A nice Jewish doll: She goes by ‘Barbie’

The cultural icon immigrated from Europe, changed her name, and wove herself into the fabric of America
Contemporary Barbie. (Melody Barron, via the National Library of Israel)
Contemporary Barbie. (Melody Barron, via the National Library of Israel)
‘Barbie Reads Torah,’ by Jen Taylor Friedman. 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, blonde, thin, and tall at 11 inches (28 cm), whose 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, which debuted in 1959, would become a mass-produced doll for young girls (and also boys, we don’t judge, and neither should you), and end up being 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, but to love doing so.

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

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In 1959, after three years of development, Barbie sprang fully formed into the word, 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 10-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 doll aimed at girls that was an adult, not a doll in the shape of a baby or a doll that was a child, but a doll with which the young girl could play at being a grown up and dress up with her most loyal doll companion.

Contemporary Barbie

The Barbie doll doesn’t “look” Jewish. But her heritage is Jewish and full of chutzpah. Ruth Handler was ambitious and held her own in the so-called man’s 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 are bleached blonde, Ruth Handler, and consequently Barbie, is particularly Jewish-American. Just by immigrating from Europe, changing her name and weaving herself into the very fabric of American life, the Barbie doll became international and a part of culture that is both inspired and inspirational.

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About the Author
Melody Barron is a writer and editor at the National Library of Israel. Jewish heritage, culture, and history are her bread and butter.