Peter A. Hempel’s day job has taken him to 40 countries around the world listening to people from taxi-drivers to CEOs talk about their deepest...read more desires, all while living on the company dime. He spent several spiritually enlightening years teaching two-step in an Austin honky-tonk. He lives in New Jersey, and is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Barbie (not yet “Sheila” of course) came into Esther’s life as a present for her 11th birthday.
Esther’s father, Leo, was a partner in a small law firm in Brooklyn. He was widely respected for his legal expertise, and even more importantly, he was known to be a real mensch in all his dealings with his clients. It happened that Leo had done a pro bono job helping an elderly woman save her home from foreclosure. She was deeply grateful, as were all the members of her family. One of her nephews was an actor who had played minor roles in a few popular sitcoms. but had started out doing magic shows, and still enjoyed doing magic for audiences of young people. He was happy to do a show for Leo for free, as a mitzvah to show his gratitude.
The actor’s name, or more accurately the names of the sitcoms he had appeared in, was sure to make this party a big deal among Esther’s friends. And so, Esther’s father decided to make Esther’s birthday party an occasion for her to invite more of her friends than her usual circle to celebrate.
The party was held in their backyard, which was barely large enough to hold everyone. The magic show was a great success, and lots of the kids lined up afterwards to get the actor’s autograph. Needless to say, Esther ended up with way more birthday presents than she’d ever gotten before.
One of the presents was a classic Barbie doll. It was given to her by a girl named Taffy, who was a very nice girl, but most decidedly not Jewish.
When the party was over and the guests had left, Esther and her parents carried the presents back into the house and put them down in the living room.
Esther’s father was delighted with how well everything had gone. Esther’s mother, Ada, was happy as well, but as was her nature, she couldn’t help worrying about all sorts of little things.
Now at last, Esther had a chance to look at her pile of presents. One present stood out among all the rest – the golden-haired Barbie doll. Esther knew that Barbies existed, but she had never seen one up close. She took it out of the box and looked at it.
Esther’s father was still basking in the satisfaction of a wonderful party. But now, Esther’s mother’s attention fixed on what Esther was holding in her hand.
Esther’s mother took one look at Barbie with the pink miniskirt, with the blonde hair, blue eyes and goyishe upturned nose, and a look of alarm spread over her face. “Esther. Esther, do you see this? What is this? And this outfit? Oy. This is a shiksa doll. This is not a Jewish doll. This is not a doll for a nice Jewish girl. Especially not for a nice Jewish girl who is getting ready to study for her bat mitzvah.”
Esther looked stricken. She was so excited about her exotic new present. And now her mother was going to take it away?
“Esther, I know your friend, Taffy is it? Like the candy they sell at Coney Island? I know she meant well, but they’re different. Different people. Of course you can be polite and thank her for the gift, but…well, I would just rather you have a Jewish doll instead.”
Esther looked at her mother. It had been such a wonderful party, and she had been so happy, and this is how it would end? She felt almost as if she would burst into tears. “Mama, let me keep her. I can change her. You’ll see. Maybe she can study Torah with me.”
Barbie found herself feeling an unaccustomed level of doubt. Up until now, she was sure she was doing everything right. And her pink miniskirt, white sweater and pink jacket – that was the most popular Barbie outfit of all. Every Barbie wanted the pink miniskirt outfit. It had a little bit of that Jackie Kennedy glamour, and it was an outfit that was suitable for all occasions, from shopping at the mall to having tea with her friends. The idea that her outfit was not suitable… That her hair… How was she supposed to deal with that?
All the Barbies were anxious about their new owners. She had heard stories that circulated among the Barbies about the world out there. Lots of Barbies ended up with little girls who loved them and played with them every day; some of them had lots of other Barbies as well and they and their friends spent time dressing the Barbies in their favorite outfits and had them hold Barbie parties, and Barbie outings. Of course, there were also darker stories, about other girls and particularly about the brothers of these girls who sometimes – at least so it was whispered – were not very nice at all.
At least this Esther girl seemed very nice, but this was a situation she had never heard of and had no idea what she should do. Jewish she had heard of, and quite possibly there were some Jewish Barbies, but she had never met any of them.
Barbie had been overhearing Esther’s parents’ conversation all during the party. They were Jewish, and being Jewish was important to them. They tried to take Esther to Temple at least one or two Saturdays a month, and on Passover, Esther’s mother and her two aunts would take turns hosting a big family Seder for all the relatives. And now, of course, they were looking forward to Esther’s bat mitzvah, which would signify Esther’s own entrance into the world of Jewish tradition. Where did Barbie fit in in all this? It was simple. She didn’t. She was an outcast – a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pink mini-skirted outcast.
