Theres a new girl on the block and yippee! her name is Rebecca

Last month something arrived in the office mail that nearly brought me to tears. It wasn’t bad news. In fact, it was very, very good news — news I had been waiting for since I was 7 years old.

It was a thin paperback book with a smiling, brown-haired girl in a burgundy dress on the cover. The title: “Meet Rebecca.”

At long last, we have a Jewish American Girl.

I’ve been a fan of American Girl for nearly 20 years. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Pleasant Company published the first set of American Girl books, following the lives of four fictional girls living in different parts of the United States at different times in history.

I devoured each and every one. I was so obsessed, in fact, that to this day I can remember some of the most minute details about the characters’ lives. When one of my coworkers, seeing me squealing over the Rebecca book, asked me about the series, I began to babble on about Kirsten, Molly, Samantha and Felicity as if they were old friends.

But while I loved the American Girls, there was something missing. I enjoyed the stories of Molly’s Victory Garden, colonial girl Felicity’s tea boycott and Kirsten’s struggles as a Swedish newcomer to the Minnesota prairie, but ultimately, none of these stories felt like my own. I longed for an American Girl whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, who celebrated Chanukah instead of Christmas, who took matzah to the movies during Passover.

I read plenty of books about Jewish American girls — the All-of-a-Kind Family series was my favorite — but the American Girl series represented something beautifully mainstream.

The brand is incredibly popular, with accompanying dolls and accessories, retail stores, a magazine and spinoff movies. A search on YouTube turns up a multitude of videos featuring preteen girls fawning over their American Girl dolls of all colors and creeds.

If there was a Jewish American Girl, that would mean my life, my heritage, was a story worth bringing to the millions of American Girl fans.

I outgrew American Girl shortly before the fifth character, a former slave named Addy, was introduced, but I never forgot them — or my longing for a Jewish Girl.

Today there are nine American Girls, ranging from a tribal-styled Nez Perce girl named Kaya to Julie, a girl living in San Francisco in the 1970s. With every announcement of a new character, I would hope that she would be Jewish. But she never was.

It’s not like there wasn’t a market for it — in my cover story this week, American Girl PR director Julie Parks tells me that a Jewish doll was one of the top requests the company received — but until now, we’d had to make do with Lindsey Bergman, a doll from the “Girl of the Year” line that is no longer in production.

But, as a 2007 article in a national Jewish student magazine notes, “Lindsey is just a toy” — she didn’t come with the rich back story or heritage like the “real” American Girls.

Well, that’s all water under the bridge now. On May 31, the world was introduced to Rebecca Rubin, a feisty 9-year-old living in a row house on the Lower East Side in 1914.

On a recent trip back East to visit my family, I gave “Meet Rebecca” to my grandmother to read over Shabbat.

My grandmother grew up in a Jewish area of New York City in the 1930s — well after Rebecca’s time, but with the immigrant experience still fresh. After closing the book, she began to tell me stories I had never heard before — about my great-grandparents, their lives and how they came to America.

Without the book, I might never have thought to ask.

Beyond tales of lighting Shabbat candles, celebrating Chanukah and eating egg-filled sponge cakes on Passover, the Rebecca books give a glimpse of a world that is long gone — and with those who remember it largely gone, too.

The new American Girl will preserve this part of history for a new generation — and, as Rebecca might say, that fills me with unbounded joy.

Contact Rachel Freedenberg at [email protected]

 

For more on the Rebecca series, read this week’s cover story:

Meet Rebecca: She’s young, Jewish and an all-American Girl