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Dolled Up

American Girl teaches the economic realities of the old Lower East Side—and of today

Daphne Merkin
December 16, 2009
(American Girl)
(American Girl)

I’ve always loved dolls. As a child, I couldn’t get enough of them, whether I was plying them with affection or taking out my grievances on them. My preference was for lifelike baby dolls—the ones with soft, squeezable bodies—or dolls that more or less matched my age (which might explain why I was never enthralled by Barbie). I felt such affection for them that one of my first formal literary efforts, at the age of 9 or 10, was inspired by my projective identification with dolls as being at the mercy of larger forces than their own wishes. The result of my labor—a poem called “A Day in the Life of a Victorian Doll”—was eventually thrown out by a over-zealous housekeeper along with my other juvenilia but I still remember the opening lines four decades later: “Neglected, ignored, yes even scorned/ until my mistress should choose to bestow a glance/ upon my disheveled self.” It doesn’t take a Freudian to figure out that the unhappy doll is me, waiting to be noticed by my “mistress,” which is to say mother.

So it’s hardly any wonder that when news of Rebecca Rubin reached my ears I rushed to order her, despite my advanced years. She is, as many of you may know by now, American Girl’s first Jewish doll; although she was preceded by one Lindsay Bergman, who appeared in 2001 as a “Girl of the Year,” she is the first such to be part of the company’s permanent collection of thematic dolls. Standing at 18 inches high and costing $95, she comes into her own well after other ethnic varieties—Native-American, African-American, Mexican-American and Chinese-American—have already been introduced. Since the world of American Girl is about infinitely cunning (read: costly) accessories as much as it is about the doll itself, I also ordered a boxed paperback set of six books, the better to understand all things Rebecca, as well as her school outfit, a school kit (featuring a lunch box accompanied by tiny rugelach, pickles, and a bagel with cheese) and, as befits a lapsed Orthodox Jew who still waxes nostalgic at the thought of Friday-night dinner, her “Sabbath set.” And now, just in time for Hanukkah, there is Rebecca’s Hanukkah set ($22), made in China, with an old-fashioned gold-plated menorah of her very own that looks like it was passed down the generations, nine blue candles, a wooden dreidel, and three coins for Hanukkah gelt. There is also a Hanukkah dress ($28), a kind of pinafore ensemble that is in a very au courant plum colored stripe, along with tights, a head band and wee white party shoes.

But first question first: Does she even look Jewish? This question of course raises the larger and always-vexed inquiry of what it means to “look Jewish.” As an article in The New York Times about Rebecca explained: “While other dolls represented ethnic backgrounds with distinctive visual characteristics, what constitutes a Jewish girl’s appearance is much more open for debate.” Are we talking about ethnic stereotypes here, the imputation of a kind of physical Shylockness, some grim image from 19th century Warsaw of a dark-haired, droopy-nosed female, uncomely in the extreme? Or do we mean something else entirely, some spirited essence of Jewishness captured in the flashing eyes, high cheekbones and sultry skin of a Levantine beauty? In the event, the marketing people at American Girl chose the safe middle road, having produced a melting-pot version of Jewishness with but the faintest Semitic taint in the choice of eye color, which is hazel, and perhaps in the slight pointedness of her chin.

Rebecca’s hair color was apparently pondered for years (preliminary research on the doll began in 2000) and while dark auburn was the first choice—think Katharine Ross in The Graduate, running across the Berkeley campus, her long shiny tresses flying—the decision was to go with what a spokeswoman for the company described as “mid-tone brown hair color with russet highlights.” Meaning, in plain English: medium Jewish brown. Meaning that Rebecca will start having her hair expensively blonded at the same time she considers a nose job. (Her nose looks pretty innocuous now, but you can never tell how it will develop during those all-important pubertal years.) My Polish housekeeper, for one, claims that Rebecca looks Irish—an assessment with which I don’t agree, but to each her own.