Already this argument between Esther and her mother had undermined what had been on course to be the best birthday of Esther’s life.
At least her mother hadn’t forbidden her outright to keep her Barbie. But Esther knew she had to do something, something that would get this Barbie into her mother’s good graces.
Esther took the Barbie up to her room and thought hard.
First, she decided to give her her own name – Sheila Barbie. Esther knew that “Barbie” had to be part of the name, but thought maybe it could be a last name, since there were so many of them.
“Sheila Barbie” sounded good, it sounded just right. Esther was feeling better already.
Then Esther went online to Etsy to see what she could find that might help. She found a site called, “Jewish Stuff for Jewish Girls.” The woman who created the site had a write-up in which she discussed the Barbie doll she had loved when she was a young girl. Her Barbie had had the same problem – blonde hair, miniskirt, not Jewish at all. She loved her Barbie, but she always felt conflicted. So, when she got married and had a daughter, she wanted to let her daughter have a conflict-free Barbie. And now she was offering the same things she had come up with for her daughter to other young Jewish girls facing the same situation.
Esther was delighted. Because of the turnout at her birthday party, she had quite a bit of birthday gelt, and even though the prices were high, she felt sure she could afford pretty much whatever it would take.
Esther knew Sheila Barbie’s blonde hair was a major issue. But here at the Jewish Stuff site, she could buy Barbie a beautiful black-haired wig – made from real human hair (from long-haired Jewish girls in Eastern Europe who were happy to make some extra money just by growing their hair). This hair would not only be black, it would be real, way better than Barbie’s original blonde hair made from who knows what.
Plus, Esther found the perfect outfit. She had to have her father order it online using his credit card, but since she had the money to pay him up front, he was happy to help her out – and to keep it quiet from her mother until it arrived.
It took the package two weeks to arrive; the outfit had to be custom sewn by hand. Fortunately, they had had one last black-haired wig in stock, or the wait would’ve been much longer.
The package was waiting for Esther when she got home from school in the afternoon. She saw her mother was curious, but wasn’t asking any questions for now.
Esther almost ran up the stairs to her room with the package. When she unwrapped it, there everything was.
She started by putting the new wig over Barbie’s original blonde hair. It fit perfectly, and the transformation was immediate. With her luxurious dark hair, Barbie immediately became 90 percent less shiksa. The pink miniskirt, however, certainly did not reflect anything about Jewish culture or tradition as Esther knew it.
Besides the wig, Esther had ordered different underwear, and a charcoal gray wool skirt, with a matching jacket with black velvet trim. The skirt reached down below Barbie’s knees, about halfway down her calf, and the jacket buttoned up to the neck.
Esther took off the outfit that Barbie was wearing, including the stylish bra and tiny panties. Then she began by putting on conservative, thick white cotton underwear. After that, she put on the gray wool jacket and skirt.
Esther then took off Barbie’s high-heeled sandals. She put on dark stockings to cover her legs, and replaced the sandals with sensible black lace-up shoes, with only the slightest hint of the heel being at all higher.
This was not precisely the kind of outfit that Esther herself would wear; it was the kind of outfit that the most conservative reaches of her mind said she probably should wear, at least some of the time. In any case, it changed pretty much everything about Barbie. Now she really did look like Sheila Barbie.
Esther was delighted. But, as she kept looking at Sheila Barbie, she still wasn’t seeing herself, even beyond Barbie’s often maligned proportions. No, even with the hair and the clothes, Sheila Barbie’s intense blue eyes still gave her away.
Esther went back to the Jewish stuff website. Sure enough, they had also come up with a solution to this problem. They sold a pack of two dark brown eye stickers to be applied over the original blue. It was four dollars for the two-pack, plus shipping. She had her dad order it as soon as he got home.
This time, this package arrived in only four days. When Esther got home and found the package, she ran up to her room to apply the finishing touches.
The eye stickers fit perfectly, and looked perfect as well. There she was – Sheila, Meine Yiddishe Barbie.
All of this was strange to Barbie. She wasn’t at all sure what to think. But then, when the eye stickers had been applied, and her hair and her outfit were all in place, Esther held her up to the mirror and Sheila Barbie could see her new self for the first time.
Barbie looked at this stranger looking back at her. But slowly, she began to realize that she liked how this stranger looked. However attention-getting she had looked with her blonde hair and pink miniskirt, she had always felt slightly shallow, like someone who was never going to be taken very seriously.
