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American 'Punim'

June 11, 2009 By:
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A little breaking news from Little Girl Land: May 31 marked the debut of the first Jewish American Girl doll.

Each American Girl represents a momentous era in U.S. history, as well as a girl's place in it. Founded in 1986, American Girl has sold some 16 million dolls. The company now has magazines, books, movies and showcase stores.

I checked with Stephanie Hewitt Mraz, my BFF from nursery school and beyond. Did we have Jewish dolls?

"No," said Stephanie. "Did we want them?"

Apparently not. Hebrew school put enough Jewish in our respective diets. Our playtime was Barbie-dominated, though Stephanie made a good point. How do we know Barbie wasn't Jewish? She could have been Barbie Greenblatt and married to Ken Schwartz.

And how do we know that this American Girl is Jewish? Can she not play with the other dolls on Sundays because she has to go to Hebrew school? Will there be an American Girl Bat Mitzvah? Of all our questions, Stephanie and I had the same first one. What does she look like, this Jewish American Girl? How, kin ahora, is her hair?

Looks matter, because we Jewish girls are usually portrayed as, well, homely. I give you the TV character Blossom, Baby from "Dirty Dancing" and Andrea Zuckerman from "Beverly Hills 90210." Smart, not pretty.

So, this new Jewish American Girl. Is she pretty? She is. Meet Rebecca Rubin, a brown-eyed brunette with wavy hair that curls cutely at the ends. Rebecca is a 91/2-year-old Russian Jew growing up in New York's 1914 melting pot of immigration.

Why 1914? Why a Jewish doll?

Julie Parks, spokeswoman for American Girl, explained the company's priorities: story -- and history.

"We felt the immigration period was important in explaining how America became a melting pot," she said. "We looked at the peak of immigration, from 1880 to 1914. Russian Jews were the largest group in New York at the time. And, to tell the immigrant experience, we needed religion."

The first of her books, Meet Rebecca, opens with the Rubin family gathering for Shabbat. Not coincidentally, Rebecca's accessories include a Sabbath set and a Chanukah set due to be unveiled in September. The first one includes candlesticks, challah, a Samovar, tea canister and water glasses. Oddly, there's no Kiddush cup.

Will gentile girls play with the Sabbath Set? What would ... Wait a minute! Is this whole thing a -- gasp -- marketing ploy to sell American Girls to Jewish girls?

"Rebecca will resonate very strongly with Jewish and non-Jewish girls," said Parks. "For girls who are not familiar with her culture, she can act as a window so they can understand the impact of Jewish Americans on our culture. For Jewish girls, she is a mirror -- a direct reflection of their heritage and culture."

Speaking of mirrors, how was Rebecca's appearance decided?

"Our historical researchers and editorial team worked with the design team to create an authentic look," said Parks. "What Rebecca wears is what girls wore in the New York of 1914."

And in 1914, it wasn't easy being Jewish. Incorporating religion into her American life is an isue. In the six books that chronicle her story, Rebecca confronts her family's poverty, their expectations and the struggle over celebrating Christmas in school.

Rebecca faces these challenges with wit, charm and sass.

She's got chutzpah, Rebecca does. Tell me, what's more Jewish and American than that?

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