This past Sunday marked the release of Rebecca Rubin, the latest in a line of American Girl dolls. For those unfamiliar with this series, American Girl dolls represent young girls from different points in American history. Rebecca is the first Jewish doll in the series, joining characters that range from girls living in revolutionary times to World War 2. Rebecca lives in New York’s Lower East Side with her Russian-Jewish family.
Some, like author Meredith Jacobs, think the doll is a great way to teach young Jewish girls about Jewish history. “This is our history, right here in this doll,” she said in an article in the JTA. And while it’s nice to have Jewish representation in the American Girl series of dolls, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield isn’t sure whose history the doll is supposed to represent. Writing in his blog Windows and Doors on Beliefnet.com, he said:
I know that a large percentage of American Jews have roots in eastern Europe, but a large percentage today also have roots in Ireland, Mexico, and Japan, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even address that the first Jews to come to America, more than 200 years before this doll’s parents arrived from Russia, were Sephardim!
We are a community that has entered Jewish life through inter-marriage, adoption, conversion, etc. And it would be far more interesting to address what it means to celebrate the Jewishness that could be found in any of the 13 previously created dolls, for none of whom that I know, does religion play nearly the role it does in the biography of little Rebecca Rubin.
Rabbi Hirschfield’s comments offer an interesting take on Jewish identity. The other dolls have distinct cultural backgrounds – Mexican, Swedish, and Chinese. But Rebecca’s cultural background is Judaism, rather than Russian. Today, many Jews regard themselves as culturally Jewish – that is, they relate to Judaism as an ethnicity, not a religion. This is another example in which we see that instead of leaving Judaism behind, as Jews acculturate they bring it with them–an indicator that perhaps cultural Judaism can indeed be important when desiring to bring Judaism from one generation to the next.