Sheila Barbie was someone to be taken seriously.
When Esther showed her mother the new and improved Sheila Barbie, her mother was impressed and delighted. “What a shana maidel,” she declared. “A beautiful Jewish doll for my beautiful Jewish daughter.”
For the new Sheila Barbie, there was much to learn.
Sometimes, when Barbie heard Esther’s mother talking on the phone, or talking with some of her family members who had stopped by, Barbie couldn’t understand a word. Kishkas, tuchas, chutzpah, schmuck, dreck, bupkis. All these strange words just flying about. Once in a while there would be a word dropped in that she could catch, but beyond that, it was as if the mother was speaking some strange private language, guttural and foreign.
She noticed that even Esther did not entirely understand these conversations, although Esther’s vocabulary included a lot of words that Barbie had never heard before and struggled to try to figure out.
One word that Sheila Barbie did learn and loved was “nu.” It filled in for just about any situation. Any time she wasn’t quite sure what was going on, she would think to herself “nu?”
Esther had been going to shul for several years already, and had been learning to read and write Hebrew. But now, with only a year to go until her bat mitzvah, it was time to get really focused.
Several afternoons a week, Esther would come home from school and go up to her room to study her Torah lessons. Esther would set Sheila Barbie on the desk while she was studying, so that Sheila Barbie could look on while she recited.
“Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha‑olam shehakol bara lichvodo. –
Blessed are You, LORD, our G-d, sovereign of the universe, who created everything for His Glory."
Sheila Barbie loved the sounds and the rhythm of the prayers and the Torah texts, and she worked hard to memorize as much as she possibly could. When Esther was off at school, or any other time that Sheila Barbie was left on her own, she would take the opportunity to try to recite as much as she could from memory.
It was hard work, but it didn’t feel like work at all to Sheila Barbie. It was so exciting and so challenging. As an ordinary Barbie, no one would have ever thought to challenge her to learn anything at all. As it was, Sheila Barbie was such a fast learner that soon she began to feel that she knew the lessons better than Esther. When Esther would hesitate, or falter, Sheila Barbie wished she could speak up and help prompt her memory.
When Esther finally had her bat mitzvah, she made sure to bring Sheila Barbie along in her big bag, so that Sheila Barbie could hear everything for herself. Esther had studied long and hard, and at the ceremony, she did an exceptional job. The rabbi congratulated her, her parents congratulated her, and all her friends congratulated her. Sheila Barbie would’ve congratulated her as well if she had a chance, but in all honesty, she also felt that she herself deserved at least a little bit of the credit.
Outside of Torah studies, Sheila Barbie loved Esther’s family’s parties and get-togethers.
What a torrent of conversation, of kvetching, of noodging, of angsting! They loved to schmooze. There were no awkward moments of silence, not even a second of silence. They talked about everything, including of course, politics. They were all Jews, they were all family – but oy, when it came to politics… voices got loud, and tempers got heated. Esther’s mother regularly had to step in and remind everybody that politics were off-limits: “Genug ist genug!” Unfortunately, there were very few topics that people did not end up arguing about, so Esther’s mother was constantly bringing in fresh trays of snacks to distract everyone.
Sheila Barbie loved it all. The talk, the energy, the arguments. With the other Barbies, she had never argued at all. And back then, who knew from politics?
How Sheila Barbie wished she could schmooze like that. It had such weight, such energy, it seemed so fascinating. From her days of talking with the other Barbies, she could not remember a single thing that any of them had said. But here, she was rapt. She wanted to remember every word, she wanted to learn it all. She was bursting with the enormousness of everything.
As Esther grew older and entered high school, she spent less and less time playing with Sheila Barbie, although she would still sometimes talk to her about things that were on her mind and ask her what she thought. Most of the time however, Sheila Barbie just sat there on the top of the dresser as a quiet reminder of Esther’s best aspirations.
The summer after her sophomore year in high school, Esther took a trip out to Coney Island with four of her friends – two boys and two other girls, all Jewish. “Don’t eat the hotdogs,” her mother implored her, “not even if they dare you. From what they put in their hot dogs it’s better none of us should know. But don’t, please, please don’t eat them.”
