American Girl Dolls…meet Rebecca Rubin

Dana Witkin holds her brand new Rebecca Rubin doll up to her face, and the resemblance is hard to ignore. Both the 7-year-old Orange County resident and Rebecca Rubin – the first Jewish doll in American Girl’s historical character line – have softly curled light brown hair with amber highlights, olive skin, and striking hazel eyes.

Of course, Dana’s second cousin, 8-year-old Caitlyn Dienstag, looks more like American Girl’s 1854 Swedish immigrant doll, Kirsten Larsen, with her blond hair and blue eyes. But the girls’ connection to Rebecca goes deeper than to her looks, and that is why Dana and Caitlyn are celebrating Rebecca’s launch – as well as their own birthdays – at a brunch at the American Girl Place with their mothers and bubbies.

“I’m so excited that there’s finally a Jewish doll,” said Caitlyn, who, like Dana, already owns a few American Girl dolls. Caitlyn plans to have Rebecca light candles with her on Friday night.

Rebecca is the 18-inch, 9-year-old daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants living on New York’s Lower East Side in 1914. Her collection includes candlesticks, a challah and samovar on a sideboard, as well as a picnic basket with bagels, pickles, rugalach, and an American flag. Six books by Jacqueline Dembar Greene tell her story with both historical accuracy and literary appeal.

Each year, American Girl introduces a new character to its line of historical dolls. The dolls are all set in pivotal time periods. Collections include a series of books and sometimes videos about the girl’s experience, as well as accessories ranging from pets to clothing to furniture. The dolls cost just under $100 each, and the accessories add up pretty quickly. The American Girl Place retail outlets not only sell the dolls, but offer salon, theater and café services for the dolls as well as the humans who tag along. American Girl, a subsidiary of Mattel, takes in about $463 million a year.

This might seem ridiculous to those not in on the fad. It’s a lot of money for a doll, and shelling out $10 to $25 to get her hair done? Or $30 to buy her a surf board?

But there’s a reason the dolls are appealing. Aside from the collectability factor, the high quality dolls and their accoutrements stand out in this disposable society. Many little girls actually save up for these dolls, and most of the dolls don’t end up headless under the bed. They are cared for and treasured, kind of like toys used to be.

And the books limn girls with real personalities – not princesses, but complex kids dealing with universal challenges of growing up in their particular historic contexts.

For the thousands of girls, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who will read Rebecca’s story, Jewish culture will come alive.

In the first of six books, meant to illustrate the immigrant experience in the early part of last century, Rebecca is introduced as a spunky and conflicted aspiring actress. Rebecca finds ways to make money so she can buy her own candlesticks for Friday night, but then she is pulled by a mitzvah – raising money to bring her cousin Ana and her family from Russia, where they are impoverished and threatened by pogroms. Her story illuminates the tension between tradition and assimilation, as her father keeps his shoe store open on Shabbat but her grandfather still goes to shul. She deals with growing-up issues such as finding her place in a family of five children, and proving herself mature enough to earn her family’s respect.

At the brunch last Sunday at the Grove, Winnie Freedman, an American Girl Place personal shopper who is the resident Rebecca expert, spoke to diners about pushkes (tzedakah boxes), family histories, and Yiddish words that are part of our vocabulary – klutz, bagel, schlep.

Girls had been lining up at the store since 4 a.m., a manager said, wanting to be among the first 100 customers, who would get Rebecca goodie bags and a chance to win a Rebecca collection, worth about $700. The Rebecca display windows were unveiled at 9 a.m., and the rest of the day featured Rebecca crafts – including making a tzedakah box—a doll raffle every hour, and the brunch. More Rebecca events will occur throughout the summer.

Caitlyn and Dana sat with their bubbies, sisters Hinda Berel and Tami Dienstag, whose family came here from Russia in the late 1800s. The girls dined on flower shaped pancakes and pink whipped cream; the bubbies opted for lox and bagels – an item introduced especially for the Rebecca menu.  The moms sat nearby, a dessert of chocolate mousse in a flowerpot and a small cupcake in front of them, just before the birthday cake came out for the girls.

Both girls had Rebeccas already sitting at the table with them, in small doll-sized chairs that latch on to the table. The miniature black and white striped tea cups in front of the dolls were empty, since real tea would not sit well on Rebecca’s red wool suit with velvet collar, or the paisley shawl around her shoulders. Rebecca’s wardrobe also includes a blue cardigan and black and white hound’s-tooth skirt, a party dress with a dramatic flowery hat, and pajamas and robe.

Getting Rebecca’s look down was one of the many challenges that faced researchers as the developed the doll. They wanted a character Jewish girls would recognize as one of their own, without going for the too typical brown hair and brown eyes, or the also plausible fairer complexion.

So far, their meticulous research seems to have paid off. Not only the girls, but Jewish community leaders and academics agree that the books paint a true picture of Jewish life and the issues facing immigrant families. And Rebecca seems to be a positive role model for these girls.

“Her story is very much our family’s history,” said Shana Dienstag, Caitlyn’s mom, and a teacher at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. “And they’re so connected to their American girl dolls, that this will really mean something to them.”