By Harriet P. Gross
If you have young daughters or granddaughters — ages 3 to 12 — you surely know by now about Rebecca, the newest American Girl doll. She’s joined 13 “sisters,” each representing a time in our country’s history, with a generous sprinkling of ethnic reality.
Rebecca comes with Shabbat candlesticks and a host of stories about what it was like to be growing up Jewish in America circa 1914.
Every piece of publicity I’ve seen about Rebecca (and there have been many!) stresses one tale: how the little girl’s teacher had every child in her class make a fancy Christmas decoration to take home. In the story, Rebecca isn’t comfortable with this; she knows she’s Jewish, but she isn’t comfortable about saying anything to her teacher, either. (How many 9-year-olds would be?) Instead, she worries and wonders: What will her mother say when she arrives from school bearing this “gift”? What will they do with it?
The writer of American Girl’s Rebecca stories is a Jewish woman “of a certain age” who based that tale, and others, on her own growing-up experiences. Personal experience also reminds me that Rebecca’s “dilemma” was a common one long after 1914. In my own grade school holiday seasons, we made bells from the red and green aluminum foil caps that crowned Christmastime milk bottles. We didn’t have to take them home, however; we decorated the school’s Christmas tree with them. But we did have to bring the caps themselves from home!
(Side trip into the past here: Milk, delivered to our homes then in clear glass bottles, was pasteurized but not homogenized, so the cream separated out and rose above what we kids drank; the grownups used this rich “top milk” for their coffee. To form a decorative bell: Flatten out the thin bottle cap into a circle, then use sharp scissors to make a single cut into the center. Work one cut edge over the other to produce a cone shape [with care — many fingers also got cut in this process] and thread a length of string with a good-sized knot at one end up through the resulting small hole. Just like making hamantaschen — it’s easy to do; the written instructions are what’s confusing! Also: the bottle caps were silver all year long, but we never thought about saving them for Chanukah decorations. Who decorated for Chanukah way back when, anyway?)
So: what was happening then? Nobody in those “olden” days considered minorities anything but, and acted accordingly, without a whiff of political correctness. Black and Oriental children didn’t appear in the Sears-Roebuck catalog’s clothing ads, and there were no holiday concerts where “I Have a Little Dreidel” got sung in tandem with “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Christmas was Christmas; public schools catered to the public majority, and everyone took part.
Did we suffer? I’m probably in another kind of Jewish minority today when I say no, I don’t think so. We knew who we were. We learned that in our homes, in our synagogues, in our neighborhoods (and believe me — some of our non-Jewish neighbors wouldn’t let us forget it!). We sang Christian hymns in our public school choirs, said the “Lord’s Prayer” every morning in class, and never had a specifically Jewish doll to play with. Yet we grew up to be Jews, in spite of everything. Or maybe, at least in part, because of everything.
Kirsten, Samantha and Molly were the first American Girl dolls, a trio of white-breads representing lives in the United States in 1834, 1904, and 1944. They’ve since been joined by a more representative parade: Sonali and Addy are African Americans, Kaya is Native American, Josefina is Hispanic, Ivy is Chinese. Each doll “lives” in a different part of the country in a different period of our history — from Felicity, a Virginia child of the American Revolution, to Julie, a mid-1970s San Francisco native.
And now, finally, along comes Rebecca, a Russian-Jewish addition to the turn-of-the-20th-century New York City “melting pot.”
Every one of the dolls has a last name. Rebecca’s is Rubin. An unfortunate choice, since there is a real Rebecca Rubin: An alleged domestic terrorist indicted for arson in Oregon, she has been on the FBI’s wanted list since 2006. So while many little Jewish girls now crave their Rebeccas, and doting relatives will fulfill this wish for about $100, whoever corrals the real RR may be able to collect $50,000. What a return on the dolly investment! And one that would make an excellent Chanukah gift!
By Harriet P. Gross