That night, after Ester had gotten home and was getting ready for bed, she sat down with Sheila Barbie. “I did something today, Sheila Barbie,” she whispered. “I… tried a hot dog. We all did – we bought one foot-long and each of us took a bite.” Ester looked to see Barbie’s reaction. “You see, we just wanted to know. What it was like. Why it was such a big deal. And it was pretty good. I guess if I wasn’t Jewish I would eat them a lot.” She paused. “But,” she added after another minute, “it’s not so bad. This way I have momma’s matzah balls, and kugel, and lots of stuff that I love and the goyim don’t have. I don’t know, though, I might be willing to give up playing dreidel in exchange for being able to eat hot dogs.”
Esther was a bright girl, and studied hard and got excellent grades in all her subjects. So when it came time for college, she could pick and choose from among the best. And what she chose was NYU. NYU was an outstanding school, with a reputation that kept getting better and better. Esther loved the idea of the excitement of the city, and her parents were pleased that she would be only a subway ride away for her to see them.
Esther got a suite with three other girls in a new dormitory building. It wasn’t cheap, but it was new and clean and had lots of security features, which was what mattered most to all their parents. The suite had a central living room/TV room for the girls to hang out in, and each girl had a very small bedroom of their own, with a bed, a tiny closet, a chest of drawers, and a small desk for studying. Esther set Sheila Barbie on the chest of drawers where she could keep Esther company when she was studying or just lounging around.
In the beginning, everything was going well. Esther was excited about her new courses, and even though the work was hard, she never complained. She studied most nights, and on the weekends would sometimes go out with one or more of her roommates to look around, and to get something to eat at a nearby restaurant. Esther talked to her parents a couple times a week on the phone, but she was so busy with her coursework that she didn’t get back out to Brooklyn until Thanksgiving, and then not again until winter break.
Sheila Barbie was very happy with this new chapter in her and Esther’s life. From where she sat on the bureau, she could look out the window and get a bit of the view of the street below and see all the students going back and forth. What was most satisfying was watching Esther study and learn and grow. Sheila Barbie only wished that she could be a student too, with all that hard and interesting work to do.
During the fall, the weather had stayed warmer longer than usual, and it seemed as if winter might be nothing more than a minor nuisance. When Esther got back to campus after break, however, winter began to make up for lost time. It was cold, it was dark, it was gloomy. Esther got her books for her new courses, and tried to settle in. But the weather was so depressing that it was hard for her to feel excited or pay as much attention as she should.
Esther didn’t say anything, but Sheila Barbie could tell that Esther was falling behind in her work, and that her heart just wasn’t in it in the way that it had been in the fall. Sometimes Esther would glance over at Sheila Barbie, but she didn’t say anything. She just sat there, looking down and depressed. She also started spending more time hanging out in the living room with her other roommates, watching TV, ordering in pizza, and, with increasing frequency, drinking wine and beer with them. During the fall, while the other girls were watching TV and hanging out, Esther had been the diligent one. But now that had changed.
Sheila Barbie was very upset. She wanted to help, to talk to Esther and encourage her and remind her what a terrific student she could be when she tried. But Esther barely glanced at her these days; when she did happen to look over at Sheila Barbie, it seemed somehow to make her uncomfortable.
Gradually, the weather began to turn, and if spring had not yet fully arrived, it was in the air. And of course, come spring, young girls’ thoughts turn to…boys.
Although this dorm was supposed to be focused on providing a studious and academic environment, the evening TV watching, eating pizza and drinking beer quickly became a coed event, often with more boys than girls. Esther sometimes left her door ajar and Barbie could see the goings-on. These boys, she scowled. Not a yarmulke on any of them. Loud. No-good-niks. Gonifs. Dreck. These were not the sorts of boys that Esther should be talking to at all. No. Sheila Barbie was adamant.
Sometimes Sheila Barbie would see one girl or another sitting on one of the sofas in the living room making out with some boy. What? What about the rules? There must be rules! Sheila Barbie didn’t know any of the details about the rules, but she knew this was not right. Once she even spotted Esther making out with a boy on one of the sofas. The two of them would stop and laugh and giggle, and then go back to making out some more.
About a week later, Esther came into the bedroom one evening with the boy she had been making out with the other day. The boy looked over at Sheila Barbie and said to Esther, “What is that? Is that a Barbie? It doesn’t look like any Barbie I’ve ever seen. Looks more like some kind of Debbie Downer to me.”
Esther looked over at Sheila Barbie. She looked embarrassed for herself, for Sheila Barbie, and for the whole situation. She walked over and took Sheila Barbie and put her in the top dresser drawer along with her underwear and socks.
Sheila Barbie was shocked at what had just happened. In a drawer? Was this her new home? She lay there, in a jumble of underwear and some thick winter socks.
