June 18, 2009
Jewish Girl, American Doll
— Sarah Imhoff
The Sabbath accessory set with its plastic hallah, tiny candlesticks, and tea service is backordered for another six weeks. Nine-year-old Rebecca Rubin would be sad to hear that she'll have to wait so long to have her own Shabbos candles. She would be sad, that is, if she weren't an 18-inch doll made by the manufacturer American Girl. The Rebecca doll, dressed to look like the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1914, is the newest in the line of ethnically diverse "historical dolls" from different eras in American history.
Throughout the six books of juvenile historical fiction written to accompany the doll, Rebecca pines for the day when she can light the candles for Shabbos. For her, this ritual is the symbol of being "a woman." When her father explains to her younger brother, "Women light the Shabbos candle," her older sister emphasizes Rebecca's exclusion: "It's for the women in the family." Her longing to grow up-or at least to receive the respect and recognition she associates with being seen as a grown-up-manifests itself as a desire to perform the religious ritual of lighting the candles for the family to welcome Shabbos. (The depiction of Rebecca's longing is generally sensitive, although Meet Rebecca teeters precariously close to stereotypes about Jewish women when Rebecca responds to her older sisters' study of Hamlet by thinking, "To buy or not to buy, that is my question.")
Ironically, Rebecca receives candlesticks, her symbol of Jewish womanhood, from her curmudgeonly Italian Christian neighbor. After a conflicted session of craft-making at school, Rebecca agonizes over what to do with her beautiful Christmas wreath. She can't bring herself to throw it away, so she decides to bring the wreath to her cranky neighbor. In return, he reveals himself to be lonely and kind, and he gives her a pair of candlesticks, which he suggests she might be able to use for Hanukkah. They aren't right for Hanukkah use, of course, but right away Rebecca decides they will be perfect for Shabbos use. Rebecca achieves her symbolic womanhood by acting out an "American" principle: she exchanges her understanding of a Christian holiday for his (mis)understanding of a Jewish holiday. The episode suggests that the two religions should be equally respected, and also suggests a kind of interchangeability of two analogous ways to be religious. A message of democratic equality and mutual understanding prevails throughout the encounter. In this, the story subtly conflates becoming an adult (in particular a Jewish woman) with becoming American: only by engaging and respecting others' heritage can she truly become a woman. Similar specious logic was also mobilized during this historical period to much less benign ends than here in the Rebecca stories. For instance, some scientists ranked different races and ethnicities on a scale of "civilization," with the least civilized compared to children. These child-like races, according to some, were not fit for democratic citizenship and could not, therefore, be truly American.
Perhaps most provocative is the way the doll and her manufacturer assume a rosy outcome of the story from the start: from a current historical perspective Rebecca is an "American Girl," an icon of one way to think about the country's history. But were Rebecca a real historical figure coming of age in the first decades of the twentieth century, her Americanness would have been hotly contested. Surely many of Rebecca's classmates would insist that she was not, in fact, American. Some would have called her and her family "clannish" for interacting mainly with other Jews and speaking Yiddish with one another. Although the fictional Rebecca lived more comfortably, the overwhelming majority of the historical Rebeecas were firmly cramped into the working class and overcrowded tenements. She might, like Rose Cohen, routinely witness boys pulling Jewish men's beards, and suffer harassment by neighborhood boys because she was Jewish.
While the books reference Papa having to work on Saturdays and Rebecca's misgivings about the place of Christmas in public school, they always assume that a coexistence of Jewishness and Americanness is possible, desirable, and just around the corner. But nativists and others of the time would have vehemently disagreed. Even Jews themselves had to negotiate which parts of Jewish life they had to give up and which parts of American life they would forgo, and many worried that Judaism would disappear in America. In 1914, then, a real Rebecca Rubin might not have been convinced that her status as an American was secure. She probably would have seen creating an American identity as a project rather than a given.
It is both positive and negative that the Rebecca stories can be so glib about deeming Rebecca a poster girl for what it means to be American. On the one hand, American society has made changes for the better because girls and their parents relate to stories where characters can be authentically Jewish and American without conflict-or even, as in the impromptu Christmas/Hanukkah exchange, where Jewishness is one way of being American. On the other, blindness to the changing content of the signifier "American" not only blurs the historical record but also leaves open the possibility of discrimination based upon a fictitious and essentialized version of what it means to be American.
Greene, Jaqueline Dembar. Meet Rebecca. American Girl Publishing, 2009.
Cohen, Rose. Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side. New York: Cornell UP, 1995.
Sarah Imhoff is a PhD candidate in History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a 2009-2010 Marty Center Junior Fellow.