When my daugh­ter, now a young adult, was around ten years old, she wrote a let­ter to the mak­ers of Amer­i­can Girl Dolls ask­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Jew­ish doll. Like the exclu­sive coun­try clubs of the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies, the sought-after group of dolls was all-Chris­t­ian (and, until 1993, all-white). She received a prompt and cour­te­ous response thank­ing her for entrust­ing Amer­i­can Girl to rep­re­sent her tra­di­tions, but inform­ing her that no such doll was on the horizon.

Enough Jew­ish Amer­i­can girls oth­er than my own must have asked for the same, because in 2009, Amer­i­can Girl intro­duced Rebec­ca Rubin, their first Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal doll, to the world. Her debut was announced every­where from The New York Times to The Jerusalem Post. For stand­ing only eigh­teen inch­es tall, she car­ried a lot of weight on her shoul­ders. While there have been a num­ber of crit­i­cisms lev­eled at the per­ceived com­mer­cial­ism of the Amer­i­can Girl enter­prise, most Jew­ish read­ers had over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive reac­tions to Rebec­ca. By adding her to a ros­ter of dolls and sto­ries that trace the his­to­ry of girl­hood in our coun­try, Amer­i­can Girl made a mean­ing­ful state­ment about the sig­nif­i­cance of Jews in Amer­i­can life.

The orig­i­nal premise of Amer­i­can Girl was to offer a total pack­age of read­ing and imag­i­na­tive play root­ed in his­to­ry. To that end, each doll had her own book series. These books have most­ly been dis­missed by main­stream lit­er­ary crit­ics as friv­o­lous mar­ket­ing mate­r­i­al sim­ply made to sell more prod­ucts. While these cri­tiques cer­tain­ly hold some truth, read­ing the books now, near­ly a decade after their release, it’s evi­dent how much val­ue they still have. The books invite read­ers to learn about an unfa­mil­iar past, and to empathize with Rebec­ca as she nego­ti­ates fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships and bal­ances Jew­ish tra­di­tions with the appeal of Amer­i­can life. The Jew­ish­ness of these books stands in stark con­trast to the Rebec­ca doll and her accou­trements, which have been increas­ing­ly dis­ap­point­ing in their era­sure of Rebecca’s Jew­ish heritage.

With the Rebec­ca Rubin book series, author Jacque­line Dem­bar Greene cre­at­ed a Jew­ish char­ac­ter who cel­e­brat­ed Hanukkah, not Christ­mas, and who didn’t eat out­side of her home dur­ing Pesach. Liv­ing on New York’s Low­er East Side in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Rebec­ca was a child of Yid­dish-speak­ing par­ents. Like any Amer­i­can girl she also loved the new enter­tain­ment that movies pro­vid­ed, and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sang You’re a Grand Old Flag” at her school assem­bly. Show­ing her belong­ing in both worlds — reli­gious old world” and sec­u­lar new world” is sig­nif­i­cant, as Jews in Rebecca’s time were (and to an extent, always have been) sus­pect­ed of har­bor­ing dual loy­al­ties to their peo­ple and their country.

While there were many children’s books with Jew­ish char­ac­ters well before Rebec­ca, she was cast into the spot­light in a way that the girls of Syd­ney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series, whose pro­found influ­ence on Dem­bar Greene is evi­dent, had not been. Rebec­ca and her books not only need­ed the approval of Jew­ish con­sumers, but also from the wild­ly loy­al fan­base of the whole Amer­i­can Girl enter­prise. Rebecca’s sto­ry also faced the same skep­ti­cism of crit­ics who, quite rea­son­ably, have ques­tioned the lit­er­ary val­ue of books sold along with dolls priced in the one hun­dred dol­lar range. Author Meg Wolitzer was not alone in her dis­missal of Amer­i­can Girl’s books, refer­ring to the seduc­tions of these novels…from the bright paintings…on their cov­ers to the sim­ple plot­lines and cheer­ful if pre­dictable characters.”

Yet, con­ced­ing that no one is going to sug­gest award­ing any Amer­i­can Girl book the New­ber­ry Medal, Dem­bar Greene’s Rebec­ca Rubin saga is actu­al­ly thought­ful and sen­si­tive, and immersed in the par­tic­u­lars of Jew­ish immi­grant life of an ear­li­er time. Rebec­ca may resolve most of her con­flicts pret­ty eas­i­ly, but at least some of those con­flicts are par­tic­u­lar to the expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­can Jews.

Like most pop­u­lar books for young read­ers, the first Rebec­ca book pos­es a cen­tral issue to be resolved; in her case, the prob­lem begins with Shab­bos can­dles. If only she had her own pair, per­haps her moth­er and her con­de­scend­ing old­er sis­ters would allow Rebec­ca to light them. At the same time, this new matu­ri­ty would pos­si­bly con­vince her par­ents and grand­par­ents to let her go to the movies. If this best-of-both-worlds com­bi­na­tion seems sim­plis­tic, Greene at least admits that the Rubins’ sec­u­lar and reli­gious lives some­times col­lide. Rebecca’s father has a small shoe store that he keeps open on Sat­ur­days — a degree of assim­i­la­tion being the price of suc­cess. Work­ing on Sat­ur­days was a com­mon accom­mo­da­tion made by immi­grant Jews.