Like all the American Girl dolls, Rebecca Rubin—this Rebecca Rubin, for there is also a real-life Rebecca Rubin whose accidental namesake she is, a 36-year old eco-terrorist who is listed as “armed and dangerous” by the FBI—represents a particular time and place in history. A 9-year old living in a Lower East Side tenement in 1914, Rebecca arrives in a herringbone dress, black stockings, and two-tone boots, looking much like one of the sisters out of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. In Meet Rebecca, the first book in the boxed set (an additional $39.95 or $74.95, depending on whether you’re springing for the paperback or the hardcover edition), we discover that she is the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents; her father (known as Papa) owns a small shoe store and her mother (Mama) keeps house. Rebecca also lives with her four siblings and her Russian grandparents, (known, a bit confusedly, as “bubbie” and “grandpa,” one foot in the Old World and one in the New). Bubbie bakes challah for Friday night and ladles out “golden chicken soup” once everyone—including Rebecca’s cousin Max Shepherd, né Moyshe Shereshevsky—is gathered at the shabbos table, set with carefully folded linen napkins.

It may be my paranoid Jewish self speaking, always on the lookout for intimations of anti-Semitism, but I was immediately struck by the mercantilist subtext that runs through Meet Rebecca. Given that the Rubins are depicted as being strained for cash, it seems a bit odd that Rebecca would be in line for a new dress—and not even a hand-me-down at that—for a chag that doesn’t involve a lot of solemn shul-going. But for anyone who is interested in checking this out further, Candlight for Rebecca, one of the six books in the series, explains that her older sisters, Sophie and Sadie, altered her too-short New Year’s dress so it would fit perfectly as a Hanukkah gift. And, indulged tyke that she is, Rebecca’s also got a settee ($98), a phonograph set ($44), a movie dress ($32), a costume chest ($100), and an 11-piece bedroom collection—replete with two kittens—that’s available for a mere $170.

It’s hard for me to imagine that a similar emphasis marks the books about Felicity or Kirsten or Addy, who are probably busy learning how to milk the cows or iron up a storm, and it is no doubt meant to show the entrepreneurial genius that is often attributed to our tribe, but something about it gave me the willies. Money and the making of it, the insufficiency or enoughness of it, gleams through the pages of Meet Rebecca, vying with the haimish details about Sabbath customs, Yiddish theater, and “moving pictures.” Rebecca’s uncle Jacob sends a letter from Russia pleading for expensive ship tickets so he and his brood, who live in fear of the tsar’s army and don’t have enough to eat, can join them in New York. Even the Russian folk tales that cousin Max regales the family with hinge on the theme of money, with an avaricious wealthy neighbor vying with a poor farmer for his foal.

Without ruining the plot (although this isn’t The Sopranos), suffice it to say that wily Rebecca figures out more than one way to earn extra cash—both openly and on the sly—the better to purchase a pair of candlesticks so she can light Sabbath candles along with Sadie and Sophie. The goal is a pure-hearted one, to be sure, but the road to riches is awash in moral as well as pecuniary dilemmas; Rebecca has to withstand the disdain of a wealthy and spoiled boy her own age whose mother comes into Papa’s store to buy him a pair of shoes, notwithstanding the fact that the boy’s mother is the first to buy a piece of Rebecca’s needlework—one of the doilies she is crocheting for her future trousseau.

In the weeks that follow, other customers of her father’s store purchase Rebecca’s handiwork—a tablerunner here, a pillow cover there—while she works on her business plan, adding and subtracting minute sums in her head, trying to close the deal:“With the quarter from Mrs. Berg, she had saved just fifty-two cents. Even if she bargained with the peddlers, that wouldn’t be enough. Candlesticks would cost at least two dollars.” (Similarly, when her sisters read Hamlet aloud to each other—“To be, or not to be: that is the question”—Rebecca’s response is that of a true JAP-in-the-making: “To buy, or not to buy, Rebecca thought. That is my question!”) This being a mammon-worshiping household at least as much as a God-fearing one, when papa finds out about Rebecca’s secret business dealings he surprises everyone by being proud instead of angry: “When your daughter is a successful American businesswoman, what can a father do except sit back and watch?” And when the role model for young Jewish girls is Leona Helmsley, what can a reader do except hope that the goyim aren’t taking note?

Still and all, it’s probably more of a good thing that Jewish girls now have an American Girl doll to call their own. Put it down to the clarion call of diversity or simply to the calculated logistics of the marketplace, but Rebecca Rubin, with her ritually appropriate, overpriced accessories is undoubtedly here to stay. Clearly, the cunning marketing people at American Girl recognize a treasure trove when they see one.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel, Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.