs in history.

Lucie and Pierre Dreyfus, a photograph from 1891. The Dreyfus Family Collection

On October 15, 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, an officer with the rank of captain in the French General Staff, was asked to report to headquarters at nine in the morning in civilian clothing for “an examination of the trainee officers”. Despite the puzzling request, the captain remained unperturbed and parted from his family as he did regularly. It was a pleasant morning, and his three year old son Pierre insisted on escorting him to the front door. The memory of this parting, Dreyfus later wrote in his memoirs, is what helped him cope with everything the following years sent his way.

Colonel du Paty de Clam, who was sent to question Dreyfus, wasted no time and dictated a document to the captain under express orders that he “be fastidious with his writing”. At the end of the dictation, the colonel rose wildly from his chair and declared “I arrest you in the name of the law, you are accused of a serious crime of treason.” Dreyfus was imprisoned in a military jail and was forbidden to contact his family.

“The Martyr”, Graphic (an illustrated weekly newspaper), London 1899. From the National Library collections

During a period of increasing national paranoia – a period in which the French Republic was rife with rumors and reports of treason and the sale of secrets to the German arch enemy – the suitable scapegoat had been found in Alfred Dreyfus.

When a secret document containing a series of military secrets was found being offered for sale, suspicion fell on Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the French General Staff. At the end of a short military trial he was convicted of treason and sent to lifelong exile on Devil’s Island, which is close to the shores of French Guiana in South America.

The story did not end there. Before being sent to Devil’s Island, the astounded Dreyfus was forced to undergo a terrible ceremony of degradation in which he was denounced as a traitor to the Republic. During the ceremony, which was held in the courtyard of the military school in Paris, he was stripped of all his ranks, his sword was taken from him and broken and the furious crowd which had gathered screamed anti-Semitic expletives at him.

Despite the drastic deterioration in his physical and mental health during his time in jail, until his dying day, Drefus refused to believe that it was hidden anti-Semitism in the army which led to his terrible ordeal.

Alfred Dreyfus, stripped of his ranks, Le Petite Journal, January 13, 1895. From the National Library’s collections

Upon his arrest, he was given the opportunity to choose the only “honorable way out” in such cases – a loaded revolver was placed in his cell to enable him to take his own life. To the jailers’ great surprise, Dreyfus refused to make use of the revolver and continued to protest his innocence. From the moment he was denied his freedom and his personal dignity, Dreyfus’ family decided to serve as his mouthpiece and worked tirelessly for his acquittal.

While his brother Mathieu acted within legal and diplomatic channels to obtain a re-trial and acquittal for his older brother, Lucie Dreyfus – Alfred’s beloved young wife – decided to invest all her energy into improving the new prisoner’s living conditions.

She sent him letters regularly, in which she updated her husband about their children, his brother’s tireless efforts for his acquittal, and of course, offered him words of encouragement and compassion. In a letter sent on January 16, 1895, Lucie wrote worriedly: “How are you my poor beloved, do you not feel weak because of the prison regime, you, who are in such need of fresh air and movement?”

Lucie’s letter to her husband, Paris, January 16, 1895. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

It can be assumed that she was aware of the conditions in which her husband was imprisoned, and that she knew Dreyfus spent his five years on Devil’s Island living in a filthy shack. Temperatures sometimes reached 120 degrees fahrenheit. No amount of pleading from her would have changed the basic circumstances of his imprisonment, and therefore she tried to ease his lot in different ways. She conducted extensive correspondence with the Ministry of the Colonies, which was responsible for prisoners such as her husband.

On July 2, 1895 she received a reply: “Madame, you contacted our offices in order to receive permission to send fifty bottles of condensed milk to your husband (…) as according to law the exile Dreyfus has the right to take care of his needs and his food at his own expense, I do not oppose you sending these food products directly to Guiana…”

A letter from the Ministry of the Colonies to Lucie Dreyfus, July 2, 1985. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

Other letters which she sent and received from the Ministry of the Colonies prove how persistent Lucie was in her fight to improve her husband’s conditions. Documentation from the archive reveals that Lucie received a letter from the Minister of the Colonies himself, André Lebon, informing her that he rejected several books she sent to her husband under the pretext that their pages were not properly cut.

Letter from the Minister of the Colonies to Lucie Dreyfus, May 5, 1896. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

Resourceful Lucie found a solution, and in a later letter the director of the prison informed her that all the travelogue books she sent to her husband were approved and  passed on to the prisoner.

In 1899, the pro-Dreyfus coalition (known as the “Dreyfusards”) succeeded in securing a re-trial for the convicted officer. When Dreyfus was informed about the re-trial, he immediately sent a moving letter to his wife’s parents – the Hadamards – in which he expresses deep gratitude to their daughter for her support, support without which he would not have survived the grueling period of imprisonment. Why did Dreyfus send the letter to Lucie’s parents? The opening lines provide a clear answer: “If my letter should reach you before my return to France,” he writes to Lucie’s parents, “I ask that you hug Lucie and our dear children on my behalf, in anticipation of the overwhelming joy yet to be felt when I hold them in my arms, and when I will finally be able to help Lucie forget the long years of terrible suffering through a peaceful and happy life.”

The letter Alfred Dreyfus sent to Lucie’s parents. Iles de Salut, June 4, 1899. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

The military tribunal which convened to review Dreyfus’ case found the accused guilty once again, this time of less severe treason, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The legal battle originally seemed to have been a further defeat for his supporters (led by Mathieu and other relatives). However, a month after the verdict, the President of the Republic pardoned Dreyfus – on the condition that he confess to his crime. Due to the heavy pressure exerted on him by Mathieu and his many other supporters, he reluctantly confessed. As soon as he was released he began to take action to obtain complete exoneration from any suspicion of treason.

The pain in confessing to the most despicable act a soldier in the service of the Republic could commit, as Dreyfus himself saw it, was dimmed only by the reunion with his wife and children.

The military establishment refused to recognize his innocence, and it was only in 1906, after a long trial, that the judge ruled that all the evidence and claims against Dreyfus were not credible and issued a final ruling exonerating Alfred Dreyfus of any guilt. Despite Dreyfus’ desire to return to the army, his poor state of health (the result of prolonged imprisonment in sub-human conditions) prevented him from continuing to serve the Republic. He was released from all military service a year later. He returned to the army during the First World War and stood by the Republic during one of the most brutal wars in history.

Alfred Dreyfus passed away in 1935, 29 years after receiving the presidential pardon and his freedom.

In 1975, Jeanne Dreyfus-Levi, Alfred and Lucie’s daughter, decided to transfer part of the Dreyfus Family Archive to the National Library of Israel. Out of feelings of closeness and affection for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, she ensured that the most personal and moving family letters dealing with the Dreyfus affair be transferred to the Library.

Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in their later years. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

The article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. Betty Halpern-Gadez of the National Library of Israel’s Archives Department.