american girl

oy gevult! there’s a new american girl.

and she’s a nice jewish goil, to boot.

at least the book illustrations make her look a little jewish. or italian.

at least the book illustrations make her look a little jewish. or italian.

recently, an american girl catalog made it’s way into my mailbox. for those of you who do not have a girl between the ages of 7-10 in your home, let me school you.

american girl is the wildly-successful doll/book franchise now owned by mattel. they sell you a doll from a specific period in american history for about $100. then, you’re free to buy the ultra-expensive accessories as well as books that tell the story of said doll. if you’re REALLY insane fanatical up for spoiling your child beyond the realm of what is okay excited by the series, you can take your child to have a special tea at one of the american girl doll stores, located in a few major US cities. to the tune of several hundred dollars. (that must be one hell of a cup of tea.) for the record, we’ve never bought any of the dolls, but we have read plenty of the books thanks to our local public library. we couldn’t get through the hispanic girl’s saga, but we especially enjoyed spunky kit kittredge‘s tale as well as that of the revolutionary war era doll, felicity merriman.

while rebecca rubin, the newest addition to the american girl family is not actually the first jewish girl doll offered (there was once, for a split second, a jewish girl doll offered as part of some sort of calendar doll thingy about 20 years ago), she is the first here-to-stay jewish girl doll, with a full backstory and tons of expensive props.  (i can’t wait to hear about little cornfed midwestern girls begging their moms and dads (and santa) to bring them rebecca’s sideboard and sabbath set, complete with challah and candlesticks. does it come complete with brachot (blessings/prayers for the non-tribal set)?)

anyway, in truth, i have a warm spot in my heart for this little doll and for this effort already. rebecca lives in new york city in 1914, the child of jewish immigrants from russia. i haven’t read the stories (yet), but i suspect they involve the pull jewish immigrants of the time felt between staying true to their cultural roots while immersing themselves in their new american identities.  my grandmothers, also NYC dwellers back in that day, would have either been a trifle bit older or a trifle bit younger than rebecca, so i can smile to myself a bit, thinking about what their lives must have been like back then.

i know their families worked their tails off, that’s for sure.

i wonder, in fact, whether there’s any mention of things such as the horrible working conditions these immigrants (and their italian, polish, irish, and other internationally-born brethren) endured back then — i suspect a mention of the triangle shirtwaist factory fire would be something i would want to talk about with my kids. if there is, i’m sure it’s like a whisper that won’t be noticed except by parents like me, who will pounce on it as a teachable moment.


mattel took several years to get this one right. and while the actual face of the doll is exactly like every other american girl doll (let’s all join hands and sing we are the world. we all look alike, you know! seriously, don’t you think people would have shrieked if they gave the jewish girl a beak to remember? so i guess i understand that move.), there’s something kind of wonderful to finally be recognized, even in this small way, as american. my ancestors wanted so much to be accepted as american. they were sometimes greeted with signs like this:


even when it seemed that jews were a bit more accepted in american society, there are still holdouts, people who think we can’t be americans if we also have a warm spot in our hearts for israel. i still remember when i, a high school rising senior, was being interviewed as a candidate for new jersey girls’ state. the craggy-faced american legion men asked me a question that infuriates me to this day:

if america went to war with israel, whose side would you be on?

no one asked any of the other interviewees whether they would side with america or ireland, or america or italy, or america or england.  people seem to think that you can’t be an american and a jew, which is an idea that is unfathomable to me.

my grandparents and their parents worked incredibly hard to experience the american dream. they had their struggles, and then, my parents probably had their own challenges growing up jewish in america. jews are not the only people who struggle here; but because it is our ethnicity as well as our religious and cultural background, it has been harder to gain acceptance. you can be irish or italian or polish, but you can still share a sausage and a smile. for us, it’s a little more of a difficult proposition. not insurmountable, though.

i am an american jew. being jewish infuses everything there is about my americanism. and being american pervades  every aspect of my judaism.

and when i see mattel bringing forth an american girl doll like rebecca rubin, i know that the struggles of my ancestors to be american have not been in vain.

somewhere, my grandmas are kvelling*.

*Kvell: (Yiddish) to take great pride and pleasure; a peculiarly Jewish joy most often associated with the accomplishments of one’s family members


5 Responses to “american girl”

  1. For me, a Kosher food eater, the big thing was when Oreo cookies became Kohser. I am curious though, what you answer was to the gentleman who asked you that question? Today I can imagine I might have said something smart, like “Did you ask other people this question” as you talk about above, but as a 17 year old, I cannot imagine what I might have said or done.

    We got the catalog too. We have never gotten an American Girl catalog before, so I am assuming that they purchased some Jewish mailing lists to send it out. My wife and I looked at it and quickly put it in the recycling bin so Shayna does not see it!

  2. as a 17 year old, i was completely flabbergasted. i think i mumbled something about america being my country. then, i walked out of there very upset. as it happened, i was selected for girls state. part of me didn’t want to go, but i went. (and i met my future sister in law, but that’s a whole other story.)

  3. My goodness what a ridiculous question that was!

    The first friend I made when I started high school (boarding school) was a family that was a blend of jewish and christian. The jewish dad’s parents had moved into the area (swanky La Jolla) in the early 50s and encountered a LOT of prejudice. It floored me as a 16 year old to learn that jewish families had been treated like that so recently, especially in So Cal which I always felt was so well blended. I have a friend my age who certainly carries those prejudices around with her still much to my surprise. I’m glad Mattel is getting with the times 🙂

  4. very interesting…i think it was very inappropriate to ask that question. let me guess, was it back east?
    anyway, i have always thought about that. being christian, we also believe in the Lord of Israel. That being said, i would not take arms against Israel. However it does present a situation for Jews. If America was at war with Israel, would 3rd or 4th generation seed of abraham take up arms against Israel , say like Italian Americans did in WWII? or would they be perceived as a threat to the warring nation they are living in? No observant jew will ever go against Israel right?

  5. persephone mcfadden Says:

    Where did you find this still “Christians only, Jews not allowed?”

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