Jewish history seen through the eyes of Barbie

There was Airline Stewardess Barbie, Fashion Model Barbie and even White Chocolate Obsession Barbie.

But what about Latke-Frying Chanukah Barbie or Candle-Lighting Shabbat Barbie?

There’s no sign of them, which is odd considering a Jewish woman, Ruth Handel, created the perennially popular doll for Mattel Toys in 1959.

Perhaps the closest we will come to a Kosher for Passover Barbie is “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll,” a new short film set to premiere in San Francisco on Dec. 3.

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain crammed 5,000 years of Jewish history into “The Tribe,” which weaves archival footage, animation and even a splash of slam poetry into a mere 17 minutes.

Narrated by Peter Coyote, “The Tribe” is a furiously paced kaleidoscopic view of Jewish history, covering the biblical era (with Abraham Barbie and Sarah Barbie in full Judean desert regalia), the diaspora right up through the Holocaust and beyond.

And of course, there’s plenty of Barbiana, including black-and-white TV ads from the ’60s. As Coyote notes in his narration, were a real human being to possess Barbie’s physical dimension, she wouldn’t be able to walk.

Shlain is no fan of passive moviegoing. When audience members show up at the Herbst Theatre for the premiere, they will be handed a package containing flash cards, a DVD copy of the film and a booklet titled “Guide From The Perplexed.” Most importantly for Shlain, attendees will be invited to stay afterwards for a dialogue about Jewish identity.

“I’m really interested in films as sparks for discussion,” says Shlain, who lives in Marin with her collaborator husband, Ken Goldberg, and their 3-year-old daughter, Odessa. “The film is the appetizer.”

Shlain says she came up with the idea for “The Tribe” several years ago after learning about Handel’s Jewish background. “The fact that Barbie was created by a Jewish woman is an irony of pop culture,” she says. “The small nose and blond hair, the face of idealized beauty: Barbie is the ultimate insider.”

Once she contrasted that with her sense of the Jewish people as the ultimate outsiders, she knew she had a viable idea for a film.

Shlain drew on footage housed in film archives across the country. She also hired a Barbie specialist/collector (there are lots of them out there) as a consultant. The painstaking writing and editing process took several years, despite the film’s short length.

At 35, Shlain has a uniquely skewed view of modern life, Jewish and otherwise.

“For my parents’ generation, the goal was to assimilate into America, to change your name, get a nose job, dye your hair,” she says. “In my generation, the goal is not to assimilate. It’s about a remixing of different cultures and identities.”

As a Jew growing up in secular household, Shlain had to reinterpret for herself the nature of Jewish identity. “It struck me how much I didn’t know about my own past,” she says. “I didn’t understand the larger context. We often know a lot about different cultures except our own. But it’s important to know where you come from.”

Shlain actually comes from Mill Valley. She graduated from Redwood High School and went on to study film at U.C. Berkeley. Even then, she had a feel for editing archival material. “I would take old footage and recut it,” she recalls. “I once took [the 1920 German silent horror classic] ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and recut it into a film about AIDS.”

Her last short film “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” tackled the subject of choice and reproductive rights.

She is also founder of the Webby Awards, which honors the best of the Internet and was dubbed “the online equivalent of the Oscars” by the New York Times. Shlain is looking ahead to the 10th anniversary of the Webby Awards next year, which will air on HBO.

Though she had shied away from Jewish affiliation earlier in her adulthood, Shlain says she and her husband observe Shabbat, which she calls “the ultimate Jewish experience: family, food and discussion.”

After the San Francisco screening, “The Tribe” makes its way to Los Angeles and New York for similar events. At every stop, Shlain’s fondest hope for her film is that it might serve as a Jewish springboard for discussion.

Says Shlain: “To start a conversation about what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century is the only goal.”

“The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll” screens 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness, S.F. Tickets: $18. Information: (415) 392-4400 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.