Life & Culture

The hidden Jewish roots of the summer's biggest flicks

Both Barbie and Oppenheimer have their roots in the Jewish American dream


One of the world’s most enduring views about Jews is that we run the media, and Hollywood in particular.

When it comes from the mouths of antisemites it’s a slur, of course, but for others, it’s a compliment, a source of pride, an example of how Jewish Americans have made their mark on their country.

And there’s no denying Los Angeles Jews have brought some of the most famous stories to life on screen.

This summer, I’m pleased to say, is no exception. Later this month, the hotly anticipated double release of Oppenheimer and Barbie hits screens and they both have Jewish fingerprints all over them.

But, I can hear you say, Barbie is an expression of pure goyism, a shiksa role model for America. No, I reply. Barbie actually has a profoundly Jewish history.

Her story began in the 1910s with Ruth Moskowicz, the daughter of a Polish blacksmith who emigrated to Colorado in search of a better life.

In 1959, when she was in her early 40s and on a trip to Europe, Ruth (now Handler) came up with the idea for a hyper-feminine doll and named her creation after her daughter Barbara.

The doll was an instant success and to date, more than a billion dolls in various forms, from the classic clotheshorse to the woman in STEM, have been sold.

However, much like the Jewish writers of superhero comics, who created ultra-gentile strong men as a reaction to the Holocaust, Barbie was almost the anti-Jewish woman, appealing as she did to Middle American ideas of womanhood: blonde hair, white teeth and long legs.

Once launched, Barbie was brought into American homes by another talented Jew, Ernst Ditcher, an Austrian psychologist turned marketing guru.

And, decades later there are Jewish fingerprints over the eponymous film. Co-writer Noah Baumbach, a director and writer with a particularly Jewish flare for storytelling, was signed up to the project by his wife, the director Greta Gerwig, who in a very Jewish mother move, told the studio he’d do it before she’d asked him.

But July 21 also sees a darker release: Oppenheimer, a thriller about the man who built the bomb to end all bombs.

And it too has a Jewish back story. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the son of German-Jewish immigrants Ella and Julius who disembarked at Ellis Island with nothing but a wish and a prayer.

Echewing their religious observance, the family settled into the rapidly growing Jewish community of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they ran a lucrative textile business and collected art.

When their theoretical physicist son progressed into the field of nuclear weapons, he worked with another Jew: one Albert Einstein, who encouraged President Roosevelt to speed up development of their own bomb, lest the Nazis acquire one first.

In their own ways, this summer’s two hottest films are expressions of the American Jewish story. And you can see either or both knowing you’re engaging in that most Jewish of summer pastimes —hiding from the sun.

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