In My Mind's I

I recently wrote here about Rebecca, the new American Girl Jewish doll. Among the reactions and responses was a lengthy one from a beloved elder (in years both of calendar and friendship). She is Natalie Lewis, a long-time Dallasite and teacher in Temple Emanu-El’s religious school, now a resident of suburban Washington, D.C. — where she continues with her incredible ongoing career as a retail bookseller. So today I’m adapting and sharing her words, to tell the story from a different point of view.
“Your column about Rebecca brought so much to my mind,” Natalie began. “First, about not wanting to bring home the Christmas decoration [made in public school] yet not wanting to tell the teacher she was Jewish … that sounds familiar, like ‘Molly’s Pilgrim,’ the story we would read to our [Grade 2] Religious School children every year. And the children would tell me that they would give the decoration to a friend as they walked home from school.
“The new Jewish American Girl doll is now on display in the children’s section of our Barnes and Noble, but the American Girl series began with great history books for little girls. I would read them with my grandchildren: Civil War history … early American history … the stories were very good.
“But the dolls were, and still are, very expensive. My granddaughters had the dolls (this grandmother did not buy them; their mothers indulged them!). Rachel had the most — and even clothes for herself that matched the dolls’ clothing. When Lena came to visit, I made her a nightgown to match her doll’s. So many women I have known made clothes for their granddaughters’ dolls; they all told me it was a labor of love.”
“The American Girl Dolls became big business. In Chicago, on the Michigan Boulevard ‘Miracle Mile,’ there’s a big American Girl store that would blow your mind! You see little girls walking, holding on to their dolls, and their mothers behind them, helping them make purchases, and their grandmas following, with credit cards in hand!
“I’ve been there a couple of times — granddaughter Rachel lives in the Chicago area. The equipment for sale is unreal: cribs and other furniture, beauty products to do the dolls’ hair. And there is a tearoom. I thought we could go for lunch, but reservations are necessary, and the price [‘way back then — Rachel will be starting college this fall] was $25. So we did not go.
“And now we will have Rebecca. I have one young granddaughter, Mira, 5. Will she want that doll? I wonder…. Granddaughter Madeleine had Josefina, a Spanish-American doll….
“I, like you, went to a school where we recited the Lord’s Prayer every morning and sang Christmas carols. I was Jewish, and knew that I was Jewish, and had Jewish friends, and went to Hebrew School. No, I did not need a doll to let me know who I was!
“So much of this column of yours brought back childhood memories, like the milk coming in glass bottles with the cream on the top that was poured into a pitcher and used for my parents’ coffee or our cereal….
“Of course, if a little girl [not Jewish] has a collection of American Girl Dolls and adds Rebecca to it, she will learn so much about Jewish culture! I am going to go through one of the books this week and see if she will learn Jewish history, too….”
I sense a bit of ambivalence in my friend: Is American Girl’s Rebecca good for the Jews? Isn’t that the question that we’ve all asked ourselves so many times? Sometimes the answer is an obvious, unfortunate, emphatic “No!” — as in the recent, embarrassingly true tale of Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, who called himself a “matchmaker” in our tradition, but was actually matching poor Israelis with people in the United States who needed kidney transplants, paying $10,000 for each organ and selling it for more than 10 times that much.
Or sometimes the answer is ambivalence itself, such as when we react to this recent news: Ivanka Trump has become Jewish by conversion. Good for our people? Sure! Another Jew is always good, yes? Her intended, Jared Kushner, gifted her on the occasion with a mezuzah — also good! But this one is leopard-patterned, its expensive spots made of multicolored Swarovski crystals. Not so good. Maybe better he should have given her the American Girl Doll Rebecca and her accompanying children’s books — Jewish history minus the leopards. I suspect my friend Natalie would agree.

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