Growing up, I watched Betty Boop and Mighty Mouse cartoons every Saturday morning. Then I played with my Barbie dolls all afternoon. And for a break, I read and reread my ever-growing stack of Superman comic books. Weekday afternoons, I watched Shari Lewis and her puppet creation, Lamb Chop, on TV.
What I didn’t realize then was that all these characters and shows shared a common denominator. All were the works of Jewish illustrators, writers, performers and entrepreneurs.
Betty Boop was the invention of animator Max Fleischer, born in Krakow, Poland, in 1883. Produced by Fleischer Studios and released by Paramount Pictures, Betty was featured in 90 theatrical cartoons between 1930 and 1939. Since then, she’s lived on in comic strips, movies, and mass merchandising. Boop-oop-a-doop!
Even Betty’s best-known voice, that of Mae Questel, was the daughter of Orthodox Jews. Imagine what Mae’s parents thought of the sexy, short-shirted flapper cartoon character she voiced. Boop-oop-a-doop and a double oy vey!
Toy doll Barbie was the creation of Ruth Marianna Handler, daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants. Handler’s husband and his business partner manufactured furniture before forming the Mattel Toy Company (a blending of their first names Matt and Elliot).
But it was Ruth who had noticed that her daughter and friends were playing not with baby dolls but with paper dolls, pretending the toys were adults. Inspired by that observation, while vacationing abroad, Ruth saw a German doll — Bild Lilli. It wasn’t even a children’s toy, but an adult gag gift. Still, Ruth bought it, brought it home and redesigned it. She also gave it a new name — Barbie, after her daughter Barbara.
Barbie debuted at the American Toy Fair in New York in 1959. Since then, more than 1 billion of the 11½-inch plastic dolls have been sold worldwide. I owned three, plus a Ken doll and Barbie’s little sister, whose name I now forget.
And then there’s the Man of Steel.
Superman’s creators were Jerome Siegel, whose parents fled antisemitism in Lithuania, and his buddy and fellow landsman Joe Shuster.
Through the years, many have noted that Superman’s origin — the escape from the dying planet of Krypton — mirrors the story of Moses cast down the Nile to become the savior of millions. And people see Superman’s mourning for those lost on Krypton as survivor’s guilt after the Holocaust.
My other Saturday TV cartoon show favorite, Mighty Mouse, sprang from the mind of Jewish American cartoonist-writer Isadore (Izzy) Klein, who dreamed up the flying, fighting rodent as a parody to Superman while working at a rival studio.
As for Phyllis Naomi Hurwitz, better known as Shari Lewis: She was beloved by my generation as the creator of the sock puppet Lamb Chop and his pals, Hush Puppy and Charlie Horse.
And now, looking back, I ask myself, why, in a universe of cartoons and a galaxy of toys, did this dissimilar batch of creations resonate with little girl me?
What drew me to two oversexualized “dollies,” two overmuscular heroes — one mousey, one man — and a group of sweet sock puppets? Their only underlying similarity is, in fact, their Jewish creators.
As a child, I didn’t know of the Jewish affiliation of the artists. Even if I had, I would not have cared. So tribal boosterism wouldn’t have been the source of the attraction.
It could be argued perhaps that Betty, the Man of Steel and the mouse are a bit similar, all fighting bad guys, although, of course, Babe Betty’s scrapes were portrayed in a comic nature.
Fighting for a schenere un besere velt (a more beautiful and better world) has long been a goal of the Jewish people. So was that the underlying attraction?
As for Barbie, her only “Jewish” trait is that she’s a super-shopper, but, of course, that trait is shared by many people — race, gender and religion aside!
Mere coincidence is also a possibility, but somehow, I feel there’s more to it.
So I’m left wondering. Is there some underlying Jewish “essence” in these creations that drew me in? I think there must be, even though I can’t define it.