Meanwhile, Esther and the boy had gotten back to whatever they were doing, which seemed to include a lot of giggling and an occasional halfhearted, “We shouldn’t,” from Esther.
Sheila Barbie frowned. Hidden in the drawer, she couldn’t see anything, she could only hear. And after a while what she was hearing was deeply disturbing.
“Are they shtupping?” She couldn’t believe she was even thinking such a thing. But what other way was she to understand the grunting, the moaning, the sounds of the bed springs? She wanted to cover her ears, but of course she couldn’t. “No. No. No. No!” Sheila Barbie wanted to scream. She was helpless. She felt utterly mortified that this should be happening, and that she should have to bear her own kind of witness to it.
Eventually, the noises died down and finally stopped. Sheila Barbie listened. Even if it was over for them, she knew it would never be over for her.
All too soon however, was it two minutes, five minutes, who could tell? But sure enough, the same noises started up all over again. Shelia Barbie wished they could just burn her at the stake and get it over with. This, this, was unbearable.
For several days, nothing happened. Sheila Barbie lay there helpless in the drawer, and only occasionally would she hear the sounds of Esther puttering around in the bedroom.
Finally, she heard footsteps walking towards the chest of drawers. The drawer was pulled open, and Esther took Sheila Barbie from the drawer where she had been hidden away. “Sheila Barbie, you know I love you, but I’ve been changing, and it’s time for you to change too.”
With that, Esther began removing Sheila Barbie’s shoes, her gray jacket, her long skirt, and her heavy shapeless underwear. Sheila Barbie was mortified at being undressed this way, and of just lying there naked. Esther got out the box Barbie had come in on her birthday and got out Barbie’s original clothes. She put on Barbie’s Victoria’s-Secret-style bra and bikini panties. Then she put on Barbie’s pink miniskirt and a tightfitting, sleeveless white sweater. Then she added Barbie’s original ankle strap high heels.
Esther looked at Barbie. Then she reached and pulled off Barbie’s black wig, and let Barbie’s long golden hair show once more. Then finally, she reached over and pulled the dark brown stickers from Barbie’s bright blue eyes.
There she was, all in her original shiksa glory. Esther held Sheila Barbie up to the mirror so she could see for herself. Sheila Barbie looked, and was horrified. All that time, all that study, all that newfound seriousness and sense of purpose, all she had learned, and now this?
Esther had been hiding her in a drawer for the past week because of how she looked. Now it was Sheila Barbie’s turn to want to hide in a drawer.
Esther put Sheila Barbie back on top of her bureau. Sheila Barbie said nothing.
It was late in the evening when Sheila Barbie saw the bedroom door open and Esther come in, giggling in a slightly tipsy way. She was holding the hand of a boy whom she was dragging along with her.
She closed the door behind them. The only light in the room was from the streetlights and other city lights outside. It didn’t really matter. They were already pulling each other’s clothes off, and as fast as they could manage they were in bed together. It was just like the other night, although Sheila Barbie had no way to tell whether it was the same boy or a different one. And sure enough, there were giggles, there was moaning, there were bed springs creaking. And then the noises stopped for a little while, and then started up again.
It was about an hour later when she saw the boy get up and begin looking for his clothes. It was unlikely that Esther was asleep, but she said nothing to the boy. Then the boy opened the door, walked out, and closed the door behind him.
After that, the only sounds Barbie could hear were the intermittent sounds of Esther snoring.
Barbie wished that she could sleep as well, but that was impossible. She decided to try reciting some of the old prayers, “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha‑olam shehakol…” The words trailed off in her mind. What was the rest of it? She couldn’t remember. Had it been that long? It couldn’t be.
It was nearly 11 AM when Esther began to wake up. The sun was shining in through the window, but Esther was feeling too hung over to appreciate it.
After a while, Esther sat up, and then got up out of bed. She found a T-shirt and pulled it on to cover herself. Then she glanced over at where she had left Sheila Barbie on the chest of drawers.
There was nothing there. Esther went over to look. Sheila Barbie was not on the chest of drawers. She was not on the desk either.
Esther began to worry. She looked around everywhere, until finally she saw… There was something there on the floor.
Esther kneeled down. There was Sheila Barbie. She had somehow fallen from the chest of drawers. And in the fall, Sheila Barbie’s head had been snapped off from her body, and was lying there with her blonde hair splayed out and her blue eyes looking vacantly upwards.
Sheila Barbie’s body was lying there too, with her legs askew, and with her Victoria’s Secret white panties peeking out silently from under her pink miniskirt.