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American Girl Introduces First Jewish Doll

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NY Times: When Abraham Foxman met Rebecca Rubin, he was impressed.

"I'm surprised," said Mr. Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, as he gazed at Rebecca, a brown-haired doll who was sitting on his desk last week, her hazel eyes locked unwaveringly onto his.

Ms. Rubin, all of 18 inches tall, is the newest historical character doll to be released by American Girl, the company in Middleton, Wis., whose products have a rabidly devoted following among the female 7- to 12-year-old set. She is a 9-year-old girl living on the Lower East Side in 1914 with her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, siblings and a grandmother known only as Bubbie.

The company has produced a Hispanic doll, Josefina, a character who lives in New Mexico in 1824; a Nez Percé girl, Kaya, from 1764; and an African-American girl, Addy, from 1864. Rebecca is its first Jewish historical character.

Mr. Foxman, whose group fights anti-Semitism, is not easy to impress. On a windowsill of his office on Third Avenue he has a collection of wooden dolls, which he bought in Poland last October, that portray Jewish businessmen counting piles of coins.

At the request of a reporter, Mr. Foxman had read the first of six books that chronicle a year in Rebecca's life.

"It's not offensive. It's sensitive," he said. "How about that? Most of the time these things fall into stereotypes which border on the offensive."

It is no accident that the Rebecca doll, which goes on sale May 31, did not push any of Mr. Foxman's buttons. Every detail of her background, her appearance and whom she would be if she were actually alive, is a result of a painstaking multiyear effort by American Girl to get this character and her marketing right.

What is at stake for the 23-year-old American Girl company, which was purchased by Mattel in 1998 and which generated $463 million in revenue last year, is maintaining its record of hit dolls and generally favorable reviews. In 1993 critics attacked the company for making Addy a slave at the start of her stories, wondering why the company could not have chosen a post-slavery era for its African-American doll. And in 2005, Marisol, from the Girl of the Year line, was criticized for a passage in her book that was negative toward an urban Hispanic neighborhood.

Although Addy's story was not revised and the company says Marisol sold well for the year she was available, a Jewish doll presents her own set of potential pitfalls. While other dolls represented ethnic backgrounds with distinctive visual characteristics, what constitutes a Jewish girl's appearance is much more open for debate.

The goal is that no one be offended and that Jewish and non-Jewish little girls alike will want to play tenement house with their new toy, which costs $95 -- plus more for accessories like a sideboard with a challah resting on it.

The preliminary research that led to Rebecca's development started in 2000, said Shawn Dennis, the senior vice president for marketing. American Girl had wanted to do a doll focused on the immigrant experience. After work by two in-house historical researchers, and interviews with focus groups, it was decided to make the character Jewish.

"Russian-Jewish immigration, that group has an effect on the labor movement, that group has an effect on the burgeoning Hollywood entertainment business," Ms. Dennis said. "We thought it would have the makings of what would be a relatable story to tell."

To write the books, the company found Jacqueline Dembar Greene, who had written a historical novel for young adults set in 1654 about Jewish immigrants to New Amsterdam.

Ms. Greene and company researchers made a trip to Manhattan, visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and a row house on East Seventh Street.

There was back and forth between Ms. Greene and American Girl executives about how to handle certain situations, including the fact that in the first book Rebecca and her father work in his Rivington Street shoe shop on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

"There were full meetings about that," said Ms. Dennis, who learned a lot about Judaism during the project. "There were so many different styles of Jewish practice, some stricter than others, in 1914 and today. What our research told us was the greater pressure during that time period was assimilation and blending in and becoming American."

As Ms. Greene worked on the books, company designers set about figuring out what Rebecca should look like. The company's research had found that Rebecca's Russian-Jewish descent allowed a range of physical characteristics, creating a wide palette of choices, said Megan Boswell, the director of design and development. Facial structure is not typically an issue because the company generally chooses from an existing set of molds.

Hair color was a big issue, debated for years. At first it was a dark auburn, but it was thought that might be too untypical. Ms. Boswell said. Then dark brown, the most common hair color for Russian-Jewish immigrants, was discussed. But perhaps that would be too typical, too predictable, failing to show girls there is not one color that represents all Jewish immigrants.

"In the end, after many discussions weighing out the advantages of both approaches," Ms. Boswell said, "we created what we felt was an optimum combination and gave her a new mid-tone brown hair color with russet highlights."

This is not the first Jewish American Girl. The company has a series called "Girl of the Year," which features contemporary characters, each available only for 12 months. The character for 2001 was Lindsey Bergman, and the opening of her only story book does not display the same misty affection for Jewish culture as do the Rebecca stories. Lindsey, as narrator, describes a matzo ball that is flung across a room: "If you don't know what a matzo ball is, I'll tell you," she narrates. "It's a slippery, dumpling-like blob of mush that floats around in chicken soup."

Despite the extensive research into Jewish history, which included consultations with the American Jewish Historical Society and the Yeshiva University Museum, the books are not without errors, said Paula Hyman, a professor of modern Jewish history at Yale, who looked over two of the books at a reporter's request.

One error was in a passage that says pogroms were carried out by Russian soldiers. Professor Hyman said pogroms, mob violence against Jews, were stirred up by political operatives and typically carried out by peasants. The other was a mention of forced conscription of Jewish boys into the czar's army in 1914, which ended more than a decade earlier, she said.

To Elie Rosenfeld, the chief operating officer of Joseph Jacob Advertising, whose firm was hired to help market Rebecca through Jewish publications and direct mailings to Jewish households, historical matters were of less concern than ones which would trigger a reaction in modern Jews.

Mr. Rosenfeld read the books with an eye to weeding out mentions of garish physical characteristics, obscure religious practices, or stereotypical professions. But he said he found nothing to cut. "By the time we saw everything, it was so well put together there was nothing we had to pull out and say stop the presses you can't run this," he said.

Rebecca's release date was originally scheduled to be June 1, but it was moved to coincide with Manhattan's Israel Day parade.

The company hopes the doll will appeal to everyone. If a blond Christian girl in North Dakota enjoys pretending she is living in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1914, helping her Bubbie make latkes for Hanukkah, American Girl will be happy to sell her a toy menorah.

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36 comments so far | Post a comment now
Dr. Michelle Golland May 25, 2009, 9:40 AM

I think this is great! We are a Jewish family and my daughter will proudly have this doll the day it comes out! Thank you American Girl.

Jackie S May 25, 2009, 11:06 AM

I am 22 now and have two old American girl dolls. I would have LOVED to have this doll and am so proud and happy American Girl has decided to come out with this! My Zaddie escaped to the USA in 1917 from Russia and this doll helps symbolize what my family went through to live normal and free lives as Jewish people. The doll even looks like ME! :) Thank you AG!

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