In anoth­er chap­ter, Rebec­ca con­fronts a his­tor­i­cal­ly typ­i­cal dilem­ma for Jew­ish chil­dren in Amer­i­can pub­lic schools. Her teacher, Miss Mal­oney, is utter­ly obtuse about the prob­lem that her Christ­mas project pos­es for the Jew­ish chil­dren in her class. (She also pun­ish­es stu­dents for inad­ver­tent­ly laps­ing into Yid­dish.) Over­whelmed with excite­ment by the prospect of con­struct­ing hol­i­day cen­ter­pieces out of red can­dles and gen­uine Cen­tral Park green­ery, she is unable to empathize with stu­dents who observe Hanukkah, not Christ­mas. Greene real­is­ti­cal­ly presents a range of respons­es from the Jew­ish stu­dents. Some claim that their fam­i­lies won’t care, while Rebecca’s friend Rose, for­mer­ly Rif­ka, is anguished at the prospect of bring­ing home this use­less and insult­ing object. The teacher is patron­iz­ing and firm in her refusal to exempt any­one: Miss Mal­oney smiled kind­ly, as if Rose sim­ply didn’t under­stand. Christ­mas is a nation­al hol­i­day, chil­dren, cel­e­brat­ed by Amer­i­cans all over the country.’”

Since Rebecca’s debut in 2009, Amer­i­can Girl’s empha­sis on the sto­ries of girls from the past has been increas­ing­ly side­lined in favor of more acces­si­ble, mod­ern dolls. The his­tor­i­cal dolls and books have been rebrand­ed as BeFor­ev­er,” a phrase that seems pulled from a Dis­ney princess line, and con­veys to girls that their lives and those of girls in the past are essen­tial­ly the same. The books pre­vi­ous­ly end­ed with a Look­ing Back” sec­tion that pro­vid­ed his­tor­i­cal back­ground; one of the orig­i­nal Rebec­ca books, for exam­ple, had infor­ma­tion about the 1909 Shirt­waist strike by pri­mar­i­ly Jew­ish women gar­ment work­ers. All of the beau­ti­ful and detailed col­or illus­tra­tions pre­vi­ous­ly used to bring the sto­ries to life have also been tak­en out. The new­er cov­er images are a com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed hor­ror, with Rebec­ca look­ing as if her hair has just been pro­fes­sion­al­ly blown out.

But even her orig­i­nal incar­na­tion as a doll showed some reluc­tance by Amer­i­can Girl to reflect Rebecca’s Jew­ish­ness to the degree dis­played in the books. The orig­i­nal books, illus­trat­ed by Robert Hunt, depict Rebec­ca with dark brown wavy hair, dark brown eyes, and a promi­nent nose. The Rebec­ca doll, how­ev­er, had lighter hair, hazel eyes, and iden­ti­cal fea­tures to the oth­er white dolls.

Rebecca’s acces­sories have also changed over the years. The com­pa­ny has decid­ed to out­fit Rebec­ca with clothes and fur­ni­ture that are more Down­ton Abbey than Hes­ter Street. In Changes for Rebec­ca, the last book in the orig­i­nal series, our hero­ine stands up for strik­ing work­ers, mak­ing a pow­er­ful speech in Bat­tery Park about dark, dirty, dan­ger­ous” fac­to­ries, and boss­es who would rather exploit peo­ple than respect them. But the gaudy, gold-accent­ed bed with hot pink bed­ding and satin paja­mas cur­rent­ly sold along with Rebec­ca negate the Rubin family’s fru­gal­i­ty and fears of pover­ty that are con­stant­ly brought out in the books. 

Amer­i­can Girl’s approach to mar­ket­ing Rebecca’s acces­sories has also shift­ed: At first cus­tomers could pur­chase what was called her Sab­bath Set,” which includ­ed a minia­ture plas­tic chal­lah, can­dle­sticks, and Russ­ian samovar. In 2013, the set was renamed Rebecca’s Teatime Tra­di­tions,” reduc­ing her cen­tral reli­gious obser­vance to a light snack — and in con­trast to Shab­bos can­dles and oth­er key sym­bols of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty play­ing a cen­tral role through­out the book series.

Though still wide­ly avail­able, the orig­i­nal Amer­i­can Girl books are no longer in print. But even if read­ing about the tri­als and tri­umphs of Jew­ish immi­grant life in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry comes to seem more dis­tant and exot­ic, curios­i­ty about the past and ques­tions about its rel­e­vance to the present can still immerse chil­dren in Rebecca’s stories.

In one scene in Can­dle­light for Rebec­ca, Rebec­ca sits with her grand­fa­ther as he reads a copy of the Yid­dish Forverts. Rebec­ca wears a black dress and tights, and a hand­knit shawl. Trou­bled by her teacher’s igno­rance, Rebec­ca asks her grand­fa­ther if Hanukkah is an unim­por­tant hol­i­day. He folds his paper and gives her his full atten­tion as he explains the mean­ing of the Mac­cabees’ revolt, point­ing out that immi­grants need to learn new ways, but that we can’t for­get who we are, even if it means being a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.” As a gener­ic mes­sage of pride and loy­al­ty to tra­di­tions, the grandfather’s con­clu­sion may appeal to any read­er. For Jew­ish read­ers it has a spe­cif­ic res­o­nance, as unique to Jews as Rebecca’s candles.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.