I had wanted her for so long, and will never forget the first time I held her in my arms. She was perfect, with brown curly hair and big brown eyes, like my husband’s.
She is American Girl’s newest historical doll, Rebecca Rubin, a beautiful, unabashedly Jewish doll—and a wonderful birthday present from my mother and my daughter.
True, I have never been particularly interested in dolls. But I am a Jewish woman who grew up in this very not-Jewish society, and I have never stopped yearning for reflections of my own religious tradition. I also have a crazy soft spot for the whole American Girl phenomenon, where each doll is complemented by a series of six historical novels that highlight different perspectives of the American experience, seen through the eyes of plucky 10-year-old girls.
The stories are meticulously researched and do not sugar-coat some of the painful realities of U.S. history, including slavery, poverty and prejudice. And the American Girl dolls themselves aren’t all blonde, blue-eyed and button-nosed. There are also dolls who are Native American, African American, Hispanic…and now, Jewish.
Rebecca Rubin is a Russian-Jewish immigrant growing up in New York City 1914. Having read the other books, I expected the stories about Rebecca to be painstakingly accurate, and they do not disappoint. It is a delight to read about Rebecca’s family celebrating Shabbos, eating knishes and rugalach, peppering their speech with Yiddish expressions, engaging in tikkun olam and giving tzedekah (the pushke makes an early appearance on page 10 of Meet Rebecca). The glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms is an added bonus.
What takes my breath away is how author Jacqueline Dembar Greene captures the searing emotional clarity of the Rubin family’s viewpoint as American Jews. They are poor, and the father makes the reluctant decision to keep his shoe store open on Shabbos. Yet he also is quick to demonstrate the mitzvah of helping those who are less fortunate, giving shoes to a small boy in a way that preserves the child’s dignity.
As for Rebecca, she faces the perennial predicament of Jewish public schoolchildren in less-enlightened days: the dreaded Christmas craft project. If she makes the Christmas decoration, she risks angering her parents; if she refuses, she must face her teacher’s wrath. My 10-year-old Inner Child could relate—and my 49-year-old present-day self appreciated the dilemma’s graceful resolution.
Through Rebecca’s eyes, we also get an unblinking look at the immigrant experience—snapshots that go beyond celebrations of freedom and opportunity. Rebecca’s family struggles to save enough money to bring her aunt, uncle and cousins from Russia, where their lives are endangered by pogroms. One cousin is injured en route to America, and when the family arrives at Ellis Island, they face the terrifying prospect of the boy being denied entry and deported.
As a Jewish communal worker, I thought my heart would burst at what I read next: “Don’t worry,” Papa said gently. “I’ll go to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. They’ll know what to do.”
Once on American soil, the family members must survive the dark, airless tenements of the Lower East Side, struggle to learn English and make sense of American culture, and toil in sweatshops. The series reaches its climax as little Rebecca takes a stand for better conditions for the workers.
The series’ nonfiction epilogue concludes with one of the most satisfying, best-ever PR plugs for Jewish contributions to American society, noting: “Jewish people have always deeply valued fairness, equality, and opportunity. In Rebecca’s time, when millions of Jewish immigrants settled in America, they brought these values with them into the workplace and into American society. Like Rebecca, they were willing to stick up for the underdog and speak out for what’s right. Many of their children and grandchildren went on to become leaders in the fight for people’s rights.”
The Young Women’s Board 2010 Hatikvah Event features Jacqueline Dembar Greene, author of the American Girl Rebecca Rubin Book Series, and Jennifer Hirsch, executive editor at American Girl, on Wednesday, Dec. 2, at 9:15 a.m. A $2000 minimum individual women’s contribution to the 2010 JUF-IEF annual campaign is required to attend. For more information, contact Stephanie Oreck at (312) 444-2847 or StephanieOreck@juf.org.
Linda S. Haase is associate vice president of Marketing Communications for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.