I once read, though I forget where, that being Jewish consists mainly in asking what being Jewish means. As the somewhat frequent displays of Jewish anxiety here at Savage Minds might suggest, this isn’t too far off the mark. Many contemporary Jews face an identity crisis, or rather several identity crises, as they grapple with the meaning of a label that encompasses both Paul Wolfowitz and Jerry Seinfeld, Superman and Benny Goodman, Albert Einstein and Harvey Weinstein, Matisyahu and Ariel Sharon, muscle-bound Israeli soldiers and hide-bound New York accountants, rock stars and astrophysicists, atheists and mysticists and regular synagogue-goers and High Holiday Jews and hannukah bushes and $50,000 bar mitzvahs and poetry slams and klezmer and…
Tiffany Shlain’s short film The Tribe, now available on the TriBeCa Film Festival’s website, explores the sense of membership in, exclusion from, and indifference to that shape modern notions of Judaism, particularly in the US. Shlain takes as her central focus the figure of Barbie, the Grand Poobah of shiksas conceived by American Jewess Ruth Handler and named after her equally Jewish daughter Barbara (do I need to mention her son’s name was Ken?)
Of course, Barbie is not Jewish. Not even remotely Jewish. She is, like Marilyn Monroe (who actually was Jewish), the antithesis of Jewishness — the negation of Jewishness, even. For the Jewish student of popular culture, then, the question is: why did a Jewish women design a doll that is so un-Jewish? If Barbie stands as a role model for young girls, why set the Ideal so very far from the way Jewish women look? Blonde where Jewish women are dark-haired; straight-haired where Jewish women are curly-haired; button-nosed where Jewish women… aren’t; svelte where Jewish women are zaftig. To create an America where Barbie was the norm would require the literal erasure of Jewishness.
In this light, Barbie stands as the assimilative dreams of the peak of modernist Jewish identity. Barbie wasn’t alone in the erasure of Jewishness; Anne Frank had suffered the same indignity at the hands of the theater and film directors who brought her to stage and screen at the end of the ‘50s, choosing to “de-Jewify” both Frank and the Holocaust in favor of a “universal” message against intolerance. And, of course, a generation of Jewish actors like Kirk Douglas (née Issur Danielovich Demsky) and Tony Curtis (née Bernard Schwartz) had erased any trace of Jewishness from their public personae.
Looked at through the lens of 20th century assimilation, though, Barbie’s Jewishness is more apparent. She was un-Jewish, just like most Jews of her generation. Long before plastic surgery to attain Cosmo-cover glamour became mainstream for teenage girls, teenage Jewish girls were having their noses done as part of their Sweet 16 coming-of-age. Like Barbie, Jewish women were flexing their newfound, post-War whiteness in the department stores and realtor’s offices, drowning their Jewishness in Malibu dream houses and flashy clothes. Barbie lived the life that Jewish women like Betty Friedan held up as the feminist dream – do you think Barbie ever found herself stagnating in a suburban tract house, numbed by repetitive housework? No, she was a woman of the world – a flight attendant, an office worker, a beauty queen, even a presidential candidate from time to time!
The “non-Jewish Jew” Barbie thus stands as the ideal figure through which to explore contemporary Jewishness (see Isaac Deutscher’s “Message of the Non-Jewish Jew” for background on that tricksy concept, though I’m using it somewhat differently than Deutscher does). What’s more, contemporary Jewishness as represented in The Tribe shows a lot not just about Jewishness but about ethnicity as a whole and the paradox of a multicultural society in which organized difference (“tribes”) and organized similarity (“nations”) rub shoulders, often in the same cultural acts or artifacts. I often find myself surprised at the exclusion of Jewish Studies from anthropology (there are a few exceptions, like Matti Bunzl and Jonathan Boyarin, though Boyarin teaches in a Jewish Studies department; I myself was warned away from pursuing Jewish topics as I entered my doctoral studies) as if the study of Jewishness had little to offer us, less than saythe study of the Nuer or the Ojibwe or the Nambikwara or Chinese working women or the Mexican migrant workers or World Bank employees or corporate managers.
The Tribe worries at the edges of anthropological theory, especially the concept of culture (the “small c, plural s” concept described by Geertz) that allows us to say things like “the Nuer” and believe we are saying something meaningful. Without offering any simple answers, The Tribe riffs on the diversity of Jewish experience and the notion that all of this difference can be wrapped up in a single “tribe”, calling into question the very notion of similarity and difference as organizing principles. Starting with a deceptively simple question, “what can Barbie explain about how the current generation of Jews feels about being Jewish?”, The Tribe ends with an even more deceptively simple question: “What does it mean to be a member of any tribe?”