[Archived from October 9, 2009]
by Michelle Jones
According to filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, one of the best unexpected rewards of making the short film “The Tribe” is getting to “travel all over the world and hang out with really cool Jewish women.” She certainly got to do that on the evening of September 24 when she presented “The Tribe” to a diverse group of Jewish women from the Louisville area.
Over 80 women gathered for “Breakfast With Tiffany” at Wild Eggs in Westport Village. It was an evening of breakfast food, festive cocktails and interesting content at one of the first events presented by the post-merger Jewish Community of Louisville.
Using the fact that a Jewish woman, Ruth Handler, invented the Barbie doll as a jumping off point, Shlain’s 18-minute film, released in 2006, explores complex questions of American Jewish identity.
When Handler died in 2002 Shlain read an obituary that failed to acknowledge Handler’s Jewishness. That omission was a glaring one to Shlain. To her, it’s one of the great ironies of the 20th century that a Jewish woman created the ultimate blond haired shiksa cultural icon.
In her post screening remarks, Shlain asked the women in the audience how many had ever received comments like “You don’t look Jewish.” As a blue-eyed blond named Tiffany, Shlain has received more than her fair share of such comments. A lifetime of those remarks and the feelings they inspired coupled with a dramatic experience with other young Jews at a Reboot summit inspired Shlain to write “The Tribe” with her husband, Ken Goldberg.
The Reboot summit’s mission was “to understand generational changes in identity, community and meaning” and most of the participants were, like Shlain, not engaged in traditional Jewish life. As disconnected as they were though Shlain described the participants as being “hungry for community.”
That hunger was the impetus for expanding “The Tribe” from just a short film into a larger “trigger for conversation.” She and Goldberg wrote a conversation guide, “Guide from the Perplexed” to accompany DVDs of the film. The guide aims to serve as a catalyst for turning simple film screenings into venues where people can be connected and engaged with discussions about Jewish identity and individual questions of Jewishness outside the traditional settings of synagogues or community organizations.
“The Tribe” project has since grown to include a curriculum for high school and college students created in partnership with university Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, Sociology, and Education departments.
Through that work and the warm reception both the film and filmmaker have received, Shlain says she feels “more connected than I ever have.” Her 6 year old daughter is fiercely proud of her Jewish identity and though the family has yet to find a synagogue where they feel at home, they have started celebrating Shabbat and plan to spend a year in Israel.
Despite much hand wringing about a generation of young unaffiliated, unobservant or unconnected Jews, Shlain says she’s not at all concerned. Conversations, like ones about “The Tribe”, are springing up everywhere, both in and out of traditional Jewish religious and cultural circles. It’s those conversations that Shlain believes hold the key to connecting and engaging Jews in new and different ways.
While it’s unlikely that Tiffany Shlain anticipated the great and significant positive impact a short film about Barbie would have, she was aware of potential negative attention. Since Mattel is well known for suing “people who mess with Barbie” Shlain was nervous that she’d receive a call from the toy maker’s lawyers. That call never came but one demanding she remove the tongue-in-cheek OU kosher symbol on the poster for the “The Tribe” did.
Compared to the Mattel lawsuit that never happened the OU scuffle was a tempest in a kashered teapot. Still, Shlain tried to plead her case. “Just watch the film,” she told the rabbi and he did but his ultimate response was the same: “Barbie is not kosher.” Barbie might not be kosher but the questions and ideas on identity and community she inspired in the makers’ of “The Tribe” and the conversations they spark in the Jewish community are.
The most powerful moment of the “Breakfast With Tiffany” evening didn’t come during the screening of the film or during Shlain’s remarks. Instead it came from an audience member’s comments about her interfaith family. She said her daughter had relayed the following to her non-Jewish grandmother: “Grandma you have to be part Jewish because you’re part of our family.”
With welcoming young Jews who embrace and expand the tribe like that in our midst, Shlain may be right not to be concerned for our future generations.
The “Breakfast with Tiffany” program also included a tikkun olam (repair of the world) component. A portion of the fee each participant paid went to Nechama, the Jewish Response to Disaster. Nechama came to Louisville in August in response to the severe downtown flooding and stayed nearly a month helping with the subsequent clean-up.
Julie Strull chaired the “Breakfast with Tiffany” event. Hope Patterson, Jennifer Tuvlin, Joy Kaplan, Joanie Lustig, Bari Calderon, Melanie Wachsman, Orit Goldstein, Caren Bailen and Shannon Rothschild were the committee members who helped pull it together. JCL YAD Director Tzivia Levin, Outreach Director Allison Schwartz and JCL Vice President Sara Wagner staffed the event. Courtney Hughes took the photos.